BirdWatch’s 50th Anniversary

The Zambian Ornithological Society was formed during an inaugural meeting on 13 March 1969 by a group of keen birders and citizen scientists who wanted to promote and study birds in Zambia. Committee members were formally elected, a draft constitution was approved and the Wattled Crane was chosen as the society’s emblem.

Robert Dowsett was the first chairperson and he was a very able and dedicated leader. The membership fees were K3 single, K5 family and K1 student. Of the first members there are some who are sadly no longer with us, some who have moved away but keep in touch including Bob Dowsett and Bob Douthwaite and then there is Phil Berry who lives in Luangwa and is still active in the society.

In June 1969 the first Bulletin was published, a second issue followed later that year. The second issue was decorated with a beautiful design of the ZOS emblem designed by Gabriel Ellison. This design was retrofitted onto the first bulletin and was much later scanned for use in the newsletter. The bulletin was a bi-annual journal that appeared regularly up to the early 1980s. The bulletin published longer articles and short notes on distribution, identification and behaviour of Zambian birds. The very first article was an annotated list of the birds of the Luangwa Valley. There was also an appeal to members to submit nest records of Zambian birds, the start of the first ZOS research programme, the nest record cards.

From the earliest days of the society, interest in birds went beyond studying and observing birds, but also to conservation and education. ZOS became the Zambian chapter of the International Council for Bird Preservation. ZOS worked in close liaison with the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and National Parks on issues such as hunting, import and export of birds and the threat of pesticides. ZOS also wanted to protect birdlife through education and started by financing trips to Lochinvar for secondary school children.

Dylan Aspinwall followed Robert as chairpersonin 1971 and he remained in that position for most of the next 25 years. Where many of the European birders often looked for and studied European migrant birds, Dylan focused his interest more on resident and migrant African birds and through his enthusiasm stimulated many others to do so as well, greatly increasing knowledge on Zambian birds.

Because the bulletin only appeared twice a year and focused mainly on “serious” ornithology, a second publication was started for regular reports on observations, announcements and reports for outings and activities and other “light” news. This was the start of the newsletter, first published in July 1971 and which continues to be published to this day. After the demise of the bulletin, more “serious” notes and articles also found their way into the newsletter and this also continues to the present.

1971 also saw the eagerly-awaited publication of the Birds of Zambia, affectionately known as BOZ. This publication, sponsored by the Wildlife Conservation Society of Zambia, provided valuable information and a source of reference on Zambian birds in a time before good field guides. It also contained some colour plates illustrating various species not present south of the Zambezi and for that reason not included in the Roberts Birds of South Africa.

Species record cards were introduced to more easily keep and submit records.

A team consisting of Bob Dowsett, Dylan Aspinwall, Tim Osbourne and Paddy Bruce-Miller with Margaret Bruce Miller as the driver and refreshments organiser, did a big day in the Choma – Lochinvar area. They clocked 273 species within 24 hours, which at that time was a world record!As a Zambian record it stood for the next 25 years until another big day by Pete Leonard, Bob Stjernstedt, Carl Beel and Paul Van Daele in 1999 reached 302 species within the same general area.

With the much-increased interest in Zambian birds and more and more members able to identify birds in the field (without shooting them), The Zambian Bird Atlas project was launched in May 1976 to get more detailed information on the distribution of Zambian birds. There was no predetermined timeline for the completion of the atlas, which would be determined by achieving a reasonable coverage.

In 1993 ”Owls Want Loving” a children’s reader was printed with the help one of our long time members Nikki Ashley who produced it in conjunction with the Wildlife Conservation Society. This reader has been reprinted 4 times.

1990 saw the publication of a simple field guide aimed at Zambian youth and schools. Common Birds of Zambia – A first identification guide was distributed widely. The first Kaunda edition was followed by a second Chiluba edition in 1993. The publication of this small guide highlighted an important gap for birding in Zambia, there was no existing field guide that covered all birds found in Zambia.

In Malawi, a simple guide was published, covering all birds found in Malawi but not in southern Africa. This inspired some committee members (Tony Mansfield and Gus Bowden) to start work on a similar but more colourful guide for Zambia. Colour plates would be at the centre of the guide, complemented by some one-line annotations. Gabriel Ellison painted a set of plates but composing the text proved a much bigger challenge. The project nearly stalled when Tony Mansfield had to leave Zambia but the committee reassigned the work to Dylan Aspinwall and Carl Beel.

Conservation issues were becoming more important and the committee supported Tim Dodman to conduct research on Black-cheeked Lovebirds. Little was known about these birds at the time, their habits, their population, threats and measures that could be taken to protect them.

A big shock for ZOS was the disappearance of Dylan on November 18th 1995, a mystery that was never solved. The text of the field guide was completed just weeks before. A memorial with a stone statue and a plaque has been erected on a rocky hill in the sanctuary at Lazy J Ranch. The Dylan archive was transferred to the National Museum. Leo O’Keeffe became the new chairperson in 1996 followed by Gus Bowden who took over in 1998.

1998 finally saw the publication of the Field Guide to Zambian Birds not found in Southern Africa.  It was enthusiastically received and made a great tribute to the late Dylan. The maps in the guide were based on the draft atlas distribution maps. Frustration was growing with the atlas, which was an ongoing project for over 20 years, but the data collected by the ZOS members were by and large inaccessible. The committee agreed with Bob Dowsett to print a set of the distribution maps for members who were interested to have these.

1998 also saw the publication of the Zambia Bird Report 1997. The driving force behind the report was Pete Leonard and the aim was to compile bird records for the year in a single place and to have an outlet for larger articles and ornithological notes, a task the Bulletin fulfilled many years ago. The Zambia Bird Report was published 3 times but suffered from the departure from Zambia of Pete.

Paddy Fleming took over the helm in 2001 and he moved ZOS from being a birdwatching organisation run by volunteers to a functioning NGO under the umbrella of BirdLife International. The Zambian Ornithological Society started to work with an office and employees. This made the organisation a more respected partner on issues of conservation in Zambia.

He brought in the Norwegian Ornithological Society who initially funded Pete Leonard’s IBA Book, published in 2005  NOF then went on to fund the first big project which was setting up Site Support Groups in the Important Bird Areas and working with the schools to educate the next generation in conservation.

John Fynn took over the chair in 2006 when we lost Paddy. He was followed by Lizanne Roxburg in 2007, and Guida Bell-Cross took over in 2010.

Fil Hide produced Birds on Luangwa in 2008, beautifully illustrated with line drawings by Pete Leonard – this is a simple guide as to where you may see the different species in the Luangwa valley. 

In 2012 Mwape Sichilongo became Chair and on the 15th May that year the Zambian Ornithological Society officially changed the name to BirdWatch Zambia. Imakando Sinyama took over the Chair in 2018 and it was in September of this year that BirdWatch became a full partner of BirdLife International.

Over all of the years ZOS/BirdWatch has produced a monthly newsletter and even managed to keep it going through the lean times. Many interesting articles have been written and hard copies of them all are archived at the office and soft copies have been saved by one of our past members Annette Willman. These are available to members.

Currently in the making is an updated IBA book which will be called “Around Zambia in 40 KBAs (Key Biodiversity Areas) and it is hoped that this book will be completed in 2020. It is being put together by Frank Willems and Leslie Reynolds.

Frank Willems is currently Keeper of Birds in Zambia and he has updated the birdlist this year. We now have 783 birds recorded in Zambia.