Thursday, 23 January 2014

Birding on a “Family” Holiday

​One of Britain’s top bird magazines recently had a feature giving some particularly unhelpful and blindingly obvious travel advice like “use common sense” and “find the best airfares”. I hope in this article to provide some slightly more useful advice to both Next Generation Birders and “previous generation birders” with non-birding families. My guide on how to fit birdwatching in a “family” holiday will focus on how to see birds without the family being under the impression that they are being dragged birdwatching. In other words; how to go birding without birding.
​Although I am from a non-birding family, I am very fortunate that my parents like to go on near annual holidays to some of the most stunning destinations on the planet and are happy for me and my sister to go along too. As much as I enjoy culture and activities, my priority when I am abroad is always going to be birds and wildlife. It is important for me in order to keep being allowed on these holidays and ensure everyone has a great time that the pursuit of birds is not seen to dominate.

Over the years I have honed my technique and a family holiday to South Africa was another chance to put it in to practice. It was my second visit to this beautiful country so I knew that I would not get many lifers simply from the car or while going to the main tourist destinations. When I asked for advice on the Facebook group, I was given some great sites (thanks in particular to Lisle Gwynn!) but I knew most would not fit in to the rest of the family’s agenda. The trip was hugely successful with 42 lifers for me and a very enjoyable holiday for everyone involved. Indeed, the family only believed they went birding on two occasions in 12 days; a walk in Knysna Forest and an afternoon visit to Intaka Island. Instead of providing yet another trip report, I thought I would produce this slightly tongue-in-cheek guide. I just hope my parents do not read it!

Cape Grassbird ©Oliver Simms
Here are my top tips:
1. Think of which tourist destinations are likely to give reasonable bird watching opportunities. Boat trips, beaches and mountains are always a good shout but, in my experience, botanical gardens are the best. I was easily able to persuade my family to spend two hours at the superb Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and enjoyed several lifers including Cape Spurfowl and Swee Waxbill.

2. Suggest places to stay with extensive grounds and explore them early in the morning. This is probably the most obvious piece of “advice” I would give but it is so important. In South Africa, it got light at about 5.30 so I could have at least two hours quality birding time before the rest of the family got out of bed. I had no say in the hotels we stayed at but my parents seemed to have worked this out and we stayed one night at the excellent Oyster Bay Lodge where I could go for a 7km walk before anyone else awoke. 6 species of Plover, 2 of Eagle, 1 of Bustard and 3 lifers is never a bad start to the day.

3. Good birds can be anywhere. Some of the places where I encountered fantastic birds would make even the most avid of urban birders proud. An adult African Harrier Hawk in the centre of Cape Town and two lifers (Cape Sparrow and Common Myna) walking around the car park of Johannesburg airport while waiting for a flight connection were the best examples. It also goes without saying that long car journeys often provide excellent list increasing opportunities.
African Harrier Hawk in Cape Town ©Oliver Simms
4. Try to persuade your family to look at showpiece birds like Flamingos and Ostriches. I am fortunate that this is fairly straightforward with my family and it was not difficult to get Boulder’s Beach placed at the top of the itinerary. In fact, my excited sister ran down to see the penguins a lot quicker then I did. Incidentally, I also saw my first Swift Terns and African Oystercatcher while w
e were there.

5. Keep your family happy! This will provide more and more birding credit…

African Penguin, a sure-fire way of winning over your non-birding family
©Oliver Simms
-Oliver Simms
Oliver is a 21 year old Classics student in his final year at Durham university. When he is not studying or indeed "birding without birding" on family holidays, he likes to spend his time birding (without pretending he isn't) and hill walking. He is currently secretary of the Durham University Hill Walking Society and Project Co-ordinator of Next Generation Birders

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