Chris Watson

Night Parrot Discovered in South Australia

Research, EcologyChris Watson

One of John Young's original Night Parrot pics from western QLD in 2013. Used with kind permission.

More happy news about the Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) today and few people will be surprised that it has again come from John Young. He has found yet another population of Night Parrots, the first in South Australia since Shane Parker and Rex Ellis’ sighting in 1979, and these birds appear to be using samphire (Tecticornia and Sarcocornia spp.).

An update was published on the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) website this morning detailing John’s work with colleague Keith Bellchambers in the Kalamurina Sanctuary between the northern shore of Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre and the Simpson Desert Regional Reserve. All available details regarding John’s latest work are on the AWC website so I won’t recount it all here except to note John Young’s uncanny ability to locate these birds in the vastness of potential habitat. Sticking to a well-known technique, John located a Night Parrot feather in the lining of a Zebra Finch’s nest. This was after he identified a Night Parrot-like shape in a camera trap image from the same area. The image is barely identifiable as a bird but John’s experience with the bird allowed him the suspicion that the image had several features suggesting the possibility of a Night Parrot.

This find is significant for a few reasons. Obviously, the more populations of Night Parrot that we know of, the better. This SA population now forms a huge triangle of potential occurrence between where the birds are found in central and western Queensland and the birds located in Western Australia. Then there is the isolated Night Parrot signal located by Mark Carter and myself in the Northern Territory. This lies somewhere in the middle of this scalene triangle. That location is also close to extensive stands of samphire. This new site on Kalamurina Sanctuary is choked with samphire. That the birds might be using samphire is not too surprising but this is only the second time John has confirmed it. (He found birds using samphire in Diamantina NP in western QLD but those birds also had access to healthy stands of spinifex in close proximity. There is no available spinifex near to the site discovered by John this time: just lots and lots of samphire.) This is important because samphire is less susceptible to damage from fire. Young plants will not burn. Old plants, while they will burn fiercely, will only do so in large tracts when there is spinifex nearby to fuel a sufficiently vigorous fire-front which can span bare patches between samphire plants (Latz, 2007).

Lake Mackay in NT/WA. Spinifex and samphire in abundance. The mind boggles.

So at Kalamurina John has found birds which can be studied in a very different habitat and with one of their key threatening processes if not totally absent, at least significantly reduced. As always, feral predators remain a possible danger to the birds here but, as with sites in QLD, a healthy population of dingoes is likely to go some way toward minimising the threat posed by both cats and foxes (Ripple, 2014; Letnic, et al., 2011; Moseby, et al., 2012; Newsome, et al., 2015).

Congratulations to John and Keith for another important discovery and all credit to AWC for their continuing great work and their support of Australia’s greatest living naturalist.

CBW

 

Further reading

Latz, P., 2007. The Flaming Desert: Arid Australia - a fire shaped landscape. 1st ed. Alice Springs: Peter Latz.

Letnic, M. et al., 2011. Does a top predator suppress the abundance of an invasive mesopredator at a continental scale?. Global Ecology and Biogeography, Volume 20, pp. 343-353.

Moseby, K. E., Neilly, H., Read, J. L. & Crisp, H. A., 2012. Interactions between a Top Order Predator and Exotic Mesopredators in the Australian Rangelands. International Journal of Ecology, pp. 1-15.

Newsome, T. M. et al., 2015. Resolving the value of the dingo in ecological restoration. Restoration Ecology, Volume 23, pp. 201-208.

Ripple, W., 2014. Restore large carnivores to save struggling ecosystems. [Online]
Available at: https://theconversation.com/restore-large-carnivores-to-save-struggling-ecosystems-21828
[Accessed 6 September 2017].

Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds

ReviewChris Watson

By Stephen Debus

192 pages

$49.95 (paperback)

CSIRO Publishing

Let’s get it out of the way right out of the gate: Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is a mouthful. But putting that to one side, there is plenty to be excited about in this publication. Much of the early buzz online about this book focused undue attention on the slightly ungainly title but if you get as far as the preface you’ll find the rationale adequately explained.

The broader region of Australasia (strictly speaking limited to Australia and Melanesia for this book) has been included because the 3 Australian eagles would make for a thin book. There is much new knowledge to be presented on their poorly-known Asian cousins: unpublished data on New Guinea Harpy Eagle; the first observations of an active nest of Sanford’s Sea-Eagle; first prey record for Gurney’s Eagle; first nest and prey records of Pygmy Eagle; etc. The Eagle-like designation is necessary because “birds of prey” or “raptors” would have been imprecise. This book does not treat owls, falcons, and most other Australian hawks. (The author has dealt with all of these species in previous dedicated titles or in chapters for HANZAB.) Red Goshawk, Black-breasted Buzzard, and Square-tailed Kite, however, are each included in the book despite certainly not being eagles. Those species are each objectively eagle-like in certain ways and they’re each listed (or have been recently uplisted) as Threatened and have considerable amounts of new information available on them since the publications of HANZAB and HBW. So much for the title then.

Dr Stephen Debus has been the steward of raptor research in Australia, both through his own research and his position as editor of Australian Field Ornithology, for decades. He has even taken on the misguided task of shepherding this unruly author through the tortuous process of peer-review on matters raptorial. Twice. His eminence in the field (and patience with novice authors) is unmatched.  

Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is a fascinating summary of our understanding of these charismatic species and collects the up-to-date publications describing their lives in one reference. The book is sectioned into four parts. Part One covers the Sea-eagles (White-bellied and Sanford’s). Part Two covers New Guinea Harpy Eagle; the only member of this group represented in the region. The biggest section is Part Three dealing with the Booted eagles: Wedge-tailed, Gurney’s, Little and Pygmy. The three Australian eagle-like hawks (Black-breasted Buzzard, Square-tailed Kite, Red Goshawk) are covered in Part Four. Each of these sections has a revealing introduction featuring historical and cultural information about the group, as well as pointing toward the work of prominent researchers in uncovering each of the species’ life cycles.

The ten species accounts themselves are comprehensive. They’re exhaustive without being exhausting. Each entry presents a highly readable distillation of the entire body of work which has been completed on each species including diet, movements, social organisation, habitat preferences, distribution, vocalisations, and measurements. Where more detailed work on nesting behaviour is available this is also included in the species account. Field identification is dealt with at the very front of each account, presenting all of the most common misidentifications with suggestions on how they can be avoided.  

Perhaps the most revealing, albeit not surprising, aspect of Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is the size disparity between the reference lists for different species. The list of references for Wedge-tailed Eagle runs to a shade more than 6 full pages. For its close relative to the north, Gurney’s Eagle, there are only 6 references cited in total. Not surprising considering the former is a common bird of prey across an entire continent which can even be observed from the back yards of many living outside major cities in Australia, whereas the latter lives in smaller numbers in more remote and difficult habitat. But the revelation comes from comparing the available literature cited in Debus’ previous title, Birds of Prey of Australia (2nd ed.), and this latest book. In the earlier work, only published in 2012, Debus cites a single (1!) paper on Gurney’s Eagle, so the 6 references cited in this book are surely indicative that we are drawing back the curtain on some of these more obscure species. We needn’t look to the remote shores of New Guinea to see such expansion of our knowledge either. Despite being widespread over much of inland Australia the Black-breasted Buzzard has seemed chronically data-deficient. Debus lists a mere 7 references on this species in the 2012 work, while this latest book refers to 27 papers. Still plenty of room for improvement perhaps but this is clearly progress of a kind.

Black-breasted Buzzard - a curious beastie. 

This illuminates something of a deficit in Australian science. There is very little funded raptor research in Australia (you might even extrapolate that to many other groups of fauna but I’ll remain focused on birds of prey for now). We can point to a few grant-funded or tenured researchers here and there but these are notable exceptions in a landscape of largely amateur or self-funded observers. Ecotourism, particularly just a handful of individuals running birding tours in remote areas of inland Australia, have contributed a disproportionately large amount to our knowledge of many species. They've also proven invaluable to professional researchers by providing virtually the only source of location (nests in particular) information for some hard-to-find species. I’m certain I’ve got no idea what the solution for the perpetual shortfall in science funding might be, but I’m encouraged by the fact that BirdLife’s Australian Raptor Association is apparently still working to improve ways of engaging birdwatchers and the wider public in raptor research.

We should be reassured that the contributions of a researcher of Stephen Debus’ stature continue to inspire in-kind contributions from ornithologists of every stripe. In communication with Dr Debus he informs me of a number of papers already in preparation and another book project looming on the distant horizon. He also intimates that a joint photographic book on the field identification of Australian raptors is in the pipes. So whatever laurels the author may be in possession of, he clearly doesn’t intend resting on them any time soon.  

Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds is more than a handbook of large birds of prey of Australia and neighbouring areas. It is a simultaneously highly readable, thoroughly enjoyable and authoritative monograph of some of the most captivating animals in Australasian skies. It’s the first such comprehensive book on these birds since HANZAB in 1993 and features arresting colour photographs portraying some rarely seen behaviours. I commend it to every reader who is interested in furthering their understanding of our large birds of prey.

CBW

 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Letters from The Little Digger

OpinionChris Watson

Billy Hughes.

This will be something of a departure from the usual offerings on The Grip. I was going through some personal effects following relocation and came upon something I have been meaning to share for a while.

What follows are precise transcriptions of two letters from William Morris (Billy) Hughes, Australian Prime Minister 1915-1923 (known fondly as The Little Digger), to a Mr. JW Kitto, the deputy director of Posts & Telegraphs. The letters are dated February 1934, over a decade beyond Hughes’ stint as PM. Their content and context is self-explanatory. How they came to be in my possession is fairly simple: my father’s great uncle, Sir Albert (Bertie) Chadwick was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Overseas Telecommunications Commission (OTC) in August 1963; these were among his papers when he died and were passed to my father and then to me. (Lest anyone suspect fabrication, I have the originals and am happy to send you a PDF scan.) I’d like to think that the letters had remained in Uncle Bertie’s collection due to their notoriety within OTC circles. Perhaps Mr Kitto had retained them with a sense of some pride, and they’d been handed down through the leadership of the OTC as some sort of customer service parable. But that’s all conjecture.

These letters came to mind again recently during an exceedingly tortuous month long process of trying to gain connection to PM Turnbull’s wonderfully antediluvian steampunk version of the NBN. During that month of constant bureaucratic bungling, just as my frustration was approaching flashpoint, I found the letters and my sense of humour (not to mention my sense of perspective) came rushing back. It is with great mirth that I note Billy had a full response to, and action on, his entreaty within a week. It’s a wonderful mirror image of my wranglings with present day telecommunications. The rapturous gratitude evident in the second letter was felt just as intensely in this household when the NBN eventually deigned to connect us.

But so much for all that; the Little Digger clearly had a flair for language. I enjoy the letters for his use of language alone and hope that you may do likewise. But just as he includes a Latin quotation from Horace in the penultimate paragraph of his thank you note to Mr Kitto, it brought to mind another well-known Horace quotation that I’m sure Mr Turnbull will be familiar with:

Mutato nomine de te fabula narratur.

Change only the name and this story is about you.

 

Enjoy.

 

 

PALM BEACH.

February, 7th, 1934.

J. W. Kitto, Esq.,

Deputy Director, Posts & Telegraphs,

SYDNEY.

 

Dear Mr. Kitto,

                       For the last month I have been rusticating in this delightful spot and, although lulled to lethargy by its beauties and sleep-inducing air, I have from time to time been compelled to recognise that there is a world outside its Elysian scope, in which foolish men and women rush furiously and futilely hither seeking they know not what, but demanding with angry insistence that they get it – pronto, toute de suite, and without a moment’s delay. Some of these irrational and impatient people want me. And they will not desist from their importunity unless and until they get me. Not for them the snail-like mail; like greyhounds straining at the leash, they spurn with contemptuous gesture the rushing motor, and laugh derisively at mention of those Noah’s Arks, the trams, and turn with furious haste to the “Winged Light” and telegraph or telephone their peremptory demands. About the telegraph I say nothing, but about the telephone I feel something must be said. Hence this letter.

                First, let me tell you something about Palm Beach. Probably you know it quite well. But I do not think you have stayed down here for any length of time. If you had, I am quite sure this letter would not have been necessary. The permanent population of Palm Beach is not large, but is growing rapidly. Every week end, however, and on public holidays and for some months during the height of the summer the number of visitors runs into thousands. Many of these from time to time have occasion to use the telephone. And this brings me to the point I wish to make. The telephone at the Post Office – the only public telephone available – is housed in a box outside the Post Office, exposed to the fierce glare of the sun and the biting westerlies and heavy rain. There is no privacy. Every word a sender utters can be heard by the crowd on the Post Office verandah, and by passers by along the road – to say nothing of the neighbours in the adjoining house. The other day it happened that I had occasion to ring up my Broker to give him an order in reply to his telegram which had just come to hand. The whole of Palm Beach knows the stock I bought, the price I paid for it; in short, knows all my private business.

                The telephone is not lit up, and the approach at night is a dubious adventure. The Postmaster does his best and provides at his own expense a light when he hears people at the box. But they have to make their way there as best they can. When they get there, the light may be switched on – or it may not.

                As this phone is fairly rushed from 7 to 10 during the season, it ought to be properly lighted, so that it can be seen from the road and the pathway to it plainly seen. And in place of this wretched box, there ought to be a modern sound-proof, weather-proof cabinet.

                If you refer to the office records, you will find that this phone did hundreds of pounds worth of business in December-January this year. The business done amply warrants the small expenditure involved in substituting a modern cabinet for the present primitive box, and for provisions for lighting.

                I should be glad if you would look into this little matter at your early convenience. If you care to run down here some day during the next week or two, I shall be delighted to give you a cup of tea despite the stringent provisions of the Anti-Bribery and Corruption Act.

                In the meantime, I am,

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                                                W. M. HUGHES

 

PALM BEACH

February 12th, 1934.

J. W. Kitto, Esq.,

Deputy-Director, Posts and Telegraphs,

SYDNEY.

 

Dear Mr. Kitto,

                All Hail! Thane of Cawdor and Worker of Mighty Miracles. You have restored my fading faith in the efficacy of petitions respectfully worded and ending, as is seemly, in a prayer. Wonderful! Wonderful! On Friday, going to the Post Office whilst yet the day was young, musing on things in general and the inanity and ineptitude of governments in particular, contrasting sadly, the degeneracy of the present age with the bounding vivacity of other days, I raised my eyes in mute appeal to the Heavens, when LO! a wondrous vision swam before them. In the place of that rank and hideous ruin that had disfigured the fair landscape and by its rude and wretched mechanism had provoked even the righteous to profane and lurid works and evoked scornful derision from the ungodly there stood, passing fair, a lovely CABINET, standing shyly like a young maiden in some Arcadian Grove, awaiting the coming of her lover. For a moment I stood motionless, frozen in my tracks, gazing at this amazing metamorphosis, in wonderment. Was this a Cabinet of the Mind, a vision conjured up by vivid imagination impregnating the womb of Hope, a Mirage, a spiritual emanation, or was it real? And then all doubts vanished. It was there, a thing of substance. Like Alladin, I had rubbed the Magic Lamp and whispered in the ear of the Genii. And he had gone straight away and got the dashed thing.

                Wonderful and splendid. The poor postmaster is beside himself with pride and joy, and is going about with his hands outstretched trying to satisfy himself that he is awake.

                When you come down to Palm Beach – as you will do some day, if not to take tea with me, at all events to dip in its life giving waters – you will come to the Post Office and look at that Lovely Cabinet and be able to say with Horace “Exegi Monumentum perenius aere”. “I have reared for myself a monument more enduring than brass and loftier than the pyramids”.

                And you are going to have it all lighted up so that Barrenjoey Lighthouse will look like a tallow dip alongside it.

                For this relief much thanks.

                With kindest regards,

                I am, dear Mr. Kitto,

                                                                Yours Truly,

                                                                                                W. M. HUGHES

NIGHT PARROT FOUND IN NORTHERN TERRITORY

Research, Press ReleaseChris Watson

PRESS RELEASE

 

For Immediate Release

For additional information please contact:

Chris Watson

Mob. 0419 358 942

Email: birdscentral@gmail.com

 

NIGHT PARROT FOUND IN NORTHERN TERRITORY

Acoustic recording reveals call of probable Night Parrot in southern NT

In early 2017 zoologists Chris Watson and Mark Carter found a bird call in an acoustic recording that could not be positively identified. The site of the recording is a stand of very old thick spinifex (Triodia longiceps) surrounded by natural gibber firebreaks. The call recorded is a series of short constant frequency whistles at around 2.2kHz. The time of the call is roughly an hour after sunset. There had been rain at the site shortly before the call was recorded.

Two observers have since heard the call repeated at the site, in one instance coming from thick spinifex close to the observer.

No further recordings of the call have been identified (however, many hours of acoustic data from the site has been gathered which is yet to be analysed). 

The call is a similar frequency and tone to Night Parrot (Pezoporus occidentalis) calls recorded in Queensland and recently released to the public, but differs in its length (see sonogram image). In March it was announced that Night Parrots found in Western Australia have calls which differ from the birds in Queensland. After liaising with the ornithologists who found the Western Australian population we were able to compare our recorded call to other examples of Night Parrot whistle calls from WA. While there is not an exact match, the calls from WA Night Parrot and the bird recorded in the NT are very similar. 

The land system in which the call recording was made is extensive and hosts many locations which correspond with the known habitat requirements for this species elsewhere in Australia. 

We are proceeding on the basis that we have detected a probable Night Parrot in the Northern Territory. Work is now underway with the relevant statutory body to gather more data at the site and identify more locations in the wider landscape where this bird may occur.

We have deliberated for some time on whether to release this information into the public domain. We cannot access enough reference material to make this a fully confirmed record of the bird (or to dismiss it as another species). We have both been openly critical of the extreme secrecy and intrigue which has surrounded this species in recent years. Where practical, we will release information as soon as we can; particularly information that will assist others in finding the bird elsewhere. 

As the tentative identification of the call was partly reliant on acoustic data which is not ours to release we are limited to releasing the sonogram image of our call only, not that of the reference calls from Western Australia. 

We will not be sharing location data of this site under any circumstances in the interest of the bird’s conservation.

 

Press Release on Mark Carter's site including sonogram images.

The Australian Bird Guide

ReviewChris Watson

by Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers, Rohan Clarke, Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack & Kim Franklin.

CSIRO Publishing

“…research in systematics can enliven the way one observes any bird. When observing a bird, we see the latest results of ongoing and open-ended evolution. That makes things far more interesting than if our understanding of the birds and the names we use all just stood still.” – Dr Leo Joseph

 

This passage from Leo Joseph’s essay in The Australian Bird Guide zeroes in on what is, perhaps, a challenging aspect of birding for some: constant open-ended change. The endless mutability of species and bird names is a fact capable of draining the colour from many birders’ faces. Earlier in the same essay entitled A guide for birders to the evolution and classification of Australian birds, Dr Joseph points out that, “…this book and its successors should look very different from their predecessors in the species and groups they recognise.” It might seem like an obvious thing to point out but it’s a timely reminder. Outdated ideas can be tenacious. Change is something we all wrestle with in different ways but it cannot be resisted.

With that in mind, find your favourite armchair. Sitting comfortably? Things are about to change. Get excited.

To say that The Australian Bird Guide (ABG) is the most anticipated natural history publishing release in recent Australian history might sound like embroidery, but it may in fact be selling the phenomenon short. The only other release I can think of that caused quite such a stir in the last few decades is that of HANZAB; still a towering landmark. During the final months before the release of The ABG the suspense in the birdwatching community has been palpable. The book has been a full eight years in the making and the last couple of weeks ‘til its official launch promise to drag out larghissimo. A few have remained phlegmatic but most birdwatchers have by now seen a few sneak peeks online, which have raised expectations to stratospheric elevations. Speaking to some, you might get the impression of a group of acolytes awaiting the delivery of the gospels of Australian birding; carved in stone; direct from the mountaintop; from the inner circle of the highest curia of austral ornithological savvy.

In many ways it’s an apt analogy.

But the authors acknowledge that the production of The ABG has been a profoundly collaborative process; one that has involved not just the authors and artists directly responsible for its genesis, but a broad swathe of the Australian and global birdwatching community. The team took full advantage of social media and the online birding community’s natural generosity and propensity for image and data sharing. In doing so, they were able to amass unprecedented archives of photographic reference material to inform the 4700+ individually commissioned paintings that form the colour plates. This meticulous research shows in the plates too. The artwork of Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack, and Kim Franklin will already be well known to readers and the plates in this volume are as near to perfect as possible. (I include no photographs of the plates as my photographs would do no justice to them, but trust me; they’re beautiful.) Further superlatives on the quality of the paintings are superfluous but it’s worth noting that it’s the first time the Night Parrot has been illustrated in the age in which photographic references of a live individual are available. Also it’s the first, among all the existing field guides I could find, to feature a depiction of a juvenile Night Parrot and to picture most of the grasswren species also with juveniles.

But there will be many firsts for readers to enjoy among the plates.

“I’d like to think it’s a game-changer in the shorebird and seabird space especially”, says author Dr Rohan Clarke when pressed to single out the features that set The ABG apart from other field guides we’ve seen. Rohan was kind enough to give The Grip a few minutes of his time to speak about The ABG earlier in the week.

“Just because they’re tough groups that have not necessarily been done well before. Beyond that, it’s kind of hard. We didn’t line up the existing field guides and say, ‘how can we do better?’ We pulled out the best field guides in the world and said, ‘how can we replicate this in Australia?’”

This is an approach that has clearly paid dividends. Comparisons with the widely-lauded Collins Bird Guide (to the Birds of Europe) have already been drawn and, while comparisons can be odious, in this case it may be instructive. The Collins is frequently held up as a paragon of the field guide form and The Australian Bird Guide—in the quality of the artwork, in the fullness of the text, in the accuracy of the maps and information—in my assessment, stands shoulder-to-shoulder with it. In its comprehensiveness, it may even give it a nudge. According to Rohan Clarke, certainly, this was one of the team’s aims.

“We were shooting for it to be the most comprehensive guide ever in Australia.”

By most counts 936 species have been recorded within the guide’s region and The ABG treats 927. This leaves a tiny few missing the cut and the criteria for exclusion are clearly set out in the front of the book: no vagrant records from before 1940 and no extinct species. So there is no Paradise Parrot and no Eurasian Wigeon, no Corncrake, and no Nicobar Pigeon. The team had to draw the line somewhere in order to get the book through to publication so despite exciting recent occurrences, those latter three species will have to await a future edition.

But, other than those species which fall foul of these criteria, all other vagrants and birds of Australian external territories are covered. This increased the task of The ABG team considerably.

The Grip: It expands the scope of the book quite a lot when you start including all of those doesn’t it?

Rohan Clarke: Interestingly, I was not one of the people who was arguing hard for full inclusion of all the offshore island species; you know the one-off vagrants on all the offshore islands. I was a strong advocate for including all of the native species, the residents and the regular occurrences on the offshore islands because I reckon, politically, they’re ours, so if we’re not aware of them no-one else is going to be so we’ve got to drive that awareness and that ownership to get some buy-in and ensure they’re conserved. But some of the individuals I guess, we could’ve played them down more… When I started, I thought we could’ve played them down more than we have but at the end I think, certainly for some of the things that are tough pairs and combinations, hopefully we’re doing them as well as some of the overseas books as well. So hopefully we’ve got the best coverage of things like Phylloscopus warblers and the Locustella warblers for the ones that occur in Australia.

TG: And, something that I guess you and the team must have discussed at some point: a companion smartphone app. Do you think one is likely?

RC: It’s likely. The question is more a matter of time I think. I think it’s open-ended at the moment in that, other than being involved in discussions, I probably don’t know much more than the broader birding community other than that it is sitting with CSIRO Publishing and at some point they’re going to make a call on when and how.

TG: So what’s going to be the bird that grips you off the most when it turns up and it’s not in the book?

RC: Well Nicobar Pigeon didn’t waste any time! That’s interesting in the sense that, it had been recorded back in the 1980s but wasn’t submitted until quite late; as in, we were well into the writing process so it was one of the first to miss the cut effectively. But none of us were too concerned because we just weren’t going to get another one. So to have one on the mainland is probably gripping in the sense that it’s probably more deserving of a spot than some of the things on the offshore islands.

TG: The ABG team acknowledges the role of online technology like social media in enabling faster communication between birders and the sharing of information. Do you reckon social media has had a role to play in improving the standard of birding as well?

RC: I think so. I’m in the echo chamber there! There are a lot of people I see have a genuine interest in social media and there are things that I’ve said or Jeff (Davies) has said or something else online and then it only takes a couple of months if it’s a recurring identification problem, and other people are now using it routinely as a feature. So someone else will come in and say, “It is this ID because of this this and this”. So I think we are definitely seeing it. How wide the reach is, is hard to know in that space. But I guess the Australian Bird ID group has got some ridiculous number of people (14,673 members at time of writing) on Facebook so that’s kind of indicative that at least people want to be able to put a name to a bird.

TG: To play the devil’s advocate for a second, why did we need a new field guide? Didn’t we have enough already?

RC: I think we’ve got enough field guides in the sense that there’s a bit of diversity out there and all the Australian birds are covered but I reckon Australian birding has changed so much in the last decade or so and a lot of that’s driven by the digital age.

So it’s twofold in that, with digital images we can now look at birds at a level of detail that we just couldn’t have with slide film or anything in the past so we can capture everything that a bird reveals these days more so perhaps even than skins. Then, combined with that, the digital age has also seen a growth in birdwatching I’d say—a greater awareness—and so there are more birders who want to know more about the birds than just being able to identify them. So most of the existing field guides do a pretty good job of helping you identify a bird but most of them don’t go much further than that. Unless it’s really obvious, they don’t break down how you separate the sexes and most of them don’t touch on ageing unless, again, it’s really obvious or it’s a standard problem for a particular species. So that’s what we are trying to hit; both excellence in terms of straight ID and picking up all of the existing and new information that has come out of those digital images but then also going to another level in terms of providing more information about identification at a finer scale.

And finer scale knowledge of the birds we are watching is something we should all aspire to. The Australian Bird Guide delivers on this account too. For pure identification purposes, birds have been illustrated in poses that best highlight diagnostic features. To this end, seabirds are depicted almost exclusively in flight; precisely as most birders will encounter them on pelagic trips. The finer scale of knowledge is delivered through lavish text including family level summaries and species accounts which appear on the facing page to each plate of illustrations. The text is detailed without being too over-the-top, featuring all of the expected information and including helpful notes on recent taxonomic changes and potential ‘armchair ticks’, distributional info that might be too granular to identify on the maps, and behavioural notes where they might assist finding the bird in its habitat and separating it from confusion species. The quantity of information presented in The Australian Bird Guide is such that it actually hovers somewhere between a field guide and a handbook; a fact reflected in the choice of the title. The next logical point of reference after The Australian Bird Guide, if the reader still needs more on a bird, will be a serious reference handbook, the likes of HANZAB. That alone could be the measure of a book which has been kept to a size not much larger than the 9th edition of Pizzey & Knight (the latter at 1227g vs The ABG at 1450g). It’s not so much a field guide as it is The TARDIS of Australian bird information. (Australian Bird TARDIS? Actually has a bit of a ring to it, no?)

But I promised change at the top of this review. The biggest change, for many, will be that The Australian Bird Guide, for the most part, dispenses with the usual practice of presenting the species in taxonomic order. Instead, birds are grouped according to the broad habitat class in which they will most likely be found: marine, freshwater, and terrestrial. Coloured tabs on the top edge of pages direct the reader to these groups and then, within those groupings, current taxonomic order prevails. This is a bold step, but one that is justified in the introduction and, ultimately, works.

There are many other things that The ABG does well: a single index by both scientific and common names; some great introductory chapters, including the essay by Leo Joseph from which I quoted at the beginning of this review; helpful passages on birding in Australia; and an open acknowledgement of the contributions that have been made to the knowledge of Australia’s birds by birdwatchers and photographers. Refreshingly, The ABG team have also stepped back from the sanctimonious position that is frequently adopted on the use of playback. Rather, they present a fulsome account of its ethical deployment, its drawbacks, and recommendations for and against its use in particular circumstances. This section runs to a full page and a half and brought me to a lachrymose standing ovation. Let this be the end to the interminable online bickering!

Finally, it wouldn’t be a fair review if I was only breathless and moist-eyed in my admiration of the achievements of The ABG. As any publication will, it has its flaws but they are mostly fairly trivial. I won’t list the many typographical and editorial errors I encountered; they’ll be like Easter eggs for sharp-eyed readers and they don’t effect the book’s usability. The ABG has continued the use of text descriptions of bird vocalisations that I have railed against in the past and will continue to do so. I think there are a limited number of cases where the practice may be helpful but for the most part it is a waste of text space. I will happily change my position on this as soon as someone can persuade me of the value of including quinquinkrrkrrquinquinquinkrrkrr as an aid to identifying the call of the Australasian Swamphen. I’m all ears.

On a slightly more serious note, two of the plates in the copy I received, (Fluttering to Newell’s Shearwater on p.59 and Bulwer’s Petrel to Tristram’s Storm-Petrel on p. 79) have a printing error resulting in all the species on the plates appearing to have a washed-out and much browner appearance than similar species on adjacent pages. I’m hoping that this is a one-off and only appears in my copy but my contacts within the publishing industry inform me that this may be right through an entire batch of books in the same printing run. As printing errors go it’s far from disastrous, the plates are still quite usable, but let’s hope it is limited to just a few aberrant copies.

But those are the very few minor faults I could find in a book, which—and I told myself that I’d try to avoid the more obvious clichés but every other reviewer seems to be trotting this one out—is sure to become our favourite field guide to Australia’s birds. 

In all truth, this could be the most pointless review I’ve ever written. Everyone is going to buy this book and everyone is going to love it. Enjoy!

CBW

 

NB: The official release date for The Australian Bird Guide is the 1st of May but it is already in most good book shops and has a recommended retail price of $49.95.