Hluhluwe Tips for Identifying Birds



Whether you’re a total novice looking to start birding, we hope that these tips will assist.


Here's a brief introduction to some species in Southern South Africa, enjoy.

Hluhluwe Tips for Identifying Birds

Whether you’re a total novice looking to start birding or a serious ‘twitcher’ trying to add species to your long list of bird sightings, birding is a challenging, yet relaxing past time one can enjoy almost anywhere. One usually has to visit a protected area such as a game reserve in order to view big game species, but birds are everywhere, they’re in the countryside, in the city and even in your back garden, which makes becoming a birdwatcher possible for almost anyone, anywhere.

People are often hesitant to start because they might see it as a difficult subject to grasp. With hundreds of species, calls and let’s not forget all those ‘little brown birds’, it may seem impossible to know them all but in reality it’s not that hard. With modern day bird identification guides and smart phone apps with bird calls, all that’s left for you is to be a good observer. It’s a great way to challenge and stimulate ones memory by looking at the sometimes fleeting characteristics of the bird and then scrambling through your bird book looking for a near match.  To positively identify a bird one must have something to look for in each particular species of bird. It usually will only require three characteristics to positively identify a bird, so let’s discuss what it is you should focus on the most:

  • Size and shape
  • Bill
  • Legs
  • Plumage
  • Habitat
  • Habits
  • Voice/call


Size is important but sometimes difficult to judge exactly so try and estimate on a comparative size with some familiar birds. Is the bird in question smaller or larger than let’s say a Sparrow, a pigeon or a Guineafowl?


Members of the same family of birds usually have a similar shape. They may either have long or short legs, long or short necks, long or short beaks or tails. Each shape is a special adaptation to a particular type of habitat or feeding behavior the bird relies on.

Bill Shape

Bill size and shape provides a lot of information about the bird and is one of the most important characteristics to look at. The bill has evolved to suit a particular way in which the bird feeds. The bill shape will tell you whether the bird swims and dabbles like ducks and geese or whether it spears and grabs its prey. Seed eaters require a bill that is strong enough to crack open hard shelled seeds, the larger the seed type the larger the bill.

  • Seed-eaters – hard conical shaped bills
  • Insect-eaters – Soft pointed bills
  • Fruit-eaters- Not longer than conical, thicker than pointed bills
  • Raptors – Strong hooked bills

Look to see if the bill fits any of these descriptions and it is vitally important to note the colour of the bill as well.


Legs will indicate the birds’ lifestyle. Look at the length, shape, colour and toe arrangement if possible. How much of the legs are feathered? How long is the tarsus? Colour of legs?


Colouration is very important and small details could lead to a positive identification. Look at the head, back and belly or whatever draws your attention because it’s distinct. Look for the overall colour, is it black, brown or blue? Feather and colour pattern are very important as birds who may be similar in colour will have unique patterns, this is especially important as colors often vary due to moulting from juvenile to adult or seasonal breeding colour variation in certain species.


The particular area in which a bird is found plays an important role in identifying a bird, for example; Coastal forest, woodland, desert, ocean or deserts. Within these broader habitats birds will often occupy smaller, micro habitats such as thick scrub, watercourses, wetlands or rocky outcrops. Consulting your bird distribution maps will give you a broad scale area in which a bird may be found but remember; birds fly so sometimes you can find one that’s not generally common to that region… For the most part distribution maps will help you eliminate species and narrow down your search in identifying the species.


Observing habits and behavior will help you place a bird in a particular family or species. What is the bird doing? Feeding habits are distinct to different families and have clues to their identities:

  • Feeding close to the ground
  • Creeping or crawling amongst vegetation
  • Catching insects on the wing

Flight pattern will also differ from family to family. Example ; Swallows flap their wings and have a distinct shoulder shape to the wings, whereas, swifts have stiff, crescent shaped wings which are used to glide.

  • Dipping flight – Hornbills
  • Sailing – Doves
  • Straight flight – Barbets
  • Erratic flight – Hoopoes
  • Gliding – Swifts


Birds can be recognized by the sounds they produce. They produce sounds both vocally and mechanically by bill snapping, drumming on wood or trees, wing flapping or clapping. Bird calls can take a bit of practice but when taking the whole picture into context of where and what habitat you’re in, its behavior, the image of the bird and its social status it should narrow the search down to few species that may fit the sighting.

So don’t be afraid to start birding, start with the most common species living around you. Practice and apply these birding tips to the birds you see regularly and soon you will be noticing a huge variety of birds that you may never have paid attention to. Birding is a great way to stay busy or entertained on a walk in the park or beach, or in between those big animal sightings in the game park. A good pair of binoculars is essential as well as an updated bird identification book. So go on and get out there, enjoy your birding adventures!


Safe and happy birding

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Hluhluwe Game Reserve


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