The Cape Bird Club

CHAIRMAN’S REPORT  This report is for the period February 2009 until March 2010.

“Bio-mimicry” is the buzz. The new science of copying nature is indeed flourishing. Whale hearts hold clues to making pacemakers and lizard skins are showing how to cut friction in electrical appliances, as companies mimic nature to develop hi-tech goods, says a UN-backed report. (1)

Throughout history, nature has been the blueprint for human invention and the seed of life-saving design. We only have to look up to the sky and see how human flight has been inspired by the wings of birds. The feather has made our world a global village and changed the way we move among each other on this planet. The feather has changed the way we see the height of mountains and the distances across countries and oceans has shrunk. Our world has become small and accordingly, more familiar.

The albumen content of the avian egg protects chicks by being elastic and incompressible and as a result, biomimetic applications are now being produced in shock-absorption technology and helmet design. The egg shell itself is also now directly responsible for new breathable packaging on our supermarket shelves and it has inspired new filtration systems and new building materials. The Beijing Olympic Stadium is called the “Bird’s Nest” for good reason and is testament to the profound structural integrity of nest configuration by birds. Some of the great bridge designs of our mega-cities owe their emerging forms to the sculptural structure and detail inherent in bird bones.

We at the Cape Bird Club have a different, but equally significant relationship with birds. We are bird-watchers. We watch birds with our eyes, our emotions, our hearts and our souls. We have made a conscious decision to incorporate birds into our daily lives, not so that we can advance the scientific frontiers of design, not to create taller buildings or faster airplanes or new milk cartons, but rather because these birds are our subtle connection with our wild pasts. Birds are how we make sense of our place in the pristine, they remind us of primordial bliss that once was, and they are our way of celebrating all that is good and beautiful in nature. They are our rainbows, our waterfalls, our sunsets and moon-rises. We see them as a wonderful symbol of evolution and a beacon of environmental triumph. We know them simply as being lovely, exquisite and feral.
Birding in our club is indeed passionate and fun and it encompasses the broad spectrum of activities that allow us pure enjoyment of all things avian. We enjoy bird-ringing; we go to bird lectures and attend bird I.D. courses; we feed common birds in our gardens; we chase rare birds across continents; we draw birds; we photograph birds; we write poems about birds and we record bird-song. We create books and stories about birds, we wear bird-prints on our T-shirts and feathers in our hair and hats and we list, tick and record birds at every opportunity. This is the rich, complex dynamic that makes a bird club flourish and ours flourishes more than most! 

But I want to suggest that while we are going about our birding activities - being a happy, thriving club - we are also helping to save the world. Some of us just don’t know it.

Like the great wings of the Verreaux’s Eagle, we are quietly lifting ourselves upwards. We are learning to fly a new flight, one of hope and one of wondrous importance. We are rising to a great challenge on hot, troubled air. As Sir Norman Meyers says, “we are the unbelievably privileged generation”. (2) We have the singular opportunity to save ourselves and all other creatures from a mass extinction. “This most portentous of all ecological disasters” is looming, says Stephen Jay Gould. (3). No other generation in the history of humanity has had this great honour of rescue. No other species has ever possessed such power.

Like the creative people who invented flight through biomimetic observation, we too can watch birds and change the world once more. Like the hatching of a marvelous egg, pregnant with all its technological mysteries revealed at last, we too can contribute knowledge and advance a valiant cause of discovery. We are at the front-line of the battle and we are the ones who are witnessing, firsthand, the destruction of wilderness. We are the watchers.

In this AGM address I don’t want to talk too much about the achievements of our NGO, BirdLife South Africa, however laudable they indeed are. I don’t want to talk about the troubles with our membership system or the technocratic meanderings embodied in the broad conservation- NGO debate. I don’t want to tell you about our new Marketing Committee, our new ideas for mega-fundraising, our re-branding and repositioning strategies, our plans for festivals and our expansion of membership numbers. They are all very exciting and important, but they are secondary. I want to talk about the birders of the Cape Bird Club, bird-watching and birds. I want to suggest that we are making a difference by watching birds every day and I want to ask you all to continue with a sense of great urgency.

Birds are amongst the most visible of wild creatures. They are an important window into the broader changes in ecosystems. They are our ‘early warning system’. The status and trends of bird populations are therefore powerful indicators of the health of our planet. The significance of these analyses lies in the immensely valuable long-term data-sets on bird populations reported, establishing a convincing evidence-base for action now and into the future (4).

By carefully observing rings on the legs of birds, we contribute cost-effective information to SAFRING (South African Bird Ringing Unit) that is used to estimate survival rates, movement and the timing of life-cycle events such as migration and breeding, all of which tell us about climate change.

By observing bird species during CAR (Coordinated Avifaunal Roadcounts) counts we contribute information on populations that inform us on habitat status and agricultural practices, all of which tell us about climate change.

By observing the seabirds of our Marine IBA’s (Important Bird Areas), we contribute information allowing scientists to interpret trends in human-induced environmental changes in our oceans, an indicator of climate change.

By observing waterbirds during CWAC (Coordinated Waterbird Counts) counts we provide information relevant in telling us about water quality, water availability and pollution threats, all subtle indicators of climate change.

By observing birds, documenting their behaviour and soliciting the information to journals such as Promerops, we contribute to the scientific resources of internationally acclaimed organizations such as the Animal Demography Unit and the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology, a Centre of Excellence in Science and Technology that advises government on environmental practices. By taking part in SABAP2 (South African Bird Atlas Project 2), we are starting to answer critical questions relating to the impact of climate change on bird distribution and the timing of migration. This is a stunning and tangible tool in preparing strategies that could help preserve our world. We at the Cape Bird Club are the “quiet watchers” of our wild landscapes and we are making a difference.

This last year has seen the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, father of modern biology. It is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book On the Origin of Species, where his Theory of Natural Selection explains the evolution of life on Earth. I can’t help but wonder what Darwin would say about us birders. Last weekend, at the Berg River Camp, we sat around our camp-fire arguing about the process of speciation: is a Kelp Gull a Cape Gull; is Damara Canary a sub-species of Black-headed Canary; was it an Elegant or Lesser-crested Tern at the roost that morning? There we were, immersed in a debate about evolution and the dynamic changes inherent in nature. There we were: watching; observing; embracing divergence and marveling at adaptation. This, for me is the essence of birding, whether you keep a day list, a trip list, a life list or no lists at all. We are all out there witnessing a changing world, learning and recording our own survival in the context of dynamic wilderness.

We do all of this together and we do all of this with the help of many special friends.

We thank Peter Nupen for embracing the challenges of SABAP2 and for his leadership as Regional Coordinator. Peter, you have represented the goals of the project with enthusiasm and distinction. We commend all the atlasers out there and we thank Prof. Les Underhill and his team at the ADU for setting a new standard internationally, in this exciting and important area of statistical science.

We thank the members of the Western Cape Birding Forum, now representing seventeen bird clubs (with well over two thousand members), for continuing to work together, addressing environmental issues and regional birding activities. In particular we thank Sylvia Ledgard, our Honorary Secretary and Brian Dennis, our Honorary Treasurer for all their hard work and dedication. Both of them are founder members of the Forum and we appreciate the many years of service. The Forum was successful this year in arranging a fund-raising week of lectures. We hosted our executive director, Mark Anderson, and he delivered a riveting series of talks on the breeding biology of the Lesser Flamingo to our local birding community. We were successful in raising R12 000.00 for flamingo conservation.

The Forum was also responsible for launching the first ever Seabird Festival in Cape Town. We did this in collaboration with the Seabird Division of BirdLife South Africa, its Albatross Task Force and the Dept. of Environmental Affairs. The entire week of activities, including evening lectures, cheese and wine, a national photographic competition, trips to Robben Island, national youth education programmes, a gala dinner and a deep-sea pelagic expedition, were instrumental in creating considerable awareness of seabird conservation among the general public. We were also able to raise R100 000.00 in sponsorship from the SA Plastics Federation, thus allowing us to launch our new Marine IBA Programme. We thank Dr Ross Wanless, his team at BLSA and Mel Tripp, Anne Gray, Frank Hallett and Janet Hallett, for all their assistance in creating this wonderful event. We hope to make it a bi-annual feature on the Cape eco-calendar.

In launching the Marine IBA Programme, we will be working in close collaboration with the Percy FitzPatrick Institute and we would like to take this opportunity to warmly congratulate Prof. Phil Hockey, his staff and students on the 50th Anniversary of “The Fitz.”

The Main Committee of the Bird Club is a place of creativity, enthusiasm, heated debate, laughter and experience. They meet once a month, meticulously planning everything that happens in our birding lives. They then sit on sub-committees and still more sub-committees and they disperse gently among us, making sure all unfolds smoothly and enjoyably. These men and women are my friends, my comrades, my mentors and my fellow birders and without whom our club would simply not exist. We thank Priscilla Beeton, Frank Hallett, Janet Hallett, John Magner, Dave Whitelaw, Julian Hare, Anne Gray, our Honorary Secretary Helen Fenwick and of course our Vice-chairperson , the unique and very special Heather Howell.

I would like to congratulate Heather on the recent success of her inaugural Beginners Birding Course. Heather volunteered to run, plan and execute this course as her own, personal contribution to our membership drive and fund-raising initiative. The course was presented over a number of weekends and in her inimitable style, she quickly signed up over ninety candidates and raised almost R15 000.00 for the club’s coffers. Our membership took a massive surge upwards too. Thank you Heather, you are a teacher extraordinaire.

We must also pause and be thankful for the man who resides at the top, our ornithological doyen, our President Steyn. If there ever was a chance to create a new word, I would propose the verb “to owl”, meaning to govern, wisely, quietly and with gentle intellect and grace. I would describe Peter Steyn as such a man. Thank you for your encouragement and thank you for taking us under your strigine wing.

Promerops is very famous within the South African birding community and we can be very proud of “our” journal. It is such an intimate part of the Club that it almost has a personality and life of its own. Promerops is indeed a paid up member of the Cape Bird Club. We owe all of this to Jo Hobbs and Otto Schmidt. They are without equal as editors and their love of our club is tangible.

I would like to thank Anne Gray for her stewardship of the Bio-diversity Expo at Kirstenbosch, of which she is a founder member and where she flies our flag high and bright. I would also like to thank the Courses Sub-committee, headed by Sylvia Ledgard and her team of Isabella Hayden, Gill Ford and Janet Hallett. A special thank you must also go to Mel Tripp for his graphic design excellence. We are privileged to have a man of his talent behind our marketing campaigns. Every year this group surprises us with new ways of learning about birds and new areas of interest within the world of natural history. To all the behind-the-scenes helpers at these courses, thank you too.

We thank Joan Ackroyd, our Membership Secretary for her unwavering commitment and her meticulous attention to detail. Joan has fought many battles this year on behalf of members, who appear to have had their membership subscriptions evaporate into a Bermuda Triangle-like abyss. Joan you are the Hercule Poirot of birding.

We thank Derek Longrigg. Dick Barnes and Eric Barnes for coordinating our monthly counts and we thank Ann Koeslag, who takes our beginners’ outings to Rondevlei.

We also thank Mike Buckham, our rarities man, and trust that he will ratify this weekends’ new Elegant Tern record! We thank Gavin Lawson our tireless webmaster; Gavin and Anne Greig, our booksellers; Jan Hofmeyr, our slide librarian, Des and Mary Frylink, our shopkeepers and of course Simon and Stella Fogarty, our memorabilia sales team. They all do a thankless job providing those extra services that give our club a special nuance, setting it apart from the rest.

We are a rapacious species. Our 100 000 years on this Earth has not been kind to the environment. Perhaps as watchers of the avian dance, we can learn a little humility, tread a little softer and create birdness out of the chaos.

Thank you.

VERNON HEAD.

(1.) – Argus Newspaper, 29th May 2008
(2.) – Notes from lecture given my Sir Norman Meyers , UCT, 10/02/2010 
(3.) – Comments by Prof. Stephen Jay Gould.
(4.) – Birds & Environmental Change, building an early warning system.
        Dr Guy Midgely & Dr Phoebe Barnard. 

                                                                                                                     

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