In the last 24 hours, the world lost one its brightest stars. Not just a brilliant birder, at the vanguard of our understanding of bird identification but, as has been demonstrated by the overwhelming outpouring of emotion on social media, a wonderful husband to Sharon, father to his two daughters Abi and Emily, and life-inspiration to so many people.
My first contact with Martin Garner was in July 2012 when he invited me to be part of the Birding Frontiers team, a group of birders and ornithologists from around the world assembled to publish exciting and innovative posts about birding. My first thought was “wow.. why me?” I didn’t know Martin, had never even met him and I certainly wasn’t in the same league as a birder as most of the other names he had assembled. I soon realised that, to ask that question, I was misunderstanding Martin the man. His raison d’etre was to help others, support them, coach them, to ‘big them up’. There was no selfishness behind his offer.. he wasn’t thinking that I could give him something in return, it was simply an act of pure generosity and belief in me. I cannot overestimate how much that inspired me, not only in terms of my birding and the evolution of Birding Beijing, but in life. Martin’s mantra “Always Discovering” was a phrase with which I felt an immediate affinity as I began to explore the birding in and around China’s capital city.. and his encouragement drove me on.
When I heard that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer, I was devastated. How cruel is life and how fragile our existence? Martin reacted to the news in a way that was, knowing his character, completely expected. He embraced it, used it to spur himself on and to inspire others. His most recent work – The Challenge Series – is at the cutting edge of bird identification and show just how much he offered to the birding community.
I was determined to meet Martin during one of my infrequent visits to the UK and, last January, I was back for a series of work-related meetings. I hopped on a train to Hartlepool and after a bracing walk to Flamborough, spent the day with Martin, Sharon and friends. Martin was everything I expected and more. We enjoyed an early morning seawatch, alongside the legendary Brett Richards, during which he explained to me how to tell argentatus and argenteus in flight at distance, something I had never read in the guide books. A tour around the area followed, with visits to the local RSPB offices, a hunt for a Rough-legged Buzzard, viewing a day-feeding Woodcock and close scrutiny the local Rock Pipits at South Landing. A cup of tea, biscuits and great conversation with Martin and Sharon that ranged from birding, China and a host of other subjects, was a fitting end to a wonderful day and I left Flamborough more inspired than ever. He was that kind of man.
Martin opened my, and many others’, eyes to the world of opportunities all around us and, everywhere we look, whether it’s in Beijing or Birmingham, we now see there is still so much to discover.
Martin’s encouragement has given me the drive and determination to make a difference. And if I can be half the man he was, I will be very happy.
Martin’s spirit lives on, running through everything I do. And I am sure I am only one of hundreds, thousands, maybe even tens of thousands to whom that applies.
Today is a sad day. The birding world has lost one of its brightest stars. However, instead of mourning the loss of one of the greatest people I have ever had the privilege to know, I am sure Martin would have preferred us to celebrate – celebrate his life and take on the mantle. To continue the journey and to continue discovering. That is the best way to pay tribute to Martin. A colossus of a man.