Birding and Ringing
Birding has been my main interest for many years, and my profession, in one form or another, on and off since 1977.
I’m a latent twitcher but prefer to find my own rarities. In the Cape I was accused of never crossing the road to see a rarity, but would like to think that this was because I found them on my side of the road. Good finds were Baird’s Sandpiper (below; first for S Africa, second for Africa – the first was in Namibia in 1863), and White-rumped Sandpiper (third for SA). Some quality records for the Western Cape were Icterine and European Marsh Warblers (both firsts), Slender-billed Honeyguide (second), and odd and sods like Flesh-footed Shearwater, American Purple Gallinule, American Golden Plover, Pectoral Sandpiper, Red-backed Shrike, and Grey Wagtail.
I particularly enjoy “patch watching”, where a new or locally scarce species can give as much pleasure as a national rarity. My favourite patch was the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve and I added many species to its list over the years, the last being Black-chested Snake-Eagle. I have published a detailed account of the birds of the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve in the electronic journal 'Ornithological Observations'. This can be downloaded as a free PDF from here.
I was also a very keen seawatcher at the Cape, where the Cape Peninsula in general and, in particular, the Cape of Good Hope at its tip (below) are arguably the best places in the world for seeing seabirds from the shore. We had the luxury of being able to see amazing seabirds from our front window when we lived at Glencairn on the False Bay coast. The likes of Soft-plumaged Petrel, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, Subantarctic Skua and Sabine’s Gull were virtually garden birds, and there were some spectacular movements including tens of thousands of Cory’s and Sooty Shearwaters and hundreds of Great Shearwaters in a few hours, and up to 3,000 Arctic Skuas in an afternoon, accompanied by scores of Pomarines and Long-tailed (of which land-based sightings are extremely rare). Manx Shearwater, another SA rarity, was found to be pretty regular in autumn, and I had a few Balearics or Balearic-like shearwaters over the years. Our “garden” list also included Subantarctic Fur Seal and nine species of cetacean including Southern Right Whale (whose breaching and spouting were so noisy they kept us awake at night), Humpback Whale, Orca, Bryde's Whale, and Long-finned Pilot Whale. I don’t seawatch in Scotland because it’s too cold and boring. Also, I live 40 miles from the sea.
I don’t have personal “patch” in Scotland just now, but for eight years kept a list on the farm where we lived in East Lothian. My garden list (seen or heard in or from the garden) there included European Bee-eater, Icterine and Wood Warblers, Black Redstart, Hawfinch, and Scotland’s first Iberian Chiffchaff. Elsewhere, I found Scotland’s second Pallid Swift and, many years ago when it was still a rarity, the fourth Baird’s Sandpiper, plus the only mainland Aquatic Warbler (at St Abb’s Head in 1977).
I’m a keen bird ringer (bander). I’ve ringed about 30,000 birds, mainly passerines (songbirds) but also including a fair number of seabirds. I’ve ringed the world’s largest flying bird (Wandering Albatross), the world’s smallest flightless one (Inaccessible Rail), and one of the rarest - Seychelles Magpie-robin. There were only 72 of them in existence when we were working with BirdLife International on Fregate and Cousin Islands in Seychelles.
Much of my ringing was done at the Cape where there were fantastic opportunities to catch rarely-ringed species and to make new discoveries. Our favourite species were nectarivores (nectar-feeders) such as Cape Sugarbirds and sunbirds that gather in large numbers at stands of nectar-rich flowers. We caught over a thousand Cape Sugarbirds at Helderberg Nature Reserve, Somerset West, and the same number of Malachite Sunbirds (the bright green one at the head of this page) at the Leonotis patch at Olifantsbos in the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve.
My ringing nowadays is much less intensive than it used to be, but I continue to ring mainly garden birds, such as finches, thrushes and tits.
The South African ringing scheme is run by Safring, part of the Animal Demography Unit (ADU) of the University of Cape Town. Under its director, Les Underhill, the ADU is a fantastically productive and dynamic department. It recently celebrated 20 years of existence since its previous incarnation as the Avian Demography Unit. The UK ringing scheme is run by the British Trust for Ornithology.