Portrait – Vernon Head, Bird Watcher and Architect
Guns, Bats And Biting Insects In The Steamy Darkness
Article by Jay Caboz
It was 6,900 kilometers from home in Cape Town in sweltering, overwhelming, heat of the inky black jungle. Architect and bird watcher, Vernon Head, stood with a spotlight in hand, on a remote jungle mountainside in Ethiopia’s Great Rift Valley looking for something few on earth had seen before.
“It’s a strange place at night… You know that not many people have been there, especially at night. Everything that comes into the spotlight, you are never sure it is something new,” he says.
It wasn’t easy in the darkness; the fluorescent light attracted a host of flying creatures. Bats flew in the air, insects stuck in Head’s teeth and stinging flying ants crawled up his legs. This was the hunt for one of Africa’s most elusive animals. Head and his team, carrying nets, looked over their shoulders as they risked gun-wielding villagers, who resented their intrusion. They scoured every bush. This was the hunt for the world’s rarest bird, the Nechisar Nightjar.
The hunt began with a phone call from England. Over the crackling telephone line, Head, who was in Cape Town, heard the story about a roadside relic in a paper bag; a muddy bird’s wing that was found by Cambridge based scientists on safari in 1990.
“On that expedition, three hundred and fifteen species of birds were seen; sixty one species of mammal and sixty nine species of butterfly y were identified; twenty species of dragonflies and damsel flies; seventeen reptile species were recorded; three frog species were fi led; plants were listed. And the wing of a road-killed bird was packed into a brown paper bag,” says Head.
The wing sent the scientific world aflutter.
“Normally to describe a bird species you need the actual bird, which means you need to have seen it. In this case they just had a wing squashed in the mud next to this smugglers track on a plain of the African rift valley in southern Ethiop It became known as the only bird species ever described to science that no one had ever seen,” he says.
For 20 years, experts have tried in vain to catch a glimpse of the nightjar. The wing sat gathering dust in the drawers of the British Natural History Museum in Tring, England. Ian Sinclair, a bird watcher, was on the phone to Cape Town and wanted Head’s help.
“In the field guides that list the birds of Africa, when you go to the nightjar section and get to the part where is says Nechisar Nightjar, you just see a drawing of a wing. Then you look at the map next to the wing [and] there is a little ‘x’ with a question mark. It’s quite exciting; you want to see it… [Sinclair] said to me ‘why we don’t give this a go?’”
It was an $18,000-voyage of discovery that Head, Sinclair and two other bird enthusiasts wouldn’t pass up. Their first port of call was protection; bird watching is strangely fraught with danger.
“In that part of southern Ethiopia, there are still a number of tribes that are remote and their cultures are remote communities detached from the modern world. They still traditionally fight over grazing land. These fights over grazing land, where in the past they used traditional weapons, they are now using AK-47s. It’s never a good idea if you are a bird watcher and you are driving through a valley and on either side are a bunch of people with AK-47s that have a disagreement with each other. You have to have some security. Preferably people from one of the tribes who understand the nuances,” says Head.
Many bird watchers have laid down their lives spotting birds. A tiger killed David Hunt in the Jim Corbett National Park in India; Phoebe Snetsinger survived being raped in New Guinea before dying in a road accident in Madagascar; and Ted Parker died in an air crash on route to Ecuador.
“[Bird watching] is a big ecotourism industry. It’s massive. Bird watching in America makes more money than golf; it’s a $60-billion business. There still are these weird things out there. Nature is quite resilient in our modern day. There are secrets out there in nature waiting to be unraveled,” says Head.
“When I was six or seven, on my grandfather’s farm, I learned to go bird watching on the wild open plains of Northcliff, before it became a city. It’s strange when you drive through it today and you used to run around here and see Burchell’s coucal and aardvark. There was even rumored to be a Leopard in the Roodepoort hills. That’s only some 40 years ago,” says Head.
A world away, in the heat under the stars in southern Ethiopia, Head’s spotlight falls on a very large thorny bush and catches a pair of a golden copper-red reflection: eyes.
“We knew what to look for. We knew it was going to be a nightjar. I mean we’d seen the wing. The bird we saw, funnily enough, was a male, but the wing itself was from a female. We were able to deduce this because of the white in the wing, it was slightly creamier. Male nightjars generally have bigger white patches. And it had this huge white patch in its wing. It made it unlike it was any other nightjar in Africa. There was no doubt.”
After all the 6,500 kilometers, mean insects and the heat, the men couldn’t catch it. The nightjar flew away into the night. Head and his fellow bird watchers continued to record the sighting, a precious notch in the bird watching community. Just another day in the strange and dangerous world of bird watching.
Photography – Jay Caboz
Location – Rosebank, Johannesburg, South Africa
Publication – Forbes Africa Magazine, February 2015 edition