World's greatest birdwatcher sets a new record – then hangs up his binoculars

Former naval officer spots 9,000th species in Indonesia

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It took him until he was 81, but a veteran British birder has become the first person in the world to officially see 9,000 species of bird.

Tom Gullick achieved the remarkable feat when he managed to see Wallace's fruit dove, Ptilinopus wallacii, on a birding expedition to the remote Indonesian island of Yamdena.

This summer's sighting was the climax of a 40-year quest to see as many of the world's birds as possible, which began when the former naval officer left Britain in 1971 to become an expatriate birdwatching guide in Spain.

Mr Gullick is a "lister" rather than a "twitcher" (indeed, he is a "big lister") – one of a group of dedicated birders who compile "life lists" of all the species they have seen.

There are still 1,500 or so known species left for him to see, but speaking from his home near the town of Infantes in the Spanish province of Ciudad Real, Mr Gullick said he did not intend to try for the next big milestone of 10,000.

"Enough is enough," he said, laughing. But he said he was elated to have become the first person to break the 9,000-species barrier. "I'd been trying hard to get there over the years."

In the process of seeing more birds than any other person before him, Mr Gullick encountered many of the world's most legendary species – avian prizes which most keen birders can only dream about.

Near his Spanish home he can regularly see one of the most impressive and most endangered birds of prey, the Spanish imperial eagle, but he has seen everything from the bee hummingbird of Cuba – the smallest bird in the world, tinier than your thumb – to the blue bird-of-paradise of New Guinea, which is often said to be the most beautiful (it performs a spectacular courtship display).

He has seen the hyacinth macaw in Brazil (the biggest and most stunning flying parrot) and gurney's pitta in Thailand, which is not only one of the world's most brilliantly coloured birds, but also one of the rarest.

In fact, Mr Gullick knows all about rarities, as he was one of a small group of birders who in 1991 rediscovered a bird believed to be extinct – the São Tomé grosbeak, a red finch from the island nation of São Tomé and Príncipe, in the Gulf of Guinea off the African coast.

His achievement is the culmination of a lifelong obsession with all things avian, which began with the wartime evacuation of Mr Gullick's school to North Wales when he was eight. "I began by collecting birds' eggs, like we all did," he said. "I can remember climbing up an old apple tree to find a hawfinch's nest, and swinging on a rope to take an egg out of the nest of a raven."

In being the first to break the 9,000 barrier Mr Gullick is elevated to a pinnacle of birding fame previously occupied by the "big lister" who first topped 8,000 – Phoebe Snetsinger, a middle-aged American woman who took up serious birding when diagnosed with fatal cancer. Her cancer went into remission, but her birding enthusiasm remained and by the time she was killed in a car crash on a birding expedition to Madagascar in 1999, her total stood at a then-record 8,400.

Mr Gullick knew Ms Snetsinger well – he had guided her on bird tours of Spain and Morocco. "She always said to me it was only a matter of time until her number was going to be passed," he said. "So I said, 'Who d'you think it will be?' And she said she was sure it was going to be an Englishman."

Out of this world: Tom Gullick's greatest spots

Tom Gullick has seen more birds than anyone else. Aged 81, his list of 9,047 species includes rarities such as the São Tomé grosbeak, which was thought to be extinct. Here we present a few examples of the veteran birder’s feathery sightings.

Bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)

The tiny bee hummingbird – the smallest bird in the world – flaps its wings 80 times a second and hovers over plants “like a helicopter.” It feed mostly on nectar and occasionally on insects.

Spanish imperial eagle (Aquila adalberti)

Until recently Aquila adalberti, also known as the Iberian Imperial Eagle or Adalbert's eagle, was found only in Spain, in the central plains and hills and on the mountainous slopes of the south-west, but three pairs have now recolonised a tip of eastern Portugal. Down to 30 pairs in the 1960s, human efforts to counter poisoning, electrocution and scarcity of food have raised the population of this large dark eagle to an estimated 300-400 individuals

Hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

Found in South America, the largest flying parrot feeds on nuts from palms and fruit; its strong beak is able to crack coconuts, brazil nut pods and macadamia nuts. It is endangered due to habitat loss and trapping for pets

Gurney’s pitta (Pitta gurneyi)

Another species named after a Briton (ornithologist John Henry Gurney), Gurney’s pitta was thought to have gone extinct in the 1950s , due to habitat loss, but small numbers were discovered in 1986, making it one of birders’ most sought-after sights. Living in the Malay peninsula, with small populations in Thailand and Burma, it eats slugs and worms.

Blue bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea rudolphi)

Native to New Guinea, this spectacular bird-of-paradise has an elaborate courtship display, performed solo, in which the male hangs upside down from a branch and fans out its violet-blue plumage. Hunting and deforestation have left it “vulnerable”.

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