How to become a bird nerd

Birds are cool!!

Why do you ask? First, they can fly. They are the last living relatives of dinosaurs. Dinosaurs! It does not get any cooler than that. There are over 10.000 different species today. How is that for a bucket list challenge? They can be big or small, colourful or simple, predator or prey, adamant singers or the quiet type, active during the day or night-time. There is a bird for everyone.

Level 1: Look, a pretty bird

I focused on spotting elephants, buffalo, big antelope herds and predators on my first safaris. Occasionally, the ranger would point my attention to birds iconic to the African savannah: like the lilac-breasted roller. Or the giant secretary bird is slowly strutting across the plains as if looking for the fax machine. And the Kori bustard impresses females during mating season with its puffy neck. But that was about it. 

Photograph, Namibia © Ruth Heyduck
Photograph, Tanzania © Ruth Heyduck

Level 2: Wait, what bird was this?

The more self-drive safaris I did and the more I saw big animals, something started to change. It went so slowly that in the beginning, I didn´t even realise it. In the meantime, while waiting at a waterhole for a rhino to show up, I started watching the birds. There is always a bird around. And I wondered: “Hey, what kind are you? And why do you sound like a car alarm?” I was interested, and it quickly escalated from there. 

Have you noticed the cry of an African Fish Eagle, seen vultures circling above, and watched weaver birds building giant nests that can fall a tree? You are levelling up already.

Level 3: Getting hooked on a new bucket list

Before I knew it, I would spend hours flipping through my field guide to identify the little fellow I had seen. I spent more time noticing the differences between a grey and a black-headed heron: a brown hooded and a grey-headed kingfisher and a Blacksmith or crowned lapwing

I tried to distinguish them in detail using books and apps. A whole new world unfolded before me. And the longer I read through my first bird guide, the more I realised how many more birds there were out there that I wanted to see—a whole new, almost endless bucket list. Now I had new challenges looking for a palm nut vulture or a giant kingfisher. I am still waiting to find a pygmy falcon. 

Photograph, South Africa © Ruth Heyduck

Level 4: Missing the leopard because you are birding

With every bird I successfully identified, I became even more interested and started studying habitats, food variety and behaviour. Compared to the big cats during the daytime, birds are so active. You can watch them hunt, look for fruit or nectar, fight with each other, try to attract the females, or build a nest. 

One day in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park in South Africa, I met the most remarkable bird-nerd couple. They were so focused on watching the social interactions of doves at the waterhole that only after an hour did they realise a leopard was up in the tree above them. And now I can understand—no problem imagining this happening to me. 

Photograph, Kenia © Ruth Heyduck

Level 5: Now you are also drawing them?

My final level – at least for now – is taking an ornithology course at the Cornell Lab, studying bird anatomy, feathers, and flight. And after learning about nature journaling, my new passion is drawing birds. Yes, you heard me. By intensively studying my subject, feather by feather, slowly sketching the bird, I learned much more about the species than if I had taken a picture. Mind you, shooting (with a camera, obviously) a bird in flight is challenging. However, I am spending more time on details. It sure is a spiral upwards because the more I learn, the more I am amazed by these beautiful creatures. And want to know more.

What you need to get started

You only need your eyes, ears, and an interest in nature—a pair of binoculars and a field guide. You can download bird lists from any country in the world for free. The Merlin ID app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is an excellent source. A final word of advice: Be careful of what you are getting into because birding is addictive.

Now you cannot wait to start your birding journey, right?

Why not try our “7-day – birding in the bush course”:

Or the Online Birding Enthusiast course:

Do not miss the Birding 101 playlist on our YouTube channel:

Meve’s Starling l Birds of the Bush

EcoTraining brings you another episode in our Birds of the Bush series. We’ll bring you something about the bush birds YOU want to see each month.

Let’s join EcoTraining Instructor Richard Davis in the Makuleke Concession, the perfect habitat where you can find the Meve’s starling in large numbers—surrounded by Boabab & Mopani trees and open ground where they love to feed.

The Meve’s starling has a glossy, iridescent, bluish colour with a very long, graduated tail.

About the Author: 

Stefanie Ruth Heyduck is a freelance writer and consultant. She lives in Tanzania for half the year and spends every free minute in the bush. She is passionate about wildlife, conservation and photography and shares her sightings on Instagram (

About the Author:
Ruth Heyduck

Ruth Heyduck

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