Meet Mel Tripp – A Tripple A Birder

Think birds, love birds, save birds, that’s Mel Tripp for you. A creative guru intent on getting people to care more about birds, Mel denies being a top twitcher, despite 800 ticks on his Southern Africa checklist

Words Tania Anderson Sketches Mel Tripp

“I’ll never forget our trip to the Omo Valley in Ethiopia, while the local tribes were warring,” says Mel Tripp. “I was with one of my closest friends, Vernon Head, a well-known architect and author of The Search for the Rarest Bird in the World.” They were accompanied by birders Dawie Chamberlain, Simon Fogarty and Gerry Nicholls, their aim to find endemic birds in south-western Ethiopia.

“This area has many wild and unique tribes, some with extraordinary cultural traditions, like beating women with sticks
as part of a matrimonial ceremony and as a gesture of love.

“We had to go in with a police escort, organised by Solomon our local guide, to get to Lake Rudolf [now known as Lake Turkana] on the Omo River, and on the very first day we were called back because the tribes, I think the Mursi and the Karo, were warring. It was a testing trip because we couldn’t get to the lake to see the birds.”

They ended up wandering around southern Ethiopia, where Dawie and Mel got to grips with uncommon birds like Prince Ruspoli’s Turaco and Little Brown Bustard. “Interestingly, the bustard has shown a population decline due to the secondary effects of armed conflict and civil unrest in its range, mostly from over the border in Somalia,” says Mel. “We also tried for
a little-known francolin from the Mega Mountains called the Mega Francolin, now officially the Black-fronted Francolin, but
were unsuccessful on this one.”

Birding in Southern Ethiopia after the Omo Valley became a ‘no go’ zone.

Mel loves new bird sightings but is not one for chasing after each rarity. “What I really enjoy is making quick sketches and taking notes on birds in the field.” He has several notebooks with illustrations of many of the rare birds he’s seen in the Western Cape, an unusual way of keeping birding records these days, as many other birders do so photographically.

Two years into his retirement from running the AAA School of Advertising in Cape Town, Mel has ample time to pursue birding. He also loves developing and designing marketing material for BirdLife South Africa. “It’s wonderful to be associated with such
a successful conservation organisation. I also work closely with BirdLife SA’s pro bono advertising agency, Utopia, which has a bright, young team that comes up with very creative campaigns.”

Mel is proud of his ideas to promote BirdLife South Africa’s Annual General Meeting. “Vernon and I came up with the idea to call the AGM ‘Flock’ because the term AGM is often associated with ‘boring’. Since it was branded ‘Flock’, along with other activities linked to this event, people now even pay for the privilege to come. The Flock at Sea events raised a record amount of funds for the conservation of seabirds. “But there is still much to do to save our seabirds,” Mel adds.

Mel grew up in London and, like a lot of youth aged 11-12, and a lot of ornithologists and conservationists, had a collection of birds’ eggs. “It was this collection that sparked my interest in birds, but my artistic bent also played a role – I found fascinating the illustrations in a little field guide called The Observer’s Book of Birds,” he says.

“Then, for many years I did no birding at all.” Luckily, six months after arriving in South Africa, birding kicked in again when he started working for a safari company, guiding 16-day trips to the Okavango Swamps, Botswana. “I knew nothing about this field of work and even had to get my driver’s licence first. My passion for birding really started to blossom in 1982 when I moved to Cape Town and started serving on the Cape Bird Club committee.”

Mel regularly leads Cape Bird Club camps and outings, and is becoming deeply involved. He was vice chairman of the club for six years and still assists with marketing campaigns and co-edits their new website. They often visit local places like the Berg River Estuary and the False Bay Ecology Park (which includes Zeekoeivei Nature Reserve and Strandfontein Sewage Works, Cape Town) to watch birds. “A recent bird club adventure to Baobab Hill Bush House near Pafuri produced numerous special birds, including the Three-banded Courser which isn’t easy to find in South Africa,” says Mel.

“Another of our local spots we often go to is the spectacular Langebaan Lagoon in the West Coast National Park, which always throws up an interesting bird or two.” This Ramsar site (a designated wetland site of international importance under the Ramsar Convention) is an IBA (Important Bird and Biodiversity Area) because of its habitats and ecosystems that can support threatened and migratory birds. “There are several hides for bird watching and bird photography. Besides the birds, just the beautiful landscapes and the azure lagoon call you back again and again.”

Offshore of the Cape Peninsular also offers some of the best sea birding in the world, and pelagic cruises from Simon’s Town or Hout Bay to spot seabirds have become world famous. “Anne Gray was an inspiring, knowledgeable and well-networked lady who started the Cape Town pelagic trips for sea birding, known as Anne Gray’s Pelagic Cruises,” explains Mel.

Through them she became affectionately known to birders as Anne Albatross. “She was always very elegantly dressed, even when birding in the bush, and a long-standing member of the Cape Bird Club. Anne passed away on Birding Big Day in November 2014, and we got the sad news while out taking part. We called our team Anne’s Birding Boys in her honour.”

Birding in Okavango.

Mel does much atlassing with Simon Fogarty, a good friend and birder from Cape Town. “An interesting evolution in birding happens when you start atlassing. It gets you to interesting places you would never have gone to, and you can contribute valuable data to the Southern African Bird Atlas Project 2. We’ve been visiting ‘virgin pentads’ [a pentad is an area of five degrees latitude and five degrees longtitude, about 9km², that hasn’t been atlassed before] in the Great Karoo, such as between Leeu-Gamka and Fraserburg, to fill in gaps of data on bird distribution. You get to meet the farmers and raise awareness about birds in the process of getting access for birding. One would never go there otherwise or meet the local people.”

Another of his memorable trips was an adventure to the Galapagos Islands, a World Heritage Site brimming with endemic species, and famous for Charles Darwin’s observations there that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection. “Vernon and I travelled on a 16-man yacht called Frigatta, organised by Tropical Birding.” They wanted to see all the endemic bird species there, particularly all of Darwin’s finches. “We saw all but one – a Mangrove Finch.”

Another species they really wanted to see there, which breeds on Española Island, was the Critically Endangered Waved Albatross. “There was a scheduled visit to this island on our itinerary; access to the island is strictly controlled to minimise human disturbance and impact. However, it was usurped by another yacht with more paying power so we never got to the island.
“This was a big disappointment, but we did manage to see this albatross out at sea, as well as the wonderful marine iguanas, the Galapagos Penguin (a penguin that lives on the equator) and Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise, just before he died of old age at 100 years. And along with him went his entire species.”

Mel recently returned from Uganda, source of the Victoria and White Nile and many Albert Rift Endemics in the Rwenzori Mountains. “What a birding adventure that was, including superb sightings in the Mabamba swamps, of the iconic and near mythical Shoebill.”

But that’s another story.

Six of Mel Tripp’s favourite rare birds

(Pictures Ohad Sherer and Eliraz Dvir)

1. The Common Redshank (Rooipootruiter) is somewhat misnamed as it is not common in South Africa. It’s a Palaearctic migrant wader, really quite distinctive with its bright red legs and red base to the bill, and in flight the broad, white trailing edge to the wings. Best place to look out for it is at Geelbek hide in the West Coast National Park, a great place for all waders.

2. The Hybrid Grey/Black-Headed Heron (Swartkopreier) is perplexing at first, showing plumage features of both species, it was odd. We even tried to turn it into a rare vagrant Cocoi Heron from South America, but expert opinion finally confirmed a hybrid. Hybrids between heron species are considered extremely rare.

3. The Caspian Plover (Asiatiese strandkiewiet) is a Palaearctic migrant, seen 6 December 1998 from the Geelbek salt marsh hide, Langebaan Lagoon. Very much a rarity in the Western Cape. There were ten birds in a small flock, with greyish breast bands showing non-breeding plumage. This is a male in breeding plumage. It breeds in western Asia in the area of the Caspian Sea and, after breeding, it migrates to eastern and Southern Africa, going as far as the Zambezi River.

4. A very rare vagrant wader in South Africa, the Dunlin (Bontstrandloper) boasts possibly no more than 15 confirmed sightings. The majority of the sightings are from the Western Cape and the West Coast National Park. The large black belly patch makes it easy to separate from a Curlew Sandpiper but, when it is in non-breeding plumage it is more difficult to tell them apart.

5. I was on my own when I first sighted the White-Rumped Sandpiper (Witrugstrandloper) at Geelbek, Langebaan Lagoon. I sensed this was something different compared to the other small grey/brown waders that were there. I made detailed notes and sketches, and called a birding companion. Word went out, next day several birders pitched up. We all sat watching, waiting… finally the bird flew… broad white rump clearly visible, confirming the sighting. Another record of a rare wader in South Africa.

6. If you’re very lucky you might see the Eurasian Blackcap (Swartkroonsanger) in Zaagkuildrift Road, Pienaar’s River, outside Pretoria, a place famous among birders for the many migrant and rare warblers that turn up there in the mature woodland. It has been seen here on only two occasions out of the five sightings in South Africa. Its rich and varied song has led to it being described as the ‘mock nightingale’.

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