Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Southern African Endemics

Africa is well known for its bird diversity. South American is tops in terms of the sheer number of species, but Africa isn't far behind. There is certainly a lifetime's worth of birding potential on the African continent.

Blue Crane
(National Bird of South Africa)

Compared to equatorial Africa (e.g. Kenya, Uganda), southern Africa has fewer recorded species, but the bird list still stands at a robust 858 species. It isn't all about the numbers though. Another interesting measure of diversity is the number of endemic and near-endemic birds in a country or region.

The number of true endemics within the political boundaries of the country of South Africa is only 29 species. That might seem small when you consider that Jamaica, a country with a much smaller land area, has a comparable 28 endemics. However it is important to bear in mind that island biogeography skews the endemism rate. It is also important to consider that not all species are created equally; island endemic forms often bare close resemblance (and evolutionary propinquity) to avian forms from the closest mainland or other islands neighbours. The endemism in southern Africa is more striking than this.

But pure endemism is too high a standard; after all, birds have wings and are no respecters of political boundaries! When we take this perspective, we see that it is on a regional level where the endemic rates of southern Africa really soar: approximately 100 endemics, plus 6 breeding endemics and an additional 68 near-endemics.

Almost every bird we see on our trip will be a lifer, so I am not overly focused on getting the endemic species, but it will be a consideration. Some "hoped for" species include Blue Crane, Southern Bald Ibis, Cape Rockjumper and Cape White-eye. Just as desirable are representatives of the African endemic families: Ostrich, Guineafowl, Hammerkop, Turacos, Mousebirds, Wood Hoopoes, Ground Hornbills, Wattle-eyes and Batises, Helmet-Shrikes and Puffbacks, Indigobirds and (especially, since they are the most range-restricted) Sugarbirds.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

South Africa Birding Resources

I thought others might be interested to know some of the birding resources we will be using on our trip, so here goes.

Obviously a decent field guide is a must. The consensus seems to be that the best guide to the region is Birds of Southern Africa authored by Ian Sinclair et al.

This guide was most recently updated in 2011 with the publication of the 4th edition. It is interesting to note that the project is funded by Sasol, a South African industrial chemical manufacturer, presumably as a public relations effort. The South African version of the guide (pictured above right) is not available in North America, however the Princeton Field Guides version (pictured above left) is readily available. This is yet another example of Princeton acquiring the rights to produce and distribute a regionally produced field guide to the North American market.

In addition, there is an electronic version of this guide produced by mydigitalearth that is compatible with Apple, Android and a variety of other platforms. The icon for the app is pictured above. The great thing about this version is that it is supported by sound recordings for most of the species included in the guide.
Next is a birdfinding guide to the region. Southern African Birdfinder is the most detailed and up-to-date publication of this type available. Like the field guide, this book was also funded by Sasol.

Although it is not related to birding, what would a trip to Africa be without seeing some of the mammal life? Surprisingly I was unable to find much variety in the way of mammal field guides, however The Pocket Guide to African Mammals by Jonathan Kingdon is widely recommended, reasonably comprehensive, affordable and compact enough to make it the best choice I could find. There is an app available for this book as well, but I didn't bother with it.

A handy thing that I will be using on this trip for the first time is BirdLog - Worldwide which you might have seen profiled recently in this article from eBird. Entering our bird lists every day or so will be less of a chore than having to enter them all upon our return home, and the sightings should be more fresh in our memory as well which should aid in more detailed notes.

In addition to the above, we have a detailed road map (although we will likely supplement it with a road atlas upon our arrival) and an African news app. Of course this isn't everything we consulted in our trip preparation, but these are the resources that would likely be of most interest to birders.

Friday, January 18, 2013

And Away We Go

Red-collared Widowbird

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Backyard Is a Good Place to Start!

It's winter and easy to get in to a slump with birding when all you want to do is close your eyes and wait for Spring! When people think of backyard birds, they think of the typical feeder birds such as Northern Cardinal, Blue Jay, Black-capped Chickadee, American Goldfinch - common visitors if you keep your feeders full and depending on the type of food and feeders you put out for your feathery friends.

But backyard birding can present some interesting surprises and winter is a good time to start if you try the following:
  • Start a running list of every species you observe in and around your property - but don't limit yourself to JUST the backyard. Our 'rule' is anything heard or seen from our yard! (So when we had our first Common Nighthawks fly over the neighbourhood in migration a couple of years ago, that counted as a "backyard" bird!) - the excitement of adding a new species to the list makes you hope for more! Plus it's fun to look back at the date you first observed a species and to check what you don't have yet! (but maybe should).
  • Put out a couple of different types of feeders in your backyard to encourage variety - for example, a nyger seed feeder attracts finches, siskins and redpolls; nectar attracts hummingbirds, sunflower seeds (or a seed/corn/nut mix) attracts chickadees, nuthatches, sparrows, and juncos; feeders dedicated to peanuts attracts woodpeckers and nuthatches. You get the idea.
  • Ensure that you have a pair of binoculars in the house that are designated for your backyard surprises don't want to be running out to your car to grab your only pair when you might miss your chance to confirm an identification!

Rob and I moved in to our home at the end of March 2010. So far we have listed seventy-four (74) species for our backyard list to date. It's always helpful to think of the the habitat that is around your home that may help to explain the variety (or lack thereof) of birds observed. While we do live in a standard urban subdivision that is about 14 years old, we have a few natural features nearby that work to our advantage. First there is the small deciduous woodlot behind our house. Second, we are only about 300 m east of the Speed River and about 850 m west of a larger wooded/wetland community.

Our Backyard

Our most memorable 'backyard' birds to date:

  • Chukar - "Chuck" stuck around our backyard feeders for several days! First observed on May 12, 2012. Although he was technically not 'countable' because he was an escapee species, he provided some excitement.
"Chuck" the Chukar
  • Common Nighthawk - September 3, 2010 (first observation) 
  • Pileated Woodpecker - First observed in the woodlot behind our house on November 7, 2012 and has been seen/heard regularly every since!
Blurry photo of our Pileated Woodpecker
(and if you look closely to the right there is a Red-bellied in the same frame!)

  • Wood Thrush - May 4, 2012 (sadly, he was not heard during the breeding season so I guess he was just a migrant) 
  • Scarlet Tanager - June 28, 2012 
  • Blackpoll Warbler - October 6, 2011 
  • Common Redpoll - December 23, 2012 was a memorable new entry when we had a nice flock of about 50 Common Redpolls congregate in a tree behind our house. A few of them even came down to the fence and feeder to find out what we had to offer, but that was before Christmas which meant that Rob had yet to be given his Christmas gift of a second feeder pole that was going to be for our niger seed feeder! We're hoping it's not too late and that word will spread to the redpolls that we've got something for them!

For such a small woodlot, we have had six species of woodpeckers! Red-bellied Woodpecker, Hairy Woodpecker, Downy Woodpecker, Pileated Woodpecker, Northern Flicker and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

Black-capped Chickadee at our peanut feeder

So if you don't feel like heading to Niagara River this winter and freezing your fingers off like 'some' crazy winter birders (smile), get your feeders stalked up and sit on your couch with a warm cup of coffee and wait for the birds to come to you (without leaving the house)! :)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

South Africa Awaits

I really admire those birders who make the most of winter by braving the elements to track down seasonal rarities. Well actually it is equal parts admiration and bemusement. The continuing saga of the subspecific identities of the warblers in Sedgewick Park has been interesting to follow, but I don't have much to contribute to the subject.

Cape Rockjumper

So I know it will sound bourgeois, but we are taking a bite out of winter and departing for South Africa for three weeks of birding and travel.

I hope to get some good photos to post and some descriptions of the different habitats and localities. Birding the Afrotropic zone for the first time is very exciting as it represents a whole new vista in terms of new families of the birdlife present. Also, Southern Africa has a high rate of endemism, so there is diversity upon diversity.

We are not going on an organized tour, but rather will be renting a car and doing a mostly self-guided trip. There are some spots along the way where we will hire guides though. We begin in Kruger National Park in Eastern South Africa and will be travelling all the way to Cape Town in the southwest corner of the country; a 2000 km journey.