Wildlife Holiday News

Simon and Niki in Morocco's Atlas Mountains

Tour leader spotlight: Simon Tonkin & Niki Williamson

Andy TuckerBy This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
General Manager
12th July 2019

If you're planning to join a Naturetrek tour to southern Spain or Morocco, there's a good chance you´ll run into our leaders Simon Tonkin and Niki Williamson. Partners in life as well as on tour (an unusual but not unique position), between them Simon and Niki have many years’ experience in Naturetrek tour-leading, nature conservation, ornithology, ecology, and the hospitality industry, and are known for their ability to infuse the top class wildlife-watching of a Naturetrek holiday with great fun and superb picnics! They’re also unabashed foodies, which helps! General Manager, Andy Tucker, works closely with Niki and Simon on the operations of our tours in southern Spain, and caught up with them both.

Simon and Niki, when and how did your interest in wildlife begin? 

Niki:  I grew up in the middle of nowhere in West Yorkshire, so me and the only other four kids who lived within walking distance used to mess about making dens in the woods and rescuing insects from puddles. I suppose that´s where it started, just loving being outside. My mum and dad bought me a membership to the YOC when I was six though, so my fate was sealed from early on! 

Simon: I was raised in Plymouth and my early birding habitats were rubbish tips, sewage outfalls and fish factories. It all started when, at nine years old, my enthralment with the natural world led me to sneak out with my father’s massive binoculars at first light, returning home many hours after dark covered in estuarine mud and other indescribable detritus, to face the music!…. in fact an eminent member of the RSPB council once described me has having no discernible talents save for the ability to hang out at sewage outfalls and rubbish tips!

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

Simon: I started leading with Naturetrek in La Brenne with veteran Naturetrek leader Tom McJannet in the early 2000s – Tom gave me a great insight into conservation, bird behaviour and picnics!! However most of my early tour leading was in the Strait of Gibraltar, where I developed my obsession further for raptor migration and is now a place I proudly call my home!

Niki: My first trip was Tarifa & Gibraltar, in September 2016. I´ve spent plenty of time showing people birds on Nature Reserves and I´ve had my fair share of hospitality industry jobs but I remember being very nervous! Happily, Simon was there to show me the ropes, and I absolutely loved it. I still remember everybody´s names from that group, they were lovely people and we saw some epic migration together!

What is, or was, your ‘day job’?

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Simon and Niki

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Simon with picnic in Extremadura

Niki:  For most of my career I worked for the RSPB, first as a volunteer at Minsmere, then doing numerous short contracts and wardening jobs, including protecting Hen Harriers from the illegal persecution on the Geltsdale Estate, and brandishing power tools with varying levels of success at the Ouse Washes Reserve in East Anglia. I got the chance to go birding in some of the best wetland, upland and coastal habitats in the UK! Latterly I roosted for some considerable time at the Eastern England Farmland Advisory team. I was there for eight years, working with nature-friendly farmers trying to make the countryside a better place for wildlife – eventually heading up the advisory team. 

Simon: Prior to working full-time as a tour leader, I was working for the RSPB which fulfilled a boyhood dream. I worked for the RSPB full-time for 15 years; the first projects I was involved in were to protect breeding Hen Harriers and European Bee-eaters in the north of England. I also had a job as a lecturer in ornithology, specialising in a variety of subjects including bird ethology, migration and bird populations. It is fair to say I worked in farmland bird conservation for most of my RSPB career, latterly at the RSPB’s headquarters in Sandy. Now I’m completely committed to ecotourism but we also work with The Migres Foundation to monitor the huge numbers of soaring birds passing through this mega migratory bottleneck – sometimes when I shut my eyes all I can see is the kaleidoscope of migrating raptors I have logged on a given day, tens of thousands! 

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife? 

Simon: I’m a bit of gamer – after a lot of days in the field I feel quite ready for slaying orcs on my Xbox! I love football but I don’t get a lot of chance to play these days so resign myself to being a pseudo expert commentator.

Niki:  Being born in West Yorkshire in the ´70s, it´s pretty inevitable that I played in brass bands!  I don´t get a lot of opportunity now I live in Andalucía and spend so much time guiding around Spain and Morocco, but whenever I´m back in the UK I try to pick up either a trombone or a euphonium and play a gig with my lovely friends from Manea Silver Band. When I´ve got downtime in Spain, I´m normally relaxing with my dog, exploring the Spanish countryside.

What current conservation projects or issues most interest or concern you?

Niki: Finding routes to sustainable food production was a big part of my previous life and still remains close to my heart. So much of the Earth´s surface is used for agriculture, so it´s clear that the best way of having a positive impact on our planet is to change what we eat. Loss of wildlife areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife.  Currently 85% of the world´s farmed land produces just 18% of our calories. This is the legacy of meat and dairy production, which has enormous environmental costs in terms of habitat loss, air and water pollution and carbon release. Findings presented at the IPCC in October 2018 were striking and conclusive. In order to keep global temperature rise below 2ºC by 2020, we as global citizens will need to eat around nine times less red meat, five times less poultry and five times more legumes, vegetables, nuts and seeds. I get infuriated when people blame our problems on “population growth” when actually a very small proportion of the world´s population are consuming the majority of the resources.

Simon: One of the great barometers of the state of the world is the population of top end predators like raptors. We have noticed increases for some species but the overall picture is one of decline, particularly for those species unable to shift their migratory timings. Working with The Migres Foundation gives a unique insight into how our census work can inform and influence policy at international level. It is very concerning to see an overall lack of coordinated conservation work to influence at the flyway scale. The plight of the Turtle Dove is close to my heart and its radical decline is a testament to the lack of response of policy and practice – we need flyway scale solutions now!

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

Simon: Not really, the world is so complex and different, I find different attractions from different species. I do however find the power of raptors to  be an indescribable draw! I even have a big tattoo of a Short-toed Eagle on my arm… next I’m going for Honey Buzzard on the other…. although I may change my mind and have a Black Kite! I was recently blown away by the ability of Black Kites to cross the divide of continents between Europe and Africa in near hurricane force winds – total hard nuts!

Niki: I´m a Swift nut! As a person of nomadic nature, I´ve always loved Common Swifts and their ability to follow the sun around the world, their feet barely ever touching land except in the process of creating more Swifts! Now I´m now lucky enough to live in the only area where you can see all five European mainland breeding Swift species – Common, Pallid, Alpine, Little and White-rumped – in one weekend! And yes, I do lead the Naturetrek Swift Weekend tour!

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European Turtle-dove

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White-rumped Swifts, Spain

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date? 

Niki: The Iberian Lynx is the world´s most endangered cat, very elusive and absolutely stunning.  I often lead Naturetrek´s ‘Realm of the Iberian Lynx’ trip so I´m extremely privileged to have seen this ghost of a cat many times first hand. But the most memorable has to be an encounter up in the Sierra Morena. The group were discussing raptor ID features while watching a Golden Eagle, and one of the ladies went to the bus to fetch a bird ID book. She let out a cry and we all turned, to see a stunning female Lynx sauntering across the road right in front of us! She gave us a nonchalant stare, before melting away into the woodlands… unforgettable.

Simon: Picture the scene, if you will, Niki and I are standing at the gateway to Africa at a raptor watchpoint, where we believe that the right winds and the right conditions will bring soaring birds to pass at this exact point. There is a low level cloud and a humid easterly blowing, a distant Thekla Lark breaks the silence, yet no raptors. I can tell the group are puzzled that we are still at this spot where there is nothing to see! I can feel their question without them asking it – “Does this guy know what he’s doing?” One gorgeous Short-toed Eagle descends the cloud above us, breaking out from its nearby roosting spot to gain height. Then another, then…… nothing! I can tell by this stage the group really want to move on, but my confidence is unwavering. Then it happens! An indescribable scene, it started with a lone Honey Buzzard but then developed into something I can only describe as biblical, layer upon layer of raptors began to gain height to cross the Strait to Africa. Honey Buzzards, Booted and Short-toed Eagles, groups of White Storks now join the throng with Pallid and Common Swifts papering the gaps with a few groups of Alpine Swifts. That s the power of the Strait – you’ll have to come and see it for yourselves! That same week a young Bonelli’s Eagle took up residence near one of the watchpoints. It took a dislike to the migrating raptors and attacked a migrating Marsh Harrier above our heads, feathers literally rained down on us! The Marsh Harrier survived, however this same individual was then seen to kill and devour a Honey Buzzard!

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White Storks (Simon Tonkin)

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Bonelli's Eagle

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Short-toed Eagle (Simon Tonkin)

What do you enjoy most about leading wildlife tours? 

Simon: I enjoy sharing magnificent wildlife experiences with people, developing the understanding that leads to love and respect for wildlife and ultimately I hope more voices for conservation. Part of that understanding for me is identification, and for many coming here to the Strait to begin with, the myriad of raptors seem bewildering and unidentifiable. However I take great pride in shattering that illusion, building confidence and ensuring that visitors can leave confident that they can identify many of the raptors passing here, meaning their memory will live long with them... an unforgettable experience!

Niki:  I love it when a group really gels, and knowing that you helped it to happen. Having a great trip is as much about the people around you as the wonderful wildlife you get to experience. An important part of what we do is making sure everyone feels involved, regardless of their ability, so we work hard to make sure our trips are relaxed and fun!

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

Niki:  I find people and wildlife in sub-Saharan Africa inspirational and life-affirming. Every time I go there it changes my life! I´ve spent time in The Gambia, Senegal and Tanzania but there is SO much more to see. I love coming across familiar European and UK breeding birds that are wintering there, but also seeing the fantastic diversity of colourful resident birdlife. Simon now leads Naturetrek´s ‘Best of Ethiopia’ trip and I´m hoping to go along soon.

Simon: Probably the Strait…  Oh, I live here!

What tours are you due to lead in 2019/20?

Look out for us all over Spain and Africa! We´re looking forward to welcoming groups to our home turf in the Strait of Gibraltar and Málaga for spring and autumn Go Slow trips, Tarifa & Gibraltar, Butterflies and Moths of Andalucía, Swift Weekend, Birding on Two Continents, and a combined trip to the Serranía de Ronda. We´ll also be knocking about in the Realm of the Iberian Lynx, Extremadura, Doñana, looking for Wallcreepers & Cranes in northern Spain and exploring Ethiopia! Really it´ll be hard to avoid us!

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