Adam Riley has led expeditions across the world, but says there’s no place like home.
‘‘South Africa is quite simply one of the most pleasurable birding destinations, offering unrivalled wildlife viewing, world-class infrastructure and unbeatable value for money,” says Adam Riley.
Who is Adam Riley?
The owner of a leading bird-tour company, he is gentle and patient when it comes to sharing his extensive knowledge about birds. “Birding is such a perfect combination of collecting and indulging in nature at the same time. I was fortunate to grow up on a smallholding outside Pietermaritzburg where I grew to love nature while spending hours rambling outdoors.
“Thanks to my collecting gene, I also started accumulating everything I could get my hands onto – stamps, coins, stones, buttons, you name it. At the age of 13, I received a gift from an aunt that changed my life – Roberts Birds of Southern Africa – and I took to birding like a duck to water.
“My first step was to page through the book and compile a list of the birds that occur around Pietermaritzburg, then I went off with my dad’s antiquated binoculars and tried to ‘collect’ each bird by finding and identifying it.”
Despite this growing passion for birding, Adam studied to be a chartered accountant. “My good friend Jonathan Rossouw, who had recently qualified as a medical doctor, approached me during my last year of articles and we decided to put our careers on ice and start a bird-tour company.
The idea was to have some fun birding around the world for a few years and then get back to real life. That was twenty years ago and I still don’t feel I’ve returned to reality.” He smiles happily.
“Our tour company, Rockjumper Worldwide Birding Adventures has offices around the world and we’ve had tons of fun exploring areas to arrange tours, and specialised photographic tours.”
What’s so special about a birding tour in South Africa?
But for all his worldwide birding, Adam enjoys birding most in Southern Africa. “This region has a large number of endemic and near-endemic birds, and on a three-week trip you can see more than 500 species.
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“Specials to look out for are the rockjumpers and the sugarbirds. Both are endemic bird families.” Seeing all three crane species, namely Wattled, Blue, and Grey Crowned, is also very special to Adam every time he encounters them.
“A great birding adventure is an overland trip through Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, starting in Windhoek and ending in Livingstone. You get to bird in beautiful, diverse landscapes along the coast near Windhoek, through the Namib Desert, Etosha National Park, the Caprivi Strip, and along the Okavango to Livingstone.”
Colombia is another of Adam’s favourite birding destinations. “Although a bit smaller than South Africa, it has nearly 2 000 bird species, more than double our birdlist.”
And then there is the exotic Papua New Guinea. “You can see phenomenal Birds-of-Paradise [more than 20 species can be seen with a bird guide], and the most incredible pigeons in the world, from the enormous Crowned Pigeons to the colourful Fruit Doves,” says Adam. “There are more than 20 species of kingfishers, amazing parrots and a lot of birds in their own unique bird families, as well as some of the most bizarre birds on the planet.”
Locally, Adam loves birding along Sani Pass, climbing up to Lesotho and spotting Drakensberg Rockjumpers at the top of the pass. “It’s like being in another world up there.” Another favourite is in the heart of Zululand – Manyoni Private Game Reserve. Manyoni means ‘The Place of Birds’ in isiZulu and the Manyoni Stream winding through the centre of the reserve teems with birdlife.
Adam and his outdoorsy family spend a week every month birding at their lodge Zebra Hills at Manyoni, and looking out for the Big Five and wild dogs, which adds extra spice to their birding encounters.
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“My two boys and daughter, all under five years of age, are at a stage in their lives of really wanting to find, and learn about, bugs, as it’s easy to touch them and see them up close. My eldest is quick to point out a bird he has spotted, yelling out ‘Dad there’s another bird for your list’. What do you expect, if you’ve been going on game drives since you were two weeks old?”
A superb photographer, Adam enjoys the challenge of trying to get the best shots he can of birds and wildlife. “You can always get a better picture – an unusual activity, a bird fluffing its pectoral tufts or something unique. The perfect pose. And this keeps me wanting to go out again and again. It’s very stimulating even if you’ve seen all the birds many times over.
Most memorable birding tour
“One of the most incredible experiences happened on a tour in the mountains of Hemis National Park, Himalayas. I got the first and possibly only photos of the mythical snow leopard making a kill in the wild.” Adam’s eyes light up. “We spotted it curled up on the rocks early one morning and our camp staff brought us breakfast and lunch as we didn’t want to miss a minute of this amazing experience.
“Little did we know that things were about to get even more exciting. It was getting very cold toward dusk, when a herd of blue sheep, the main prey of the leopard, came round a rocky ledge and headed in the direction of the resting cat. It suddenly sat upright, bobbing its head back and forth, getting into hunt mode, and slunk off, disappearing behind some rocks.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening right before my eyes. Suddenly, appearing like a bolt of lightning, the snow leopard came from nowhere and dashed after one of the blue sheep. Just before the predator pounced, the young sheep slipped and kicked sand into the snow leopard’s face, allowing an escape.
“However, the snow leopard was obviously hungry, didn’t give up that easily and took up the chase again. The blue sheep unwisely headed up a too-steep slope, and it was forced to turn around, allowing the snow leopard to catch up, finally ankle-tapping and grabbing the hapless sheep by the throat. The two rolled down the mountain in a deadly embrace until the cat suffocated its prey and dragged it back to its lair. I managed to capture on camera the entire hunt.”
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Protecting the future
Many years ago Adam set up the Rockjumper Conservation Fund to support global bird conservation in multi-faceted ways. “As a member of the birding community I believe it’s essential to contribute to social development and environmental protection, and it has been inspiring to observe the positive benefits of the work we support.
“Organisations that we have actively supported include BirdLife South Africa, Middelpunt Wetland Trust, BirdLife International and the American Birding Association, among many others. We strongly support youth birding initiatives and local bird-guide training projects around the world.”
Two recent projects that Rockjumper is very proud to be associated with are the development of birding apps covering Africa and the Middle East. With these free apps, birding information will become readily available to millions of people througout these regions which can only lead to greater awareness, appreciation and ultimately conservation.
“I am privileged to be able to support such conservation projects to protect the birds that bring me so much joy.”
Words Tania Anderson
Pictures Adam Riley
A journalist by trade, features writer on occasion and now the digital editor of SA Country Life. The first chance she gets, Leigh will tell you about a podcast she was recently listening to and how you simply have to make the move from radio. In a previous life, she once taught English on Jeju which left her with an insatiable craving for kimchi.