bird

A New Standard: The Australian Bird Guide

In early May, birders across Australia will be checking and rechecking their letterboxes for their pre-ordered copies of the highly anticipated The Australian Bird Guide (ABG). I was to be amongst their number, but managed to snag a sneaky copy from CSIRO Publishing to review. Fantastic.

The daughter and granddaughter of birders, my childhood was full of bird lists, binoculars and field guides, and littered with magazines by the Gould League and the UK’s Young Ornithology Club. Family holidays were Enya, Deep Forest or TV themes in the tape deck, fights in the back seat and poring over field guides found in car seat pockets. Across the moors of Scotland and along the apparent monotony of the Stuart Highway, I found distraction from irritating brothers in first Britain’s Collins Gem Guide to Birds, and later the Slater and Simpson and Day Australian field guides. Though I never grew up to be a diehard “twitcher”, I have always kept field guides at hand and delighted in sighting new species and observing the behaviour of those familiar to me.

So it was with great excitement and reverence that I picked up Australia’s “most comprehensive single-volume review” of continental and visiting avifauna. Being a bit of an ocean girl, I quickly flipped the pages to find the birds of sea and shore. I had been told that this book would be a vital resource for tern identification, one of the most difficult groups to distinguish. I definitely struggle with these birds, and I was pleased with the precise, sparing notes and meticulous illustrations. It is my opinion that some guides have been overzealous in their annotations, adding so many that it becomes difficult to understand which are the important ones. In ABG, great care has been taken to include notes on only truly diagnostic features, and thus the plate notes for this book are one of its key advantages over previous guides.

Impressive illustrations and sparing annotations make it easier to learn diagnostic features before heading into the field.

Impressive illustrations and sparing annotations make it easier to learn diagnostic features before heading into the field.

Of course, the illustrations for this guide are exquisite. Jeff Davies, Peter Marsack and Kim Franklin, described by the guide's authors as “unmatched in their ability to depict Australian birds accurately”, were responsible for the painstaking production of the 4,700 plus images featured. The three have noticeably unique styles, but all images are perfectly executed to cover the full range of variability in our birds. The artwork is intended to be a key part of this new guide, the aim of which is “to help the novice birder identify an unfamiliar bird to species level, and the more committed birder to reach an identification of age, sex and subspecies where possible”. To understand and accurately depict the important (and often minute) diagnostic features, the artists worked with a database of more than 300,000 images, and specimen collections from across Australia. 

The introductory section is truly luxurious. If you’re like me, you probably don’t spend much time in the non-field guide sections of a field guide. I’m glad I did this time. ABG has an extended introductory section that doesn’t just explain how to use the guide, but also includes detailed and friendly notes on how to begin birding in Australia, judging sizes in the field, and extensive moult information for those who want to age birds or distinguish cryptic or uncommon species. I particularly enjoyed an essay on the fascinating and surprising evolution and taxonomy of the Australian avifauna, by Dr Leo Joseph of the Australian National Wildlife Collection (CSIRO). Here I learned that falcons are more closely related to parrots than to other birds of prey - incredible!

Lovely illustrated behaviour notes give the birder more to look for than just plumage.

Lovely illustrated behaviour notes give the birder more to look for than just plumage.

I value the important inclusion of guidelines for “ethical birding”; to ensure we don’t negatively impact the animals we love to watch, particularly in sensitive seasons or locations. Throughout the guide, the team’s enthusiasm and love for birds and birding is evident. I appreciate the obvious passion and drive the creators have for inspiring new birders and conservationists, and the care with which they have produced sections to this end. Indeed, this guide has the capacity to excite and satisfy serious birders while introducing concepts and identification techniques to new birders, without being boring for the first or condescending to the latter. As a non-expert but keen birder myself, I find the text engaging, encouraging and most importantly, inclusive.

This is a book for field identification. Great care has been taken to use font emphasis to highlight key and flight features for quick reference. That said, the book has a heft, and is more likely to be left in the car than carried around. We can but hope that an app version isn’t too far behind. One aspect that bemused me, and will no doubt confuse new birdwatchers greatly in the field, is the inclusion of obligate freshwater and grassland birds in the seabird and coastal biome. The decision to step away from a strictly phylogenetic sequence has merit, since avian taxonomy and birding knowledge is rapidly evolving, but perhaps the three biomes chosen to describe bird habitat could have been further broken down, as they are in Pizzey and Knight. The only other noticeable issues for me are the strange choice of marker for “likelihood of encounter score” and the fact that some, but not all higher taxonomic groups are given introductions. Consequently, a new birder might come to think that all our migratory shorebirds come under the Gallinago Snipe section!

Getting the differences between black-shouldered and letter-winged kites down now that the latter has just been spotted in Victoria.

Getting the differences between black-shouldered and letter-winged kites down now that the latter has just been spotted in Victoria.

The Australian Bird Guide is a call to arms in a way that no other guide I’ve read is. The writing team, made up of Peter Menkhorst, Danny Rogers and Rohan Clarke, actively encourages readers to record their sightings and take part in conservation programs in order to protect birds and the habitats they depend on. I think this is a beautiful way to acknowledge that we have a duty to protect that which we admire. If we won’t, who will? It is poignant that this guide is the first to include an illustration of a juvenile night parrot, a species whose rediscovery is spurring greater conservation of some of our most at-risk landscapes.

This is a brilliant guide with sublime illustrations, and a magnificent publication in its own right, away from the field. I hope it finds its way into plenty of car seat pockets, for the next generation of bird and nature lovers to find and fall in love with.

You can purchase your copy of ABG from CSIRO Publishing.


Cathy Cavallo

Cathy is a PhD student and science communicator with a passion for natural history, environmental engagement and photography. When she isn't running the Wild Melbourne social media, you'll find her working with little penguins on Phillip Island or underwater somewhere.

You can find her on Twitter at @CavalloDelMare

Birds from the Backyard and Boyhood

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.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}    I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

 I had never seen a crimson rosella in my Brunswick backyard before the one I recorded as part of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count. Image: Rowan Mott

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.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

The call of a grey shrike-thrush is a familiar one from my childhood. Image: Rowan Mott

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.

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	mso-ansi-language:EN-GB;}   The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

The eastern whipbird almost made it into one of my Aussie Backyard Bird Count surveys and it took considerable restraint from incorrectly including it. Image: Rowan Mott

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 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

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

National Biodiversity Month

Across September, Australia celebrated the biodiversity that makes our island continent so unique. Here at Wild Melbourne, we don't think our Victorian species get enough coverage, so we decided to showcase just how diverse our state is! A species for every day of September, collected here in case you missed it. 

Thank you so much to all the photographers that contributed images to our National Biodiversity Month campaign.