Benoni’s latest celebrity, the bar-tailed godwit, arrived unexpectedly to follow Charlize Theron and Princess Charlene in putting the suburb back on the map.
Johannesburg - The folks at Benoni sports pubs just love the city’s birds. Castles and Amstels were raised when Charlize won her Oscar. Glasses of the city’s pride, Campari, were delicately clinked when Charlene became a princess. She was royalty after all.

Now another exceptional bird has chosen my much-mocked East Rand home town as just the place to land and savour the local cuisine for a while. And the passionate pilgrimage from far and wide to just catch a distant glimpse of the city’s new talent is in full swing.

Benoni’s new treasure hasn’t got a name that would look great in lights. It’s called a bar-tailed godwit, and it landed totally out of the blue in this city of mine dumps on October 7.

It’s of the feathered variety, as you might have guessed by now, and really nothing special to look at: a mottled brown, black and grey wading bird, about the size of an elongated chicken, with a long, slightly upturned bill. It lives probably about 11500km away in chilly Siberia.

Then, when the Arctic winter gets really freezing, it flies south to sunny Australasian and African coastlines.

Here’s the punch-line: it flies all those thousands of kilometres - non-stop. Repeat: non-stop. The bird just takes off, flies on and on, almost from Pole to Pole. No other living creature can do that. No other bird can do even half that distance, non-stop.

It’s like a human being walking, day after day, for one entire week at a constant 50km per hour, without a single pit stop or snooze.

Around the start of October, flocks of about 70000 bar-tailed godwits take to the air in the Arctic autumn and just fly south. No food breaks. No stops for water.

No sleep. No pausing. As land birds, they cannot fish or rest on the sea, so for a week or more they just flap wings, somehow switching off half of their brain to conserve energy and losing lots of body weight, until landing.

The distances have been proven by satellite tracking but still dumbfound even the most learned biologists globally.

Around the beginning of October, Benoni’s new star must have taken off with its flock and started a marathon flight, heading for a warmer coastline either in Africa or Australasia. But something went wrong and next thing it landed inland at Benoni’s Korsman Bird Sanctuary.

The word got around and the reserve has never experienced an October like this. Every weekend brings hi-tech telescopes, scary long telephoto lenses, lofty tripods, heavy binoculars and glazed eyes staring at the pan. Tormented twitchers within reach of a “lifetimer” can become obsessed. Unwitting suburban residents, on their morning walks, are being stopped by strange cars, with drivers asking them to direct them to God - or something that sounded like that.

Had Korsman become holy ground overnight? Had Trump pushed that red button? The estate agent preparing for a showhouse day for the Sunday that the godwit groupies descended in earnest, could not stop smiling.

Meanwhile, the celebrated bar-tailed godwit appears a bit overwhelmed by sudden fame and has, following a rather unfriendly welcome from some of the pan’s lapwings, decided to move to the muddy parts towards the middle of the pan and just keeps sticking its head deep into the water, snacking on aquatic creatures. This is not great for photos, the birders mutter.

Just how long the bird will stay top of the bill, so to speak, at Korsman is a matter of debate.

Some local ornithologists think it’s stuffing itself with food before taking off for another non-stop haul to the coast.

Others say that if Korsman seems to be to its liking, it might just stay the whole summer - and even come back every year, perhaps bringing some friends and family along.

Only time will tell how long Benoni will host the enigmatic bar-tailed godwit and Korsman Conservancy continue to be a drawcard for the feathered faithful.

But perhaps the bird is what Benoni needs right now to show some civic conservation care after condemning its historic Bunny Park residents to a zoo menu.

Saturday Star