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On the Rocks

Biography / Memoir

Series: Wildlife and People (formerly Birds and People) Volume: 4

By: Bryan Nelson(Author), John Busby(Illustrator)

292 pages, colour & b/w photos, colour & b/w illustrations

Langford Press

Paperback | May 2013 | #206892 | ISBN-13: 9781904078562
Availability: In stock
NHBS Price: £19.99 $26/€22 approx

About this book

The second in the new series Wildlife and People by Langford Press.

From the author:
"Seabirds and islands, an addictive mix, have dominated my life. Ailsa Craig and its gannets started the rot more than 60 years ago leading via a tortuous route to the Bass Rock, Christmas Island, Cape Kidnappers and other remote seabird haunts. This journey was eased by a St Andrews University degree in Zoology and Oxford D Phil under Niko Tinbergen and Mike Cullen which helped my appointment as Lecturer, later Reader, in Zoology at Aberdeen University. I have been very lucky thanks to gannets. I should mention, also, the Scottish Seabird Centre with which I have been involved as a Director since its inception. In 1982 I was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh."

"[...] I highly recommend On the Rocks for its story-telling verve and for the lens it focuses on one of the most creative eras in British ornithological research, halcyon days of a more fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to fieldwork before the creeping tyranny of health and safety. As Nelson says of his childhood memories of watching birds in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the 1930s, ‘ All of these were something and nothing, and yet everything. Smitten early, you are hooked for life. ’"
- Euan Dunn, Ibis 156, 2014


"Bryan Nelson is one of the world’s foremost experts on seabirds and seems to have led a charmed life working on beautiful wildlife in exotic locations, following his own interests and at his own pace. In 1969, at the age of 37, he was appointed (in his absence) to a lectureship at Aberdeen University and, just 16 years later, he retired from there, aged 53. He never had a ‘proper’ job, before or after.

Bryan was originally from Yorkshire, but an undergraduate project on newt behaviour took him to Oxford, where a false start working under David Lack at the EGI on Blackbirds Turdus merula (‘mere worm-eaters, one step up from barnyard fowl’) led to a switch to the ‘zest and informality’ of animal behaviour with Niko Tinbergen and Mike Cullen. Bryan and his new wife June lived in a garden shed on the Bass Rock for three years in the early 1960s while unravelling the complicated behaviours of Northern Gannets Morus bassanus and tiently answering questions from visitors, including one from the leader of a party from a Catholic seminary who asked if Herring Gulls Larus argentatus stole Gannet eggs to eat or to hatch out.

On leaving the Bass in 1963, Bryan and June set off for a year living alone on two uninhabited islands in the Galapagos, where they studied boobies, living in a tent on the beach, naked for most of the time except when Prince Philip visited on the Britannia. A spell on Christmas Island in 1967 was followed by subsequent visits there and to Australia as Nelson led the fight to protect the breeding habitat of the endemic, canopy-nesting Abbott’s Booby Papasula abbotti against devastating phosphate mining, ultimately leading to the establishment of the Christmas Island National Park. Desert islands were swapped for a desert oasis when Bryan went to Azraq in Jordan as the first director of the research station there. A spell on Aldabra paved the way for work on frigatebirds by one of his students. However, Byran Nelson’s name is most firmly linked to the gannets and boobies on which he has written much, including a 1000-page tome and the Poyser Gannet as well as innumerable scientific papers.

This book is the captivating story of that charmed life, though substantially more about the birds (in particular), places and other people than the author, told with gentle humour and a disarming modesty and the occasional short tirade against humankind’s appalling impact on the environment. There are intimate glimpses into the life of the young boy and the adventures that free-wheeling ornithological research could bring before bureaucracy and health & safety overwhelmed it. The book is nicely produced and richly illustrated with Bryan’s evocative photographs and over 100 marvellous drawings and paintings by his close friend John Busby. It’s a delight."

– Alan Knox,, 23-01-2014

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