Richard ffrench: the bird man’s last flight

James Fuller speaks with author and Trinidad's adopted son Richard ffrench on what might be farewell to the island he called home

Richard ffrench, adopted son of the soil and co-author of A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago. Photograph by Harold Diaz

A pioneering ornithologist, teacher, opera enthusiast, and one of Trinidad’s favourite adopted sons has been welcomed back to the Caribbean for what could be the last time.

“We’re thinking it might be our last trip,” says Richard ffrench, relaxing on the verandah of Trinidad’s Asa Wright Nature Centre with his wife Margaret. “You should never say never, of course, but the trip is getting pretty exhausting.”

There is sadness in this remark from the author of the seminal work A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago, because the couple called the island home for so long.

“This is more like a first home than a second home; this is where we spent the prime of our lives and where we raised our four children,” says 77-year-old Margaret.

A two-week stay allowed the two—who now live in Gatehouse-of-Fleet, Galloway, Scotland—to revisit old haunts, catch up with friends and, in Richard’s case, get reacquainted with former pupils.

However, the retired teacher didn’t always recognise his former charges. “In some cases they are retired themselves now, and I knew them when they were schoolchildren,” he smiles. “It’s not easy.”

Often more recognisable have been the island’s bird species, as Margaret notes when a bay-headed tanager flits past. “The birds are just like old friends, when you spot a species you haven’t seen for a while,” she says.
That the ffrenches settled in Trinidad for so many years (1958–85) was due to a series of what they call happy coincidences.

The couple met as members of an Oxford madrigal choir when Richard, a Balliol College classics undergraduate, stood behind Margaret, a student at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art.

“The basses stand behind the altos, so he got a very good view of everyone. I always say Richard assessed me from behind first,” laughs Margaret. “We’ve been singing together for more than half a century after that,” she adds.

He must have liked what he saw, as the couple, who have 13 grandchildren, celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary this year.

Richard’s passion for birds emerged when the newlyweds, with a pair of binoculars purchased for the cash-strapped couple by Margaret’s parents, took a canal-boat trip along the Thames. “Seven pounds was all we had in the world. You can’t buy a very good pair of binoculars for £7,” says the author, who also spent two years in Malaya on British National Service.

In 1955, the ffrenches moved to Barbados when Richard accepted a teaching post. But the pair, by now keen birdwatchers, were disappointed with the birdlife they found, as well as Barbadian society in general. A holiday in Trinidad soon convinced Richard an island hop was imminent.

“The difference in birdlife was immense. It was the first time I had experienced neo-tropical birds,” says the softly spoken 78-year-old. “I met Dr David Snow, who was studying oilbirds at Springhill Estate, and he took me to see the oilbird cave. I said to Margaret that this is where we should be living.”

In 1958, ffrench took a job as a music teacher at St Peter’s School, Pointe-à-Pierre, and the couple shipped their belongings, including a trusty old Morris Minor, to Trinidad. They threw themselves into their two main loves, music and natural history. The pair became heavily involved in opera at Port of Spain’s Queen’s Hall, and also founded and ran the cosmopolitan Orpheus Choir, in the south of the island.

“We had a wonderful cross-section of the community represented,” recalls Margaret, “including a young tenor who was a packer in Hi-Lo.”

Richard was primarily a conductor, but remembers his finest hour as playing the Count in The Marriage of Figaro.
Richard’s ornithological leanings meant he gravitated towards Springhill Estate and was active in its establishment as the now world-renowned Asa Wright Nature Centre in 1967. He was a board member from 1967–76 and president in 1970–71.

From the mid-1960s, ffrench and Snow recognised the need for a comprehensive bird guide for the twin islands. They combined—Snow the forest-bird specialist and ffrench the coastal species expert—to begin what would become A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad & Tobago. When Snow’s career forced him to return to the UK, ffrench continued the project alone and in 1973, after eight years of research, the book was published to wide acclaim. It fostered interest in the country’s birdlife, has served as an invaluable aid to foreign and resident enthusiasts alike for over 35 years, and remains the work by which all other guides are judged.

In 1984, ffrench was honoured by his adopted homeland when he was awarded the Chaconia Silver Medal for achievements in science and conservation. In the same year he was made an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for achievements in education and culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

On returning to the UK, in 1985, ffrench began a 20-year stint as a tour guide, leading birding expeditions to Trinidad and Central and South America, including the Galapagos Islands.

His latest work, A Naturalist’s Year (illustrated by Margaret), was published in 2007 and he plans another, more autobiographical book in the near future.

Speaking of the Asa Wright Nature Centre, but in a remark which could equally refer to Trinidad and Tobago generally, ffrench says simply, “We feel very privileged to have been a part of its history.”

A Naturalist’s Year is published by Prospect Press (ISBN 976-95082-0-9)