Kruger National Park | September 2019

LBJ’s, also known to the birding community as “Little Brown Jobs” refer to birds that are extremely difficult to identify. The difficulty birders have in distinguishing them from one another, is due to them being small, brown and generally featureless. There are over two hundred of these species in southern Africa, representing almost a quarter of the birds found in the region.

There are five main groups of LBJ’s, and they can be classified as follows:

  1. Honeyguides and honeybirds
  2. Larks and pipits
  3. Chats, wheatears, scrub robins and flycatchers
  4. Warblers and cisticolas
  5. Seed-eaters: sparrows, petronias, finches, weavers, bishops, widowbirds, queleas, canaries, buntings, indigobirds and cuckoo finches

Identifying LBJ’s in the field requires practice and persistence. In order to narrow down the possibilities, one has to look at which species occur in the area that you are birding, as well as what habitat the bird is currently in. The time of year is also important, as well as how likely it is that the bird is found there. Additionally, the following need to be established: status, size, shape, voice/call, movements and general behaviour. Colours and markings (even though described previously as brownish), can be of assistance if you know what to look for.

In general, the main colours and markings to consider are the following:

  • the colouration of the upperparts and underparts, and the degree to which they contrast;
  • streaking, mottling or barring on the mantle and/or breast;
  • the general face pattern;
  • markings found on the folded wing;
  • tail patterns (paying attention to the outer tail feathers)

Below find some clues that could assist you in distinguishes the five main groups of LBJ’s:

Honeyguides and honeybirds

They prefer fairly dense vegetation, and can be described as arboreal (living in trees). At close range, the arrangement of toes of a perched honeyguide can be seen as: two toes facing forward, and two toes facing backwards. When flying, they often loop in flight, and flash their outer tail feathers, exposing the white colouration.

Larks and pipits

Larks and Pipits are usually found walking or running on the ground, and have thin shaped bills (some seed-eating larks have stouter, conical shaped bills). Both groups have a distinctive dipping or undulating flight, and their movements can be seen as being leisurely. Both groups are difficult to identify, but paying attention to what habitat they are in, as well as their song and behaviour, could assist in distinguishing them from others.
Most larks have some degree of dark spotting on the upper breast area, and have pale underparts that are whitish, creamy or buffy in colour.

Most pipits have dark streaking or blotching on their backs and are streaked on the breast. Their outer tail feathers are usually either white of buff in colour.

Chats, wheatears, scrub-robins and flycatchers
Chats usually hold their heads high and have a very upright stance. They also like to flick their wings when perched. They collect their food on the ground by means of pouncing from a low perch. They are related to robins, and are mostly found in treeless areas.

Wheatears forage by running or hopping on the ground. Most are found in bare, grazed or burnt grassland (open areas). Most species vary regionally and with season, age and sex.

Scrub-robins are always found in areas with available cover. They resemble large warblers to an extent, but have heavier bodies and do much of their gleaning on the ground. Their songs and calls are a useful aid in identification.

Flycatchers require habitat with bushes or trees. They often fly out from an open perch to grab insects in mid-air (also known as hawking). Their bills can be described as being slightly flattened from the top to the bottom, and they have hairy bristles fringing the sides of the bill.

Warblers are found in all types of habitats. They are generally small in size and have dull colouration. Their bills are thin and pointed, and they find their food by gleaning (inspecting bark and foliage for small insects.) They have distinctive calls that can aid in identification.
Cisticolas generally occur in low, dense grassy areas or low vegetation. They do not forage inside tree canopies or dense leafy thickets, but can take refuge at the top of trees of bushes when they are flushed from the ground or when singing. Cisticolas have sexual, age-related, geographical and seasonal variations which aid in their identification.

This major group includes females and non-breeding males and juveniles of weavers, bishops, widows, queleas, whydahs, finches, indigobirds, sparrows, brown canaries, petronias and cuckoo finches. The most distinctive feature of these birds are their short, strong, stout bills. Their body shape is also chunky in appearance. They generally move with purpose and precision, and a number of the above species move in organised flocks.

Remember to use the 5-step guide below:

  1. What group of LBJ’s does the bird belong to?
  2. Where are you?
  3. What habitat is the bird in? (woodland, grassland, marshland, fynbos, Karoo and semi-arid areas, desert, forest, coastal bush or suburbia)
  4. What time of year is it?
  5. What species is it?

Happy birding!

Photos by Brian Rode. Order of photos:

  • White-browed scrub robin
  • Dusky lark
  • Red-faced cisticola