When John David (Dave) Okill died, too soon, just after his 74th birthday, on 28th May 2023, we lost one of the UK’s foremost amateur ornithologists.
His crowning achievement, amongst an impressive catalogue of amateur studies and publications, came as one of the driving forces behind the project to put tags on Red-necked Phalaropes Phalaropus lobatus to find out where they spent the winter. Data showed that birds from Shetland wintered in the Pacific (Brit. Birds 111: 428–437).
Dave had been interested in birds from an early age, but a crucial step came when, at age 15, he approached Rob Cockbain, one of the founders of the Merseyside Ringing Group (MRG), and started training to ring birds. Dave took part in every possible ringing opportunity – not easy when travelling by bus and bicycle. Once he received his A-permit in 1968, he did more travelling and ringing, including MRG trips to observatories at Spurn, Dungeness, Walney, Bardsey and, in the early 1970s, Fair Isle. That visit so impressed Dave that he began thinking about a move to Shetland. He also started travelling to many other birding areas, including the Solway for a weekend to see the wintering geese. Dave was MRG secretary during 1970 and 1971 and group members particularly enjoyed attending meetings at his house, where his mother provided especially good, home-made cakes.
Dave was heavily involved in wader ringing, long a foremost activity for the MRG, which was greatly enhanced by the acquisition of cannon nets, and recurrent proposals for developments on the Dee Estuary made these activities of crucial importance for nature conservation. At this time, Dave’s interaction with other travelling ringers, particularly Clive Minton and the Wash Wader Ringing Group, was especially informative.
After leaving school, Dave obtained a Diploma in Public Health from Liverpool University in 1973 and then began working as a Public Health Inspector for the Liverpool City Environmental Health and Protection Administration. This experience would serve him well and enabled his later move to Shetland. As part of his job, he visited the docks in Liverpool, checking importations including the grain silos, at one of which he erected a cage trap and caught Collared Doves Streptopelia decaocto, then only recently added to the British List.
Merseyside’s loss was Shetland’s gain when, in 1975, Dave moved to Shetland to work in Environmental Health for the Shetland Islands Council (SIC) under the late Dougie Smith. He moved into the Old Haa in Scalloway. After a reorganisation, Dave moved to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) in 1996, as Team Leader in Shetland, and remained with SEPA until his retirement in 2012.
His northward move was also important for his personal life. Dave and Gillian (also from near Liverpool) met in summer 1978, when Dave gave her a lift off the ferry from Aberdeen in Lerwick. She had just finished university and was carrying out a project on Arctic Skuas Stercorarius parasiticus that took her all over Shetland. As both their parents still lived in the Liverpool area, they returned there to marry in 1981, before moving into a small cottage in South Whiteness, Shetland. When Dave and Gillian moved to Trondra in 1983, their excellent house-warming party became legendary in Shetland birding history. Their son, Antony, was born in 1987.
Dave took on the role of BTO Regional Representative for Shetland in 1983 continuing as a fantastic ambassador for the BTO and organising BTO surveys. He was one of the few members to attend every BTO Ringers’ Conference, including an honorary attendance for 1993 when the MV Braer sank off Shetland and his job meant that he couldn’t leave the islands. He compensated for this by giving a talk on the subject at the 1994 conference. On the way to the conference in Swanwick, he would travel to Liverpool to spend a few days with his mother and visit friends including former MRG colleagues. He was awarded the BTO Jubilee Medal in 2003 for committed devotion to the Trust.
Dave was an extremely keen supporter of Fair Isle Bird Observatory. His long association with the island began when he first visited in 1970. He became a director in 1982, Vice-Chair from 1985 and an Honorary President in 2022. He was also the FIBOT representative on the Bird Observatories Council from 1993. Dave was the Observatory’s main contact in Shetland, helping to organise all sorts of practical assistance that was difficult to do from the island. When the third Observatory building was being built, Dave was heavily involved in arranging and dealing with the grants from the SIC and Department of Agriculture.
Dave was also active in the Shetland Bird Club (SBC). He gave his first talk in February 1976, on ‘The Birds of the Cheshire Dee’. He was a committee member from 1976, was a compiler of the Shetland Bird Report from 1977 until 1983, and organised the annual Whooper Swan Cygnus cygnus count from 1978. He was the SBC representative to the Shetland Oil Terminal Environmental Advisory Group (SOTEAG), and a committee member of the Shetland Crofting, Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group (SCFWAG) from 1984. He was the Chairman of the Shetland Conservation Volunteers from 1988 to 1993 and a founding member of the Zetland Raptor Study Group in 2015, his work on Merlins Falco columbarius in the late 70s forming the basis of the current monitoring scheme.
From 1993, he was Secretary of the Shetland Ringing Group. His incredible generosity included him paying for all the Group’s rings until just a few years ago.
In 1984, Dave went to Papa Stour, Shetland’s largest Arctic Tern Sterna paradisaea colony at that time. In 1983 he had ringed over 1,800 Arctic Tern chicks there and had run out of rings. In 1984 he did not ring any chicks. All he found were dozens of dead chicks and a few fledglings that were too weak from starvation to fly properly. This was the first indication that something was terribly wrong with the marine environment. There was a severe shortage of sandeels, which the terns and most other seabirds in Shetland rely on to feed their young. This discovery eventually led to an agreement with the Shetland Fishermen’s Association that resulted, in effect, in the closure of the sandeel fishery. It was also one of the first indications of the effects of sea temperature rise due to climate change in the UK.
Dave was heavily involved in the aftermath of the oil spill from the oil tanker Esso Bernicia at Sullom Voe in 1978/79. His experience and expertise really came into their own during the grounding of another tanker in Shetland, the MV Braer in 1993. Dave chaired the environment committee which met every evening to assess the risks to wildlife, advise on where and what surveys were needed and what actions should be taken.
In his later years, Dave’s health began to fail him and he was no longer able to get out into the field. One of his last ringing experiences was when he ringed a brood of Eurasian Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus chicks (recent colonists in Shetland) at a large garden near Lerwick.
Thinking about summarising Dave’s legacy, we have always been impressed by his innovation, and how well he influenced and inspired others. Dave was an extremely kind and generous man who would go the extra mile to help people. His pioneering ringing activities in Shetland evolved into a series of monitoring programmes for Red-throated Divers Gavia stellata, Merlins and various seabirds and his encouragement of young people mean that his legacy in the islands will continue.
Dave’s ashes were scattered at sea east of Noss, the site of some of his ringing adventures, by Gillian, Antony and his wife Laura, and some of his friends, a fitting last resting place.
David Norman (Merseyside Ringing Group) and Pete Ellis (Shetland Bird Club)