Rick and Elis Simpson are special. They truly are people who are making a difference. They have a love of waders, those enigmatic birds that travel vast distances around the globe and delight us with their evocative cries, wheeling winter flocks and boundless energy as they feed along lonely shorelines.
They care about these birds so much that they now effectively devote their lives to conserving them, turning their passion into direct action. Their charity Wader Quest was formed in 2012 and to date has raised over £30,000 towards wader conservation projects worldwide. It’s difficult to put into words how wading birds can affect the emotions. As Rick explains below, the haunting, melancholic cries of lapwings get into your very soul.
They hooked me 50 years ago and whenever I hear them during spring I’m instantly transported back to a golden spring day – 3rd May 1970 – when I discovered them for the first time. It’s a date my friend and I celebrate even now. Yes, Rick and Elis are special – I’ll let them enthrall you with an inspiration of waders.
You have a passion for waders; what first triggered your love for this particular group of birds?
Well, that’s a nice easy one to start. As I never tire of telling people, it all started with the humble Lapwing. To cut a long story short, after annoying my mother on a rainy day as a small child, she thrust a bird book at me, in an attempt to keep me quiet. It worked. I thumbed through, looking at many familiar birds from the garden until I found buried in there (page 42 actually), a picture of a Lapwing which drew my attention. I determined there and then that I would see one asap. I soon did and was absolutely captivated by them. I was intrigued by the fact that they ran around randomly, as if in their own world, ignoring those around them. They would run every which way in short bursts which I later became aware was typical of plovers. Then, when something startled them, they went up as one, reformed into a cohesive group and demonstrated formation flying that the Red Arrows display team would be proud of. And those calls, those delicious calls. I was smitten. I still cherish every sighting I have of these lovely birds, lamenting their decline with a heavy heart.
Can you explain for us how Wader Quest came into being? What are its aims and how does it function?
It all started with a desire to see a Spoon-billed Sandpiper, while we still could. Having missed a chance to see a Slender-billed Curlew, an opportunity that is unlikely to arise ever again, it became something of an obsession. Whilst planning a trip to see them, the information we were unearthing made us feel that we should do more than just go and tick them off. From that, the idea of a world tour to see waders and raise money for the Spoon-billed Sandpiper captive breeding programme at Slimbridge evolved. After the travels we felt we wanted to continue and the charity that Wader Quest is today was born.
We have two main aims. To raise awareness about the many problems that waders face, as we discovered in our travels. The second is to raise money to support wader conservation. Many people like us cannot get physically involved for various reasons, so if anyone feels strongly about what is happening to waders, almost entirely due to humanity’s indifference to the natural world, they now have a place to go where they can be directly involved in the conservation of these wonderful birds through us.
Awareness raising is mainly achieved through our website and the talks we give to clubs, groups, and societies, whilst fundraising comes from the same sources and also from events that we attend such as the Birdfair.
Can you provide an example of how your work has made a real difference to the conservation efforts for a particular species?
As a small charity with a big reach we have been directly involved in projects such as the effort to protect Hooded Plovers in Australia where we funded the production of banners and leaflets for volunteers who protect the birds on the beaches. We have also: provided equipment to Nature’s Valley Trust to help them protect White-faced Plovers and African Oystercatchers in South Africa; part-funded an expedition to Nepal to study the enigmatic Wood Snipe; initiated a study into the little known Magellanic Plover as well as supporting the WWT in their Spoon-billed Sandpiper, and latterly, closer to home, Eurasian Curlew projects to name a few.
I think it is fair to say that our biggest gift to wader conservation so far has been the awareness we have been able to bring to the plight of these birds. There has been a problem for some time, but we felt that too few people were aware and many fewer understood just how serious the decline in waders the world over has been. We feel that a change has to come from more people being aware, and our aim every day is to increase that number.
Empowering local people with a sense of ownership through education is central to your work. Can you explain why you believe this is so important and why you believe it works better than simply funding organisations at a higher level?
We have witnessed first-hand the power of emotion that being directly involved in local issues has evoked. In birding, as with any other local issue, there are none so motivated as those on the ground in a particular situation. We all feel sad when we hear of a dog killing a Hooded Plover chick but imagine the angst of a volunteer who has watched that chick from the day it hatched to its unnatural and untimely demise. Capturing that raw emotion and channelling it into action to try to prevent repetition is a powerful motivator. On the positive side there is an elation and feeling of great achievement when you help a small vulnerable bird through its most hazardous time of life, between hatching and its first flight. This feeling of success is equally motivating to those who are involved, and it is these things that keep people trying against the odds to tip the balance in favour of the birds by their caring actions.
You’ve raised a significant amount of money since Wader Quest was founded. How do you select which projects to support; are there any specific criteria you apply?
The only criterion that we try to adhere to is that there must be some kind of community education or involvement whatever the species or locality. For the reasons stated above we feel that investment in local people is vital to make the changes that our waders need. Those who have a vested interest in their own environment are hardly likely to be inspired by others doing their work secretly, independent of them.
Where possible we prefer to purchase equipment and send it if we can. We do not very often simply send money to a project where its final destination or use is unclear. We also seldom advance money simply to pay for people’s travel or expenses. There needs to be a tangible result, like an incubator, colour rings, leaflets, fencing etc. that we can point to, in order to justify our outlay to the people who have been generous enough to support us. Currently no one in our organisation is paid or receives expenses. All income is used to run the charity and to make grants to conservation projects.
Wading birds have many specific problems to overcome, but what do you consider the greatest challenges facing them and wildlife in general today?
Habitat destruction and degradation is by far the biggest threat if you ignore the fact that there are simply too many people on the planet to feed in a sustainable way. It isn’t just the significant acts of destruction like the reclamation of the intertidal zone, or damming rivers to alter the flow thus changing the face of estuaries. It is the devastating effect that changes in farming practices and land use have wrought, rendering vibrant countryside into green deserts. They may look pretty, but little grows or thrives there. Insects and non-crop plants are all but eradicated and thus the entire food chain above them has gone.
There is a basic premise to all this. In order for a species to survive, each generation needs to replace itself. It is not just on the breeding grounds where this is acted out. For those that migrate long distances, the places they pass the non-breeding season and those that they travel through on the way, need to supply the birds with enough to sustain them on their journey back to breed. The descent to extinction is basically a result of not replacing those that do not survive from one year to the next.
How can people help support your work and help protect waders?
We know that it is often hard to find ways to get involved. Not everyone lives near to a breeding beach to volunteer as a nest and chick watcher, not everyone is the type that can knock on a farmer’s door and ask that a certain patch of meadow be left unmown; indeed we are not those people ourselves. We therefore understand that these things are not for everyone, but that does not mean that people don’t care. That being the case then, being involved is easy, you can do it through us simply by donating in the short term or by becoming a Friend of Wader Quest as an individual or family or as a Corporate Sponsor if you are part of an organisation. In this way you are supporting and investing in those people that can, and do, watch beaches and converse with landowners.
We also have an annual wader watching event which has the long-winded name of Wader Conservation World Watch (WCWW). Each year it is held on the first weekend of November to celebrate Wader Quest’s anniversary. (This year it is October 31st and 1st November.) Here we simply ask people to look out for waders on one or both days over the weekend and let us know what they have seen and where. This can be from the window of your car as you go about your business if you can’t get out birding or you can visit a favourite wader spot. Maybe people will be lucky enough to be on a birding trip or holiday and can record birds they don’t normally see. It is simplicity itself and even those who see small numbers of waders, indeed none at all where they are, can still be involved. A list of 0 is as important as one of 40 species as it is the participation to show awareness of the situation that is important.,
We ask people to send their lists to us by email and once we have all the sightings we collate them and we compile a worldwide list of all the species seen collectively over the two days and, more importantly, we produce a roll of honour including all the contributors by name, all those that stood up to show that they care.
The results are recorded on the website and we also produce a special newsletter to record the sightings and more importantly the roll of honour.
You have written two books. The first, ‘Eury the Spoon-billed Sandpiper’, a book for children, and another, ‘An Inspiration of Waders’ coining a new collective noun for waders in flight. It would be interesting to have an overview of these, telling us how and why they came into being and how people can get a copy for themselves.
No-one can be in any doubt that the continued existence of the planet’s environment and the creatures within it will one day be the responsibility of our children. Inspiring them these days with all the distractions of modern life is hard. The life of a wader in its first year of life is also very hard and that is what we wanted to get across to young people. We wanted them to be aware that the decisions they make in future have consequences for the environment and the wildlife within it; in this case the challenges that these small yet hardy birds face in their battle to survive and how we as humans affect their chances. With that in mind we developed a story based on a Spoon-billed Sandpiper called Eury. The story begins while he is still inside his egg and covers his life when he hatches, along with his three siblings. It describes events that befall them as chicks and then as fledged birds that fly south, eventually returning (those that do) to breed themselves. It is not what I’d call hard-hitting but it does not shy away from reality. The book is designed for children between 6 and 11. The younger ones may enjoy having it read to them and the older ones enjoy reading the story for themselves. The story is illustrated by Megan Tadden with charming and amusing line drawings to accompany the text and some vibrant colour artworks to help bring the story to life in young minds. Whatever the age of the child, or even the adults that share the story with them, hopefully there will be food for thought about the impact we can have on the innocent lives that are unfortunate enough to cross our path.
The second book arose from an idea that struck me when I heard someone refer to a wader flock in flight as a murmuration, the correct collective noun for Starlings in flight. The actions of the two are similar, it is true, but I was not content and wondered out loud what would be ‘a better noun for such an inspiring sight?’ The word inspiring resonated and it struck me that waders have been inspirational in so many ways from a personal perspective and in a more general sense. It was a wader, the Lapwing, that inspired me to become a lifelong birder, it was a Spoon-billed Sandpiper that inspired Wader Quest. Others have been inspired to take up careers to study and protect them and as humans our art, literature, poetry, history, myths and legends and much more besides have all been inspired by waders in some way. It became obvious to me that the only fitting collective noun for this wonderful phenomenon was ‘an inspiration of waders’ . This book describes some of the ways in which waders have inspired us all, even in the most unexpected ways. We actively try to encourage everyone to adopt this and who knows, one day it may trip off the tongue as easily as a murmuration of Starlings to those that are lucky enough to witness it?
Whilst we are on the subject of books, here’s a shameless plug for our next book which we were to launch at Birdfair this year, which will be available soon despite Bird fair being cancelled. It is called ‘A Quest for Waders’ with a foreword by Dominic Couzens and it chronicles our travels to see waders. It includes anecdotes both tragic and comic, as well as information about how and where we saw the waders that we came across and even those we missed.
All Wader Quest books , and also our successful and popular Wader Quest Collectables pin badges and earrings, are available through Wader Quest. They can be purchased through the website shop or simply write to us at email@example.com and we’ll take it from there.
What do you consider to be your greatest success?
Finding Elis, who not only understands my passion but shares it and remains, even in my darkest hour, the wind beneath my wader wings.
What would you consider to be your deepest regret?
Slightly selfish, but not going to see Slender-billed Curlews when I had the chance; not that it was my decision, it just wasn’t possible at the time for me. I often look back and wonder, if I had known what I know now, would I have been more insistent? Yes, of course I would.
What advice would you give to a budding naturalist?
Try not to merely look at the creatures you find, try to see how they fit into their environment and observe their relationship to each other. That way you’ll get a better understanding of what goes where and why. This is the first step in unravelling how to save it all so that you can give sage advice later to the budding naturalists of the future.
Who or what are your heroes/heroines/greatest Inspirations?
I am an ardent fan of the great naturalists of the past. I have a sneaking envy for those who set out to discover the unknown, whilst at the same time having trouble reconciling myself with their methods sometimes. I’m not sure I would be brave or strong enough to endure the hardships they often faced but reading about them in my cosy armchair and a glass of something reviving makes me feel that I could have done.
Recall your most exciting or memorable wildlife spotting encounter.
I have been very lucky and had so many wonderful moments, all of which at the time I probably thought would be my best or finest hour. However, if there was one defining moment it has to be the moment when Elis and I were sitting quietly on the bund of a salt pan in Thailand. As we sat there relaxing and taking in the exotic environment a Spoony ran up the bank very close to us. It sat there for a moment and then, deciding we were not a threat, it settled down to preen, glancing at us from time to time to make sure our status as non-threatening had not changed. What a privilege to have eye contact with such a wonderful bird. As if that wasn’t enough a second Spoony joined it.
This too assessed us and decided we were benign and set about adjusting its feathers. As they sat there, I started to imagine where they had come from and what they had seen and experienced. After a time, my jaw was beginning to ache with the broad grin that was transfixed about my chops, when a third Spoony landed at half the distance between us and the original two. This was too close for comfort for the tiny bird, so glancing over its shoulder at us it raced to the others and flew off taking them with it. The seed for the Eury book was planted at that moment and we even managed to weave the encounter from the birds’ perspective into the story. Their proximity and trust that we wouldn’t hurt them, although illogical I know, felt like they were thanking us for helping them and the connection between us and the Spoonies became greater and more personal.
What new aspects of conservation excite you?
For so long the mysteries of migration have eluded us, from Aristotle believing the Swallows sank into the mud, through Woodcocks summering on the moon, to imagining that Bar-tailed Godwits fly non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand. We have often wondered about routes, stop over points and marvelled at their feats of navigation. The recent developments that can place a small satellite tag on a bird to trace its every move is revealing so much that we didn’t know, and rewriting the things we thought we knew. Whilst the Swallow and Woodcock stories have been condemned to the myth pile, the Bar-tailed Godwits flying non-stop from Alaska to New Zealand has been proved and remains one of the most inspirational stories about waders that can be told.
What are your hobbies/interests outside of wildlife?
Is there a life outside of wildlife? I have yet to find something that brings me so much pleasure and awe in equal measure. However, although it generally involves wildlife and in particular waders, I really enjoy writing about them, reading about them and also drawing them, although in that regard my efforts leave a lot to be desired. Whilst engaged in these earnest activities I do enjoy a good red wine with a splendid cheese… does that count?
What makes you happy?
Being with Elis in a remote locality watching the tide come in across a mudflat, surrounded by the sight and sound of waders. There is nothing to touch the feeling of wellbeing such encounters induce in us both.
What makes you sad?
There are few things that get to me as much as a photograph of live waders strung up by their legs in a food market. I’m welling up just thinking about it now. Their beady, dark eyes scream fear and sadness. It is so upsetting.
Name 3 things on your ‘bucket list’
A trip to Madagascar.
To see 200 species of wader.
And bizarrely, to see Azure Tit.
What would you most like to accomplish and/or be remembered for?
If it’s a legacy you are looking for, then it would be lovely to think that Wader Quest will continue long after we have gone, and people don’t even remember our names.
What next for Rick, Elis and Wader Quest?
Privately, one day we would like to find the finances to travel again to see more of the world’s waders while they are still here. For Wader Quest, it will be recruiting new blood to assist us and our right-hand man Andrew Whitelee who has taken on much of the work already, so that the organisation can continue without us. If anyone has a passion for waders, and/or a desire to be involved and offer their skills and time to help them, and thinks they might like to be involved in the development and administration of Wader Quest, they should write initially to firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Thanks to Rick and Elis for a thoroughly entertaining encounter with some truly remarkable birds. The ethos of Wader Quest maps directly onto the principles that underpin WingSearch2020, and your dedication is infectious and so worthwhile. The very best of luck to you both, and let’s hope that against all odds you get a chance to see that Slender-billed Curlew, or at least an Azure Tit.
Check out this video link to a chat between Allan Archer of talk:Wildlife and Rick which gives more information on the goals and achievements of Wader Quest.