I haven’t always cared for birds to be honest. Birds were just feathered creatures that fly and make for a tasty meal. It is unimaginable to me now how I managed to go on so oblivious to how amazing the world of birds it for that long. At present, let’s just say my personal introductions on the social scene are awkward as birds and being an ornithologist and raptor biologist are the first things that come to mind before everything. I then have to explain what in God’s name that is to people that usually do not understand why I do it. I hope this blog explains why I am Big Birdie for the Big Birds (and small ones too) and it shows people everywhere how worthwhile it is to not just listen to their songs and wipe their poop from our heads but also study them and be fascinated by them.
I’ve always loved and treasured nature for it was in the wild places that I always found tranquility and a recharge. I believe that I am a steward of the earth as a human being and as such I am responsible for everything else that I am seemingly a higher form of life over. This is why when I scrabbled with many other prospective students for a university application after my high school, it was a no-brainer what I was going to do, and there was no preferred second choice. Either they took me as I was and made me who I wanted to be or nothing at all. When I got my acceptance letter into the Forest Resources and Wildlife Management department, it was the happiest morning of my life, an affirmation that even childhood passions you can’t define in an “when I grow up” essay were important contributions in the world today. My degree course opened my eyes to so much more than I thought there was and mattered. Today, I am an ornithologist, I have decided to finally grab the title as one cannot be sure when they have earned that right.
The first time I held a pair of binoculars in my hands was on a class field trip in my second year, a semester before I could register for the actual ornithology course. To be honest I was hoping to see Painted Wild Dogs (Lycaon pictus) throughout the trip and couldn’t wait for our journey back home when we would stopover at the Painted Dog Conservation. It wasn’t very long before I realized that I was in an Important Bird Area (IBA) during peak migration season (summer) and there was hundreds of birds to see. On that trip, I saw so many wild raptors for the first time in my life and the field guide I carried (as it was my assignment to make a bird list for the class), made them so real, relate-able like buddies I knew personally. On our way back we stopped at Painted Dog Conservation and I had all the answers to the educator’s questions, however birds were now my newly found passion. After that trip I decided that would be a bird person from then on.
I got an internship placement for the whole of my third year at Vulpro NPO a vulture conservation organisation in South Africa. This was by far the toughest year of my career, possibly my life too! I loved birds don’t get me wrong, but Vultures! I was being thrown in the deep end here. I promise you I almost drowned, a few times while cutting open rotting carcasses and doing all my duties. I did think to myself from time to time, ” why didn’t you ever think of teaching Merlyn, you’d be in your practice year now earning money“. My internship not only assured me I was exactly where I was born to be, but also that Vultures and raptors were actually my calling in the world of birds.
A year after I left Vulpro NPO and graduated from university, I was privileged to be accepted into the prestigious International Conservation Science Traineeship at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary. The traineeship on so many levels has made me a better scientist and conservationist. My time at Hawk Mountain opened me up to so many of my passions and abilities in this field that had been lying dormant and I would have never discovered, trained and utilized. For starters, I didn’t know I could spot a bird in the sky miles away when it is still a speck in the sky. Not only can I spot birds far off, but I realized I could also identify at times age and sex them as they flew past in just a few seconds. Hawk Mountain was a phenomenal challenge and is a raptor biologist’s paradise I hold dear. I learnt so much and grew very fast as a conservationist, the experience was invaluable! I have come back home to run my own race in the conservation of ecosystems, wildlife, birds and cultures that have conserved them.
This is a summary of the story of myself in ornithology. With the stories that follow, I intend to share my journey, memories, lessons, knowledge off and plans for the birds that have captured me and kept me curious chasing after their songs from that day I first held a pair of binoculars.