I recorded a new species for my backyard bird list. It wasn’t an exceptional species; it was a crimson rosella. But what made this record exceptional was that it occurred during one of my 20-minute Aussie Backyard Bird Count survey periods. That crimson rosella record is now part of a data set comprising almost 1.5 million individual bird sightings made across the country during a single week. Together, these data represent a treasure trove of information from which much will be learnt about the health of Australia’s bird communities and the changes that are happening.
Of course, not every bird I recorded in my backyard was new. There were the spotted doves that frequently sit on my garden shed roof of a late afternoon, and a pair of common blackbirds that I’ve come to know personally. I watch them from my kitchen window while I do the washing-up (a welcome distraction to make that chore a little easier to complete). The female is much bolder than the male and will forage on the open lawn close to the house. The male skulks along the garden edges near the back of the garden, is ever vigilant to threats, and flies off at the slightest disturbance. I was glad that these individuals also made it into the grand data set, to be part of something special.
I was away from home for the second half of Aussie Backyard Bird Count week. A work trip meant that I was in a small town in north-east Victoria, about a 45-minute drive from where I grew up, so I took the opportunity to do a few surveys where I was staying. The soundscape in my adopted backyard was ever so familiar and took me straight back to my youth. It was like listening to your favourite song - the one you’ve listened to on repeat until you just about ruined it for yourself. There was the rhythm section that filled my childhood summers: rufous whistler and yellow-faced honeyeater. There was the guitar solo provided by sacred kingfisher and fan-tailed cuckoo, and the vocals of grey shrike-thrush. But this track must have been a live version because there were some subtle differences too. Although only a short distance down the road, the bushland in the area I was staying was wetter than my hometown and, accordingly, the bird community was not quite the same either. White-naped honeyeaters and golden whistlers were much more common here than where I grew up, showing just how particular the needs of a species can be.
It was one of the species not found in the dry woodlands surrounding my hometown that tested my scientific credibility most during the survey. This species was the eastern whipbird. Just moments after I had completed a 20-minute survey, the call of an eastern whipbird rang out; these birds have one of the most distinctive and beautiful calls of all our species. Instantly, there was a part of me that said, ‘Add it to the tally. They’re such a cool bird and it was only just after the timer sounded.’ Despite the temptation, I held firm and left it off my data sheet. I am glad I did because it is this standardised survey time that enables the people using the data to compare the number of birds reported between different regions or even different survey years. The number of birds recorded this year is almost 50% higher than the number recorded during the 2015 Aussie Backyard Bird Count, but the number of surveys lodged has also increased by over 40%. Without knowing that each survey was of the same duration, it would be impossible to know whether changes were due to increases in bird populations or whether it was simply because people were searching longer and therefore finding more birds.
The timing of the surveys is also important for allowing comparisons between years. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count is held in the second half of October each year. This helps to minimise differences that might occur due to migrant birds not being in the same place. If the bird counts were held in summer one year and winter the next, Melbourne birders might record black-faced monarchs and red knots in the former, but these species would likely be absent during the latter. It would be impossible to infer changes in population numbers if this was the case.
I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Whether I was observing individuals that I have become accustomed to seeing on a daily basis, or reacquainting myself with the bird species that I grew up with, the Aussie Backyard Bird Count gave me an excuse to get out and enjoy my surroundings. I always enjoy taking time to look and listen to the birds around me, but there is something deeply satisfying about knowing that what you see and hear will go some way to ensuring that those sights and sounds are conserved long into the future. I hope you enjoyed taking part as much as I did, and if you didn’t take part, I recommend you keep a lookout for when the Aussie Backyard Bird Count takes place again in the second half of October 2017
Rowan is a PhD student studying seabird ecology. When he's not thinking about the ocean, he likes to think about woodland birds.
Check him out on Twitter at @roamingmoth