The Fitz family

By Davide Gaglio

I am sure most of you experience the lack of money that comes with being a student. While I was a masters student at the University of Bologna in 2006, I had the opportunity to work part-time as a postman. But when my short career as a postman unexpectedly ended, I would never have dreamed of doing a PhD in South Africa, or being involved in an extended academic family in the truest sense of the word.

During my farewell at the post office, I had a long chat with a girl that had just returned from a trip South Africa. “South Africa?” I said, “Yes… but which country of South Africa?” 🙂 🙂 Well, that was when I realised I needed to fill some gaps in my geographical knowledge, but I blame my high school teacher 😉

Soon after, I started to gather information on this fascinating country and I decided that South Africa would be my next destination! I rapidly looked for an opportunity as a field assistant in South Africa and ended up applying for a field assistant job for a project run by the Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology at UCT – mostly because I LOVE birds. But I had no idea how much the people here would make ornithology, academia, research and conservation come alive to my mind.

From August to October that year I spent a great time in the field and had the opportunity to get a glimpse of the “Fitz Institute”: the students, the post-docs, the staff members, the professors. I was particularly taken by the “Niven,” one of the most important libraries on birds worldwide. I attended some seminars there, and started to daydream about one day presenting my own research in that beautiful setting!

I was also intrigued by the social aspect of the Fitz’s people, particularly on Friday afternoons. Students, lecturers and other members meet at the pub most Fridays and discuss a wide range of topics (rugby, photography…but of course mainly birds!). I joined them on one such occasion, fresh from the field, hiking shoes still caked in mud. Over some well-deserved drinks, I became engaged in a delightful conversation about Oystercatchers, with the late director of the institute, Professor Phil Hockey. Would I have been able to chat so happily with such an august person if I’d known beforehand who he was? Probably not – I only discovered his identity after the pub visit. Phil unfortunately passed away 2 years ago. But informal meetings like this drives intellectual curiosity, and inspired me immensely. It’s probably a large reason why the Fitz is such a research powerhouse, and has been designated as a DST-NRF Centre of Excellence.

The Fitz promotes and undertakes scientific studies, primarily involving birds that contribute to the theory and practise necessary to maintain biological diversity and sustain the continued use of biological resources. Here is a photographic glimpse of the Fitz’s main research:

And a few years later…here I am…doing my PhD about one of the most, elegant, photogenic and mysterious coastal seabirds in southern Africa, Swift Terns!

However, being a foreign student, I have faced a few challenges. My family and friends are very far away and they are very much missed. Building new relationships is always challenging, especially when every year you have to renew your visa and you don’t know in which country you’ll be… or even if they will let you return! Moreover, to be socially involved is important for our species 😉 Since the beginning, I have been welcomed by the entire institute and step by step I’ve been privileged to make many friends, which share with me the same passions and dreams. Yes… I feel “like home”. Today, I like to call the institute and the people working there the “Fitz family”. Here I feel appreciated as part of a team, I can have long chats with the other students, be and wisely suggested by staff members when problems arise and am passionately guided by my supervisors. In the last few years, being proudly part of the Fitz, I did my part, giving talks about my research and the issues of our marine ecosystems to various bird clubs. I also wrote some articles to environmental magazines and attended a conference, where I was awarded runner-up with the best student oral presentation! Along with publishing scientific articles, semi-scientific articles … and recently representing the Fitz with Dr Rob Little at the launch of the 2015 National Science Week of the Department of Science and Technology at the North-West University’s Mafikeng campus.

Exciting opportunities for students arise from the passion of the people working in institutes like this. There is a wonderful sense of cooperation, which is shared amongst the different disciplines and academic roles. Many of my colleagues have become great friends, which is often a rarity. I am doing my best to make the most from my research in an institute which believes in my capabilities and I am sure the results of my PhD will make the difference! How you ask? Well, I will tell you next entry!

Give me a wheelbarrow and I will move the world

By Davide Gaglio

Who would I be today without traveling? Well… I cannot imagine it! I’ve always been willing to discover new places, people, and the wilderness. I’ve loved experiencing new challenges and through them, learn more about myself. In the last 10 years, I’ve been lucky enough to join several research projects as field assistant, which has allowed me to visit parts of the world that otherwise I would never have seen. I have worked in Europe, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa…what great experiences!! While traveling, I’ve met awesome people, learned several life lessons, found out what I really like about research and last but not least, I met my girlfriend, who will become my wife in four months’ time!
Field assistants are crucial for the collection of data of a research project, especially for a research like mine, where my focal species only breeds for a very short period of time during which I need to gather as much data as possible. If I don’t grab all the data that I can get, I can’t just re-run an experiment like lab scientists do – in fieldwork, you can never turn back time to the start of a breeding season, and the animals can disappear, never to be seen again. So, I really want to thank all the field assistants that have helped with my project over the last 3 years.
I would like to share with you the experience of Maël, who was my assistant for a few months in the last field season:

maelMy name is Maël Leroux, I’m a 21-year-old French student in zoology. I came to South Africa last September in order to add some practical experience to my theoretical skills. After few months around South Africa trying to find an internship, I was spotted by Davide, who offered me a position as field assistant for his PhD project. He told me I was supposed to work on Robben Island (Cool!) studying the behaviour of Swift Terns (what tern??? I have never heard about them before!!) Well… I was very curious and intrigued so I accepted immediately!
Davide explained to me a bit about the project by email and I knew from the beginning that it would be a fantastic experience. I meet him a few days after I arrived in Cape Town, and not even a week later, I was on a boat, direction …Robben Island…wow!boat to Robben island

As soon as the boat left the waterfront, I was fully into this adventure, and as a good start I saw a whale for the first time in my life…(wow again!)!

Spot the whale!
Spot the whale!

I arrived to Robben Island in the evening, and Davide decided to take me immediately to the colony. There I met those wonderful terns in the light of a stunning sunset. From this very moment, my journey in South Africa became magical!

terns at sunset

After I met my study species, I met the team living at research house. I enjoyed my time sharing the house with the “penguin people” … especially for dinner, when everybody would come back from their long day and always have some funny penguin story to tell (in front a nice glass of wine, of course). I have to say, between Italians, Frenchies, Brits and South Africans, the dinners were diverse every day and I loved it! Braai, pasta, frogs (no, I’m kidding!), cakes and pureed, sooooo good! Food for the belly, not just for the soul.
Obviously, it wasn’t only beautiful landscapes, nice dinners, or discovering the wild side of Robben Island. I had to work, a lot, and hard. During the first month, I had to analyze the data we collected using video cameras, which was interesting, but long and tough. To bring the video equipment in the field was a long wheelbarrow to workjourney every day as the bakkie was not working, so we had to use a wheelbarrow…


But luckily after we banded the chicks, I started to work in the field all day long. It was so interesting that I didn’t even realize time was passing! (Ok, perhaps this wasn’t true every day…) Studying their behaviour, observing some unusual interactions, which often Davide had to explain to me, combined to form a very unique working experience. My work in the field was intense and really stimulating, with plenty of surprises. Like the first time I saw a hartlaub’s gull brutally steal a fish from a baby tern! Well, I didn’t know those neighbours could be so nasty ☹.

After this experience I am now thinking to continue my studies and start a PhD myself. Thanks, Davide!”

I respond to Maël in French “de rien!” I really enjoyed my time with him in Robben Island.
In the last few years I have grown as researcher, switching from working as a field assistant myself to having my own project with my own field assistants. It gave me the opportunity to receive help from other people and in return help fuel their skills and passion for research. It’s not only for the data collection or for the PhD project itself. It’s sharing time with interesting people, it’s learning something new every day, it’s sharing dreams and fears, it’s the life of a biologist!