Birder's Guide

JAN 2019

Birder's Guide is the American Birding Association's newest publication. Each issue focuses on a key subject, providing tips from experienced birders on a wide variety of topics like Travel, Listing & Taxonomy, Gear, and Conservation & Community.

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33 January 2019 | Birder's Guide to Travel esse and I step behind a row of acacias and al- low the hippopotamus to pass. "Allow" isn't really right. The hippo, fleet of foot and surprisingly fast, would have proceeded with or with- out our assent. Our close encounter with Hippopotamus amphibius has been exhilarat- ing. I'll never forget it. But it wasn't entirely sur- prising. It was in some sense preordained. Seeing a hippo at Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve in the Mpumalanga province of north- eastern South Africa isn't unusual. Go to Sabi Sabi, and you'll likely espy a hippo or three— along with warthogs and wildebeest, plus birds like hornbills and hoopoes and Hamerkops. Jesse and I saw all those things, and a great deal more, in the course of a leisurely pre-breakfast amble around the reserve. So when I say the hip- po was preordained, I mean it was destined for me long before I'd ever dreamt of setting foot on Sabi Sabi. Because I'm a birder. Because birders, sooner or later, find themselves in places like the bushveld of southern Africa. In this regard, I'm reminded of a funny conver- sation from my late teen years, more than three decades ago. I wasn't one of the interlocutors in the dialogue. I wasn't even there. But it was related to me, with equal parts amazement and exasperation, as a sort of cautionary tale for the propensity of birders to find themselves in one problematic scenario after another. " Y es, officer, that matches the description of my car." "No, sir, he didn't tell me where he was going." "Correct. My son. Yes, with my permission. Him and a friend." "They're volunteers for something called the bird atlas. It's scientific. I believe they have proper autho- rization." "A Superfund site? No, officer, I didn't know that." A friend and I had borrowed my mother's car for the purpose of "blockbusting" for the Pennsylvania Breeding Bird Atlas. There were no hippos, there were no Hamerkops, in the coal country and second-growth woodlots of the up- per Ohio River valley. But there might as well have been. A rare Henslow's Sparrow, teed up in a wet swale, sang its strange song. Nearby, a small pond, its water orange–gray with aluminum leachate, bore witness to the scourge of acid mine drainage. In the distance: a monstrous dragline excavator. Those are the sorts of things ordinary city kids would never normally lay eyes on—un- less they were out birding. It was only a matter of time before I would be in the company of hippos and Hamerkops. L ess than 48 hours after that morning ram- ble around Sabi Sabi, I was on a boat head- ing straight south from the coastal hamlet of Kleinbaii, in South Africa's Western Cape prov- ince. This wasn't an organized pelagic trip. It was impromptu, a plan hatched by Christoff, a birder I'd met the day before. The idea was to get as far south as we could, to where immense trawlers ply the fish-filled waters off the Agulhas bank. It was, if you're of an objective mind, an odd thing to do on a short getaway to a fabled, faraway land: Honestly, the ocean looks much the same off the coast of California or New York; and the birds, distant and dark and fluttering, closely re- semble their northern hemisphere counterparts. But you're not of an altogether objective mind. You're a birder, and that makes all the differ- ence in the world. Whether or not you've been to South Africa, you know that boat trips out of Kleinbaii and nearby ports are the stuff of leg- end. You will see more albatrosses in ten seconds there than in a century of birding off New York or New Jersey. It was cloudy and cool that day asea, in the dead of the austral winter. The seas were rough, and I wasn't feeling well. The boat was small, the head was clogged, and one of the engines was busted. No matter. It was one of the greatest days of my life, an experience I'll never forget. At one point, the four of us on the boat— Christoff and I and two old Afrikaner mar- iners—got to talking about why the heck anybody would do the things we do. Once again, my thoughts turned to a conversation involving my longsuffering mother. " Y es, he and two pals got the car stuck in the snow. A good Samaritan had to winch them out." "No, that's not why. No, not that either. It's because they were out looking for—I be- Boulder County, Colorado tfloyd@aba.org Ted Floyd J n Little Bee-eater, Sabi Sabi Private Game Reserve, Mpumalanga, South Africa. Photo © Ted Floyd

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