Of course I would choose to interview a family who took a year off to pursue a passion that is one of my favourites, birding! And what better theme for this week with Global Big Day, a global birding event, ”a celebration of the birds around you” coming up on the weekend on the 8th of May.
Meet this lovely family of four who are travelling South Africa in search of as many bird species as possible throughout 2021. Craig, Christine Widdows and their two kids Wrenna and Finn.
First of all how did it happen that you decided to make 2021 your family’s Birding Big year? What is a Birding Big Year for those who don’t know? The goal of a Birding Big Year is to try and find (seeing and identifying) as many of the 850 species which have historically been located in our Country. It’s pretty much a huge task ahead of us, especially difficult after we reach 600 species, as the species become more and more difficult to find. During 2020 Lockdown, we decided we needed a change and wanted to make the most of 2021 spending as much quality time together as possible whilst the kids are young and out of school. Craig is an Ecologist and Christine is an Occupational Therapist, and we have been birding together since we got married in 2013. Craig is somewhat the main family birder as he has been birding since he was five and has always had a huge passion for birds!
As a birding mom-of-a-toddler, I know how challenging it can be to do serious birding with small kids. How do you make it work and how do you keep them entertained and happy? Birding with little ones can be challenging but it can also be filled with even more joy, fun and excitement! The kids love the outdoors, thankfully, and tend to explore whilst we are busy birding. They love pretend playing with sticks, stones, leaves and anything else they can find! We have watched them in awe as they have played shopkeeper, pirates, and Game Ranger surrounded by bushveld, misty forests and mangroves. I come prepared with lots of snacks and their favourite toy on outings. In the car, they each have busy boxes with a variety of animals, figurines and fidgety toys, I also make sure they have coloring books, crayons and reading books available in their car seat organizer. Whenever we leave for a big trip, we give them one special prezzie to keep them busy during the hours on the road- this usually involves a little lego or a new doodle book. This has been a real winner, especially when leaving home can be hard!
Did you plan most of the year and your destinations ahead or are you winging it as you go along? We started planning for our big year in May last year. We planned our routes and booked some of our accommodations. We aimed at reaching most of the provinces as possible in the first three months to target the migrants before they head off North, and then to travel and target specific species which are more challenging. Doing a proudly South African Birding Big Year means we have the opportunity to travel the country more than once in the year which is really helpful when trying for those more tricky species!
As I type this, the Widdows have already been in all nine provinces of South Africa. They are currently in the Northern Cape. They live in KwaZulu Natal, so they will be doing most of their travelling from there when they return to work on the second half of the year.
What have been your highlights of the year so far? Spending precious time with our kids has been our number one highlight of the year. Being able to watch their relationship grow, to spend time on the floor playing as a family, and sharing in the magical experiences we have had- these are priceless memories all four of us will cherish for the rest of our lives. We will forever be changed by the time we have spent in nature with our children and would recommend it to every family! Other highlights include camping in Kruger for 20 nights from top to bottom of the Park, walking in the Mystical forests of Magoebaskloof, getting to explore Table Mountain with the kids (cliche as it may be), searching for and eventually finding the gorgeous Madagascar Cuckoo on the third attempt, swimming in the sea from the West to the East coast of the country, and an absolutely breathtaking trip to Mkuze Game Reserve twitching the Striped Crake (a very rare and unique sighting and a lifer for both of us!).
Christine and Craig says ”South Africans have been absolutely incredible throughout this trip. The encouragement we have received has been overwhelming. We have been taken in and offered accommodation along the way which has made all the difference for us in our travels. We are really humbled by the kindness of those around us and are so grateful for the support for our little family of four.”
What was on your separate life lists before this year? How many do you aim to see and what is your total as you answer these questions? Craig’s life list was around 550 birds before the start of this year, Christine has shared in many of these ticks but had not yet listed until 2021! We are currently on 586 (total edited as I finalize this interview on the 4th of May 2021) and we aim to reach the magic number of 700 by December 31st!
How do you finance this year? We started saving early 2020, it’s been a long road and we are pretty much putting all we have into this once in a lifetime trip! We moved out of home and basically live on the road or with family if we are home in Durban. Craig works as we go and Christine is on extended leave until mid-July. We will be returning to full time work thereafter and will make the most of long weekends and school holidays to travel and find those remaining species.
Besides seeing loads and loads of birds, what else do you hope to achieve this year? We have always dreamed of travelling the country extensively and this is our opportunity to make the most of it. We are aiming at seeing the places we have always wanted to explore and doing the touristy things that are really important to us if possible along the way. One of these places is the Kgalagadi National Park which we have planned to visit in May; this has been on our bucket list for years! We cannot wait!
You can follow the Widdows at
Facebook: Our Birding Big Year 2021