Steve Madge 1948 -2020

Stephen Charles Madge was born in Torpoint on 15th January 1948. From a young age he was fascinated by the natural history which surrounded him and encouraged by a neighbour, Mr Leonard, he explored the local area, accompanied by his lifelong friend Stuart Eddy.

Steve’s birding circle soon increased, and together with Stuart, Vic Tucker, Ted Griffiths, Viv Stratton, Bob Burridge and Peter Harrison, Steve began to explore other areas in Devon and Cornwall. Viv Stratton, who lived in St Ives, tells of how the group would travel down by train, and whenever the wind was favourable at St Ives, would often stay on the floor of Mrs Stratton’s house. Vic Tucker remembers that even at such a young age it was obvious that Steve was a talented birder. He recalls a time when the group were watching gulls at Hayle, when one juvenile bird landed on the estuary and Steve immediately identified it as a juvenile Mediterranean Gull, a species which was a BBRC rarity at the time, and which none of them had seen before. When they asked him how he knew he replied that it was the only species which had black legs in that plumage! A particularly memorable day the group enjoyed together was described by Steve himself in the book ‘Best Days with British Birds’ when, after a particularly soggy night at Porthgwarra, they found a couple of shrikes, a Hoopoe, an Olivaceous Warbler, and a mystery bird which years later he realised must have been a Thick-billed Warbler!

On leaving school Steve took up a regular job as a wages clerk at the Post Office, but following a birding trip to Turkey and Iran he decided the 9-5 wasn’t really for him and, together with his close friends Stuart Eddy and Vic Tucker, he signed up as a member on a six month Oxford University expedition to Afghanistan and Kashmir to study bird migration. This trip proved to be a great success, with new migration routes mapped for many species. It was not without danger however, as evidenced by a short spell for the group in Kabul jail following a mix-up over an Eagle Owl purchased from a local. Thankfully the situation was resolved quickly because they had been giving a lift to the daughter of the British High Commissioner to Pakistan at the time, and her forceful protestations ensured that the full might of the diplomatic service intervened to set them free.

On returning to Britain Steve took up a job as a road sweeper in Torpoint, mainly he said because the route took in St John’s Lake and he could continue birding as he worked. This could only be temporary for Steve, and he began a series of seasonal jobs wardening around the country, beginning with the Calf of Man and taking in the Ouse Washes, the Inner Sea in Wales (where his accommodation was a shed with a rubber dinghy as a bed!) and Bempton Cliffs. In 1975 he became the first permanent warden at Fairburn Ings in Yorkshire, a series of lakes, scrapes and marshes created by the collapse of old mine workings. The job required all of Steve’s well known diplomatic skills, affability and genial nature, as he negotiated between the needs of the RSPB, the National Coal Board who still worked the area, and local farmers whose land had disappeared under water. It surely says something about his success there that 40 years later Fairburn Ings and the Aire Valley is one of the most important and most visited RSPB reserves in the country, hosting breeding Spoonbill, Bittern and Bearded Tit.  During his time at Fairburn Steve became a TV star when the local regional television company, Yorkshire TV made a documentary of his work as part of their ‘Lifestyle’ TV series. A memorable scene involved someone bringing an “injured” Black-headed Gull to Steve who assures them he will look after it. In reality the bird had been dead for some considerable time and was by this time beginning to smell rather bad. It was whilst at Fairburn that Steve met his wife Penny, and for an unforgettable first date, Steve decided to cook something special – a swan that had died when it crashed into some electricity pylons! Unfortunately for Steve he forgot to ask if Penny was vegetarian! He must have made an impression however as Steve and Penny were married in 1979 in Selby North Yorkshire, wearing matching duffle coats!

At around this time Steve was invited to join the BBRC, helped no doubt by some of the memorable birds he found at Fairburn during his tenure, including Collared Pratincole, Black Duck and Lesser Kestrel.

Foreign travel had always been one of Steve’s passions, and following on from his earlier expedition he was keen to explore new birding areas away from the tried and tested western European sites. In 1979 this led to him leaving his job with the RSPB and establishing the bird tour company ‘Birdquest’ with Mark Beaman. Birdquest specialised in tours to countries and places ignored by others. Israel, Siberia, Ethiopia and China were amongst the places visited. These may seem commonplace on tour schedules today, but in the 1980s the Soviet Union and China weren’t generally open to westerners, Ethiopia was a place better known for the devastating famines, and Israel was a dangerous place surrounded by hostile countries.  Birdquest became hugely successful and Steve spent much of his time abroad where his genial manner, exceptional birding skills and tact when dealing with officialdom endeared him to his clients as well as the local guides, hoteliers and the staff he got to know over his many visits. Spending time in many varied and out of the way places didn’t come without its dangers, and over the course of his career Steve was caught in an earthquake in Egypt, missed death by minutes in Central America when a small plane he was due to be on crashed in the jungle, and most famously, he got lost in the Australian Outback for fully 36 hours. He eventually found his way back to civilisation by following the calls of crows he knew to be nesting where the group he was leading were camping.

By now Steve and Penny had moved back to Cornwall, and the family had grown with the birth of his daughters Bryony in 1983 and Elysia in 1988. Steve was asked by the Workers Education Association (WEA) to lead courses in bird identification at night classes, and for many years his winter evenings were spent passing on his knowledge to eager students. He would take them out on field trips, and on one occasion he managed to find a Semi-palmated Sandpiper at St John’s Lake when attempting to show the group Dunlin.

Throughout his time with the RSPB and Birdquest, Steve had been producing pioneering identification papers in British Birds separating tricky species pairs such as Common/Spotted Sandpiper and Yellow-browed/Hume’s Warbler, mostly from first-hand knowledge of the species in the field. In China, he was the first to realise that a local race of Pallas’s Warbler was in fact likely to be a completely new species – today known as Chinese Leaf Warbler. In the early 1980s, Steve, together with Mark Beaman was commissioned by Christopher Helm to produce a Handbook to Bird Identification. This was long before the internet and the vast array of bird identification material available to modern birders. Most were making do with their old copies of Peterson, Mountfort and Hollom, or the new Shell Guide, and a comprehensive, authoritative guide was sorely needed.  The Handbook took seven years to complete, and was eagerly awaited, but publication was delayed until 1998, by which time, even Steve agreed that the book had missed its target market. The book contained all the information anyone could need to identify birds in the Western Palearctic, and both text and illustrations were sublime, but the book was too large and cumbersome to take into the field, and the ground-breaking. Collins Guide was just around the corner. However it is perhaps a measure of just how good the book is that even today illustrations are still being used in other Bird Identification guides.

Wildfowl, published in 1988, the third in the new series of identification guides from Helm fared much better and won the British Birds Bird Book of the Year. The launch party was held at Slimbridge in the presence of Sir Peter Scott, and the foreword was by none-other than the legendary Roger Tory Peterson. Wildfowl was followed by identification guides to Crows and Jays (1992) and Pheasants, Partridges and Grouse (2002) In 1997 Steve and his friend Chris Kightley produced a small pocket identification guide to the Birds of Britain and North-West Europe. This was again published by Helm on behalf of the British Trust for Ornithology. Its aim was to describe only those species likely to be found in the region, and so dispensed with vagrants, accidentals and everything east of Albania. The text was also written to appeal to beginner/novice birders in a non-patronising manner.  The book was revised and reprinted in 2002, but again it was eclipsed by the juggernaut that was the Collins Guide. Flicking through the pages today it is still possibly the single best identification guide to those just starting out in birding who may be overwhelmed by the detail in the Collins guide.

In Cornwall, together with friends such as Tony Aston, Mike Frost and Adrian Spalding,  Steve founded the Caradon Field and Natural History Society in 1985 with the aim of recording all the wildlife of the Caradon (South-east) area of Cornwall. A comprehensive report was published each year until 2011 when the club folded. Occasional publications produced by the club included The Tamar Avocets, Butterflies of South East Cornwall, and an Atlas of the Hoverflies of Caradon.

In 1993 Steve was asked to become President of CBWPS, a position he regarded as a great honour, and one in which he was active in attending as many meetings as he could, until his illness made it difficult for him to travel. He relinquished the post in 2017 but was proud to have served.

In the mid 1990’s Steve left Birdquest and joined Chris Kightley at Limosa, offering the same high quality bird tours to exotic destinations. Steve estimated that he had been to India alone at least 45 times! One of his favourite trips with Limosa involved chartering a boat to sail around the northern isles in Britain to celebrate the company’s anniversary. Luckily it coincided with the return of Albert, the Black-browed Albatross on Sula Sgeir, but his favourite bird of the trip was his one and only female Grey Phalarope in breeding plumage seen at close range as he cruised along in a RIB.

Steve’s last years were plagued by Parkinson’s disease. He was diagnosed in the 1990s but he didn’t let it affect him and he carried on birding and watching wildlife for as long as he could. As recently as 2017 he made a trip to Rwanda determined to see Mountain Gorilla. This he achieved by being carried up the mountain on his bed to a site where he could see them

Aside from birds Steve had a deep and enduring love of music and during the early 70’s was a regular attendee at the Guildhall, and the famous Van Dike Club in Plymouth where he saw early performances from, amongst others, Deep Purple, Genesis, Pink Floyd and Jethro Tull. He even hitch-hiked from Plymouth to Leeds to see Led Zeppelin! His musical tastes were esoteric, and birding trips would often be accompanied by CDs of Captain Beefheart, Can, or Frank Zappa, and on one memorable occasion by a recording of Mongolian throat singers!

Everyone loved Steve – that is not an exaggeration. To know him, and to be able to say “I know Steve Madge” was an honour. In company he was friendly to all, polite and tactful. The messages of condolence on social media following the news of his death attest to the esteem in which he was held, and perhaps none summed up the feelings of those he met better than Hadoram Shirihai, who ended his message to Steve’s family with these words:

“What a man, what a birder and what a friend to remember…”

Darrell Clegg, 22/07/2020

Steve at Looe Island

A small funeral was held by the family for Steve last week in Bodmin. Donations and messages (in lieu of flowers) can be sent to  – all monies go to CBWPS.



Additional comments –

I have this 3 inch high plaster of paris model of Steve that I bought in about 1980 for some fund-raising venture. Not many people could have such a recognisable tribute! – Richard Porter

S Madge figure

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