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David on the Antarctic mainland

Tour Leader Spotlight: David Phillips

Sara Frost
By Sara Frost
Website & Media Manager
19th September 2020
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This month, the spotlight shines back into the Naturetrek HQ where we join Operations Manager and tour leader, David Phillips.

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

From a young age I was keen to watch the wildlife around my home on the south coast. However, throughout my teenage years and university, it was the physical sciences rather than the biological sciences that were my primary interest. My inclination for the natural world reawakened when I made extensive travels in sub-Saharan Africa following university. Encounters with Mountain Gorillas and Chimpanzees in Zaire (now DR Congo) and the staggering variety of plains mammals in East Africa really captivated me.

A real turning point came when I started to read the works of Richard Dawkins, in particular his books ‘The Selfish Gene’ and ‘The Blind Watchmaker’, which introduced me to a much more rigorous explanation of the mechanisms of evolution and suddenly the natural world made sense.

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?

I count myself as a generalist in the widest sense. My interests span not just the living world but also the geography and culture of the places I visit, the rocks below and the skies above, as I have had a lifelong interest in geology and astronomy.

I became interested in astronomy as a very young child when my father showed me the moon and planets through a small telescope. I was too young to appreciate the Apollo Moon landings, however during the 1970s and 1980s NASA’s Viking mission to Mars and Voyager missions to the outer planets excited me greatly. During this time, I sent regular letters to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California and in return they sent me mission reports and amazing photographs of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. I still treasure those pictures today.      

My father, a chemist by training but also a talented mathematician, was a great influence on me and together we carried out a year-long project to both measure and calculate by two trigonometric methods the sun’s altitude in the sky at noon. This activity gave me an understanding of the movements of celestial bodies that would prove vital when planning eclipse tours much later in life.  

At university I studied Maths and Physics and also took some courses in Astrophysics.   

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

In a previous job I led many tours to Iceland, principally to witness the northern lights. Local people who became good friends would tell me that I should visit the country in the late spring for the birds and flowers and so I did in the spring of 2014 and 2015.

When I started at Naturetrek in July 2016 I was delighted to have the chance to continue my relationship with the country of Iceland by leading the ‘Iceland in Spring’ tour. The tour starts on the shores of Lake Myvatn in northern Iceland. This is one of my favourite regions and it was great to show the group the geothermal mud pools at Námaskarð, the mighty waterfall of Dettifoss, the tectonic rifting at Grjótagjá and the explosion crater of Hverfjall. The lake is a wonderful place to see birds such as the Slavonian Grebe, Red-necked Phalarope and Great Northern Diver at close range and in their full breeding plumage.         

What is your ‘day job’?

Currently my day job is at the Naturetrek office in Chawton, or working from home as we mostly are during this coronavirus period. I put together tours to a range of destinations including Iceland, Norway, the former Soviet Republics of Estonia, Georgia and Armenia, Greece, Hungary, Namibia the US and Taiwan.

I also plan and lead tours to see total eclipses of the sun wherever in the world they occur, and this line of travel has taken me to some extraordinary places. In 2010, with local help, I arranged and set up a campground on a remote atoll in the South Pacific. In 2016 an eclipse track crossed the Indonesian archipelago and I arranged the viewing from the palace of the Sultan of Tidore.

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David in Svalbard

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David at Rano Raraku, Easter Island

Loggerhead Turtle

David on the island of Ternate, Indonesia

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

It’s really difficult to choose a favourite as it’s the sheer variety of animal and plant-life that captivates me, together with the extraordinary aspects to their lives such as long-distance migration. One mammal that I have developed a fondness for is the Gemsbok – I find it such an elegant antelope. I’ve taken a couple of tours to Namibia in recent years and the sight of a Gemsbok standing in the desert sun with its long, straight horns and its buff, black and white coat that almost seem to have been painted, never fails to delight me. 

As for birds: well, how to choose when faced with over 10,000 species!

Certain birds appeal to me for their colours and markings and other species appeal for the places and landscapes they inhabit so I shall choose Harlequin Duck which, as its name suggests, is a colourful duck, in the case of the male, and has beautiful markings. Thinking about this bird takes me back to the fast-flowing rivers of Iceland, particularly the cold, white-water of the River Laxa that flows out from Lake Myvatn, a favourite and often visited location for me. The duck is predominantly a North American species with its most easterly breeding sites in Iceland.      

Choosing a favourite plant is perhaps even more difficult. I love plants that have evolved unusual lifestyles and I have had a long-held fascination with carnivorous plants. Twelve years ago, whilst visiting Borneo, I was keen to find some of the tropical pitcher plants of the Nepenthes genus. The plants grow in nutrient-poor soils and have devised ingenious ways of obtaining nutrients through trapping insects and digesting them in their pitchers. Some members of the genus are now known to secrete nectar on the underside of the lid above the pitcher that attracts Tree Shrews. As the Tree Shrews lick the lid, they are positioned in such a way that they defecate into the plant’s pitcher and provide the plant with the nitrogen it needs.             

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

I always feel the most exciting wildlife experiences are those that are unexpected. Perhaps the most memorable was during a visit to Spitsbergen in 2014. I was in the town of Longyearbyen to finalise arrangements for a solar eclipse the following March and during my stay I thought I should look at areas of the town that could be suitable for viewing displays of the northern lights. I first visited the southern end of the town but cloud came in and it became impossible to see the stars so I returned to my hotel. On my return the lady on reception told me a Polar Bear had been seen in town close to the harbour. The following morning, I went down to the harbour and found huge bear footprints in the snow just where I would have walked to the previous night, had the cloud not rolled in! The bear was still close to town but out in the fjord so we could watch it from a safe distance. Later that day it was tranquilised and taken by helicopter to a remote part of the archipelago.        

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

I have been a keen traveller throughout my life and have visited over 70 countries on all continents but the more I travel, the more I realise there is so much more still to see. After visiting Georgia last year, I would love to explore more of the Caucasus region including the small landlocked country of Armenia. Culturally the region is a crossroads of history and zoologically it is at the convergence of several bio-geographical realms. The mountains are effectively an island of endemism with many species of plants and a few birds and mammals that are found nowhere else. I also find mountain scenery the most awe-inspiring and there are plenty of beautiful mountains in the Caucasus. 

What are you reading at the moment?

This year has provided me with more time than usual to focus on the birds in my local area and earlier this summer I was surprised and delighted to learn that a population of Turtle Doves had been breeding just a few miles from my home. Observing them reminded me of a book that had been sitting on my shelf and that I had been meaning to read for some time: Mark Avery’s ‘A Message from Martha’. It is about the once most numerous birds on the planet – Passenger Pigeons – and how the species was driven to extinction in just a few decades. The final chapter of Mark’s book draws parallels with the population crash and potential extirpation from the UK of the Turtle Dove and how this is happening under our watch.

Turtle Dove numbers have declined massively across the UK and I had thought it was due to hunting in continental Europe but, whilst this is undoubtedly a factor, the main reason for their decline appears to be the lack of food on the breeding grounds when they arrive in the UK. Now that I know Turtle Doves are so close to my home, I am planning to get involved in monitoring and perhaps working to help towards greater breeding success with Operation Turtle Dove.

Which three people would you invite to dinner?

The first two characters I have chosen are great communicators of science. My first choice would be Richard Dawkins, as his books redefined my understanding of the natural world. His recasting of the rules of evolution enable a level of predictability in the natural world that I had previously only found in the physical sciences. My second choice, if he were still alive, would be to invite Carl Sagan, for it was Sagan’s supreme eloquence and enthusiasm in the 80s series ‘Cosmos’ that helped inspire my wonder in the Universe.

Although long dead, I would relish the opportunity to talk to Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-formulator of the theory of evolution by natural selection and the father of bio-geography. Wallace spent eight years travelling around the ‘Malay Archipelago’ (modern Malaysia and Indonesia), and it was during his time there that he conceived the evolutionary mechanism to explain the diversity of life and he also noticed the differences in fauna and flora as he travelled across the region. I have visited some of the many islands that make up the region including Ternate, the island where Wallace based himself for journeys around the eastern part of the archipelago.

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David on the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

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