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Anoraks to Zitting Cisticola
A Whole Lot of Stuff About Bird Watching
By Sean Dooley, Matt Clare, Sarah Brenan
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2007 Sean Dooley
All rights reserved.
Welcome to birdwatching
The bayside suburb of St Kilda has long been seen as Melbourne's seedy underbelly, the equivalent of Sydney's King's Cross, London's Soho, or New York's Times Square. But as with most of those locations, a decade or two of gentrification has dimmed the red lights somewhat; these days, the only remaining street walkers left in St Kilda are likely to survive not so much because of the blind eye turned by the local vice squad, but due to the National Trust giving the hookers a heritage listing. So leaving my car in an off-street car park in St Kilda is no longer the anxiety-ridden exercise it may have once been.
I am surprised, therefore, to find a raucous gang busily partying on around my car. It is not a bunch of punks on the rampage but a flock of Musk Lorikeets feeding in the blossom of the flowering gums planted on the fringes of the car park. I stand transfixed, watching these dazzling green parrots screeching and squabbling as they stake out their claim over a particular cluster of nectar-rich blooms, seemingly oblivious to me and the other midday shoppers.
Just as oblivious are the shoppers who fail to notice these strident parrots and their carry-on. A pity really, as here in the middle of Australia's second-largest city is a flock of birds that, if seen in a zoo or on a wildlife special, would have those same shoppers cooing with appreciative wonder.
When people find out I am a birdwatcher, they often ask me where I go birdwatching, as if it is something that happens elsewhere, beyond the realm of everyday life. But while I enjoy nothing better than getting out into some remote wilderness to look for birds, the truth is that these car park lorikeets a mere five minutes from my home offer the quintessential birding experience.
Firstly, there is the sheer thrill of watching a wild bird go about its business; though I have seen thousands of Musk Lorikeets over the years, this close-up encounter jolts me back to the uncomplicated joy of watching birds that first got me into birding as a kid. But merely looking at a bird does not equate to birdwatching. If I were just bird-looking, the parrot I am looking at eye-to-eye would be a random pretty creature in a world of creatures, but because of my birdwatching I know it is a Musk Lorikeet. And furthermore, I know that it and its companions have come into this urban environment because the drought has dried up the supply of eucalypt nectar in the woodlands where they would normally reside at this time of year. By the process of identifying these Musk Lorikeets — giving a name to them — the encounter somehow becomes more meaningful, because I can now put the experience in some sort of context. To borrow the hideously reductive phrase of the economist, being a birdwatcher has value added to my viewing of these birds.
One might suspect that with all this awareness there is a danger I could become just a little bit smug; after all, nobody else in the car park is having the same insight into this parallel world happening in their midst. But any superiority I may be feeling is countered by an awareness of another sort, one that I often get while birding, particularly when it is somewhere so public. To the ordinary civilian, I look like an absolute dill standing there in a suburban car park gawping up into a tree.
Birdwatching can be an absolutely fantastic hobby. It brings many, many personal rewards. Freedom from public embarrassment, however, is certainly not one of them. I have been acutely aware of this since my first day at high school, when a sadist of a form teacher introduced me to a class of thirty adolescent boys I had never met before as a birdwatcher. While no longer ashamed of my passion, I have to admit that even I can see that there is something quite absurd about a grown man running around chasing after birds (of the feathered kind).
But sometimes my enthusiasm overrides my natural caution and I expose myself for the freak that I am, at heart. Recently, I was travelling on the ferry to Fraser Island in Queensland with a group of birders gathered for the annual Fraser Island Bird Week, I spied a couple of seabirds roosting on a navigational pylon. Knowing that members of the group had expressed an interest in seeing this particular species but forgetting that not all aboard the vessel were birdwatchers, I screamed to all and sundry: 'Boobies, Brown Boobies! I've got some boobies over here!'
The saddest thing is that not until much later did it even occur to me that what I had said could be possibly be misconstrued and that the odd looks I was getting were not because people were admiring me for remaining vigilant after a long day's birding, but because they were thinking, 'If this binocular-wearing pervert comes near my kids I'm calling security'.
Essentially this book is an attempt to explain why, since the age of ten, I have thrown myself into what those on the outside find an unfathomable obsession. I had been hoping to achieve this with the publication of The Big Twitch in 2005, my confessional of the year I spent travelling around Australia trying to break the record for seeing the most species of bird in the one year. I thought I had penned everything I would ever want to write about birds, birdwatchers and birdwatching and that I could move on with my life unburdened and finally understood. I imagined I would never again have to answer another question about my birdwatching addiction because I had, I believed, explained it all.
Within the first week of the book coming out I realised just how wrong I was. Rather than freeing me from my birding past, since publication I have been condemned to repeat it, spending more time explaining my obsession with birds than I had in the previous twenty years. I had outed myself as a birder and it turns out that there were a whole lot of bird- curious people closeted away who had all sorts of pent-up questions they wanted answered: What do you actually do? What are the mechanics of it? Do you need to wear a special costume? Does it hurt the first time you do it?
So this book is for all of you out there who have ever thought that birdwatching may be for you. I have tried to answer all your burning questions about birdwatching. Not the standard stuff like how to tell a Lemon-bellied Flycatcher from a Grey Whistler at fifty paces, but the useful gen that the field guides won't tell you: how to look cool in an anorak (answer: it's impossible); identification tips on recognising someone with Birdy-nerdy Syndrome and how to avoid being trapped at a party with them; how to fool a rarities committee; what is the correct birding etiquette for puking over the side of a boat while out seabirding; when is it appropriate to take a pish in polite company; right down to what the hell is a Zitting Cisticola, and is it contagious? You know, all the really important stuff.
But most of all, I've written this book for me. Hopefully with all your birding questions answered I can slink back to a life of birding obscurity and from now on whenever I am at a sewage farm watching birds, or at a restaurant having a meal, or packing my shopping into the back of the car in a St Kilda car park, and somebody comes up and asks me, 'Birdwatching hey? What's that all about?' I won't have to answer. I can just throw a copy of this book at them, and scream, 'Read this, it's all in there!'CHAPTER 2
The cheat's guide to using this book
In an ideal world, every reader would read this book from cover to cover. But in an ideal world I would have rock-hard abs, Collingwood would have won more than one flag in fifty years and I would have actually seen a Grey Falcon rather than drive thousands of kilometres to look at the branch other birders had seen one perching on.
So recognising the fact that most readers are likely to be dipping in and out of this book, according to either how long it takes for the bookseller to start looking suspiciously at you, or how long it is before another member of the family bangs on the toilet door asking how much longer you'll be, here is a quick way to get the most out of this book.
First, you need to determine your level of birdwatching experience. If you don't know your grasswren from your albatross then some entries may leave you totally mystified. Then again, if you are a gun twitcher (see GUN) with twenty years birding experience you are probably not going to read about what a chook is. I therefore recommend that all readers turn to the 'Q' section and try out the quiz. The results will place you into one of three categories: twitcher (hard-core, fanatical birder), birdwatcher (someone with a general interest in birds) or dude (a total novice).
If you fell into the dude category, reading the following five entries will give you a good general introduction to both this book and the world of the birdwatcher:
Binoculars (page 21)
Birdy-nerdy Syndrome (page 32)
Field guides, how to use them (page 77)
Gonads (page 87)
List (page 129)
For those of you whom the quiz designated as birdwatchers, I'd suggest reading the following entries:
Binoculars, care (page 22)
Captain Twitchpants (page 40)
List of lists (page 132)
Nudity (page 152)
Uncle Trevor (page 237)
And if you are deemed to be a twitcher, your family has my deepest sympathy. You may, however, find these entries of particular interest:
Binoculars, as fashion accessories (page 24)
Fast-twitch muscles (page 67)
Hot spots (page 102)
Majizzmo (page 138)
Night Parrot (page 145)
From this entrée I am sure you will realise that there is a hell of a lot of stuff in the world of birdwatching, and hopefully with your appetite whetted, you will choose to throw yourself into the rest of this birding banquet. Happy feasting.
Seemingly more popular in the UK, the anorak doesn't often make an appearance here in Australia, due to it being exceptionally uncomfortable to wear in the heat. That and the fact that it hasn't rained across most of the country in the last ten years means that the anorak tends to stay in the back of a birder's wardrobe. Anoraks are most often seen on pelagic boat trips (see PELAGIC) where keeping dry and warm is a priority.
Looking cool in an anorak is always a big ask, as wearing one automatically makes you look like a trainspotter (see ASBIRDERS). Bill Oddie's aphorism that 'Seriousness is in inverse proportion to cleanliness' still rings true. You can't be taken seriously as a twitcher if your anorak isn't a little distressed, with at least one mysterious patch of grunge on the front. It may be fish oil from some shark liver berley, it may be some albatross shit acquired during a banding expedition, it may be a vomit stain from a previous boat trip–whatever its origin, that stain establishes your credentials as a hard-core birder (see PELAGIC).
Wearing anoraks that are bright yellow or fluoro orange is just not on (see CAMOUFLAGE), unless you want to say to the world that you are a seriously hard-core birder who goes out on seas so rough and dangerous in order to watch birds that there is every chance you may be swept overboard and need an outfit that can be spotted by search-and-rescue aircraft. This ploy doesn't work if you are in fact catching the ferry to Rottnest Island in order to tick off Common Pheasant and Peafowl; being introduced birds, these are hardly deemed risking your life for (see PLASTICS).
ACTION: When acquiring an anorak, make sure to get one with lots of pockets. They come in handy for storing all sorts of things like notebooks, field guides and (most importantly) handfuls of food so that you don't have to go below deck on a pelagic trip where seasickness is almost guaranteed (see SEASICKNESS).
Asbirders Syndrome / a little-known offshoot of Asperger's Syndrome only recently discovered by researchers at the Big Twitch Institute. Also known as Birdy-nerdy Syndrome, it goes by the scientific name Dorkus ornithologus.
Asperger's Syndrome is a condition on the autism spectrum that severely hinders normal social development. People with Asperger's (usually men) are often good with hard facts and figures, but the emotional subtleties of everyday day life elude them They often become obsessed with a particular subject such as trains or dinosaurs or mechanical things, to the point where the only way they can interact with others is through the medium of their obsession which can leave them feeling quite isolated from the rest of society.
Throw in birds as the object of fascination, and you've got yourself a classic case of Asbirders ...
Typical Asbirders sufferers are usually male, socially inadequate and obsessed with watching birds to the exclusion of everything else, particularly relationships and social niceties. Often they become so fixated on birds that it is like obsessive-compulsive disorder without the compulsive bit (unless you consider that checking the Internet every fifteen minutes to see if a rare bird has turned up is compulsive). In a social situation when you are talking about your job or relationship problems or the fact that you have only five minutes to live, the Asbirder will always turn the conversation back to birds.
When I wrote about Asperger's in The Big Twitch (the term Asbirder had yet to be invented) I was quite torn. Here I was, admittedly in light-hearted fashion, accusing a group of people I considered dear friends of suffering from a serious disorder. I was expecting retribution but it never came. Then it hit me. Sure, birders had all gone out and bought my book, but that didn't mean they actually bothered to read it. Ignoring all that boring story crap, they had turned straight to the list at the end to see where I saw Carpentarian Grasswren, or whether I managed to get Papuan Flowerpecker in the Torres Strait.
So, if you're still not sure whether or not you are an Asbirders sufferer, why not take the following quick quiz, opposite, for a bit of self- diagnosis?
ACTION: If you are trapped in a conversation with an Asbirder, simply start talking about your feelings. That should shut them up instantly.
Albatross / 1. ocean-going birds noted for their long wings and graceful flight. 2. a score in golf three below par. Anyone claiming one would be, in birding terms, labelled a stringer (see STRINGER).
With a massive wingspan that allows it to ply the ocean waves for months at a time, the graceful albatross has long inspired poets (see RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER), but in a case of life imitating art, we, like the mariner, are killing our albatrosses as we bring natural disaster upon ourselves. Nine species of albatross regularly visit Australian waters (or thirteen or twenty depending on which species concept you subscribe to — see SPECIES), almost all of which are in imminent threat of extinction from long-line fishing.
Long-line fishing involves baiting lines up to several kilometres long behind an ocean-going trawler. The albatross are attracted by the baited hooks floating on the surface. They latch onto the bait, get caught by the hooks and are dragged under and drowned when the line eventually sinks. In some albatross populations, this has reduced numbers by up to 85 per cent in less than twenty years.
This should be one of the easiest conservation problems to solve by means of simple measures such as setting the lines at night, putting weights on the line, or even unfreezing the bait before it is set so that it sinks more quickly. However, the legal fishing industry has been slow to address the issue and, with so many illegal boats out there, it is going to be an incredibly hard job to reverse the trend.
ACTION: There is a concerted campaign led by Birdlife International to help try and save the albatross. Further details can be found on the websites:
www.birdlife.org/ action/ campaigns/ save_the_albatross
Armchair ticks / not an affliction, and not birds literally seen from an armchair, but birds that are added to a birder's list after the event due to taxonomic or other changes (see CHECKLIST, TICK).
There are people who really do birdwatch from a chair, both real birds (called a 'Big Sit') and the birds they see on television (called 'Man, you really need to get a life'). But usually an armchair tick happens when a former subspecies is split and given full species status. Sometimes it can happen in other ways, as when that unidentified snipe you saw at Broome is later caught and definitively identified as a Swinhoe's Snipe. Never quite as satisfying as identifying a bird at the time you see it, an armchair tick is still a tick nonetheless.
Atlas / The Atlas of Australian Birds is an ongoing bird-mapping project run by Birds Australia.
The first Atlas began as a one-off project between the years 1977 and 1981. Thousands of birdwatchers around Australia reported their sightings to a central database, forming a snapshot of where our birds were during this period. A follow-up project with over 7000 volunteers was begun in 1998, primarily to track the changes to our avifauna (see AVIFAUNA) over that time.
Excerpted from Anoraks to Zitting Cisticola by Sean Dooley, Matt Clare, Sarah Brenan. Copyright © 2007 Sean Dooley. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
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