Virtual collegiality for birders in lockdown

13 May 2020 | Story Jessica van der Wal. Photo Supplied. Read time 4 min.
A screenshot of the FitzPatrick Institute’s virtual weekly tea meeting.
A screenshot of the FitzPatrick Institute’s virtual weekly tea meeting.

#UCTLockdownLetters is a new feature on the University of Cape Town (UCT) news site. Staff, students, parents of students: we want to hear about your experiences of work and life in lockdown. Emails, audio and video clips, prose and poetry are also very welcome. This is your space.

16 April 2020

I’ve been working from home for seven weeks now. I am blessed in that I have a nice workspace at home and an okay internet connection. I live in Observatory with two housemates. I find it hardest to stay motivated and to work throughout this whirlwind of emotions and feelings. I have found that the best way to keep going is to structure my day, dividing it into chunks. Also, I try not to have high expectations – and I take plenty of breaks!

Before lockdown, these breaks included a 10:30 tea break with colleagues at the FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithology. Situated on upper campus, the FitzPatrick Institute is home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest centre for ornithological research.

Housed in the Department of Biological Sciences, researchers and students at the FitzPatrick Institute undertake scientific studies involving birds and their conservation.

Despite busy fieldwork schedules throughout the year, the FitzPatrick Institute is working hard to maintain structure and a sense of community and collegiality in these strange times. With lockdown in full effect, fellow postdoctoral research fellow Dr Susan Miller and I initiated the move to daily online tea breaks.


“This feeling of community has helped me remember we are all in this together.”

Virtual tea is held on Zoom at the usual time. It’s been a great success, with up to 23 participants for Friday tea (when virtual biscuits are served).

It’s been a nice way to break up the morning, great to see some familiar faces, and an opportunity to discuss a topic or a statistics problem that we have been struggling with on our own.

Working from home can be lonely, and this feeling of community has helped me remember we are all in this together, and that I am not the only one having productivity problems. The biggest challenge at a virtual tea is that it allows only one group conversation at a time, so finding something to talk about that everybody finds interesting is sometimes a challenge.

On Fridays, several members of the institute used to meet in the UCT Club for a beverage or two to conclude the week, a tradition that has also moved online. In addition, a WhatsApp group created by a senior staff member to connect everyone in the Fitz has helped to keep up the morale, especially for students writing up their theses, and those having to find alternatives to fieldwork-based studies.

Susan and I are also the co-organisers of the Fitz journal club, which is also being run online.

I’m also part of the Biological Sciences Postgraduate Committee, where we organise regular workshops and events for the department’s postgraduates and postdocs. Now that we are in lockdown, I’m organising a recurring virtual writing group on Zoom for dedicated, quiet writing time with peer accountability and company.

On Wednesday afternoons we meet virtually, share what we want to achieve that day, and then work on our set task, using a schedule that follows the Pomodoro Technique: 25-minute blocks interlaced with five-minute breaks.

The motto is “Write first, edit later”, resisting the temptation to keep going back to correct your last sentence, thereby keeping your train of thought and making it easier to edit your writing later.

Share in our community. Document your thoughts and feelings during lockdown. Send your letter from home (max 1 200 words), audio, video (60 seconds maximum), prose poetry, slam poetry, prayers, benedictions, or songs to

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UCT Lockdown Letters: Share your stories

In order to foster a sense of community during the COVID-19 lockdown, a new initiative – #UCTLockdownLetters – invites staff and students from across UCT to share your stories about life and survival at home.

How has the lockdown affected you and your ability to work or study? What does your study-from-home space look like? What adaptations have you made to working from home? How are you coping as partners, parents, children, siblings and individuals? How do you cope with stress? What will you do differently after the lockdown?

This is your space to express yourself in any medium you choose: in words, prose, poetry, audio, video or pictures. Your contributions will be curated as part of a special platform designed for sharing – and to create a unique archive for future UCT communities.

Please send your submissions to

Please remember to avoid including copyrighted material in your submissions. UCT reserves the right to review and select submitted content for publication on this feature page. Videos (in .mp4 format) and audio files (in .mp3 format) can be shared with the Newsroom through downloadable link services like WeTransfer or Google Drive, among others. If you are unsure about how to film yourself, please watch the video tutorial.

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