Michael Wilson obituary | Birds
My friend Michael Wilson, who died aged 79, was a linguist who used his skills to provide British ornithologists with access to works not available in English.
Mike and I grew up in villages in Somerset separated by the Mendip Hills. Our common passion for birds absorbed our time and energy during our teenage years. He excelled at identifying bird calls as he roamed the Somerset levels. If he heard a call or an unknown song, he stubbornly waited, listened, searched and memorized.
At 3 p.m. our bikes took us in search of a little bittern in the reedbeds on the edge of the A38. We stayed in a trucker’s lodge in a bunkhouse full of snoring men, to be there by dawn and have the best chance of seeing the elusive bird. Mike was wonderful company, caring, caring and a prolific note taker.
After O levels at Blue School in Wells, in the long hot summer of 1959 we traveled to Scotland with an ex army bivouac to see the first successful osprey nesting at Loch Garten. We joined the watchtower set up by the RSPB to watch for egg thieves and record the feeding behavior of the birds.
Mike was the first to eat part of a trout dropped by an incoming bird that we retrieved from under the nest. Overseer, Peter Conder, later the chief executive of the RSPB, fried it in a pan.
Such complicity sealed a friendship for life. In the 1970’s Mike joined my family on holidays to the birding hotspots of Cley, Dungeness and the Isles of Scilly.
Born in the hamlet of Keward, near Wells, Mike was the son of Violet Hutchinson and Walter Wilson, a vintage car dealer who did electrical work for EMI in Wookey. At Blue School he was drawn to languages and studied German and Russian at the University of Edinburgh in 1963. This led him to teach English in Minsk and Voronezh, where he got to know many Russian ornithologists.
While teaching at Sherborne School and Hedley Walter School in Brentwood, Mike joined an editorial team led by Stanley Cramp, the editor of The Birds of the Western Palearctic (BWP), volunteering to translating bird literature from German and Russian.
In 1980 he became a full-time member of the Alexander Library team at the Edward Gray Institute, Oxford, to research, write and edit volumes 3-9 of the BWP. It was a joy in 2019 to see Mike receive the Janet Kear Union Medal from the British Ornithologists Union in recognition of his distinguished service to ornithology.
He is survived by his sister, Penny.