I met Neil Donaghy in his capacity of tour leader of a combined art/wildlife trip to his beloved South Wales. The few days spent in his company were memorable for the wonderful sightings we had of chough, red kites, migrating passerines and a fantastic convolvulus hawkmoth shown to us by local moth trappers. Neil was excellent company throughout and his passion for his native country and willingness to share its special wildlife shone through. For me, the most poignant episode was sitting together quietly scrutinising an impressive stand of mountain ash in the hillside opposite. We were looking for ring ouzels and the peacefulness and solitude of that place struck a chord. We didn’t see an ouzel, but we just knew they were in there somewhere.
Hi all – my name is Neil Donaghy and I am the now retired founder of Celtic Bird Tours and former director & co-owner of Oriole Birding. I met Barry on a tour to South Wales many years ago with his art group and although I haven’t seen him since, we have kept in touch occasionally, so I was delighted when he asked me to participate in this lockdown biography series for his excellent Wingsearch2020 project. I spend most of my time nowadays commuting between the UK and Poland birding and photographing my local patch at Kenfig National Nature Reserve (featured image) and the Hajnowka Meadows respectively.
What event triggered your interest in the natural world?
Sunday nights viewing The World About Us was my initial introduction to the natural world – I rarely missed it and it fired my imagination.
Birding wise, at the age of nine, I noticed a strange black bird with a fiery orange tail in our Cardiff garden, so I went to the library and borrowed a book [probably the Observers Book of Birds, but I can’t actually remember], and there it was in all its glory – a female Black Redstart. From that moment on I was hooked and began to learn as much about birds in particular as possible.
Finding nests, watching Sky Larks and Kestrels hunting the open areas behind the house, walks in the local woods and reservoir and reading as much as I could about nature all followed. However, I didn’t actually get my first binoculars until age fourteen so I learnt all of my birds in the initial stages by eyesight alone.
Give a sketch of a typical day in your life
Nowadays, it usually involves going out birding as soon as I have had breakfast, taking a few photos, and then writing diaries and processing and posting photos, engaging on social media and cooking dinner. I usually have a glass or two of wine later in the evening, maybe watch a movie or speak with my grown up children and am usually in bed by around 22.30; quite a quiet life really. This pretty much applies whether I am in the UK or in Poland where I spend a lot of my time.
You spent several years managing a wildlife holiday company. Can you explain what prompted you to set up that venture and how that experience shaped your views of life and nature?
It’s a long story, but having been forced to take early retirement from my job on the railways due to a severe ankle injury, I was left with a second child due in a month and needed to find an income. I tried a couple of ideas before deciding I would try and do what I actually loved doing; travelling and sharing wildlife experiences. I was surprised how many people followed the same ideals as I grew up basically being told bird watching was for nerds and it was very enlightening to find that there were in fact a lot of like minded people. As an anecdote, a belated cortisone injection cleared my injury permanently.
What aspect of that work did you find most rewarding? Would you like to share any funny or enlightening moments with us?
I’m afraid discretion forces me to remain silent about many of the incidents I have been witness too during my time on tours… I personally found the whole experience rewarding from the concept of a tour, to writing itineraries, organising logistics and then finding people to book. There have been many memorable moments and it gave me enormous pleasure to show someone a much wanted species that they may have been waiting many years to see. I have made some lifelong friends too, which is hugely important to me.
What do you consider the greatest challenges facing wildlife today?
Habitat loss and climate change for me are the biggest issues facing much of our wildlife.
Do you think there’s hope?
I’m not sure. I write this as the coronavirus pandemic is forcing different ways of thinking about the world around us, so perhaps some positives may come from that. I worry about the impact Brexit will have on the environment despite the sound bites assuring us to the contrary.
What do you consider to be your greatest success?
I guess it depends on your definition of success. Being the father of three wonderful boys is the best thing that has happened to me, but in terms of work, building a business from absolute scratch that is still going and thriving 23 years later albeit under a different guise these days is quite an achievement given the fiercely competitive nature of the sector. Honestly when I started in 1997, I had never switched on a computer in my life, so it was all a huge learning curve and remained so until I fully retired in 2019.
What would you consider to be your deepest regret?
I don’t have too many regrets really.
What advice would you give to a budding naturalist?
Spend as much time in the field as you possibly can. Learn common birds and bird song first.
If you could be anywhere in the world at this moment where would it be and why?
Tricky question that could have multiple answers at any given time… There are still a few places I would like to visit. I was hoping to have a weekend butterfly watching in Slovenja in early May, so I guess that would be top of the list right now. From what I have seen of it, it looks stunningly beautiful.
What is your favourite or most admired animal and why?
That’s an easy one… Wolf – the first time I saw them, it was a pack of five in Eastern Poland and it brought a tear to my eye as it was a very emotional experience. I just find them incredibly beautiful animals and they just epitomise the definition of wild to me. The sound of howling sends shivers down my spine.
Who or what are your heroes/heroines/greatest Inspirations?
I remember going to see Tony Soper give a talk when a member of the YOC and his passion for birds struck a chord with me as a pre-teenage birder. In recent years, I have enjoyed reading Kenn Kaufmann’s books, while Lars Svensson has probably advanced identification knowledge more than anyone else. Our mutual good friend Steve Cale was the first bird artist who really made me sit up and take notice of field sketches, likewise James McCallum for the sheer beauty of his books (the image is of an original Steve Cale work that I’m fortunate enough to own – BM). Photographers and film makers such as Jari Peltomaki, Dave Gosney and presenters such as the legendary David Attenborough and more recently Chris Packham who have effortlessly made natural history cool. Outside of the natural world – Johan Cruyff for being the best footballer of all time & Steve Kilbey of The Church for writing many of the songs that have been the soundtrack to my adult life
Recall your most exciting or memorable wildlife spotting encounter.
Aside from the wolves already mentioned, I think it was probably my first encounter with a Great Grey Owl in a Finnish forest in the middle of a sunlit night; such majesty in a bird, and those eyes… I was totally in awe and I felt privileged to be in that place at that moment in time watching that particular bird. But, there are many others too that could make the list.
Can you say what it is about the natural world that continues to inspire you?
As I get older, I find that I get inspired by all sorts of things in the natural world. For example a walk in a Polish meadow in high summer under seemingly endless blue skies with a profusion of wildflowers underfoot; many of which have nectaring butterflies, a Lesser Spotted Eagle soars overhead, patrolling its territory, as a Common Crane bugles in the distance. The feeling of well being and at one with nature as a whole this overall type of experience gives me is something I can’t really explain.
What new aspects of conservation excite you?
The awareness of the younger generation that conservation matters and the numbers of them who are taking up careers in order to protect the planet for future generations.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of wildlife?
I enjoy photography, travel, nice wine and food, listening to a wide variety of music and reading
What makes you happy?
Being outside with binoculars and a camera, travelling to and exploring new places, and spending time with friends and loved ones.
What makes you sad?
Ignorance, greed, selfishness and the inability of some people to understand that nature reserves are not a play thing for their dogs.
Name 3 things on your ‘bucket list’
Visiting the Russian Far East preferably via the Trans Siberian Railway, winter birding in Japan and finally getting to go to Canada…
What would you most like to accomplish and/or be remembered for?
Just to make those close to me happy.
Thanks Neil, making a successful career out of your passion for birds and wildlife must make you very proud. Wish I’d have done something similar. And I know what you mean when you saw that great grey owl. Keep enjoying Kenfig in your well earned retirement.
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