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When thinking of traveling in South Africa, many people imagine safari-style ventures into the bush to spy elephant, rhino and cheetah.

For people who like a challenge, though, the skill it takes to spot and identify the astonishing variety of local birdlife will make the adventure even more enriching. Such is the obvious appeal (sometimes it seems that every bird you see is a different species) that even people never before interested in birdwatching become enthusiastic converts. All it takes is a good pair of eyes . . . though a pair of field glasses and a birding guide go a long way.

True, even spotting the rare and elusive Pel’s fisher owl may not give one the adrenaline rush incurred by facing off with a large, angry pachyderm. Nonetheless, South Africa wins high international acclaim from seasoned birdwatchers. Few other places in the world can offer such a wealth of diverse feathered species: Over 900 bird species, almost 10 percent of the world’s total, can be found here. The country’s diverse habitats provide homes to everything from jackass penguins on the coast to the savannah-loving secretary bird.

Bordering Mozambique in Kwa-Zulu Natal state, Ndumo Game Reserve is famed for its rich bird habitat: ethereal sycamore fig forests lining the banks of the Pongola river. Over 400 species of bird life have been recorded at Ndumo, making it an international mecca for birdwatchers. Even the uninitiated will enjoy the hidden orchestra of so many species singing hidden (to the untrained eye) in the treetops.

There, indeed, we spotted Pel’s fishing owl, a once-in-a-lifetime birdwatching coup unfortunately wasted on amateurs like us, who muttered ignorant comments like, “looks like a bunch of brown feathers.”

Beneath the majestic sycamore figs, it’s possible to get to know as many bird species as you’re willing to try to spy in the trees’ abundant foliage: We saw pied barbets, the aptly named trumpeter hornbill, the scarlet-bellied narina trogon, golden weavers, a cardinal woodpecker and many more. Out of the forest, we saw martial eagles, black crakes (whose widely spaced toes enable them to walk on lilypads), hammerkop and pied kingfishers. Reservations at the park are kept to a minimum, so you may have the trails and hides all to yourself, making it seem that you’ve come to the end of the earth.

The skills of our Zulu guide Joseph were as much of a wonder as the amazing bird life. Much of the time, he spotted and identified birds with his naked eyes, and then would spend the next 10 minutes patiently helping us find them among the branches with our binoculars. Other times Joseph would mimic the appropriate call, and the bird would immediately answer. Then we’d track the song to the source — or rather, Joseph would track it, while we followed him.

Kruger National Park is famous for its “Big Five” — elephant, rhino, lion, buffalo and leopard — but these mammals are not necessarily going to come to you at every moment of your trip. Birdwatching during our mammalless hours was like a rapid-paced puzzle-solving tournament. (Absorbed in trying to identify a small bird, we nearly missed a passing herd of elephants!) Alternately peering through our binocs and leafing through various bird books, we urgently whispered birds’ distinct features until we hit on what it was.

Sharp eyes and fast hands are key for this sport: It’s a challenge to discern all the distinguishing features of a bird while whipping through a birdwatchers’ guide for reference (a fair bit of checking back and forth is often necessary), especially when the critters have that irritating habit of flying away whenever they feel like it. “Maybes” are not very satisfying.

Context adds another dimension to the adventure. Some birds look very different when they are hoping to mate, or otherwise agitated. The gray African harrier-hawk, for example, has a distinctive yellow face. We were stymied when we saw a raptor that looked just like it, except for its crimson face — till we calmed down enough to read the entire description in the bird book, and learned that these birds get flushed when excited.

By pure luck we chanced upon a red-crested korhaan (usually a plain, brown and white creature) in the throes of passion (hormones, anyway), head hunched low, red crest erect on the crown of its head, jerkily springing up and down and from side to side, almost as though getting electric shock treatment. We felt a little guilty for laughing, but mostly we felt lucky to witness such a sight. Patience and perseverance are rewarded.

A giant secretary bird (taller than a Japanese obaa-san, but much longer in the leg) emerging from the bush to nonchalantly cross the road in front of our vehicle made us feel as though we’d stumbled into a prehistoric time. Watching a variety of lightning-quick, opalescent sunbirds, shimmering like jewels as they gathered nectar from a giant flowered tree, was a delight for the senses. Eventually we gave up on identifying them and just lay on the grass, watching the flashes of light and color. Creatures like the saddle-billed stork and ground hornbill do a good job of reinstilling a sense of wonder at this planet.

This sense of wonder is good motivation for conservation, necessary if many of these species are going to remain wild on the planet. Wild birds in general suffer from habitat loss, but some species of raptors, or birds of prey, are particularly at risk due to their territorial habits.

The territory for a pair of martial eagles, for example, is between 120 and 500 sq. km, fiercely protected (possibly unto death) from any intruders. Kruger National Park, one of the world’s biggest reserves, is roughly 1,100 sq. km in size, leaving room for, at most, nine pairs in the whole park. Conservationists believe the martial eagle may become extinct in South Africa within 10 years, because there is not enough habitat to sustain them, according to Brian Jones, who runs a wildlife rehabilitation center just outside Kruger.

Jones’ center is filled with various eagles, falcons and vultures, many of whom can no longer live in the wild because of damage to their nervous system, the result of eating carcasses of animals poisoned by farmers.

“One out of 100 farmers poison wrongly, getting nontarget animals. A minority of people are having a big effect,” explains staffer Mark Jones (no relation to Brian). The effects of the poison vary: Some birds are blinded, others can’t fold their wings, and still others look healthy but can no longer fly straight.

“The main solution is education, but there are so many people to educate,” sighs Mark. The center has education programs for children and farmers — as landowners, the latter are key to conservation.

Even birds that may not have aesthetic appeal are fascinating once you get to know them. Vultures, for instance, are immune to all indigenous diseases; by eating diseased carcasses, they prevent the spread of illness, points out Brian. If this function is disrupted, disease among other animals increases.

While hunting, a vulture may fly up to 1,000 km in a day, and they can fly up to altitudes of 11 km — a fact confirmed when an airliner collided with one. A vulture’s sharp eyesight lets it recognize its mate from 50 km away. For this reason, some species of vulture are used in traditional medicine to “see” into the future, and they command exorbitant prices on the black market.

Though the ostrich is not rare or hard to find, it is a fascinating creature. In the southern city of Oudtshoorn, visitors are treated to the bizarre remnants of an ostrich-centered history. The ostrich feather industry skyrocketed with the craze for ostrich feather trimming in ladies’ hats and clothing around 1900: The feathers’ high prices transformed local farmers into “feather barons,” with gorgeous European-style mansions known as “feather palaces.” There is enough demand today for ostrich feathers, leather, meat, and tourist mystique to maintain some good-sized farms open to the public.

There you can get a close gander at ostriches: their powerful legs and dangerous forward kick, their incredibly flexible necks (they can turn their necks in a loop), and (if it’s the right season) their mating rituals. The male crouches on the ground, wings splayed, and repeatedly sways its neck from side to side. The female pretends to ignore him.

Kind of makes you think that birds and humans aren’t so different.