Getting to know Dylan Vasapolli

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Dylan, affectionately known as ‘Vas’ by many of his colleagues, has to be one of the most enjoyable people to go birding with! He is known to get excited at even the most ‘common’ of species and his humorous chirps are never far-off. Although he is one of Birding Ecotours’ youngest guides, Dylan shows maturity far beyond his years and also has a remarkably in-depth knowledge of the natural world. Our guest blogger Rachel spent some time getting to know Dylan a bit better…


Rachel: Tell us about your childhood and family?

Dylan: I grew up in one of the outlying suburbs of Johannesburg, near Alberton, with my folks and younger brother. My parents are definitely ‘to blame’ for my initial interest in the outdoors. Family holidays to Kruger National Park were a regular feature, and visiting my grandparents down on the KZN south coast became an annual addition as well. My grandparents were also very supportive of my new-found interest, and Gary Holburn, my grandfather, is someone I hold in very high esteem and who I try to shape my life around.

R: If you could describe yourself in only three words, what would they be?

D: Kind, polite, enthusiastic.

R: What ignited your passion for wildlife and in particular for birds?

D: My interest in birds specifically arose when my folks decided to buy the first edition of Roberts Multimedia Birds of Southern Africa programme for a PC. There was a games function on it, which was rather simple, in displaying eight photos and playing a call. You would then simply have to match the call with one of the photos, and at the end of the round you would get a score on how well you did. Having a younger brother (by two years), things were always very competitive, and by things I mean everything! So this game function on Roberts became an integral part of our daily afternoon ‘activities’. Before we knew it, we had been playing it for a few years and were pretty good. Of course, this reflected in the field. During school, on our bi-annual visit to our grandparents on the KZN coast, we would spend oodles of time at brilliant sites such as Oribi Gorge Nature Reserve, Vernon Crookes Nature Reserve, Umdoni Park, Umtamvuna Nature Reserve, Ingeli Forest and other places. It became a natural reflex to simply blurt out what was calling whilst out in the field, as though we were still playing the game.

R: What formal training have you undertaken?

D: I have completed a course in Tourism Management, and I am in my third and last year of a national diploma in Nature Conservation.

R: Do you remember some of your earliest wildlife and bird encounters?

D: One sighting in particular stands out. It was probably the first time that I realized what a large impact the game on the Roberts Multimedia had had on me. We were in Kruger NP, when I was about nine years old, walking around one of the picnic sites, when I heard something I immediately recognised – a Bearded Woodpecker. I simply blurted out, ‘Bearded Woodpecker!’, and sure as bob it was a Bearded Woodpecker vocalising. Since then, it’s been pretty much a blur!

R: At what point in your life did you realize that birding would become a career for you, whether part time or full time?

D: From early on, when I truly began to enjoy birding, and I realized how important birding was to me, I had always wanted to make a career out of it. I didn’t quite know how to make this happen, and hadn’t ever considered guiding up until my matric year, when I started looking around and saw it was a viable career path. I had initially thought I would go into research and some form of studying birds.

R: How has birding enriched your life so far?

D: People quite regularly ask me this question, and in response to this, birding makes me a far more aware person. I notice so much more around me, and in everyday life, that I know I wouldn’t notice if I had no interest in birds. As some birds can be quite difficult to find, I also get a huge amount of fulfillment and pure enjoyment and elation when finally getting one of those difficult birds.

R: What items/equipment never leave your side on a birding trip?

D: Binoculars are first prize and generally go with me through thick and thin. I try to keep a camera near me as well, but various field guides, spare paper, pens, cellphone and a mass collection of various chargers and inverters are never far behind. A recent new addition is my scope that I try to take with me wherever I head.

R: What are your top three birding destinations?

D: Having been exposed to the joys of international birding, my horizons have started widening a bit. Mozambique – despite the difficulty of travelling around the country, South Africa as a whole is brilliant – I love getting around within its borders, and lastly the Neotropics, specifically Peru – the sheer diversity of species within this region is quite something!

R: What is at the top of your birding “bucket list”?

D: Getting one member of each bird family is definitely up there, as well as seeing all the ‘tubenoses’ (a name referring to the majority of pelagic species), but as I gain more experience birding internationally, I am sure more things will creep into the list.

R: Do you have a favourite bird/bird family?

D: Not really a specific family, but I’m currently mad about true pelagic species, with tubenoses being the ‘standout’.

R: Could you describe some of your most rewarding/intimate birding encounters?

D: In terms of local South African birding, I take great enjoyment in participating in the Atlas project SABAP2, and some of my top birding prized moments have happened as a result of atlassing, from finally breaking through the 150 species barrier for one of my local pentads, through to atlassing out in the farmlands of the Free State, scraping whatever species I could amongst the mielies with good friends. In terms of an actual species sighting, it must have been my first encounter with a pair of Black-rumped Buttonquails. I was birding with my family around Wakkerstroom and went off into a field chasing after calling White-bellied Bustards. I suddenly stopped and had a look around, trying to reassess my current situation, and just as I was about to take a step, I looked down and saw two perfect Black-rumped Buttonquails hunkered right up against the grass tuft I was about to stand on. Just prior to the trip I had seen some awesome photos of the species, showing all its finer features, and just what I had seen in the photos I saw hunkered down against the grass tuft – I couldn’t have asked for better views of this highly desired species!

R: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to see a bird?

D: I’ve had a few pretty long flufftail stakeouts, one working up and down a rocky, damp hill during the middle of the night, but the craziest thing has to be my overnight drive up to Windhoek, Namibia, to twitch a Red-throated Pipit. The bird had been present since around the second week of January;however, I was guiding a private trip right until the end of January and couldn’t get there before the trip ended. I had made plans with a good mate of mine that when my trip ended, and if the Pipit was still being reported, we would go after it. The end of my trip came, and in my car we hopped and drove off. We left my house, south of Johannesburg, at roughly 17h00, and through Botswana in the night, arriving at the border crossing into Namibia shortly before it was due to open at 06h00. We proceeded through the border and headed straight for Avis Dam, Windhoek, where the bird was hanging out, arriving there around 11h00. We worked the area for the next three hours, without luck, and decided to head out for some much needed lunch. Returning back in the late afternoon, we again spent around two hours working the dam’s shore and surrounding areas, and just before the sun was about to dip behind the hills and call it a day one of my routine scans picked up the bird. I rapidly started tapping on my mate’s shoulder telling to ‘look there’! I’d be lying if I told you we weren’t a bit stressed at possibly missing this bird. We were quite knackered and checked into a local B&B for the evening. Up bright and early, we were out of Windhoek before 06h00 and were home just before the clock struck midnight, having completed around 3100km during this short trip. Was it worth the effort? – Totally!

R: Do you have a bogey bird?

D: Swamp Nightjar was definitely my #1 bogey bird until January 2015, when I finally got one. I have a few ‘easy’ species that I still need locally, such as Mountain Pipit and Barlow’s Lark, but in all honesty, I have never been in the right zones/time of the year for them, so they don’t really count as bogeys (just yet!).

R: What is your life list so far?

D: Southern Africa life list         859

World life list                            2995

R: Do you have a life “motto” or message that you would like your life to reflect?

D: As I have learnt by simply birding whenever possible and wherever possible, the more time you spend out in the field, the more you will see. I passed this message onto a few friends, and it has sort of evolved into a motto when we’re out birding:

  • If you bird, you’ll see stuff!

R: What advice would you give to people getting into birding?

D: Birding is one of the most rewarding aspects of my life, and it has brought me much enjoyment. Pursue it, and you too will find great enjoyment. Birding can be done anywhere, and by anyone. Start small, bird your garden, get familiar with your local birds, and start expanding. The drive to bird will kick in, and you will not be able to hold back!

R: Other hobbies and interests?

D: I enjoy photography (naturally, we all know birding and photography go hand in hand) along with hiking, and for a workout a game of squash always goes down well.

R: Dreams for the future of Birding Ecotours?

D: Birding Ecotours has a good future in store! The company now has a good foundation from which to work. With a solid admin team, and a formidable array of competent guides, the company is sure to grow in leaps and bounds as we expand our reach outwards. But becoming the largest international birding tour operator might not be the dream we desire, and regardless of the growth of the company we will strive to maintain a personable relationship with our clients.

R: Dreams/goals for the future?

D: As a broad goal – definitely to bird for the rest of my life. I would also love to travel to all seven continents and see as many aspects as possible of all of them. I would also love to undertake long pelagic cruises, where we would purely document the species seen, and to further my knowledge of the ‘tubenoses’ and their general ecology.

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