SEARCHING FOR AN ALBATROSS
Born Michael Guy Wilson in the village of Kenward, in the Mendip Hills in Somerset, he grew up with a real passion for birds, an interest he acquired aged about eight.
His father was Walter, a dealer in vintage cars, who also worked for EMI as their Somerset representative, and his mother was Violet Hutchinson, a homemaker.
At eleven, he started writing extensive field notes of all his observations, something he kept going for the next 56 years.
It was said as a teenager he was able to perfectly mimic any bird call that he heard. He had a close group of friends who shared his passion. He was always called Mike.
At a visit to Slimbridge he met noted ornithologist Bernard King, who persuaded him to join the Somerset Ornithological Society and who introduced him to John McGeoch, who was to become Mike’s mentor.
His highlight as a teenager was cycling down the A38, because he had heard there was a bittern in some reed beds. After staying in a lorry drivers hostel, he got up early in the morning to catch sight of the bittern – and record the sighting in one of his meticulously kept notebooks.
He went to the Blue School in Wells, where he was a brilliant student. Encouraged by his teacher Jim Hendy, he specialised in languages. Mike took his O Levels in 1959. Following the last exam, he hitchhiked to Scotland to see the first successful nesting of an osprey – at Loch Garten. There he was recruited onto the watch rota by the RSPB, to ensure no thieves stole the eggs. He was charged with recording patterns of the birds’ behaviour.
On one occasion he began to eat a trout dropped by a passing bird. “If it’s good enough for the birds, it’s good enough for me.” But the RSPB warden took it off him and fried it in a pan.
After the holiday he went to Edinburgh University to study German and Russian, starting the latter language from scratch. He spent a year living in West Berlin.
Back in Edinburgh, he joined the Scottish Ornithological Society and spent his weekends on trips with them. His biggest disappointment was visiting Bass Rock in search of the rare Black-browed Albatross – all in vain. And every holiday was spent going around Britain to bird watch with his old friends.
After graduating with first-class honours and taking an MA, he took his Certificate of Education at Exeter University and became a German teacher at Sherborne School in Dorset.
Then he was given a British Council grant to teach English in Minsk in Byelorussia (now Belarus). There, he made connections with many Russian ornithologists, particularly the world wader expert, Vladimir Flint, who became a life-long friend.
Mike became an expert on Russian birds and recorded the ones he could not see in Britain such as White-winged Black Terns, Greater Spotted Eagles, Pallid Harriers and the Citrine Wagtail.
Birdwatching in the USSR was not without risks. Once he was watching Rose-coloured Starlings through his binoculars and didn’t notice a Soviet Military Base close by. He was arrested by a policeman on a bicycle. After hours of interrogation, he was released when the policeman said, “I believe you.”
When he came back to Britain, he taught at the Hedley Walter School in Brentwood. One year he spent his summer holiday doing a birdwatching trawl of the Tunisian Desert.
Whilst doing this he was approached by Stanley Cramp, the editor of the book ‘BWP’ (Birds of the Western Paleartic), who asked him to do translations of articles in German and Russian for the book. Mike did this for free. He worked on volumes 3-9 of the collection.
The BWP was a comprehensive encyclopedia of European birds. The aim was to be much more geographically detailed than the existing bird ‘bible’ ‘The Handbook of British Birds’.
There was some controversy in the bird world about him being used as a translator. It was felt a) he might undermine German experts and b) as it was the Cold War, Russian articles should be rejected.
And whilst he was working for BWP, Mike was sent by the British Council to teach in the Russian city of Voronezh. He could not post any translations back to the UK for fear of them being intercepted by Soviet authorities so took with him a massive amount of 5” x 8” cards for indexing. Whilst in the USSR Vladimir Flint helped him with the translations.
When he returned to the UK he posted his research to Cramp, but insisted postage was reimbursed.
He also started acting as Stanley’s unofficial driver.
He also acted as translator for the RSPB at the ‘6th All-Union Ornithological Conference in Moscow in 1974’.
There was an increasing recognition that Mike’s work was invaluable so when the BWP was upgraded, he was appointed as a full-time, paid, researcher, writer, translator and editor. The BWP were now based at the Alexander Library of the Edward Grey Institute in Oxford, where he worked on BWP publications. The Institute was dedicated to Edward Grey, the Foreign Minister of the UK at the start of the First World War (“The lamps have gone out in Europe. We will not see them lit again in our lifetime”), who was a dedicated birdwatcher in his spare time.
Mike also became a book reviewer for ‘Ibis’ magazine.
Every weekend he would walk alongside the River Thames to Abingdon and back, a round trip of about 15 miles. Whilst doing this he recorded everything he could about the ‘Cetti’s Warbler’ and became the national expert on this bird.
It was also on these walks he recorded the first (and second) sighting of the ‘Yellow-browed Warbler’ in Oxfordshire.
He also edited the 9-volume BWP down into a 2-volume digested version for the Oxford University Press. He wrote about the social pattern and behaviour of 175 birds.
The achievement he was most proud of was recording the hitherto unknown mating patterns of both the ‘Ruff’ and the ‘Great Snipe’.
And he would translate anything for anyone, without charge.
In the end he was forced to retire due to ill health.
Michael received the Janet Kear Union Medal in 2019, for “his distinguished service to ornithology.” Janet had been President of the British Ornithologist Union (BOU) between 1991 and 1995 and was also editor of ‘Ibis’. The citation called Mike “a modest, understated gentleman who created an enduring legacy.”
Upon his death, the BWP said, “We were particularly fortunate to have had Mike and his expertise. Without him, the literature would have been far less thorough and without him our collective understanding of eastern European birds would have been decidedly poorer.”
Former colleagues called him, “professional, loyal and supportive.”
RIP – Ruff & Ibis = Paleartic