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 launches at this year’s Hilton Arts Festival, in the Midlands, but you might want to get yourself a copy before the festival begins.

There are two birding 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). It will be launched on Sunday September 25 at midday, at Rockjumper, a venue at the Hilton Arts Festival, in the Midlands. You might, however, want to purchase your copy beforehand, as there are two very exciting birding events at this year’s festival:
    • The Hilton College Estate Bird Walk takes place on Friday September 23 at 4pm, Saturday September 24 at 6:30am and 4pm and Sunday September 25 at 6:30am, starting from Rockjumper (expect to walk about 3km in the rough; only 10 participants permitted per session); and
    • The Hilton College National Reserve Birding Drive, on Friday September 23 at 3pm, Saturday September 24 at 6:30am and 3pm and Sunday September 25 at 6:30am, also from Rockjumper (expect to walk about 2km – Zeiss binoculars will be available on loan to participants).

In addition, Riley presents a talk on the notoriously difficult to find snow leopard in the wild in the Himalayas, one of his remarkable adventures, is at 10am on Saturday September 24, at Rockjumper.

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