Where the Birds Are: Jacques Malherbe, MD

Clinical hematologist and head of the clinical hematology division in the department of internal medicine at Universitas Hospital, University of the Free State, in Bloemfontein, South Africa

When did you become interested in bird-watching? What drew you to it?

I was interested in birds, and nature in general, at an early age. As a child, I loved paging through the Southern African bird field guide, marveling at the incredible variety of birds. I would dream about seeing some of the more exotic, restricted-range birds. However, it wasn’t until many years later, while studying medicine, that I started bird-watching in earnest.

During a vacation in 2000, my then-girlfriend (now-wife) and I visited St. Lucia, a particularly bird-rich coastal nature reserve. The latest publication of a well-known Southern African bird guide caught my eye in the reserve shop, and I decided to buy it. During the rest of the holiday I was consumed with trying to identify as many of the bird species in the area as possible, and so started a passion that gradually grew over the ensuing years.

Although she did not initially share my passion, my wife was also eventually drawn into the hobby – posing a few bumps along the way. I distinctly remember one of our biggest fall-outs was during a subsequent holiday when she got fed-up with having to wake up every day at 5:00 a.m. to go bird-watching.

There are so many different aspects of bird-watching that draw me to it. There’s the thrill of seeing a species for the first time, and ticking it off on your “life list” (a tally of all the species I’ve identified). There’s the exhilaration of getting that first glimpse of a difficult-to-find or particularly beautiful bird. As one’s skills develop, it’s tremendously satisfying to be able to identify a bird by the briefest glimpse or call.

It’s not only chasing after thrills, or seeing new or exotic birds; there is also great joy in just observing well-known birds and marveling at their behavior and beauty. Of course, there are some frustrations, particularly when you’ve searched far and wide for a specific species, and you simply don’t find it. There are a few mythical, elusive “bogey-birds” that we have literally driven thousands of kilometers and spent countless hours searching for – all in vain.

Where do you go birding? Is it something you do alone or with other bird-watchers?

Most of my bird-watching is done alone, or in the company of my wife, but we’ve had many memorable trips with fellow bird-watchers and friends that share the passion.

We look at the map, find where birds occur that we haven’t seen, and plan our holidays around those areas. This has resulted in traveling to many off-the-beaten-path places. There are very few places in South Africa that we haven’t visited. Other countries where we’ve birded include Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Tanzania, Thailand, Japan, and Croatia.

Madagascar is at the top of the list of birding destinations I want to visit, simply because of its incredible number of distinctive bird families.

What are your greatest accomplishments in bird-watching?

For me, bird-watching is a completely personal hobby, so I don’t compete with other birders. I don’t keep any lists apart from my life list; my current Southern African list stands at 758 species (out of 952 total in the region), and internationally I’ve recorded 1,434 species.

There are so many amazing highlights in my birding career, so it’s difficult to single out any specific experiences. I once spotted one of the rarest birds on Earth, Gurney’s Pitta, during our honeymoon in Thailand. It is a spectacularly beautiful and shy bird occurring in lowland forests, and at one time only nine pairs were known to remain in one single forest (until the discovery of around 40 pairs in Myanmar).

Another memory is seeing my first-ever owl. I have a specific interest and love for these wonderful creatures. We were camping in the Mkuzi game reserve in South-Africa’s Kwazulu-Natal province when I heard the call of a Wood Owl. I took my flashlight and went in search of the bird. After following the call in the dark for a while, I saw the owl calling from a branch a few meters away from me. I was so excited that I literally did not sleep for the rest of the night.

Are there any skills that you use in bird-watching that you also use in your career in hematology?

Many bird species look almost identical and can be extremely challenging to identify. Getting it right means integrating many different aspects, such as plumage, posture, behavior, call, and habitat. Similarly, in hematology, one often has to integrate many different clinical and laboratory aspects to arrive at a correct diagnosis. It is about pattern recognition, but also about being able to notice when something doesn’t quite fit the mold.

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