You have had a lifelong involvement with birds, having turned a schoolboy hobby into a career. You’ve stuck with your calling for a long time. For people who don’t know you, can you give us some of the highlights?
The birding bug bit me when I was 13 years old and I can thank many of the older members of the Wits Bird Club all those years ago – Graham Pattern, Royce Reed, Forsyth van Nierop, Des Hewitt, Clive Hunter and others – for fostering my interest and enthusiasm during my schoolboy and immediate post-school years. Highlights? I feel that my whole life has been an ongoing highlight, as opportunities have opened up for me all along the way.
My parents decided that I could never make a living from birds and suggested I might try geology instead. So when I finished school they sent me off to then-Rhodesia to test the waters by working as a field assistant for a geological exploration company and I lived a glorious year in the bush, spent mostly birding. From this experience, I wrote my first ‘papers’ on the avifauna of the West Sinoia district of Zimbabwe (with the late Richard Brooke) and the breeding habits of Retz’s Helmet-shrike.
I then went the geology route and spent seven eventful years in this industry before I realised that friends I’d made through birding, like Alan and Meg Kemp, Carl Vernon and Peter Milstein, made a perfectly good living from birds and that I was missing out. At about this time Nylsvley Nature Reserve came into being and the Savanna Biome Programme was initiated in this reserve. Joining this remarkable project provided me with the opportunity to change lanes and become zoologically qualified.
A year or two later the then Transvaal Directorate of Nature Conservation had a vacancy for an ornithologist for which I made the cut – I was finally launched in a bird career. The 20-something years I spent in this job are the stuff that young biology graduates today can only dream about: living and working in the field, engaged in projects directly related to the conservation of birds and unburdened by red tape, bureaucracy or a sapping administrative load.
You have written or co-authored an impressive number of books, ranging from identification guides and nests and eggs to waterbirds and raptors. In many instances you took the photographs too. It is an amazing body of work and the amount of meticulous observation and record-keeping you have done through the years is astounding. You have a knack of being able to take ‘reference work’ text and popularise it with an almost intimate look at the behaviour of the creature, so that it is very readable and immediately accessible to the general public. It seems that you continue to be fascinated by the natural world?
For most of my life I have kept detailed notes of the observations I’ve made, especially when they relate to nests and nesting behaviour in birds, and these have provided much of the raw material for the various things I’ve written about. I guess it is writing about things from first-hand experience that makes them more readable. The books that I have been involved in have mostly come my way by being invited to participate in them. Perhaps the only one that I initiated and had to sell the idea to publishers was the field guide that my wife Michèle and I did on the dragonflies of South Africa. At the time very few people in the country shared this newfound passion of ours for a small, obscure group of insects and no one, us included, saw that dragonflies and dragon flying would gain the traction they have in this country.
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