South Africa is home to over 850 recorded bird species making it a haven for birding enthusiasts. These graceful creatures grace our skies from dawn to dusk, whereas others are a little more elusive and mysterious, which makes being a South African birder a challenging yet rewarding endeavour. The Widdows family are a passionate birding family of four who, in 2021, embarked on a remarkable quest. Their unwavering dedication to learning, tracking, and photographing the stunning birds of South Africa led them to embark on an extraordinary adventure—a year-long pursuit to observe 700 of the country’s birding species. Equipped with their camera, binoculars, field guides, and a trusty Suzuki Jimny, they ventured onto the winding road, eager to achieve what no other birder in the land had done before. We caught up with the Widdows family to delve into the exhilarating journey that was their South African Birding Big Year. Prepare to be captivated by their tales, inspired by their commitment, and amazed by the beauty they encountered along the way.

Please tell us a little about yourself.

We are the Widdows, a Durban-based family of four. We are a pretty crazy adventure-driven family who shares a passion for nature, wildlife and birding! Craig (the dad and the man behind the camera) is an ecologist working on all things biodiversity, and Christine (the mom and creative behind our socials) is an Occupational Therapist working in the field of paediatric special needs. We have two beautiful, nature-loving children. Wren (6) is our wildflower who finds her comfort and peace in nature. Finn (4) is our avid explorer and risk-taker who lives for our adventures.

Have you guys always been big lovers of birds, travel and adventure?

Absolutely! Craig started his unique love for birding at the age of five (yes, he was that kid carrying around a large poster of the birds of SA in his tiny backpack). Christine’s love for birding was ignited when we got married almost ten years ago when we lived on a small farm in Northern KZN.

We have always found our true selves in the bush and escaped to the wilder side as often as possible. During 2020, we realised just how essential a nature-based lifestyle was for our little family, and that was the start of a conscious effort to put adventure in the centre of our lives.

Are the kids big on birds as well?

Absolutely, we have been blown away by how much knowledge they have picked up from birding as a family. As parents, we made a conscious decision to give our kids a childhood rooted in nature. Both kiddos have been birding and adventuring with us from a very young age (Wren was sitting in her first bird hide at only a few weeks old). By involving them in our passion, they have also adopted this incredible hobby, and the current availability of birding books and materials for young kids has certainly helped.

Can you tell us a bit about the South African Birding Big Year? What inspired it? What were you hoping to achieve, and did you achieve it?

Wow, well, this question is a novel in itself, but we will do our best to summarise it. It has always been Craig’s dream to do a birding big year, a year dedicated to finding as many bird species as possible within a given area. In 2021, we embarked on a proudly South African Big Year as a family. The inspiration behind the adventure was an intrinsic drive to find our roots in this beautiful country, and what better way than through birding which takes you to some of the wildest of places.

To the best of our knowledge, no one had ever recorded 700 birds in SA in a year, so we threw what we could into our Suzuki Jimny, together with our 2 and 4-year-olds and made this our impossible target. We gave it our absolute everything, and after 365 days, 45000kms and the incredible support we received from our fellow South Africans, we celebrated with 702 bird species seen in 2021! We also used our year for fundraising for the incredible community bird guide initiative run by BirdLife South Africa.

How much work went into planning such an adventure?

Many, many hours went into planning this adventure. We actually started planning the trip seven months before it even began. Planning a birding big year is interesting because you are planning your trip around the birds and where they will be, some of which call very remote areas in SA their home. For instance, the overlooked Barlow’s Lark is only found in remote areas north of Port Nolloth on the west coast, so if you want to add this bird to your big year list, guess what? You are going to Port Nolloth. This is further complicated by migrants who depart to breeding grounds outside the country and the ever-tantalising rarity that pitches up a few hundred kilometres from your current location. Despite the planning, we are definitely ‘YES’ people and would often find ourselves completely off course, following unexpected invites and advice on a ‘must-see pass’. Simply living the travel life to its fullest.

What are some of your favourite memories from your days on the road?

Flip, we had some epic times, too many to count. Some of our favourite memories include a few epic twitches, like the time we took an 1185km detour from the Kgalagadi on the Namibian border to the coastline of Port Elizabeth to connect with a Lesser Noddy (a rare bird, yes, but still just a bird). We have camped the length of Kruger over a month, raced down the sand dunes of Witsand in the Northern Cape, had drinks on the Limpopo River whilst being serenaded by Hyaena in the adjacent Tuli block, paddled up rivers, followed trawlers close to the continental shelf as Albatross soared past, scanned the highest mountains of the Drakensberg and called a tent our home for three months at a time. We also had the privilege of being invited to some of South Africa’s top lodges and enjoyed home-cooked meals from the extensive community of South African birders cheering us on.

In your opinion, what makes a great birding photograph?

This is a very personal question, and we are sure almost everyone will have a different take on this question, but for us, a photograph that can transport the viewer to that particular moment, to the sounds, smells and emotions around it, is true magic. It is capturing moments that go beyond the gear you have or the power of your camera. It’s finding a way to replicate the intimacy of your moment with the subject, with others.

In your opinion, what are some common mistakes birding photographers make?

Most people fall into the ‘zoom’ trap where we try to fill the frame or get those super close-up shots. While there are benefits to this, we have found that space and capturing the bird in its habitat can produce an authentic and captivating look. Another common mistake, which we are all guilty of from time to time, is a lack of patience and rushing your photographs. It’s through patience and waiting that we are able to observe natural and unique behaviours that make for stunning images.


What camera do you shoot with?

We shoot with the mirrorless Canon EOS R.

What are some of your favourite lenses to shoot with?

We currently use two trusty lenses, which join us on all our adventures. The nifty-fifty Canon 50mm 1.8 helps us achieve beautiful family and lifestyle shots as we travel, whilst the Sigma 150 – 600mm contemporary lens lets us get up close to our birding subjects. We absolutely love the durability and affordability of both of these versatile lenses.


When is your next big adventure?

As birdwatchers, the fate or location of our next adventure is often out of our hands. The arrival of South Africa’s first Red-tailed Shrike recently saw us packing our Jimny within minutes of a defining family meeting and hitting the road on a spontaneous family adventure. Having said that, Botswana is definitely calling us!

What advice would you give aspiring birding photographers?

For us, truly knowing and understanding your subject is key, particularly when photographing birds. You can have all the gear in the world, but if you don’t have a proper grasp on your subject’s behaviour, you will be chasing your tail. Understanding your basic yoga poses is always helpful when trying to achieve those eye-level shots. Another key tip which Christine often employs is to just be patient and enjoy your surroundings. It is so often in these moments that the true magic happens.


What advice would you give to birding families who’d like to take on an adventure similar to yours?

Firstly, take your kids with you as soon as you can. Often, we tend to put our kids into boxes of what we think they can and can’t do. We had barely left that maternity ward when we started planning our next trip. Giving them a childhood centred in nature has been an absolute privilege, and we are now seeing the amazing benefits of being rooted in the outdoors. Lastly, if you even slightly feel that there is a journey or road that you need to take, don’t wait; just do it. We were never in any position to travel around our incredible country as extensively as we did, but we knew we had to make it happen. If we had to wait for the perfect car, the perfect amount of savings, the perfect time, to be honest, we would still be waiting. Life is waiting for you out on the open, dusty roads.