Chris Watson

Birdlife Australia

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.

The Orange-bellied Parrot: extinction, taxes and conservation realpolitik

Opinion, Current Affairs, BirdingChris Watson

Orange-bellied Parrots at Werribee in 2015. Perhaps as much as 10% of the wild population in a single (crummy) photograph.

“Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” – US Vice President Joe Biden.

 

Heading down the Geelong road the other day it was impossible not to think of the Orange-bellied Parrots. I write the Orange-bellied Parrots, not in the sense of the species as a whole, but in the sense of those specific Orange-bellied Parrots there. This is virtually what it has come to. Driving past the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) at Werribee I could be fairly confident that we were passing within just a few kilometres of some of the only individuals of their species that had been seen on the mainland this year. Maybe two birds; three on a good day*. This from a remaining wild population of 50 birds; or maybe even half that. Estimates vary.

This will not be news to birdwatchers. The precarious dance with oblivion that Neophema chrysogaster has been stepping for the last few decades is well-documented and widely-known in birdwatching and scientific circles. For the last few years the Gang-of-Four at Werribee (two colour-banded pairs) have been the only regular sightings of the species during the annual surveys conducted across their potential wintering range and among very few mainland sightings overall. My information this year is that the gang has dwindled by at least one of its female members who was observed being taken by a goshawk during the summer season at Tasmania.

What occurred to me as we zipped down the Geelong Road was: how many of the tens of thousands of other folks using the same road that day, and every other day, knew about these birds and, if they did, who among them cared?

It might sound a bit wishy-washy but it’s an important question. We can talk and write about conservation and how special our animals are ad infinitum, but it doesn't mean a thing if we aren't getting the rubber on the road; we need to take effective action or it's all so much hot air. This was driven home to me recently by a superb article by Australian ecologist Dale Nimmo et al on The Conversation. That article presented the plain facts about the widespread changes and degradation assailing Australian ecosystems and native animal populations. Frogs, birds and mammals; forests, reefs and savannah are all struggling.

That article introduced me to the stellar quotation from Joe Biden which I’ve pinched for the top of this post, “…show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” The stark truth of that statement is inescapable. So what do we value? Considered in the context of Australian government spending, it illuminates a nation whose values are wildly out-of-touch with reality.

The Gang of Four at a distance in 2015 over the shoulder of Steve Davidson, a long-time leader of OBP winter surveys in Victoria.

The Orange-bellied Parrot is vanishing before our eyes on the doorstep of one of our largest cities. A large portion of our remaining small and medium-sized mammals are on a similar trajectory. There are swathes of Australia’s remote interior that remain poorly-sampled and numerous species that are virtually unknown. The Great Barrier Reef is knackered. Our forests are riddled with dieback. The last of our south-eastern tall, wet forests are still under threat from an antiquated and unprofitable logging industry. Dangerous and barren legacy mines dot The Outback, uninhabitable and toxic. The scars left behind by unsuccessful mineral exploration criss-cross even the remotest regions of the continent's interior. They are rehabilitated in the most perfunctory manner permitted by law and left to testify to our rampant disregard for the natural heritage to which we are all heirs. Most of our frogs aren’t having a good time. The oceans are increasingly full of plastic and empty of fish. The entire continent is awash with feral cats, foxes, camels, horses, donkeys, fish, goats, pigs, deer, rabbits, ants, toads... and then there are the weeds. Changed fire regimes often shadow the spread of weeds laying waste to further remnant habitat and wildlife refugia. We’ve already cleared a fair whack of the native vegetation anywhere that might be good for a farm and there are many out there who don’t seem to grasp the folly of proceeding to clear the rest. Both of Victoria’s faunal emblems (Leadbeater’s Possum and Helmeted Honeyeater) are classified as Critically Endangered. There’s only one classification worse than that. And on top of all this we’re entering an increasingly unstable and erratic climatic future characterised by changes in temperature and rainfall that are already proving too rapid for some species to successfully adapt to.

Faced with all of this, as Dale’s article concludes, it is difficult not to question exactly how urgently we need to spend $50 billion on submarines when expenditure of just a few hundred million dollars could mitigate or eliminate many of the problems listed above. Do we really need to cut $54 billion from public health spending in order to provide tax cuts (coincidentally totalling a very similar figure) to the wealthiest individuals and overseas business owners?

When did Australian democracy jump the shark?

Our leaders wring their hands and furrow their brows with earnest sincerity while explaining, apparently without an ounce of irony, that the savings must come from the smallest funding pools: human services, health, science, education, the environment. The burden of funding cuts must be shouldered by the most vulnerable and least represented in our society. Never mind that just a handful of our wealthiest individuals, chipping in just a fraction of their combined wealth, could fund everything we could ever need and not notice the slightest difference in their standard of living. This while the Australian Taxation Office seems to be legally incapable of ensuring that the businesses and individuals who accrue the most wealth from Australian resources pay proportional taxes on that wealth, while simultaneously falling over themselves to hound lower income earners and hold them to account for their pittance.

It’s not even the stuff of conspiracy theory to suggest that our government is now led by a corporate class which serves any interest but the national interest. This much is observable. At best, we now live in a thinly veiled oligarchy; the cynic in me might suggest outright kleptocracy.

This is only occasionally contested, half-heartedly, by those in Parliament House and nobody with the capacity to think for themselves would believe them. It isn’t happenstance that some individuals at the top of Australian politics rank among the wealthier in Australia, and have friends and associates among the wealthiest. Neither should it be a surprise that they might collude and go out of their way to preserve the status quo.

The same people who helplessly hold up their hands when exposed for exploiting loopholes that allow them to needlessly consolidate their already obscene economic advantage, are the same people who are uniquely placed to close those loopholes and render the system more equitable.

On top of saving billions on unnecessary submarines and corporate giveaways, we might not have to look too far to find funds that could return to government coffers if they simply decided to make it so.

Stop imprisoning innocent people. Tax the church. Legalise marijuana. Tax wealth.

These ideas are simply expressed here but I acknowledge they would not necessarily be simple to put into effect. These are concepts that have been spoken about and debated at length for decades and their time has well and truly come. Are they really that revolutionary? Is it objectionable to demand a government that takes clear action toward building an equitable society that looks after the weak rather than endlessly reinforcing privilege among a tiny few? Is it pie-in-the-sky to expect our leaders to engage honestly and intelligently with experts and harness their learning to develop the best practices to benefit society? Is that unreasonable? Is anyone really so dull that they’re content to entertain the prospect of living in a barren post-mining landscape, drained of its mineral wealth, ravaged by climate change and depauperate of its unique fauna?

Anyone with rudimentary arithmetic skills (or the faintest shred of human decency) can tell you that our current refugee and immigration system is a millstone around the nation’s neck that serves entirely political, rather than practical or humanitarian, ends. Aside from being completely ineffective, it is costly; and cruel. Why are we so intent on displaying this barbarous side of our nature to the world? If we simply stop imprisoning and brutalising the most vulnerable people on Earth, we’ll save a truckload of cash and we can all feel better; win/win.

Next, tax the church. I’m not religious myself but I don’t mind if other people are. We shouldn’t care what people believe – we should care about what they do. Religious institutions rank among some of the wealthiest businesses on the planet, they offer a “service” which is faulty at best and plainly fraudulent at worst and religious observance has been dropping steadily for decades. Their continuing tax-exempt status is a farce which demeans and burdens us all. The first counterclaim to this proposition is usually to point out the variety of charitable and social services that various religious organisations provide which would otherwise need to be picked up by the government. But this is easily dismissed by a simple calculation of the amount of extra tax revenue we’d have to lavish on those services if religious tax exemption were revoked. The religious are always happy to point out the moral and charitable aspects of the organisations they support while sweeping their large catalogue of misdeeds under the carpet. If they’re genuinely keen on helping their fellow humans, they should be stepping forward to welcome taxable status with open arms and ululations of divine joy. They should be happy to do their bit and we should afford them the opportunity to do so.

To these measures you could add: rational defence spending based on realistic strategic assessments rather than hyper-politicised scare campaigns; a rebuilt corporate tax system to stop large businesses heading offshore with billions of dollars owed to Australian tax-payers; social welfare payments that equal a living wage; an end to the negative gearing nonsense; an increased minimum wage and a rebuilt personal income tax system which taxes wealth rather than income.

Implementing even a couple of those measures would have the nation so flush with cash that finding the paltry $10 million per year estimated to be sufficient to prevent the extinction of ALL Australian bird species, would be a matter for petty cash.

Our leaders have all benefitted from our (previously) free education system. They have grown up among the riches of our (seriously imperilled) natural heritage. Many of them have parents who were (welcomed as) refugees and some of them are immigrants themselves. They should be ensuring the same freedoms are available for generations to come, not dismantling each of them systematically.

I don’t even know what any of this has to do with parrots anymore. I guess I’ve had a creeping feeling for a long time that throughout the span of my life the government has been steadily extricating itself from responsibility for the environment. The Earth is just one giant ecosystem and one upon whose function we, and our economy, rely upon for our continued existence. Increasingly, conservation, and the broad base of scientific endeavour that underpins it, is left to not-for-profit NGOs: Birdlife Australia, Landcare, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Zoos Victoria, Bush Heritage Australia, Greening Australia and countless others. Our national parks have had their funding and staffing progressively slashed to the extent that some reserves are virtually un-managed and many others run on a skeleton crew of rangers who function more as groundskeepers and maintenance crews than natural resource managers or wildlife ecologists.

There’s an election coming and I just hope that the shark which Australian democracy jumped some time ago can be returned to the open sea without fear of culling and we can forget the entire ghastly episode.

Sometimes you jump the shark... sometimes the shark jumps you.

Make your vote count. I can’t, and shouldn’t, tell you who to vote for and neither should anybody else, but I implore you to look hard and make your vote do something surprising and good. Buck the beige status quo. Look for people with less to gain financially from remaining in power. Look for people who don’t offer simple answers to complex problems. Look for people who admit uncertainty. Look for people with character and a background that takes in adversity as well as privilege. Vote for someone who’ll fund science, the arts and maybe even support a Great Forest National Park (protecting at least one of our faunal emblems would be a good start wouldn’t it?) Vote for someone, ANYONE, with a background in science, rather than the endless stream of bankers and lawyers we seem so fond of hoisting to high office. Such people are likely to do a better job of governing than the conga-line of wealthy old men with the laughably obvious commercial interest in public office that we are repeatedly lumped with.

But back to parrots...

A fellow parrot-lover, and a much better thinker and writer than me, Douglas Adams, summed up the travesty of our overuse and destruction of the Earth’s resources when he addressed the University of California, Santa Barbara only a month before his death in 2001. The full talk is highly recommended and can be found here but, in part, Douglas said:

“… there is a kind of terrible irony that at the point that we are best able to understand, and appreciate, and value the richness of life around us, we are destroying it at a higher rate than it has ever been destroyed before. And we are losing species after species after species, day after day, just because we’re burning the stuff down for firewood. And this is a kind of terrible indictment of our understanding.”

Orange-bellied Parrots on their wintering grounds in coastal Melbourne**. It's a very distant picture but I'm just glad to know they're out there.

Extinction, like death, is a crucial and inescapable component of life on Earth. Things will continue to go extinct, and not all extinctions will be caused by human malfeasance. But, if a parrot is going to go extinct on our watch, it should be because an annual trans-Bass Strait migration is an unsustainable evolutionary strategy, not because… jobs.

 

*In the interests of accuracy: OBP sightings on the mainland are, very sensibly, not publicised. So there may have been some outlying reports that I’m unaware of. We can only hope. This is an illustrative anecdote.

**I'm grateful to Steve Davidson for showing me some Orange-bellied Parrots on a cold and dreary day, about a year ago this month. Hopefully the gang's recruitment starts to improve and gains in size in coming years.

Birds On Money: not a field guide but a talking point

Current AffairsChris Watson

On most days, it would take a bird a lot rarer than an Eastern Spinebill to create this sort of kerfuffle.

The "offending" note...

The Reserve Bank of Australia announced yesterday that the new series of Australian banknotes would each feature depictions of a native bird and flower. This will commence in September this year with the $5 note featuring the flowers of Prickly Moses – a wattle, Acacia verticillata – and the endemic Eastern Spinebill Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris, an endemic and fairly common species of honeyeater.

Everybody on social media was carrying on like a pork chop all day - #5dollarnote was even trending nationally on Twitter (and the thread is worth perusing for the avalanche of Photoshop piss-takes alone). The furore seemed mostly about the atrociousness of the design. It’s been likened to a technicolour yawn by grinning moustachioed Sydney dauber Ken Done and, to be fair, that’s not far wrong. It certainly shares a lot in common with his characteristically gaudy palette. Others have pointed out that it’s the worst likeness of Her Madge since John Napper’s 1953 abomination. I’d rather the old dear wasn’t on our money at all, but that’s just my opinion.

Then there’s the bird.

Not surprisingly, it was the bird that caught my eye. I was excited at the news that we’d finally be getting birds on our money; the lack is something I’ve lamented ever since a recent visit to New Zealand. Their notes are all graced by their spectacular endemic birds with their spectacularly endemic names; Whio, Kokako, Hoiho, Karearea, Mohua. You immediately know you’re visiting a place with special fauna and that the nationals are at least aware enough of that fauna to have it on the money.

Aotearoa - that's how you design banknotes

The spinebill on our new note caught me off guard at first. Having recently written about natural hybrids I thought we were being presented with a honeyeater that has been entirely too friendly with a Gouldian Finch. In the real world, Eastern Spinebills present in a dapper adult plumage of bright earthy tones delineated with crisp black and white markings. It’s a pretty bird and a good choice to adorn the money, but has this one caught a bit of Done’s splatter?

Eastern Spinebill - less colourful in real life but still an arresting bird

I’m certainly no designer so my opinion on such matters is next to worthless. As one pundit put it more succinctly – it’s just money, not a field guide. I think the folks who have been most up in arms are missing the positive story here: our flora and fauna (and birdlife in particular) in the limelight where they belong; where they become a topic of popular conversation and commentary. Getting cash from the ATM was one of the first things I did on that trip to New Zealand but it stands out in my memory because I was so delighted to go through the notes and discover all of the birds before I’d even left the terminal. So it will be with international visitors as they shuffle through Tulla or Mascot in years to come. Even before they encounter the multi-species wall of audio-visual sensory overload that is the lorikeets in most Australian airport carparks, they’ll have noticed our dollar birds shortly after being done up like a kipper at the bureau de change.

As all the armchair design experts on social media started going red in the face over the look of the note, I began fielding a sudden surge of Twitter messages and phone calls from radio presenters and journos who were keen to learn what was special about the Eastern Spinebill. Why had it been selected rather than the Western Spinebill? What’s the difference? What does it sound like? What does it eat? Where does it live? This is one of the more common birds of parks and gardens and the commercial media were as thirsty for information as if someone had just rediscovered the Dodo.

Birdos across the country were handed a rare teachable moment and there weren’t enough of us taking full advantage of it. When the subsequent notes come out, we should be ready.

So the spinebill is a bit off colour. Perhaps you could even say it’s a riotous desecration of the bird’s true appearance. We’ll be waiting a few years before we get to see how the other species will be treated but they’re likely to be interpreted in a consistent style.

When that happens, maybe it’ll be best if we focus discussion on how much money we’re committing to the protection of our birds rather than how accurately (or inaccurately) they appear on it.

 

PS: If people are interested enough to ask about the birds, they’re probably keen to learn more; point them in the right direction. BirdLife Australia is always looking for new members.

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.