Saturday, February 02, 2008

Bird-watching history made in Australia

For the last decade or so I have been a pretty keen recreational bird watcher. I have a pretty good list of pelagic species but a mediocre list of non-pelagic, terrestrial species which, in fact, make up most of the bird species of Australia.

Most people see it as a nerdy activity but I think it is interesting from the viewpoint of learning about the physical environment and it is a lot of fun. I am a member of Birds Australia and the Bird Observers Club of Australia. BOCA, in particular, is an excellent pathway to learning about birds and their identification. They run outings, hold talks and are a very pleasant bunch of people.

In the main the objective of bird watching is to use your powers of observation, knowledge of habitats, bird habits and bird calls to spot as diverse a range of birds as possible. It is very much an activity involving patient, careful observation so that good eyesight and attention to detail is important. Almost all bird watchers keep a ‘life list’ of the species they have ever seen in a particular area or perhaps in the whole country or even the world.

There is a hierarchy among bird watchers concerning the length of this list – obviously the more the better.

Up to 20 years ago the greatest achievement a bird-watcher could aim for in Australia was to see 700 different bird species in their lifetime – a list of all who have done so is here. Until recently only a handful had achieved this target and then it was always after a lifetime of effort.
But the technology of bird observation has improved – the use of ocean-going vessels to track pelagic and remote island species is now common, the bird-watching definition of ‘Australia’ has become enlarged to include offshore islands (such as Ashmore Reef) that are legally part of Australia and the knowledge of Australian bird species and their taxonomy ( see Les Christidis & Walter Boles of, Systematics and Taxonomy of Australian Birds) has increased species numbers.

Information about species whereabouts has improved with several guide books now in print for Australia as a whole and numerous books available for particular areas. In addition, sighting of a rare vagrant species is now quickly spread on the web and via networks of contacts so that hundreds of bird watchers will turn up to see an unusual arrival*.

Some really dedicated bird-watchers or ‘twitchers’ have now pushed well beyond the 700 figure. Indeed, Victoria’s Mike Carter has now seen 801 or 802 ‘main’ and ‘supplementary list’ Australian bird species out of about 852 ‘main’ list bird species that are currently extant**and 34 supplementary list bird species in the new Christidis & Boles taxonomy***. It is a stunning achievement in the bird-watching community. He still has 59 or 60 possible ’main list’ birds to spot.

Congratulations Mike!

Mike seems to be one of the most knowledgeable people generally about Australian birds. I say ‘seems to be’ because he is well out of my league and I am not really in a position to make such judgements – he is a recognised authority on identification issues. He is a bird-watching fanatic but a very knowledgeable one.

Mike is clearly the winner of this ‘numbers’ event though the winner of the ‘speed’ event is undoubtedly Melbourne comic (and nice guy) who a few years ago saw over 700 species not over a lifetime but in a single year. He wrote an entertaining book – The Big Twitch - on this achievement which is fun even for non-birdos.

Myself? I’d half enjoy trying to mimic these guys but have other competing demands on my time and, quite frankly, probably don’t have the requisite skills. I still bird-watch in the local area and take binoculars everywhere I travel – I am going for a one week trip to Thailand tomorrow and they will accompany me for sure - but I certainly don’t seek to break records.

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