Look at the birds of the air…

Colin Bibby recruited me to the RSPB – for which I will always be grateful (and the story of that is in Fighting for Birds p 30). Colin passed away 13 years ago, and is still missed by those of us who worked with him, his other friends, and of course relations. As his gravestone says ‘His soul lives on through his work, but most of all through his family’.  For those of you who didn’t know him, here are obituaries from British Birds, Ibis and The Guardian.

Yesterday evening the church at Caldecote, near Cambridge, was filled, for the dedication of a window in Colin’s memory (see here for some rather interesting detail on the process behind such an event).  We, many I’m afraid of very little faith, were invited to look at the birds of the air (which many of us do quite a lot) and consider the lilies of the valley, but we also went through our memories of Colin as a mentor, colleague and friend.

And the stained glass window is charming and fittingly illustrates the subject of Colin’s PhD study, the Dartford Warbler.

Before the service, a Hobby flew over Colin’s family’s house, and as I drove home I stopped to look at Corn Buntings on the wires by the barley field above Gamlingay – I’m sure Colin would often have seen them there too as he drove home from the RSPB’s HQ of The Lodge.  When Colin did his PhD study of the Dartford Warbler in Dorset and Hampshire he would have seen Hobbies over the lowland heathland, but they were rather rarer then, and Corn Buntings were much commoner. Colin would have had something interesting, intelligent and practical to say about both species – he always did.

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  1. Peter Jones says:

    Colin's death, at such a relatively young age, was a blow to the many he lent his time and assistance to. He was of a great help to me with Pied Flycatcher breeding/migration studies and my lone work with Northern Wheatear. It is good to know he has been remembered in such a fitting way.

  2. Messi says:

    A great and visionary conservationist indeed. I still find that a paper written by Colin in an early RSPB Conservation Review is the clearest statement of international conservation prioritisation ever written, and remains bang up to date.

    Colin's approach lives on, even if, sadly, the RSPB Conservation Review doesn't.

  3. Chris Bowden says:

    Thanks Mark for updating us on this - a very touching memorial. Colin was my senior and instigator for my Woodlark (and other) work in the 80s, and then once again became my senior (for which he apologized!) when I was working on Mt Kupe in Cameroon for BirdLife - he also visited me in Morocco on a Bald Ibis mission. I'm often reminded of him when uploading bird checklists to the internet, as he clearly realised 25 years ago how (e)birding would evolve and the conservation potential it offered, and we had several discussions on this at the time.
    I'll stop by to see the window when I'm next back from India.
    Warm wishes to Colin's family, Chris Bowden

  4. Ed Hutchings says:

    Great obituary, Mark. I was unaware of Colin until now and the notable contributions he made to conservation. An Old Oundelian, too.

  5. Richard Porter says:

    Colin was a good friend and colleague for many years both at RSPB and BirdLife International. Eric Ennion would have been proud that his wonderful painting of a Dartford Warbler is now enshrined in glass - a little bird told me that it was modelled on the work of this magical artist.

  6. Nigel Collar says:

    It was really heartening to find the church packed on Sunday evening for the service, which in itself was a tribute to Colin's enduring legacy. I was surprised to see that his gravestone has weathered greatly over these past 13 years while, by contrast, my memories of him are as sharp as if he was with us yesterday. I would like to think he was looking down on us with that quizzical expression of his--ever the good-humoured sceptic--and ready to talk birds and conservation, as he was all through his last illness which he bore with such impeccable style. Good old Col! May his little stained-glass warbler pay him tribute for many hundreds of years.

  7. Barbara Young says:

    Colin is much missed and the window is wonderful. Colin taught me about how to observe birds by sitting me in a reed bed eating reed aphid in order to understand reed warbler better! He wa s a great support to me in my early days at RSPB and gave me the best piece of advice ever. He said to remember that what it was all about is not the greater glory of RSPB but what needs done for birds. If shutting down the RSPB and giving all its money to another organisation was the best thing for birds and conservation, I should do just that! He also kindly took me birdwatching when I didn't know a robin from a ready wrapped turkey and I got my first black woodpecker when we wandered across the Austrian border by mistake. He also taught me how to ride a bike after a thirty year gap so that I could Pedal for Puffins. Much missed.

  8. Alistair Gammell says:

    Ringing at Wicken Fen - he did real science - I just ringed birds: sharing lodgings at Michael Allen's house and as colleagues at RSPB, Colin was always fun, usually with a bon mot ready, or a perspicacious thought to impart. His work, with others at Birdlife, on EBAs was ground-breaking; it was the forerunner of Biodiversity Hotspots and of KBAs and that thinking has changed global conservation prioritisation.

  9. tim stowe says:

    It was good to see so many at the Sunday service, recognising Colin's huge contribution to conservation as well as Colin, the family man. He became my boss, my PhD supervisor and always the source of inspiration, often expressed in his inimitable style. His innovations have huge legacy - from digitising historic bird data in Wales to preparing the ground for identifying the most important bird sites on the planet.His contribution to the RSPB and BirdLife changed the course of global conservation - it was a huge honour to have known him.

  10. Peter Bibby says:

    In his sermon the Archdeacon told us that birds don't worry. Dartford Warblers don't worry? surely Colin would suggest that this idea lacks any proper evidential basis.

    When my Brother, Colin, showed me a Dartford Warbler it looked really worried jerking its head from side to side checking nothing was coming to ...... Hope the chicks are OK.

    Peter Bibby

  11. Rhys Green says:

    Before Dartford Warblers, there were other warblers in Colin's life. One of the first bits of proper science Colin and I did was in the early 1970s, when we found out how some sedge warblers are able to accumulate enough body fat in August in reedbeds in southern England and western France to fly to West Africa in one hop. They do it by eating huge numbers of aphids scooped up from the leaves and flowers of reeds. By doing this, they can gain 0.3 to 0.5 grams in a day- not bad for an 11 gram bird. Not just any old aphids though- the mealy plum-reed aphid Hyalopterus pruni (Geoff.) is the one [Colin liked the "Geoff." a lot]. So if you were wondering how it came to be that Colin later made Baroness Young eat reed aphids, that's how it happened.

  12. Ken Smith says:

    I first met Colin in the 1970s when he gave a talk to a Cambridge Bird Club conference and afterwards, probably to his great surprise, we had a chat about some arcane aspect of analysing nesting success. I recall clearly in his talk he urged birders to record their patches systematically rather than chasing after rare birds in North Norfolk - a challenging message delivered in typical Colin style. Of course it was a few decades before the technology could catch up with the vision. Somewhat inspired, within a few years I had chucked in my job in physics and joined the RSPB with Colin as colleague and later boss. It was a privilege to work in Colin's team when so much was achieved and we all seemed to have so much fun. Like Baroness Young I too was bullied by Colin into Pedalling for Parrots and I'm still pedalling....and systematically recording.


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