Bird watching

A count that counts

If you’re reading this article, chances are that you’re an environmentally aware person and have a sense of custodianship over your local environment. Perhaps you regularly volunteer for your local conservation group. Perhaps you want to do more to help the environment but don’t know where to start. Perhaps you want to help the environment but making a start is too much effort given your current work and family commitments. Well, BirdLife Australia’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count is the perfect solution to your volunteer fatigue/uncertainty/lethargy. You could be making a positive contribution to conserving our birdlife without leaving your property. What’s more, collecting the data involves only a bit of fun bird watching. What could be easier?

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  Superb fairy-wrens are a common sight in many Melbourne gardens. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will help ensure they stay that way.  Image: Rowan Mott

Superb fairy-wrens are a common sight in many Melbourne gardens. The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will help ensure they stay that way. Image: Rowan Mott

There are many positive reasons why you should participate. This is a nation-wide initiative and 2016 will mark the third time this annual event has been run. Large scale programs such as the Aussie Backyard Bird Count are rare when it comes to the collection of biological data. Studies extending across geographical regions and annual timeframes have a much greater capacity to detect environmental changes that would be missed by studies that are site-specific `or focus on a single point in time. You may have read our recent article outlining the valuable insights gained from long term monitoring in the Grampians. Imagine the insights that could be gained if long term data were available at the national scale rather than at a single site. This is what the Aussie Backyard Bird Count promises.

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  Common blackbirds are an introduced species, but information on where they occur is still valuable for determining the health of Australia’s bird assemblage.  Image: Rowan Mott

Common blackbirds are an introduced species, but information on where they occur is still valuable for determining the health of Australia’s bird assemblage. Image: Rowan Mott

A similar program, Garden BirdWatch run by the British Trust for Ornithology, has been instrumental in monitoring the changing fortunes of the humble house sparrow. The UK population of house sparrows has fallen by approximately half in the last four decades. Considering there is estimated to be around 13 million house sparrows in the UK, that’s a lot of birds to have disappeared. However, there is no guarantee that any single study would have been able to detect this decline because the disappearance of sparrows at a single location or a single point in time may have been the result of small scale movements or a local population decline. It is only when the population as a whole is considered that the trend becomes worrying. There is good news for house sparrows, though. Recent data shows that the population appears to have stabilised in recent years thanks to milder winters and a growing number of people providing the resources sparrows need to survive in their backyards. Could you imagine if our very own superb fairy-wren, a bird as familiar to us as the house sparrow is to UK residents, underwent a similar catastrophic decline and we failed to notice? The Aussie Backyard Bird Count will ensure that we are better placed to detect such a change as well as less obvious ones.

If your backyard is full of introduced species, such as common blackbirds, spotted doves and common mynas, and you think that any information you might be able to provide is worthless, think again. Many invasive species may outcompete their native counterparts, and, consequently, monitoring the presence and abundance of introduced species is also valuable for conservation.

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	mso-fareast-language:ZH-CN;}   Rainbow lorikeets were the most commonly reported bird in last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Will they be again this year?  Image: Rowan Mott

Rainbow lorikeets were the most commonly reported bird in last year’s Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Will they be again this year? Image: Rowan Mott

Think your birding skills aren’t up to the task? Well, what better place to learn than in your own backyard where you’ll be able to hone your skills on a small subset of species. Moreover, these species will likely visit with some regularity, giving you plenty of opportunity to reinforce the important identification features.

If all that wasn’t enough to motivate you to participate, BirdLife Australia is also offering some fantastic prizes, including a top-of-the-range pair of binoculars. So there you have it, you have no excuses! Go to the Aussie Backyard Bird Count website and register as a counter. Then all you have to do is spend 20 minutes in your own backyard watching birds between 17th and 23rd October, record your observations, and sit back and feel the warm glow that comes from knowing you did a good thing for Australia’s birds.


Rowan Mott

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

The vagaries of vagrant-chasers explained

It’s a compulsive obsession. There’s no turning back once you begin. A bird that is missed could be a blocker for life. When word comes through that a vagrant has been spotted, twitchers all over the country consider how much annual leave they have up there sleeve, check their bank balance and scramble to clean their bins.

There is currently a submission being reviewed by BirdLife Australia's Rarities Committee to verify that this is a genuine Red-billed Tropicbird. If accepted, this will become only the second record of this species in Australia. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

There is currently a submission being reviewed by BirdLife Australia's Rarities Committee to verify that this is a genuine Red-billed Tropicbird. If accepted, this will become only the second record of this species in Australia. Photo: Rowan Mott. 

If that sounded mostly like gobbledygook, let me explain a little better. I am talking about ‘twitching’, the pastime practiced by bird watchers at the extreme end of the hobby. People who do twitching are called twitchers and twitch can also be used as a verb for doing the activity. But what exactly is it that twitchers do and why are they cleaning their bins because of it? Twitchers are bird watchers who specifically aim to see birds that are unusual because of where they have been seen or, in some cases, ones that are so rare that when they do turn up (even where they are supposed to be) it is a noteworthy sighting. In most cases, a twitcher will be travelling to see a bird from another country that has been blown off course during migration and ended up here. Sometimes freak weather isn’t responsible and the bird in question may instinctually follow the wrong flightpath, perhaps due to a genetic mutation. These birds are referred to as vagrants. To a twitcher, the reason for the bird being here matters little; it is seeing the bird that is important. To aid observation they use binoculars, just like any other bird watcher might. This is where the term bins comes from. To fully clarify the opening paragraph, a blocker is a bird that is unlikely to show up again anytime soon and hence blocks the people who missed out on seeing it from catching up to those who were lucky enough to see it.

The rarities are sometimes adorned in mute tones of greys and browns, but chasing rarities, such as this Phylloscopus warbler, always gets you out to interesting places even if you don't see the bird. Photo: Rowan Mott

The rarities are sometimes adorned in mute tones of greys and browns, but chasing rarities, such as this Phylloscopus warbler, always gets you out to interesting places even if you don't see the bird. Photo: Rowan Mott

As you can see, there is a rich terminology associated with the pastime of twitching. There are positive words such as tick (seeing a new species and hence being able to tick it off) and mega (a bird so unlikely to be seen that it is deemed a mega-rarity). There are also terms that a twitcher never wants to be associated with, like dipping (travelling to see a bird, but not being able to find it when you get there) and stringer (someone who claims to have seen something that they have not). No twitcher wants to get a reputation for being a stringer. At the end of the day, the twitching world operates on an honesty system. A reputation for honesty cannot be easily regained once lost. In today’s era of smart phones and digital cameras, most claims of a rare bird can easily be verified with photographic evidence. There is even a rarities committee that you can send reports of sightings to to get them officially accepted as an Australian record.

Throughout this article, I have said that vagrants arrive ‘here’. This could mean anywhere in Australia, hence the need to check the status of annual leave and bank balance. While I am writing there is a Laughing Gull at Venus Bay, west of Adelaide and a Eurasian Wigeon (a type of duck) somewhere near Port Headland in Western Australia. So how does a twitcher in Melbourne find out about these sightings? The twitching community is pretty close knit and there are a number of websites (see here) and social media groups, such as the Australian Twitchers Facebook group, for sharing information. There is also a certain amount of kudos that comes with being the first to spot and identify a rarity, so most people are only too happy to share the information about what they have seen. “Hang on,” you might be thinking, “‘community’ and ‘sharing information’ imply there is more than one person crazy enough to do this.” And you are correct. Twitching is a serious pastime full of friendly rivalry. There is even a leader board keeping tabs on who has seen the most species (see here). In comparison to the crowds of hundreds that turn up at the sighting of a mega in the U.K. or North America, crowds of Australian twitches pale into insignificance numbering up to around 15 people at any one time. So who are these twitchers? Well, I am one (when I can afford to and have the time which inevitably means I don’t get to chase everything I would like!), but you can find all types of people at a twitch, ranging from the occasional school child to grandparents. People younger than thirty are typically a minority, but everyone is very welcoming.

The bigger bird on the left was the most exciting ‘mega’ to show up in Victoria in a while. It is a Long-billed Dowitcher - a species that had never been seen in Australia prior to this one being found at Lake Tutchewop near Swan Hill. Photo: Rowan Mott

The bigger bird on the left was the most exciting ‘mega’ to show up in Victoria in a while. It is a Long-billed Dowitcher - a species that had never been seen in Australia prior to this one being found at Lake Tutchewop near Swan Hill. Photo: Rowan Mott

Twitching invariably involves travel. It is always a thrill when a trip plays out as hoped and you are able to return home having seen the bird. However, extensive travel is not great for a minimising your carbon footprint. I think the best way to turn a twitch into a positive for the environment is to tell as many locals as possible why you are there. The more people who appreciate how much tourism can be generated by people wanting to get out into the environment and see exciting wildlife the better. Ecotourism can be an important economic generator, particularly in rural and remote communities, with ensuing conservation benefits. If you go chasing the next mega, make sure you tell everyone who will listen why you are there. Wherever the next vagrant happens to turn up, perhaps I will see you there (and fingers crossed we both see the target bird, too).


Rowan Mott

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