A bit about me …
My early years
My mother is Canadian and my father was born in England, and the two of them met and married in England. Prior to my birth they had decided to emigrate from England to Australia in 1965 following the birth of my older brother.
A couple of years later I was born and around 16 months after that, the family sailed back to England – a trip that took about 6 weeks.
I spent the next 13 years growing up in the fishing village of Brixham, Devon in the south of England. Childhood memories are always a little romanticised, but the area where I lived in Devon was the perfect place for a nature-loving child. A 30 minute bicycle ride from my house and I could be watching woodpeckers in a deciduous forest, gazing at guillemots and fulmars soaring about the clifftops overlooking the ocean, looking at nesting wrens in a maze of winding country lanes, searching for crabs in rock pools at the beach, or even fossicking for ancient fossils among cliffs of shale. It really was a great place to grow up.
Developing an interest in photography?
My great grandfather had loved photography as a hobby, and the day I found his collection of bird slides in my parent’s cedar storage trunk, and looked at them using an old slide projector, was the birth of my journey in photography. I was about 10 at that time, and had already developed an interest in the birds around my garden, having setup numerous bird nest boxes and a couple of feeding tables, so photographing them was always going to be the next enticing step.
As a young child I remember that I was mesmorised by my mother’s box brownie camera. What a great device. Put the strap around your neck, look down through the top viewfinder, aim at the subject (which appeared upside down) and press the large, square grey button. I was never able to figure out that you could tilt the camera upwards slightly in order to get images of things above waist height.
My parents also had a Polaroid Cold Clip camera, with which you could develop the piece of film within a small aluminium clip in around 30 seconds or so. This absolutely amazed me, much in the same way that today’s children get that sense of wonderment when they are able to see a picture of themselves an instant after it was taken with a digital camera or mobile phone; although the Cold Clip took a bit longer and needed to be wedged under your armpit for a while before the results were visible!
I then moved on to an instamatic camera that allowed you to see objects through the view finder that you held at eye level. This was great! I could finally take pictures as I could see them with my own eyes, well almost. The viewfinder on the instamatic allowed me to see things at a slightly smaller size than they actually were, but the main problem was that the lens saw things a little smaller again! The end result was a lot of pictures of sky and trees with small dots that vaguely resembled the actual birds I was photographing. At least my composition wasn’t too bad.
I needed to get closer to my subject or get a better camera. My pocket money would not stretch to the latter (not back then anyway – here is my current camera kit), but my dad was a builder, and always had a variety of old building materials (doors, timber, iron and buckets of nails) lying around, so I began work on building a bird hide come tree house in the rear of the back garden, along with my friend Andrew, and my brother, at the back of the garden. We had four trees at the right rear of the garden which were perfectly spaced and configured for the construction.
Two doors were used for the front wall, laid horizontally, with a small gap between them, wide enough to poke the front of the camera through, but small enough that the birds would not easily see us doing so. The floor was also a door, laid flat, with a square hole cut in the centre and a rope dangled through it for us to climb in and out. The structure was secured to the trees with timber supports and six-inch nails. This was my older brother’s job, as I was either too short, too weak or too uncoordinated to hammer the nails into the trees without bending them (to be honest, I still cannot hammer a six inch nail into a piece of wood very well – they are very long!). I cannot recall what the roof and other walls were made of, but were most likely more doors (we seemed to have a lot of them!) or sheets of old ply. I presume that my dad also helped with the construction at some point, which is probably why the hide did not collapse with the three of us in it, although I cannot confidently recall it.
We then built a bird feeding table, which we hung from a branch of one of the trees so that it was level with the camera / viewing slit at the front of the hide and loaded it up with seeds, peanuts and lumps of suet. We also made a nestbox and placed it on the tree at the end of the garden and next spring a pair of Great Tits move in and raise a brood of chicks. After this success, we started making nestboxes on mass and placing them in the local woods.
Back to Australia
My family and I moved back to Australia in 1982. I was a little sad about leaving my childhood home, but was excited to start experiencing a new country (the country of my birth) and some awesomely different animals!
My first taste of what was in store came from watching wildlife documentaries. At the time, David Attenborough’s Life on Earth and The Living Planet were popular, as were the Australian equivalents, Malcolm Douglas, Harry Butler’s In the Wild and the Leyland Brothers. I would take every opportunity to watch any of these shows when they aired on TV. If I was organised enough, I would also video the shows so I could watch them whenever I wanted to (got to love this new technology).
Australia was SO different to the UK though, and I struggled with getting around, had no friends that shared my passion and was starting to get a little disheartened.
In year 10 at school, all students had to sit down with the school careers advisor and discuss what they wanted to do for work after they left school. I had no idea! I told my advisor that I liked animals, particularly birds, and that maybe I would like a job doing that. “Doing what?” she asked, obviously not being familiar with a job called I like animals, particularly birds. “Dunno.” would probably have been my standard teenager answer. I remember her telling me that Taronga Zoo and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) were always in high demand, so it would be very unlikely that I would get anything there, but she would try and find something similar.
A few weeks went by before I was asked to go back and see her. I walked into her office area and she told me that she could not get me anything at either the zoo or the NPWS, but managed to get me one week at the Marine Zoology department at the Sydney University, assisting PHD students, and the second week at the Australian Museum working in the bird department. I did not know what to expect from either of these jobs – studying marine creatures sounded interesting enough, but had no idea about what it would entail, and working in the museum had me thinking of dinosaur fossils and mummies. The only museum I had been to was the British Museum in London, as part of a school excursion, and those were the only things I could remember from the trip.
As it was to turn out, getting some work experience in the bird department of the Australian Museum was to open up some wonderful opportunities for me. [The Sydney Uni week consisted largely of sucking marine worm eggs up with a pipette and squirting them into test tubes, and then hole-punching thousands of booklets!]
The week of work experience ended up with me spending a little over 20 years working in the bird, reptile, mammal, terrestrial ecology and business services departments at the Australian Museum as a curatorial assistant and environmental consultant. During this time, and since leaving the Museum, I traveled extensively throughout Australia, for both work and pleasure, researching and photographing it’s amazing wildlife.
Working at the museum also started me on the path of writing wildlife books, which you can read more about here …
I have been blessed more than most in my years to date. I have met and worked with some amazing people, seen over 2,000 species of wildlife, traveled around the world several times, stood in places where you could easily believe that no other human had ever stood in before and have three wonderful children.
But I did go through a stage where I struggled with my mental health. I was in and out of doctors surgeries and the occassional emergency department with panic attacks and other symptoms of severe anxiety. I was medicated for quite a long time, and underwent dozens of tests. I drank way too much, struggled with social situations and became quite reckless.
If I didn’t have the Australian Museum, and the amazing Walter Boles, as my anchor, I do not know where I would have ended up! I went around Australia in 1992 and, although the trip was a difficult one emotionally and physically, it was the start of a love affair with Australian wildlife, a journey I am still on today.
I started travelling Australia doing environmental surveys, started writing for books and magazines, and published a number of scientific papers from the research I was doing with Tim Flannery. I vividly remember the day when I threw my medication in the bin at the end of a reptile collecting trip in New Caledonia, jumped on a plane back to Australia and started meditating. It was the start of a dramatic transformation and, although I am still searching for the meaning of life or, as a secular humanist would say, the meaning of my life, I know that things would have turned out much differently if I had continued down the path I was on before that trip.
I still struggled to control my anxiety, and some days I just did not want to leave the house, but things were getting better. After a two hour phone conversation with one of Australia’s greatest photographers – Steve Parish one Saturday morning, I started listening to some works by Eckhart Tolle. Eckhart’s message was very similar to all of the philosophical teachings I had already read, except for one thing – “Now”. The penny dropped. Time is illusory. There is no past or future, just now. We must all live in the now and make the most of it.
I have found great benefit from being (mostly) strict with my diet and I have spent many years studying and trialing the medicinal benefits of foods and my overall lifestyle. Additionally I regularly practice meditation and mindfulness, and often visit the local Buddhist Temple to sit and contemplate things or take part in one of their classes. While many things combine to heal our body, mind and soul, ecotherapy is perhaps one of the biggest benefits I have found. Just being out in the natural environment and letting it absorb me, becoming at one with it, uplifts my soul like nothing else I have found. Being a wildlife photographer adds to that sense of oneness. When I am trying to get the picture I am after my mind is truly present. I am looking, listening, smelling, touching and almost tasting everything around me, I am so focused on everything that is happening, yet completely free of cognitive thought. My subconscious mind and my intuition are running the show. I don’t always get the shot I want, actually I most often don’t get the chance to take a picture at all, but just being there gives me such joy. It is my Ikigai, my reason for living.
So here I am now, a wildlife photographer, natural history writer, former columnist for Australian Geographic Magazine, conservationist, trainer, public speaker and meditator. I have had many amazing opportunities come my way and have had the absolute pleasure of meeting and working with many wonderful people, many of whom I am privileged to call my friends. I am currently working at Holbrook Landcare Network, with an absolutely amazing team of people. I am 55 and feel like I am just beginning to live the life I have been looking for – working with incredible people who are just so inspirational in their drive to make positive and lasting change in a damaged world.
Thank you for reading about my life, about me and about my passion. Oh, and eat your greens, and drink plenty of water!