Chris Watson

Birds of the Darwin Region by Niven McCrie and Richard Noske

Review, birdingChris Watson

While it seems another El Niño is looming, the flow of good Australian natural history books is far from drying up. This is perhaps most true for books about our birds. In recent years we’ve welcomed Dolby and Clarke’s Finding Australian Birds, Fraser and Gray’s Australian Bird Names and the re-release of Alec Chisholm’s classic Mateship with Birds to name just a few. All of these are exciting examples of passionate advocates for Australia’s birds, putting their heads together and sharing accumulated knowledge with an eager audience.

This recent release from CSIRO Publishing, is no exception; it’s astonishing. It’s the sort of book that makes you excited about being a naturalist. For the many who are already familiar with the authors’ other work, this will come as no surprise. McCrie is perhaps best known as the author, with James Watson (no relation), of that other beloved Top End treatise, Finding Birds in Darwin, Kakadu & the Top End. A founder of the prime online reference for Top End birders, the NT Birds newsgroup, he has also been a well-loved tour leader for visitors to the Top End over many years. Richard Noske’s prolific scholarship of birds in northern Australia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific is well established. He was senior lecturer in biology at CDU for some 26 years, authored, with Graham Brennan, another work of great interest to northern birders, 2002‘s Birds of Groote Eylandt, and is the current chief editor of the journal of Indonesian ornithology, Kukila.

Laurie Ross' eye-catching Rainbow Pitta adorns the cover. One of the easier to see of this typically elusive family, and still relatively easily found around Darwin.

Happily, it’s a fairly common practice in Australia for local experts to work up a guide to the birds of their town, region, or patch. Such experts are, typically, deeply knowledgeable long-term residents, enthusiastic about recording for posterity all of the vagrant records, seasonal movements, and breeding ecology of the birds of their locality. You don’t have to look far to find self-published guides to this town or that shire. Sometimes these are simply brief pamphlets produced under the photo-copying budget of the town council, but range to more elaborate spiral-bound affairs produced with funding from local field naturalists’ clubs or Landcare groups. McCrie & Noske’s Birds of the Darwin Region, seems likely to become the yardstick by which such guides are measured.

The executive summary for this collaboration? If you’re a birder, ecologist, or you’re at all interested in the natural history of Australia’s north, you’ll want this book.

Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly a labour of love from two long-term residents of the region. Indeed, a book of this kind is only made possible by authors with the intimate knowledge of an area that comes from living in it year round. There are some noteworthy absences from the species list, which serve to remind you of the limited geographic scope of the book. No Variegated Fairy-wren (the treated area doesn’t extend as far as the sandstone country); no Chestnut-backed Button-quail; no Masked Owl; no Dusky Moorhen. Maybe some of these occur in the vicinity of Darwin but clearly none have been confirmed within the treatment area.

The species accounts are accompanied by seasonality charts, and distribution maps. The region is divided into a grid of 64 cells with explanatory notes at the front of the book detailing the number of surveys providing data for each cell.  

The research the authors have done in confirming or discounting records is, no doubt, all but exhaustive. There is an ‘unconfirmed species’ section toward the back for those few birds lacking sufficient substantiation for their occurrence to be admitted without question. Otherwise, the records in the list can be considered ‘gold standard’; thoroughly referenced… and what references. For keen NT listers the references pages of this book alone will be a crucial reference.

McCrie & Noske have done an extraordinary service to Australian ornithology, in compiling, organising, and vetting the observations and publications of the many naturalists who have studied Darwin’s birds in the past. To this end, there’s also a ‘history of ornithology’ section in the front of Birds of the Darwin Region, giving deserved acknowledgement to those who went boldly (recklessly?) before onto the mangals and mudflats, before the days of that great ruiner of lenses, Bushman’s Plus™ tropical strength insect repellent.

The species accounts are wonderfully in-depth without being academically soporific; authoritative while managing to be almost conversational in style. Each account is highly readable. Birds of the Darwin Region is clearly focused on the birds of this one defined area, but as many of these species occur across northern Australia, and even farther afield in some cases, it will have relevance far beyond the bounds of Darwin as well.

Without even going past the waterfowl there are numerous examples of what makes this such a valuable and readable reference. The species account for one of the Top End’s iconic species, Magpie Goose, runs over four pages. It not only contains the expected information about its life cycle and habits around Darwin, but some interesting insights into how local policy and community attitudes can affect a species. Recreational hunters, indigenous hunters and mango growers all influence the movements and site use of this species which, in turn, can influence the health of areas used by the birds.

NT waterfowl hunting season: Anger over 34 geese carcasses dumped near rural property

Still among the waterfowl, what about that most infuriating of ducks – Garganey? This ‘Artful Dodger’ of ducks has certainly eluded my Australian list as skilfully as the Dickensian urchin. I first lived full-time in the NT from 2006. In the 26 years preceding 2006, Garganey was recorded in 20 of them, including a staggering 125 birds at Leanyer in 1991. From 2006 to 2014 (the cut-off for entries in this book) it was seen by… no-one. Well, not quite. No-one except for my arch-rival in NT listing, Mick Jerram, who spotted 3 of the birds on the Katherine River in 2008. The perfect grip.    

Birds of the Darwin Region with some other familiar volumes for size comparison. There is a lot in this book. 

Birds of the Darwin Region boasts many truly enlightening factoids; things I’d never read anywhere else before. Take this sterling opening sentence to a species account for example: “Although among the smallest of the world’s swans, the Black Swan’s neck is proportionately longer than in any other, giving it a uniquely elegant silhouette.” My favourite though, is at the other end of the book, in the species account for Canary White-eye: “It has the ability to prise open small flowers… by inserting its somewhat wedge-shaped bill into the floral tube, then gaping, behaviour known as zirkelning.” In the landmark textbook of our pursuit, Ornithology (3rd edition), the author Frank B. Gill lists only four entries in the index under the letter Z: Z sex chromosomes; zeitgebers; zugunruhe; and zygodactyl. Zirkelning? Nowhere to be found. For this alone McCrie and Noske have my admiration.

Finally, Birds of the Darwin Region draws on records from a number of databases; the NT Fauna Atlas, Eremaea Birds (and latterly Eremaea eBird) and the Darwin Bird Atlas project among others. I suspect it’s highly likely that anyone reading this will have contributed observations to one or many such databases, and you can be justifiably proud in pointing to this book as the fruit which is ultimately borne by such citizen science projects.

Darwin is deservedly renowned as one of the top birding destinations in Australia, which places it high in the running worldwide. With Birds of the Darwin Region, Niven McCrie and Richard Noske have cemented their place in any future history of Top End ornithology to be written, and provided an indispensable reference for visitors and researchers for many years to come.

CBW

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