Birding on the Run

There are many, many good reasons to run, and we’re adding birding to the mix. Birding is not a hobby owned entirely by people in long khaki socks, zip-off pants, floppy hats and big boots. In South Africa, we are blessed with diverse and beautiful birdlife just about everywhere we turn. As trail runners, we frequently come across birds in their natural environments; flushing out eagle owls from the scrub as we pass, spotting marine birds on our beach runs or spying birds of prey circling high above our mountain adventures. Being able to identify our feathered friends adds an exciting dimension to our running escapades. Here is how to go from bird-brained to fully-fledged birding runner in a few simple steps.

All you really need is a functional set of eyes and ears, and a willingness to learn. You will also need a decent bird book, and you can up the ante by downloading a birding app to your phone.  But hold off on the khaki socks, they aren’t great for running.

We love the Roberts Bird Guide, which covers nearly 1,000 species found in southern Africa. The Sasol Birds of Southern Africa is a book worth investing in, and it has a complementary app that showcases bird calls for cross referencing purposes. The Newmans birding app is also a great start for newbies, as is "Whats that Bird" by Kenneth Newman.  Invest in a small, light pair of binoculars for most accurate identification, and learn to run with your ears tuned in to your surrounds. Eventually the bird chatter will become obviously identifiable individual species.

Black Eagle

Image by: Nick Muzik

You already document your runs on STRAVA or similar apps, so add a birding life list and start a collection of confirmed sightings, along with a list of “must sees”. These birding targets should include the elusive ones such as the Pels Fishing Owl (highly prized by birders), the Kori Bustard, Martial Eagle, Lappetfaced Vulture and Saddle-billed Stork. But you will need to embark on some very special foot races or running holidays to find these feathered beauties.

Start with the species most frequently spotted on your local trails. Being outdoors is the single most important element of becoming a birder, as is learning to approach quietly and with respect for your natural surrounds. This makes trail runners particularly skilled birders; we just need to remember to stop and look up, rather than down at our feet.

The bonus of becoming a birder is that you add to your conversation repertoire quite significantly. The friends who glaze over when you mention peak bagging, single track stoke or trail tread might just perk up when you show them an Instagram-worthy shot of an African Hawk Harrier Hawk from your Saturday mountain mission… maybe.

Words by Kim Stephens