Backyard bird guide – the perfect hobby in times of isolation!

Bleary-eyed and still dreaming, I was woken early this morning by my 3-year old daughter who informed that “Mummy, the birds are too noisy, they are waking me from my sleep!”. It was still pitch black and a little after 6am but she was right, the birds were being particularly raucous. For them the day had begun.
Sitting here now, in my home office that looks on to a beautiful pepper tree, I’m reminded how lucky I am to have a ring-side seat to the wildlife that is in full flow around me. Here in Cape Town our lockdown has been going for over four weeks now, though with two young children we tacked on an extra week at the beginning for good measure (or what now feels like self-punishment!). And with a partial lockdown still set to be in force for a while, the days are starting to feel pretty long and it is definitely getting more challenging to think of ways to keep them (and us) entertained. For those of us who are fortunate enough to be keen birdwatchers or have an interest in the backyard comings and goings of our feathered friends, then there is an easy cure for any boredom. And if the watching of birds is not something that you’ve considered as a potential hobby, then perhaps now is the perfect time.
A brief but welcome visit from an African Goshawk

In fact, birdwatching is the ideal hobby to start when you are in isolation because you don’t actually need to go anywhere. There is a whole world out there teeming with wildlife and just by opening our eyes and ears we can absorb so much of it. And once you start looking, you’ll probably be surprised by how much you find just by looking out your window or wandering around your garden. We’ve certainly had some amazing and unexpected sightings, from a Spotted Eagle-Owl that spent a week hanging out in one of our trees to a Black Sparrowhawk tucking into its prey.

The Spotted Eagle-Owl that hung out in our tree for a week last December – the girls were fascinated to see if it was still there each morning!
The dark morph of the Black Sparrowhawk probably feasting on a Red-eyed Dove which are common in our garden

So, how do you get started?

When I first started birdwatching, I was amazed by how absorbed I became in trying to identify the bird I had seen. As a complete beginner you will obviously need a reference guide to assist you – either a field guide book or an app. The Merlin Bird ID is a good one to start with. It has a good AI tool to identify birds from photos and to give you more information you can download a Bird Pack for your region (it doesn’t cover Africa). 

We’ve been incredibly lucky with raptor sightings from our garden. Finally managed to capture a shot of the Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk perched in a tree having seen it fly overhead multiple times!
However good your eyesight may be, there is no doubt that a reasonably decent pair of binoculars will improve your viewing experience as birds are often small or far away. These days ‘reasonably decent’ doesn’t have to mean expensive. I have a pair of Bushnell Legend Ultra HD 10×42 which cost less than $200 but there are other budget options which still have good optics and can cost less than $100 e.g. Bushnell H2O Binoculars and Wingspan Eaglescout. Failing that if you have a camera with a good zoom then you can use photos as a great way to log and identify your sightings. You can post any pictures to Chirp as ‘unidentified’ and our community will help you identify what you’ve seen.
These little Swee Waxbills are frequent visitors to our bird feeder
Another nice way to up your participation in your new hobby is to think about attracting birds to your garden with bird feeders, bird baths or nesting boxes. There are lots of options to buy online but we’ve done some of our own simple DIY feeders which are great fun to get kids involved with. Plus let’s face it we are all looking for more ways to kill time and stay busy! Don’t worry if you don’t have an actual garden, you can also get suction-cup window bird feeders or just hang one on your balcony.
This African Olive Pigeon had been on my husband’s wish list for a while!
After that, we wait. And look and listen. Once you get into it you’ll be amazed at how quickly the time can go. You can set yourself goals to see how many birds you can spot in fifteen minutes, from your window or on a walk around your garden – perhaps even challenge other friends or family members to compete with you. My husband is currently running his own ‘lockdown list’ to keep track of everything he’s seen from the garden in the last three weeks (37 species and counting). And don’t forget to post your sightings to Chirp – we’d love to see what’s flying in and out of your garden. Right now I’m in envy of that freedom.

Connect to nature and like-minded people while you discover and explore the birdlife around you! Amplify your birdwatching experience with Birda today. 

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