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Renowned birder and bird artist Geoff Lockwood has another claim to fame – he’s the only twitcher to be bitten by a boomslang while photographing a bird. But he survives to tell Tania Anderson the tale.
“The bite was like a thorn cutting into me. I looked down and saw a boomslang clamped onto my shin and quickly smacked it off, then took the photograph of the owlet,” top twitcher Geoff Lockwood calmly recounts.
He describes how he and his wife Cynthia were packing up their belongings at Talamati Bushveld Camp in Kruger National Park to return to Johannesburg, when he saw an African Barred Owlet chick in a tree.
Never one to miss the opportunity of getting a good photograph, he approached it slowly, keeping his eye on the bird. Lying in the grass, the boomslang attacked, an extraordinary event as they are not usually aggressive.
“I realised I had to stay calm, and immediately checked for puncture marks. Three beads of blood on my shin confirmed the worst. I was in trouble. But the venom is slow-acting and I knew I had a fair amount of time to get help.”
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The long drive back
Geoff also knew that boomslang anti-venom, because of its short shelf life, was unlikely to be available at a local hospital, and decided to travel back to Johannesburg rather than head to a hospital in Nelspruit.
“En route I called my sister Trish in Johannesburg to arrange delivery of the anti-venom to Milpark Hospital, but she first had to convince doctors that it was a boomslang bite. Bites are rare and happen on average only once every five years.”
Eventually, she convinced someone at the clinic to order the anti-venom and it was at the pharmacy by the time Geoff arrived 7½ hours later. “A nurse pricked my forearm with a lancet to check if my blood was clotting. The blood just kept welling from the puncture and I was rushed to the high-care ward for treatment.” Over the next eight days Geoff had to undergo four sessions of kidney dialysis to flush all the toxins. It’s an experience Geoff is lucky to have survived.
The author of Garden Birds of Southern Africa, he is one of the country’s foremost bird guides, as well as a renowned bird artist. Currently he is manager and education officer at the Delta Environmental Centre at Delta Park in Johannesburg, and travels widely, lecturing, training and holding online courses on bird identification, ecology and behaviour. He also leads nature tours into Southern and central Africa.
“I’ve taken groups on the early morning boat trip on the Zambezi River at the Victoria Falls. It really blows their minds to see everything from Half-collared Kingfishers, African Finfoot and Collared Palm Thrushes to Bat Hawk and Eleanora’s Falcon interactions, and amusing hippos. We also visit Etosha in Namibia for some arid-region birds and of course for the game.”
Usually the group is not just hardcore birders. “Once I had a group that was a 50/50 split, half were hardcore birders and the rest were relaxed and interested in other wildlife. They were split accordingly into two vehicles. As luck would have it, the non-birder group saw the bird of the trip that the heavy-duty birders desperately wanted to see. For the rest of the trip the non-birders relentlessly teased the others about it.”
A career in paint
Geoff’s career as a bird artist started on a Grade 6 school trip to the Kruger National Park where, for his trip portfolio, he painted all the birds he’d seen. “One of the most exciting birds I saw was a male African Paradise Flycatcher on a nest at eye level. It just sat there with its beautiful ribbon tail hanging down.
“It was such a surprise, a few weeks later, to find the same flycatchers building a nest close to home at Emmarentia Dam, Johannesburg. I will always remember the Cape White-eyes stealing the nesting materials as soon as the flycatchers had positioned them in their nest.”
At age 19, he met Dr Alan Kemp, ornithologist at the Ditsong Museum in Pretoria, who provided access to the bird collection there, and Geoff started painting birds full-time. He has contributed half the illustrations to the 5th and 6th editions of Robert’s Birds of Southern Africa.
For 30 years he has been involved with local birding clubs. He has trained many local bird guides in Wakkerstroom, Mpumalanga, as part of BirdLife South Africa’s Bird Guide Training Programme. He fondly recalls how the first trainees looked horrified and shell-shocked when confronted with the detailed lessons on both raptors and LBJs (little brown jobs), on the first weekend of the course. “But they coped well and I was happy to see that the guides’ level of confidence and enthusiasm was high when I saw them again three years later.”
From birds to orchids
But Geoff’s involvement with birds is part of his wider interest in the biodiversity of Southern Africa. And he is as fascinated by the ecology of orchids. “My interest in orchids is a spill-over from spending time birding in the exceptionally diverse Mpumalanga montane grasslands, and at my trout farm just east of Bergendalvlei near Belfast. Often, when you get serious about birding, your interest expands to wildflowers, lovely landscapes and snakes. It’s brilliant to not just stay focused on birds.”
He regularly spends weekends walking over Bergendalvlei, still hoping to flush the elusive and critically endangered White-winged Flufftail that should be using the wetland at times. With only an estimated 250 of these birds left in the world, it is quite a challenge to see. The consolation prize is regular sightings of other specials such as spectacular flyovers of Cape Vultures, Black-rumped Buttonquails, Wattled Cranes, Secretarybirds, Half-collared Kingfishers and both Cape clawless and spotted-necked otters on the dam.
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Call it serendipity if you like. Geoff recently found a long-lost orchid Habenaria anguiceps – otherwise known as the snake-head habenaria. “This is because the flowers branching off the main stalk have a little hood and look like a whole nest of snakes going off in all directions,” he explains. “The only reason we found it was because Cynthia and I were on a long walk in search of the Black-rumped Buttonquail.
“As we flushed the bird it started raining, and we took a new track to quickly get back to the farmhouse. I literally almost stepped on this plant in the rain and jumped back yelling look at this!” How do you stand on a bright green boomslang but not on a tiny, hardly visible snake-head orchid?
Geoff frequently coddiwomples through the Mpumalanga grasslands to record localities and take photographs of orchids and butterflies with his botanist friend Frans Krige, who is besotted with orchids, and says, “God put them on this earth so that I can stay sane.” These records are submitted to the database of The Virtual Museum at the Animal Demography Unit, for conservation planning.
Geoff recommends a visit or two to the beautiful Verlorenkloof in the Steenkampsberg, east of Dullstroom. “This is one of the best multi-habitat birding spots in Mpumalanga, with wetlands, towering cliffs, cascading waterfalls and montane grasslands that turn out Short-tailed Pipits, Grass Owls and Broad-tailed Warblers. It has patches of relic mistbelt forests with many special forest birds such as the Blue-mantled Crested Flycatchers, Narina Trogons and nesting Crowned Eagles.
“The green-headed form of the African Paradise Flycatcher can be found there, far from its recorded range in forests along the east coast of South Africa.” Verlorenvallei Nature Reserve just north of Dullstroom is also a great spot for grassland birding.
Geoff’s bird list is at 874 for Southern Africa. “I always love to see a new bird, but can’t chase off on a whim to see all the rarities pitching up in Cape Town this year. I did, however, visit Strandfontein Sewage Works while in Cape Town to twitch the Rufous-tailed Scrub Robin, but that was the day it left and I missed it,” he says with a loud laugh.
Luckily he’s seen three birds at Delta Park this year for the first time, after 40 years of birding there. These were a Caspian Tern being chased by 50 Rosy-ringed Parakeets, as well as a Corn Crake and an African Crake, all probably due to our changing climate. “You never know what you’ll see at the dawn of each day.”
Words Tania Anderson
Photography Geoff Lockwood and Tania Anderson