Obituary: Simon Aspinall

Simon Aspinall, known personally or by reputation to birders throughout the OSME region, died in Norfolk on 31st October 2011 after a valiant struggle against motor neurone disease. He was 53.

Educated at Whitgift and Purley High School in Surrey, where he gained a reputation as an excellent birder at a very early age, he went on to graduate in Environmental Science from the University of East Anglia. Simon first came to the region in 1993, to work for the National Avian Research Centre in the United Arab Emirates, now part of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, EAD. He brought with him a wealth of experience in the UK, having worked for nine years with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Nature Conservancy Council, much of them in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. In 1987, he was Assistant Warden on Fair Isle. He then worked for three years for the NCC and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee on projects in southern England. The latter led to his first two books on Coastal Birds of East Dorset and Birds of the Solent.

Simon threw himself energetically both into field research in Abu Dhabi, and into the developing birdwatching fraternity, and was quickly co-opted to membership of the recently-established Emirates Bird Records Committee, of which he later served as Chairman for many years. He rapidly began writing as well – by the end of 1994, he had written or co-authored a total of ten papers and book chapters, including, with Colin Richardson, then EBRC Chairman, and Peter Hellyer, the UAE chapter in BirdLife International’s Important Bird Areas in the Middle East.

In 1996, his first book on UAE birds appeared, Status & Conservation of the Breeding Birds of the United Arab Emirates, a seminal work based upon hundreds of hours of fieldwork.

In 1997, Simon struck out on his own as a freelance ecological consultant. He was, in addition, Environment Editor at the daily Emirates News, until the paper closed in 1999, taking over responsibility for the weekly ‘Twitchers’ Guide’, which he had started with Richardson and Hellyer in 1994, and which continued on-line until 2006. He also handled environmental studies for many years for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS. In that capacity, he rapidly developed a keen eye for the identification of previously-unrecorded sites , helping to develop understanding of Man’s relationship with the environment of Abu Dhabi’s deserts and elsewhere in the UAE.

During the late 1990s, the carrying out of environmental surveys became increasingly standard practice in the UAE and, for a decade, until slowed down by illness, he picked up the lion’s share of the consultancy work available. He also travelled widely throughout the Middle East and the Caucasus, often working with BirdLife International and UNESCO on plans for nature reserves. He was also a valued member of field teams on Socotra in 1999 and 2004.

His primary interest was always birds and more books followed, including, in 1998, the popular Shell Birdwatching Guide to the United Arab Emirates, written with Colin Richardson. This was followed in 2003 by a revised 2nd edition of Breeding Birds, in Arabic, published by EAD. A 3rd edition, re-titled Breeding Birds of the UAE, appeared in 2010, as did the highly-acclaimed 2nd edition of Field Guide to the Birds of the Middle East, written with Richard Porter. Two more books followed this year, both commissioned by EAD, Birds of the UAE – a guide to common and important species, with Salim Javed and Jens and Hanne Eriksen, and, published shortly after his death, the Field Guide to the Birds of the United Arab Emirates, again with Richard Porter, the first country guide to any of the Gulf states.

These and other works, like Important Bird Areas of the United Arab Emirates, a co-authored paper that appeared in British Birds in 2006, have done much to introduce the country’s birds to an international audience.

In the midst of all that, while already suffering from motor neurone disease, he also found time, with Richard Porter, Steve Preddy and Mike Blair, to revise OSME’s taxonomic list of birds of the region.

Besides his books, book chapters, articles in journals and reports flowed rapidly. He authored or co-authored well over a hundred different papers and reports on birds and other fauna and flora from the UAE and from other parts of the region, contributing to Sandgrouse, British Birds, local UAE journals and much else. He was also the most important single contributor of records to the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Arabia, after its editor, Mike Jennings.

Simon was never interested just in birds. His interests spread across the whole range of flora and fauna, and the habitats in which they were to be found, as well as to Man’s impact on the environment. Terrestrial ecology fascinated him while he was also for over a decade the co-ordinator of the UAE Marine Mammal Database. He was also interested in palaeontology and made several major Late Miocene fossil finds in Abu Dhabi’s Western Region. This equipped him to engage in publishing that extended far beyond birds. In 2004, he was co-editor, with Peter Hellyer, of Jebel Hafit – A Natural History, this being followed the next year by another joint production,

For many years a committee member of the Emirates Natural History Group, the UAE’s oldest environmental NGO, he served as Chairman from 2002-2005. In 1997, he was the recipient of the UAE’s premier environmental award, the annual Sheikh Mubarak Award, for his contributions to knowledge of the country’s natural history.

Simon Aspinall will be remembered for his unparallelled contributions to UAE natural history and, of course, as the first UAE birder to pass the 400 mark on his checklist. He was the finder of a remarkable 23 species on the UAE national list as well as many first records of breeding birds, including the UAE’s first-ever golden eagle nest, spotted high on a dune during an archaeological survey. A year or so later, accompanying explorer Sir Wilfred Thesiger on a journey on the edge of the Empty Quarter, he found the second, drawing much pleasure from the fact that he had been able to show Thesiger something the explorer had not seen himself on his journeys half a century earlier.

At a regional level, his involvement with training local biologists from the UAE, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq in bird conservation means that his influence will be felt for many years to come. Few of those he trained or of his other friends in the birding world, however, will have the good fortune to be blessed with what the obituary in The Times described as “his exceptional fieldcraft.” The obituarist wrote: “(Aspinall’s) awareness of the environment, remarkable eyesight and keen hearing complemented his understanding of animal behaviour and habitats, and of the way they responded to the environmental systems in which they lived. His ability to predict what species, including rarities, would be present in an area became legendary.”

With great courage, he continued to travel, in the region and elsewhere, long after his disease had been diagnosed, with highlights of later years being using inflatable boats off Greenland and canoes in the swamps of Botswana as well as, with sticks, trekking through the forests of Rwanda to see mountain gorillas.

Much mourned, as a friend, colleague and mentor, Simon Aspinall leaves a legacy to birds and to conservation throughout the OSME region that will be of value for many years to come.

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