N. Roy Phillips, 1930 – 2019

A tribute from Viv Stratton and others.

Roy in Yemen, 1979

I first met Roy when I was 8 years old in 1954 when he came onto our farm to ask my father if he could walk the hill and the fields. While he was talking to my father I was handling some 400 to 500 day old chicks, which was my main job at that time. He commented to my father about the ease with which I handled the chicks, and nonchalantly remarked that he could do with someone to take the birds out of his nets when he was ringing down at Clodgy Point. My father said that I was very interested in birds and that I had recorded all the breeding birds on the farm, and that Roy could walk the farmland if he would take me out birdwatching, and so it came to pass on weekends that he would take me down to Clodgy Point to help trap and ring birds with Philip Pearce and Robin Khan.

During periods of North Westerly gales we would go down to the St. Ives Island to study seabirds, something very new to me and to the rest of us because very little had been done on Seabird Migration. The results of a good seawatch in a North West gale eventually spread, and from just the four of us seawatching for some years, other birders began watching the BBC Weather Charts and would arrive at St. Ives by train. One of the many birders who arrived at St. Ives was Peter Harrison. He was one of the boys, Victor Tucker, Stephen Madge, Ted Griffiths, Bobby Burridge and myself, that would regularly meet up to seawatch at St. Ives on weekends to study seabirds. Inspired by Roy Phillips we would look for the rare Sabine’s Gulls, Long-tailed Skuas, Leach’s Petrels and the like.

In 1966 members of the group, which now included Roy’s son John, started birding and then ringing at Porthgwarra. This site was chosen on the basis of David Lack having done some migration studies there back in the 1940’s-50’s, in conjunction with its geographic location, with such mouth-watering American passerines as American Redstart and Veery.turning up. There was a feeling at that time that a bird observatory could be started in Cornwall and a meeting was held at Roy’s house in St Ives to discuss it. Details of this initial meeting appear in the 1966 Annual Report of the CBWPS, in an article by Roy entitled “First report of the observatory sub-committee”. Unfortunately it never came to fruition.

In 1970 Roy joined an overland expedition to Afghanistan and Kashmir, as part of the support party for an Oxford University study of bird migration. It took 6 months and was fraught with difficulties such as being held up by bandits more than once, running out of money on several occasions and one member holding everyone at gun point.

From 1976 to 1978, Roy worked in Saudi Arabia taking advantage of the wonderful bird-watching opportunities there and making his customary careful notes. A species he took a particular interest in was Steppe Eagles. Although a number of other raptors in the area were already known to be migratory, this was not proven for Steppe Eagles at that time. Roy’s observations in Saudi, showed a sharp drop in numbers between autumn and winter and he became convinced that the Steppe Eagles were also migrating. He predicted that they would follow the same presumed, but unconfirmed, route as the other birds, across the narrow straits between Yemen and Djibuti. He longed to be able to establish this and the chance came in 1979, when he was a awarded a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to visit Yemen to look for this anticipated migration. Roy was overjoyed to find there the evidence he had been seeking: hundreds and hundreds of Steppe Eagles and, alongside them, many other species, all heading for the Bab al Mandab and the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The experience is movingly described in Roy’s novel “The way of an Eagle”.  The main difference is that in the fictionalised version there are four birdwatchers; in real life Roy was alone.

Roy was a close friend and a good friend to very many. He will be greatly missed .

Viv Stratton, with additional input from John Phillips and Liz Tregenza

Today, 13th May 2019, I attended Roy’s funeral and was surprised, and then, not surprised, at how full the crematorium was, apart from the 100 or so seated there were also another 40+ standing at the back. Roy was clearly very well-respected and loved, not only for his birding skills and enthusiasm, but also for his many other exploits, author, mycologist, his arts and crafts, (wood carving, pottery, painting) and budding musician. He was a proud Cornishman and apart from those times working and studying abroad always returned to west Cornwall, and in 1974 Roy was made Bard of the Cornish Gorseth for his contributions to Cornish ornithology. His other accolades include winning the TSB Peninsula Prize for the finest new author (for his first book, The Saffron Eaters, published in 1987).

I only met Roy eight years ago, and he introduced me to some of the less watched parts of west Cornwall, always the pioneer. I really enjoyed my walks with Roy for his wit, intellect and enthusiasm. My only regret is that I didn’t spend more time in his company. I last spoke to him just 2 weeks before he died, I visited him and Liz at their home. Roy was avidly watching the Robins nesting at the bottom of his garden, hoping their nest would not be discovered by a Magpie or Squirrel. The last report he submitted to CBWPS was that the Robins fledged.

Tony Mills, with background contributions from the Phillips family


Roy Phillips: It is with great sadness that we report the passing of Roy Phillips on 22nd April 2019 after losing his fight with cancer. He was well-known to many local birders and was well-respected for his birding skills and reports. He was a regular contributor to CBWPS and his most recent report on the 12th, announced the fledging of robins in his beloved garden. He will be greatly missed.

The funeral of Roy will be at Treswithian Downs Crematorium, TR14 0BX, on Monday 13 May at 2:30pm. Family flowers only please, donations if if so desired for The Cornwall Bird Watching and Preservation Society may be sent to Burroughs and Kearey Funeral Directors, Penzance. Everyone is invited to tea and snacks afterwards at Trevithick Inn Table Table, Treswithian Rd., Camborne TR14 0TR, about 2 mins drive from the crematorium. We ask that, if possible, you let the family know if you would like to come, so that they have an idea of numbers to cater for. Please contact liztregenza@outlook.com, or phone 01736 351793.

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