Obituary: J. G. Williams

Click to follow
The Independent Online
John George Williams, naturalist: born Cardiff 4 April 1913; Curator of Birds, Coryndon Museum, Nairobi 1946-66; married 1945 Dr Philippa Gaffikin (one son, three daughters); died Leicester 28 December 1997.

J. G. Williams's first book, A Field Guide to Birds of East and Central Africa, was published in 1963, and, although it only contained 50 per cent of the birds to be found in the region, it was a landmark publication.

Finally we had something to take on safari, to keep in the glove compartment of the car. There were only 16 colour plates and 24 in black and white, but it was a start. Later books included more colour plates, and for over 20 years books such as A Field Guide to the National Parks of East Africa (1968) and A Field Guide to the Butterflies of Africa (1972) became invaluable travel companions to the many thousands of birdwatchers and ecotourists that visit Kenya every year.

His name, however, will remain immortalised in African ornithology following his discovery of a new species of lark in the Marsabit District of northern Kenya in June 1956, which was duly named Mirafra williamsi after him. Williams's Bush Lark remains today a shy, skulking and little-known species of the hot, barren lava desert of northern Kenya, a challenge in itself for anyone intent on tracking it down.

Ornithology was Williams's forte and he became a world authority on sunbirds, a family of birds that occur largely in Africa and the islands of the Indian Ocean. He began painting every species of sunbird himself and it was a pity that this monumental work was never published.

John Gordon Williams was born in Cardiff in 1913, the son of a headmaster, John Lyal Williams. His interest in wildlife was inspired by his grandfather and uncle, both keen amateur naturalists. After education at Monkton House School in Cardiff, he worked for the local firm of Cory Brothers, but maintained his interest in natural history, and in the mid-Thirties was taken on as a taxidermist at the National Museum of Wales.

On the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the RAF and saw service in the Middle East, Turkey and North Africa. He met his future wife, Dr Philippa Gaffikin, in Aleppo, Syria, and they were married in Cairo in 1945. During their honeymoon in western Uganda they collected the body of a mountain gorilla; Philippa conducted an autopsy on the animal and John prepared and mounted it for display at the Coryndon Museum in Nairobi. He took up the post of Curator of Birds at the museum in 1946 and his wife was appointed to Nairobi City Council, where she was in charge of child welfare for the Asian and European communities in Kenya.

Shortly after Kenya's independence in 1963, Williams and I were at Lake Nakuru in Kenya's Rift Valley, watching the hundreds of thousands of flamingos that have made the lake world-famous. With us that day was the American Roger Tory Peterson, who remarked that Lake Nakuru's flamingos were the greatest ornithological spectacle on this earth; and on the way home Williams commented that we really should think towards putting Kenya on the ornithological world map, and encourage all birdwatchers to visit East Africa to see our magnificent birding areas. Little did we know then that this was to lead to birdwatching's becoming a major player in Kenya's tourism industry.

Over the past two decades, birdwatching has become the fastest-growing leisure activity in the world. Williams clearly saw this coming, and after he left his post in 1966, after 20 years as Curator of Birds at the Coryndon Museum, he himself led many ornithological safaris as well as organising and taking part in several collecting expeditions in East Africa for the Los Angeles County Museum. The results of those expeditions are all documented, in collaboration with Herbert Friedman, in the Los Angeles County Museum's "Contributions in Science" series from 1969 through to the early 1970s. When John and Philippa Williams eventually left Kenya for Britain in the 1970s, East Africa lost a great naturalist.

I first met John Williams in my early twenties when, as a newly recruited officer in the British Colonial Police, my attention was more often than not drawn to the wealth of wildlife that one came across in the course of everyday life in Kenya during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Since I was living in Mombasa, and had no reference books available, copious notes were entered into volumes of notebooks, and with every visit to Nairobi much time was spent with "J.G." in his office at the museum. His knowledge not only of birds, bats and other mammals, but also butterflies, moths, orchids and sea shells was immense, and his keenness to hear what other people had seen, heard, found or collected was such an inspiration that he became guru and mentor to myself and several other young enthusiasts in Kenya.

His office was a breath of fresh air during those troubled times in Kenya's pre- and post-independence years, and a meeting place for local and overseas ornithologists, all seeking J.G.'s advice before setting out on their expeditions.

I recall one afternoon intending to spend only a few minutes with him at the museum discussing an influx of Parasitic Weavers that had arrived on the airport grasslands, when he ushered me out of his office and into his Landrover for, as he said, a quick visit to a friend living nearby. Five minutes later, as we drove through the gates of Government House he let me into his secret - tea with the Governor was never to be missed, especially when it offered an opportunity to check on the several pairs of Bronze Sunbirds that were nesting at the time. That tea with the Governor, Malcolm McDonald, lasted almost two hours, and when Williams dropped me outside my office later in the evening my knees trembled in anticipation of the roasting that was to follow.

OSTRICH (Struthio camelus) The largest living bird; flightless; two toes only on each foot

Identification. 7-8ft, 2-21/2m. Unmistakable; adult male black and white; female and immature greyish-brown.

Voice. Usually silent: breeding males utter deep booming sound but this is seldom heard.

Illustration by Norman Arlott from Williams's A Field Guide to the Birds of East Africa (1980)