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A Big Year in Southern Africa

John Kinghorn targets 800 species

A Big Year in southern Africa – John Kinghorn targets 800 species

Birding Ecotours’ staff member John Kinghorn (http://birdingecotours.com/staff/john-kingham) is near the end of a very tough mission – to be the youngest person to see over 800 bird species in a single year in the southern African listing region – that is the 6.5 countries south of the Zambezi and Kunene Rivers. John has already traversed large parts of South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland, the southern half of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia on his quest. He’s not only doing this for fun and as a personal challenge, but also to raise funds for the critically endangered White-winged Flufftail. The main known populations of this elusive species are in South Africa and Ethiopia, but habitat destruction and degradation is taking its toll. It’s a poorly-known species and scientists don’t even know for sure whether it migrates between the two distant nations. Do see http://www.birdlife.org.za/conservation/terrestrial-bird-conservation/threatened-species/white-winged-flufftail for more information on this amazing bird.

John’s latest report on Friday 7 November had him on a solid 754 species. His latest addition was the diminutive Green Tinkerbird, a species which has a truly remarkable story attached to it. This enigmatic species appeared in the southern African field guides on the basis of a single specimen collected far south of its known range 56 years ago back in 1958. Last year, this population was rediscovered by Greg Davies and Hugh Chittenden, who found eight pairs! They were in rather degraded and unexpected habitat. The species is therefore now “tickable” in the subregion and can thus be included in John’s Big Year.

There are also some other species that are now known to occur in the southern African birding region, that were unknown here until the last three years. The quaint and beautiful Bohm’s Bee-eater, a typically south-central African species (see http://birdingecotours.com/africas-best-kept-birding-secret-the-endemic-rich-woodlands-of-south-central-africa/ for a photo of this species and text about its normal range), has now become an easy tick on the “right” (southern) side of the mighty Zambezi River, thanks to the discovery of a small and easy-to-see population there earlier this year. And, Angola lost a country endemic when a small breeding population of the strange and striking Angola Cave Chat was discovered in the Zebra Mountains of extreme northern Namibia in 2012. It’s a drive-up tick in Angola, but in Namibia it requires a tough 4x4 trip in the dry season and while we see it on most tours to the region (http://birdingecotours.com/tour/namibia-okavango-and-victoria-falls-18-day-birding-adventure-2), its by no means guaranteed even after the arduous drive along rough tracks. John has thankfully seen this and the significant number of other regional endemics that straddle the border between Namibia and Angola (along with Namibia’s only true endemic, Dune Lark, of course). The other species that is almost entirely an Angolan endemic but with a minute population that barely crosses the Kunene River, is Cinderella Waxbill (if you join a Namibian birding trip, do ensure the route includes the Kunene/Ruacana region).

Discovery of a whole population of a new species for a country is INCREDIBLY exciting, and with one a year since 2012 in the southern African listing region, local birders are gobsmacked. It just shows how poorly explored even southern Africa really is from a birding perspective – just think what Central and West Africa must hold, if new breeding birds can be discovered in the areas covered “well” (or perhaps not so) by the myriad South African birders!

Doing a successful Big Year not only means ensuring finding the newly discovered species with breeding populations, but also (of course) finding as many vagrants (or incidentals) as possible. There’s nothing that upsets a well laid out plan as much as suddenly hearing that a vagrant needs to be twitched. But John has had good luck with these – for example back in January he already landed both Pacific and American Golden Plovers at the same site while anyway birding for Namibian specials.

Well, with only 50 days and 46 species remaining, the pressure is on for John! Please watch the Birding Ecotours blog (http://birdingecotours.com/blog/) for last-minute reports that will be posted. Also, a great article about John’s big year can be seen at http://www.bushboundgirl.com/breaking-records-for-the-love-of-birds/


12th November 2014