Tom with our Wildlife Festival group in the French Pyrenees, June 2016

Tour Leader Spotlight – Tom Mabbett

This month, the spotlight shines into the Naturetrek HQ where we join Operations Manager and tour leader, Tom Mabbett.

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

I have been fascinated by wildlife for as long as I can remember. Even from infant school days I recall going along a hedge in the playground and turning the leaves which had holes in, hoping to find a caterpillar, putting bugs in pots and keeping jars of frogspawn. I’m not sure how or why but I was obsessed with birds. I was always putting bread out for the masses of Starlings we had then and staring endlessly at the garden feeders, trying to figure out what everything was. I was lucky that a teacher at primary school was into birds and helped encourage my interest, as I read every bird book in the library from cover to cover. Even now I can still vividly picture the red cover of the photographic guide I learned so much from in years 3-6. By the age of eleven, I was confident at identifying all the birds of Britain and Europe from the book and just wanted to see them!

I grew up on the edge of Cheltenham and the field behind the house was our playground. I spent so much time outdoors and I was always finding something, or learning what animal or bird was making that particular noise. With brothers and friends, we sat in the garden at dusk watching bats around our heads and my parents fed a Fox until it was tame and could be hand fed. Aged 10 I had saved all my pocket money and went to Slimbridge to buy a ‘mighty midget’ Opticron telescope. What a day that was! I spent many childhood days birding there, as I still do now. I was a member of the YOC and wherever we went on holiday I was always most excited about the birds and wildlife we might see.


Tom and Max Mabbett

"My son Max has just started walking, so any time I do get now is spent on my local patches in the Cotswolds recording wildlife and trying to inspire him. Max is doing the bird sign with his fingers here as he looks at the Lesser Spotted Woodpecker on my phone, making the pecking gesture with his fingers."

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

I joined Naturetrek in March 2013 and in May I headed out to Spain to co-lead our ‘Extremadura and Gredos Mountains’ holiday. It was a wonderful week, jam-packed with special birds – Rollers, Bee-eaters, Hoopoes, Golden Orioles, vultures, eagles, bustards, sandgrouse… there are too many highlights to list. Extremadura is extra special to me as I went there with my brother, Greg, in 2010 on our first ever Euro birding trip and it was a thrill to be back. I was getting paid to show people birds and share my passion! In my eyes I had made it!

What is your ‘day job’?

I work full-time for Naturetrek as an ‘Operations Manager’, looking after an ever-increasing number of different holidays. These holidays range from weekends in the Forest of Dean and the Somerset levels, to expeditions to the interior of Guyana, finding Jaguars in the Pantanal, seeking endemic butterflies in Macedonia, or Clouded Leopards in Borneo and many more. I am always looking at new ideas and how the next exciting species can be seen and I get out to recce and lead tours whenever the opportunity arises.

Guianan Cock-of-the-rock - T. Mabbett


Wild Boar, Forest of Dean - T. Mabbett


Jaguar - T. Mabbett

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?

I love sport, having played football a lot over the years and I get out running and cycling when I can to keep up some fitness now. My son Max has just started walking, so any time I do get now is spent on my local patches in the Cotswolds recording wildlife and trying to inspire him. I am lucky my family own around 10 acres of land so we spend a lot of time there, planting trees, sowing seeds, putting up bird boxes, maintaining the feeding station. A lot of great improvements have been made over the years particularly for the butterflies. I enjoy using camera traps and have them set up at our field, a local reservoir and in the garden. The cameras are motion triggered to record any wildlife and it’s so exciting to have 24hr surveillance on an area to see what comes and goes - wildlife that we otherwise just wouldn’t see. I always take one of these trail cameras abroad too.

What current conservation projects most interest you?

Naturetrek’s very own conservation project is something I am proud to be a small part of. For over a decade we have protected a threatened cloudforest corridor in the Ecuadorian Andes. We directly purchase forest through the local organisation Fundación EcoMinga and to date just over £400,000 has been raised and the reserve is currently 1,389 acres in size, with more land purchases in the pipeline for this year. It contains incredible biodiversity and researchers are finding new species there regularly. Just last year a new frog species was named Noblella naturetrekii!

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

I am often asked what my favourite bird is and despite having been privileged enough to travel all over the world seeing some wonderfully exotic species, I always say the Green Woodpecker. I am lucky to see them a lot and it’s always a species you get your bins on as quickly as possible every time. Big and bold and loud, with that striking yellowy rump as they bound away from an ant hill. Mammal-wise I would have to go for the Humpback Whale. It is a species I feel I know better than most, having seen them bubble-netting Capelin in Greenland on their summer feeding grounds, and then I was lucky enough to get in the water with them on the Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic on their breeding grounds. Coming eye-to-eye with females nursing calves and singing males has left an everlasting impression. They are very special creatures for me. 

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

This is a very tricky question so I will bend the rules a bit. On Naturetrek tours there have just been so many and I have mentioned the Humpbacks already. During my most recent visit to the Pantanal we rounded a bend on the beautiful Piquiri River and came face-to-face with two Jaguar cubs swimming across the channel with their anxious mother calling to them nearby. We watched on in awe as she swam to them, bounding through the shallows in front of us. A magic moment. 

Away from Naturetrek tours I always think of scuba diving as having provided me with my greatest ever wildlife experiences. I love sharks and diving with Bull, Lemon, Silvertip, Grey Whaler, White-tip, Black-tip and Nurse Sharks in Australia and Fiji was simply breathtaking. Closer to home, both interacting with the Grey Seals off Lundy Island and the beautiful Blue Sharks in Cornwall were very memorable. Experiences in water are always so special.


Tom with Blue Shark in Cornwall


Humpback Whale - T. Mabbett

What did you do before working for Naturetrek?

I worked for the environmental charity ‘Vision 21’ in various roles. One of my most enjoyable projects was running an after-school wildlife club in primary schools around Gloucestershire. I think it is so important that primary school children are given the chance to become interested in wildlife. I also worked at Slimbridge WWT as a grounds’ warden. I was largely looking after the captive collection and learning about the world’s wildfowl which I have a particular passion for. I also looked after and gave talks to the public on the North American River Otters and wonderful amphibians in ‘Toad Hall’. I had volunteered at Slimbridge over the years and it was a privilege to work at this fantastic reserve that I have always been excited to visit since childhood.

What do you enjoy most about leading wildlife tours?

I just love being out in the field with the challenge of finding wildlife and then securing a great view for the group; that brings such satisfaction. Whether it is a Hawfinch in the Forest of Dean or a Blue Whale in Baja California, seeing the group’s reaction to something exciting and in many cases, realising a dream, is always a special feeling and something that is a joy to be a part of. There is nothing better than planning a day’s itinerary, carrying it out successfully and then feeling that buzz around the dinner table in the evening as we all discuss the day’s events.

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

There are so many. The Galápagos would be right up there, Spitsbergen and Madagascar too but I think Antarctica would be at the very top of the list. To cruise through such legendary waters as the Drake Passage scanning the seas for the numerous different albatrosses, petrels, prions and shearwaters and having seen photos of the King Penguin colony at St Andrew’s Bay and the cetaceans possible! Wow, what a place!

What are you reading at the moment?

I am just dipping in and out of reference books as always. During lockdown I have been focussing on the garden more than ever and trying to learn more about the bees that are visiting. ‘The Field Guide to the Bees of Great Britain and Ireland’ by Steven Falk has been out a lot. The classic ‘Dear Zoo’ is a favourite at the moment for my son Max and if you want a children’s book to learn the alphabet and some animals at the same time, Jonny Lambert’s ‘Animal ABC’ is excellent. Superb illustrations and fold out pages.

Which three people would you invite to dinner?

Hmmm, David Attenborough would always have a place at my dinner table but I think everyone so far will have asked him already, so I will go for Chris Packham, Steve Backshall and David Beckham.

Camera trap footage

Puma footage from camera trap set by Tom whilst leading 'South America's Big Cats'
European Hedgehog footage from camera trap set in Tom's garden