Martin Kelsey OBE lives and works in Extremadura where he runs a guesthouse and bird tour business. Extremadura is a beautiful, quite unspoiled and wildlife rich area of Spain that I have visited and would dearly love to go back to. Martin writes a wonderfully descriptive blog which paints a vivid picture of the majesty of the area and its wild inhabitants. I would recommend anybody who loves wildlife and wild spaces to pay a visit and take advantage of Martin’s services – you won’t be disappointed. Over to Martin to tell us more….
I have been a birder for as long as I can remember. After completing an Ecology degree at the University of East Anglia, I did a doctorate at the Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology in Oxford.
After that I sent three years studying rainforest birds in the Colombian Amazon, where I also met my future wife, Claudia. I was the first Regional Director for the Americas with BirdLife International, during which time I co-founded the Neotropical Bird Club. I then moved to senior management roles in Save the Children UK in South America and India.
In 2004 we moved to Extremadura in Spain to run a guesthouse (Casa Rural El Recuerdo) and offer guided birding services to one of Europe’s top birding destinations I am President of GUIDEX, the association of professional nature guides in Extremadura
What event triggered your interest in the natural world?
My interest started thanks to my father, who was a keen naturalist. The house was full of bird books and he would take me for nature walks. I still have my first notebook, from the age of five. Perhaps the earliest “event” I remember was my first encounter with a Wren, as I scrambled through a hole in the hedge at the bottom of the garden. I must have been four or five years old.
Give a sketch of a typical day in your life
In the spring, I would be getting up at six to prepare breakfasts and pack lunches for our guests. I will take a quick look at the newspaper on-line whilst I grab my food. Before the guests set off, I am usually giving them advice about places to visit. I then pack the car and set off with two guests for a day’s guided birding. We will spend the whole day in the field, enjoying a picnic at place chosen for its views and the prospect of some passing bird of prey perhaps.
We are back at the house late afternoon. Whilst the guests chill-out, I will tend to our chickens and quickly do some chores in the garden before helping Claudia prepare the evening meal. After the guests have had dinner, I will go through a checklist with the couple I have guided to recap on the highlights of the day and discuss plans for the following excursion. Claudia and I will have our meal once everything is cleared away, perhaps about 9.30 pm and then I will write a short report on what we saw during the fieldtrip, as well as catching up on emails. Before going to bed, I will spend a few minutes of quiet reflection outside to take in the night sky and hopefully hear some owls.
You have spent time as an active conservationist in various places around the world and now live and work in Spain. What would you consider to be the most rewarding aspect of that work
I think, at the most fundamental level, it is about sharing a passion for what I am doing. As a youngster and as a student I benefitted hugely from people who shared their knowledge and love of wildlife with me. People gave me opportunities. I remember asking such a person how can I repay him? His answer was simple “Just try to help others in the same way”. In my work as a conservationist, a lot of my time was focussed on encouraging local groups, and young people especially, to get their voices heard. Here in Spain, as well as doing what I can to contribute data on what I see, I try to share the passion I have about nature here with the people who come to visit.
What do you consider the greatest challenges facing wildlife today?
Short-termism: too few politicians are thinking beyond the expediency of quick benefits and not towards what type of planet we are leaving future generations. The greatest challenges facing wildlife are also those facing humanity: climate change, loss of biodiversity and biomass, especially insects, threaten our very survival as a species.
What do you consider to be your greatest success?
The nagging feeling for conservationists who stop to think about it is that whilst we might win the odd battle, we are still losing the war. Despite the increasing awareness around the plight of the planet, we have little political clout. Individual successes are usually quite local. I am proud to have played a minor role as an early catalyst in what became quite significant conservation initiatives in Colombia. I am also delighted to have helped launch the Neotropical Bird Club.
What would you consider to be your deepest regret?
I hate letting people down. Once I failed to turn up to give a talk because of a simple misunderstanding on my part. It happened over thirty years ago but it still makes me feel dreadful.
What advice would you give to a budding naturalist?
Two things: follow your curiosity and contribute to citizens’ science. It is so easy with the apps available now to keep a record of what you see, track and analyse your sightings and at the same time contribute to international research.
What advice would you give your 16-year-old self?
Keep using your notebook. Your impressions of places you visit, notes of your observations, and counts of what you see will provide the architecture of your memories of a changing world.
If you could be anywhere in the world at this moment where would it be and why?
I am currently in the sixth week of Coronavirus lockdown in Spain. If I could be anywhere in the world, it would be where I would normally be in spring in Extremadura: on the plains, just twenty minutes from home, watching displaying Great Bustards and Little Bustards with the sound of Calandra Larks in the background.
What is your favourite or most admired animal and why?
I really do not have an overall favourite…within groups yes, so my favourite bird of prey is a Bonelli’s Eagle. I invariably see them in wild, rocky places where their appearance always thrills. My favourite duck is the Garganey, so attractive in a subtle way and I love how they just turn up on spring passage on small pools. My favourite birdsong is the Woodlark: beauty in simplicity.
Who or what are your heroes/heroines/greatest Inspirations?
I have been most inspired and influenced by people close to me. I think most of us owe as much to family members, local wildlife groups, teachers, and friends as to famous naturalists. My father was the first big influence, at every school I attended there were teachers who encouraged me, I had peer groups as a teenager and at university which made me realise that my interest in wildlife was neither unique nor weird. That many of them have gone on to do great things has inspired me.
Recall your most exciting or memorable wildlife spotting encounter.
There are so many! One of the most extraordinary was seeing my first African Pitta in its wintering habitat in the coastal forests of Kenya. I was part of an expedition and we spent almost three days trying various tactics to find one. These included walking slowly in a line, or spending hours sitting still and waiting for one to appear. On the third day we reconvened to take stock and decide what to next. We were dispirited and tired. Casually I lifted my binoculars for no particular reason and there in the centre of my field of view stood an African Pitta. I was so excited I could not speak, and anyhow it was impossible to describe the exact spot. Luckily a colleague had the presence of mind to understand what I was watching and to work out precisely where I was looking.
Bittersweet was the moment when I saw the world’s last remaining wild Spix’s Macaw. A few months later it had disappeared for ever.
Can you say what it is about the natural world that continues to inspire you?
Never knowing exactly what I am going to see or find when I set out in the morning. I head out fully inspired by anticipation! I am seldom disappointed.
What new aspects of conservation excite you?
What we are learning about bird migration and movement thanks to satellite-tracking is not only extraordinary, but it is a hugely important conservation tool.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of wildlife?
When I was mainly focused on birds, I had a wider set of interests outside wildlife, such as music and films. Over the years my wildlife interests have broadened. I am finding that there is so much to look for and to learn that I have much less interest outside wildlife now, although I am still passionate about my vegetable garden and cooking.
What makes you happy?
The arrival of long-awaited migrants, both in spring and autumn, provides me an affirmation that the natural annual cycle is still turning. Like finding the first orchids or butterflies of spring. It is a joy to realise that millions of little miracles keep happening as we go about our own daily lives.
What makes you sad?
The melancholy of knowing that the next generation is not being bequeathed the natural world as I experienced it as a child. We have failed in our guardianship on their behalf.
Name 3 things on your ‘bucket list’
Somewhere in Central Asia
What would you most like to accomplish and/or be remembered for?
As someone who helped people fulfil their dreams.
Thank you Martin, a very poignant insight into your life and your thoughts on conservation. Many good wishes for the future and I hope one day to spend some time with you at Casa Rural El Recuerdo.
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