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The early years

Growing up in Johannesburg, South Africa, I was fortunate to have parents who were interested in the country’s wonderful biodiversity, and we usually visited great wildlife areas on our breaks and holidays. It was on a school visit to the world-renowned Kruger National Park, however, that an encounter with a nesting African Paradise Flycatcher really opened my eyes to the wonder of birds. I was 11 years old…and I was hooked! Birding became an obsession but, at an all-boys high school, this meant that I was something of an outcast.

After leaving school, I joined the local bird club and soon became involved in leading outings and presenting talks. I also trained as a bird-bander, concentrating initially on a ringing study of the local population of Spotted Eagle-Owls. I was painting birds at this stage and was asked to write and illustrate a book on garden birds, and then to contribute illustrations towards the fifth and sixth editions of ‘Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa—a handbook covering the birds of the region. By now I was serving on the bird club’s committee, and also on that of the national organization, the Southern African Ornithological Society (now BirdLife South Africa), and through these contacts I became involved in the development of an environmental education centre in a derelict wastewater treatment plant close to where I had grown up. This proved to be a life-changing decision, and in December 1981 my wife, Cynthia, and I moved in to the converted building. I had been ‘guiding’ small groups of youngsters in the park, but now I was tasked with working with the school groups that began to visit the Delta Environmental Centre—something that continues to give me immense pleasure and satisfaction.

Forty years later, we are still here—in the middle of a 210-acre park with a ‘garden’ bird list of over 250 species. At sunrise each morning, I take my coffee up to the tower and scan ‘my garden’ as part of an ongoing long-term bird study—a wonderful stress-free start to a day.

When we moved in, I had built an owl nest box on the back of the tower (just outside my study window), and I have had the joy of studying successive broods of Spotted Eagle-Owls fledge each year since then. During the COVID lockdowns over the last two years, I had a front row seat for the breeding attempts and began sharing the owls’ day-to-day activities via Facebook with a large group of followers.

Other Interests

Cyn and I enjoy traveling in southern Africa in search of birds and other wildlife, often ‘rough’ camping in remote areas without any facilities. We have also become fascinated by wild orchids, and many of our trips are now planned around the flowering of these charismatic plants.

I am also involved with two ‘Friends’ groups that have been set up to assist reserve managers of important bird reserves, offering courses and leading outings that raise much-needed funds. I also lead an annual birding event in the Kruger National Park that raises funds for conservation projects in that reserve.

An ‘Accidental’ Tour Leader

My first ‘gig’ as a tour leader came about by accident. Unknown to me, Cynthia had tried to book us on a birding tour of Malawi. The tour was already fully-booked, but the organizers were considering a second tour. Could I perhaps lead this? More tours to Malawi, Namibia, and Botswana followed, and I was then approached to lead a group of South African birders to Israel to see the spring migration. I also led several groups from the L.A. and Massachusetts Audubon Societies on trips to Botswana.

I led my first tour for VENT—a tour of South Africa, in 1998, and one of the things I still clearly remember was how many of the group had already traveled extensively with VENT. The list of birding destinations that they had traveled to around the world was mouth-watering, but for me the most significant thing was the obvious loyalty and support for the company. Clearly, they were doing a lot of things right! Two years, and two South African tours later, Victor contacted me. VENT’s Namibia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe tour that year was massively over-subscribed, and they were considering running two tours as a result. Could I lead? I leapt at the chance, and have been leading this tour ever since—although we now end these tours in Zambia.

Sharing the incredibly diverse wildlife, scenery, culture, and history of Southern Africa with the great people who travel with VENT has been an incredible privilege, and I hope to meet some of you on one of my future tours.