Virtual African Birdfair 2020 - The Great Online Migration

Updated: Oct 1

I don’t know about you, but I love a road trip. A road trip is a lot more than just a destination you are going to - instead, it’s an opportunity to celebrate every single moment of the journey, soaking up the experience, and spending time with the special people that you are with.


In 2017 I had an opportunity to do a road trip with some special people – not just any road trip – but a birding road trip planned around the African Bird Fair, which was taking place at the Walter Sisulu National Botanical Gardens in Johannesburg.


The car was packed, a lot of ‘padkos’ was prepared to snack on, the road trip playlist was loaded, and we headed off with memories to be made.


We arrived in Johannesburg late on Friday afternoon, and after a good dinner, we headed to bed excited about the day that lay ahead.


We arrived at the Walter Sisulu Gardens as early as we could - the air was still crisp, and the exhibitors were still putting their finishing touches on their stalls. After a good cappuccino and a quick walk around, the day kicked off with a talk by one of my favourite birding authors, Faansie Peacock. The talk was humorous, and he kept the audience hanging on every single word that he said. Straight after his talk, I went to his stand and I spent some time drooling at the stunning artwork that he was selling and bought a signed copy of his stunning LBJ book.


I took a walk around the stalls and managed to connect with a lot of the people that I had been interacting with on social media. The stalls offered everything that a birder needed. We ended up spending a little more money than we had planned to spend – but we walked away with smiles on our faces.

Verreaux’s Eagle | Ernest Porter

Swarovski had one of their stunning scopes set on the Verreaux’s Eagles – which allowed one to gaze at these majestic creatures through top-quality optics. I did a walk up the mountain with John Kinghorn and Toni Geddes at probably the worst time in the day, but I managed to get a lifer – a drab yet energetic Fairy Flycatcher.


We spent nearly the whole day at the Bird Fair, and we were blown away with the entire experience – people, birds, equipment, and some good food to top it all off.


With the Covid-19 Pandemic, so much has changed regarding how we do life, with many using the term ‘a new normal’. A few months ago, I started to see people asking on the Birdlife South Africa Facebook group how the Bird Fair would be done in light of the pandemic and the strict South African social distancing rules. As an outsider, the prospects for the 2020 Bird Fair did not look good.


Just recently, after much planning and deliberation, Birdlife South Africa announced that this year’s Bird Fair would be going online.

This, in many ways, will change the experience of the Bird Fair for this year – no longer would a road trip be needed for out of town folk, no longer would walks be done in the gardens, and a lot of other things will just be different. But in light of the COVID situation, Birdlife South Africa had no choice – they had to respond to the ‘new normal’.


I am sure that we can all see what we won’t be able to do at this year’s Bird Fair, and with change, there is always the barrage of negative comments and expectations - but let’s take a look at the positive outcomes of the Bird Fair going online:


1) This may be the most African Bird Fair yet – The fair has always allowed the consumer to be exposed to the best birding related companies around – with any serious birding company having a stand at the fair. However, the challenge around logistics and costs would have meant that many great African birding companies and tour operators would just not have been able to be a part of a live event. With the event going online it suddenly has become cost-effective for almost any birding company in Africa (or even worldwide) to be a part of the fair. What this means is that those who attend will be able to experience more stalls than ever before.


2) It makes getting world-class speakers easier – The speakers at the bird fair have always been top-notch – but again, due to travel costs, many good speakers and presenters would have been just too expensive to get involved. With the Bird Fair going online, it is possible to get almost any speaker from around the world to present a talk. This allows those that attend to be exposed to the best possible talks at a lower cost.


3) The reach extends beyond the day – I loved Faansie’s talk, but if I am honest, I can hardly remember much of what he said. The online platform allows the talks to stay online for just a little longer – which means we will be able to go back again and again to listen. For exhibitors, they will have greater exposure than ever before – they will be able to have a reach that extends beyond the day and reaches more people than ever before.


4) The reach is global – Covid-19 has wrecked our local travel industry. The online bird fair is not limited to those that can get to Johannesburg - anyone with an internet connection will be able to log on and join the fair. This could be a great tool to help our local bird travel companies get some much-needed international bookings for when the restrictions are eased. Birdlife South Africa is an amazing conservation organisation – this online fair will allow more people to be exposed to the work that they are doing.


5) A greater chance to connect – It was awesome to be able to connect with people that I had met online, and to be honest this is the one thing that I will really miss this year – but this Fair provides the platform to connect and possibly network with more people than ever before. Birdlife South Africa is working on platforms to provide avenues for people that attend to be able to connect with each other.


We will not be able to look at a Verreaux’s Eagles through a scope or do a walk in the gardens. We will have to settle for our home-made coffee and food. Things are not as they were before and this year's Bird Fair will be different – but, as we have looked at the positives we can see that as much as we all hate change, there is always good that comes from the bad.


There are some significant challenges for the Birdlife South Africa team with taking the fair online, but history proves that they have always been an organisation that has embraced change and innovation. I feel that in this matter it will be no different.


There are definitely things that I will miss as this year’s edition of the Bird Fair goes online, but there is also a lot that I am looking forward to. Come, 5th of September – I am looking forward to being a part of Africa’s number one Bird Fair!


For more information on the African Bird Fair

https://www.birdlife.org.za/support-us/events/the-african-bird-fair/

Email: Julie.bayley@birdlife.org.za

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