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Reviews / Fond memories of the Bobby the birdman

Renowned field ornithologist Bobby Tulloch. Photo: Gunnie Moberg

ONE OF Shetland’s “greatest-ever ambassadors” is being celebrated in a new anthology published at the weekend. Bobby the Birdman is not an analytical biography of the islands’ most famous birdwatcher, Bobby Tulloch, but a series of entertaining personal reminisces from people who were lucky enough to have known and worked with him.

Edited by former wildlife tour operator Jonathan Wills and retired Yell and Fetlar doctor Mike McDonnell, the book contains happy memories from more than 20 contributors including an essay “written from the heart” by his sister Mary Ellen Odie.

Bobby became a national celebrity – at least among birdwatchers – when he discovered a breeding pair of snowy owls on Fetlar in 1967.

This was the first discovery of the species breeding in Britain, and Bobby, then working for the RSPB, moved from his home in Yell to neighbouring Fetlar to become the birds’ guardian and guide for ornithologists that flocked to the island to see the birds and their five chicks.

Bobby the Birdman editors Mike McDonnell (left) and Jonathan Wills during the book signing at Mareel on Sunday evening. Photo: Shetland News/Hans J Marter.

During a book launch at Lerwick’s Mareel on Sunday evening as part of the Wordplay literature festival, local photographer and keen birdwatcher Dennis Coutts recalled how he and Tulloch dressed up in a pantomime horse to get closer to the breeding owls.

Coutts was eventually commissioned to make a film of the snowy owls for the RSPB, and showing the 10-minute reel was one of the highlights of the book launch.

Tulloch toured the country giving illustrated lectures for the RSPB. During one of his visits to the BBC Natural History Unit, in Bristol, he convinced senior producers that he was the right person to help a camera team to film otters in the wild, something that until then was thought not possible.

But the BBC put “their money where Bobby’s mouth was” and sent Hugh Miles to Shetland to follow an otter family through the year, with Bobby employed as “field advisor”. On the Tracks of the Wild Otter took three years to complete.

Tulloch was also a tour guide and wildlife photographer, an author of two books about Shetland, a talented musicians as well as one of the local Fetlar ferrymen.

Making no apologies for the seven years it had taken to complete the book, co-editor Wills described it as a work of affection containing “fond reminisces” to a friend who is still sorely missed 20 years after his death.

  • Bobby the Birdman is published by Birlinn and costs £20.