Obituary: Dr Bryan Nelson, FRSE MBE

Dr Bryan Nelson, environmentalist and lecturer who was one of the world's leading experts on seabirds. Picture: Channel 4
Dr Bryan Nelson, environmentalist and lecturer who was one of the world's leading experts on seabirds. Picture: Channel 4
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Born: 14 March, 1932, in Shipley, West Yorkshire. Died: 29 June, 2015, in Kirkcudbright, aged 83

Dr Bryan Nelson, a longtime lecturer at Aberdeen University, was an environmentalist before it became fashionable and a wildlife enthusiast whose research in Scotland and far beyond made him one of the world’s leading experts on seabirds. He and his equally intrepid wife and fellow-researcher June, lifetime partners in love and work, lived rough on remote islands in the Atlantic, Pacific, North Sea and Indian Ocean. Although he was born and brought up a proud Yorkshireman, Dr Nelson adopted Scotland as his home, first studying at St Andrews and eventually teaching zoology students at Aberdeen, where his zany humour was legendary.

He and June did research on the Bass Rock off North Berwick, the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific, at Cape Kidnappers, New Zealand, on the Indian Ocean islands of Aldabra and Christmas Island and at the Azraq oasis in Jordan, where migrant seabirds birds find their only fresh water within thousands of square miles of desert. They also worked on the Guano islands off Peru, best known for exporting bird-droppings used as fertiliser.

Dr Nelson’s greatest love, apart from June, was the Northern gannet (Morus bassanus), the Atlantic’s largest seabird, known for its plunge-dive fishing at breakneck speed and its “aquatic flying” – effectively swimming – deep under water to chase its piscine prey. Dr Nelson was considered the world’s number one expert on the bird, his writings seen as the definitive text books for students and other researchers.

Such was this love that he and June spent their honeymoon studying gannets on Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth. Although within sight of the Scottish mainland, “the Bass”, as it is known, is still considered remote since it is inhabited only by two lighthouse keepers and currently 150,000 Northern gannets, their largest colony in the world.

The Nelson’s honeymoon went on to last three years (1960-63) on the Bass. They lived in an uninsulated garden shed, their cooking, refrigeration and lighting powered by paraffin, inside the ruined walls of the ancient St Baldred’s chapel to give them scant protection from often gale-force winds.

“It was soooooo cold. Sleeping bags were flimsy in those days. On the stormiest nights, in case the wind blew the roof off, Bryan sat with his arms round his three piles of notes and writings, which I had typed with three carbon copies,” June recalled. Their supplies arrived every two weeks on the lighthouse relief boat.

When Dr Nelson related his findings and showed his stunning photos to his students at Aberdeen, from 1969-85, he memorably imitated the birds’ body language and piercing rab-rab-rab calls. “When lecturing about ‘sky-pointing’ – when, for the chicks’ safety, a gannet signals to its partner that it is about to leave the nest – he didn’t just show a photo,” said one of his former students Tom Brock, now chief executive of the Scottish Seabird Centre in North Berwick, where Dr Nelson was a special advisor, trustee and mentor.

“He became a gannet, using his whole body to imitate that distinctive posture – unforgettable! And woe betide any student that brought any hint of anthropomorphism into their descriptions of animal behaviour!”

His gannet or kittiwake gull calls would echo through the corridors of Aberdeen University, so that the entire campus would know that a Nelson lecture was in full swing. He would demonstrate the gannets’ custom of “beak-fencing”, when they have a kind of fencing match with their long beaks, not to sharpen them or to be aggressive, but as a bond-strengthening ritual with their mate.

He showed how gannets retracted their two-metre wingspan to dive from 100 feet above the sea, reaching 75mph before using their wings to “swim” for more than half a minute up to 60 feet below the surface to snatch sardines or other fish.

Dr Nelson was also globally recognised for his studies of Pelicaniformes, the group of seabirds including pelicans, boobies, cormorants and frigatebirds.

He was a freewheeling environmental researcher in the days before bureaucracy and over-zealous health and safety concerns threatened such free-spirited humans with extinction.

Later in the 1960s, Dr Nelson and June lived on two of the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador, made famous by Charles Darwin, this time studying frigatebirds and boobies. There, living in a beach tent, they were able to work and relax as naked as the birds they were observing, often dancing in the sand without the burden of clothing.

Having heard of this intrepid British couple, the Duke of Edinburgh, president of the WWF (at the time known as the World Wildlife Fund, now the Worldwide Fund for Nature), ordered the Royal yacht Britannia to drop anchor off the Galapagos. Seeing his landing craft arrive, they had time to slip on ragged shorts and T-shirts before the Duke invited them on board for “boat drinks”. Dr Nelson said he looked a bit like Robinson Crusoe as they boarded the yacht, “barefoot with patched-up shorts covered in albatross vomit”.

On the Galapagos, for fresh water after their plastic containers ran out, the Nelsons filled a sandpit with black polythene, filled it with sea water and waited to gather condensation on the top, providing them with about a pint a day. “Our ‘good’ water’ was used only for rinsing his precious negatives but was re-cycled for hair-washing,” said June. The Nelsons counted Prince Charles and Sir David Attenborough among their greatest admirers.

One of Dr Nelson’s proudest achievements was pressing the Australian government into making Christmas Island (an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean) into a national park, largely to save an endangered bird, the Abbott’s booby, which nests and breeds only on the island’s tall tree canopy.

Joseph Bryan Nelson was born in the textiles town of Shipley, West Yorkshire, in 1932. He attended the nearby Saltaire Grammar School but left at the age of 16 to help keep his family, continuing his studies at night school until winning a place at St Andrews, where he got a zoology degree, followed by a D. Phil from Oxford.

He married June Davison, a tax office worker from Rawdon, Leeds, in 1960. “We sort of met under a table sheltering from the rain at Spurn Point (on the Humber estuary in the East Riding of Yorkshire), watching and ringing birds on migration,” June recalled.

Dr Nelson wrote many papers and several books, including On the Rocks, published last year with artwork by Dr Nelson’s friend the wildlife artist John Busby, who died last month.

Dr Joseph Bryan Nelson, FRSE, MBE, had suffered from a genetic heart defect. He died at his home in Kirkcudbright, where he and his wife had recently moved from a suitably remote house on a farm track in “our secret valley” in Galloway.

He is survived by June and their twins Simon and Becky, both of whom follow their parents’ adventurous tradition. When Dr Nelson died, Simon was on the Uzbeki border on an environment-awareness bicycle trip from Vietnam to Paris while Becky was in the Australian outback.

Dr Nelson’s “green burial” will be at Roucan Loch outside Dumfries on Monday, 20 July.