Arts Festival

All feathered things, great and small

GLOWING, YET UNDERSTATED magic comes of a particular kind of candid, descriptive writing that doesn’t stoop to sensationalism or bald self-promotion. You can find this in George Orwell’s domestic diaries, but you can also find it in Adam Riley’s Birds of South Africa. This current publication offers an enticing taste of beauty that makes it difficult to draw your head out of, regardless of whether you are a well-established birder. It launched at last year’s Hilton Arts Festival, in the Midlands, but given that Riley and his talks, walks and bird drives are something of a festival institution, this book is a bit of a festival must have.

There are four rockjumper events scheduled during the festival. Tucked into the festival programme in such a way that it won’t impede on your theatre-watching schedule, these could be once-in-a-lifetime experiences to imbibe the verdant area of the Midlands, and its feathered inhabitants, from a true expert. Or they could set you on a lifetime of seeing the world with different eyes.

Riley’s lovely book is easy on the hand and eye. It contains all the tools and pointers you need to get the best out of those feathered creatures that grace our country – more than 867 species, that is. The directness of this book and its clear structure, not to forget its astonishingly fine photographs taken by the author, enable you, whether you are a seasoned birder or a novice to keep your eyes on the world and not buried in niceties of language or the ego of the writer.

This supremely portable book, offers a level of understanding each bird type, in its vocal habits or other levels of idiosyncrasy, that broaden each little portrait into a succinct essay, which is richly informed and replete with love for each type. Even cherry-picking from this book at random is a delight: There’s the unabashedly ugly Marabou Stork with its pendulous air sac and tendency to defecate on its own legs, while it congregates around carcasses; the Acacia Pied Barbet offers a phe-phe-phe at the world he surveys; and the wheatears and the ostriches each are enabled to strut their stuff with their own sense of self. The male and female of each species, as well as the juvenile or breeding versions of these miraculous creatures, are described and illustrated where feasible.

The curious thing about the layout of this book is that the photographs are small but not diminished. Clearly shot in high res, their mostly stamp-sized presences complementing the pages of this book suffice, like the lines and torsions of a haiku do. You can see every detail without needing them to explode into a flamboyant coffee table book format. You can celebrate the Mousebird’s upstanding crown as much as you can sit in awe of the Pied Kingfisher’s stark black and white attire, the intensity of Starling colour or the outstanding geometry of the Grey Crowned Crane with his audaciously red wattle and crest like a halo of light. This clever layout device is all the more enticing to get you out there looking at the birds in real life and not through the lens or directory of someone else.

  • Birds of South Africa by Adam Riley is published by Jonathan Ball, Johannesburg, Cape Town and London (2022). The Rockjumper events at this year’s festival:
    • A three-hour birding drive on Saturday 12 August at 7am and 3pm and on Sunday 13 August at 7am;
    • A two-hour birding walk on Saturday 12 August at 7am;
    • Riley presents two talks in Lecture Theatre B: ‘Spectacular Birds of the World’, at 12:30pm on Saturday 12 August and ‘In Search of the Snow Leopard’ at 12:30pm on Sunday 13 August. Tickets are available at Webtickets

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