Birding Ecotours guide Andy Walker lives, dreams and breathes birds. This passionate pitta-lover took some time out to share his story with our guest blogger Rachel in this interview.
Rachel: Tell us about your childhood and family?
Andy: I grew up in Warwickshire, England, with my parents and younger sister. My parents, grandparents, and aunties and uncles have all helped to shape me into the person/birder I am today. I remember being incredibly excited when I received my first pair of binoculars aged 8. These opened my eyes to a whole new world; but I hear that my grandparents took me to the local park to feed the ducks when I was a toddler, which was probably the start of it all – so blame them!
With my new binoculars, birding in the garden became the next-best thing. I remember setting up a bird hide with assorted ‘stuff’’ I could find in my Dad’s shed, so that I could watch and log all the activities at the bird boxes. My parents also gave over part of their garden to me so that I could look after it and plant what I wanted.
Birding in the garden turned into regular walks around the local churchyard and the surrounding countryside and local nature reserves, then the wider UK area on family holidays – these holidays always had an emphasis on the great outdoors – beautiful Cornwall, Wales, Suffolk, Northumberland, Norfolk, and Yorkshire. I remember coming across an adult male Red-spotted Bluethroat while in Norfolk. Someone let me look through their telescope as it hopped into view – it blew my mind!
As I got a little older I became more familiar with Africa and developed a fascination with the continent; I even started planning a birding circuit around it! So when I was 15 and my parents were offered a teaching job in Kenya I was over the moon! Luckily they accepted the offer, and we moved over there for a couple of years for the duration of their contract. Moving from the UK to Kenya ignited a passion for travel, which to this day is incredibly strong!
R: If you could describe yourself in only three words…
A: Eat, Sleep, Bird!
R: What formal training have you undertaken?
A: I have a BSc. (Hons) degree in Countryside Management and Ornithology – this three year degree course was (at the time) the only place in Europe where you could read for a degree in Ornithology.
Since my degree I’ve also carried out further professional development and am a Full Member of the ‘Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management’ and a Full Member of ‘The Association of Environmental and Ecological Clerk of Works’.
R: When did you realise that birding would become a career for you?
After living in Kenya I wanted to be a guide, so from that point on I worked on that as being my goal – this took me out of Africa and into Central America, where I was to focus my birding for the next ten years. Living and working in Costa Rica was great fun.
R: How has birding enriched your life?
A: It gets me to new places, visiting new and different habitats and landscapes as well as meeting new people. As a birder you are always looking and listening intently – all of the time! This means you are more likely to come across other interesting things such as rare plants and animals. For me, birding is also a way to relax. Just me and the birds!
R: What items never leave your side on a birding trip?
A: My Swarovski binoculars and Swarovski telescope! My digital camera for that all-important record shot when a pitta pops into view! A field guide to wherever I am. A notebook.
R: What are your top 3 birding destinations?
A: Australia, Kenya, and Costa Rica
R: What is at the top of your birding “bucket list”?
A: I have three: to go to Papua New Guinea and see the birds-of-paradise, see some more pittas (all of them!), and to see Shoebill and Pel’s Fishing Owl.
R: Do you have a favourite bird/ bird family?
A: Pittas – I got into pittas a few years ago after meeting Mike Edgecombe (Chairman of the Oriental Bird Club) in Malaysia – he took me under his wings at Fraser’s Hill, gave me some sound advice on stalking pittas, told me to read Chris Gooddie’s excellent ‘The Jewel Hunter’, and the rest is history!
R: What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done to see a bird?
A: My biggest twitch involved driving from Yorkshire to the top of Scotland (8+ hours), getting a boat to an island, walking across the island, seeing the bird, turning around and doing the reverse journey to get home in time for work the next day. The bird in question was a Sandhill Crane. I’ve also twitched Sweden and Latvia for Northern Hawk-Owls – being successful both times.
R: Do you have a bogey bird?
A: It was Ovenbird until I saw loads of them in America this May! I’d previously dipped them in the UK and Costa Rica… I think my big bogey bird is really Shoebill. I dipped this in Uganda – the Nile was in a 50-year high flood, no Shoebills. When we got info on a site my dad’s Land Rover broke down, so we spent the rest of the day sitting on a road in the middle of nowhere in northern Uganda, watching some Lions watching us.
R: What is your life list?
A: I’m about 18 off 3,000 on my life list. I’m excited to see what 3,000 will be – hope it’s something decent!
R: What advice would you give to people getting into birding?
A: Don’t give up. Unfortunately there will probably be a time when social pressures make you think you are odd because of being a birder – ignore them! Go birding! Never stop learning. No matter how many birds you’ve seen, or how often you’ve seen a particular species, don’t stop watching it. You never know what you may learn this time around. Don’t be afraid to ask questions from people more knowledgeable than you. Invest in a decent pair of binoculars and a field guide – spend time reading the guide before going into the field. Make sure that birding is always fun.
R: Other hobbies and interests?
A: When I’m not birding, chances are I’ll be watching or listening to some cricket from somewhere/anywhere in the world. Luckily for me we have a great cricket team in England. I genuinely feel really sorry for the poor guides in South Africa, their national cricket team struggles on year after year with their sub-standard collection of old blokes drafted together to make up the numbers – unfortunate, but someone’s got to be at bottom of the pile…
I have two border terriers. I love spending time walking them through the beautiful countryside near my house in Yorkshire. I’m also into music, you can’t beat a bit of country music.
R: If you had one more day left on this earth, how would you spend it?
I’d go birding with my dogs – do a big day. I should probably hang out with my family too, I guess. I could combine that, right?
I’d probably like to just go and stand on the hill behind my house in Kenya, just to soak up that view of the Rift Valley for one last time…
R: Dreams for the future?
A: Get to 8,000 species, please! See all the pittas. See Pel’s Fishing Owl and Shoebill. Get all around Asia. Live in Africa again.