Interview with Leon Marais

A well-established family enterprise, Lawson’s Birding, Wildlife, and Custom Safaris specialise in guided birding and wildlife tours in Africa. Leon Marais spoke to us about all things Africa, a lifetime of birding on the continent, and offered helpful advice and tips for first-time birders and anyone contemplating a bird tour.

We like to give a holistic experience, taking in the small stuff as well as the classic big game species.
A brown-hooded kingfisher bird with a worm in its mouth

I’m sure all your tours are uniquely special, but do you have a favourite destination? Where and why?
How to choose? We visit so many unique and amazing areas, it’s really hard to narrow it down to one favourite but, if I had to choose, I’d go with the Kruger National Park – which I consider to be my ‘home patch’ as I live fairly close by. I like the Kruger because it’s big – nearly 20 000 square kilometres, highly diverse, and easy to do, plus it’s got an amazing range of birds (over 500 species have been recorded in the park) plus the full range of big game species to add the exciting edge. I’m just back from a safari in Namibia, where we spent five nights in Etosha National Park. After five nights there, I feel like I have pretty much ‘done’ Etosha, but five nights is just scratching the surface in the Kruger - one could easily spend several weeks there and not see it all.

What makes it a special place for a birding safari?
The range of species – as mentioned, over 500 species, including an incredible array of birds of prey;  the ease of birding (many of the birds are open perchers, happy to sit out in the open); the numbers of birds, particularly in the wet season (the Red-billed Quelea flocks in late summer are truly something to behold); and, for me personally, the joy that comes from showing the Kruger and its birds and other wildlife to international birders.

What wildlife and birds are your favourite African destination known for? Is there anything in particular people travel to see? What do you recommend guests to the area should be on the lookout for?
The Kruger is well known for great game viewing, as it’s home to most of Africa’s iconic big game species and is said to be one of the most diverse of Africa’s big parks. If you throw in the private reserves on the western boundary, such as the Sabi Sand Game Reserve, which boasts some of the world’s best big cat viewing, you have an incredible wildlife holiday destination. I guess most people visit to see the big mammals, but many of our clients come to see the wealth of feathered fauna as well – I had one client who had waited over 50 years to see a Lilac-breasted Roller. We like to give a holistic experience, taking in the small stuff as well as the classic big game species and I would urge visitors to not be too focused on the big cats etc., as they can then run the risk of missing out on all the overall picture.

Leon Marais from Lawson's Birding, Wildlife and Custom Safaris PHOTO: Leon Marais

What time of year is best for game-viewing and birding in this area? When is the rainy season? When is it unbearably hot? What is the average summer high and winter low temperatures?
Game viewing is typically best in the dry season – June to early November. Birding is typically best in the wet season, November to April. The hot months are September to April. Average summer highs are around 32 - 34 degrees C, while average winter highs are around 27 degrees C. Bear in mind, however, that, in summer, there can be as much as a 20 degree difference on consecutive days as a cold front moves through – before a front, the temperatures can hit the 40 degree and over mark and, as the front hits, it can drop top below 20, so the average of 32-34 doesn’t really give a true indication of what to expect. Basically, any time of the year is a good time of the year!

Is there one thing in this area visitors shouldn’t miss?
The early mornings! You have to be out as early as possible, so no sleeping in, otherwise you’ll miss the best part of the day. And nothing better than an afternoon siesta through the heat of the day after a good morning out in the field (take your rests when you can. I’ve seen many tour participants burn out halfway through because they don’t want to take any down time).

Martial Eagle PHOTO: Martial Eagle

Apart from here, where else do you love to go on safari and why?
We cover a lot of Southern Africa, as well as parts of East Africa. Each region has its own appeal. Keen birders will base their destination choice on what birds they need to see, while others less keen will be guided by other factors, but I guess the common factor is to visit beautiful places to see birds and wildlife in the wild.

Tell us the story of how you ended up birding. How long have you been birding? Tell us more about Lawson's.
I was born into a birding family, so it was something I grew up with (interest waned a bit in my teenage years!). My grandfather was a particular influence in this regard and I was fortunate to travel to some amazing parks and reserves across Southern Africa with my parents while growing up. Needless to say, there is a difference between hobby-level birding and professional guiding, so I had to put some work in (and continue to do so, as it’s easy to lose your edge) when I took it up professionally.

The sun is setting. Tea, G&T, or beer?
Easy choice – definitely not tea!

Pel's Fishing Owl PHOTO: Pel's Fishing Owl
Birding is a great hobby that can be used as an excuse to see some of the most beautiful places on earth.
White-headed vulture in flight

What is the first place that comes to mind where you would love to drink it along your route on one of your safaris? Why there?
Having just returned from a Namibian safari, the sundowner spot at Mowani Mountain Camp in Damaraland is still fresh in my mind. And boy, is that a sundowner spot of note! It’s amazing to sit there, cold drink at hand, looking west into pure wilderness stretching all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, far out of sight in the distance. Between you and the ocean, there’s not much besides rocky hills, dry riverbeds, and isolated settlements. Here, the people living in these settlements co-exist with species such as elephants, with our patronage of the lodges in the area having direct benefits for the people living with the wildlife in the area.

Your bird book must have stories to tell of your adventures over the years. What is the most memorable experience you - and your bird book - have shared? 
And again back to Namibia, to November 2018, when two clients and I were sitting at Moringa Waterhole, Halali Resort, Etosha one morning. We’d been there since before first light and, as the sun rose, there was just a constant stream of game coming through, as well as good numbers of different bird species – one of those mornings where your binoculars never leave your face even for a second. My field of view happened upon a small brown bird drinking at the water’s edge and the word ‘Bingo!’ went through my brain. This was no ordinary brown bird… I’d seen it in pictures so had an idea of what it was, but didn’t want to celebrate until we had some sort of outside confirmation, though my clients from the UK also had a pretty good idea of what it was. I snapped some photos and, after it disappeared, we went for breakfast, only to find that the Wi-Fi was down so I couldn’t get the news out, so we packed and departed for Namutoni. On the way, I started getting a sinking feeling – what if someone else sees it and beats me to it? So my foot pressed harder on the gas (sticking to speed limits of course!) until we got in range of signal and I pressed ‘send’. Trevor Hardaker (the regional rare bird alert guy) soon reverted with some expletives – we’d found Southern Africa’s third ever Ortolan Bunting! When you’ve been birding your whole life and never previously found anything really special, it was quite a moment. And, the day before, we’d found a Tree Pipit at the camp and, a day later, found a Corn Crake at a lodge just outside Etosha (all three were lifers and all were considered out of range and thus mentioned in the rare bird alert), so it was quite a run. As a side note, the Bunting was never reported again, keeping the trend as the previous two sightings were one-offs as well.  And, sadly, while we were super excited to see the Ortolan Bunting, they are eaten in huge numbers in places like France – maybe more of them should migrate our way to avoid the French dinner tables!

Vulturine Guineafowl PHOTO: Vulturine Guineafowl
Shop for the Rufiji Leather Explorer Hat

And the funniest/quirkiest experience you have had? 
Um, one of the funniest: as a guide you get to witness some interesting animal behaviour, but sometimes it’s the human behaviour that’s most interesting! I was guiding an older couple who were out here showing Africa to their teenage grandson. They were so keen, trying to get some reaction out of him – you know how teenagers can be – asking the whole time if he can see this or that, but just getting a grunt out of him at best… One day, we had to travel quite far in the Kruger, so left early and were cruising along as the sun rose to the east and grandma asked him if he could see it… and he exploded with ‘of course I can see it, it’s THE SUN!!!’. I just kept quiet. We arrived for breakfast at Letaba Rest Camp and got a nice table for four on the veranda. Out came the breakfasts, slap-up full-English all round, and the teen grabs the tomato sauce (ketchup for the rest of you) to put on his sausages. It was one of those squeezy bottles and a plug of solid tomato sauce had built up in the nozzle. So he squeezed a little harder, and a little harder, and a little… then, perhaps with some frustration having built up over the past week or so spending time with his aged grandparents (just conjecture on my part!), he lost it a bit and squeezed it real good. And the whole lid blew off in a red explosion. When the spray had settled, the teen was mouth-aghast with tomato sauce covering his face and glasses. Tomato sauce jets went left and right several meters across the restaurant floor. His grandpa and I fell off our chairs laughing while his gran tried awkwardly to clean him up with a serviette. It was just the kind of attention a teenager doesn’t want (never mind an adult!). At least he was somehow the only person to get sauced. It was hilarious. He wasn’t a bad kid, just typically teenagerish and hopefully he did enjoy his first African safari with gran, gramps, and me.

African Hawk Eagle PHOTO: African Hawk Eagle
Southern Carmine Bee-Eater

Based on your experience, what are the 5 essentials you recommend clients should bring along on a birding safari? What other gear, apps, books, clothing, etc. do you recommend?
Binoculars, scope, torch or flashlight, money, hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen –that’s all you really need! I recommend cool cotton clothing for places like the Kruger. I wear shorts and long-sleeve shirts for protection against the sun. Avoid black, as it gets way too hot. In warm or dry places, wear closed shoes after dark, as a sting by a Parabuthus scorpion can ruin your holiday. The Robert’s Bird Guide, Second Edition is an excellent field guide, though a bit heavy – otherwise available as an app. And do your weather research properly (or consult your local expert), as it’s not always hot in Africa!

What have you found to be your clients’ greatest concerns prior to their first birding safari – if any - and what information/advice can you give them to avert those concerns?
We have some clients concerned about the intensity of the birding, particularly those new to the hobby. The answer lies in a custom safari, where they can go along at their own pace. Our set-departure birding safaris, however, aren’t seriously hard-core. We do take a well-earned break now and then and have time to relax and enjoy life, so those fears are usually unfounded. We bird hard, but we aren’t going to kill people with the pace (there are other companies who may just do that…).

Bateleur PHOTO: Bateleur

Do you have any interesting information/top tips to share on birding in Africa?
Michael Mills has written a great book, The Birder’s Guide to Africa, that covers the entire continent and surrounding islands. For any birder wanting to plan an African campaign, this is a great resource. For those keen on maximising their birding (and just having a well-planned, enjoyable overall experience), always use an established specialist birding outfit (such as Lawson’s!). While it is possible to do certain destinations on your own, such as South Africa and Namibia, you’ll just get so much more out of it with an experienced guide.

Do you have any advice for first-time birders from around the world around what they need to get started, species identification, etc.?
Birding is a relatively cheap hobby – get a good pair of binoculars (even the more affordable brands make pretty good binos these days) and a bird book and/or app, and there you go - you can start birding! The great thing is that birds can be found everywhere. Start on your garden birds to get used to finding the bird in your binoculars and get the general idea about bird families, etc. Like everything, practice makes perfect. Keep a list as well to help you remember what you’ve seen. No need to go overboard with the lists (some birders have dozens of different lists for different places, years, etc.), but a life list at minimum is a good idea. And don’t become one of those Facebook ‘birders’ who takes a photo of the most common garden bird and posts it on a birding group for someone to tell them what it is. Looking through the book helps you remember! If you are stuck, for sure, there are some great groups with plenty of free expert opinion. Most importantly in birding (as with wildlife watching), have respect for your subject first and foremost – don’t put the well-being of a bird at risk just so you can get a view or a photo. In this day and age of social media and instant messaging, there is a lot of pressure being put on nesting birds, rarities, vagrants, very photogenic species, etc. by overzealous birders and, indeed, there has evolved a certain breed of bird photographer who isn’t really interested in birds and bird behaviour but is only interested in getting photos – these types aren’t good for birds and birding. Also, with many birders having bird calls on their phones, I implore birders both green and experienced to use call playback with the utmost discretion.

Greater kestrel PHOTO: Greater Kestrel

Is there a particular bird conservation issue you are passionate about?
Unfortunately, in this day and age, there are so many. The assault on nature is relentless. One that comes to mind is the plight of our local Vultures, which are being poisoned at an alarming rate. They are killed for their body parts, which are ingredients in so-called traditional medicine. They are actively targeted by poachers as descending Vultures quickly give away the positions of large animal carcasses and they are victims of carcasses laced with poison by farmers to kill predators such as Jackals. Pretty bleak stuff.

Anything else to add?
Birding is a great hobby that can be used as an excuse to see some of the most beautiful places on earth. If you become a global birder, tread lightly, go forth, and enjoy. There are roughly 10 000 species to be seen. Whether travelling or just being at home, this planet is a sinking ship, unless we all pull our fingers out and start looking at how we live, who we vote into power. Like REM say, ‘It’s the end of the world as we know it…’.

Wattled Crane PHOTO: Wattled Crane
Malachite Kingfisher

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