I was so excited! About to leave on a 12-day trip, I was heading to a new destination—a new continent! Our destination was Swaziland, and I was drooling over the seemingly endless possibilities. The southern tip of Africa is home to more than a thousand bird species, far more than the US and Canada. I had my ticket and my passport. My camera and binos were packed, along with a pocket guide to the more common species. I was ready. There was just one minor issue.
This wasn’t a birding trip.
I was traveling with a team of 14 other intrepid souls from our church, including two children and a great-grandmother. Our goal was to love on some 400 AIDS orphans and their caretakers. We would be busy from dawn to bedtime, traveling to a Children’s Hope Chest “CarePoint” at Gege, Swaziland—playing games, performing puppet shows, teaching health and hygiene to the older kids, and giving out lots of hugs. (If you want to learn more about my experience, you can click over to my other blog.)
In the midst of a packed schedule, how did I, the only birder on the team, manage to see any birds at all? It wasn’t easy, but I did come home with almost 50 new species on my life list. Along the way, I also learned some helpful lessons that I’d like to pass along to you. If you’ve had a similar experience—that of being the only birder on a non-birding trip—I’d love to hear your suggestions as well.
Keep expectations low.
Going into this adventure, I knew I would be frustrated if I expected an African version of an Audubon field trip. Most likely, I’d be birding from a moving vehicle, not easy even when you’re familiar with the bird life of a region. I left home hoping for twelve new birds. Anything more than that would be gravy.
Keep the main thing the main thing.
This was a bit harder. While everyone knew I wanted to see birds, I didn’t want to interfere with the real purpose of our trip. Once we arrived at the CarePoint every morning, I put down the binos and concentrated on the people around me. It helped that my official role was trip photographer, so if a bird did happen to land nearby I could snap a picture for later ID. Still, I know I missed lots of sightings. I could hear the birds singing in the huge jacaranda nearby, but with the poor lighting (most of the time it was either heavily overcast or raining), lack of a spotting scope, and a dozen children clamoring for my attention (“Shoot me, shoot me!”), all I can tell you is that they were some species of Sunbird. Their silhouettes gave that much away.
Don’t be annoying.
Think about it. Fifteen people traveling together, eating together, working together, staying at the same guest house—for almost two weeks. Now throw in an avid birder with a personal agenda who never stops talking about, pointing to, or hunting for birds. Homicide might be justified.
Yes, I got a big smile every time I ID’d a new bird, but this wasn’t the place for my lifer dance. I think I did an adequate job of keeping my thrills to myself, although you’d have to ask my teammates for their opinions on that. I was subjected to a fair amount of good-natured teasing, but by the end of the trip everyone was excitedly pointing out birds to me!
Find your own time.
Happily, the guest house where we stayed in Manzini, Swaziland had a lovely garden. While I had to get a buddy and permission from the team leader to cross the street outside the security wall (a reasonable precaution given our surroundings), we were free to wander the grounds inside the wall.
I quickly realized that while breakfast was at seven every morning, it was actually light by about six. That quiet hour of extra daylight became my birding time. Sure, it meant getting up at 5:30, and being prepared ahead of time so I didn’t wake my sleeping roommate, but those were minor inconveniences. I found that the time I spent walking, processing, praying, and birding helped me cope with the extreme poverty and sickness I would face the rest of the day.
At the end of the trip, we spent an afternoon at some touristy shops selling Swazi handicrafts (which were exquisite, I might add). While everyone else was hunting down bargains and choosing gifts for those back home, I was out in the bushes, hunting for yet one more lifer. (In case my family wonders—yes, I got you something.)
Use a camera.
With so many new birds to learn, a camera was essential. Trying to hunt through the guide for every sighting was futile. By taking photos (even bad ones), I was able to ID what I’d seen days later. In fact, I’m still adding new species to my list as I sort through my pictures. For example, it was only after I got home that I realized I’d seen three different species of Weavers!
Also, many of my field ID’s turned out to be wrong. I was carrying only a small pocket guide, an incomplete listing of the most common species. Once I had access to the (big and heavy) comprehensive Birds of Southern Africa, I was able to compare similar species and correct my mistakes.
Express your desires.
Last January, when I signed up for this trip, I had no idea that the “decompression day” at the end would be spent on a safari in South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park. (I’m glad I didn’t know, because I might have signed on for all the wrong reasons.)
Your birding time doesn’t have to be that spectacular, but it’s perfectly fine to let your travel companions know that you enjoy birding and would appreciate a chance to pursue your interest. After all, the rest of the time you’re probably going along with what everyone else wants to do. Some tactful negotiating can usually achieve some sort of compromise.
Traveling with non-birders can’t possibly compare to going on a tour expressly designed for seeing birds—and I’d love to do that someday! On the other hand, most birding trips don’t bring smiles to the faces of orphans. For me, I know which option is the most rewarding.