At a young age James Currie developed a deep connection with nature, and his interest was inspired and encouraged by his aunt Jan. She took him birding, taught him how to observe nature, and she nurtured his curiosity and enthusiasm for the flora and fauna around him in Africa. At age ten, he witnessed a Black Eagle catch its prey right in front of him, and from that point on, he was a birder. He and his parents thought birding was a safe activity. “How much trouble could you get into with a pair of binoculars?” However, he soon learned that birding could be exhilarating and even dangerous. Watching that first eagle was harmless and thrilling; watching an eagle three decades later almost cost him his life. In between those two eagles were adventures most of us only dream about. “Many people think of birding as a passive pastime. No! That's bird watching. Birding is an active pursuit, full of unknowns and excitement. To me, there's nothing better than a healthy dose of birding on the edge.”
At age twenty-five he underwent grueling training to fulfill his life-long dream of becoming a game ranger. He worked at the Phinda Game Reserve, a model of restoration and conservation. The area was restored from agricultural fields, ranch lands and wastelands. Native plants and animals were carefully reintroduced with an emphasis on encouraging the local community’s support. Jobs were created through eco-tourism, and since local residents were benefitting from the conservation efforts, the wildlife was better protected and the program was more successful than others.
As a game ranger, Mr. Currie had many close encounters with wildlife: charging elephants, lethal snakes, enraged Cape buffalo and large angry cats. Nonetheless, he tends to remain calm. “I seldom panic. Panic is the worst enemy for someone in a crisis. I need a clear mind, keen senses and the ability to problem-solve. I become captivated by the situation and detach myself from fear and irrational thought. I place myself outside, looking in as if I'm watching from a distance." To his clients, he recites this mantra: “If anything unexpected should happen, whatever you do, do not run! Look at me and I'll tell you exactly what to do.”
In addition to dealing with danger, he learned to track animals, read their behavior and recognize warning signs. He also became a talented story teller, able to captivate his clients and pull them in to the minds of the animals they witnessed, and create a sense of awe and wonder. For example, rather than just recite facts from a field guide, this is how he describes a cheetah: “As the cheetah takes off after its intended prey, a finely tuned body kicks into gear like a high performance racing car. A flexible spine alternately concaves and convexes as the back legs are pulled between the front legs, briefly touching the ground every twenty feet. The illusion is that of an airborne missile. The cheetah opens its mouth as it runs, inhaling air into the enlarged lungs, much like a V-8 engine sucks in gas for propulsion.” He goes on from there, forming a picture in your mind so vivid, you’d think you had watched a cheetah hunt its prey in your front yard. His description of a Bateleur Eagle is likewise poetic: “Watch how the eagle uses its wings, how the bird dips and raises those wings to compensate and catch its balance, much like the outstretched arms of a bateleur, which is French for ‘tightrope walker’”.
Being a ranger was not always filled with dangers. There were touching, awe-inspiring moments as well. His favorite non-bird animal is the African elephant, and he was able to witness the interactions among elephants on many occasions. He deeply respects their complex social relationships, intelligence, emotional range, and mentoring structure. “My experiences with elephants can only be described as instructive, enlightening, and even mystical. They have taught me a lot about myself, and I will always be grateful for the time I spent with these magnificent beasts. To witness the death of a single elephant is to experience the sadness of the loss of decades of wisdom, magnified a thousandfold when reflected through the eyes, ears and voices of the herd.”
Recognized for his skills and conservation efforts, he was asked to become managing director of the Africa Foundation in Johannesburg. The foundation served as a link between the communities, tourism, wildlife and conservation. They provided education and health care with the income generated by eco-tourism.
He also began a birding tourism company in southern Africa: HoneyGuides. The tour company was designed for “birders hell bent on increasing their birding life lists at all costs”. He helped clients locate birds like Wattled Cranes, Violet Wood-Hoopoes, Dune Larks, Herero Chats, Damara Rockjumper, Hartlaub's Francolin and many more African specialties. While birding, he points out some of the other interesting flora and fauna, and he seems to attract fascinating animals into his path. He says the most surprising animal he has seen while birding was an African Serval that came within three feet of the car while he was searching for an African Pitta.
The idea of the “Birding Adventures” television show came to him in the middle of the night. He wanted to bring the world of birding to more people. What better way than through television? To decide what bird species, or “Golden Bird”, to feature on the show, it has to meet certain criteria. “It is always a bird that is unique to the area and something which traveling birders would love to see. It needs to be enigmatic in some way - either super rare, beautiful or extraordinary or a combination of these. It would be tough to make a Golden Bird out of a cisticola for example!” One example of a Golden Bird is the Sun Parakeet (aka, “Sun Conure”), which can only be found in pockets along the river in Guyana.
The rarest bird he has traveled to see was the Ridgway’s Hawk, of which there were only 200 left in the wild at the time. The most interesting birds that he has seen are Club-Winged Manakins, Western Bowerbirds or Torrent Ducks because they have “developed unique strategies to cope with life”.
To find the birds for the program, he and his two videographers are usually accompanied by a local guide familiar with the area and the specific target bird. Mr. Currie focuses on birds in interesting places, but he also presents the surrounding flora and fauna while conveying facts about them in an entertaining way. In each episode he explores the local culture, features local experts, and emphasizes conservation. His favorite place in the world to go birding is the Western Cape of South Africa because of its natural diversity. He says that what makes a good birding location is “diversity, tendency to attract rarities and proximity/access to the birds.”
His recently released book, “When Eagles Roar”, covers the first chapter of his life. “It is about experiences with birds and wildlife. There is also a strong interpersonal relationship element to the storyline and this makes the book somewhat unique when it comes to typical nature books.” He is planning a second book that will contain all of the birding adventures he has had, especially while filming the “Birding Adventures” show. “Birding has a way of grabbing you, holding you in the passion of the moment, all attention on the trees, the sky, the birds. No thought of heat or cold or pain or wind or thirst or hunger or even trespassing through someone's property.” No matter where he travels, he finds that birders are the same at heart. “The passion and love for birding is the same whenever you meet a birder from another country.”
His favorite bird is the Harpy Eagle “mainly due to its symbolism and the fact that it is both strong (arguably the most powerful raptor on earth) and fragile (its vulnerability to habitat loss) at the same time - like most of us!” Eagles hold a special place in his life. “In my life eagles roar. They roar deeper than any lion.”
He loves the excitement of birding. “I want to chase this thrill the rest of my life. To the ends of the earth”. However, he is equally passionate about fostering a new generation of young birders. Most recently, he has helped create the Race 4 Birds Foundation to encourage more young people to join the birding world. “Race 4 Birds is the single best way for us to enhance the popularity of birding amongst the youth. After all, who doesn’t like a bit of friendly competition?!” Working with him in the R4B Foundation, I have watched him put his words into action; he always goes the extra mile to encourage and support young people. He is truly passionate about the R4B mission, and he would like to see more young people become interested in the natural world.
His advice to young people: “Open your eyes and ears, get outside and unplug the electronics.”