Birdwatching

Birdwatching must be one of the most frustrating activities one can engage in. Not only do birds not sit still for very long, they often almost deliberately hide behind bushes and shrubs, making a clear view of the bird almost impossible. Then when you finally are able to have a clear line of sight, either you are looking straight into the sun or it is too dark and gloomy to see properly or you simply cannot remember quite exactly what the bird looked like. Half the time I spend with my head tilted back staring up into the upper reaches of trees, hoping against hope that the bird doesn’t poop on me, while the rest of the time I search despairingly through a collection of bird books in the vain attempt to successfully identify whatever it was that I saw.

It is a frustrating pastime, not helped by changes in bird names. Gone are the days of a black-eyed bulbul. Now it is a dark-capped bulbul. No more purple-crested louries – it is now a purple-crested turaco. In fact, in North America there is an active campaign by Bird Names for Birds, a grassroots initiative, which has identified a list of 150 birds that it wants to have the names changed, arguing that the names of birds commemorate a colonial and racist past. In addition to this, names change as the study of birds evolves, with new findings about birds’ DNA or other attributes bringing changes in the classification of species, which often result in new names.

This is all well and good for the scientists and experts out there, but for your average Joe, it really makes things even more complicated. Bird books don’t make it any easier – they typically include a description of the bird’s call although personally, I must admit that I simply cannot tell one call from another based purely on a written description. The African Fish Eagle’s call as an example is described as follows: “it’s descriptive cry is, for many, evocative of the spirit or essence of Africa (so far I am in agreement with this). The call, shriller when uttered by males, is a weee-ah, hyo-hyo or a heee-ah, heeah-heeah.” That to me is simply gobbledygook – but I cannot for the life of me figure out how I would describe it in a few words (or letters as they have done!). So weee-ah, hyo-hyo or a heee-ah, heeah-heeah it is then!

Fortunately, technology is making birding a lot easier. Most birding books are now available in electronic format, and some clever people have come up with a variety of apps where you can simply take a photograph of a bird, download on to the app and presto, it gives you a couple of options of which bird it is likely to be. One such app that I have tried out is the Merlin Bird Photo ID. It was built by computer vision researchers at Cornell and the California Institute of Technology, along with Cornell’s ornithology department. The app can identify over 400 species of birds found in North America, using a library of over 70 million photos taken by the eBird bird identification database. The app also works here in South Africa, and I successfully tried it out on an African pipit as well as a Gabar goshawk while on Thanda savannah. What is nice is that you can actually include the location of the bird and it will then narrow down its search selection to give a better idea of what it could be, and apparently, the app learns from all the photos that are submitted, so in theory, the app should get more and more accurate. The app also includes Sound identification, helping to identify a bird by its call and song (similar to Shazam), although I have not yet tried that out.

All in all, birdwatching, despite its many challenges, is really quite a rewarding hobby (exclude the pun).

Love from Thanda Safari

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