Peter Steyn

Reflections on a birding life

Peter Steyn

Peter Steyn turned 80 in 2016 and for 66 of these years he has been a member of the Cape Bird Club. He was made Honorary Life President in 1998, in 2011 he was awarded the Gill Memorial Medal ( BirdLife SA’s highest recognition for advancing the knowledge of birds), and in 2012 the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Steven Piper Lifetime Achievement Award for his raptor conservation and research.

Peter’s interest in natural history began with butterflies and snakes while still at prep school in Cape Town, but he soon switched to birds. Birds of prey, in particular, enthralled him. He describes climbing Skeleton Gorge with his brother one misty day, ‘and suddenly the clouds cleared momentarily, and in that gap flew a Black Eagle – a Verreaux’s Eagle – and it just rocked from side to side for a moment, and I was hooked.’

His study of birds started with collecting their eggs, as was the practice in ornithology then, and he honed his observation skills of bird behaviour in finding their nests. He recounts the ‘heart stopping moment’ when, at the age of 12: ‘I found a Southern Boubou in Kirstebosch, and the nest was so thin I could see this translucent, fresh blue egg through it’. He has been passionate about the breeding biology of birds ever since.

At the age of 13 he took his first bird photograph and his pictures have appeared in magazines and books world-wide. His 350 popular and scientific publications are mostly illustrated with his own photographs, but his camera has always been used as a research tool, not just for pretty pictures; he firmly believes in film photography to train the eye and has decided not to embrace digital photography.

Despite his fascination with the natural world, Peter was thwarted by the mysteries of mathematics to study for a science degree, and he obtained a BA degree in English and History from UCT instead.

As he says: ‘Maybe it was a good thing because I would have done Zoology and Chemistry and Physics and so on, and probably ended up as a lecturer’. Peter is definitely no dry academic but someone who loves both literature and birds, and is partial to quoting poetry to liven things up or to illustrate a point. As Jenny, his wife, asserts: ‘Peter can wake up in the morning and start quoting!’

After university, Peter taught at Falcon College, some 55km outside Bulawayo in the Matabeleland bushveld. Here, with 22 breeding pairs of seven species of eagles within easy reach of the school, his raptor research thrived. Additionally, he had access to 60 pairs of Verreaux’s eagles in the nearby Matobo Hills. ‘That was the turning point; there I took off, literally. I grew wings’, and after 10 years of teaching, and enthusing his pupils, he moved on to follow a career in ornithology. As an accomplished climber, Peter spent many an hour scrambling up and down cliff faces, or sitting in trees, to observe and photograph raptors on their nests. His first book Eagle Days (1973), was the culmination of 20 years of observation and photography of African eagles.

Peter is a self-taught scientist, learning from nature in the field, but also from other scientists and naturalists, many of whom have been his mentors and friends. As a field researcher, his motto is ‘Observe and Deduce’, which he urges anyone to do who is interested in birds. Peter’s tip for newbie birders is to find someone enthusiastic and knowledgeable about birds, who can explain how to identify a bird in a fun, practical way and who enjoys telling interesting facts about what makes that particular bird – much like himself!

The teacher in Peter is apparent in the way he delights in sharing his knowledge with others; he is always a fount of interesting information and amusing anecdotes. His role for many years has been official ‘praise-singer’, thanking speakers at CBC member meetings, and these off-the-cuff speeches never fail to entertain.

Birding has taken Peter into Africa and abroad, to the islands of Mauritius, Seychelles and Madagascar; to the sub-Antarctic islands of Marion, Tristan da Cunha and Gough aboard the research ship S.A. Agulhas; and from the Arctic to the Antarctic as a lecturer aboard cruise ships, including to breeding Emperor Penguins in 1997/1998, an unrivalled experience. Now that his trips as a professional freelance bird guide to Botswana, Namibia, Botswana and Malawi are over, He admits that he doesn’t travel much anymore and that he finds ‘local is lekker’ – whether it is a laughing dove he is observing in his garden or the owls at Kirstenbosch – but if he could, he would like to go to Canada to see a Great grey owl hunting in snow, or to Spitsbergen to see its vast colonies of seabirds.

Thank you, Peter, for a lifetime devoted to the study of all things birds, for your delight in sharing your knowledge with aspirant and seasoned birders, and for your outstanding contribution to ornithological science.

Peter Steyn’s published books are: Eagle Days (1973); A Guide to the Common Birds of Wankie (later Hwange) National Park (1974), which remained in print for 25 years; his major work, Birds of Prey of Southern Africa (1982), which ran to three impressions and still remains the definitive reference work on these raptors; A Delight of Owls (1984); Hunters of the African Sky (1990); Birds of Southern Africa (1991); his second major – and a lifetime’s – work, Nesting Birds (1996); and Antarctic Impressions – Seasons in the Southern Ocean ( 2007).