Phil Liggett is well known as the smooth-talking “voice of cycling” and many would be familiar from his informed and astute commentary on the Tour de France and the Tour Down Under over many years.

Phil Liggett (r) on the job at the 2009 Tour Down Under
Phil Liggett (r) on the job at the 2009 Tour Down Under

But there is another side to Phil that is less well known but is just as fascinating as his encyclopedic knowledge of professional cycling and all the craziness that goes with that world.

Apart from his professional fascination with cycling, Phil (and his wife Pat Tipper – a wonderful photographer of all things natural) like to spend as much of their time as possible watching birds.

Pat Liggett - also on the job at the 2009 Tour Down Under
Pat Tipper - also on the job at the 2009 Tour Down Under

When in Australia he always tries to make time in his busy schedule to get to places like the Western Treatment Works near Geelong to catch up with the local birds.

Phil and Pat travel widely but try to spend as much time as possible at their houses in London and near to the Kruger National Park in South Africa.

I caught up with Phil and Pat at the 2009 Tour Down Under in Adelaide.

“I’m not a twitcher”…

I’m not what you would call a twitcher – I don’t need a website to tell me that a Yellowlegs has landed and I’ve got to go and see it. In fact I’d be just as happy looking at the picture.

Imagine what an unhappy place it would be if we couldn’t hear the birds. It would be a dreadful world. No bird noise, just the traffic and all the other clutter and noise of our cities and towns.

I’m a Fellow of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the RSPB, and it is the most fantastic bird society in the world. The RSPB has got over a million members and they do terrific things all around the world and I and my wife Pat support them through money we raise.

But basically, I think if you can just look at the birds and see life go by – it’s fabulous.

We enjoy birds, they make us happy and very content.

I am very lucky – you’d be surprised that in the world of cycling there are cyclists who are bird watchers and it is often a gateway to meeting all sorts of people if you let them know you are a birdwatcher.

Australia – travel, birds and Phil’s favourite sewage treatment works

I’ve seen a lot of Australia. I’ve never been to the red centre, I’ve never been to Alice Springs. I’ve been up to Darwin. I’ve been to Perth and the fringes, all the eastern seaboard right up to Cape York.

I’ve sat on the tip of Cape York. And I’ve seen all the Malachite Kingfishers and whatever else is up there. And down to Phillip Island & Kangaroo island and seen the birdlife there.

It is just a wonderful country. You meet the people who know where these birds are and you go and have a look at them.

For example the Western Treatment Plant, the massive sewage treatment plant at Werribbee near Geelong. The manager of the plant is interested in birds and he introduced me to an absolute, utter expert, who whenever I’m in the region, takes me out to Werribbee.

Over 168 species of birds have been logged there – Avocets, Dotterels, Whiskered Terns, Marsh Harriers, Sandpipers, Curlews and the Freckled Duck, which I have yet to see – they are all there.

Birds, crocodiles, snakes & hippos – at home in Kruger National Park

I feel more of an expert in Africa, I’ve seen nearly half of the species in southern Africa where there are about 950 to 1,000 species – I’ve seen about 450 of them. And I’ve seen the two rarest birds, the African Finfoot (Podica senegalensis) and the Pel’s Fishing Owl (Scotopelia peli)– both close to our house near the Kruger National Park.

African Finfoot. Photo:
African Finfoot. Photo:

The Finfoot is an amazing bird. It’s got bright red bill – swims like a Darter and has a sleek body that sits close on the water and the female is not very colourful – the male, however, is beautiful – it was female that we saw the first time. And when they step out of the water they have bright red feet – and then you know what they are…and they have a stripe down their neck – a very pretty bird, wonderful.

The third time we saw the Finfoot a local crocodile took its chicks, right in front of us…50 feet from the window of our home!

We saw the croc cruising in for the kill and we couldn’t see what it was aiming at – and it left the water so fast that it was back in before I saw that it had taken the chicks – there was a pair of Finfoots in the bushes, and they jumped all over the croc – and then they walked away – too late to save their chicks.

And the Pels Fishing Owl – we’ve seen them there at home in Africa. Very early one morning one came right past our bedroom window.

Pels Fishing Owl
Pels Fishing Owl

Pat got up to look out the window at the Hippo, I was very slow getting up and I crawled out of bed. And this bird was totally silent, and it looked straight at us and I said ‘Its a Pel’s Fishing Owl! Right there” and the bird looked at us and then took off. We had no chance to photograph it, but we saw it. Since then…well, now it’s back in the area and with patience you could see it almost on a daily basis…it’s in the river valley.

We’ve also got Verraux’s (Giant) Eagle Owls (Bubo lacteus) around the place. One night we drove round the corner and there were two – two Giant Eagle Owls right there on the road. And we’d have killed them if we hadn’t stopped.

We turned the lights off and allowed them to settle down. They are huge birds, most impressive. Like the Martial Eagle (Polematus bellicosus) – that will kill and eat small antelopes – it crushes the spine at the back of the head with their talons…just like that…and the they bite into the spine

We also have a number of little owls around the place and we know where they all are – the African Scops Owl (Otus senegalensis) is around our house in Africa There is one that lives in a tree at the entrance to Satara Camp in the middle of the Kruger National Park. It just sits there, barely at head height. I has been there for 15 years and it doesn’t fly off at all when people are around.

And birdwatching is really like animal watching generally – you look for signs and clues. We have friends in Africa who are guides. They’ll say “There is a lion one kilometre away” and I’ll say “What?, where?” and he’s noticed bird activity, or a cloud of dust, something, anything – and he has never been wrong, never wrong.

You have to keep your eyes and ears open.

At the house in Africa we had this Eastern Tiger Snake (Telescopus semiannulatus), right by the house, it had just gone into the nest of a Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis). Now we don’t know if it took one of the parents, the eggs or the babies but it had a big bulge in its stomach and we would never have noticed it. It is mildly venomous. it has a nasty bite but it wouldn’t kill you.

Then I noticed the Woodland Kingfisher divebombing the snake. We just heard the row. Well, we heard the row and I said “My god, there is a snake here“.

Pat’s got a picture here of it. The snake is bleeding because the Kingfisher is hitting it – every time he hit it, it bled. But it is a lovely–looking snake – black and gold.

Birds and cycling

And I know that more than a few comments have been made about the birds that the camera chopper pilots pick up – especially during the Tour de France. I must say that the chopper pilots often have a good eye for a bird. The Vultures that we see in the Pyrenees were released there a few years ago now, reintroduced, and they’ve been a terrific success.

I’ve got a wonderful story from Australia about choppers and birds as well – what I would rate as my best experience that combined birds, flying and cycling was right here outside of Adelaide.

Eleven years ago, when we first came to Adelaide to set out the course of the Tour Down Under, they gave us a helicopter to go and check all the stage routes out by air. We were returning after a day in the air, we were coming and going from the Adelaide Oval right here in the city.

Anyway, the chopper pilot and I were coming in at 2,000 feet off the mountain and we came right up behind a Wedgetailed Eagle (Aquila audax) and the chopper pilot said “Look at this – I’ve never seen this in my life!

We were no more than 60 feet behind him and this magnificent bird was turning his head to check us out in the chopper behind him. But he didn’t alter his height – just turning his head to look at us. An unbelievable and absolutely memorable experience that will stay with me forever.

And we were hovering there – 2,000 feet above the ground and sixty feet behind this massive bird – we thought we were an eagle.

And I’ve never seen a Wedgetail since!

Same as the Red Kite (Milvus milvus) in Britain – there was just one known population remaining in mid-Wales in the mountains there and I always stopped when I did the cycling race in Wales.

I was the organiser there, we’d go down the west mountain road to Aberystwyth, I always made a point of looking for the Red kites. And it was just a small little enclave. And then they got some Spanish Red Kites, and they bred them with the Welsh Red Kites, and they moved them to another area.

All secret releases, and now the Red Kite is a common sight over our house outside of London. We can also get them in the north, in Scotland, around October. They land en-route, swipe a few of the farmer’s trout and then they fly south over our house at about 2,000 feet and then they migrate off to Africa.

Peregrine Falcons (Falco peregrinus), are also thankfully, a much more common bird in Britain now, though I’ve actually not seen any outside of the Welsh Mountains. There is a pair that breed in Battersea Power Station, the old defunct power station (in south London) and there is a pair now around Nelson’s Column in central London – they are hoping that they’ll eat all the feral pigeons that make such a mess of central London.

The common birds are what I really worry about. The humble Sparrow, even the Starling – there was a time when you could you could see flocks with millions of Starlings. Not any more. They are all on the decline in London and the south-east.

It may the changes in farming activity or loss of habitat. The Starling is such a cheeky bird, and ironically, because the Starling is declining, the Great Spotted Woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) is increasing, because there is no doubt that in the early 1970s you would hardly ever see a Woodpecker.

But now they are a success story – and it seems that the recovery of the Woodpecker is because the Starling would steal the Woodpecker’s holes for nesting and chase them away. So with the demise of the Starling the Woodpecker has now become a very common bird, a very common sight. Same with the Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis), that’s a common sight in our garden. The Lesser-Spotted Woodpecker (Picoides minor) is still a rare bird and you’ve still got to really hunt for that one.

But I do worry – the demise of the Starling is an indication that the world is in trouble…

And there are always winners and losers. One morning I was riding down the road on my bike, near where I live, and I looked and saw a White heron. So I thought, hang on, there are no White herons in Britain, so I went home, got the car and came back and identified it as a Little Egret (Egretta garzetta) – yellow feet and black legs – easy.

And up until the last five years never recorded in Europe. And now there are two hundred pairs that breed on the estuary at Essex. An African bird that has wandered up to British shores. So that was real discovery.

Another bird that I found was the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia). I was stuck in a traffic jam in Hartford End, in Essex and I spotted one, flying past just above the buildings. And I knew what it was straight away.

And you know I looked at all those motorists and not one, not one of them even noticed this rare bird that had never been recorded in the county before – flying past so close to them.

So I got in touch with a man from the local RSPB. He wrote back and he was doubtful checking what colour etc it was. I just said ‘It was a White Stork – I’ve seen them before in many places in the world.’ And he said ‘Well this needs to go to the rare specimens committee’ or whatever. I said ‘Ok – do what you need to do’.

So I didn’t hear from him again for an age. Then he came back to me and said ‘Oh, I forgot to tell you. We had this photograph sent to us from Hartford End Railway station. Of a White Stork’ And there it was, on top of the clock at the Railway station – looking out at the world – right where I’d seen it.

Phil and Pat Liggett will be back in Adelaide for the 2010 Tour Down Under from January 17 to 24 2010.