SOMETIMES it takes a crisis to make you look at the world in a different way.
That was certainly true for Steve Gozdz. He and his partner Billie O’Connor relocated from Surbiton to the Chilterns in 2019 to be closer to nature, but he was due to head back into corporate life when Covid-19 struck.
Despite years working as a contracts manager, Steve had always had a keen interest in wildlife, especially birds.
And as he explored the local countryside during the initial lockdown taking pictures of the wildlife he saw and sharing them with others on social media, he was taken aback by the level of appreciation of his photographs – and later, by requests from people to join him on his walks.
After setting up a Facebook page encouraging local people to engage with nature, as lockdown restrictions bit hundreds of followers starting to share their own photographs from their walks.
Could wildlife tour guiding provide a new career for the 46-year-old entrepreneur? Goring Gap Wildlife Walks was born.
“We agreed now was the time to swap that corporate lifestyle for my passion,” says Steve, whose friends dubbed him ‘The Bird Whisperer’ for his ability to help them seek out and enjoy the local wildlife.
On holidays abroad, the couple would often pay a guide to show them the sights and wildlife of different countries, from Gambia and Senegal to Portugal. Why not try running similar guided walks closer to home?
Says Steve: “I have always been fascinated by wildlife and having moved to the Chilterns, I was able to really indulge in my “serious hobby” of wildlife photography and walking in our amazing countryside.”
Part of his mission is open people’s eyes to the area’s natural wonders, and the couple could hardly be better placed, given the unique Thameside location of the ancient villages of Goring and Streatley, the meeting point of two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Chilterns and North Wessex Downs).
Here two national trails intersect (the Ridgeway and Thames Path), making the villages a popular stopping-off point for those on long-distance walks, with ready access to both Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
While the immediate surroundings were ideal for guided tours, the area covered by his walks was soon rapidly expanding over neighbouring counties, with options ranging from short family walks geared towards children to private tailored walks for those interested in more specific “sightings”.
“I think there really is a growing interest in the countryside and appreciate of the wildlife within it,” says Steve. “The difficulties of Covid-19 have been numerous, but during these hard times we have seen a positive by-product – the growing love and appreciation of our countryside and wildlife.
“I spend most of my time outdoors. I really believe in the power of nature as a healing agent and to bring about calm and balance. Scientific studies have certainly proven the power of fresh-air therapy – being in the outdoors, walking, and taking in nature.”
Current lockdown restrictions may have prevented Steve from running walks for customers, but he has kept up his daily exercise walks and has been taking plenty of photographs to share across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
“Winter brings a number of birds only seen this time of year such as fieldfare and redwing; both quite shy but beautiful birds, they winter here to escape the harsher climate of their mostly Scandinavian homes,” he says.
“We have also seen small groups of lesser redpoll feeding in the silver birches and alder, and flocks of goldfinch have made their way into our gardens to feast on feeders of nyger and sunflower hearts.”
With kingfishers posing obligingly at various places along the river and the signs of spring all around, there’s certainly no shortage of sightings to write about, much to the delight of his social media followers.
“The birds are now more vocal, especially at dawn as they re-establish existing pair bonds and last year’s young are ready to become parents themselves,” says Steve. “We are fortunate in this area of the UK to have four types of owls we could see, especially during the stage of post-fledgling until the end of the summer; my owl walks prove extremely popular from June to August.”
Steve’s clearly itching to get back out and about as soon as the restrictions allow, having organised walks for more than 200 people since starting the business in July 2020.
Future events include the Chilterns Walking Festival, more family-friendly wildlife walks with spotting guides, and partnerships with local hotels who want to offer wildlife tours and photography sessions for their guests.
Many walks take place on private land, allowing the small groups to be genuinely alone with the wildlife they come across.
“The children really love it and you never know whether you might be inspiring the next Chris Packham,” says Steve.
“I started out thinking this would be a temporary business to see me through lockdown but now I’m hoping to earn a permanent living from my passion. I feel very lucky with the success I’ve had so far.”