Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Simon Aspinall 1958 - 2011

It is with deep regret that I post this Blog today. I never met Simon but I do know he was a much loved and very much respected birder in the UAE and further afield for many many years. I am saddened that I will never meet this wonderful person that I have heard so much about. The following is an obituary posted by one of Simon's very good friends Peter Hellyer, I leave it to Peter to best describe Simon :  

It is with great sadness that I report that Simon Aspinall died in Norfolk this morning, 31st October, after a valiant struggle against motor neurone disease. He was 53. 

A graduate in Environmental Science from the University of East Anglia, Simon first came to the UAE in 1993 to work for the Environmental Research & Wildlife Development Agency, ERWDA, (now 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 and then 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. 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 myself, 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, offered the choice between taking a salary cut at ERWDA or leaving the organisation, Simon struck out on his own as a freelance ecological consultant. Two years as my part-time Environment Editor at the daily Emirates News followed, until the paper closed, with Simon taking responsibility for the weekly ‘Twitchers’ Guide’, which we had started with Colin Richardson in 1994, and which continued on-line until 2006. 

He also handled environmental studies for the Abu Dhabi Islands Archaeological Survey, ADIAS, of which I was executive director, until it ceased operations in 2006. In that capacity, he rapidly developed a keen eye for the identification of previously-unrecorded sites , helping to develop our 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 and Simon worked on projects throughout the country and also in Azerbaijan and Pakistan. He continued to carry out fieldwork long after he was first diagnosed with motor neurone disease, until its steady progress made that no longer possible. 

While in the UAE, 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, due shortly, the Field Guide to the Birds of the United Arab Emirates, 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. 

Besides his books, book chapters, articles in journals and reports flowed rapidly. At a rough guess, he authored or co-authored well over a hundred different papers and reports on the UAE’s birds and other fauna and flora. 

Simon was never interested just in birds. Terrestrial ecology as a whole 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 me, of Jebel Hafit – A Natural History, this being followed the next year by another joint production, The Emirates: A Natural History. Insofar as both publications are of scientific merit, it was largely due to Simon’s expertise. 

As UAE birders will know, Simon was an engaging and inspiring colleague in the field – ever ready to share his own expertise. For many years an ENHG committee member, he served a spell as Group Chairman and was awarded the annual Sheikh Mubarak Award, for his contributions to knowledge of the country’s natural history. Simon will be remembered partly for his unparallelled contributions to UAE natural history and, of course, as the first UAE birder to pass the 400 mark on his checklist. His last ‘tick’, his 415th, was the Wilson’s phalarope at Al Wathba Lake in January last year. His comment earlier this month, on seeing a picture of the latest addition to the UAE checklist, Great Stone-Curlew, was ‘about time’. He had predicted it over a decade earlier. 

In her introduction to the Field Guide to the Birds of the UAE, the Secretary General of the Environment Agency – Abu Dhabi, Razan Al Mubarak, pays this tribute: "I take particular pleasure in acknowledging the contribution made by Simon Aspinall over the last two decades to studies of the UAE’s environment, including its birds. His books on the topic, including this one, provide the foundations on which others will be able to build for many, many years to come.” Many of us, though, will remember him just as much for the strength of character he displayed as the motor neurone disease inexorably took hold. He was not someone who let his determination fade. A couple of days before he was taken to hospital in late August, we sat together in Norfolk to look over the final proofs of the UAE Field Guide and to discuss the next project that he wanted to get under way, the tracking of Abu Dhabi’s pallid swifts that Oscar announced on the Forum yesterday. He also told me to get over to Cley and look out for the young barn owls flying over the field at the back of his house. Sure enough, two appeared and performed magnificently – the best views I’ve had for many a year. 

His parents, Jack and Sylvia, sent me an e-mail while they were waiting for the ambulance to come to take him to hospital, though he returned after ten days, irritated by the young nurses who treated him, or so he said, like a ‘silly old git,’ and spent his last weeks in bed at home, gently and peacefully fading away. While he was waiting for the ambulance, they told me, Simon had his ‘spirit undaunted, eyes still twinkling.’ It is like that I wish to remember him – a great friend, an incredible colleague and an inspiration. 

Peter Hellyer

Simon Aspinall 1958 - 2011


  1. Incredibly sad to hear this. I didn't even know he was sick. A good friend and a great birder, I'll miss him.

  2. I knew Simon many many years ago when he used to come to the highlands of Scotland working for the RSPB. My father used to rent one of our houses to the "bird boys" every winter. I was only a young boy at the time but he took me as a friend and treated me as an equal. He taught me many things about birds and used to like visiting local archaeological sites with me. I looked up to him immensely and he even gave me my first driving lesson when I was 12 and he was 21! I am so sorry to hear of his passing, he'll always be a good friend in my heart. S. Mackay

  3. I'm shocked to learn of Simon's death, truly a great loss in every direction possible. I knew him for a year or two in Dubai, when he used to stop by at our house (my then husband was in an animal-related job) every couple of months. Knowing we were keen foodies he once presented us with zebra biltong which he said he'd bought on a trip to South Africa. I'll try anything, but in the nick of time, someone recognised it as a brand of dog chews. Bad man! We laughed and I quietly plotted my revenge. I would wait for his return and offer him my sardine pate (Snappy Tom on toast). Alas I never saw him again. I remember him as a quietly-spoken man, fully engaged with people, things, with everything around him. He was fascinated by life and therefore fascinating to talk to. What a dreadful loss.