Tracy Burrows from Latest Sightings chats to Kristi Garland, Grasslands Environmental Education Project Manager at BirdLife South Africa, based in Wakkerstroom Mpumalanga, to gain some insight regarding her projects, achievements, favourite birding places and more...
TB: What projects are you currently working on, and what are your responsibilities?
KG: I manage the Grasslands Environmental Education Project (GEEP) which assists and supports teachers and group leaders across the Grassland Biome to incorporate birds and their habitats into mainstream classroom teaching. Currently GEEP is working in the Free State’s goldfield region, with 15 schools on the Avianator Project – taking teachers and learners on a journey, through the world of birds, using specifically designed lessons and activities, made possible with funding from Harmony Gold Ltd. I also assist in the development of BirdLife South Africa’s Bird of the Year resources. This includes the design, implementation and sharing of information sheets, lesson plans and activities.
TB: What is your favourite bird and why?
KG: How do you answer that question? One shouldn’t really have a favourite as each species stands out in their own way, and with over 800 species in South Africa how could you choose? Maybe a few favourite categories would help to narrow it down.
1. Artic Tern - Longest migration route, as recorded in 2010. This bird covers just short of 71 000kms, as it travels from Greenland in the Artic north to the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.
2. Red-Billed Quelea - Most abundant bird, with an estimated adult breeding population of 1,5 billion individuals.
3. The Secretary bird for having one of the longest set of legs but not able to run. Not to mention the sophisticated look of this bird…
4. Sandgrouse - The title of “dad of the year” must go to the male. He will soak himself with water and then head back to the nest so his chicks can drink from his feathers.
5. Black Eagle – the most humbling experience to look straight into this bird’s eye and have it look back at you. I have never felt as connected to this bird as I did, feeling its breathe on my skin. A moment like that is never to be forgotten.
TB: What tip can you share with us regarding spotting these birds?
KG: From a pelagic bird tour and scouring the Atlantic Ocean, to running your eyes across the majestic grasslands of our country – sometimes it’s just being in the right place at the right time and having a lot of patience.
TB: Where is your favourite birding place?
KG: I definitely get to see awesome places on my travels. My favourite however would definitely be Wakkerstroom – my hometown village located at the southern edge of Mpumalanga. Wakkerstroom has long been known as a global birding destination (perhaps not in the winter, when temperatures can drop to -15°C…) and is located in an important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA). The wetland itself is a registered Heritage Site and is home to approximately 65 species of waterbirds. The species diversity of this area is a result of the diverse habitats – wetland, grassland, forest patches and scrub. It is definitely a birder’s paradise, for both the experienced and beginner. The species list covers everything from bitterns, pipits, larks and warblers, to korhaans and cranes, and everything in between.
TB: What achievements can you share with us?
KG: The Avianator Project is definitely one of my greatest achievements – taking one of those 3am ‘aha’ moments and developing it into BirdLife South Africa’s leading avian education project. We are currently in the second phase of this programme and are running training modules for the participating teachers and learners. Watching the change, excitement and achievement on a child’s face when they are able to identify a bird, using the tools you have taught them, is an amazing feeling. That spark is what fuels me to strive to make a change in this world of ours.
TB: What’s it like working for a birding conservation NGO?
KG: A large percentage of time, it doesn’t feel like work. I get to do something that brings me great pleasure and satisfaction – and hopefully makes a difference at a local level for conservation. I also get to be part of childrens' lives where they learn a new skill and are introduced to an ever growing hobby.
TB: Lastly, what drives you?
KH: My dad once told me that you will change jobs at least three times before you are 30 until you find what you really enjoy and want to do. I definitely didn’t live up to that one, having been in this field for the last 16 years, and with BirdLife South Africa for the last seven years. My drive comes from the change I wish to make in my community and my country. From the small recycling programme in Wakkerstroom to the greater impact reached through the Avianator Project and the 18 000 children it reaches. I want to be part of that change and for each person I come into contact with to feel they have the power to make change a reality in their lives and those around them.