Professor of Biology
St Andrews University
Involved with the BOU as:
BOU member since: 1994
Most likely to be found . . .
. . . On my bike, with my binoculars on trying to add to my local patch list (224 and counting)
Why are you a member of the BOU?
The BOU is Britain’s professional organisation for ornithologists and serious birders. It organises great conferences, publishes the Ibis, funds new researchers and so facilitates a lot of great research world-wide.
What is your role on the BOU Council or committee on which you sit?
I have sat on Council and the Meetings Committee in the past but am currently just an ordinary member.
What do you enjoy most about your involvement with the BOU?
Meeting other ornithologists and fellow enthusiasts, particularly at conferences. I also enjoy being part of an organisation with a bit of history and credibility to give depth and context to my research and my birding.
What would you say to anyone who is considering joining (or leaving!) the BOU?
Britain is the top country in the world in terms of its citizen scientists and the BOU is part of this great tradition. Support it and celebrate it.
Tell us a bit more about the project for which you received BOU funding?
I was part of a team that recently got some BOU funding to look at the migration phenology of Whinchats in Nigeria. We looked at when Whinchats left their territories to migrate back to Europe and how their body condition varied. We found that Whinchats – although very site faithful and with high survival rates through the winter – probably left their territories to fatten up elsewhere a week or two before crossing the Sahara. This suggests that staging sites before or during migration, rather than wintering territories, might be the crucial stages to look at to understand migration population dynamics.
If you’ve attended a BOU conference, what did you get out of it?
Practice at presentation to my peers through the years; a great sense of comradeship with fellow ornithologists and of course a lot of information in a short space of time.
When did your interest in ornithology begin?
At the age of 12 when I recorded my first Swallow of the year (April 13th 1979 – I remember it well). But seeing wildlife in South Africa as a toddler probably started my interest overall.
What is your most memorable bird-y experience?
So many. Long-tailed Hawks hunting above a group of chimpanzees in Gabon; my first Albatrosses on a pelagic off Cape Town; 45 new species in a day in the middle of the rain forest in Ecuador; seeing any migrant I have colour-ringed back again for another year; the Gannets and Puffins that are my “garden” birds in the summer; any trip I make to a new place in the world…
What is your favourite outdoor place and why?
The one I am in as long as I have my binoculars – there will always be birds to see. But anywhere in an African savannah is hard to beat.
What do you predict to be the future big research areas in ornithology?
Dispersal and migration are the big question marks for small birds and we need to be able to record where and when birds disperse and die in an unbiased way. To do this we need a “death tag” –something as cheap and ubiquitous as the metal bird rings attached currently to a huge number of birds annually – that will send just one location up to a satellite when the bird dies, or at a fixed time interval if it is still alive. This would revolutionize our understanding of population dynamics and evolution.
What would you say to anyone considering research in ornithology?
Lots of us grow up watching people like David Attenborough and wishing we could do what he does. As an ornithologist you do end up doing what he does, but better still, you actually get to find out the stories first.
If you could visit anywhere in the world, that you haven’t yet been to, where would it be and why?
Any area of high diversity – nothing beats getting close to 200 in a day. So open savannahs with lots of wetlands and forest fragments are ideal: bits of India and the Pantanal in Brazil await.
What are the big conservation challenges in the next decade?
The real conservation challenge is to get people to care about species that are disappearing in front of them. This is why birding and ornithology are very good things – birds are accessible and noticeable and it is easy to get people to know about them. Then they start caring and maybe, doing something about them.
Has your career in ornithology turned out how you expected it to?
I never planned to have a career in ornithology. My ambition has always been just to have the greatest proportion of my time out with binoculars and telescope. I feel very lucky that I am now paid to go to interesting parts of the world and seek out, watch and record birds: in that sense it has all worked out very well. But I still wonder if I might be having more fun as a bird tour guide, but the grass is perhaps always greener.
Wherever you go in the world there are birds to be seen and there are 10,000 species in the world. The perfect number – small enough to feel you can take them all in – but large enough that you can always go to new places to see new ones, or have your familiar places made special by the sudden appearance of a new species.