Two old ducks in search of rare bird

James Clarke

You get like that when you become involved with birding.

It’s an expensive form of insanity – the cheapest form is to run around biting people until the state takes you away and looks after you.

Birding madness is expensive because it compels you to buy binoculars or, in a bad case, a “scope” (a short-barrelled telescope costing a few thousand) plus many bird recognition books. (South Africa has more bird books, I think, than any other country.)

What’s more, you find yourself getting up at dawn to reach some outlandish spot where somebody has reported seeing a “rarey”.

Once you’ve “PI’d” (positively identified) the bird, you place a tick next to the list of bird species in your bird book.

You tell only your closest friends that you keep a “life list” because otherwise it sounds a bit juvenile – like train spotting.

So there we were driving to Benoni where, I would have thought, no sane person would go on a frosty morning just to see a bird.

It was a seagull in fact; the lesser black-backed gull, a rarely seen vagrant from northern Europe.

Assuming it would still be there, it was going to be a “mega tick” for Mary and me – both of us suffer from an advanced stage of birding madness.

The act of standing somewhere waiting for a rare bird to appear is universally known as “twitching”.

It is so called because, years ago, somebody observed a bunch of birders in an English car park waiting for a rare Spanish bird to appear and noticed they were twitching with excitement.

We reached the 50 hectare fenced-off pan in the elegant suburb of Lakeside where the gull had been seen, to find a small knot of people, some from as far away as Pretoria.

At least one birder had, during the week, come up from Cape Town.

The natural pan is the focal point of the Korsman Bird Sanctuary – named after the Benoni councillor who campaigned for the area to be proclaimed.

It’s right next to the town centre.

The circular pan – a natural feature many times larger than Zoo Lake – has a 3km shoreline and is today circled by manicured parkland and a road called The Drive and palatial homes.

A constant parade of local people circumnavigated the fence walking or jogging with a wondrous variety of dogs.

The bird was not there so we decided to move around the pan, but before leaving, we swopped cellphone numbers with one of the birders so that if anybody spotted the gull, we’d ring each other.

A kilometre around the perimeter, there it was – a large solitary sea gull standing apart from a large number of waterfowl.

A very helpful and knowledgeable young man, Donovan Booyce, explained the gull’s defining characteristics.

We learnt that Donovan had taken up birding only five years ago.

He told us how he was in Kruger Park and an aunt kept stopping to identify birds and thus he discovered a whole new dimension to enjoying the park.

He had since identified a remarkable 500-plus species.

The crowd grew. The ages ranged from schoolchildren to pensioners.

Among those watching the gull was a boy aged 11 or 12 who had also identified more than 500 and had an impressive knowledge of birds.

Birding has become South Africa’s fastest growing outdoor activity.


Contact James Clarke on E-mail: [email protected]; Website:; Blog:

Courtesy of James Clarke, we publish his recent column about the visit which he and Mary made to Benoni, to spot the rare lesser black-backed gull at Korsmans. Thanks James, we appreciate the opportunity to use your column

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