Neil McMahon

Tour Leader Spotlight: Neil McMahon

Sara Frost
By Sara Frost
Website & Media Manager
16th January 2021
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In this month's tour leader spotlight, we join Neil McMahon. Neil grew up in Northamptonshire and, from a very young age, developed an interest in the natural world. His passion for bird and wildlife-watching has taken him all around the world, visiting more than 50 countries. We catch up with him in this latest tour leader interview…

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

At a very early age. My mother used to feed birds in the garden before that was the norm and I’m pretty sure that in those days we were the only household in the village to do so. Of course these days it seems that quite a percentage of gardens are now active feed stations. I remember that we had a very long-lived Song Thrush that was in our garden for years and was so tame that I could hand feed it. I feel it is always a privilege and really exciting to be up and close to wildlife. My grandfather was a keen coarse fisherman and used to take me with him. Sitting quietly alongside canals, streams, rivers and lakes ensured that I saw a great deal of wildlife, much of which tended to ignore you after a while. I wasn’t much of a fisherman but I was fascinated with the Water Voles, dragonflies and damselflies, Kingfishers and everything else that came close. I still remember my first Black Tern flying over my head whilst I was fishing on the Grand Union Canal and the need and excitement to return home to consult the book to identify it!

I think that had I met an entomologist rather than an ornithologist when I was young, I could easily have been hooked on insects. However, it was birdwatching that took hold, and the obsessive side of me took over as I commenced the lifelong desire to self-learn how to identify everything that flew and called. I quickly realised that small birds had a habit of disappearing into cover before I saw the salient identification points but often continued calling and singing. And so at a very early age I took it upon myself to learn all the usual songs and calls of birds I encountered – possibly the best decision I ever made! From that point on I have endeavoured to identify every bird by call/song and how it behaves and moves, and only to use the finite plumage detail as a last resort or a clincher.

Common Kingfisher
Water Vole

When and where did you lead your first tour for Naturetrek?

I decided that after my main career was over, I wanted a job associated with my passion for wildlife. One of the options was to become a Tour Leader. At that point I had travelled to about 50 countries on birding and wildlife trips and felt I had a reasonable knowledge of some aspects of wildlife but particularly birds. I also considered myself a ‘people person’ too and although being a birder can mean you are something of a loner, I had always enjoyed showing people what wildlife was on offer. However, I didn’t know anyone in eco-tourism so I wrote to Naturetrek and was contacted for a telephone interview and meeting at the Birdfair. After that I was added to the hallowed email list and later given the opportunity of co-leading in Portugal with superb local guide Nuno Barros. And so it was that Nuno had to put up with me on my first tour, leading the splendid ‘Algarve at Christmas’ tour in December 2013, a tour we both still lead and thoroughly enjoy! What’s not to celebrate – fab weather, utterly gorgeous Portuguese cuisine, away from the commercialised Christmas in the UK, wonderful Portuguese lifestyle, great birds and comfortable hotels and lots of guests who enjoy that and more!

What is, or was, your day job?

I joined Northamptonshire Police when I was 16 years of age and worked there as boy, man and old man for the next 38 years! I enjoyed a variety of roles and positions within the force and without doubt it was a very fulfilling, varied and challenging career. I found that my passion for wildlife was a great way to switch off from the rigours of my job and I used to always have a wildlife holiday booked in advance so that there was always a date to look forward to. I quickly learnt the values of team-working, trust and good communications – all good core values for working as a Tour Leader too!

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?

Actually I don’t! Any spare time is associated with surveys, bird ringing, maintaining wild bird feed stations, wildlife photography, writing blogs, habitat management and the like. I am a volunteer reserve warden for a local Wildlife Trust reserve and complete similar voluntary work on another private estate. I am a committee member for our local Northants Bird Club and conduct talks/presentations on wildlife. My passion for feeding birds continues and with a very able and willing team of friends, we maintain a number of feeding stations for a variety of species including Yellowhammer, Tree Sparrow and birds of farmland and woodland. Some of these are all-year-round and others are seasonal to cover the winter and spring when natural food is no longer plentiful.

What current conservation projects or issues most concern you?

I think when you are passionate about wildlife and the environment, the reality is that everything concerns you! Every new road, housing estate and warehouse fills me with dread as I think about how many aspects of nature are simply eaten up, cut off and lost. Our impact on the planet is currently unsustainable and despite the marvellous ambassadorial work by people such as Sir David Attenborough and a plethora of leading naturalists, scientists and environmentalists, we can see the wonders of this world being destroyed as rapidly now as ever. I particularly hate to see the natural world being manipulated by those with a desire to dominate rather than appreciate. Why destroy something when you can capture the essence of the quarry with a photograph rather than a gun – and leave the subject for someone else to appreciate the same way without upsetting the balance. I find projects such as re-introduction schemes and habitat enhancing uplifting, and watch with interest the activities and drive of Wild Justice – at last committed people challenging the long term wrongs of how our countryside is managed.
Red-headed, Asiatic White-rumped and Slender Billed Vultures - N.McMahon
Glanville Fritillary - N.McMahon

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

A question I’m often asked and my usual retort is ‘what I am watching now!’ Birds have always been my passion but I recall first visiting Africa and how birds took a back seat once a herd of Elephants came into view or a hidden pride of Lions rose from the savanna grasslands! I’ll never forget rounding a corner in India and encountering a playing pack of Dhole (Asian Wild Dog) – we watched them for 90 minutes! The cats take some beating with perhaps the Leopard and Jaguar as my favourites. And despite living in the middle of the UK I love cetaceans – it’s impossible not to smile and be happy when encountering a pod of dolphins or an interactive Humpback. Dragonflies fascinate me and I can watch them all day long and I feel a strong bond with the world’s canines and am in awe of Wolves. The reality is that I enjoy my local wildlife as much as the exotica of faraway lands – can anything beat the charm and charisma of our local Robin?

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

In addition to that already mentioned, I don’t think anyone forgets their first Tiger sighting and although I have been fortunate to see quite a few, it’s the first views that remain most vivid. Being a ‘patchwork’ birder and routinely visiting a local area again and again, it’s always special when you find something rare or not anticipated and this has happened to me on quite a few occasions. I think the first rare bird I found was as a 14-year-old birdwatcher walking around my local reservoir and finding a Great Reed Warbler. Thankfully the county recorder saw it after I reported it! Any encounter with Orcas is memorable, although a two-and-a-half-hour battle between a Grey Whale trying to protect her calf from a pod of Orcas was actually disturbing and shocking as well as memorable (the Orcas won). Coming across a brood of Capercallie chicks in the Scottish Highlands when I was a teenager will always live with me and twice I’ve seen a Woodcock pick up a chick between its legs and fly off with it, an event that was historically recorded but the authenticity of which has been debated in recent times! I find natural landscapes and habitat as memorable as the wildlife it nurtures, and wildernesses particularly inspire me. Watching over the Tanzanian plains with Kilimanjaro in the distance, scanning over the endless Black Sitka forests of Alaska or drinking-in the sheer beauty of the west coast of Scotland are typical examples.

What do you enjoy most about leading tours?

For me it’s all about watching a guest being bowled over by a Naturetrek experience. Generally it is a wildlife event – seeing the incredulity and excitement in another’s demeanour when they have finally seen something they have always dreamed of. Joyful tears and emotion when they have witnessed an event or experienced one of those totally unanticipated wildlife encounters. It’s always very special when a group of guests click and enjoy each other’s company and have an opportunity to socialise with good food and pleasant, safe surroundings. There are also great opportunities to learn from one another and I have certainly benefitted from that and I love visiting other countries and experiencing different cultures as well as the wildlife on offer.

What are you reading at the moment?

I have always loved reading but I find less and less time to do so, such is the pull of the great outdoors! The last book I read was ‘A Shadow Above – the Fall and Rise of the Raven’ by Joe Shute which I enjoyed. Living in ‘Middle England’ I have witnessed the return of the Common Buzzard, the Red Kite, the Polecat and the Otter during my lifetime, and the exiled Raven has returned too. The author clearly finds the Raven as primeval and mystical as I do and I enjoyed reading over his exploits and fact finding missions and accounts.

What new destinations would you like to visit next?

The world is a big place and I already feel privileged to have travelled as much as I have. I have never visited Australia; I would love to go to Baja to see more cetaceans and Whale Shark; I love Central and South America and would love to travel more in the region; I have been to Antarctica once but would love to go again and have never been to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Kazakhstan, Romania, Siberia, Central Africa, the Falkland Isles and South-east Asia are all desired but pull me in different directions! I enjoy repeat visits to the same country and am always happy to go back to familiar territories and regions – most of my tour leading for Naturetrek is in Europe with Poland, France and Scotland being my regular venues but I have also been fortunate to venture to Norway, Uganda, St Lucia and Jamaica and led the first Naturetrek tours to Cambodia early in 2020.