Chris Watson

birdwatching

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 Outdated ideas can be tenacious.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.

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.

Britain's Birds: An identification guide to the birds of Britain and Ireland

Review, BirdingChris Watson

by Rob Hume, Robert Still, Andy Swash, Hugh Harrop and David Tipling

Princeton University Press, August 2016

Paperback AU$78.00

This new field guide arrived, fortuitously, only a few hours before I departed for a four week stint in the British Isles. As such, it has received a more thorough road-test than some field guides I’ve reviewed. I was also able to meet the authors at the British Birdfair and speak to a number of British birdwatchers there to gauge the early reception Britain’s Birds has received from locals. The overwhelming impression from my snap-poll? A resounding 'thumbs up'.

In total, Britain’s Birds was knocking about in my glovebox or backpack for a shade over 2200 kilometres of a trip that took in parts of England around Oxford and Rutland Water; southern Scotland around Glasgow; and islands of the Inner Hebrides including Mull, Islay and Arran in the Firth of Clyde. These are all areas that I have birded intermittently over the last 15 years, apart from Mull and Islay, to which this was my first visit. After a brutal dip on a vagrant Long-tailed Duck at Rutland Water, my only lifer from four weeks of birding was Red-billed Chough on Islay. But despite all other species being familiar to me already, Britain’s Birds taught me much more about them all and I referred to it constantly.

That first glimpse of a lifer; is there anything like it?! My picture here isn't a patch on the images you'll find in Britain's Birds but we were rapt to eventually have great views of close to 40 birds. Islay is one of very few places in Scotland this rare species still occurs. Britain's Birds informs us there are fewer than 3500 birds across Britain and Ireland with as few as 300 individuals remaining in Scotland.

Completeness is the inescapable first impression Britain’s Birds makes. It includes accounts for just shy of 650 species. With the usual list of resident birds and annual migrants to Britain barely topping 200 species, the fact that the official British list has grown to such a size is testament partly to its geographic location being favourable to avian vagrancy, but mainly to the fervour, size and skill of its birdwatching community. (For comparison, the vaunted Collins guide to all the birds of Europe treats 713 species, has 100 fewer pages and is about two thirds the weight.) As the inevitable result of being so comprehensive, Britain’s Birds is heftier than any other British field guide I’ve used, coming in at 1190g, just a fraction lighter than my ‘go to’ guide to Australia’s 700+ birds, Pizzey & Knight.

The species account for (Red-billed) Chough. The text is concise but more than sufficient. This is one of the more straightforward species to identify.

But if size is the only criticism I can make of Britain’s Birds, it is also a piddling one. It still fits comfortably in the glovebox or day pack, if not quite a jacket pocket. I happily carried mine in the Scopac across many miles of forests, moors and peaks during my visit. It’s printed on robust stock with a low-gloss finish and the solid cover is made of a splash-proof plasticised card which was sufficient to withstand the drizzliest days the Hebridean weather could throw at us.

My antipathy toward photographic field guides has been gradually dissolving since the release of Birds of Australia by Campbell, Woods & Leseberg; Britain’s Birds has banished my reservations about the form entirely. The images are uniformly brightly-lit, well-chosen, frequently breathtaking and carefully arranged without crowding the pages.

The authors have adopted an approach that will be familiar to users of the Crossley ID guides, with a few innovations of their own. Birds are set against a typical background with a number of other birds of the same species super-imposed around them for comparison. The collection of photographs they have collected in Britain’s Birds is staggering. Unlike Australian photographic guides which remain frustratingly bereft of images of Buff-breasted Button-quail (and Night Parrot although photos, happily, are now available for this species), every species is depicted. Not only that, but each species is shown in almost every plumage variation, in comparable light, in near identical poses, in flight and at rest. For a country in which a newb can easily become befuddled by the profusion of gulls (not to mention hybrid ducks!), the inclusion of additional comparison pages for difficult groups is particularly handy. Where vagrants are pictured, the authors have even gone to the trouble of sourcing photographs of an actual individual from its occurrence in British territory. Sub-species are also detailed in most cases; the best example of this may be the species account for Wren Troglodytes troglodytes, which has a dedicated page picturing all six races which occur.

For potentially problematic species you get the Full Monty: a double page spread here for the bogey bird of my trip, Long-tailed Duck. Flight shots, head shots, different moults, behavioural notes, other species it is likely to associate with... all in beautifully comparable, well-lit, photos.

Another highlight is the size and detail of the maps. This is a common stumbling block for many guides so I was stoked to see these produced at a size that allows for fine-grain geographic detail. Each map also has a caption giving movement information, a summary of habitat use and an estimate of British population size.

Also a welcome addition for many will be the ‘educational’ pages at the start of some sections for bird groups that might be difficult for newer birders or birders new to the region. These include helpful pages on the field identification of swans and geese, ducks, waders, gulls, skuas, auks and many others. These pages summarise the field marks to look for in separating the species and give useful behavioural details, moult cycles, confusion species, etc. Certain species accounts also carry a “Rare Beware” inset beside the title. This is a great innovation which immediately alerts you to the possibility of rare birds that might be confused with the species you’re looking at and lists the page numbers to check for those confusion species.

The order is roughly taxonomic with a twist; species are grouped into general categories like water birds, wetland birds, birds of prey, night birds, game birds, etc. To be honest, I’d be happier with a more strictly taxonomic order but the order presented doesn’t affect the usability of the guide in the slightest.

For me, Britain’s Birds has finally eliminated any reticence toward photographic field guides. Photographic and production technology has clearly reached a point at which a guide like this can be the equal of any hand-illustrated version. With the gobsmacking growth in popularity of wildlife photography in recent years who knows? Perhaps one day photo field guides could even become the preferred format.

Britain’s Birds will now be my first pick of field guides to pack when visiting the UK. It’s on the heavier side, but not impractically so. For the extra size you get a field guide which is beautiful, comprehensive, highly usable, as up-to-date as a book in print is able to be and will be a valuable reference on the species it describes, wherever they happen to be found.

CBW

 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

Journey to the center of the (birding) world

BirdingChris Watson

“This is an annual event held over three days and represents the biggest bird jamboree in the world. It takes place at the nature reserve of Rutland Water, but seeing birds is not a high priority.” – Birders: Tales of a Tribe by Mark Cocker (p.27)

You never know who you'll bump into! Moppers with the great champion of British natural history, Bill Oddie.

For most of the year, Egleton, in the East Midlands of England, is a sleepy village with a population that is yet to creep over a hundred. But if census data was ever taken in mid-August that population figure would change. Drastically.

Egleton lies on the western shore of the Rutland Water Reservoir; a large man-made body of water that supplies much of the water to surrounding areas. And each year in August, The Rutland Water Nature Reserve hosts the British Birdwatching Fair, often known simply as Birdfair. As Mark Cocker’s description makes clear this is the single largest gathering of birders, twitchers, birdwatchers, frog freaks, bug-trappers, wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists of all ilks on Earth. Over three days it regularly attracts between 20,000-30,000 attendees with as much as two thirds of those attending in a single day. To say it’s an extraordinary event sells the experience massively short. It’s variously touted as the wildlife event of the year and the Glastonbury of Birdwatching; neither of which is an exaggeration.  

Need a ludicrous bird box for the back yard? You'll find it at Birdfair.

In the humid late summer weather there are dozens of marquees set up by folks from all industries related to wildlife and conservation from over 100 countries around the globe. Australia’s Northern Territory stands side-by-side with Ugandan operators peddling trips to track the Mountain Gorillas in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest Reserve. The Falkland Islands stand boasts pictures of steamer ducks and penguins while tour operators from the Orkneys tout trips to see their northern counterparts (and they always have a dram of the local produce under the table for friendly faces). There are prominent authors conducting book signings (dear god the BOOKS!) and interviews throughout the day and as you meander through the marquees you stand a good chance of rubbing shoulders with natural history luminaries like Sir David Attenborough, Bill Oddie, Chris Packham, Mick Jerram and Mark Carter. They’re all regular attendees.

...no, seriously these are all fully-functional bird nesting boxes.

Then there are the numerous opportunities to learn. The entire weekend has lectures running concurrently across three marquees from leaders and experts from every part of the world. You can spend your entire day going from lecture to lecture and the diversity of subject matter is too dazzlingly to cover here. When you tire of the throng, the reserve has numerous feeder gardens, world-class hides and mile after mile of trails and ponds to search with Common Kingfisher, nesting Western Osprey and a variety of other interesting birds often around. (I’m told they have a Long-tailed Duck there at the moment and I’m hoping the bastard stays put until I can get there.)

Ludicrous. 

Then there are the gear stands. We all know birders like gear and Birdfair is probably the only opportunity on Earth to compare all the gear in a single location, side-by-side. Canon, Zeiss, Swarovski, Bushnell, Leica, Nikon… you name it. Pretty much every brand of optics from the budget to the budget-blowing has its entire product range on display, on tripods, on the shores of the nature reserve for you to get your grubby mitts on. It’s easy for most birders to disappear for half a day in the optics marquees alone.

And there’s always the beer tent if it all becomes too much.

On top of all this, the British Birdwatching Fair is a major fundraiser for conservation causes around the world. Last year it raised, through auctions and direct donations, £320,000 in a single weekend. Since 1989 it has raised a total of £3,996,152, so it’s is safe to say that it will have contributed well clear of £4 million to conservation programs around the world by the time Birdfair 2016 wraps up this Sunday.

Just a Leopard wandering past the wildlife crime stand. The UK has a dedicated police unit for the prevention and prosecution of wildlife crime. We have a long way to go in Australia.

The first time I visited I found it an almost overwhelming onslaught of information and new friendships to be made. More than any other event I've attended it gave me a profound sense that birders everywhere are part of a massive global community. We might sometimes feel remote from this community as we go about our birding activities on our own patch, but at least once a year it is good to be reminded that you're a member of this extraordinary tribe. This year will be my fourth visit to Birdfair, my first non-“work” trip, and I’m as excited as ever. A friend living in Oxford has kindly planned her wedding for the weekend following Birdfair providing the perfect excuse to combine the two.

If you want to talk turkey with the Outback experts you have to drop in on the NT stand. There's free stuff and prizes!

So, friends I’ve met at Birdfair in years past, I hope to catch up with you again. And for those of you who haven’t yet been, it’s high time you made plans to get over for this unique event and mingle with your tribe.

See you there!

 

Support The Grip

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.