Monday, December 18, 2017

Remembering the ‘Birdman’

...Author of ‘A Guide to the Birds of T&T’


GENTLE: Richard Ffrench tends to a semp during a bird-banding exercise.

Mark Fraser

HE would change the way the rest of the world viewed the avi-fauna of Trinidad and Tobago. Just like the late ornithologist David Snow and the entomologist and marine biologist William Beebe, Richard Ffrench was amazed by the confluence of species due to our close proximity to South America and he appreciated how special and unusual this made Trinidad and Tobago.

The Englishman worked tirelessly to reveal the untapped beauty of this country. The late Ffrench took his love and keen interest in birding and translated it into a definitive guide to the birds of these islands, thereby doing more to document and bring to international attention the vast array of species of birds these islands have to offer, than the average Trinbagonian realises.          

Last month, his family visited the Asa Wright Nature Centre, where they launched the third edition of Ffrench’s A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago.

Ffrench’s widow, Margaret, also handed over to the centre a collection of her husband’s hand-written notes on birds.

But their trip to Trinidad would carry with it much significance and sentimentality. It was a little more than two years since Ffrench’s death in 2010 at the age of 80, and when it came to deciding where their husband and father should finally be laid to rest, the decision was unanimous. His ashes were scattered by Lalaja Trace just above the nature centre. In the prime of his life, Ffrench spent many hours there, in the early hours of the morning, mist-netting.

“I remember those days so well!” recalls Ffrench’s daughter, Julie Baker.  

“We would get up well before dawn at Pointe-a-Pierre, strap the bamboo poles for the nets on the top of the ancient Opel Kadett and set off for the Northern Range, to get there in time for the dawn birds. As soon as the nets were up, he would be in there disentangling with the utmost gentleness each bird as it flew in, then placing it in a cloth bag that my mother had sewn. They would then be processes; weighing each bag first, then taking out the bird and measuring the length, wingspan. My job would be to record the figures, then to write the notes he dictated, recording the moulting stage of that species, and other features and so on, then finally, if it was a migratory species, he would put a band on the bird’s eg, oh so carefully with his pliers, before letting the bird go. He was so completely absorbed in what he was doing and always had a quiet smile on his face. That was him, in the rainforest, always smiling and quietly listening.” 

Ffrench’s first visit to the West Indies in 1955 struck a chord in him. In the late 50’s Ffrench paid a visit to Spring Valley, Arima, where he met the Icelander Asa Wright. He would later become the president of the board at the Asa Wright Nature Centre of which he was one of the founders. 

Ffrench learnt how to become an ornithologist from Snow and helped him with research. With his wife, Margaret, he began his own studies on migrant birds; the Scarlet Ibis, dickcissels in rice fields and the nesting of the tiny pearl kite.

However, according to the UK Guardian, the existing guide to local birds back then was not up to scratch, so Ffrench, along with Snow, began working on a guide to the birds of T&T. The process meant spending lengthy days poring over facts and observations.

The book was well-received when its first edition was published in 1973. 

The Ffrenchs moved to Trinidad, where they earned a living teaching history at the St Peter’s Senior School in Pointe-a-Pierre.

Ffrench (Richard) taught history and was also the musical director of the school’s Orpheus choir. He eventually became the headmaster in 1976 until the school closed in 1984.

During his 27 years of residency in Trinidad, before returning to Britain in the 80’s, Ffrench travelled extensively throughout the country, primarily observing but also banding birds.

Baker explains that it was while her father took long walks in the forests, that she saw an entirely different side to him. He came alive in the ‘bush’ and brought its birds, tarantulas and snakes alive to the children.

He felt at home in the rainforest, more than in any other place and loved the profusion of life there, says Baker.

In his columns for the Trinidad Guardian, Ffrench, also known as “Birdman”, wrote about the wonders of our natural surroundings and about conservation. 

Ffrench was a serious man, not a great drinker and certainly not a limer, says Baker. He had a good rapport with teenagers and although he was quite the disciplinarian, they forgave him because he was an inspirational teacher, she said.

“He took his responsibility to educate young people very seriously indeed, and he felt that this was Trinidad’s only hope, that eventually people would become educated about the wonders of their natural surroundings and would learn that it was worth protecting,” she adds.

Ffrench’s devotion did not go unnoticed, in fact it was legendary.    

“Ffrench’s substantial contributions to T&T’s ornithology clearly qualify him as the leading authority on the country’s avi-fauna during the latter half of the 20th century,” notes the document ‘Studies in T&T Ornithology honouring Richard Ffrench’ by the Department of Life Sciences at the University of the West Indies and the Department of Wildlife and Ecology at the University of Wisconsin, USA. 

For his contributions, Ffrench

was awarded the Chaconia Medal (silver). 

Naturalist tour guide at the AWNC for the past ten years, Molly Calderon describes the moment she met Ffrench back in 2004 as ‘magical’.

“Mr Ffrench was known for his famous bird book. My dad, Lawrence Calderon, was one of the few persons to work along with him to establish the book. Growing up I had always heard about Ffrench and his keen ability to identify birds, their calls, behaviour and habitats.

“So it was truly an honour to meet him in person. When I identified myself as Calderon’s daughter, he immediately recognised the name and had a few memorable stories to tell. It was an amazing ‘wow’ moment,” says Calderon.

If he were alive today, what would Richard Ffrench have thought about the country that was his adopted homeland for several years? Baker imagines that her father would have been pleased with the success of the leatherback turtle watching ventures in Grande Riviere. But there was a lot that made him sad, she adds. Baker says she is glad her father did not live to see the devastating effects sprawling quarries had on the very same rainforests in the Arima Valley that had once brought him so much delight.