I grew up in Bristol and went to Bristol Grammar School where a couple of masters (Derek Lucas and Tony Warren) were instrumental in fueling my interest in birds. I was in the Young Ornithologists' Club.
In the school holidays I practically lived at Chew Valley Lake - a bicycle and a pair of binoculars were all I needed.
My parents liked nice scenery and walks in the countryside and that gave me plenty of opportunities for birding.
I spent a few years when rare birds were very important to me but aside from the very occasional lapse they aren't any more!
I did a Ph.D. on pipistrelle bats but most of my research before joining the RSPB was on bee-eaters in the south of France (nice eh?) and great tits and marsh tits around Oxford. However, the first scientific paper I wote was about the lekking behaviour of great snipe.
I joined the RSPB staff in 1986 as a researcher, became Head of Conservation Science in 1992 and Conservation Director in 1998 - all have been great jobs!
Coverage of the Bribery Act reminded me of the only time I have put 'bribe' on my expense claim. I was travelling to Ghana to see our partner the Ghana Wildlife Society, with whom we were working on the conservation of the beautiful roseate tern.
I arrived at Accra airport and was going through the various checks of passport, visa, luggage etc when one official asked about the box I had under my arm. I told him it was full of badges with pictures of roseate terns, and he asked how many badges there were. I didn't have a clue and said so. So the official suggested that we should count them all - unless we could agree that there were 4000 and that therefore I pay the appropriate 'badge tax'. The 'badge tax' was paid and it later appeared under 'bribe' on my expenses - a sum of about £1.
Lest that little story should give the wrong impression - I loved Ghana and Ghanaians. I found it an immensely friendly country full of lovely people, and that seems to be the view of many migrant birds which spend our winter in Ghana and neighbouring countries and are now heading back to the UK and Europe for the summer.
Many migrant species across Europe are declining in numbers and the RSPB and the BTO are working together and separately to look at the reasons behind these declines at both ends of their migration routes. The joint Migrants in Africa project has taken our staff to Ghana and Burkina Faso to find which areas are used by which migrant species. Sounds easy put like that, but I remember that we found it difficult enough locating roseate terns along the coast when we knew from ringing recoveries where they occurred - locating nightingales, wood warblers and other 'European' migrants amongst a host of African species in sometimes thick vegetation when they are not bursting into song is a mammoth task. But I am glad to report that as we come to the end of the second winter, much progress has been made which bodes well for the future.
Earlier this month, the team netted a garden warbler which had been ringed in Suffolk last August - at Hollesly on 25 August. Whether this bird is a 'UK bird' or had started its migration somewhere else in Europe we do not know. But now we do know that it was Nsuatre in central Ghana on 8 March.
Last year I had a rather early garden warbler at Stanwick Lakes in east Northants on 10 April - I would normally expect them to arrive about 10 days later. But whenever I hear my first garden warbler this year I can smile because we now know just a little bit more about this species and other trans-Saharan migrants.
It is a pleasant change to report that Robin Page has written something in the Daily Telegraph with which I can whole-heartedly agree.
He writes in praise of Natural England's (and the Zoological Society's of London and Oxford University's) work on adders - our only venomous snake. Robin discloses a personal nervousness about snakes which is touchingly open of him.
Adders, or vipers, are apparently declining in numbers with only 100,000 estimated to be left. Habitat fragmentation and intensive agriculture are leading to the isolation of some populations and that may lead, in turn, to inbreeding. Their problems, though different in detail, exemplify the needs of many species which were summarised in the Lawton report published last year. That report called for more, bigger, better managed and more joined up protected areas and if we had more, bigger, better managed and more joined up heathland habitat pockets then the population level of the adder would add up to a bigger number. Let's see what the long-awaited, much-heralded and vitally important Natural Environment White Paper says on the subject of habitat re-creation and restoration at a landscape scale.
A former RSPB boss, the late Ian Prestt, studied adders in his youth. I remember talking to him about his work, which he spoke about with relish.
Robin Page points out that the presence of adders indicates a healthy countryside because this predator relies on the presence of a variety of prey such as young birds, voles, frogs and lizards to survive. If the adder is in trouble then it indicates that the rest of nature is too. How true. I look forward to further articles from Robin in praise of the sparrowhawk and the white-tailed eagle.
The RSPB has had a green energy scheme with Scottish and Southern Energy since 2000. It was one of the first, one of the best and one of the most successful green energy schemes around. But, the scheme closes on 31 March this year. I have moved my custom to another green energy provider.