Max Nicholson

Obituary from Guardian Birdwatch by Stephen Moss

In the autumn of 1926, a young man named Max Nicholson went up to Oxford. His subject was history, but his passion was birds, and he soon joined the newly formed Oxford Ornithological Society. In contrast to the hedonistic behaviour of the 'Brideshead Set', with their endless round of parties and costume balls, the ornithologists were an earnest bunch. Instead of propping up the college bar in dinner suits, they were often out from dawn to dusk making careful observations of bird behaviour..

But today, almost eighty years later, the achievements of these pioneers have lasted far longer than those of their pleasure-seeking contemporaries. In 1928 Nicholson and his fellow birdwatchers carried out the first ever survey of a breeding bird, the grey heron. During the following three quarters of a century Britain's birds have been surveyed, counted and watched more than any other comparable avifauna in the world. We still have a lot to learn, but much of what we do know is down to the vision and lifetime's work of Max Nicholson..

Sadly, Max died last month, just over a year short of his own century. I was fortunate to meet him several times, and always felt as if I were travelling back in time. He would refer to some of the greatest figures of 20th century ornithology as "young Peter Scott", or "that young fellow James Fisher". He would casually mention "a book I wrote in 1926", or the time he met Edward Grey - Britain's longest-serving Foreign Secretary, and author of 'The Charm of Birds'. Max lived a full and varied life outside ornithology, too: as private secretary to Herbert Morrison, and with Churchill at the post-war peace conferences at Yalta and Potsdam. He also told me of a visit to the remote islands of St. Kilda, inspiring me to go and see this remarkable place for myself..

Most movingly of all, he talked of his memories of 1914, when as a ten-year old boy in Portsmouth he watched the columns of young men going off to war. As we now know, so many of them were never to return. This tragedy shaped the entire course of his life, making him determined to make up for their loss by helping to create a better world. As the father of twentieth century conservation he certainly tried..

In the same week as the passing of Max Nicholson, another colossus of 20th century ornithology also died. A year or so younger, Guy Mountfort had packed almost as much into his 97 years. He led the first great birding expeditions to Europe, told in his inspiring series of 'Portrait' books; was co-author (with Roger Peterson and Phil Hollom) of the legendary Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe; and set up Operation Tiger, which helped prevent the extinction of this magnificent beast.

Max Nicholson and Guy Mountfort were truly great men, who fought against the destruction of the world's wildlife, and inspired succeeding generations to do so too. But for me, their most important legacy is their simple enthusiasm for watching birds. For all their work on committees and at conferences, organising expeditions and writing books, neither Max nor Guy ever forgot one thing - that ultimately we watch birds for the joy and pleasure they give us. For that, and for so much more, they deserve our gratitude.

Stephen Moss is a television producer, writer and broadcaster, specialising in birds and other wildlife. He is currently writing a social history of birdwatching, and would be interested to hear from readers with any anecdotes, stories or information which might be relevant.