Posted on the 4th February 2015

It is not often that I start reading a book and then can not put it down. This happened to me recently when I received a complimentary copy of Vernon Head's first publication 'The SEARCH for the RAREST BIRD in the WORLD'. I accept that I am a bit of a crazy birdwatcher myself, and that Vernon is a dear old friend of mine – being subjective about this book will be a logical accusation. But this book has so much more and is just such an exciting read.

It tells the story of the Nechisar Nightjar, a bird only known from its wing discovered by a team of Cambridge University scientists in 1990. Four serious birders, Ian Sinclair, Vernon Head, Gerry Nicholls and Dennis Weir then decide to return to the Plains of Nechisar in the Great Rift Valley, Ethopia, to find out if the mystery bird really exists.

Many of these 'travellog' type of books tend to only be a chronological overview of events without much substance. Vernon however, shows great ability changing from storytelling to associating with birding, even childhood memories from the past. And he has the audacity of using words such a 'larkless'. Glib, by-the-way comments, make for interesting reading and focuses one's attention throughout. 'Birdwatching is by no means a sport – it is about a new way of seeing, it is thoughtful and philosophical – but it requires practice all the same …....'

The introduction of his partners, Ian, Gerry and Dennis, initially seems irritating as one wants to know what had happened next with the bird. ('Stop the nonsense, tell me about the nightjar'). Soon however, it is realised how refreshing this approach actually is in that the genuine friendship and camaraderie shines through all the time.

Scientific research is continually offset against similar emotive tales from his past and this illustrates his deep caring for the earth and all living things. Throughout the book there is a sense of the excitement of their journey (emotionally) versus the challenges encountered (intellectually), illustrating that the man is both a romantic and a solid scientific thinker. Lovely blend. Here are just a few of my favourite comments:
― 'Seeing a lifer is a special moment, an accomplishment, the end of a particular journey and the beginning of the next, a pause in time to wander and celebrate the diversity and fecundity of life. It is a profound moment, but fleeting.'
― 'Knowing now that the bird does indeed exist – alive – we began to think about telling the birdwatching world. For in birdwatching, ' proof' is a big, complicated word'.
― 'Nature conservation is complicated in Africa, the land of my birth and hopefully my death. Conservation is always complicated, but in Africa it is nuanced with ritual, making it more complex, intrinsic and personal'.

The use of other birding trips as illustration of global conservation issues works exceptionally well. The manner in which appropriate conservation stories are blended into the storyline impresses particularly. Ultimately this makes a huge contribution to the conservation of birds and their habitats. This is what BirdLife South Africa is on about, no wonder that the man is chairman of the organisation. I very much enjoyed the discussion of other critically endangered species from other parts of the world. He achieves a brilliant build-up with all these rare species, to lead one into 'but the rarest of them all'....... Ending off with a wonderful grand finale. 'I had consciously cultivated a triumphant scream to use when calling out 'nightjar', a sound I thought would be appropriate at the first sighting of the rarest bird on the planet'. But, did he use his cultivated scream? Read the book, it comes highly recommended. If the aim of reading this book is only to rejoice life and creation, then do so.

Ultimately, this is not just a book for birdwatchers: it continually challenges where we stand in terms of the planet, conservation, creation. It is thought provoking, but light, serious, but informative. It is indeed for all lovers of nature: 'I also keep mammal, amphibian and reptile lists, as the deep relationship between all species is integral to my birdwatching.' As Einstein wrote on JC Smuts's work on holism: "To me the holistic aspect of the universe is fundamental, and appears to be the key position both for the science and the philosophy of the future."

Available at all good bookstores in South Africa. International readers please email to order copies and receive up-to-date information on availability.

Anton Odendal
29 October 2014

Vernon Head, the author
















ATUL JAIN (posted: 2015-02-03 17:05:35)
Am based out of India. Would like to buy a copy and it looks like it is only available on Amazon in Kindle verson. Any possibility of buying a hardcover?
JENNY RICHARDS (posted: 2014-10-31 10:52:57)
Would love a copy. Is it available in the stores yet? and Where?
Can we buy it directly?
STEPHEN SMUTS (posted: 2014-10-30 16:28:11)
Great review Anton! You are clearly something of a writer yourself. You certainly make a compelling case to get a copy. It sounds as if it will be fascinating, cover to cover.
All the best
NIGEL ANDERSON (posted: 2014-10-30 10:51:17)
Sounds like a fantastic read and a great into by Anton. Where does one get a copy?
CARIN MALAN (posted: 2014-10-30 08:35:17)
Sounds amazing, can't wait to go on the adventure !!!