Chris Watson

Australian Birdlife

Gotta Tick 'Em All

Birding, OpinionChris Watson

This piece first appeared in Australian Birdlife Magazine Vol. 5 No.3, September 2016.

Cast your mind back and you may remember an old Nintendo game from the 1990s where players would seek out fictional creatures and capture them to add them to their list—Pokémon.  

The latest version of the game, harnessing the cameras and GPS capability of smartphones, was released in early July and it didn’t take long for problems to arise. Within the first week of the game’s release, the Darwin Police had to remind players that they mustn’t enter their premises just because the game had designated the building a “Pokestop”.

Reports of car crashes and pedestrian accidents have been common, as have accusations of trespass as people chased Jigglypuffs and Charizards through suburban parks late at night—some Pokémon, it seems, are nocturnal. In the US, a series of muggings occurred when nefarious players lured others into isolated places. Bosnian players even had to be reminded to avoid wandering onto minefields, such was their Pokémon-induced stupor.

A lot of this should have a familiar ring to birdwatchers. We all know how single minded birders can be in pursuit of a lifer. There’re plenty of stories of birdwatchers, lurking behind binoculars, suspected of snooping. I’ve been grilled by the Australian Federal Police myself for straying too close to the Pine Gap Joint Defence Facility toting high-end optics. There are also many regrettable instances of erratic driving, trespass and other ill-advised behaviour by birdwatchers in pursuit of their quarry.

But despite all the similarities, the biggest point of difference between birdwatching and Pokémon Go is the most obvious: birds are real. That’s not a small thing. Because birds are real, birdwatchers, from the rank beginner to the most experienced ornithologist, in their efforts to see as many species as possible, are learning about the world we live in and contributing to our understanding of its ecosystems.

Birdwatchers keep notebooks and submit their observations to online atlas projects where the information can be accessed by researchers and governments and used to inform studies of bird populations, movements and distribution, and make decisions about their conservation status and required levels of protection. Birdwatchers’ observations have informed recent decisions regarding the management of fire, mineral exploration and vegetation clearing.

Due in large part to the contributions of birdwatchers, our understanding of how birds occupy the landscape is more complete than for any other class of vertebrate on the planet.

But although my initial reflex was to dismiss Pokémon Go as mere skim milk to birding’s full cream, its phenomenal popularity clearly confirms one thing: our huge appetite for exploring, collecting and cataloguing. The similarity between the collecting mentality of birdwatching and the Pokémon tagline of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All”, shows the fascination with collecting to be a universal character of humanity.

So with the Twitchathon going national this year and the Aussie Backyard Bird Count in October, perhaps there’s an opportunity here. These are the extreme sports of birdwatching. It may take just the gentlest of nudges, as the interest in Pokémon Go begins to wane, for the listers of the virtual world to see their opportunity in an unaugmented world filled with multitudes of creatures which are even more spectacular and enchanting for their reality…

An iridescent flying creature which steals clothes pegs and trinkets from humans, but only if they’re blue? Satin Bowerbird—tick it off.

A ground-dwelling animal which constructs a mighty oven with delicate temperature control to hatch its young? Malleefowl—another one in the bag.

A huge flightless dinosaur-like beast with a single horn on its head and a vicious kick that could disembowel a would-be attacker?

Southern Cassowary—you beauty!

If they thought Pokémon Go was addictive, wait ‘til they try birding.

Review: Australian Wildlife After Dark

ReviewChris Watson

By Martyn Robinson and Bruce Thomson

Who among us doesn’t have a soft spot for owls? If you’re interested in looking for night birds and most of Australia’s other fauna, you’re eventually going to have to head out after dark. In fact, compared to most other places, Australia has an extremely high proportion of nocturnal fauna.

This book will be a good starting point for those who might be unfamiliar with spotlighting techniques and the ecology of the fauna that you’re likely to encounter. It deals not only with the more highly sought and charismatic species, like the owls, but with virtually every kind of animal that you might find in Australian habitats after dark: mammals, frogs, reptiles of various kinds and all manner of invertebrate are all treated in the one book.

Most of the chapters are organised according to the senses by which different animals navigate their world. This is a perceptive innovation and one that I think may help many to hone their field-craft and more successfully find their target species.

Australian Wildlife After Dark will be most suitable for the relative newcomer to spotlighting but will certainly have something to teach even experienced practitioners.

This review was first published in Australian Birdlife magazine Vol. 5 No. 1, March 2016.

Buy it from Andrew Isles 

To those about to bird hard - we salute you

birdingChris Watson

Twitchathon

It's a word to light a fire under any serious birder. This is an event in which strict temporal and geographic limits are placed on a birding attempt. Theoretically, this levels the playing field and makes the game a more genuine comparison of local birding nous. If you want to do a Big Year that’s fine but you’ll need some pretty solid funding if you plan to be competitive, not to mention a certain freedom from work commitments.

By narrowing the window down to 24 hours and confining the attempt to the borders of one of our smaller states, everyone is in with a chance. What counts more in a Twitchathon is how you plan your route and that ephemeral factor of luck. If you’ve been paying attention to the birding grapevine over the last year and have enough cash for a couple of tanks of fuel then you’re in the running.

'Thonning? Here, this may help.

In the US it’s called doing a “Big Day”, here we call it Twitchathon or just ‘Thon to the initiated. We race around in small teams for a day, trying to see and identify as many different species of birds as possible. The current Victorian record-holders are the Robin Rednecks (Matt Weeks, Mick Ramsay and Simon Starr) who tallied a blistering 225 species in 2011. For perspective, there are only 11 people on Earth who have seen 800 species in Australia in their entire life. So these three blokes went out and birded so hard that they saw more than a quarter of the all-time Australian list in 24 hours – without leaving Victoria and without setting foot on a boat. It’s impressive any way you slice it.

So it’s upon us again. Teams will be manning their spotting scopes from 4pm on Saturday the 7th of November and barely taking a break from the eyepiece to cram down a tepid roadhouse sausage roll until 4pm on the Sunday. In between, many will notch up over 1000 kilometres across the state, even with the compulsory 3 hour rest break. As I write this, the routes are being fine-tuned across the state. Nervous eyes are poring over weather forecasts and rainfall radars.  Caffeine-laced cheese scones are being baked.

Twitchathon regulations are yet to catch up with performance-enhancing scones.

As usual, this is a charity event as well. There is no prize money for winners but this year all teams are raising funds to support Birdlife Australia’s research in the Mallee IBA. The future of many species in this habitat hangs in the balance. One or two serious fires could spell imminent extinction for at least a couple of species and many of us barely realise how close they have already come.

All money is good... but the folding kind is best.

You can donate to The Manky Shearwater’s fund-raising effort at this link. Please consider tipping in a few dollars, but even if you can’t afford to contribute some cash you can help by sharing this link through your networks; telling your friends; writing a story for your local paper… just get the word out any way you can.

The Manky Shearwaters

Australian birding guide par excellence Steve Davidson AKA The Melbourne Birder, editor of Australian Birdlife, author, and previous Australian Big Year World Record holder Sean Dooley and journalist, author and 700+ Australian lister Andrew Stafford are joining with me to form The Manky Shearwaters.

Manky to the bone

Andrew is flying down from his home in Brisbane for the event and by his own admission Sean’s twitching activities these days are mostly limited to vicarious flights of fancy while putting together the magazine rather than tearing across the outback in a 4WD. But both these blokes have form. Sean and Steve are former winners (multiple winners actually) of the Vic ‘Thon back in the day and Andrew is one of the country's more experienced long-time birders. Steve is also a professional guide who spends the bulk of his time surveying bird populations across the state, so his credentials are unquestioned. Mine however are non-existent. I’ve been living in the Northern Territory for the last ten years. Perhaps my role in this can best be summarised as anchorman (or deadweight maybe?)

My old NT 'Thon team were The Gibberbirders... we never saw much.

Nonetheless we have the best of gen and a meticulously planned route, so with a bit of luck I’d say very tentatively, that we’re in with a chance.

Perhaps the biggest win is already locked in with Andrew set to cover the Victorian Twitchathon for The Saturday Paper. This is precisely the sort of front-and-centre media coverage that events like this are aiming to achieve. Keep your eye out for Andrew’s story in the coming week.

Thank you to everyone who has already contributed to our fund-raising, best of luck to all the teams, drive safely and if we see you on the paddock…. DON’T ASK! – we haven’t seen a thing all day.