Tribute to Phil Hockey (8 March 1956 – 24 January 2013)
Born in England, Phil came to the FitzPatrick Institute in 1976 to assist with a study of White-fronted Plover breeding biology at Langebaan Lagoon. Preferring conditions here to counting sea ducks in winter from freezing Scottish shores, Phil moved to South Africa in 1979 to study African Black Oystercatchers for his PhD. After graduating in 1983, Phil stayed on at the Fitztitute as a contract researcher, and then as a lecturer. Although most of his early research focused on coastal and estuarine bird ecology, Phil was involved in setting the guidelines for the first southern African bird atlas, and was lead author on the bird atlas of the Southwestern Cape. Phil’s focus on coastal waders and interactions with their food supplies took him to tropical Africa and islands in the Indian Ocean, South America, the Canary Islands and the Middle East. He was soon recognised as the authority on African waders and in 1995 he published the monograph Waders of Southern Africa. Together with Ian Sinclair and Warwick Tarboton he also wrote the best-selling regional field guide Sasol Birds of Southern Africa.
As Phil’s career developed, he broadened his fields of interest to include bird movement and migration, avian life history evolution and the ecology of rarity. He also extended his horizons inland, taking charge of the Fitz’s Karoo ecosystems project. By the end of the 1990s, Phil was one of the most experienced ornithologists in southern Africa, and a natural choice to lead the revision of Roberts’ Birds of Southern Africa.
Phil was appointed the Institute's Director in 2008 and has led the DST/NRF Centre of Excellence using ‘Birds as Keys to Biodiversity Conservation’ to new heights. During his career, he graduated 18 PhD and 33 MSc students, and supervised eight Post-doctoral Fellows and some 30 honours projects. In addition to more than 120 scientific papers, Phil published over 150 semi-popular articles and 12 books and book chapters. He was passionate about the need to disseminate the science of birds, and their conservation, to a wide audience, and frequently presented public lectures, radio and television interviews. His contribution in this regard was recognised by the South African Network for Coastal and Oceanic Research who named him ‘Marine and Coastal Communicator of the Year’ in 2000 and he was awarded the Stevenson-Hamilton Medal by the Zoological Society of Southern Africa in 2008 for contributions to the public awareness of science.
Phil’s impact and leadership in ornithology has been exemplary and he will be remembered through his vast contribution to the avian literature, both scientific and popular. Phil touched the hearts and lives of many people, from deeply insightful discussions about birds to warm interactions on life itself. He was a deeply caring person with an open heart and will be sorely missed by many.