Colin Watson's prey was precious, rare and hidden in dangerous places. And on a windy afternoon this week his risk-taking finally caught up with him.
While a friend watched in horror, Watson, 63, lost his grip on the slender trunk of a 12m larch tree he had climbed to check out yet another unusual bird's nest. The former power station worker tumbled to the ground in woods in south Yorkshire, a region of northern England where collectors have often played hide-and-seek with police. Paramedics arrived soon afterwards but the father of three had suffered massive injuries and was declared dead at the scene.
It was the end of a life which saw a schoolboy hobby develop into a passion that made Watson the most notorious collector of wild birds' eggs in Britain for two decades. He was convicted six times under wildlife protection laws, fined thousands of pounds and finally had virtually his entire collection -- the largest in Britain -- confiscated after a raid on his home by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
"This is a very tragic incident, but Colin Watson's misuse of his great knowledge was also a tragedy," said Grahame Madge of the RSPB on Friday. "He undoubtedly knew more about birds than many of our own people, but his egg collecting put the very species he hunted in danger. It was in the true sense of the word a perversion of expertise and talent."
Watson's family and friends claimed he had given up egg collecting more than 10 years ago, with the advent of tough additions to the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Although disturbing the nest of a protected species is also an offense, south Yorkshire police said there did not appear to be any suspicious circumstances at the wood in Campsall, near Doncaster.
But Watson remained on informal lists of some 300 known or suspected egg collectors, whose cars are logged if they go near the nesting sites of rare birds. His many run-ins with the RSPB led to claims he was the vandal who tried to cut down one of the country's best-known sites, the osprey nesting tree in Loch Garten, Scotland, which was vandalized with a chainsaw in 1986.
Watson's background re-sembled the novel and film Kes, about a lad from a Yorkshire pit village who found and learned to train a young kestrel.
As a boy, Watson was fascinated by the fragile beauty of eggs and the excitement of knowing that rarities such as peregrines and goshawks nested on the nearby moors of the Derbyshire Peak district.
Schoolboy birdnesting at the time was considered a virtuous interest in natural history, with older neighbors in Selby, where Watson settled, skilled in the art of blowing eggs -- removing their contents through a tiny hole -- and willing to help in building a collection.
Celebrated ornithologists such as Thomas Coward, who published the standard guide to British birds in the 1920s, acknowledged the help of scores of village collectors.