Tagged: Birding

Birds find me in my happy place

On Saturday morning I boarded a fishing boat on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and, along with 15 or so others, chugged more than 40 nautical miles out to sea, where the Australian continental shelf drops off into deep water. But we weren’t out there for the fish: everyone was carrying binoculars and camera gear. We were looking for pelagic seabirds – shearwaters and petrels that spend most of their lives on the wing.

Conditions had been perfect all week, with south-easterly breezes to help push the birds closer inshore. “We’ll see a Cook’s Petrel today,” I predicted, feeling cocky. Not that I had good reason to be: only one Cook’s Petrel has ever been officially recorded in Queensland waters. It’s a small, graceful grey and white seabird with a black eye patch that breeds in New Zealand. The boat stopped and a trail of foul-smelling berley was throw into the water.

Twenty minutes later, to everyone’s delight, a Cook’s Petrel came bounding in over the waves, investigating our berley trail without pausing as camera shutters whirred with excitement. Within a minute, the bird was gone. It turned out to be one of the few highlights of an otherwise surprisingly quiet day, but I live for moments like this. For a few hours, as the waves rolled beneath us, I was in my happy place.

Along with music, birds have been the magnificent, consuming obsession of my life. It started when I was eight. Memories get hazy here, and possibly unreliable, but the first flash was a chance sighting of an Azure Kingfisher on the Ovens River, in north-eastern Victoria, a few metres from where my father actually was fishing. I revisited that place with him a couple of months ago, where he’d been dropping a line in since he himself was a boy.

The kingfisher was what hooked me. I stared at it, dumbstruck. It was a very small bird, brilliant blue and orange, and it was perched motionless on a dead branch protruding above the waterline from a red gum that had collapsed into the river. Abruptly it plunged headfirst into the water, emerging with a yabby, which it whacked against the branch before swallowing it whole. And then, in another flash, it was gone.

For me, watching birds – or birding, to use the more active verb – was and still is an escape and a refuge. Earlier this year, a University of Exeter study found that it was associated with lower levels of anxiety and depression, conditions with which I am unfortunately all too familiar. Research fellow Dr Daniel Cox said that having birds around the home had a role in preventative health care, making cities healthier, happier places to live.

This is where Guardian Australia and Birdlife Australia’s Bird of the Year poll comes in. One of the best things about birding, as hobbies go, is that you can do it anywhere: it doesn’t matter what species you’re looking at, whether it’s something as unglamorous and largely unloved as a bin chicken (ibis) or as obviously charismatic as a lorikeet. A life of birds is never boring.

Take for example this brief video taken at my local cafe of an Australian magpie and pied butcherbird, two of our finest songbirds, in a glorious duet. It’s the sort of thing that can change the entire tenor (pun unintended) of my day. I haven’t actually voted in the poll yet, mainly because as a lifelong birder I find it hard to choose, but musical leanings make it hard to go past the butcherbird especially.

Behind the frivolity of the poll is a serious message: even our most familiar and beloved birds, like the Laughing Kookaburra, are in decline. Part of the #teambinchicken push is motivated by sympathy: this scraggy, smelly bird was a natural denizen of the swamps of our Murray–Darling system, generally only reaching the coast in drought years. As the swamps were drained and the land irrigated, the ibis came to visit our cities and eventually decided to stay.

So birds have much to tell us about the country and our changing environment. The early arrival of summer migrants are clues to climate change, as is the expansion southwards of tropical species. Sometimes, this added level of environmental awareness has been heartbreaking to watch: over the last 35 years, I’ve watched once abundant species like the Regent Honeyeater slide towards the cliff of extinction.

But mostly, a life of birds has meant adventure and opportunity. It’s taken me to every corner of Australia, chasing down everything I could from the Kimberley to Cape York. Searching for brilliantly coloured pittas in the rainforests of Borneo. And most memorably, two voyages south on Australia’s Antarctic flagship the RSV Aurora Australis, counting seabirds for what was then one of the longest-running wildlife surveys anywhere in the world.

And yes, I’m a twitcher. I once flew to Perth, then drove flat out to Whim Creek, a mining camp in the Pilbara, to see Australia’s second ever Red-legged Crake, a small waterbird, only to find it had been eaten by a cat. That’s birding – things don’t always materialise on cue like that Cook’s Petrel. But it’s not about the numbers. Whether it’s on my block or out to sea, I prefer to think that I don’t find the birds, they find me: in that happy place.

First published in The Guardian, 30 November 2017

Duck, duck, Brolga, duck

Almost every day in October for the past 33 years, Richard Kingsford has climbed into the passenger seat of a single-engine Cessna to count the waterbirds of eastern Australia. The aircraft buzzes the wetlands from 50 metres above the ground while Kingsford, the director of the Centre for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales, barks into a recorder the numbers and species of startled ducks and other waterfowl – herons, ibis, spoonbills, cormorants and magpie geese.

It’s one of the largest and longest-running fauna surveys in the world, with Kingsford racking up 100 hours of flying time over 2000 wetlands across Queensland, NSW, Victoria and South Australia. Each of the 10 transects are 30 kilometres wide. The northernmost, Band 10, runs from the Whitsunday Islands all the way to the Queensland–Northern Territory border. Band one extends from Seaspray, in Victoria’s far east, to Warrnambool.

The reason for covering such a huge area, Kingsford says, is because “nobody owns the ducks”. In a land of droughts and flooding rains, waterbirds fly enormous distances in rapid response to the prevailing conditions: the ducks of Victoria are as likely to turn up in the Lake Eyre Basin or north Queensland. In dry years, most of the birds are sucked southwards, into the perennial Victorian swamps that provide refuge as the lakes and lagoons of northern and central Australia evaporate.

Those Victorian wetlands are currently host to a bottleneck of hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, locked in by the strongest El Niño in nearly a decade. In the last drought of 2008 and 2009, the Labor government led by Steve Bracks called off the annual duck season. Today, however, the state’s 26,000 licensed hunters are being actively encouraged into those wetlands by Premier Daniel Andrews and the minister for agriculture, Jaala Pulford, for the opening of this year’s 12-week shoot.

It’s a contentious call, because Kingsford’s most recent survey data – distributed annually to the state governments of Victoria, South Australia, NSW and Queensland – recorded several historic lows. The Wetland Index, representing total available habitat, was the lowest on record, as was the total waterbird count. Game duck abundance was the second lowest on record, at just 30 per cent of the long-term average. There was little evidence of breeding.

And the long-term trend across 33 years is inexorably downwards. “We’re looking at 60 per cent-plus declines in total numbers,” Kingsford says.

While the decision has angered segments of the Victorian ALP, Greg Barber, the leader of the Victorian Greens, says the party is running scared of the hunting lobby. “A lot of shooters are blue-collar boys who typically would vote Labor, except they’re scared about the socialists coming to take their guns away,” he claims. “And so there’s been a long-term project in Victoria by the Labor Party to woo the shooters back into the fold.”

Pulford’s office did not respond to inquiries from The Saturday Paper. She has previously stated that hunting, while “not everyone’s cup of tea”, was an important recreational activity that contributed close to $440 million to local economies each year, supporting more than 3000 jobs. Barber scoffs at the figures, which he says assume the money wouldn’t be spent at all if it couldn’t be blown on a weekend killing native wildlife.

Labor’s decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt was based on advice from the Game Management Authority (GMA), established in 2014 by the former Liberal government led by Denis Napthine. Based on Kingsford’s report, the authority recommended that bag limits be reduced: hunters are allowed to take eight birds on opening day, down from 10, and four birds, down from five, on every day thereafter. One of the eight usual game species, the Shoveler, has been excluded due to its low numbers.

Barber has accused the GMA – which is chaired by former National Party leader Roger Hallam and includes on its nine-member board two former senior office holders with Field and Game Australia – of being a taxpayer-funded front for the hunting lobby. Minutes obtained by the Greens under freedom of information show that the authority’s CEO, Greg Hyams, wrote to Victoria Police after hunters complained about their treatment by officers. The minutes also recommended a review of all game reserves “to determine by exception why all legal game and best animals cannot be hunted”.

Barber says this shows the authority was promoting hunting, in conflict with its statutory role as a regulator. A spokesperson for the GMA rejects this, saying functions conferred to the authority include, but are not limited to, promoting sustainability and responsibility in hunting, and that all activities are conducted in accordance with its legislative powers.

The GMA also received submissions from Field and Game Australia, which has called for a five-year moratorium on further restrictions on hunting. General manager David McNabb said that this would “standardise the inputs” in order to get a clearer picture of the actual impact of duck hunting. “The critical issue is habitat and access to habitat,” he says, “which all people interested in conservation of wetlands and management of our native wildlife have an interest in.”

In other words, duck hunting has negligible impact on duck numbers. “Our ducks have this fantastic survival instinct, and when there’s good weather events that create nice new habitat, they’ll get up and move and they’ll use their wings to be able to do that.” McNabb says Kingsford’s survey is “a good dataset for what it is, but it’s not comprehensive”. Field and Game Australia has called for Kingsford’s survey to be extended to the Northern Territory, Western Australia, and uncovered areas of South Australia.

Public opinion is not on the hunting lobby’s side. Polls have consistently shown that the majority of Victorians want duck shooting banned. Trust is also low after a notorious incident at Box Flat, near the township of Boort, on the opening of duck season in 2013. On that occasion more than 1000 birds, many of which were not ducks at all, were killed in a free-for-all involving up to 150 hunters. No one was charged; a heavily redacted government report indicated all present had closed ranks.

BirdLife Australia, which has condemned the decision to go ahead with this year’s hunt, has expressed concern that the state’s small population of Brolga could be caught in the crossfire of opening weekend. Pulford responded: “I don’t think there’s any risk of any hunter mistaking a Brolga with a duck.” No one accused those present at Box Flat of mistaking the local ibis, swans, grebes, avocets and egrets for ducks, either.

The GMA said duck shooting was a legitimate recreational activity with a long history in Victoria, and it brought benefits to regional towns and communities. It said it worked collaboratively with Victoria Police and undertook intelligence-driven compliance operations to apprehend illegal shooters. “We seek to promote sustainable and safe practices,” a spokesperson said, “and help ensure that the laws of the state are being respected by all.”

The Game Management Authority estimates the total harvest from the 2015 season, based on hunter diaries, was 203,934 ducks – 53 per cent of the long-term average of 382,447. An estimated 80,610 were shot on opening weekend. But those figures do not include illegally killed non-game species, the injured, or birds that could not be recovered. Richard Kingsford said the majority of ducks killed are juveniles, victims of their own inexperience.

“You’ve got a lot of adult birds just trying to hang on, and not a lot of fat,” he says. “We’ve got declining populations anyway, so it would be prudent to try to hold off in these dry times. It worries me, because part of this is about the long-term sustainability of duck hunting. They’re shooting themselves in the foot, if you like, by getting stuck into the capital.”

First published in The Saturday Paper, 19 March 2016

Twitch and shout

For a bird-watching exercise, you don’t see a lot of birds on the Twitchathon. If you’ve never heard of this obscure sporting event, it’s a race: teams of birders pile into their cars and tear around the state, attempting to see or hear as many species as possible within an eight or 24-hour period. Because time is of the essence, once a bird’s call is recognised, actually spotting it becomes redundant. It’s on the list: go!

For this year’s Victorian event on 7-8 November, coordinated by Birdlife Australia as a fundraiser for endangered species, I was in one of the handful of 24-hour teams: the Manky Shearwaters. (It’s a pun on a type of seabird, the Manx Shearwater.) Others were in the more civilised eight-hour race: the Lame Ducks; the Filthy Flockers, the Soft Cockatiels. I’m not sure what lends birders towards this kind of self-deprecation.

There’s a hint of madness about the 24-hour version, though, which has necessitated some safety modifications over the years. Once, teams finished at the offices of what used to be Birds Australia, in the Melbourne suburb of Camberwell. With teams driving around the clock and totals docked by one bird for every five minutes after the appointed time, it was a speed and fatigue-fuelled lawsuit waiting to happen.

Now, with the re-badged and relocated organisation’s offices in the city, teams simply phone in their totals at the Twitchathon’s end from wherever they finish. It all works on an honour system: three members out of a team of four must agree on each species that has been seen or heard. So, too, does the mandatory three hours’ rest and a commitment to rotate drivers.

More than ever, even in the age of digital photography, which can be so easily manipulated, a birder’s reputation is everything. The punishment for those who break the code – such as the observer who confessed to hoaxing a house crow to falsely claim the Victorian “Big Year” record in 2014 – is disqualification, social exclusion, and a lifetime supply of derision.

The trick to the Twitchathon is twofold. The first is covering as many different habitats as possible, for each ecosystem supports its own distinctive array of avifauna (hence the long hours spent behind the wheel). The second is not trying too hard to find rare birds; rather, it’s about not dipping on the common ones. It’s surprisingly easy to miss, say, a rainbow lorikeet when you’re the one on the fly.

Team member Sean Dooley – editor of Birdlife Australia’s quarterly magazine and for over a decade the record-holder for the most number of birds seen within Australia in a calendar year (703, if you must know) – says part of the allure of the ’Thon is the thrill of seeing a plan come together. “I just want that perfect day of birding, where everything falls into place and you don’t miss out on a thing.”

Which, naturally, never happens. But there’s a lot of what’s known in the game as “sussing” in the weeks and months beforehand – checking out locations, finding hot-spots, avoiding dead zones, and crunching numbers: charting distances and times to destinations, working out how many hours (or minutes) to spend in each of them, and calculating how many species can be relied upon to reveal themselves.

The Manky Shearwaters’ quest begins at the Nobbies, which juts into Western Port Bay from the far end of Phillip Island. We’ve got a telescope locked onto a Peregrine Falcon, on its eyrie above Seal Rocks. Behind us, a penguin’s backside sticks half-way out of its wooden box burrow. Cormorants and a lone oystercatcher are visible on the rocks below; around us gulls and terns mill and scream.

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L/R: Chris Watson, Sean Dooley, Steve Davidson

They’re all on the list within seconds of the 4pm start, then we’ve got just a few minutes to scan the ocean. I spot a surprise: the hulking shape of a Giant-Petrel close inshore. Sadly, though, not close enough: where the bill tip of a Southern Giant-Petrel is pale green, a Northern Giant-Petrel’s is reddish. And none of us can confirm which it is before it veers away. Bird identification often rests on such details.

Within an hour, our total is up to 71. But we’re already missing species, too. Observation Point fails to produce either Whimbrel or Eastern Curlew, large shorebirds that can usually be relied upon here. Fisher’s Wetland, which held a pair of Black-tailed Native-hens half an hour before the count, is closed. We won’t see them again. A sick Sulphur-crested Cockatoo sits forlornly on a lump of seaweed in the salt water.

From there it’s off to Bunyip State Park, near Gembrook in the foothills of the Great Dividing Range. It feels more like rally driving: at one point we nearly collect a four-wheel drive head-on. We pull up on blind corners with nary a thought for what’s around the bend. It’s wet forest country, and nearly everything we add is heard rather than seen; calls we have to parse from the expert mimicry of the local lyrebirds.

After listening for night birds (unnerving nearby campers with bad imitations of the falling bomb-like whistle of Sooty Owls), we drive to Terrick Terrick National Park, in the state’s far north, taking our designated rest period between 2.45 and 5.45am. Once, the native grasslands here were the Victorian stronghold for the endangered Plains-wanderer; now they’re down to just a handful of pairs.

DSC01018By the next morning, this sense of loss is becoming a theme. Birds are scarce. As we scour the box-ironbark woodlands of Heathcote, struggling to locate previously common species like Speckled Warblers and Scarlet Robins, Dooley reflects on the silence: “Whenever I come into these forests in particular, no matter what I see, I’m just struck with this overwhelming sense of tragedy that haunts the forest.

“I palpably, viscerally feel the loss of the birds that used to be here. It becomes this really bittersweet exercise. You could go through your notebooks, and you probably wouldn’t notice that much of a difference in terms of what species you’ve logged over the years. You’d probably still manage to find them, but what’s not reflected is the lower numbers, and the extra time and effort it takes to do so.”

We finish at the sewerage treatment works at Werribee. It’s a Mecca for waterfowl and waders but, again, numbers are down. We have to search for a Curlew Sandpiper, a handsome Siberian migrant which once occurred in flocks of thousands here over summer. The population using the east Asian-Australasian flyway is now critically endangered due to habitat loss in the Yellow Sea.

A Freckled Duck (on the wondrously named Lake Borrie) is our 200th species as we approach the finish line; we’ll only add one more. There’s a few tame high-fives on the stroke of four but, mostly, the feeling is anti-climactic, like a drawn AFL grand final: players slumped to the turf, not knowing if they’ve won or lost. The results won’t be announced for another two days. We’ve covered just shy of 1000 kilometres.

As it turns out, we could have knocked off at midnight: our total of 201 beats our less experienced 24-hour campaigners by more than 80, but well short of the record of 225, the sort of total only attainable with a lot of luck in an exceptional year. Still, we’ve raised a fair amount of cash towards the protection of mallee birds, some of which are only a single bad bushfire away from permanent obliteration.

Later, once our bodies have sufficiently uncrinkled themselves from the vehicle, talk will turn to 2016 – the extra time we’ll spend sussing out sites; the mistakes we won’t make; what parts of our route we’ll change to save time or potentially add new species to the list. All in search of that perfect birding day which, like a rainbow, seems to recede further and further away every year.

First published in The Saturday Paper, December 19 2015