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  • Lisa Martus

THE BIRDING LEGENDS OF MAGOEBASKLOOF

Surrounded by towering trees, there is a stillness in the forest broken only by melodious birdsong. Above the faint whispering wind through the leaves, the air fills with the warbling, trilling, hooting, whistling and croaking sounds of the early forest risers as they greet the first light of day with a full heart. The excitement is palpable as all around you are the birds you have always wanted to see...

The Black-fronted Bush-Shrike in an open patch of the canopy, a pair of gregarious Cape Parrots are calling from the top of a Yellowwood tree and there is a sudden flash of a White-starred Robin as it flies deeper into the forest. A shadow flits between the trees, spotlit but anonymous while the dull thud of soft wood pecked out in sharp bursts harmonizes with the faint chirr of a Green Twinspot and the low boom of a Samango monkey. A feeling of something that tastes like pure joy bubbles up to the surface of your heart as, further along the trail, a Chorister Robin dips its head towards the stream, a droplet catching the light as it falls from his beak... and then a whirr and a flash of burnt orange flying away.


Apart from these soulful moments, what makes a Woodbush Forest experience truly incredible is the expertise and the passion of the exceptional Bird Guides who spot these elusive 'specials' you have been chasing for years. Even if you are not ticking 'lifers', Limpopo's top Bird Guides, David Letsoalo and Paul Nkhumane make a forest walk more like an adventure of discovery, pointing out butterflies and orchids, looking at mushrooms and forest flowers or following the spoor of a dainty bushbuck which bounds away into the forest when disturbed.


Born in the foothills of the Wolkberg in the Drakensberg mountain range, David Letsoalo initially went to Gauteng to search for greener pastures but he says, ‘life there was too busy and complicated for a country boy like myself and in 1996, I returned to Limpopo. My employer in Magoebaskloof, Karin Boyum would ask me every day what birds I had seen in the daytime around the plot. This got my interest going and by the end of the year, Karin bought me Roberts Birds of Southern Africa as a present. Later, her brother gave me a pair of binoculars to help me in the field. I soon became a familiar face at all the bird-club meetings and nature talks in the area but my big break came when Stevan Evans of the Endangered Wildlife Trust organized sponsorship from SAPPI and SASOL for me to get Bird Guide training at Wakkerstroom.’


David says this was like a dream come true: passionate and knowledgeable people to meet and wonderful birds to see. Equipped with bird identification and tour guiding expertise, David officially started guiding in the Magoebaskloof-Woodbush area in 2002 and has helped countless enthusiastic local and international birders to boost their lifer list. David also takes twitchers to nearby birding hotspots including the Mamabolo and Montane Grassland, Polokwane Game Reserve and the sub-tropical area around Tzaneen and Letsitele Valley as well as taking tours around the country.


For almost two decades, David was the Head Bird Guide and Assistant Manager at Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge, where five different habitats converge and the bird life is varied and abundant. Mentored and inspired by the late Ben de Boer, David has developed an intimate knowledge of the Woodbush Forest and keeps track of several nest sites, including Rufous-breasted Sparrowhawk and has stake-outs for Cape Parrot and Bat Hawk. Some years ago he persuaded Birdlife Polokwane members to help secure a nesting platform for a pair of Bat Hawks; a task which required bows and arrows, mountaineering experts and no fear of heights.


Fortunate to be in an area with many environmentalists, David is involved with various conservation projects. He became a monitor for the Blue Swallow Working Group in 2001 and participated in the Earthwatch International research project monitoring the Blue Swallows in Haenertsburg and surrounds. He was the node co-ordinator of six Eco-Schools and started Bird Clubs in many of the local schools. He is responsible for raptor monitoring in the area and has been involved in numerous Environmental Impact Assessments with an avian conservation component. He has been the Limpopo co-ordinator for the annual Cape Parrot count and was monitoring the Cape Parrots in the Woodbush Forest for the Wild Bird Trust. He has also started the Cape Parrot Education Project in this area to educate and generate enthusiasm amongst the youth.


David has been described as one of the top birding guides in South Africa and was awarded BirdLife South Africa’s Eagle Award in 2007 for being the Top Local Bird Guide in South Africa, the only person to win this title. Together with sound birding expertise, he has sharp eyes and ears essential for the sometimes frustrating forest birding experience. What makes a birding outing with David magical, however, is his infectious enthusiasm: he is interested in everything the group is seeing, be it a huge tree, a mushroom or a butterfly as well as having a knack for finding the elusive Black-fronted Bush-Shrike, Narina Trogon, Yellow-streaked Greenbul, Green Twinspot, Orange Ground Thrush and White-starred Robin.


Working with Dr Derek Englebrecht of the University of Limpopo and the late, great Ornithologist and mentor, Joe Grosel, David has participated in many bird-ringing exercises and was also part of the team which initiated the Capricorn-Letaba Birding Route. David was a member of the BirdLife South Africa Council, representing the Bird Guides countrywide; he has also mentored the Limpopo Guides and assisted in training workshops. David was a Trustee on the board of The Ben de Boer Trust, formed to support and empower the Limpopo bird guides and is a director of the Limpopo Birding Routes. David was recently acknowledged by BirdLife South Africa as the BirdLife South Africa Conservation Hero for 2022.


A living legend in the birding world, David has been the focus of numerous magazine and newspaper articles including Die Beeld, Africa Birds and Birding Magazine, Limpopo Living Magazine, The Star Newspaper, Getaway Magazine, City Press Newspaper, African Birdlife Magazine and Country Life Magazine. He has also been interviewed for radio and television slots including Kaelo, Miracle Stories on SABC 2, 50/50, Supersports, South African Tourism and for BBC3. He and Paul also joined the WildEarth Channel team as special Birdlife South Africa ornithologist guests on board the safaris at Djuma Private Game Reserve, spending two days concentrating on all things feathered during the African Bird Fair 2022! For David, birding is more than a job - it is a joy, a passion and a lifelong obsession which he loves to share with others.


David’s colleague and friend, Paul Nkhumane became interested in birds when his father, a Ranger in a Private Game Reserve in the Waterberg, took him and his siblings around on game drives with him. This started a love of nature and birding specifically. He started off by spotting the small, common birds like the Black-faced Waxbill which he recorded in a book so he could find out more about them. Paul was inspired to go into the field of Nature Conservation but when the late Ben de Boer of the Limpopo Birding Routes interviewed candidates for training as a Bird Guide, Paul was one of the two selected to attend the training workshop in 2008. He worked at Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge for many years, as well as initiating the Birds in Trees Education Project to bring conservation issues to young people in the area.


Since his early beginnings, Paul has become one of the most sought-after guides in the province, not only for his birding knowledge but also his fun and engaging personality. He makes every trip an adventure and his birding hotspots include the indigenous forests of the Magoebaskloof area, Woodbush Forest and surrounds – diverse and spectacular habitats where many specials can be found. Paul doesn’t only look at the colourful forest birds though, he enjoys showing guests mushrooms, Samango monkeys, ferns, bushbuck and butterflies in these beautiful nature spaces.


He feels that birding with an experienced guide can be very productive because the guides know their ‘back-yard’ and work hard to find the special birds. Paul enjoys the challenge of working with different ‘wish lists’ and seeking out those elusive specials. He is a passionate, dynamic young man and it is well worth booking a personalised outing with him if you are in the Magoebaskloof area. He has been interviewed numerous times for articles and on television, improved his knowledge on a BirdLife South Africa Pelagic trip and became a director of the Limpopo Birding Routes in 2020, promoting birding in the province at shows like the Tourism Indaba in Durban and Jo’burg’s Getaway Show.


So whether you are a twitcher or a beginner, experience the magic of a guided bird and nature walk with David or Paul in the Woodbush Forest. They will not only impress you with their unbelievable knowledge and insight but also their sense of humour mixed with true professionalism. Even when you are back home behind your computer, the memory of those days will call to you like the sound of birdsong on the breeze.


If you are planning a trip to Magoebaskloof this autumn, make sure you book one of these incredible guides and make your birding dreams come true. Connect with David Letsoalo on 083 568 4678 or Paul Nkhumane on 084 354 9710. If you are going to the Soutpansberg, book a guided birding outing with Samson Mulaudzi on 083 662 9960. Take a look at www.limpopobirding.com for more information.


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