Tim Cleeves is assured of a prominent place in the history of British ornithology thanks to an enigmatic shorebird. But his central role in the folklore of British birding was guaranteed long before he found the Druridge Bay Slender-billed Curlew Numenius tenuirostris in May 1998.
He was a dedicated conservationist, accomplished finder of rare birds, passionate Bob Dylan fan, legendary curry chef, devoted husband, father and grandfather – and long-suffering Bristol Rovers supporter. For more than half a century his stories and catchphrases have entertained birders from Unst to St Agnes – and beyond. His sudden death in December, aged 66, was yet another grievous blow to Northumbrian birding, coming so soon after the equally untimely deaths of Eric Meek and Jimmy Steele.
Tim Cleeves was born on the south-east side of Bristol in 1951 and he retained his Bristol accent, the voice of a pirate, all his life. As a child, he was interested in all aspects of natural history and joined the junior section of the Bristol Naturalists’ Society aged 11. Birds soon became his over-riding passion and his detailed notebooks stretch continuously from January 1965 to December 2017.
Alongside his friends Dick Senior and Keith Vinicombe, the teenage Tim benefited from the kindly mentoring of the prodigious BB Notes contributor Bernard King (Brit. Birds 81: 166–170) whose postcards of rare bird occurrences were the only information service of the age. On 30th August 1965 Tim persuaded car-owning friends of his Nan to drive them to Chew Valley Lake for the day. He spotted Bernard King and others watching what turned out to be the Pied-billed Grebe Podilymbus podiceps that had first been seen at nearby Blagdon Lake in December 1963. It was Tim’s first First for Britain – and it wouldn’t be the last.
Following the formation of the Bristol Ornithological Club in 1966, the legend ‘T.R. Cleeves’ appeared with increasing regularity in the Club bulletin alongside records of scarcities from the Bristol area. ‘The Tim Cleeves Gang’ also travelled further afield in the 1960s and 1970s at the dawn of the twitching era during which time Tim saw not one but two Wallcreepers Tichodroma muraria in southwest England.
Tim was not a grammar school boy, unlike his great friend John Rossetti with whom he shared many adventures right up to their final trip to North Ronaldsay in the autumn of 2017. No, Tim was a graduate of Rodway Technical High School in Mangotsfield, Glos. From there he briefly joined a taxidermy firm in London but cleaning elephant tusks with white spirit was not for him. He returned to Bristol to work at a biological specimens firm and then on a garage forecourt, saving money for the trip of a lifetime: a five-month overland journey to India in 1972 via Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan with Paul Andrew and Roy Smith. As Tim subsequently observed, not many people have Afghan Snowfinch Montifringilla theresae on their world list nowadays…
On his return to Bristol, Tim worked as a credit controller at a carpet company but his career in bird protection and conservation was beckoning and in 1975 he took a contract job for the RSPB wardening Red Kites Milvus milvus and Peregrine Falcons Falco peregrinus in mid-Wales for a quarter of the money he was earning at the carpet firm.
The year 1975 was probably the turning point in Tim’s life. After his RSPB contract finished, he visited Fair Isle in the September, coinciding with the First (and Second!) Tennessee Warbler Leiothlypis peregrina for Britain (Brit. Birds 74: 90-94) but a far more profound encounter was with Ann, then the assistant cook at the bird observatory and now the hugely successful crime novelist.
Tim returned to wardening duties in Wales in the spring of 1976 and returned to Fair Isle that summer to propose to Ann. They married in February 1977 and, after another spring/summer in Wales, they relocated to Hilbre Island in the Dee Estuary where Tim had secured the warden’s job. It was just the two of them on a tidal island. Ann started writing and their first daughter, Sarah, arrived in January 1981. During this period Tim was a mentor to young Cheshire birders like Andy Stoddart and Martin Garner. Tim – and Martin – achieved widespread respect in the birding community in August 1983 when they correctly identified a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Calidris acuminata at Frodsham that all other birders had written off as ‘just a Pec’.
Later that year Tim joined the staff of the RSPB as an assistant regional officer in the West Midlands. The role included liaison with members’ groups and volunteers and Tim excelled at this work, enthusing hundreds of people to engage in bird conservation. A lasting legacy of his time there is the Symonds Yat Peregrine watch point in The Forest of Dean which he set up. It was also during this time that his and Ann’s younger daughter, Ruth, was born in May 1984.
The family moved to Holywell in Northumberland in 1987 when Tim became a Conservation Officer at the RSPB North of England office in Newcastle. And it was in the North East that Tim, Ann, Sarah and Ruth found true contentment and a settled family life. Tim wrote later: ‘From the first cup of tea with our neighbours as we unlocked the door on moving in, to my first seawatch with friends at Seaton Sluice, I knew this was the only place to be.’
It was in Northumberland that Tim found many of the ‘rares’ that resulted in ‘T.R. Cleeves’ appearing so regularly in the annual British Birds rarities reports. He logged both White Stork Ciconia ciconia and Black Stork C. nigra from his kitchen window in Holywell. And at nearby Seaton Sluice, where he spent countless hours seawatching with his great friend Maurice Hepple, he found Bridled Tern Onychoprion anaethetus and Ross’s Gull Rhodostethia rosea. Other great finds included multiple White-billed Divers Gavia adamsii and Bonaparte’s Gulls Larus philadelphia.
But it was the ‘Druridge Bay curlew’ that catapulted Tim into a maelstrom of debate that lasted for 16 years. In the early evening of 4th May 1998, Bank Holiday Monday, Tim and Ann had stopped off at Druridge Pools for a brief visit. A smaller bird took off briefly with accompanying Eurasian Curlews N. arquata but it was distinctively different and Tim, the most diligent of observers, set to work sketching and taking notes (Brit. Birds 95: 272-278). He had to return to work at RSPB HQ, The Lodge in Bedfordshire, that evening but he had summoned reinforcements and over the next three days a stream of observers came to see the bird. The cumulative notes, photographs and video of the ‘Druridge Bay curlew’ – and the exhaustive research by Jimmy Steele (Brit. Birds 95: 279-299) – convinced the BBRC, and subsequently the BOURC, that Tim had indeed found Britain’s First – and most likely last – Slender-billed Curlew and it was admitted to the British List in 2002. In the BB write-up, the then BOURC Chairman, Eric Meek, praised Tim for having ‘the confidence in his outstanding identification skills to stick to his guns throughout.’
But the enormity of the record, a first summer individual of a Critically Endangered species (a pair of which must have bred somewhere in Siberia in 1997), meant it came under intense scrutiny – particularly from those who had not ventured north to see the bird during its four-day stay.
A subsequent small Curlew at Minsmere, Suffolk, in September 2004 fuelled the debate and BBRC/BOURC initiated a review of the Druridge Bay bird. The eventual conclusion (Brit. Birds 107: 389-404), on a split vote of both BBRC and BOURC members, was that the record was ‘Not Proven’ and Slender-billed Curlew was deleted from the British List in January 2014.
That Tim treated its initial admission to the British List and subsequent deletion with the same shrug of the shoulders was a measure of his humility – and an acknowledgement of the absurdity of this hobby so many of us pursue.
His involvement with the Slender-billed Curlew was not restricted to that one contentious episode. Tim was spurred on to help the species and, in conjunction with the BirdLife Slender-billed Curlew Working Group, went on expeditions to Uzbekistan and Ukraine to search for any remaining birds among the migrant shorebirds passing through the region.
Tim’s birding achievements were huge. Very few people have found, co-found or been ‘in on’ no fewer than three Firsts for Britain. Besides the curlew, Tim was present when the baffling ‘Tyne petrels’ were trapped at Tynemouth in July 1989 – subsequently identified as Britain’s First Swinhoe’s Storm-petrels Oceanodroma monorhis (Brit. Birds 88: 342-348) – and on 7th October 1999 he was stood alongside Maurice Hepple and Ken Shaw when Britain’s First Short-toed Eagle Circaetus gallicus glided in off the sea over St Agnes, Scilly (Brit. Birds 97: 27-32).
Tim’s birding achievements were all the more extraordinary because he was profoundly colour blind. He famously wore a red suit for his wedding because he believed it to be grey!
And his professional achievements were significant too. During his time at the RSPB he successfully contested at public inquiry the bait digging rights of anglers in Budle Bay, part of the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve. Prior to this victory the internationally important wader and wildfowl populations present in the bay in winter could not feed undisturbed. Now they could.
And during his ‘exile’ from Northumberland working in the RSPB office in West Yorkshire from 1999-2006 Tim spent countless hours negotiating with landowners and the Environment Agency in the Trent Valley on the Beckingham Marshes wetland restoration project. (The resultant RSPB reserve opened in 2012).
During this period he also co-authored two books: The RSPB Handbook of British Birds with Peter Holden (Helm, 2002) and Birds New To Britain 1980-2004 with myself (Poyser, 2005).
Tim eventually took early retirement in 2007 and his departure from the RSPB was marked with a ‘canteen reception’ at The Lodge – an event normally reserved for Directors – which was predictably packed for this most popular of RSPB staffers.
By this time Tim and Ann had returned to the North East, settling in Whitley Bay in 2006 near Sarah and Ruth who between them produced six grandchildren in quick succession. Tim’s time was now divided between grandparenting duties, seawatching at Seaton Sluice (and Newbiggin) and supporting Ann in her burgeoning career as her ‘Vera’ and ‘Shetland’ novels became successful TV series.
Tim also travelled extensively – to Africa, Asia, North and South America – although his tour leading to the Antarctic was scuppered by his chronic seasickness. Back home, Tim continued his quest for 500 species on his British List. His birding frequently took him back to Shetland, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides and whenever he clinched his latest British tick he’d always send an update by text: ‘It’s on.’
Tim touched the lives of hundreds, probably thousands, of people. When he died on 16th December Twitter and Facebook were flooded with stunned reaction from birders nationwide, all of whom had celebratory tales of Tim. Ann summed it up beautifully that day when she said: ‘He was a brilliant birder but an even better friend.’
He was an exceptional birder. Ken Shaw gave him the ultimate accolade: ‘He was a Radde’s in flight man.’ This referred to the Radde’s Warbler Phylloscopus schwarzi that Tim spotted while on a walk with Ann on her birthday in October 1990. He did indeed identify it in flight and, needless to say, the birthday lunch was put on hold as the news had to be put out.
But Tim Cleeves was so much more than a brilliant birder. He was funny, caring, thoughtful and generous. At least 200 people (Tim would have made a far more accurate count) gathered to say a final farewell at Whitey Bay crematorium on 2nd January. Mourners wore their Bristol Rovers scarves with pride and listened to the music he’d planned during many a quiet seawatch. ‘Magical Mystery Tour’ by the Beatles was his sign-off choice and a very appropriate one too. Life – and birding – is indeed a magical mystery tour with destinations unknown and unpredictable. For too many people though, some of that magic has now gone with the passing of Tim Cleeves.