Rachel: Please tell me about your childhood and what ignited your love of birds.
Chris: While growing up in Johannesburg, my parents often took me, along with my brother (1 year older than me) and my sister (4 years older than me), to places like the Kruger National Park, the Drakensberg, and Plettenberg Bay, making it tough not to start appreciating the natural world. While my parents did not have a specific interest in birds (but rather in wildlife in general), they did nevertheless have a Roberts Birds of Southern Africa field guide, which I got my hands on and started using to identify barbets, bee-eaters, and other colorful birds that I noticed all around me. Spontaneously, without input from other people, I thus started developing a specific interest in birds. One fine day I decided to count how many birds I had seen and was surprised I had reached 100, which at the time seemed a lot to me. Then and there, I decided that I wanted to see each and every one of the 900-odd species in the southern African field guide. Ian Sinclair’s books, which made birding sound so exciting, helped to ignite my growing passion for birds – Ian is a pioneering legend of African birding.
R: Do you remember some of your earliest bird encounters?
C: Yes, my first pair of Black-collared Barbets duetting at the top of a tree in our garden in Johannesburg. I could not believe their dazzlingly bright-red heads!
R: At what point did you realize that birding would become a career for you?
C: Halfway through high school, actually.
R: Did you do any formal studying after school?
C: BSc (honors) and a PhD – both in ornithology. I did a post-doc on hummingbirds, during which time I realized that academics/research did not allow me to see the world’s birds fast enough.
R: If you could describe yourself in only three words, what would they be?
C: Birds, birds, birds. (Ha ha ha, just a bit of humor, really!)
R: How has birding enriched your life so far?
C: It’s gotten me all over the world. Birding is a good excuse to see the planet. One is forced to try and visit almost every country in the world, and to see every corner of each of these countries, to see as many of the world’s 10,000 birds as possible. One sees many amazing sights, and one meets many wonderful people, in this endeavor to increase one’s bird list.
R: What items/ equipment never leave your side on a birding trip?
C: Binoculars. And my iPhone, which I use to call birds in. And the field guide of whatever country I’m in. I usually also carry my scope.
R: What are your top three birding destinations worldwide?
C: Namibia, Cuba, and Bhutan
R: What is at the top of your birding “bucket list”?
C: White (Fairy) Tern is the next bird I really want to see – perhaps the Seychelles warrant a visit. I usually have a top bird I most want to see – it once was Snowy Owl, then, when I had seen that (in Minnesota), it became Great Grey Owl (which I saw in Idaho), then Resplendent Quetzal (which I caught up with in Costa Rica). Now White Tern is next on my list.
R: Do you have a favorite bird/ bird family?
C: Knysna Turaco is my favorite bird. I like all turacos, though, White-crested and Rwenzori Turacos making it as my second and third favorites. Turacos are spectacularly beautiful, characterful, and sometimes not trivial to see, as they are sometimes slightly elusive.
Then Owls, Falcons, and Harriers are my other favorite groups. But I love all birds and don’t like to specialize too much.
R: Could you describe some of your most rewarding/intimate birding encounters?
C: Probably the duetting Black-collared Barbets that I saw as a child that kind of helped get me hooked onto birding. Cape Starlings in the Kruger National Park also got a lot of my attention as a child. African Pitta in the Zambezi Delta area, along with Green-breasted Pitta in Uganda, and some of the Asian Pittas have also been mega-rewarding. Watching Peregrine Falcon hunting at unbelievable speed has also been a memorable highlight for me. Getting views of Africa’s ultimate skulkers, the flufftails, is also on top on my list – my latest one was Streaky-breasted Flufftail in Harare, Zimbabwe, in March 2015.
R: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to see a bird?
C: In my twitching days a couple of us drove from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth (8 hours) to see a vagrant Eurasian Oystercatcher, then we drove straight home after spending five minutes looking at the bird. Two weeks later I was back (again near Port Elizabeth) to briefly look at a Citrine Wagtail.
R: Do you have a ‘bogey bird’?
C: Yes, Eurasian Bittern.
R: Your life list?
C: I’ll let you know when I’ve seen 10,000 birds, ha ha!
R: Do you have a life ‘motto’?
C: If I am not helping other people less fortunate than myself, and also helping to do my part to slow the extinction of species caused by humans, then what is the point of me being on this planet?
R: What advice would you give to people getting into birding?
C: Do it – birding is the most spectacular of all hobbies! There are so many spectacular birds to get acquainted with, and fellow birders are the most wonderful people.
R: Other hobbies and interests?
C: Snorkeling, skiing, reading books (both fiction and non-fiction), watching movies.
R: Favorite book?
C: Right now it is the new field guide to the Birds of New Guinea.
R: Dreams for the future of Birding Ecotours?
C: The more the company grows, the more it is able to contribute to local communities and sustainable development. The bulk of the tour price that tour participants pay, in fact, goes to paying the accommodation establishments, park guides, etc., right in the (usually rural) areas where the birds are, and this contributes to building an economy based on ecotourism and conservation, rather than on destructive land uses, often in developing countries, which need it the most. And the company donates a minimum of 10% of its profits to conservation and local communities – that also increases as the company grows, of course. I’ll be ecstatic when some of this can be channeled into teaching children (especially from disadvantaged backgrounds) about conservation and birds.
So, with the excitement of adding new destinations to Birding Ecotours’ repertoire and employing new staff to guide and support this growth, also comes more of an opportunity to help the natural environment and people.
One of my greatest sources of fulfillment comes from seeing people achieve their dreams and goals in life, and one of my greatest hopes is that the staff of the company fulfill their dreams by being associated with the company.
Chris, your passion, humility, and enthusiastic mentorship is a continual inspiration to us as part of the Birding Ecotours team. Thank you for all you do.