Born in Johannesburg South Africa, Mike can barely remember a time without being fascinated by birds. Even as a pre-youth, much time was spent squeezed against the pain of the glass car window, fixated, and staring out. This position, held persistently for hours on end, was in search of whatever could be momentarily glimpsed perched on power lines, atop treetops, strutting on fields or in flight while in transit anywhere.
Time spent in the Witwatersrand, and whilst on intrepid family holidays to the eastern mecca of the Kruger National Park, was brief but sufficient to instil a deep wonder and infatuation for all things avian. This has resulted in a lifelong passion for nature and conservation as well as an affinity for others that are met while in the pursuit of similar passions themselves.
Moving to Northern Ireland, as a teenager I immersed myself as a member and then youth leader of the junior RSPB bird and wildlife club. This as well as being involved within the local adult equivalent and eventually becoming the club’s outings secretary by the end of my school career. While at this age, I also spent many hours in service for, or down at, the local Belfast bird reserve, now known as RSPB Wow. Visiting and assisting here throughout high school affirmed, cemented and laid the foundation for a true obsession for both birding and other people.
Under the guidance of a handful of excellent and renowned birders, the zeal for the true beauty and complexity of what birding truly has captivated me for life. From the finest detail of subspecific identification, to the heart-warming memories of common birds in good light, different plumaged, odd circumstances or performing all variety of behaviours, I was completely hooked. The range of what was on offer within the avian world was truly addictive and thus inspired vast proportions of my weekends, holidays, and long temperate summer evenings to be spent out with binoculars and telescope in hand. Excursions solely for the purpose of objectives like building skills, making field notes, and hopefully picking up a scarcity or two formed staple activities of my youth, solidifying my efficacy in the field and love of the hobby itself. One result of this explosion in comprehension is a verdant fascination for identification. A love for classically tricky groups such as gulls, Acrocephalus, or Old-World reed warblers, and Flava wagtails to name a handful, burns strongly to this day. There are few things more academically satisfying than taking time to nerd out, over a deep dive, between two or more tricky taxa.
It was through the mentorship and input of the reserve warden alongside several of its regular patrons that offered my first insight into both the realm of twitching, as well as the concept of travelling in search of new species. It was this inclusion on trips with birding peers that offered an introduction into the higher nature of the hobby such as aspects like taxonomy, photography and giving back to others who are newer to the sport. Mentorship is still something very close to my heart today and I feel passionately about giving back. Offering advice and assistance to others, from all manner of background, who are at the early stages of their appreciation and who are discovering the joy that can be found from birding and nature-based adventures is a fantastic way to continue to build birding up.
Between the last several years of high school and whilst studying, travelling for birding with now lifelong friends became the norm while also allowing me to experience the beauty of what each destination had to offer. Fantastic locales I managed to visit during this time with many of their specials notched up nicely, include several areas of the Western Palearctic such as the Netherlands, Spain, Morocco, Finland, Germany, Norway, Greece and Egypt to name but a few. This was alongside others such as various parts of the United States and even further flung destinations like India, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Thailand. The Indian Subcontinent is a favourite of mine with its fantastic large mammal diversity, reminiscent of the Afrotropical region as well as a vast array of mouth-watering avian highlights, many of which are dream vagrants to Europe. During this stage I also travelled for an extended period within Southern Africa and thus have explored much of the subregion as well as parts of Zambia, Malawi and Uganda to the north.
It was towards the end of this time that I was introduced to guiding from the aspect of lodge-based safaris. This required more of a naturalist approach than only focusing in on birds, allowing me to expand my knowledge base to all aspects of the environment. This has resulted, over time, in a mind-set of respect for nature’s diversity, and a thirst for knowledge when in new environments, with passions for both arthropods and astronomy. Time assisting at a walking safari outfit solidly reaffirmed my love of people and inspired an intrinsic drive to offer those I meet as many splendid memories, and moments, as possible. One beautiful thing about birding, that comes with avitravel and that struck me at that time, is that it takes one truly everywhere, and can be done pretty much anywhere. Flashbacks of all kinds permeate the past from sewage works in Eilat to the vast vistas of Denali, and much in between.
It inspires and mystifies me how birding is truly universal. Times like those stuck in thunderstorms with their pelting rain and electrifying thunder, those spent idyllically amidst tranquil golden afternoons, those of hours spent at night, stalking distant sounds by torchlight, and those of rising in darkness, to be on location by dawn, abound into a myriad of experience that, even today can be rivalled by little else.
Through my twenties, I returned to South Africa permanently and followed the route of safari guiding, before digressing to complete a degree in teaching. Several years spent as a student and young teacher, in a private school in the country's Mpumalanga Province, generated a passion for training and the passing on of knowledge as well as being of service.
Volunteering for organisation's like WESSA, the Honorary Rangers and the local Rotary club, has offered the basis for what has become for a lifelong passion and drive for community development and upliftment. Leaving teaching, to return to guiding, was one of returning to the peace and solitude that days spent in wilderness areas have to offer. This also however, allowed me to hone my fortitude for service in a very different way.
Working my way, through qualification by qualification, I have spent several years in several high-end lodges based in top safari destinations, like the Timbavati and Sabi Sand Game Reserves. The years spent guiding both during drives and on walks has offered a wealth of experience and many fantastic moments with guests.
This absorption of all the bush has had to offer me led, in its own natural way, to a desire to give back, and thus I have also spent time in the training field. Training guides has allowed both the opportunity to have a small, but real impact on the guiding industry itself, as well as the opportunity to continue to learn and grow in my appreciation for the complexity of environments of all kinds.
Being selected as a finalist for the Safari Guide of the Year Competition, in 2021, was a humbling and incredible experience. Placing third was simply a bonus while opening the door to sit on both birding and insect committees and being a recognised walking mentor for the national guiding association, FGASA. I continue with many of these functions to this day, as time permits, and have a particular affinity for walking in the African savannah with all its excitement and depth of experience. This I manage by helping to develop, and mentor guides in the pursuit of their trails guide walking qualification. The art of safe and enjoyable guiding of primitive trails and bushwalks in this environment, and all it has to offer, is another aspect which I enjoy spending time doing, and draw much enjoyment from.
Throughout my guiding career, birding of course remained, and remains, a true constant, with much of my free time naturally being spent in the field. This has resulted in reaching a list of over 800 species for Southern Africa alongside a global list of over 3,800 species so far. In recent years, I have found real satisfaction in once again helping others, this time to increase their lists and get new lifers. The joy and energy that is displayed, and that radiates out, when difficult or lifelong dream birds are achieved takes me back to those early days of exuberance, as a young birder experiencing those moments for myself. Despite having seen these species before, it still brings great happiness when helping others to see them for the first time. The smiles these little feather-covered chordates generate and the sparkling eyes of revilement they provide their observers, after each success, is truly palpable and rewarding.
It is through this long background that I have been fortunate enough to join the Rockjumper tailor-made and guiding team, with its world-class reputation. I am both humbled and excited to bring all that I can to those who I am fortunate enough to meet on our journey in search of memories that last a lifetime.