Uffe Gjøl Sørensen (1954-2021)
Uffe with a rolled-up hedgehog, Gryet, Bornholm, Denmark, May 8, 2017. Numerous withered leaves are stuck on the spines. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
By Kaj Halberg og Lene Brun Smith
In February 2021, Uffe, my good friend through more than 45 years, passed away due to a malignant tumor in the brain, combined with pneumonia and corona.
Uffe grew up in Himmerland, south of the city of Aalborg, Denmark. From childhood he had a great interest in birds, and he soon became active in the local ornithological circles. As a teenager, he began mapping rook colonies in north-eastern Himmerland, which became one of his long-term studies, continuing into the latest years.
The Copenhagen gang
I first met Uffe in 1974 in the nature reserve Tipperne, Ringkøbing Fjord, western Denmark, where he had been hired to count birds.
A couple of years later, he moved to Copenhagen to study biology, and in the following years I often visited him there. He lived in a complex of small appartments in a side street, where other bird watchers also lived, including Ib Krag Petersen, Lene Smith, David Boertmann, Thomas Læssøe, Bent Otto Poulsen (called Bop), Erling Krabbe, Steen Christensen, Klaus Malling Olsen, Mikkel Lausten, Hans Meltofte, and Hanne Rode.
In his epistle Blues for Møllegade (‘Mill Street Blues’), Klaus Malling Olsen gives a vivid description of the environment: “Mill Street lay dreary and grey, so typical for this part of Copenhagen, as you can imagine from the 1980s. Old workers’ apartments opposite the Mosaic cemetery, with a view towards graves and tall trees from the apartments. Small and humid, without bath and with a very small kitchen and toilet, and no other heating than a wood stove. Places for artists or scientists. Only few people were aware that in these humble surroundings some of the most important ornithological works were conceived, written, and discussed. At the same time, the street outside was a mess of dog shit, and a colourful assemblage of more or less alcoholic types gathered outside the grocery store on the corner, as taken out of a novel from the workers’ environment from the same part of Copenhagen.”
Many of the ornithologists were members of a food club, taking turns in preparing a weekly meal for the entire gang, and they were often friendly enough to invite me, too. I shall never forget one incident, when I was visiting Uffe. It was his turn to make a meal for the club members. However, he had been delayed at some meeting and phoned me to say that he would be late, and could I please prepare the meal, otherwise the hungry members of the food club would be shouting very loud, mocking him. Of course I agreed to cook, and while I was still busy preparing the meal, the other members began swarming in.
“Where is Uffe?” they all asked. When they learned that he was delayed, there was a lot of shouting, despite my cooking, and when Uffe arrived a couple of hours later he became the target of much mocking.
“It doesn’t count to make a friend cook!” they said, “You owe us one more meal!”
Uffe was a prominent figure in the 1980s in Fugleværnsfonden, a foundation established in 1966 by the chairman of the Danish Ornithological Society, Lorenz Ferdinand, in this picture from 1984 seated at the end of the table. The other persons are (from left) Christian Hjorth (seen from behind), who later became chairman of the society, Uffe, Lene Smith, and Thorvald Frølich. (Photographer unknown)
Uffe in the backyard, Copenhagen, April 1, 1999. It seems that some alcohol was consumed! However, it is not all from the ornithologists living there. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Bird counts along the coast of Sinai 1979-1981
Thoughout each autum in the years 1979-1981, Uffe and Ib Krag Petersen carried out numerous registrations of migrating birds along the northern coast of the Sinai Peninsula. Observations of migrating birds, as they were carried out in Denmark and other European countries, was an entirely new thing in the Near East, and one of the aims of the project was to teach young Egyptians to become skilled ornithologists. Uffe and Ib succeded in doing so for a number of people, including Gamil Atta and Sherif Baha el-Din, with whom Uffe kept in contact until the end.
The material from Sinai was processed by Uffe, and in 1991 he graduated on the subject Large scale autumn migration of water birds along the North Coast of Sinai, Egypt.
Uffe with Egyptian ornithologists Gamil and Mahmoud in Gamil’s appartment in western Cairo, with a fine view towards the pyramids. Senegal thick-knee (Burhinus senegalensis) was breeding on the roofs. Gamil’s family still owns the appartment, but today all houses around it are sky-high, and from a distance, the old appartment mostly resembles a backyard shed. (Text and photo copyright © by Ib Krag Petersen)
Early February 1986, I spent a few days in the bird sanctuary Keoladeo Ghana, northern India – in daily speech called Bharatpur. One day I was cycling along the road through the sanctuary, when I noticed some bird watchers looking up into a tree. I stopped to ask what they were looking at, when one of them turned around and said: “Hello, Kaj!” – It was Uffe! He was travelling with some friends, and he knew that I was in northern India, but not where. From one of the wardens in Keoladeo he had heard that I was in the reserve.
Ranthambhor National Park, Rajasthan, 1986. Uffe is leaning up a pillar, to the left Jørgen Bech, to the right Hans Jørgen Bruun, obviously a bit tired. (Photo copyright © by Torben Hviid)
WWF and mountain gorillas
Later, Uffe got a job as senior scientific adviser in Verdensnaturfonden, the Danish section of WWF. In the early 1990s, he was involved in a project, the aim of which was to protect the mountain gorillas in Bwindi National Park, Uganda.
In late December 1994, Solveig Schjørring and I met with Uffe and his friend Jørgen Bech in Arusha, northern Tanzania, where we hired a Landcruiser for a month’s safari in Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya. One of the highlights of this trip was a hike in Bwindi, where we, after some time, managed to find a family group of the fantastic mountain gorillas. They are so much like us, just much more peaceful!
Uffe repeated the success in 1998, when he visited the gorillas together with the well-known Danish actress Ghita Nørby, and Poul Thomsen, who was the host of a nature program on Danish TV. The aim of this trip was to create awareness around the conservation of gorillas and other apes, and to raise money for the project. Uffe and Ghita wrote a small book about the issue: Operation Oskar – med Ghita Nørby på besøg hos bjerggorillaerne (‘Operation Oskar – visiting mountain gorillas with Ghita Nørby’).
Uffe (left) and Jørgen during a jeep-drive in the Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania, January 1, 1995. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Prior to our search for gorillas in Bwindi National Park, a wildlife warden informs us about the rules for gorilla trekking, from left our driver Nuru, Jørgen, Solveig, and Uffe, January 12, 1995. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe during the gorilla trek. A pretty tough hike up and down mountain slopes. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
For both Uffe and me, Ethiopia had for a long time been high on the priority list of places to visit. In January 1996, we flew to Addis Ababa together with Jørgen Bech and Erling Krabbe. We then continued by plane to the northern town of Lalibela, to attend an important annual Orthodox Christian festival. Our adventures during our stay is related on the page Travel episodes – Ethiopia 1996: Timkat – a Christian festival. Returning to Addis, we rented a jeep with a driver, Alem, and toured the country for about 3 weeks.
Uffe (left), Jørgen (centre), Erling, and a local guide at St. George’s Church in Lalibela, a fantastic building, carved down into the rock. You can only enter the church by sing a ladder, or by walking through an underground tunnel. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Early in the morning, Erling, Uffe, and Jørgen are searching for a rare antelope, the mountain nyala (Tragelaphus buxtoni), Dinsho, Bale Mountains National Park. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Tea break during a hike across the Sanetti Plateau, Bale Mountains, from left Jørgen, Uffe, Erling, and our driver Alem. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe was often suffering from migraine headaches. During an attack near Negelle, southern Ethiopia, he takes a nap in the shade beneath a tree. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Southern Africa 1996-97
In the early 1990s, Verdensnaturfonden initiated a project in the Bangweulu Swamps, northern Zambia, supervised by Uffe. Originally, animal life in these swamps was extremely rich, but the numbers of most species were now steadily declining due to over-exploitation of fish populations, and of animals in general, including two antelopes, black lechwe (Kobus leche ssp. smithemani) and Zambezi sitatunga (Tragelaphus spekii ssp. selousi), the former being endemic to the area. These swamps are described in depth on the page Countries and places: Bangweulu – where water meets the sky.
The main aim of the project was to persuade the local people to exploit the natural recources at a sustainable level, so that the animal populations were kept stable. A number of local councils, called Community Development Units, were founded, and during CDU meetings between WWF staff and villagers, local issues were discussed. Several women’s groups were also formed, teaching women about healthy food, hygiene, care of infants, knitting, sewing, and baking, and about women’s rights in Zambia.
Part of the project also involved publishing material for Danish school children to create awareness of conservation problems in Africa. When Uffe learned that I was planning to go to South Africa, buy a car, and drive around in southern Africa, he persuaded me to go to the Bangweulu Swamps to document the ways of the local tribes, Unga and Bena Kabende, through pictures, and also to photograph as many animals as possible. The pictures would be of great usage in the school material, and elsewhere. As it turned out, I also ended up writing the text for a booklet, aimed at the school children.
The project was running smoothly for some years, but then Uffe heard rumours about corruption. As it turned out, the local leader of the project, a German named Rolf, had transferred money from the project to his own account. In 1996, Uffe had to go to Zambia for six months to try to save the project, but in vain. Donors were unwilling to continue donating money under the present circumstances.
In November 1996, I flew to Lusaka and continued to the WWF headquarters in the small town of Samfya, where I met with Uffe. Later, Jørgen Bech and Erling Krabbe arrived, so now the members of the ‘Gang of Four’ from our trip to Ethiopia 1996 were once again gathered. We spent a month touring Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Botswana.
Uffe, Zambian biologist Flavian (in front), Dutch biologist Cornelie van der Feen, and two staff members, on their way out into the Bangweulu Swamps from Chinsanka, November 26, 1996. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe, Cornelie, and Flavian (centre, with papers), participating in a CDU meeting in Bwalya Mponda, Ncheta Island, Bangweulu Swamps, November 26, 1996. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe, standing on a large termite mound, Kasanka National Park, Zambia. December 15, 1996. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe is happy. On a trip into the Bangweulu Swamps, he has just spotted one of his dream species, the rare shoebill, January 25, 1997. (Foto copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Here, a small tree frog has landed on Uffe’s binoculars, Bangweulu Swamps, January 25, 1997. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In this picture, Uffe is feeding a confiding Smith’s bush squirrel (Paraxerus cepapi), McIlwaine Game Park, Lake Chivero, Zimbabwe, February 10, 1997. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe beneath an African mahogany (Khaya anthotheca), a buttressed rainforest tree, Chirinda Forest, Zimbabwe, February 16, 1997. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In winter 1997-1998, I spent 6 months in India and Nepal. Early February, Uffe and Jørgen flew to Kathmandu, and with the help of my Nepalese friend Navaraj, we arranged a week-long camping trek in Ilam, in the south-eastern part of Nepal. We flew to Badrapur and met with our staff.
A week later, we went by bus to Koshi Barrage, a huge swamp area with a rich birdlife, and then on to Sauraha, on the shore of the Rapti River, close to Chitwan National Park. We went on two hikes in the park to look for rhinos and birds. We were lucky to spot a leopard. Then on to Meghauli, in the western part of Chitwan, where we managed to see the rare Bengal florican (Houbaropsis bengalensis).
Late February, we made a week-long hike in Langtang National Park, north of Kathmandu, together with Navaraj and a porter, Lakpa. It was still winter here, so we stayed in the lower parts of the park, around the village of Shyabru.
When camping in Ilam, we always attracted a large crowd of curious, but very friendly children. The upper picture shows Uffe in our camp at Jamuna, to the left our guide Sunil. In the lower picture, Uffe is watching a bird in the telescope, between Lodia and Garuwa. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Jørgen and Uffe in our camp at Hanga Tham – a cold experience! (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe is happy – he has just spotted one of his target species, the colourful fire-tailed myzornis (Myzornis pyrrhoura), at Hanga Tham. A picture of this bird is shown on the page Animals – Birds: Birds in the Himalaya. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe and Jørgen with guides during a hike in Chitwan National Park, near Sauraha. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Jørgen and Uffe, watching a rhino, Chitwan National Park. The animal is barely visible in the dense grass. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Resting at a small wayside restaurant near Brabal, Langtang National Park, from left Jørgen, Lakpa, Uffe, Navaraj, and two of the restaurant staff. In the Hindu pantheon, Laxmi is the goddess of welfare. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe and Jørgen in a bamboo forest between Shyabru and the Langtang River. In this area, we managed to observe black-throated parrotbill (Paradoxornis nipalensis). This bird is not rare, but a ‘skulker’ – always hiding among dense vegetation. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In March 1999, I spent about 3 weeks together with Uffe in Egypt, the first few days in the company of Sherif Baha el-Din, one of Uffe’s aquiantances from the bird counts in Sinai back around 1980. During our stay, Baha el-Din was working with the threatened Egyptian tortoise (Testudo kleinmanni) in Zaranik Protected Area, Sinai. Today, he is a renowned herpetologist, who has described several new reptile species from Egypt.
Uffe with Sherif Baha el-Din, standing in front of a fancy welcome gate in Zaranik Protected Area, Sinai. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe, buying breakfast from a colourful trolley, which serves as a tiny restaurant, Cairo. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe beneath the gigantic Khufu Pyramid, built during the reign of Pharaoh Khufu, called Cheops by the Greeks (ruled 2551-2528 B.C.). (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe at a ‘mushroom’ rock, near Nuweiba, Sinai. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In May 1999, Uffe and I spent some days together on the island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea.
In this picture, Uffe is making notes on the flora, including elder-flowered orchid, on the hill Langebjerg, May 14, 1999. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In May 2000, I spent 10 days in Estonia together with Uffe, Lene Smith, Mikkel Lausten, and Morten Christensen. Morten is (or was) co-owner of a dilapidated farm house near the village Rõude, situated north-east of Matsalu Nature Reserve.
Here we are sitting outside the farm house near Rõude, from left Lene, Mikkel, Uffe, and Morten. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe with a jar, containing bear grease, Tammemäe. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
On an ice-cold winter day, January 5, 2002, Uffe, Erling Krabbe, and I paid a visit to Jørgen Bech in his summer house in western Zealand. Now the members of the ‘Gang of Four’ from our trips to Ethiopia and southern Africa were once again gathered.
In this picture, we are on a birding trip at Sevedø, from left me, Uffe, and Erling. (Photo Jørgen Bech, copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Southern Jutland 2011
Here we are on a tour near Aabenraa, southern Jutland, searching for alpine newts – the only place in Denmark this species occurs. Both smooth and great crested newt are found in the same area. In the upper picture, Uffe is catching newts, and in the lower one he is photographing them in a jar, together with Erling Krabbe. – May 7, 2011. (Photos copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Summer house in Zealand
Uffe shared his later days with Lene Brun Smith, who had bought a summer house at Roskilde Fjord, northern Zealand. Here, she and Uffe spent the greater part of their spare time. They were both very interested in culture and history and undertook numerous journeys, inland and abroad, to investigate natural and cultural issues.
Uffe retired in 2019, and from then on he focused on extensive studies of a pair of white-tailed eagles, which was nesting near the summer house, and on counting breeding birds in the old moats surrounding Christiania in Copenhagen.
Uffe and Lene were both very interested in culture and history, and, like me, Uffe had been much occupied with the travels of Carsten Niebuhr in Arabia and other countries 1761-1767. In this picture, they are standing next to a bust of Niebuhr in his hometown Meldorf, Schleswig-Holstein, northern Germany, November 26, 2000. You may read more about Niebuhr on the page People: Pehr Forsskål – brilliant Swedish scientist. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe and Lene, inspecting a Stone Age dolmen near Kirke Stillinge, western Zealand, August 19, 2018. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe carried out extensive studies of a pair of white-tailed eagles, which was nesting near the summer house. This picture is from June 1, 2018. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In May 2017, I spent a week together with Uffe and Lene on the island of Bornholm, in the Baltic Sea, where we had rented a house near Aaker Plantation. From here, we explored the island on daily trips.
Uffe, talking to Finn Hansen, a very knowledgable Bornholmian naturalist, who showed us several rare plant species. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe and Lene had a great interest in culture and history. Here they are standing at a so-called domar ring, a circular formation of standing stones from the Iron Age, Hjortebakken, Bornholm. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe on the narrow staircase in Ols Church, Bornholm, built in the 1100s or 1200s. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Uffe, photographing cave spider (Meta menardi), Helligdomsklipperne, Bornholm. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
Lene and Uffe, enjoying a break in our rented house, Bornholm. (Photo copyright © by Kaj Halberg)
In February 2005, Uffe and I made our first great journey together to Gujarat and Rajastan, north-western India. We had made a stop to look for a bird or an animal, and while Uffe and Laxman were pursuing it, I walked to some nearby huts, where I was invited for tea and a talk. The boys showed me their school books, but when Uffe arrived, it was much more important that they were shown to him! Engaging with local people on our trips was my idea. Uffe loved it, but he probably wouldn’t have done it if he had been on his own. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Late May 2006, we flew to Alta in northern Norway and continued to Kirkenes. Snow was still present on the mountain tops. Two things were important to us on this trip: to see the Stone Age pictographs at Alta, and to observe the migration of the lesser white-fronted goose. However, we only managed to observe a small flock of this goose. There were absolutely no other tourists around, and open lodges were few and far between. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
This picture is from southern India, February 2007. Uffe was excellent to keep in contact with the various bird guides on our trips. I think several of them learned more from him than the other way around, but they knew where to observe the ‘target’ species. A couple of times, he assisted guides in getting observations published in scientific journals – not necessarily of birds that we had seen together. It might concern a bird they had observed previously, or an observation they had done after our trip, and would consult Uffe about. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
When visiting Uffe’s family in northern Jutland, we always took the ferry from Sjællands Odde (Promontory of Zealand). If we had the necessary time for it, we would visit interesting places on the way, in this case a twin dolmen. I am not much for creeping into these megalithic structures, as I find it claustrophobic, but Uffe always had to go in there to investigate. – September 29, 2007. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Uffe, talking to Jonas. He was not much for babies, but when children reached an age where they were able to make a conversation, it was an entirely different matter. Especially the more thoughtful children enjoyed talking to Uffe, because he took them seriously and answered them as he would have answered an adult. – October 17, 2007. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Uffe had a close relationship with his nephew Asbjørn, who spent a period with Uffe during each and every summer holiday, from the time when he was old enough to go by train alone. In the beginning, the main entertainment was the Tivoli Gardens and the like, later jazz concerts. – June 13, 2008. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Celebrating the 140th birthday of Uffe’s older brother Søren and his wife Gurli. Uffe is assisting his mother wrapping up a gift. – January 31, 2009. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Dandelion liquor! Inger Meltofte gets instructed how to pull the flowerheads apart. All green parts have to be thrown away, as they are bitter. The yellow flowers soak in vodka for 24 hours, the flowers are removed with a sieve, and the essence is diluted. I was not very happy with this one. In my opinion, beech bud, burnet rose, and bayberry (Myrica) are much better. – April 25, 2009. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
In 2010, we visited Sri Lanka together with Jørgen Bech and his wife Jette. This picture was taken on January 15th in the Sinjaraha rainforest, during a solar eclipse. We watched the light getting fainter, as a total eclipse could only be observed at the northern point of the island. It was our intention to watch the darkened sun as a reflection in water in the tub, and we were supposed to look through a hole in the piece of paper in Uffe’s hand. I don’t know where Uffe got that idea – and I don’t really remember if we saw anything in the water. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Uffe had a close relationship with his cousin Villum. This picture is from Dålene, behind Villum’s childhood home in Saltum, northern Jutland. When they were young, they picked blueberries here. Today they search for orchids – northern marsh orchid, I think. The area is grazed by cattle, and there are lots of butterflies and a fine vegetation. – July 29, 2010. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
Here, Uffe is paying a visit to Søren and Gurli in their summer house in Saltum. The picture shows several characteristics: The table in the background is set – the couple always displayed great hospitality and hosting. Secondly, Uffe is busy showing something interesting he has found. – November 6, 2010. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
In January 2011, we undertook a fantastic trip to central India. This picture is from Bhopal, which has a very large Muslim population. Outside the mosque we met these men, who got quite enthusiastic, when Uffe was able to talk a little in Arabic with them. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
After spending a couple of days in Kanha National Park, we boarded the night train to Varanasi. It was quite amazing to find our names on the list at the railway station in Jabalpur, and to notice that bunks had been reserved for us. Bureaucracy is something the Indians are very good at – but in this case in the service of the good cause. – January 15, 2011. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
In the old moats surrounding Christiania in Copenhagen, Uffe carried out extensive studies of the breeding mute swans. He had names for all of them, and followed their territorial fights intensely. This picture, however, is from Gentofte Lake, where we were studying mistletoes. Later, Uffe wrote an article about the spreading of mistletoes by birds in the Copenhagen area. – November 11, 2012. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
We were in Berlin November 2012, here at the Museum fur Naturkunde (‘Natural History Museum’), which has a fantastic collection of dinosaur skeletons, and also the bird above all birds – the ancient Archaeopteryx. A great tick on the list! If you wonder why Uffe is crossing his arms, I have to inform you that in Denmark birders don’t tick off a new bird – they ‘cross’ it off. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
In Berlin, we also paid a visit to the Pergamon Museum to see the Lion Gate of the palace of King Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. This was something Uffe really had been looking forward to – which is quite obvious, judging from the lower picture. (Photos copyright © by Lene Smith)
In December 2012, we paid a short visit to Texas together with Hans Jørgen Bruun and his wife Birgit. This picture is from the airport on our way home. Naturally, Uffe and Hans Jørgen are checking some of our bird observations. Note the shirt Uffe is wearing. We had been shopping in one of these outlet stores, and even Uffe, who was definitely not interested in clothing, was seized by shopping mania and acquired several shirts, trousers, and shoes. The shirt he is wearing in this picture became his favourite for the rest of his life. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
In this picture from May 27, 2013, Uffe and his older brother Asger are looking at old family photos, I think. All three brothers showed a great interest in family matters, far back in time. They always discussed memories from their childhood – and there was often different editions when it came to the details! (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
I can’t remember, where Uffe found this exhausted nuthatch, but he liked it very much! – July 21, 2013. (Photo copyright © by Lene Smith)
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