The birdman

By Jake Cleaver, in Lifestyle · 23-10-2020 01:00:00 · 1 Comments

If you’ve been reading The Portugal News for the last few months then a few of you may have noticed that tucked up in the corner of a page there’s been a nice picture of a bird that you can find here in the Algarve - along with some intriguing information about it.

You may have also noticed that they’ve always been signed off by ‘Alan Vittery’.
If you’ve been reading them each week you may have also noticed little off the cuff remarks about the birds he observed in Pakistan, and in the Azores for example. Remarks that hint to a rather interesting life, and leave you wondering, just who the man behind the birdwatchers camera is?
Alan has been sending in these lovely little snippets of bird information for a while now - but we knew very little about him. It was high time we paid him a visit.
I found him in a nice little house near Vila do Bispo on the west coast, a wildly beautiful area. Alan welcomed me in and invited me for a little chat on his balcony, where he had all his telescopes set on his fantastic mountain view below. Here he sits here most days, and with over 70 years of birdwatching under his belt (he started when he was 7), and what he estimates to be over 100,000 hours of field experience, I doubt that there’s a single feather that flutters by his window that he cannot immediately identify.
Alan is a real old school gentleman. We got to chatting and it soon became clear that my suspicions that he has lived a quite extraordinary life were well founded. When he left school he joined the Foreign Office, who quickly recognized his ability to write, and he was soon sent off to the far flung corners of the globe.
In his time with the Foreign Office Alan was posted to Bulgaria, The Gambia, Turkey, Pakistan and finally Mozambique.) Alan was thrilled about this as it allowed him to indulge his passion for birdwatching, as he puts it, ‘at Her Majesty’s expense’.
However, sneaking around with a pair of binoculars in Communist countries in those days did get him into trouble occasionally. Perhaps not surprisingly people thought he was spying, and sometimes, at gunpoint, he had to explain that he was just trying to marvel at their magnificent avifauna. A convenient excuse for on the rare occasions when he was, in fact, spying. (That was in 1963. Surely we are safe to let that slip by now?)
While posted in Pakistan in 1973, flooding polluted the water supply and Alan unfortunately contracted hepatitis. This would have been bad enough, but a doctor misdiagnosed it as malaria and gave him medicine for that instead. This made his liver problems far worse and very nearly killed him.
Alan survived, but he was given short reprieve as the Foreign Office, ‘in their infinite wisdom’ as Alan says, decided to transfer him immediately to Addis Ababa, which with the poor sanitation and the high altitude proved not the best place for his recuperation. Inevitably it took its toll on his health and he was invalided out of Ethiopia. But as soon as he was a little better he was sent back out into the field. This time to Mozambique, which again Alan says ‘wasn’t a health spa’. But as ever, he was pleased as it allowed him to do some pioneering ornithology.
In 1979 however, his wife Bonnie (who had been accompanying him to all these places) wanted to resume her career, and Alan stopped working for the Foreign Office and moved back to England where he spent 10 years working for The Nature Conservancy Council as head of the Site Safeguard Branch.
Alas, his legacy of tropical illnesses caught up with him, and in 1990 he was given medical retirement. Alan was delighted, and still is, as he can now be a full time birdwatcher!
He spent what he described as the best 20 years of his life in the Highlands of Scotland, where he discovered many rare birds and published ‘The Birds of Sutherland’.
But the cold eventually became too much for both Alan and Bonnie, and they decided to move to the little island of Santa Maria in the Azores in 2009. Sadly, Bonnie died in 2012.
The rich bird life would have kept Alan happily in Santa Maria, however, a few years later he met Paula, a Brazilian artist who wanted to move somewhere with a larger market in which to display her considerable talents. She suggested they move to the Algarve, and Alan, who already knew of the fantastic opportunities for bird spotting here, agreed.
This is just a brief overview of Alan’s life, and hopefully I haven’t given too much away as he has recently published his autobiography ‘What’s in a life?’, which is available on Amazon if you want to find out more.
But this isn’t the only book Alan has published. Over the years he has published many bird books (one of his latest being, naturally, ‘The birds of the Algarve’). But he’s also got quite the imagination, and as we sat on his terrace watching the birds fly by, he told me he’s written two fiction books as well. They both require us to time travel. The first one to the past, and the second into the future.
It was a great pleasure to meet Alan. I asked him if he planned to continue to send us his little bits of info on our bird life. He said that there’s no reason why not. He loves to write, and the Algarve hosts a never ending array of avifauna to fill our pages into the foreseeable future.


Comments:

Alan and his late dear wife Bonny were greatly valued friends of ours in Ethiopia 1973/4. Sadly we have lost touch. So... 'if' you are in contact with him then please do share my email address with him. Fingers crossed!

By David Tunnicliffe from UK on 25-05-2021 07:16
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