Last year a group of us, Londolozi Rangers, past and present, decided to try our hands at something a little different. We decided that we were going to embark on a Birding Big Year. The concept was simple enough – to set our eyes on as many different bird species as we could within Southern Africa throughout the year. The Big Year started slowly on the 1st of January but as the days slid off the calendar, things were sure to heat up.
Although the Big Year was a relatively straightforward notion, we had to lay a few ground rules in order to keep things fair. The most important rule was that you actually had to see the bird in question before you could tick it off your list, merely hearing a bird’s call was not enough. The second rule was that we could only tick off birds that naturally occurred in Southern Africa, therefore exotic birds in pet shops and gardens would not count.
The last rule was tough to enforce – you had to be completely honest about what you did or didn’t see. Since we had no prizes riding on the competition other than bragging rights, there was almost no incentive to claim a few extra ticks.
Thankfully though, the Londolozi Rangers are such an honest bunch, there was no need to worry about policing the final rule. With the rules clearly laid out, the rangers methodically went about finding new birds wherever we could find them.
As the year began to gather momentum, it became clear that if we were to stand any chance of winning the competition, we would have to bird outside of the box. Since we all live and work in the same area of South Africa (i.e. Londolozi), we would have to venture outside of the realm of familiarity to chase after birds we had never seen before.
Suddenly everyone was planning their holidays around birding. Whether we were merely passing through an area or staying there for a couple of weeks, we would take our binoculars along – one never knows where a rare bird may pop up. From the suburban gardens of Johannesburg to the remote Zambezi River Valley and everywhere in between, there were Londolozi rangers armed with cameras and binoculars scouring the area for birds.
The product of this newfound enthusiasm for birding was that the whole guiding team has vastly improved their birding skills. Birds that had stumped us in the past became familiar friends. Learning to listen out for faint bird calls and to correctly identify a bird based on tiny differences in size, shape and plumage all became second nature as the year wore on.
Additionally, the Big Year encouraged us to explore many of the far-flung corners of Southern Africa in search of our avian quarry and opened our eyes to the unrivalled beauty of our continent.
In the end, it was former ranger and now part of Londolozi’s Sales Team, Garrett Fitzpatrick who took home the gold medal in the Birding Big Year. He managed to tick 432 bird species in 2021, which is an impressive feat indeed. Although, Garrett may have won the bragging rights I believe that the entire Londolozi guiding team came away more enriched for having participated in this prestigious event.
Collectively, we made a concerted effort to get out into nature and to explore new areas. Spending time immersed in nature provides a deep sense of fulfilment and I think that all of us will look back fondly on the memories created whilst out searching for some of nature’s greatest marvels – birds.