Big Twitch: One Man, One Continent, a Race Against Time-A True Story about Birdwatchingby Sean Dooley
As a self-proclaimed twitchera birdwatching extremist who travels around the country trying to catch a glimpse of as many species of birds as possiblethe author took a year off in 2002 with the goal of seeing 700 birds and thereby breaking the national record for most birds seen in one year. In this amusing memoir, he recounts his quest, including
As a self-proclaimed twitchera birdwatching extremist who travels around the country trying to catch a glimpse of as many species of birds as possiblethe author took a year off in 2002 with the goal of seeing 700 birds and thereby breaking the national record for most birds seen in one year. In this amusing memoir, he recounts his quest, including how he spent all of his inheritance from the untimely death of his parents to make his dream a reality. Populated by unusual characters and interesting species of birds, this part confessionalpart travelogue for both bird nerds and the general population follows the author as he works out what it means to be normal despite his unusually avid compulsion toward twitching.
- Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
- Publication date:
- Sales rank:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Big Twitch
One Man, One Continent, a Race Against Time - A True Story About Birdwatching
By Sean Dooley
Allen & UnwinCopyright © 2005 Sean Dooley
All rights reserved.
New Year's Eve 2001, Bunyip State Park, Victoria: 0 species
Like many of my generation I spent New Year's Eve 2001 surrounded by a writhing mass of grooving hippies, overwhelmed by the incessant throbbing of electronic dance music of a rave party. The difference for me was that I was in the middle of a forest, spotlight in hand, trying to see a rare species of owl.
As I'd locked the door of my inner city terrace house a few hours earlier, hippies were the last thing on my mind. I was busy loading the car with binoculars, spotlights and a bottle of beer in case I had cause for celebration. My last act before leaving was to send a message to Birding-Aus an Internet birdwatching site which read in part:
As the clock winds down on 2001 I am preparing to head out to the wet forests east of Melbourne to look for, on the stroke of midnight, Sooty Owl.
If I see it, then Sooty Owl will be the first bird on my year list, and more importantly, take number one spot for the 'Big Twitch'.
The 'Big Twitch' was the culmination of a twenty-year dream – to break the Australian birdwatching record by seeing more than 700 species in a year. Sure, it may not seem all that impressive as far as dreams go, but it was my dream and I was finally going for it; committing myself wholeheartedly for an entire year, focused solely on the pursuit of birds. This was it. It was really happening.
The front gate swung shut. The street seemed eerily quiet, especially for New Year's Eve, so the sound of the diesel engine rumbling to life startled me out of my melancholic reverie. I put the 4WD drive in gear and headed off. Yet as I drove through the sprawling eastern suburbs of Melbourne that seem to stretch endlessly towards the mountains, I was not feeling exultant, or even nervous, but rather, resigned, as if it was the pre-dawn moment before the start of a crucial battle. Five minutes from home as I swung onto the Eastern Freeway I got a call on the mobile from two of my oldest and dearest friends. If I had been behaving as normal people do I would have been seeing in the New Year with them. I noted sadly that like everyone I was close to, I would barely see them over the forthcoming year. They didn't greet me with a 'Happy New Year' or wish me good luck on my quest. They just made hooting noises like an owl. Maybe a whole year away from my friends wouldn't be long enough. And they got the species wrong.
For I was after a Sooty Owl, one of the rarest and most difficult to see of Australia's ten species of owl. Actually three or four of the others were pretty bloody tricky to get onto as well, but I decided I was going to try for the Sooty as first bird on my 'Big Twitch' list. I could have started off my year list with a more mundane bird – a grungy inner city sparrow or pigeon, but I really wanted to kick things off with a bit of style.
And one of the best places I know to find a Sooty Owl is in the magnificent forests of the Bunyip State Park, an hour's drive east of Melbourne. Massive, straight-trunked eucalypts strain skywards: Messmate, Mountain Grey Gum, and on the higher slopes Mountain Ash, the tallest flowering plant in the world, tower majestically above exuberant fern gullies. Like much of the Australian bush, these forests do burn, and phenomenally fiercely – the Mountain Ash has evolved to germinate only following the holocaust of a bushfire – but for the most part, even at the height of the unrelentingly hot Aussie summer, they emanate a tantalising coolness reminiscent of a Northern Hemisphere woodland glade.
Bunyip is the southern outlier of an almost contiguous block of forest that clothes the flanks of the Great Dividing Range. If you were to start here, you could virtually walk all the way to the northern tip of the continent without leaving a forest or woodland of some type. These forests stand as a testament to the majesty and indomitableness of nature. Sure, since the coming of humanity, both black and more particularly white, they have been burnt, cleared, logged, exploited and generally harassed, yet still they endure.
As do the creatures that dwell within them. Though in the case of the Sooty Owl, only just. They still manage to hang on despite their habitat being disturbed over pretty much their entire range. Interestingly, Sooty Owls occur in greatest densities in unlogged, or lightly logged, areas. Crucial for a large owl's survival are large trees old enough to have developed hollows in which they and their major prey species breed and shelter. And Bunyip has enough old growth trees to make this a prime Sooty Owl habitat.
And it was into this habitat, at about 11.30 pm, that I drove, having passed more than forty kilometres of suburban celebrations – people gathered in parks around a barbie or bonfire; premature fireworks displays for the kids to enjoy before bedtime; hoons in souped-up cars cruising the highway in packs, impatiently waiting for midnight to have a crack at becoming the first road fatality of the New Year. Entering the state park, I turned my back on civilisation and headed into the darkened forest alone.
Or so I thought.
The bush tracks were wet, but the skies seemed to be clearing as I stepped out of the car and waited to be greeted by the call of the owl. Instead I was assaulted by the disturbingly familiar 'doof doof doof' of electronic dance music. Somewhere further up the valley a bunch of hippies were getting back to nature by loading up on mind altering chemicals and overwhelming their senses with five million decibels of digital bass and jungle beats. They could have been miles away, but in the stillness of a mountain night they sounded as if they were around the next bend. As on any birdwatching occasion, I knew I wasn't guaranteed of seeing my target species: the bird might be foraging in another part of its range; it might be sitting tight on a nest; it might be there but not giving itself away; the weather might not be conducive; or the wind; or the phases of the moon; you might be struck down with blindness. All these permutations I had factored in to my calculations. But a techno dance party in the middle of the forest?
Eleven forty and my ears began to distinguish natural sounds from the 160 beats per minute of the rave music. No Sooty Owl but the unmistakable deep double 'whoo whoo' of the Powerful Owl drifted in from further up the gully. In the opposite direction their smaller cousin, the Southern Boobook gave its eponymous cheery call. Even if I dipped out on the Sooty Owl these other two would be ample compensation. But by eleven fifty the Boobook stopped 'boobooking' and five minutes later the Powerful Owl also shut up. By eleven fifty-nine the forest had fallen completely silent.
Talk about the calm before the storm. On the stroke of midnight the ravers on the hill let off a cacophony of fire crackers as they ramped up the doof doof even louder. I spent the first minutes of the New Year walking disconsolately along the sodden track, heart sinking. This was not the brilliant start to the year I had hoped for. Encouraged by a successful reconnaissance mission only three nights earlier, my plan had been to arrive in the closing moments of 2001, line up a Sooty Owl, tick it off on the stroke of midnight and be home snuggled in bed by two. It seemed almost too easy.
After about fifteen minutes the Powerful Owl started calling again – bless its little cotton talons – and the Big Twitch was back in business. I walked along the gully towards the bird. As soon as I arrived it shut up and another (or the same bird) started calling from where I had just come. For the next half-hour I traipsed up and down the length of the gully, being led a merry dance by the nebulous hooting that always stopped as I drew near.
Then the rain started to bucket down. There was even a touch of hail. On the bright side it muffled the techno beats from up on the mountain. On the other hand, the owls fell silent and even if they were calling, the rain was so thick my spotlight beam wouldn't have been able to pierce its sheeting effect. I retreated to the car, musing on the irony that in the middle of a drought, I chose to venture into the forest on the one night it decided to rain. I cracked open my one bottle of beer and toasted myself and my venture. What a dill, what an absolute dill. I thought of all the people out there having a good time, in the company of their loved ones. Everybody seemed to have somebody to see in the New Year with yet I had chosen to turn my back on all that for the sake of an owl, a bloody owl, and even that wouldn't come to the party.
Sometime after one thirty, I ventured out into the black, dripping forest. The rain was gentler now, more intermittent, but it seemed to have driven all the creatures of the night into hiding. My spotlight beam revealed nothing. By two o'clock I'd had it. As had my spotlight battery. From now on, if I wanted to use the spotlight, it would have to be plugged in to the car. I left the sodden hippies dancing obliviously up on the hillside and started to drive the lonely road back to Carlton, crawling along in first gear, window wound down and arm out training the spotlight into the treetops.
The key to good spotlighting is to hold the beam as directly in front of your eyes as possible, enabling you to pick up the reflective eye-shine of any creature staring back at you. This means you see an awful lot of spiders (probably more than most people wish to know are out there) as they have a surprisingly vivid eye-shine. Finally I saw two glowing orbs staring back at me. My moment of exhilaration faded pretty quickly when I realised the eyes belonged not to a bird but to a Greater Glider, the largest of the gliding possums, a gorgeous, fluffy, teddy bear-like marsupial. It was also a prey species of the Powerful Owl, but for tonight this little fella was safe. Perhaps the owls had moved up the hill and were feasting on the carrion of exhausted hippies who'd danced themselves to death. One can only hope.
At the very last patch of suitable habitat for Sooty Owl, where the tall forested gully gave way to the more heathy woodland of the broader valley, I stopped the car for one last forlorn listen. As the engine cut out I heard the cry of a Sooty Owl. I jumped out of the car, hopes suddenly raised. For five excruciating minutes all was silent. I resorted to doing something I loathed to do – play a tape of the call to try and lure the bird in. My qualms about the taped call disrupting the bird's foraging patterns were unfounded as the tape had absolutely no effect. The bush remained totally quiet. Desperate, I tried out my pathetic impersonation of a Sooty Owl. Heard up close, the main territorial call of the Sooty Owl sounded disconcertingly like the high-pitched scream of a petrified woman. From a distance the same call sounded like the whistling of a falling bomb.
I pursed my lips and gave a wavering, descending whistle. There was no way any self-respecting Sooty Owl would dignify this pathetic attempt with a response. Instantly my whistle was answered by the shrill scream of a bird coming in closer. So unen-thused at my prospects had I been that I hadn't even bothered to have the spotlight at the ready and had to scramble about for it on the front seat. Once the beam was turned on, there on a branch about ten metres away was a male Sooty Owl going absolutely spare at me with a manic series of trills sounding more like crazy electronic feedback than any call you'd expect an owl to make. The hippies would have loved it.
I certainly did. To see an owl at night was always a thrill, and the Sooty was simply a gorgeous bird. The critter going nuts at me, probably berating me for my attempted mimicry – 'That's not a Sooty Owl, this is a Sooty Owl' – was a foot long, stunning sooty grey nugget of an owl. The spotlight made the plumage shine almost like pewter. This is a bird that is very rarely seen so to have it as my first bird for the year was utterly exhilarating. Where ten minutes ago I had been totally despondent, now as I started the long haul back to the city I was pumping my fists in triumph.
Sooty Owl. Bird number one. Six hundred and ninety-nine to go.CHAPTER 2
15 July 1980, Nicholas Hall, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne, Victoria: 545 species
So what the hell is the Australian birdwatching record and why would anyone bother trying to break it? The latter part of the question was something I was to ask myself an awful lot throughout the coming year; the first part is relatively straightforward.
Put simply, the Australian birdwatching record I was concerned with was about seeing the greatest number of species of bird in Australia in the one year. As records go, there's not much pomp and ceremony attached. There is no trophy, no official presentation and quite frankly very few people, even in the birdwatching world, knew or particularly cared that it existed. In terms of world-shattering significance, it is barely a notch above the record a couple of kids might have for hitting a tennis ball on a racquet a consecutive number of times in their backyard. But it was the only record I'e ever been interested in breaking. Or more precisely, the only record that I was interested in and actually capable of breaking, having at the age of thirty-three finally come to terms with the fact that I was unlikely to kick the winning goal in the Grand Final or take the greatest number of test wickets or have the highest selling rock album in history. No, if I ever wanted to break a record, birdwatching it had to be.
And the Australian birdwatching record had been an obsession for many, many years. And for that I blame a humble postie more than sixty years older than me. His name was Roy Wheeler, a legendary figure in Australian birdwatching. In 1979 at the age of seventy-four he did something that was to have a profound effect on the rest of my life – he attempted to see the greatest number of Australian birds in a year, a quest articulated in a piece he wrote for The Bird Observer, the newsletter of the Bird Observers' Club of Australia (BOCA) entitled 'Chasing a Record'. As a young birdwatcher I avidly soaked up every word detailing Roy's quest. Re-reading 'Chasing a Record' today, I realise it is little more than an unrelenting list of places visited and birds seen. Hardly Tolkien, but to my eleven-year-old imagination this opened up a world every bit as magical as Middle Earth.
I was hooked. I immediately set about compiling my first list, counting up all the birds I had seen to that point in 1980. Roy's article coalesced my passion for birds with my near autistic obsession for list making. I had been into birds for about a year, but now it dawned on me that I could order the birds I'd seen in all sorts of ways – year lists, life lists, state lists, day lists. The possibilities were endless.
OK. It's at this point I have to stop the story to address a certain issue. For those of you who were tempted to titter at the phrase 'I had been into birds for about a year' it's time to clear some things up. Yes, 'birds' is a classic sniggering euphemism for women. And guess what? You're not the first to make that connection. And it is not only in English that the joke applies. For some reason birds serve as double entendre in many languages. Apparently the German word for bird, vogeln, is the same as their slang word for having sex. In Australia we tend to use the word 'root'. Makes you wonder what that says about our respective cultures; they associate the act of making love with winged creatures that soar above this earthly realm, we with a bit of wood that stays stuck in the ground, away from the light and covered in dirt.
From the very first moments I began birding I was assaulted with these 'fnar fnar' style comparisons – I'm sure you can imagine the sort of thing: 'Birdwatching, hey? I'm a bit of a birdwatcher myself. Nudge-nudge, wink-wink.' My dad was particularly fond of that one. Coming home from work one night, he told me that he'd seen a couple of interesting birds out of his office window in Queen Street, Melbourne. This was possibly the first time he had taken much interest in my new hobby so my ears pricked up and, eager to make a connection and solve his identification problem, I naïvely asked him to go into more detail. I still didn't twig when he started talking about these birds' long legs, and it was only when he got to the stage of saying one was a blonde that the penny finally dropped. Since then I've put up with those kinds of jokes countless times, and you know what? It hasn't got any funnier.
I've actually got used to the jibes in the same way, I guess, someone with the surname Treblecock or Sidebottom lets people have a bit of a snigger and then move on. But there is one thing I just can't let go, and that is when someone I've been introduced to says, 'Birdwatching, hey? What, the two legged kind?'
Excerpted from The Big Twitch by Sean Dooley. Copyright © 2005 Sean Dooley. Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
Sean Dooley is a comedy writer for television. He has worked as a stand-up comedian and has performed a one-man show about birdwatching.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews