Interview with Adam Riley

Bird-lovers are bearers of fantastic stories and can hold you enthralled with tales of their adventures. Rockjumper is one of the foremost worldwide birding tour companies. Owner and tour leader Adam Riley combines the encyclopaedic with the anecdotal as he guides us through the world of birds, bird safaris, and his favourite African destinations.

It is home to some of the most spectacular birds and has the most bird species of any destination in the world
A pair of black and white Arnot's chats birds perched on a grey dead branch

Do you have a favourite birding destination? Where and why?
Anywhere in the tropical Andes. These equatorial mountains host mega biodiversity, a pleasant climate, amazing scenery, and incredible birding.

What makes it a special place for a birding safari?
It is home to some of the most spectacular birds and has the most bird species of any destination in the world. To illustrate, Colombia which is slightly smaller than South Africa has just short of 2,000 bird species whereas South Africa is on 850.

The sun is setting. Tea, G&T, or beer?

Where would you like to drink it on one of your safaris? Why there?
Zebra Hills Safari Lodge in Zululand, South Africa. It’s my happy place. It has amazing scenery and I’ve had really cool big game and birding experiences there over the years.

Your bird book must have some stories. What is the most memorable experience you have shared?
Recently being the first westerner to see a newly-discovered species in Colombia, which hasn’t even been named yet.

A man wearing a white cap holds camera scope on a tripod while looking for seabirds in Morocco PHOTO: Adam Riley searching for sea birds in Morocco.

And the funniest or quirkiest story?
In 1998, I travelled to Uganda to meet some friends, travelling the length and breadth of the country on birding adventures.

My friends were compiling a bird-finding guide to Uganda and, to end the trip, we flew into Kidepo Valley National Park. This area had been closed to visitors for its lack of facilities, the danger in getting there, and the presence of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. We had been granted special permission to be there. We were camped near a Ugandan military base and had been warned to stay away from the Sudanese border and the SPLA in the wake of some attacks.

We had been promised excitement, but it took myriad forms. We spotted the rare Black-breasted Barbet, slept with leopard and lion in and around our tents, and had one of our party suffer a venomous snakebite during our time there, narrowly avoiding the loss of his finger on his return home. Undeterred by big cats, snakes, and other dangers, we also walked in the dark to an army outpost after running out of fuel on a night drive.

In search of the Karamoja Apalis, we convinced the military and park authorities of the scientific importance of a trip to the Sudanese border. Accompanied by 30 soldiers, we reached the site of the discovery of the Karamoja Apalis and started birding. Suddenly, we saw some heavily armed child soldiers approaching from the bushes. They were armed with everything from spears and antique rifles to machine guns and rocket launchers. We held a little tighter to our binoculars and bird books. At this critical moment, our military escorts had disappeared and we were left to introduce ourselves to these notorious soldiers, finding common ground on the birds they recognised from our bird books. The mood diffused and after some discussion, we were released by the SPLA, who posed for a photo before melting back into the bush. We embarked to get back to camp and moments later, one of our party spotted the Karamoja Apalis – right there in the remote place of its discovery – an apt conclusion to one of many exciting birding adventures.

A Ruepell's Parrot PHOTO: Ruepell's Parrot
Shop for the shirt Steve Backshall wears when in the outdoors

Tell us about your favourite African destination. Is there anything in particular people travel there to see? What do you recommend people should be on the lookout for?
Uganda is my favourite African destination. It’s reasonably small, but it’s one of the few countries with over 1,000 species. It has lowland rainforest, mountain forest, savannah, and papyrus swamps and this habitat diversity makes for extremely high species diversity. The main two things people go there to see are the shoebill and mountain gorillas.

Within Uganda, I recommend Murchison Falls; the highland section of Bwindi Impenetrable National Park called Ruhija which is really beautiful and great for birding; and Budongo Forest, a great place to see lowland rainforest birds and chimps.

You can visit Uganda at any time of year, but January or February is a great because European migrants are around and you can see up to 250 species per day. June and July are also good months with less rain and, at this time, the sought-after Green-breasted Pittas display.

Is there anywhere else you love going on safari and why?
Antarctica is the journey of a lifetime, which I’ve been fortunate enough to go on. Papua New Guinea for its birds-of-paradise. India also has very approachable birds – and tigers. Everywhere has its attraction if you’re into birds!

A Javan Trogon perched on a branch against a lush green background PHOTO: Javan Trogon
Everywhere has its attraction if you’re into birds!
A grey-crested helmetshrike perched in a lush green tree

What are the top five birding safari essentials?
500mm camera lens
Reliable speaker for calling birds out
Fast-drying zip-off longs
I hate wearing boots and closed shoes, so I live in my Keen sandals.

What are the top binoculars for birding?
Zeiss 10x42 SF. They let through more light than any other binoculars in the market, they are truly amazing in dark conditions. For ladies, I would recommend 8x32 binoculars because they are lighter, but it comes down to personal preference.

What have you found to be your clients’ greatest worries prior to their first birding safari – if any – and what advice can you give to waylay their concerns?
Before their first safaris, people are often concerned that they don’t know enough about birds, but it really doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is that you enjoy looking at birds.

Any top tips on birding safaris in Africa?
The most important thing is to engage the services of an experienced bird guide – such as the international tour leaders provided by Rockjumper or well-rated local guides.
Travel at the right time of year to see the particular birds you want to see.
Take malarial precautions where necessary.
Share the passion with everyone you meet, especially local community members so they can appreciate the value of birds and wildlife around them.

A black and red Southern ground hornbill PHOTO: Southern ground hornbill
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Is birding a hobby that became a job or a job that became a hobby? Tell us a little about your history of birding and how it has culminated in Rockjumper.
It was a hobby that became a job. I became an avid birder when I was given a Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa for Christmas when I was 13. I didn’t ever consider it a potential career choice, however, and chose instead to become a chartered accountant. However, in my final year of articles, a buddy who had recently qualified as a doctor and I started Rockjumper. The idea was to put our careers on hold for a few years to have some fin before returning to our chosen professions. That was 22 years ago and I hope I’ll never have to get a real job.

Scores of African travellers search Africa for the Big 5 of wildlife. Is there a Big 5 of birds in Southern Africa?
No, there’s not really an official big 5 of birds. Everyone will have their individual most wanted lists and I’m guessing, for everyone, African Pitta would be right near the top.

Do you have a preferred reference text/app for birding in Africa?
Robert’s bird app is the best for Southern Africa. A free bird app covering the whole of Africa produced by the African Bird Club will soon be available. Birdlasser or eBird are great apps for recording your bird sightings and allowing them to be used in a scientific database.

A blue-headed bee-eater bird PHOTO: Blue-headed bee-eater
An orange ground thrush bird perched among twigs and branches

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