Peter Jones – Back Chat

In the March 2022 issue of Bird Watching, we had a Backchat talk with Peter Jones, President of the Andalucía Bird Society and co-editor for the quarterly magazine Birds of Andalucía. He sent us such detailed and fascinating answers, we thought you’d like to see the full version here.A extended chat with the President of the Andalucia Bird Society Peter Jones. As featured in the March 2022 issue of Bird Watching magazine

by Mark Cureton |
Published on

Peter is an animal biologist by qualification and a jack of all trades by profession, having been employed as President for Europe by a US Fortune 500 company, by institutes to undertake various research projects involving birds, and then running his own cricket bat and accessory company before moving permanently to Spain. He has been involved in several studies involving birds, most notably with the wheatear family and to a lesser degree Puffin, Storm Petrel and Manx Shearwater. Currently he is a tour leader and guide and is heavily involved in conservation projects operating throughout the region of Andalucía and beyond.

What first sparked your interest in birdwatching, and when?

Way back in the 1950s I accompanied my father as he visited farms as a crop inspector. It was during this time I noticed birds and took an interest in the variety and appeal of them. In seeing my interest, my father gifted me a couple of books, which I am sure the more senior of your readers will remember – The Observer Book of Birds and The Observer Book of Bird Eggs. So, it was from this point on that I would cycle out into the countryside and watch birds – of course this led to a wider interest in nature and coincidentally led to my deep interest in biology.

Who was your birdwatching inspiration or mentor?

Regretfully I never had the benefit of a benevolent mentor, but I did enjoy many friendships with various eminent birders of their day. From early days I was inspired by Roger Long, the curator of the Jersey Museum, then strangely another museum curator (Truro) Roger Penhallurick – both were very generous to me, and provided a source of inspiration. Others with whom collaboration led to friendships and further inspiration were Colin Bibby, Chris Mead and a few well-known birders who might well be embarrassed to be named, unassuming and self-effacing as many of these dear friends are.

Do you bird alone or with a friend?

I have always been a bit of a loner when birding. I find time alone affords me the time and space to engage with birds and enjoy them in an unhurried way. In recent times my wife has accompanied me on my many forays into my local birding hotspots, and her knowledge of the flora has raised my knowledge and awareness of various ecosystems we have in the region. Of course, as a guide and tour leader for several companies I get to enjoy birding groups and as a result have made many good and lasting friendships throughout the world. I most certainly can tolerate and enjoy being with likeminded people, so perhaps I’m not quite the loner I might have myself believe.

Your dream bird to see?

This one is difficult, as there are still several birds on my must-see wishlist. My birding has spanned more than 65 years, and with a life list hovering around the 6,000 mark, it might surprise some that I really must and yearn to properly see Capercaillie. I live in hope of seeing one before I fade and don my wooden overcoat (my family reckons this should be made of cardboard). It is a bird that has eluded me on several occasions, despite visiting areas where you might expect to see one. I did catch a fleeting glimpse once, but not well enough for me to count and add to my list. My yearning to see a Capercaillie owes in part to an outtake of a video I saw, where an American camera crew were being led by a wily old ghillie. They wanted to get close enough to the ‘old man of the forest’ to get a good sequence, and preferably one where the male was calling out for a mate. They struck gold, and the ghillie warned the camera crew to be quiet and wait for his guidance to get a clear sight for videoing. The cameraman couldn’t contain himself and rushed into the clearing to get his sequence, and without hesitation the male ran at him and grabbed the cameraman in a place where all men would dread. The camera fell and all you could hear above the screams was the old ghillie laughing out loud and in between laughs shouting out “I told ye, I told ye”. After seeing this I just had to add this bird to my most wanted list!

Your favourite birding spot?

Probably the easiest question to answer. No matter where my travels take me and no matter how many wonderful birding spots I visit, I quite simply love my mountains here in my local area of the Serranía de Ronda. We have numbers of Griffon Vulture to die for (perhaps not the best of metaphors), probably one of the highest densities of Bonelli’s Eagle in Europe, a superb number of warblers and of course the three species of wheatear breeding in western Europe. The list could go on and on, we have over 240 species, which for a landlocked mountain range is staggering. The diversity of habitat provides for this amazing total of birds seen in the area and the scenery impresses all who visit. For me this has been an enduring love affair that has lasted since my arrival back in 2003, when I came to study Black Wheatear and seek answers on their apparent decline. As an aside this wonderful wheatear has increased during my time here! On top of everything else, the people and local food are things to be cherished.

Your classic birder’s lunch, grabbed from the filling station chiller cabinet?

Any kind of sandwich, but I prefer a cheese and salad filled delight. I should also add, when in the UK, I will rifle through all available chiller cabinets for a good-sized Cornish Pasty. I so miss not being able to get a pasty here in Spain.

Bee-eater or Hoopoe?

Goodness, that’s a tough one. Both are must-see birds for any visitor, and both are spectacular in their own right. I am lucky that Hoopoe are here throughout the year and are an impressive looker, if somewhat reminiscent of a feathered version of a modern-day Pterodactyl – it’s the head shape and crest that does that for me. However, while carrying out local studies this bird blotted its copybook with me. I learned the hard way to be cautious when ringing the young, as they can exude an evil and intolerable smelling fluid from enlarged oil glands and to add insult to injury, they have the ability to squirt a hatful of liquid faeces and gut content accurately over a distance of 25 to 30cm. So, without further ado I award my prize to the European Bee-eater. Personally, I find our Bee-eater among the most glamorous and colourful of our birds, and look forward to their return each year as much as I used to yearn for the Barn Swallow’s return each spring in the UK. I love their friendly chatter and social behaviour, also their willingness to allow us to approach and watch them at close quarters.

Favourite bird song or call?

I had to leave this question and then come back to it, there were just so many contenders, and then to choose between a song and a call. For instance, who hasn’t been moved by that evocative call to the wild when hearing a Curlew or perhaps the call of an African Fish Eagle? Locally, a Scop’s Owl calling is something that moves me on a night-time visit to a local oak woodland. Nightingales are common during the spring and summer throughout my local patch and who would deny they are among the finest of our songsters? And yet, faced with so many choices, I have finally settled on a bird whose song has captivated me throughout my birding life, the beautiful song of the Wood Lark. Here, they are already singing, and I am eternally grateful they are so common throughout my mountains. They also provided so many very funny memories discussing these birds over a pint in the wonderful company of Chris Mead.

Birdwatching’s biggest myth or misconception?

Perhaps one of the most controversial would be the colour of clothing worn by birders. In recent times a birder’s book was published in the US, a compilation of chapters written by prominent US birders entitled ‘Good Birders Still Don’t Wear White’, a follow on from ‘Good Birders Don’t Wear White’. It is actually a good read, full of humour and tips useful to its readers. However, the title led me into some hot water with some of the contributors when I made a few comments in a review. To say the discussions were heated would be an understatement, and led me to publish an article entitled ‘Good Birders Can Wear White’, a tad provocative perhaps, which led to further debate and exchanges of views. One of the contributing authors mentioned how the colour white can cause adverse disturbance to Trogons, based on their experience doing surveys into this family, not something I could deny, but then went on to ask how I could know how many birds would be disturbed while I’m walking past a bush wearing white? Of course, I was able to easily counter that by asking the same question on their selection of coloured clothing – ridiculous. What I can say, like all things in life, is I have learnt from experience that wearing white, or any other colour for that matter, has not affected my birding or disturbed the birds I have seen or studied. Just a simple observation and what is more likely to cause disturbance is movement, those sudden jerks of raising the binoculars or camera, walking sideways to track a bird (leg movements act as a trigger for birds to take flight) or simply not recognising when a bird is alarmed and then stopping movement to allow the bird to settle again. In short, I will still wear white if I choose while birding! Just as I did in my debates with those American authors, I am keeping some evidence of my assertion up my sleeve in case this piece attracts any derision from readers.

The best bird you’ve seen?

I imagine most of us would have many favourites. Choosing a single bird is difficult. I love all wheatears, and they have been a lifetime passion, but I think the most memorable and a bird I can now enjoy most years is the Greater Hoopoe Lark. I will never ever forget my first encounter with this large lark. I was with a good friend in his 4x4 in the middle of the Sahara Desert. We were completely and utterly lost, with no visible landmarks to find our way. We had been searching for this lark most of the day and had become obsessed, an obsession leading to our plight where we managed to lose ourselves, and we started to panic. Quite suddenly, rounding one of the many dunes, there was our quarry, a fine adult male dancing around a pin cushion plant and striking the plant, hoping to disturb an insect or two. In an instant we forgot our panic, exhilarated as the familiar birder’s adrenalin rush kicked in. We sat back to enjoy the show and wallowed in self-congratulations. An added bonus to our first encounter was the display flight and song produced by this obliging male, a moment I continue to treasure to this day, the rising vertical flight as it sang and then the death-defying headfirst plunge to the ground until at the very last moment it held its black and white wings out to glide along the surface and break into a run. The song, reminiscent of a mobile phone, together with the display came together to not only impress us, but also made us laugh out loud, something it continues to provide me with to this day. As an endpiece, the bird finally flew off as two young children ran into view waving and shouting, they were to be our saviours and bribed with sweets, a few pens and crayons they guided us to a nearby track and an eventual way out of our predicament. I swear, however far away you are from people in the Sahara Desert, if you sprinkle water on the sand children will magically appear!

Identifying gulls – nightmare or a nice day out?

A complete nightmare! Strangely, during times when I worked on remote islands, did seawatching for census work and participated in estuary counts, I considered myself pretty au fait with gull identification. It is only in more recent times and spending time with a few friends I consider highly experienced in gull identification, that I became aware of my considerable shortcomings in the ID of many new splits and nuances of juvenile gull plumage. I must admit, living in a landlocked area, I have lost the desire to polish my skills in gull identification. I do make the effort to visit wetland and coastal areas and have no problems with adult gulls, but then comes the dreaded juveniles. So, I hold my hands up, please don’t send me photos to ID gulls!

Your favourite bit of birding kit?

Without doubt my Opticron DBA VHD Plus 10x42 binoculars. I do like to take the odd photograph as a kind of an addition to my diarist approach to my days spent birding, and I love my scope to get up close and personal to the many breeding raptors I am fortunate to have in my wonderful mountains, but for everyday and practical use you can’t beat a good pair of binoculars. Wherever I go my beloved binos accompany me, where eye contact or jizz is not enough to confirm an ID, then my fallback is my binoculars. They are a favourite piece of my birding being portable and convenient, for instance even to rest on a table outside of a favoured café here, not only to get a view of those sneaky birds who make an appearance when they think you are not looking, but also to show locals what I am doing in their area and to help promote their consciousness of nature and how it attracts custom to the locality.

How do we encourage young people to watch birds?

It must be getting on for about 50 years since I ran the YOC group in the Channel Islands and ran excursions to see birds for the Variety Club. I remain in contact with some of those children, who are now parents and even grandparents, it is something I remain extremely proud of and meant so much to me during those times. I am currently working with others at the Andalucía Bird Society to promote and enlarge our junior membership, so far with some success, and with the generous donations from members we have been able to give telescopes and binoculars to some our junior members.

For me it is important to get access to groups of children and actively engage with them. Maybe contact via schools or community centres and local colleges is a start? Offering the service of leading field trips, perhaps attending a ringing session with a sympathetic ringer (nothing will compare for a youngster than to be able to see a bird up close and maybe even touch a bird) or offering to give an interactive talk on birds. In my experience children have an affinity with animals – most yearn for a pet and share a love for animals. It is a question of how best we can harness their innate love of animals and encourage them to go out and seek the enjoyment we get from immersion in nature.

Some things that have worked for me and might be useful. Never make your introduction a long-winded affair, more than a few minutes and you have lost your audience, children’s attention span is notoriously very short. A captive audience of children should involve stories of birds, a picture show and suitable props such an old nest, a nestbox, feathers, an illustrated field guide and a constant question and answer session, always involving and engaging your charges. Deal with birds the children might see in their garden or on the school grounds and introduce them to birds they might see if they look harder, such as Peregrines and the cute Long-tailed Tit, deal with how birds are our early warning if things are not well in our environment and deal with climate change. Field trips are a wonderful opportunity to get children to finding their own interest in nature and I have had success using a first session letting supervised groups find, for instance something yellow, although any colour would suffice. They come back with all kinds of objects and flowers, then in a second session I ask them to bring me something as small and round as a pound coin. It is amazing what they will return with – a bird wing, a feather and other items unrelated to your subject and will be asking all kinds of questions. Of course, what you are teaching them is observation and developing an enquiring mind as to what might be discovered in their environs. Whatever your own ideas, it is vital we all do our best to encourage the next generation of naturalists and birders.

White Stork or Crane?

The wonderful White Stork is an all-year-round bird for me, and northern populations pass through in huge numbers on migration. Large numbers have taken to wintering here and locally I have a few breeding pairs, one individual male, even as high up as in my mountains, has wintered on a local river for the past three years. No doubt about it, they are a magnificent bird, full of character and I love the way they use their bill as castanets as they glide over the nest and above me as I ring their young. Yet White Stork, for all their magnificence come second to the arrival of large wintering numbers of Cranes – they hold a special place for me and in my birding calendar year. Standing at up to 4 feet tall (1.22m) the male Crane is one of our largest birds, and gatherings in their thousands really are a spectacular sight for anyone interested in the wonders of our local wildlife. These gatherings are a must-see spectacle; witnessing these large flocks will provide for an everlasting memory. They are such elegant lookers too and it amuses me to see how these large flocks are made-up of individual family groups as I imagine they are a bit like mum and dad taking the kids away for a winter’s package holiday.

The one place you’d love to go birdwatching?

I’ve always had a hankering to visit the interior of Pakistan. I had a small taster when I visited Sialkot on a cricket-related business trip, but never got to go deeper into the country to explore desert and mountain areas. I hope it doesn’t sound too obtuse, but I have more or less ticked off my places to go birding other than Pakistan, it holds the possible dream of my last birding frontier. There are many great birds to find and see, but it is just one of those places that holds a fascination for me, a real hankering to explore. Mind you I’m not sure how safe I’d be or if I could still manage scaling their high mountain slopes at my age, so perhaps it might just remain a dream.

One birding or conservation issue you feel strongly about?

Goodness this is a difficult one. I feel passionate about so many conservation issues, and I am involved at different levels with many of those. I have reached a point where I am trying to limit my involvement to those where I can make a real contribution, or perhaps more correctly make a difference in some small way. The landscape in the world of environmental protection and conservation has changed so much since the 1970s, when we were actually seeing some improvements, for instance in water quality. It seems now we are all in a war zone, we are fighting on so many fronts to conserve and preserve what we have left. It is a depressing prospect made more depressing due to cause of many of the problems we face.

Wetlands throughout the Mediterranean basin are under severe threat from multiple causes, and I guess this is an issue I feel most strongly about. Reclamation by agriculture, pressure from developers, pollution and deprivation of waters illegally extracted to irrigate industrial plantings of crops such as olives and avocados are causing increasing pressure on what remains of our valuable wetlands. Within my region of Andalucía, the unsustainable planting of more and more olive trees is a huge problem that continues to further decimate already limited water sources. The resulting soil erosion is polluting and silting watercourses and eventually these are combining in reducing the biodiversity of many of the emblematic and most important wetlands within my region. The importance of these wetlands cannot be overstated – not only are they important for the wealth of endemic plants, invertebrates and fauna, they are also among the most important for breeding and wintering birds, as well as being important staging areas for spring and autumn migrants. It isn’t possible to give a full account of the problems and actions necessary to address this ecological disaster but suffice to say I am working with others to find a strategy that would address the issues and attract the support of the wider public throughout Andalucía. Perhaps using the depletion of water sources might be a way forward as this affects everyone living here.

The bird that annoys you most?

At last, an easy question! Without doubt the most annoying bird for me is our summer visitor the Golden Oriole. Not only is it my personal nemesis for managing a decent photograph, but it has the annoying ability to vanish before your very eyes as it disappears into the foliage of its favoured tree the Poplar. The easily recognised song with its beautiful fluting introduction followed by a sequence of squawks, best described as reminiscent of a Jay whose voice hasn’t yet broken, makes it a bird easily located, but seeing it is an entirely different proposition. Without question the male is one of our most colourful and striking looking birds, the contrasts of yellow and black making ID of this bird easy for even the most casual of birders, so you would expect it would show well and be observed with ease, but no. I have, in the company of others, completely encircled stands of Poplar where the bird is calling and singing without any of us so much as getting a glimpse – the only clear sightings being when the bird flushes and flies away laughing. Around my local patch we have a river system including small tributaries that are lined by stands of Black Poplar. The combination of water and these trees almost guarantees hearing these beauties and catching those brief sightings as they dash from tree to tree or cross the waters. It was not just annoying but also frustrating not to be able to see them as they merged so well with the leaf mass. It was only after a few years of living here and seeing them regularly that I finally twigged (pun) that as they entered the leaf cover, they would sharply rise to around a few feet above the entry point. My discovery remains as not being failproof, but it did help on many occasions although I hasten to add it hasn’t helped me get that elusive and decent photo I am still so desperate to achieve. Yep, annoying is an understatement.

The bogey bird that still eludes you?

I actually have a few from the various countries I’ve visited, but perhaps I should keep it local to the Western Palearctic. One of the most infuriating of birds I have still to see in Europe is the Three-toed Woodpecker, despite going to several hotspots and even being guided specifically to see this medium sized woodpecker. It is almost as if fate has played a part in ensuring I will not get to see it, doubly frustrating as it is the last woodpecker I need to complete my woodpeckers of Europe list. I thought I had located one by the sound of drumming on one occasion and became very excited as I tracked slowly towards the sound amidst a dank and dark conifer forest. I was so desperate to see it that my approach could not have been made more stealthily as I kept a low and bent profile. I approached a small opening in the forest and there, stark and proud, was a magnificent Black Woodpecker – oh well, back the drawing board and frustration. Note, I am still going to pursue this blighter and I am determined to add it to my WP list.

The bird book you’d never be without?

OK, first up I admit I am old fashioned and love books rather than apps. I love the smell of a new book, I love the feel of a book and like a child, I will leaf through the pages of a new arrival and look at the illustrations before reading through the printed word. Throughout my long life as a birder my choice of book has been an evolutionary process, from various guides in my most formative years to reference works during my more serious working days. Then, when I began leading and guiding tours it was back to field guides, and having these was indispensable for my pleasure and the purpose of my work. Sadly, even with great field guides such as the Collins Bible, these guides are now much more popular and portable as an app, so the choice or at least my choice of a book I’d never be without comes down to a few reference books such as Forsman’s Flight Identification of Raptors, Garcia’s The Birds of the Iberian Peninsula and the latest European Breeding Bird Atlas, then there is my book of personal enjoyment Robins and Chats by Clements. So, in order to correctly respond to the question, I had to think about which of these I would most hate to be without. My final choice is biased in terms of knowing the author as a friend and as a sometime companion while out birding. We share some common history with the old Nature Conservancy Council before that evolved into English Nature before becoming the benign, somewhat irrelevant brood meddling Natural England, so I choose Robins and Chats by Peter Clements. I hope at least some of you will approve.

Why do you love birdwatching, in three words?

Enjoyment, peacefulness, healing

One piece of advice for birders taking part in our #my200birdyear challenge?

Compiling a year’s list can be fun. A challenge like My200BirdYear should be treated just like that and enjoyable. We all have that competitive edge compiling lists and annual totals, but the main aim should be to enjoy it, to get out to as many places as possible and for some that might be limited to nearby birding sites. Others will have the luxury of prime birding hotspots near to their homes, and this will be true for those living near to the coast or wetland areas. In the end it should always be fun and an opportunity to be in the great outdoors with our passion for birds. My advice is to enjoy yourself and use the challenge as a way to motivate yourself to get out birding as often as possible. Also, don’t get disheartened when the list becomes harder to add to as that is normal in any list as the more likely and common birds may have already been added. Enjoy the challenge.

Original article published in Bird Watching, March 2022 ©Bird Watching magazine
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