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Vernon RL Head’s The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World Launched with Hamilton Wende in Joburg

Book Launch: Search for the Rarest Bird in the World

Book Launch: The Search for the Rarest Bird in the WorldThe Search for the Rarest Bird in the WorldFour years ago the chairperson of BirdLife South Africa, Vernon RL Head, embarked on a search for the rarest bird in the world and on Wednesday, 5 November 2014, he launched his epic tale of discovery and adventure at Love Books in Johannesburg. Head was in conversation with journalist and author of Arabella, the Moon and the Magic Mongongo Nut, Hamilton Wende. Wende said The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World reminds him of the best nature writing: “The prose is so evocative.”

“This wonderful adventure made me want to share this story. Putting it on paper made me think about why I watch birds – it structures my whole life,” Head said. This book is meant for people who don’t watch birds, people “on the edge of watching birds”. Head hopes his story will open up a wonderful world of inquiry for people who want to watch birds, but do not know why or where to begin.

The rarest bird ever first appeared in ornithological literature 20 odd years ago when an unknown wing was found squashed into the mud. It became the first bird to be named without ever having been seen. The place where the wing was found became a map for Head, an “X marks the spot”. “Maps take you on wonderful journeys to places physically and in the mind. Maps also get you lost.”

Head explained the importance of seeing and naming elements of nature: “Knowing the names of things unlocks their stories. That’s what bird watching is about for me.” Conservation is close to his heart and the act of giving something in nature a name allows people to identify and communicate what is it and why it is important to save it. “Part of bird watching is collecting names and having a list of what you’ve seen, how many birds you’ve seen and what your friends have seen.”

Our world is becoming smaller and smaller. When we watch birds we are reminded of the wilderness, Head said. Rare birds are relics from a pristine world, ambassadors of an unspoiled past. “We need these places to feel human.” Head referred to island eco-systems as “mini reflections of our world” that tell the “story of our world in miniature”. He said that the alarming number of bird species that become extinct every day reminds us that “time is running out, we need to walk gently and look”.

Wende described nature’s allure as being one part dangerous, one part exciting, with reference to Into the Wild by John Krakauer. Head said there have always been communities living on the edge of wilderness who serve as a buffer between cities and the pristine. “Taking from nature is not the answer. Learning from nature is the answer.”

“What is it to watch, to really see?” Head described himself as a visual person and explained what exactly happens when you watch birds. First you just look at birds, then you see what they do and eventually all the other things will start to unravel – weather patterns, frogs, and much more. One thing is clear to the author – “connecting with nature enriches your life”.

During the question and answer session the audience was very interested in Head’s journey. Like an Indiana Jones of bird watching Head battled the elements to reach his goal – from conflict over grazing lands to fluctuating water levels, more often than not he relied on his instincts or “winged it”. He could not have done it alone, he said. The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World is also a tale about friendship, an integral part of bird watching. One audience member asked whether Head had encountered a local memory of this bird. “We often ask the locals,” he said. “There was no local understanding of this bird.” So did they find the rarest bird in the world? Well… read the book and find out.

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Annetjie van Wynegaard (@Annetjievw) tweeted from the launch using #livebooks:


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