23 Mar 2018

Meet the man who is biking across the Andes to save birds

Gary Prescott, the 'Biking Birder' is trying to set the world record for most birds seen by green means in one year.

Gary Prescott, who uses green methods to see birds, pictures with his cuddly biking companions.
By Jessica Law & Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

You’ve probably heard of a ‘Big Year’. That’s when birdwatchers go out and try to see as many birds as they can in one year. What you probably haven’t heard of is a Big Green Big Year, or BIGBY. That’s when a birder tries to see as many birds as they can by Green Birding means -- bicycling or kayaking or rafting or walking.

Gary Prescott, or the ‘Biking Birder’, has undertaken three BIGBY’s. On April 1 he’s out on another. We talked to him to see where he’s going, what he’s doing, and which birds he hopes to see. (Some of the questions in this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity).

 

Firstly – Gary Prescott, please introduce yourself to our readers!

My name is Gary Prescott, known as The Biking Birder and I have been called Europe's most famous Green Birder.

Could you give us a quick explanation of exactly what you’ll be doing this April?

Starting on the first of April, I will be cycling from Lima up and over The Andes and down to a tributary of the mighty Amazon river, the Madre de Dios, Mother of God river. I will then spend time packrafting down to Puerto Maldonado, a city near to Bolivia. This is to try and get the World Green Birding year list record. I need to see more than 618 bird species.

This isn’t the first time you’ve gone one birding bike expedition to raise money for charity, is it?

This will be the fourth Biking Birder adventure. The other three have been whole year cycling trips around the UK.

In 2010 I cycled to every RSPB and WWT nature reserve in the UK, around 220 nature reserves. I cycled over 9,000 miles and saw 251 different bird species. This equalled the British Green Birding Year list record.

In 2016 I cycled around the UK again. Not visiting all of the nature reserves, I concentrated on seeing new birds for the list and ended the year having seen 318, a European record.

Why is it important that you’re travelling completely on your own steam?

Being a Green Birder it is vital to me that during my six month Peruvian adventure I use no fossil fuels for transport. In every way I will be trying to reduce my carbon footprint to a minimum; by camping, by food choices but mosty by cycling and packrafting.

How do you think your experience in Peru will differ from your previous voyages?

During my UK adventures the variety of habitats visited included coastal, upland to 5,000 feet, wetlands and agricultural. The postage stamp arrangement of Britain's nature reserves took me to relatively small areas with a possible bird list of around 350 to 400 species.

Peru will take me from the richest oceanic coastline in the World thanks to the Humbold Current of the Pacific Ocean to the immense biome of extremely remote Amazonian rainforest. Between these two wonderful ecosystems I will be traversing desert and mountain, each with its own bird list. All of this variety of habitat increases the possible bird list to over a thousand species.

Another difference is the mode of transport as, at last, I can use my own power to travel over water. During my three UK Biking Birder adventures I used fossil fuel transport, ferries, in order to get to the islands. In Peru the only travel involving water will be as I packraft. My six-month adventure will be the greenest yet.

Finally the one thing that will be the same is that the adventure will give me the opportunity to meet hundreds of wonderful people.

I hear you won’t be doing the whole thing alone – who will be accompanying you?

On previous adventures I have had up to eighteen cuddly toy friends, The Lads and Lasses, with me. Some, such as Acorn the diminutive rainforest parrot, were with me for a short time as I gave them away to children I met. Others, such as Albert the Albatross, Oscar the Otter and Manu the Rainforest Frog, have been with me on the bike for years as they represent charities I support.

More seriously I will be accompanied by Dr Rob Williams for the occasional day’s birding and cycling at various places along the route. Rob is a very well-known film-maker, photographer and bird guide and his support and involvement in the project is very much appreciated.

During some of the packrafting days in the Madre de Dios river I will be accompanied by 'Jungle' Jimmy Mcsparron. Jimmy is a British soldier who now uses his vast knowledge and experience of jungle habitats and adventure to take people safely into the deepest and most remote rainforest areas. As wth Dr. Rob Williams, Jimmy's support, advice and assistance over the collation of the necessary equipment has been vital to the project. His presence will be reassuring during those moments of interest along the river as we packraft together deeper into the Manu.

Is there a particular bird species you’re looking forward to seeing?

There are so many to choose from, over a thousand possible and so many spectacular birds. On previous visits I have seen maybe the best Peruvian birds including many Andean Condors, lekking (doing a mating display) male Cock of The Rocks, thousands of incredibly beautiful Inca Terns, Humboldt Penguins, Torrent Ducks, hundreds of various species of macaws and parrots and various hummingbirds, oropendulas and tanagers. Yet one bird I would love to see is the spectacularly colourful Crested Quetzal. Well this and the Andean Potoo.

What inspired you to embark upon such an ambitious mission?

Visits to Peru in 2013, 2014 and again in 2017, have given me a deep love of the country, especially its landscapes, nature and people.

I had planned to go to the USA in 2015 to try to beat the USA Green Birding year list record. The BIGBY record for the USA was at that time 320 set by Jim Royer from California. I had planned a route around the US that took me to all of the Audubon nature reserves, around ninety of them. Dorian Anderson's incredible BIGBY of 2014 stopped all my plans as he took the BIGBY record for the US to 618 bird species! A phenomenal achievement, Dorian's total is also the present World BIGBY record.

Now I want that World BIGBY record. I cannot achieve that in the UK. I cannot achieve that by cycling around Europe. Peru, the country I love, is perfect.

The thought of the magnificence of the route's landscapes, the thought of all of the wildlife moments along the way and the thought of all the amazing people I will meet, well there's my inspiration.

Why did you choose to raise money for BirdLife International?

Whilst participating in Biking Birder adventures in the UK, the logical and emotional choices for my charity support were mostly UK based, namely the RSPB, The Wildfowl & Wetland Trust (WWT), and Asthma UK, what with me being asthmatic. I also supported a Peruvian charity named Chaskwasi-Manu, which provides indigenous Manu rainforest children with a base from which to access a local school.

With the decision being made that I would try to get the World Green Birding Year list record in Peru, the Biking Birder adventures go international and the best placed charity of such importance to the avian world is Birdlife International.

Is there a particular conservation issue that you’re passionate about?

Recently people, thanks in part to David Attenborough's Blue Planet, have become more aware of how pervasive plastic is. This is an issue that I have tried to do something about for a long time and concerns me deeply. Beach cleaning, litter pick up and emails sent to supermarkets and food producers, in so many ways I try to combat this vile and pernicious destruction of wildlife in many ways. Albert the Albatross, a constant companion on my bike, symbolises the struggle that Albatrosses have with plastic pollution in the ocean.

The announcement of this year's Birdfair supporting the creation of a national park for over a million flamingos and shorebirds has recently given me a new focus. Coincidentally I bought a flamingo hat a couple of weeks ago to wear as I cycle around! To promote this campaign will be a thrill, a pleasure and a privilege.

What first got you into birding?

As a boy I used to walk a couple of miles from home to my Primary School in Stourbridge. I particularly remember the winter evenings when vast numbers of Starlings made their way to roost in Birmingham city centre, many tens of thousands flew over my head. I was fascinated and birding became part of my life.

At the age of ten I wrote to Sir Peter Scott at Slimbridge. I asked simply how could I get his job when 'grown up.' Sir Peter wrote back to me a long letter with details of his life and advice about working hard and loving nature. Sadly the letter has been lost but I remember it still, written as it was with fountain pen ink on Basildon Bond paper. The kind action of a Natural History hero of mine has led to a lifetime of loving nature.

What advice would you give to other people embarking on a similar fundraising adventure?

Make sure your planning is done, whether that be considering the equipment you need, the route you will take and that you are physically capable of carrying out such an adventure. Yet most of all I would advise . . . .  Go for it! Do it! No matter what happens to you the joys outweigh the problems and the people you will meet will lift you.

Is there one “creature comfort” you think you’ll miss?

Speaking English! My Spanish is 'no muy bueno' but hopefully will improve as the days go by. This is tongue in cheek though as the fun when trying to communicate with new people is immense. Material things . . . I can't think of anything I will miss. Life on the road is so good.

You’ll be setting off in just a few weeks’ time – how are you feeling about it all?

The usual mixture of excitement, anticipation and caution. This Biking Birder adventure is huge in comparison to the UK Biking Birder adventures. With less than three weeks to go the thrill is palpable, waking moments are spent studying and planning and sleep time is spent with dreams filled with Peruvian birds and places. I feel confident that my aims will be achieved -- be that the World Green Birding record target of seeing over 618 bird species or achieving the target figure of money raised for Birdlife International.

You can read Gary's blog here, and sponsor him on his JustGiving page here, all proceeds of which go to BirdLife International.