Dale Zimmerman, the tireless world bird watcher

Saturday November 19 2016

Dr Dale Zimmerman is the man behind Kenya’s and Tanzania’s first definitive field guide to birds — Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania. PHOTO | COURTESY | MARIAN ZIMMERMAN

Six weeks, six thousand kilometres and six hundred species of birds later, 89-year-old Dr Dale Zimmerman, emeritus professor of biology at Western New Mexico University, US, walks into the foyer of a Nairobi hotel on the eve of his return flight to New Mexico in late October.

The return visit

Dr Zimmerman has just concluded a visit to Kenya, his first in 20 years. He is no stranger to Kenya. He first came to the country in 1961 as an accomplished birder.

He co-authored and illustrated East Africa’s first bird guide book of note, Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania with Donald A. Turner and David J. Pearson and illustrators Ian Willis and H. Douglas Pratt in 1996. As Fleur Ng’weno, doyenne of Kenya birding told Dr Zimmerman, “We’re all in your debt.”

Sometime in the 1970s, Dr Zimmerman met Turner at the ornithology section of the museum in Nairobi and the duo hit it off immediately.

“We were lamenting that there were no books about birds in Kenya and so we decided to write one ourselves,” Dr Zimmerman says of the beginning of the book that’s been reprinted several times since and is now a hard-to-get hard cover copy.


It took the team 10 years to write and illustrate the book.


Born in Michigan, US, Dr Zimmerman became interested in birds as a child. By age six, he was fascinated by African wildlife, drew birds and dreamed of coming to Africa. “I continued to dream all the way to university,” he chuckles.

He studied bird art and natural history at the University of Michigan. He got married after graduation and went birding across Mexico and the US. In 1952 he received his PhD from the University of Michigan and still had not made it to Africa.

Starting out in life, “poor as a church mouse,” in 1960, Zimmerman wrote to Bob Lowis, a safari operator bringing clients to Kenya. “It was on a whim,” he recalls.

Zimmerman’s fame as a birder was already widespread and Lowis offered to take him on a three-week safari for free if Zimmerman taught him something about birds.

With no field guides to birding in Kenya, Zimmerman cut out all the pictures from existing books — all heavy technical tomes — of birds he expected to see and pasted them in a notebook with spaces left below to make notes. He called his parents to ask if could borrow money for the air ticket to Africa. “My mum felt that if I got to do the trip, it would get Africa out of my mind.”

In 1961, the eagle-eyed naturalist flew to Nairobi. “I immediately wanted to drive into Nairobi National Park to see the giraffes, to say nothing of the birds,” he says.

It was then that he met John Williams, curator of birds at the then Coryndon Museum (today’s Nairobi National Museum) who got him permits to collect bird specimens in the field. Williams became Zimmerman’s mentor.

Returning to America, Zimmerman’s only thought was how to return to Africa. In 1963, Zimmerman received a grant from the American Museum of Natural History to cover his expenses for him to conduct a census of bird species in the virtually unexplored Kakamega Forest.

In 1965 and 1966, he received another grant from the National Science Foundation to continue work in Kakamega Forest — living there for three months at a time. “It had astounding birdlife, you could see leopards and tree pangolins and the butterflies were endlessly fascinating.”


Dr Dale Zimmerman and a guide at the Kakamega Forest. PHOTO | EDWIN SELEMPO

What he found

So the trip back to Kenya this year was a homecoming of sorts for Dr Zimmerman. In the company of noted Kenyan birder and artist Edwin Selempo, whom Zimmerman met at Elementaita in 1994, he toured the country from the Coast to areas of an altitude of 5,,000 metres above sea level, walking from dawn till the late hours of the night tracking nocturnal birds.

He was surprised by the changes in Kenya’s landscape.

“Kenya used to be one of the birdiest places on the planet. I’m appalled at the reduction in numbers of all the bird species in the country and I’m very concerned. Americans used to flock to Kenya for birding safaris. It’s no longer the case, with Tanzania and Botswana now attracting the birders. The habitats in Kenya are shrinking fast. The grasslands, swamps, wetlands are disappearing. We saw very low numbers of almost all the species,” he lamented.

“It’s impossible to repeat the same counts today compared with even 10 years ago,” added Selempo. “Walking around Naivasha’s lakeshore, logging in 200 species in a day, was doable back then. Today one would be hard-pressed to see 75,” he said.

Zimmerman further noted; “Lakes Naivasha and Nakuru used to be premier world birding sites, now Lake Nakuru is almost birdless, because of siltation from the deforested catchment, and pollution from industries. Lake Naivasha is on the brink of an ecological collapse, and it’s mostly pollution from the flower farms and human settlements.

“The entire character of the Kakamega Forest has changed. It’s under pressure from illegal activities. During this dry season it was silent,” he said.

“That is so,” agreed Selempo. “The road that runs through Kakamega Forest is busier, more people are going into the forest to collect firewood and to graze cattle. We saw two recently cleared forest patches with crops growing and this really worried us. There is generally more disturbance and the birds were very silent probably because of the drought,” added Selempo.


Dr Dale Zimmerman, Edwin Selempo and a guide at the Kakamega Forest. PHOTO | COURTESY | EDWIN SELEMPO

According to Ng’weno, Nature Kenya (short for the East Africa Natural History Society) and the East African Wild Life Society are aware of this, regularly alerted by members like Turner.

Ng’weno said: “The obstacles are enormous. In Naivasha we must contend with invasive alien species, a booming horticultural sector that brings in foreign exchange, and runaway housing development promoted by politicians at the highest level. There have been numerous attempts at environmental management of the lake by local environmental bodies like the Lake Naivasha Riparian Association and Imarisha Naivasha, but so far they have been unable to overcome all the obstacles.

“However, Nature Kenya is active on the ground in Naivasha and Kakamega, supporting local birding clubs that are working at the community level,” she added.
Nature Kenya is Africa’s oldest environmental Society. It was established in 1909 to promote the study and conservation of nature in East Africa, connecting people and nature.

On this latest trip to Africa, Zimmerman trekked up the Virunga Mountains in Uganda to see the mountain gorillas, as he says, “one more time.” People decades younger would be hard-pressed to keep up with him.

The epic tome

In the late 1980s, Zimmerman and his wife flew to England to meet the editor of a prestigious publishing house about the book idea. The editor agreed to publish it.

Work on Birds of Kenya and Northern Tanzania began. Zimmerman designed all the plates (an enormously hard task in the pre-computer age) and painted all the perching birds and the bulk of the other birds. But in 1988, with his eyesight weakening, Zimmerman enlisted Willis and Pratt. Specimens were borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History in New York, which boasts one of the largest collections of African birds, and from the Smithsonian Institution.

Zimmerman’s paintings are highly rated. When painting the birds for the book, he would hold the bird for hours on end to get the exact colour of plumage. It is what puts this field guidebook in a league of its own.

“And I always painted the eyes last because that’s what brings the bird to life,” says Zimmerman. And the white glint in the eye was never painted – it was the white of the paper the bird was painted on.


Zimmerman has published hundreds of papers and is author of Turaco Country: Reminiscences of East African Birding, published in 2015 and available on Amazon.

“Knowledge is the most important thing. Young ornithologists have to read and go out in the field. Until interest is developed, there cannot be effective conservation.
And without knowledge of pre-existing conditions, there is no hope,” said Ng’weno, Kenya’s foremost naturalist.

Selempo agreed. “If you don’t know what you have, you don’t care. You can only care about something you love,” he said. It’s a wake-up call for the government and stakeholders. Kenya is a signatory to many international treaties like the Ramsar Treaty for wetlands to protect natural resources yet there’s little to show on the ground.

Despite his concern over Kenya’s dwindling birdlife, flora and fauna, Zimmerman at the end states that it was still a phenomenal safari. According to him, it’s a matter of striking the right balance between nature and development.

“The professor is planning another visit next year after the rains so he can come up with a more conclusive report that will be presented to the relevant people,” said Selempo.

Hopefully, his report will help Kenya regain its once internationally famed birding safaris.

But this is only possible if those in government and the tourism industry take birding seriously.