Samuel Japane is our resident birdwatching expert here at The Outpost and one of the best birding specialists in South Africa. He has been with us since 2014 and his knowledge and passion for birding is truly second to none. We chatted to him about what makes the Makuleke region so special and his recently released book, ‘The Unlikely Birdman’.
how did you become a field guide at The Outpost?
I was born in Venda in 1967 in a village called Ngudza. In 1992, I had a donkey cart which I used to help people transport things in the community to earn a little money. In December 2006 I was appointed as a security guard at a local primary school. Over the next six years I completed a professional hunting course but felt that this was not my destiny.
While I was working as a security guard, I realised that I wanted to change my life and improve things for my family. The idea came to me in a dream – that if I learnt about birds, I could use that knowledge to change my life! I started collecting and reading newspapers where birds were photographed and studying what I could, bit by bit.
People thought I had gone mad when I used to listen to different birds calls and try to identify them. I was determined to learn as much as I could and I never gave up or lost hope. I was priviledged to meet a tour guide, Godfrey, who lent me a memory card with 800 different species of birds on it, which I uploaded to my phone. I studied all of them and learnt to identify them one by one. I have to thank Landi and Janet who sent me two bird books to study from too, I was so excited about those. It felt like a dream!
In 2012 I was given the opportunity by the Makuleke Property Association to do a one year professional field guide course. I worked hard to achieve both my local guide and advanced birding qualifications.
I started working at The Outpost in September 2014 and since then I have received a Bird Specialist qualification. I am currently working towards my regional and national bird qualification.
When did your love for birding begin?
When I was young, I used to ask lots of questions about birds. I wanted to know where they were going, where they came from, what they ate and how they flew. I loved their different songs too. Today, I understand each bird’s behaviour and how they differ from each other.
What makes birding in The Makuleke Concession so special?
The region holds over 80% of Kruger biodiversity and is home to so many unique birds that don’t venture into the southern parts of South Africa. Our list of specials is extensive, a few to keep an eye out for in the concession are:
Pel’s Fishing Owl
Grey Penduline Tit – South Africa’s smallest bird
What’s your favourite bird to spot?
I love the Little Grebe.
… And the most illusive?
The Marsh Warbler. In summer I can hear it but it’s not easy to see!
which birds can you expect to see and when?
In summer, the migrant birds arrive from around the world and brighten up the bush with their song. The Steppe Buzzard arrives from Russia, the Amur Falcon from China, the European Bee-eater from Europe and the Carmine Bee-eater and Woodland Kingfisher from Northern Africa – just to name a few.
In winter, we enjoy spotting our resident birds such as the Grey-headed Bushshrike, the Orange-breasted Bushshrike and the Thick-billed Cuckoo can be heard and seen too. We often hear the Pel’s Fishing Owl but it is very difficult to spot. They fight for territory with Verreaux’s Eagle-owl and so they move around and feed in different areas. The best time to spot them is when they come out after the rains.
You recently released a book, tell us a bit about it…
My book is called The Unlikely Birdman – my extraordinary journey from donkey cart to bird guide. The book is about how I started out as a labourer, then became a small business owner using a donkey cart, later a security guard and proceeded to become the unlikely birdman of The Outpost. I wanted to write this book to share my journey with people and inspire them to always follow their dreams and never give up and that you are never too old to follow those dreams, your age is just a number and it doesn’t determine your success. Listen to your inner voice and show courage! I hope it also teaches people that the bush is not only about the Big 5, learn to focus on the smaller things and you’ll see the beauty in birds.