Interview with Keith Barnes

A lifelong passion for birds underpins the ethos at Tropical Birding. Keith Barnes started this bird tour operation 20 years ago with a friend. What has ensued is decades of birding experiences that span the globe. We chatted with Keith for insights on Africa as a birding destination and travel advice, as well as some of his stories from the last two decades of bird tours.

Over two decades, we morphed from a start-up in Ecuador and South Africa to a US-based operator running over 200 tours per year throughout the globe, specialising in birding, bird photography, and seeking enigmatic wildlife. It's been a blast. 
A pair of oyster catchers with splashing waves in the background

Tell us the story of how you ended up birding. How long have you been birding? Tell us more about Tropical Birding.
My Dad was a birder. When I was 13, we were going on a family vacation to the Drakensberg and he was obsessed with seeing Lammergeier (a spectacular high mountain bird-of-prey). I decided to educate myself by reading his bird books and then steeled myself for the unpleasant job of letting him down. With only 200 individuals in all of Lesotho, our chances were slim to say the least. In the process, however, I learned of the diamond-shaped tail, rusty-breast and black tufted beard and so, when a Lammergeier did fly just 25 metres over our heads later on that trip, it was not someone telling me this was magic - I knew. The adrenalin got me shaking (twitching) and I haven't stopped since. I studied Zoology/Ornithology at the University of Cape Town, wrote a few academic tomes, and then, with a friend, decided to start Tropical Birding in the year 2000. Over two decades, we morphed from a start-up in Ecuador and South Africa to a US-based operator running over 200 tours per year throughout the globe, specialising in birding, bird photography, and seeking enigmatic wildlife. It's been a blast.

The sun is setting. Tea, G&T, or beer?
I am old-school, G&T all the way - so long as I have a hand free for binoculars!

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?
Kasane, on the Chobe River in Botswana. Early in my birding development, we visited this place often and not only am I reminded of the spectacular birds and wildlife I encountered here for the first time, but mostly for the special times with my parents who indulged and encouraged my passion. I am who I am today because of times spent at that place with special people.

Keith Barnes from Tropical Birding PHOTO: Tropical Birding tour guide, Keith Barnes.

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?
Waking up inside Letaba Camp in Kruger NP once, I stuffed my bird book into my pants and headed out for an early morning birding session. These camps are fenced and so you do not readily anticipate an encounter with one of the Big 5 inside the camp. As I wondered along the river edge looking at sunbirds and bushshrikes, I noticed a very active bird at the base of a thicket around 30m away. I tried to focus on it, but it was flitting around really erratically. When it did stop moving and the bins finally focussed, the 'rosette' pattern was unmistakable. The penny dropped - and so did my binos - but it was too late; the leopard was now charging at me full-bore. I know sage bush-craft experts will tell you all sorts of things you are supposed to do. Fortunately for me, not a single thought entered my mind and I kind of let my reptilian brain take over. Without being conscious of it, my hands raised themselves above my head and I stood my ground. She slid to a halt about 2m away and hissed. I didn't budge. She turned and bolted. The adrenalin surge that came next made me feel like Michael Jackson for 48 hours, but I was able to alert the authorities and they were able to handle it. The bird book was ruined.

And the funniest/quirkiest experience you have had?
I was once at a private concession on the edge of Amboseli NP in Kenya. We got out of the vehicle but left the roof open and went for tea. At one stage, the staff came and told us Mr Rude is coming. By the time we got back to the car, it was too late. The famous bull elephant was using his trunk deftly to investigate all and sundry inside the vehicle. He picked up my Birds of Kenya book, had a few sniffs, and then threw it into the brush. A few other goodies also went for a loop. The trick was to remember exactly where he'd tossed most things so we could recover them. Eventually, none too impressed with our loot, he ambled on. Such is Africa - there is never a dull moment and a wilderness experience is always just a moment away.

Black-winged stilt PHOTO: Black-winged stilt

I’m sure all your tours are uniquely special, but do you have a favourite destination? Where and why?
It's really hard for me to look past Tanzania. The sense of wilderness, even within the well-heeled circuit, is always still awe-inspiring. Visiting Ndutu in Feb-April and seeing millions of wildebeest calving, but on top of that having every bishop, widow, and weaver bird in frantic breeding activity and lavish dress makes for an ultimate unforgettable African birding experience. Even the lesser travelled portions of the nation, unique Pemba (with its unique endemic birds), stunning reefs and clove-sprinkled lanes, and the rugged Usambara ranges with their unique biology, old-school hill-station charm, and special avifauna make Tanzania compelling! I like to birdwatch, but in a holistic way where we never ignore other parts of the planet's amazing biodiversity.

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?
Tanzania is synonymous with big game country and it has that in spades. However, I love nocturnal and strange beasts and so my favourites are things like Bat-eared Fox, Striped Hyena, and the amazing and incredible Aardvark. These strange enigmas would be the standout critters for me on any safari! On the birding front, Tanzania has amazing birds-of-prey, with Martial Eagles, Secretarybirds, and reams of vultures at each and every kill. These are unfortunately dwindling sights in Africa and Asia these days and long may the emperors of the sky dominate the airways. Also, the small colourful grass-eating finches like waxbills, stunning and colourful starlings, and large sets of storks, pelicans, and other amazing water birds mean that, if you cannot get into birds (and birdwatching) on an African safari, you are probably never going to! Obviously, people here come for wildebeest 'migration'. That has become synonymous with 'river crossings' which are dramatic, but just one element of the amazing journey. The fun thing about a birding safari is that people assume you will see fewer mammals. Not only is this untrue, I think it’s the opposite! Because we are often out at dawn and dusk looking for owls and nightjars, we find White-Tailed Mongoose or Genets. Because we stop for small brown birds, we end up finding sengis, mongooses, hares, and rodents and, because we visit a broad variety of habitats, we see more than the average mammal-watching trip. The next time you think birding is only for the birds, rethink that!

A red-cheeked cordon-bleu in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia PHOTO: A red-cheeked cordon-bleu in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
Birding is an amazing window into the world. It has taken me to places like Sao Tome and Principe, which I never would have visited.
A vibrant superb starling in Kenya

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?
Many people like the July-August river crossings for their drama and intrigue, but it is dry at this time of year and most birds are not breeding. My favourite time of year is Feb-April. There are 'short-rains', but these late afternoon showers seldom interfere with activities and often add an element of drama to the African skies. The wildebeest are giving birth in the southern plains and the drama is just as high as during the crossings. The grass is verdant and the late afternoon skies dramatic. The birds are all breeding and there is action non-stop wherever you look. Also, if you time it right, you can do this in early April when the rates drop to low season saving yourself some money and enjoying the plains with fewer visitors around.

Is there one thing in this area visitors shouldn’t miss?
It’s a cliché, but for a reason. The Ndutu-Serengeti system is amazing. And unmissable.

Apart from here, where else do you love to go on safari and why?
I love Namibia for its generosity of space and sense of wilderness; South Africa for its myriad 'unique' creatures from frogs to piebald antelope like the Bontebok and strange birds like sugarbirds; Angola for its stunning landscapes and variability (where else can you go from the Congo Basin to Namib Desert in a day?); and Uganda for its many rainforest treats. Slightly more 'unusual' destinations like Malawi, Ghana, and Gabon also make for an alternative trip that many enjoy once they have seen the main safari destinations of Africa. 

A vibrant sunbird perched on top of an orange flower PHOTO: A double-collared sunbird
Shop Swarovski EL 10x42 binoculars

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?
1) Don't leave home without binoculars. Models that come in 8x32 or 10x40 are best for wildlife watching and birding. If you can afford it, buy Swarovskis. They are simply the best. 
2) Serious birders will often travel with a telescope. This is overkill for a beginner, so I'd suggest thinking carefully about a good camera. These days cameras act as great tools to either take lovely memories of your time in Africa or else to document what you saw so that, once you get back home, you can send it to an expert of some kind and get help to identify that 'small brown job' you saw. A good bridge camera will work well if you are starting out but, as soon as you get more serious, a longer semi-pro lens would be helpful. Many people are turning to micro 4/3rds cameras these days and the item of choice for many one of the Olympus OM-D mirrorless setups with a 300mm fixed lens. 
3) A relevant bird book for your region will be crucial to identifying the things you see. There are many choices for most regions, but ask an expert like me and I'll steer you in the right direction regarding the right book for you. A good place to start would be Princeton University Press. They have a great collection of high quality beginner books for African parks, including ones for Kruger, Masai Mara, Serengeti, etc.  
4) Cornell University has two apps that are worth getting. Ebird helps you keep track of all the birds you see and maintains your lists for you. They are also developing a great app called Merlin which has photos and text written by experts to help you identify birds. Both are free and feed into important citizen science projects that have impacts for conservation and research initiatives. 
5) When you get home and you are struggling to ID birds from your pics, there is a wonderful Facebook group that is run by the American Birding Association called 'What's this bird'. It’s a simple, easy forum to post your photo and have an expert help out in a non-judgmental way and hopefully help you grow a little in your understanding of bird identification.

An Abyssinian roller in flight PHOTO: An Abyssinian roller in flight
A Cape Rockjumper bird with an ocean background

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?
Sometimes that they won't be 'good' birders and won't be able to keep up - or they are concerned that all we will be doing will be birding and not looking at much of the other amazing wildlife out there. The only requirement is enthusiasm and maybe a little patience with yourself as you learn to master the use of binoculars or maybe a few other things. Bird Tour leaders are trained experts at helping both beginners and folks that maybe on their 20th trip have a good time. Almost all of them are incredibly excited to see new folks get into birding and want nothing more than to ensure that those folks have a great time and come back on another birding safari. Also, on our birding safaris in Africa, we average 50-65 mammal species depending on the destination, so you should not be concerned that we will not stop, see, or spend time with the amazing megafauna of the continent. We are as enamoured with it as anyone else – maybe, as committed naturalists, more so. If there is an exciting frog, chameleon or lizard along the way, we'll be paying those attention too.

Do you have any interesting information/top tips to share on birding in Africa?
Because of the open nature and tame demeanour of Africa's birds, this is the easiest continent to get 'into' birding. Most birds are easily seen and they are bold and spectacular. It’s a great place to get kids into birds while seeing an amazing array of other wildlife. Even cities like Johannesburg, Nairobi, and Arusha are meccas for birds, holding hundreds of species. Gardens are great places to start. If you are going to select countries to visit with birding on the agenda, the best places to start are Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya with their diverse habitats and amazing national parks. Then move onto Morocco, Namibia, Zambia, and Malawi and, finally, if you are still keen, Angola, Ghana, and Gabon. 

A Diederik Cuckoo bird perched in a tree PHOTO: A Diederik cuckoo perched in a tree

Do you have any advice for first-time birders from around the world around what they need to get started, species identification, etc.?
Join a bird club with organised outings with more experienced members. This will help a massive amount and these are folks to lean on when you need advice on binoculars, cameras, places in the neighborhood to go looking for certain species, or trips further afield. Most birders are really friendly and are keen to help new birders find their feet. If you are far from a centre that has an official club, then join a social media group dedicated to birding in your local state/county/province. You will be surprised how much info there is out there and also how many helpful locals there are.

Anything else to add?
Birding is an amazing window into the world. It has taken me to places like Sao Tome and Principe, which I never would have visited. I have a community of global friends I would never have had and I have learned things I would never have known. It’s a good community and one that I am proud to be part of. Go on, try it. What could it hurt?

Gey-backed fiscals PHOTO: Grey-backed fiscals
A flock of grey-headed gulls in flight

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