Ball is instantly recognizable - a tall man with twinkling eyes
and a head bereft of hair, but a full set of luxuriant ‘mutton
chops’ moustaches to compensate for the lack of growth up top.
He is a Birdlife Researcher, and one of the few ‘experts’ in
northern Thailand, though he would modestly decry the title of
‘expert’. However, he is a man who spent three years to
survey and catalogue the birds nesting in the Wat Umong Open Zoo
area. He may appear terribly ‘British’ but he owes much of
his life to Scott of the Antarctic and to the Japanese movie
industry, an interesting mix to begin with.
Tony was born in Chelmsford in Essex, the son
of a British diplomat, and his primary schooling commenced in
the UK. His father was seconded to Germany, so the family of
seven children followed and Tony was sent to a British school
Tony found that he was not particularly
interested in school work, and when the headmaster of his school
said, “Anyone want to go bird-watching?” young Tony thought
this would be a much better alternative than sitting behind his
school desk and immediately volunteered. He was 12 years old,
and the facilitator for these avian expeditions was the
naturalist Peter Scott (son of Scott of the Antarctic fame), who
fuelled an interest in studying our feathered friends.
When his schooling was over, the British Army
took Tony for a couple of years for that fun activity called
National Service, which he saw out in the Marine Commandos in
Returning to civvy street, it was time to
seriously consider a suitable occupation. Tony told his father
that he wanted some sort of job which was associated with bird
watching. “Bird-watching is not a job!” thundered Ball
senior, and no more discussion was to be held on the subject.
Ball junior was dismissed. As were his hopes for the future.
More as an act of retaliation, rather than a
burning desire, Tony took a job in the entertainment industry,
doing a ‘training course’ with the Rank Organization. He ran
recording studios and theatres. It was easy money. He remained
in the industry for 15 years. “I was so lazy, it was easy to
stay in it,” he said, laughing.
A turning point then came in his, up to that
point, rather directionless life. He met the au-pair girl
staying with one of his brothers - a petite Japanese girl, Yurie.
They were ‘soul mates’ and moved in together. When Yurie
wanted to return to Japan, they went as a couple. “That’s
when life started for me. I went to Japan and taught English in
He did indeed teach English, but one day was
accosted in the street by a man asking him if he wanted to be in
the movies. Unsure as to whether this was some sort of
‘casting couch’ offer with a difference, he reluctantly
accepted the proffered business card but did nothing about it
until three months later when, on a whim, he rang and was
interviewed about a part in a movie, where he was to be cast as
a Spanish detective. “But I can’t speak Spanish,” was not
enough to lose him the part. He was given two pages of Spanish
to remember and his screen debut was made.
Tony, as the star of the silver screen, made
enough of an impact in Japan, that he was snapped up to make TV
commercials. This was where the real money was to be made, and
Tony, often billed as “Mr. Nissan”, who introduced new
models of the Nissan cars, did very well. After 10 years in
Japan and 50 commercials in the can, he made enough to retire.
The fact that Tony, a lifelong non-motorist who cannot drive,
was hidden from the Japanese public, watching Mr. Nissan’s
With retirement, Tony and wife Yurie, decided
to go somewhere different, and Bali seemed like a reasonable
place. They built their dream home there, and Tony took up
studying birds seriously. However, after two years and
increasing hassles from the Indonesian Immigration authorities,
they decided that this was not what retirement was about, so
They looked at Penang, but felt it had no
real intrinsic beauty in it. So they looked at the next country
up the line - Thailand. “We tried Bangkok and hated it, but
then came to Chiang Mai fourteen years ago and we loved it!”
In Chiang Mai, Tony went straight into bird
watching, studying ornithology. “I’ve never stopped
learning,” he said, recounting the story of hearing a strange
bird call in the wilds, stalking the bird till he was close
enough to identify it - a budgie!
Having identified so many species, and
finding some that were considered not to be part of Thailand’s
wild birds, Tony’s main thrust these days is towards
conservation. He is proud of the fact that by getting the
authorities to stop slashing riverine grasses, he saved the
lives of countless young hatchlings in Fang District.
He and wife Yurie then began producing tapes
and books on the birds in the north, in conjunction with a local
publisher, with Yurie learning to paint to beautifully
illustrate the publications. However, in the midst of this great
joy, there came extreme sadness. His beloved Yurie found that
she had terminal cancer and died this year.
For Tony Ball, this was an event of such
shattering proportions that it has been difficult for him to
carry on. It has cemented atheism as his (anti)religious
philosophy. When I asked him about any regrets in his lifetime
he replied, “Only one. That Yurie isn’t here. They were the
happiest days of my life since 1973 (when we met).”
He takes solace in words written by Yurie as
the introduction for a stillborn book. “Life is too short ...
so we should enjoy our lives while we can.” Tony, there is
still enjoyment for you out there, live life through your birds.