BirdLife Eastern Cape History

Dr Cecily NivenBirdLife Eastern Cape, formerly known as the Eastern Cape Wild Bird Society (ECWBS), was formed on 21 April 1950 after a short period as part of the Wildlife Society. The chairperson of the fledgling ECWBS was Dr Cecily Niven whose leadership and enthusiasm were instrumental in its formation and whose contribution to ornithology in Southern Africa has been considerable. She has twice held the office of President of the SAOS and is Life President of the ECWBS.

For its first few years the ECWBS held its meetings at the Athenaeum Club in Port Elizabeth (now the Ford Little Theatre). These rooms were also used by the Wildlife Society. Evening meetings have been held since 1951 and many eminent ornithologists have addressed the society. In 1955 Dr James Chapin (of Belgian Congo fame) visited the ECWBS and in 1957 Professor Voous of the International Ornithological Union spoke to members. Other speakers have included Sir Landsborough Thompson, (editor of the Dictionary of Birds), Professor JM Winterbottom, Dr Gerry Broekhuysen and artist Graeme Arnott. Meetings have been held in various venues since the early days and now a regular monthly evening meeting brings members together at the St John’s Church hall in Walmer.

In 1955 it was decided to set aside the first Saturday of each month for a regular birding outing. Later there were at least two outings every month. Now there are outings every weekend. For years there were outings to Cradock, Steytlerville, Tsitsikamma and Alexandria Forests, and to St Croix and Bird Islands. Expeditions have also been organised further afield to the Kruger National Park and to South West Africa. Within Port Elizabeth itself regular walks in Settlers Park have been conducted by Jean Spearpoint for several years. These have made many more people aware of the Society and of the city’s birdlife.

Club activities have been a reflection of the level of interest. Membership has fluctuated over the years. At the outset membership was about 40. This number climbed steadily, reaching 85 in 1952 and over 120 in 1957. At the end of 1984, after a resurgence of interest and activity the figure stood close to 200. In addition some 25 SAOS members from outside the branch area subscribe to the ECWBS newsletter, “Bee-Eater”.

ECWBS area of operation was also initially the whole Eastern Cape, but due to the big area, it became necessary to start other bird clubs in the province. This was also a great improvement for the members who could in this way organise activities closer to where they are.

It is inevitable that the history of a society like the ECWBS should be the story of a number of enthusiastic and influential individuals. The inspiration of Dr Cecily Niven has been mentioned. Her founding committee included Miss Eily Archibald (later became Dr Eily Gredhill), who was the first secretary and editor of “Bee-Eater”; Mrs NR Anderson, Dr EK du Plessis, Mr HG (Lal) Harraway, Mr FH Holland and Dr J Pringle – all of Port Elizabeth; Miss M Kannemeyer (later Mrs Rainier) of Grahamstown; Mr JPM Niven of Amanzi, Mr VL Pringel of Bedford; Captain Shewell of Gamtoos River; Mr J Sneyd-Taylor of Fort Beaufort and Mr CHF Woolley of Addo and Knysna.

From the mid-fifties for a period of about ten years the society flourished in the hands of two professional ornithologists, Dr Geoff McLachlan who edited “Bee-Eater” and Mr (later Dr) Richard Liversidge. Their departure from the Port Elizabeth Museum (which had become the headquarters of the ECWBS) in 1964 was a blow to the society. During their connections with the society they were in the process of revising Roberts Birds of South Africa.

A year after McLachlan and Liversidge had revised “Roberts” in 1957, Mr JM Paterson published the “Checklist of Bird of the Eastern Cape”, which was a mile-stone in the ornithology of the region and the ECWBS.

For the next fifteen years a small but active group of knowledgeable people operated within the society’s framework. A strong junior membership gathered around Bryan Donnelly. A number of these young people have subsequently made their mark in the scientific field. During this period John and June Stannard pioneered bird call recording with Patrick Niven, aided by Colin Taylor of the Port Elizabeth Museum. Their efforts resulted in, amongst others, the recording “Bird songs of Amanzi”.

Jean SpearpointIn 1969 Jean Spearpoint took over the secretary’s role. Initially she also edited “Bee-Eater”. She stayed in the secretarial seat for 13 years and there is little doubt that her enthusiasm and dedication did much to maintain the standards which had been built up in the early years. Jean was elected an honorary life member of the SAOS in 1983 – a well-deserved recognition. (She passed away in 2015)

During all this time the ECWBS publication “Bee-eater” has maintained a reputation which is a credit to a succession of editors. After Dr McLachlan’s tenure, when “Bee-Eater” was a single sheet there was a succession of professionals – Dr (then Mr) Bryan Donnelly, June Stannard and Ray Black. After Jean Spearpoint’s spell as editor she handed over to Libby McGill and then the incumbent Bruce Every became editor. – This position he held from 1971 – 1990. The professional reputation of “Bee-eater” was set and stood high. Since 1990 various people were editors, namely Colin Urquhart (1990-1991), Dr Paul Martin (1992 – 2003), Adri Barkhuizen (2004-2007), when Dr Phil Whittington took over and is currently still doing a great job!

During the 1970’s Dave Brown, our current president, was the chairperson of the club. He was also for many years the editor of the ECWBS News; which formed part of the Bee-Eater magazine. 

Tony DechantAnother formidable chairperson of the club was AJ (Tony) Dechant. He was chairperson for the periods 1984-1989 and 1992-1995. During 1989-1991 he also chaired the South African Ornithological Society.  Tony Dechant, the environmental spokesman, with his various interests has given our club much of his time and during this time, has also added excellent direction to the club.

During 1993 the St Francis Bird Club was also established under the leadership of Yvonne Bosman, a member of the ECWBS. This club functions in the Jeffreys Bay and St Francis Bay areas but prefers to remain affiliated to BirdLife Eastern Cape rather than become an independent club.

Other chairpersons were:

1989-1992: RL (Robi) Capel
1995-2000: Patrick Brett

It was during 2000 that the club’s name was changed to BirdLife Eastern Cape after the Southern African Ornithological Society changed their name in 1996 to BirdLife South Africa. In 1995, the SAOS Council determined a new direction to develop education and conservation action programmes. The impetus and funding for action programmes increased with links to the BirdLife International partnership that began in 1996.

2000-2003: Kevin Hendrikse
2004-2009: Ken Munroe
2010-2012: Ross Zietsman
2013-Present: Corné Erasmus


Through the club's monthly e-newsletters and bi-annual magazine, the Bee-Eater, we aim to stimulate continued interest in birds and their habitats.