Andy collecting the British Travel Awards ‘Best Safari, Wildlife & Nature Holiday Company’ 2019 trophy

Tour Leader Spotlight: Andy Tucker

Sara Frost
By Sara Frost
Website & Media Manager
20th October 2020
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This month, the spotlight shines back into the Naturetrek HQ where we join General Manager and tour leader, Andy Tucker.

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

My parents instigated in me a love and appreciation of the great outdoors and my Dad, having grown up in the egg-collecting era of the 1950s and having progressed to relaxed birdwatching in the 1980s, used to take me to talks hosted by our local RSPB group (North Bucks) and on their yearly coach outings to RSPB Minsmere in Suffolk. There I was mesmerized by the Avocets, Marsh Harriers and Redstarts, and amazed by the huge bird lists accumulated by the old heads in the group. The headmaster of my primary school, Mr Riddy, was a keen birdwatcher and I was a member of his YOC. I remember he used to test our ID skills by holding up pictures of birds in his office but I was so familiar with all of the UK’s birds by about the age of ten that he had to resort to winter plumage phalaropes and rare migrants to try to catch me out! It was also at primary school that I read the Adventure series by Willard Price. The original series, comprising 14 novels, was published between 1949 and 1980, and chronicled the adventures of teenagers Hal and Roger Hunt as they travelled the world collecting exotic and dangerous animals for their father’s business, which sold the captured animals to zoos. Looking at this series now, the whole theme is abhorrent, but for a 10-year-old in the early ’80s the novels were full of awe, excitement and adventure!

A young Andy birdwatching in the Lake District, 1980s

What did you do before working for Naturetrek?

In my later teens my interest in birds dropped off a bit and I became more focused on freshwater ecosystems, which led to me studying for a degree in Aquatic Biology at Aberystwyth. I then spent some time working in freshwater fisheries ecology and consultancy before a move to Peru in 1996, where my love of birds was rekindled. I spent a fantastic year working as a resident guide in south-east Peru and then returned to South America for a further year to work at Sacha Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Armed with all of this travel and guiding under my belt, as well as a new-found ability to speak fluent Spanish, I approached Naturetrek in 1998 and joined in September of that year.

Andy at Mindo, Ecuador, with a Black-chinned Mountain Tanager on Naturetrek's wildlife festival tour in 2013
Andy delivering a talk on Polar wildlife to a primary school

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?

Aside from wildlife and travel I’m a big sports fan and in my dreams, in another life, I might have opened the batting for England or played as a midfielder for Watford FC. I have played football and cricket to a good standard and still play cricket occasionally, although I have now exchanged my football boots for running trainers. I’m also quite handy with either a tennis or badminton racket. With four children, my wife and I are kept on our toes with family activities and shepherding everybody through these crazy times that we are living in at the moment. I’m a PADI qualified diver, keen snorkeller and skier and I love walking up mountains (in fact I’ll re-phrase that to ‘bagging summits’). One day I’d like to run a marathon (sub-4 hours preferably – I am very competitive with myself!) and to tick off all the Munros! I also like food and the cinema, variety in life and any new challenges!

When and where was your first tour leading assignment for Naturetrek?

I joined Naturetrek in September 1998 and it wasn’t long after that, in November 1998, that I was sent off to Venezuela to co-lead our ‘From the High Andes to the Llanos’ tour with Colin Crooke. That was a wonderful trip with a great group but memories of it are tinged with sadness now because Venezuela has been off the tour operating radar for several years, with no sign of a return anytime soon. That’s such a great shame for a country so blessed with bird diversity, habitats, scenery and a welcoming culture. I still bump into members of that group at the Birdfair each year, and it’s lovely to stay in touch and reminisce.

What is your ‘day job’?

I am Naturetrek’s ‘General Manager’ based in our office in Hampshire. Over the years I have done most things in the Naturetrek office, including making teas and coffees and doing the filing and post in the early days! For a good 6-8 years I was regularly leading up to 12 tours a year in Europe and South America but I have been mostly Hampshire-based in recent years, keeping busy with managing a team of 30+ and all the different facets which go into the making of a successful tour operator, including compliance and regulation, HR, marketing, customer services and the development of new product. Current restrictions and challenges notwithstanding, I think a career in specialist tour operating is incredibly rewarding, with endless scope and variety.

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

In the UK, I don’t think you can beat a Redstart or a Bullfinch, although I am not alone in the Naturetrek office in making a beeline for the nearest visiting winter Waxwing. In Europe I’d go for Wallcreeper or Great Grey Owl, while in South America I’d say Cock-of-the-rock or Jaguar. The Tangara tanagers are my favourite family of birds. I occasionally enjoy a spot of fishing in the summer, and a glistening green Tench at dawn from a lily pad-fringed lake or canal, released unharmed back into its watery home, is one of my favourite creatures!

Green-headed Tanager
Andean Cock-of-the-rock

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

In August 1996 I was on a motorised canoe en route from Tambopata Research Centre to Puerto Maldonado deep in the Amazon rainforest of south-east Peru, 60 miles from the nearest permanent human habitation. Rounding a bend in the river, the motorist at the back end of the boat suddenly cut the outboard and pointed to the shingle bank of the river to our right. There, standing not 20 metres away, was a magnificent adult Jaguar. She stared at us with those great burning-coal-green eyes of hers, turned, and silently slunk off into the jungle behind her. A wonderful, not-to-be- forgotten encounter! This was before Jaguars became habituated in the Pantanal – and when every Jaguar sighting was of the completely unexpected, heart-stopping variety! I could name many other encounters involving Anacondas, Galápagos Sharks, Short-eared Dog, Jaguarundi, Indian Pangolin or my first Tiger, but it’s the memory of that first Jaguar in Peru which burns brightest.

What current conservation projects most interest you?

Deforestation in the tropics. I remember leading a tour to Ecuador in November 1999 during which we enjoyed some excellent birding on the lower slopes of the western Andes near to a village called Pedro Vicente Maldonado. Here we spent the entire day in unbroken subtropical forest as far as the eye could see, with breathtaking mixed species feeding flocks of rare tanagers. I went back again in the year 2000 when, having briefed the group on what a great day’s birding we were about to have, we were confronted with mile upon mile of African Palm plantations where the year before we’d been entertained by Blue-whiskered, Gray and Gold, Tawny-crested, Dusky-faced, Rufous-winged and Ochre-breasted Tanagers and Scarlet-breasted Dacnis! It was truly heartbreaking, as is the continued deforestation of tropical areas worldwide to make way for monocultures and cattle ranching. For this reason I am especially proud of Naturetrek’s very own conservation project in the Ecuadorian Andes. It contains incredible biodiversity and researchers are finding new species there regularly. We hope to be able to run a tour there one day to showcase its biodiversity!

What are you reading at the moment?

I actually tapped into some of the recommendations from the earlier tour leader interviews that we did, and I’ve greatly enjoyed ‘The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs’ by Steve Brusatte (recommended by David Tattersfield). A sporting biography is usually on the go and I’m currently reading ‘Feet in the Clouds’ by Richard Askwith – an engaging book about an obsession with fell-running. Then finally, with my parent hat on, I’m reading ‘Grown and Flown’ by Heffernan and Harrington about raising healthy teens – perhaps a bigger challenge than usual in these difficult times, although I think every generation has had its challenges!

What new destination would you most like to travel to next?

Anywhere would be nice at the moment! Brazil, New Zealand and the Maldives are near the top of the list.

Andy in the French Pyrenees, 2016
Andy guiding in Galápagos, 2000

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