African Oystercatcher.
African Oystercatcher.
Image: Andrew de Blocq

Once seen as a niche pastime enjoyed by an elderly (and usually white) audience in sensible anoraks, the world of bird watching has evolved over the past decades to attract an entirely new audience.

In London the likes of Flock Together is encouraging more people of colour to enjoy the pastime, while the pandemic lockdowns encouraged a whole new generation of millennial birders to strap on their binoculars. In fact, 2020 saw so many new entrants to the hobby that records were broken in the Global Big Day, an annual bird-spotting event run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Making it easy for that growing flock of birders at home and abroad to discover the avian attractions of SA was the thinking behind the launch of BirdLife SA’s new GoBirding tool.

“We launched our birding routes 12 years ago, with varying degrees of success,” explains Andrew de Blocq, Avitourism Project Manager at BirdLife SA. “We had these different tourism projects and information, but it wasn’t presented in a way for people to see how it all relates to each other. They sorely needed an update, given that details change and new places are discovered all the time. The lockdowns gave us the space to update all of this information.”

For de Blocq, the lockdowns of 2020 were something of a blessing in disguise. Professional bird guides, used to being out on the road with tourists, were available to assist with updating key information on birding sites.

Dolly Khanye.
Dolly Khanye.
Image: Andrew de Blocq

“And I think the lockdowns birthed a whole new generation of birdwatchers,” he adds. “If you were locked down with only your garden for nature, a lot of people noticed the birds coming to their gardens, and began posting pictures and questions online.”

Now that we’re able to travel without restriction again, the new tool is more useful than ever.

The heart of the GoBirding tool is an interactive map that collates and presents information around birding sites, accommodation options and local community guides across the country.

“We’re really hoping this will become the premier trip-planning tool for birders both local and inbound from elsewhere in the world,” says de Blocq.

Crowned Cormorants.
Crowned Cormorants.
Image: Andrew de Blocq

The economic impact of birding tourism is also significant. Research estimates that more than $40bn (R653bn) is spent annually on birding in the US,  and globally more than 3-million international trips dedicated to bird watching are made each year.

The depth of detail on GoBirding is impressive. Perhaps most useful is the interactive map of more than 400 birding sites, each listing detailed information about the location, how to access it, key months of the year, and notable species to be seen there.

There are also more than 60 birder-friendly accommodation options, and a comprehensive database of locally-based community bird guides.

It’s one of the most exciting projects linked to BirdLife SA’s avitourism initiatives, training and upskilling local nature enthusiasts into becoming competent bird guides.

The community bird guide project started more than 20 years ago, and to date more than 200 people from rural and disadvantaged backgrounds have been trained up to become professional bird and nature guides. While many have moved on to careers in affiliated industries, such as safari tourism, there remains a network of more than 50 community members working as freelance bird guides, largely concentrated in the birding hotspots of KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga.

David Letsaolo.
David Letsaolo.
Image: Lisa Martus

Many of these guides — such as David Letsoalo in Limpopo — have gone on to run their own community conservation and education programmes to inspire the next generation of bird lovers.

Through BirdLife SA locals are qualified as professional guides, with additional birding-specific training. They then graduate as freelance guides, and are given entrepreneurial training to build their business.

From loan binoculars, through a partnership with Swarovski Optik, to branded uniforms and ongoing training opportunities, “we have a really strong relationship with our freelance guides,” says de Blocq.  “GoBirding is another way for us to promote their services. Birders visiting a new area will often be unfamiliar with the birds in that area and the location. When visiting a new destination a lot of people go out with a wish list of birds to see, and a skilled guide will be able to design an itinerary around that.”                

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