What is birdwatching actually?
Birdwatching may be exactly that – watching birds. More generally, birdwatching is actually about observing and identifying the birds around us. Once one has noticed a bird and seen how it behaves the next question is: what is it? This is where birdwatching (as most people enjoy it) starts. The next step is a pair of binoculars to help get a better view of the birds you see, as well as a field-guide or reference book to help with identification. Birding has grown enormously in popularity over the last few years and a look at the shelves of your local bookshop gives an indication of how much interest birds now generate in Southern Africa
The attraction of birdwatching
Birdwatching has grown in appeal in recent years alongside a whole host of other outdoor activities. It is generally a leisurely and relaxing hobby which fulfils our natural curiosity and desire to learn as well as meeting the need to challenge oneself. While people watch birds for many different reasons, here are some of the biggest attractions:
Keeping lists (or ticking)
Once you are into the fun and challenge of identifying birds, the next step is to keep some sort of record of what you have seen. This is where listing starts, and for most birders the most important list is a life list – a list of all the birds seen in one’s lifetime. But listing is about far more than just a life list, it is a way of keeping track of observations or of organising a vast number of experiences and ensuring that they are not lost. Listing is given special meaning and value when it is part of an organised scientific effort to gather information. The Southern African Bird Atlas Project involves thousands of birdwatchers who collect millions of bits of data and help to build up a comprehensive picture of the distribution and movement of most of our bird species.
Once you have a life list, and become obsessive about building it up, then you become a twitcher. A twitcher is someone who actively seeks out new birds to put on their life list. The word is supposed to describe the uncontrollable spasms of excitement when seeing a new bird for the first time. Many birders are twitchers to some extent, but the degree to which the ticking of new species is important is a personal thing. Some birders can be described as ‘hard-core twitchers’ and are interested in nothing other than ticking new species, while some of the country's most knowledgeable bird experts do not consider themselves to be twitchers. Twitching has led to a whole vocabulary to describe what happens when you go twitching. ‘Gripping’ a bird means that you have ‘got it’ – you can add it to your life list. Conversely, when you go looking for birds and miss out on something that you should have seen then you ‘dipped out’ on that species.
Most birders still enjoy seeing birds they have already seen. Birdwatching which is not oriented towards twitching (not about new species) is usually more leisurely, except when it becomes ‘power-birding’ (seeing as many species as possible in a limited amount of time).