Martin Collinson

Published on 12 February 2011 in Other

This is a taster of a potential new feature in BB. The idea is to bring you an insight into the lives of key figures in modern-day ornithology, by posing a standard set of questions – some serious, some less so. We decided it to trial it on our website by putting the questions to members of BB‘s editorial board. Let us know what you think by posting a comment.

Martin Collinson Martin cut his birding teeth as a teenager in North Wales, and subsequently in the Cambridge Bird Club.  He has been an editorial board member for BB since 1998 and is an associate editor of Ibis.  He is Chairman of BOURC and Convenor of its Taxonomic Subcommittee.  He lives on the coast near Aberdeen and can usually be found staring into the sycamores trying to add Icterine Warbler to his patch list.

What’s your earliest memory? There was a tunnel, a bright light, and then someone smacked me. Really I’d like to say that my first memory was of my Dad taking me to see a White-tailed Lapwing at Packington in 1975, but that wouldn’t be true either. My real first memory is being on the beach at Scarborough and watching one of my friends eating a cream pie. From the family photograph album it seems I would have been nearly three. I don’t know what I did before that age. Maybe I repressed the memories. Maybe I was in jail.

What was your first job? I’m not sure I’ve ever had a real job. Apart from newspaper rounds, my first paid work was as an illustrator for a tourist map of the Great Orme, Llandudno, which at the time was also my local patch. I had to do little ink drawings to depict the wildlife and I managed to slip in pictures of a dead Black-legged Kittiwake, two Eurasian Oystercatchers mating and a Ruddy Turnstone pecking at a condom on the beach. None of this was noticed until the map was printed. The Sun ran a small story on it. Twenty years later the map has sold 25000 copies but, strangely, the royalty cheques never seem to find me.

How and when did you get into birds? Good old-fashioned sibling rivalry. My sister was doing a project about birds at school, dusted down granddad’s binoculars and saw a Red-breasted Merganser in the Conwy Estuary, North Wales. I knew then that I could never be happy until I had seen more birds than she had. Maybe the main reason I continue birding is to make sure she never catches up.

Who are your heroes and why? The usual suspects, mostly scientists and people who were not afraid to fight and argue for what they believed to be right, even when history suggests they were wrong.

What’s the biggest conservation challenge/priority in your country today? Lack of space for wildlife is the problem. And capitalism. I spent a lot of time about 10-15 years ago trying to work within the planning system, lobbying and commenting on planning applications, and helping to get Biodiversity Action Plans embedded in Local Council thinking. What I found is that there is no piece of land so valuable to wildlife, history or culture that local politicians cannot be persuaded to sell it off to business interests. More recently the destruction of the part of the SSSI at Menie, NE Scotland, for Donald Trump’s new golf course only convinced me further that, bad as things are, they can get a lot worse yet.

What would get more kids interested in birds? Probably a Wii ‘Birding’ game. Actually that’s not a bad idea. Otherwise, I’m not sure. Birding is like murder: you need the motive and the opportunity. My opportunity was moving to North Wales as a teenager, when there was nothing else to do, and one thing that kids need is the opportunity to be exposed to the natural world by getting outside. My motive was a Spotter’s Guide to birds that awarded you points for the different species. I had great fun filling all those tick boxes. Actually it’s not all that different from adult birding, only we’re less honest about that aspect sometimes. While there are still 25 points available for stringing a Marsh Warbler, people will always get interested in birds.

What are your views on reintroductions? Torn. In some ways I think they get too much money and too high a priority. Some species genuinely have a problem and benefit from reintroductions – Red Kites are an example of the species that (in Britain) was in real trouble, and the reintroduction project has been exemplary. Reintroducing Ospreys to Rutland Water was nuts. Osprey is probably one of the most widespread and successful species in the World, and was already expanding into England anyway. Plastic populations devalue the species. On the other hand you cannot deny the role that reintroduction schemes play in raising the profile of wildlife and enthusing people about birds. And they do bring in money that would not otherwise be available for conservation.

When did you last use a notebook? The last time I was birding. Always always always have a notebook. A physical record of what you were doing in the field, complete with blood stains, mud and desperate scribbles, is your greatest gift to your future self.

Where and when would your ideal birdwatching day be? An autumn day on my local patch, with common migrants in the air and the whiff of rarity coming in from the sea. I’ve had some fantastic days birding abroad: probably one of my best days was a Bill-Oddie-esque walk round the City Park in New Orleans one April morning after an overnight storm, when the place was crawling with spring warblers. It was all the sweeter because I was on a work trip and hadn’t paid for my flight. But you can’t beat the satisfaction of payback when, after all those hours of seeing sod all, a good bird finally turns up on your patch. Pallas’s Warblers are that little bit brighter in a windswept bush that you know has held not a single bird in the last 8 years.

If you could go back in time, where and when would you go? As any fule no, the ONLY reason to build a time machine would be to go back and see dinosaurs. The real ones – big scary ones. Not these pathetic dinosaur leftovers we call birds. Actually I did go back in time once. I sat in a tree and threw an apple at Isaac Newton’s head. That got him thinking. It was a pear tree.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Achievement is relative. Some days, getting your socks on is an achievement. There have been times in my working life when we have made discoveries or published reports that have changed healthcare practice and helped some patients. Days like that don’t come along very often. In the bird world, I guess the biggest achievements have been related to taxonomic work – publishing the Species Guidelines with the taxonomic subcommittee of BOURC had a massive impact. So did the paper which debunked the rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.

How do you relax? Not sure I do. I always seem to be doing something. I like watching 1970s sitcoms on TV. Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads, On The Buses, Citizen Smith, Porridge. If you overlook the casual racism and homophobia, there’s also a lot of very funny writing out there. All these programmes are products of their time. I’m glad we moved on.

What keeps you awake at night? Nothing really. I sleep the sleep of the just. On a good night it will be listening to the passage of thrushes and waders going over the house.

What book would you take on a cruise? Obviously Seabirds by Peter Harrison. I’d be a very unsatisfactory cruise companion, not being a big fan of casual socialisation or any form of relaxation that might have to involve jigsaws, romantic novels or quoits. I’d have to be on deck all the time with my bins. My ideal cruise would track the continental shelves of the world on a boat with no evening cabarets and a canteen selling chips.

What are you doing to save the planet? Mostly I post indignant anti-government and pro-environment statuses and websites onto facebook. I’m hoping that will somehow sort out the mess. Otherwise it’s a matter of being as noisy as you can about how lifestyle changes can affect the environment. I don’t take flights within the UK and I’m not a great consumer. I think birders should think very hard about the consequences of gratuitous travel. The taxonomic work is quite important too – classification is the basis of conservation. Ultimately there does not seem to be the political will to make the important decisions that will actually avert environmental meltdown.

Don’t forget – tell us your opinion of this feature – would you like to see it appear in BB? Are there particular people you’d like to see featured, are their particular questions you would like to see answered? Thanks for your feedback.

The BB editorial team