Contributions to Bull NOS and Malimbus SHORTCUTS

Extract from Malimbus Vol. 30, Issue 1, March 2008

Bob Sharland: a tribute on his 90th birthday

 This issue of Malimbus is dedicated to R.E. (Bob) Sharland, a founder member of the Nigerian Ornithologists’ Society in 1964, and a Council member of the N.O.S. and its successor the W.A.O.S. for all 43 years since. Bob has just achieved the venerable age of 90 and it gives us, his many friends in W.A.O.S., much pleasure to congratulate him, to thank him for all that he has done for the Society, and to wish him many more years of enjoyable birding.

      John Elgood and Bob founded our Society half of Bob’s lifetime ago, in February 1964, when ornithologists throughout West Africa were as rare as hens’ teeth. Bob lived in Kano, John the length of Nigeria away in Ibadan, and our journal, then the rather primitive Bulletin of the Nigerian Ornithologists’ Society, was produced in Zaria. From the outset Bob took an active role, furthering our interests in every way possible. He made six contributions to the four issues of the Bulletin in 1964, and he shared his already substantial knowledge of Nigeria’s bird life by keeping an ever-open door at home and jumping at the slightest chance to take like-minded newcomers on birding trips far and wide across the north of the country.

      An accountant by profession, for years with Nigerian Oil Mills, Bob was, and remains, an all-round naturalist. His main interest is birds, in particular mist-netting and ringing them for study purposes, but he has an enviable field-won knowledge also about butterflies, trees and flowers. An avid conservationist, he has given much support too to the Nigerian Field Society and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. N.C.F. Scientific Committee Chairman Phil Hall writes: “When I first arrived in Nigeria in 1972, Bob was always available to provide support and advice as well as a comfortable bed at his house in Kano. In the first few months of my stay, we travelled together to Malamfatori on the NE shore of Lake Chad where we spent a week ringing Palaearctic migrants at the Fisheries Station and I was able to learn an immense amount from his considerable knowledge. He was a very enthusiastic bird ringer and until he departed from Nigeria, he maintained the Nigerian Bird Ringing Report. In 1985, he returned to Nigeria in the company of John Ash to undertake a comprehensive survey of important bird areas throughout the country on behalf of ICBP and the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. The report that they subsequently published laid the foundations for a sound conservation programme in Nigeria and many of the areas that they identified are now fully protected. On behalf of the Scientific Committee of the NCF, we would like to wish Bob a very happy 90th Birthday and would love to welcome him back to Nigeria to enable him to see at first hand everything that has been achieved as a result of his pioneering work.”

      When I left Nigeria in 1967, Bob took over the administration of the Society’s affairs, filling the offices of Secretary and Treasurer until 1978 and remaining as Treasurer and Membership Secretary to this day. Perhaps no-one has contributed more than he has to the Bulletin and Malimbus: some 85 papers, articles, notes and reports altogether (a full list of Bob’s publications in our journal may be found on the W.A.O.S. web site). The very first was his report on bird ringing, a feature that con-tinued annually until his 28th report in 1986. The breadth of his birds-in-the-hand and ringing interests is shown by articles on netting hirundines by flicking (1965), weights of Sedge Warblers and Reed Warblers (1966), recoveries of flava wagtails (1967), recaptures of resident birds (1967) and ringing recoveries between Nigeria and E Europe (1997). Another regular feature over the decades has been his annual Accounts.

      Bob’s greatest passion has been wetland birds. As a member of the International Wildfowl Research Bureau’s Duck Working Group he published a series of papers in the Bulletin on wildfowl censuses. Anything that keeps its toes wet caught his imagination, and the journal has seen articles of his on Finfoots (Finfeet, he calls them), Pygmy Geese, Little Bitterns, Hottentot Teal, Three-banded Plovers, Cormorants, Marbled Ducks, European Moorhens, Black-headed and Grey-headed Gulls. Another strength has been the compilation of annotated regional avifaunal checklists, on the Jos–Bauchi Plateau, Tivland, Mallam’fatori, Yankari Game Reserve (now National Park), Nindam Forest (Kagoro) and of course his own much-loved Kano State (1981, Malimbus 3: 7–30). In his affectionate obituary of N.O.S. co-founder John Elgood in Malimbus 21: 74–75 (1999), Bob recalls that when John stayed with him in 1976 John produced a report on the wetlands between Hadejia and Nguru, for Kano State Department of Agriculture, which led to the area being officially gazetted as a Wetland Reserve. You can bet that Bob undertook a large part of the fieldwork.

      The Marbled Ducks and European Moorhens were new to W Africa, as was Bob’s Olive-tree Warbler netted in Kano. Of land birds, cuckoos have always interested him and back in 1959 it was he who taught me, completely green to African ornithology as I was, how widespread Solitary Cuckoos are on Fernando Po island (now Bioko): they were calling on all sides, though we never did see one there. Many years later he posed for me the riddle of supposing that Black Cuckoos must be in the Zaria district even though at that time none had ever been seen or heard, nor a feather or egg found. Answer: Zaria Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat songs contain Black Cuckoo mimicry. But later we found that both species are rare spring visitors there from the south, so maybe the robin-chat learned to imitate the cuckoo far afield.

      Bob has always been an early bird, a very early one. At the Pan-African Ornithological Conference in Lilongwe, Malawi, I remember getting up early to put in some pre-breakfast birding and being startled to come across the black form of Bob just discernible in rank vegetation, silhouetted against the early dawn light shining from the river surface. He was staring fixedly at something through his binoculars. For a whole minute I scanned the river bank where he was looking but could see nothing. Approaching him, I was mischievously teased with “Look for the eye, there, in the reeds.” but still drew a blank until he pinpointed the huge eye for me and its owner gradually took shape around it: a rare White-backed Night Heron, to this day my one and only encounter.

      Bob’s discovery of that eye was an admirable piece of field craft; he was and doubtless still is an observant naturalist with an excellent eye of his own (and a fine ear too). It is a tribute to his enthusiasm and determination, that in his eighties he regularly travelled with nature tours to every corner of the world in search of birds, plants and insects. May he find plenty more exciting destinations well into his nineties too.

      All of this tells of Bob Sharland the ornithologist, his love of Nigerian bird life and his support for our Society and unfailing promotion of its interests over the decades; but it barely touches upon his personality: Bob Sharland the man. It is by way of his engaging character, generosity of spirit, solicitous hospitality, friendship and always being there for his colleagues, that he has made such a mark upon W.A.O.S.

      Mike Dyer recalls that, arriving in Nigeria to study Red-throated Bee-eaters at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria in the early 1970s, “Bob’s enthusiasm was immediately apparent and in no time at all he had arranged to come back the following weekend on a long detour (a daunting task in those days, travelling between Kano and Zaria) to pick me up and head off into the bush somewhere. That is absolutely characteristic of him. For the next four or five years heading off into the bush with his nets and camping gear at weekends became something of a ritual.

      “It was on visits to Old Birnin Gwari, lion country well to the west of Zaria, that I have my fondest memories of him. Usually we arrived well after sunset. Bob would pull off the road straight onto an overgrown bush track and drive for miles into the middle of nowhere. Suddenly he’d stop at a derelict, half-roofed mud shack, which was to be home for the weekend. Shuffling about before dawn, clanging net-poles and tripping over things before he headed out to set his nets up was routine, and dawn had hardly broken before he would return with some exciting Grey-headed Olive-backs or some such, measure and ring his captures, take a quick breakfast, then back to the field for the day. Another time there he saw some swifts drop out of the sky at dusk and dive into an abandoned village well. Long before dawn he was up and about, draping his mosquito net over the well’s entrance, and again breakfast was heralded by Bob’s reappearance, this time with a great catch of Mottle-throated Spinetails.”

      Arriving in Kano to take up a position at Bayero University in 1977, Roger Wilkinson also greatly benefited from Bob’s kindness: “He was back in Nigeria from his first retirement when my wife and I first met him. Having heard through the grapevine that a fellow bird enthusiast was coming to the university and managing to find out exactly where we were staying, he was kindness personified, inviting us to his house for good companionship, conversation and food. One particularly memorable meal was a stew of Knob-billed Goose bulking out the flesh of Nigeria’s first Marbled Teal, shot from a flock of 50 by a hunter near Nguru. On later occasions Bob would come to our home for dinner but once he and I were very late; we had been trying to net nightjars but succeeded only in bringing home mist-nets full of bats that Bob insisted had to be dealt with before we could start the meal.

      “His life has been dominated, or so it seemed to me, by his out-of-office and even out-of-town activities. A keen and experienced mist-netter and ringer, he took us many times to his ringing sites and favourite birding spots near and far from Kano. As a true naturalist he had boundless energy and enthusiasm for life and for birds, trees and flowers, preferring always to leg it through the bush rather than sit to see what might come by. It is amazing that at 90 Bob retains all of his zest. I have learned much from him, am privileged still to be able to enjoy his company, and wish him many more years of outdoors enjoyment.”

      For Gérard Morel, ex-President of W.A.O.S., the relationship with Bob was a little different: “I lived for many years in Senegal, far from Nigeria, and our contact was only by letters. But on retiring back to France I soon made sure to meet Bob at the annual meetings of W.A.O.S. Council in England and on the continent, where several meetings were held between 1990 and 2000 in Normandy and the Netherlands, where Bob did not hesitate to join the other participants and demonstrate once again his passion for birds.

      “But I should like to highlight his essential role in the Society, in carrying out many uninviting and often obscure administrative tasks. He continued to monitor the accounts, look for the best and cheapest printers, remind forgetful members to pay their subscriptions and manage the distribution of the journal. Little used to computers, but always with great concern for economy, he would write in the briefest letters his precise requests in a concise but perfectly clear manner. It is thanks to his management that the subscription was maintained for so long without increase, without adversely affecting the quality of the journal, in fact, quite the contrary.

      “I find it hard to imagine the Society without Bob and cannot forget the warm welcome at his peaceful house, deep in the country near a waterway and, as President, I owe him a great deal and thank him for such a pleasant and efficient collaboration. May you well continue, dear Bob, en route to your centenary.”

      It is with great pleasure that W.A.O.S. Council has offered Bob Honorary Life Membership as a small birthday present in token of our gratitude.

Hilary Fry