Chris Watson

Mallee Emu-wren

To those about to bird hard - we salute you

birdingChris Watson


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.