Saturday, August 20, 2016


Fellow twitchers, Laurie Ross and Bruce Richardson search for grass wrens in the hills around Mount Isa, Queensland
Well I haven't blogged for a long while. I have been distracted.......bird watching, or probably more accurately, twitching. During this time I have been 'racing' around Australia looking for birds to photograph, and working my way through the list of Australian birds. It has seen me visit many parts of Australia, in a lot of cases more than once. 

But what is the difference between bird watching and twitching? Well, bird watchers are those people who observe birds for recreational or research purposes. Observation are done by the naked eye or by using binoculars and high powered scopes or even by watching public webcams, or even by just listening to the bird calls. Before the Victorian era 'bird watching' was usually the collection of eggs or skins for their study. However in the 19th century Audubon Societies were formed in the US, and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the UK, which led to people studying birds in their natural habitat and as a recreational activity. The term bird watching was first used by Edmund Selous in 1901, when he published a book by that name. With the advances in optical equipment, notably the availability of binoculars after WW11, bird watching grew in popularity and has now become very popular around the world.

Wedgetail Eagle on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain.
Twitching is a British term used to denote people who chase birds across great distances so that they can 'tick' them off on a list, often these birds are rare birds. The term itself originated in the 1950s and came from the nervous behaviour of David Medhurst, a British bird watcher. Twitching has also risen in popularity with the increased use of the motor car, and then air travel, making it easier for people to travel to other areas or to dash across country to see a bird. As an indication of its increased popularity there have been a few occasions in Great Britain where over 2,500 bird enthusiasts have turned up to see a rare bird which has been reported. 

Most twitchers maintain either a life list, a country list, a state list, or even just a neighbourhood list. However recently twitching has become competitive and there are competitions, such as a Big Day, a Big Year or a Big Sit or Big Stay. The Big Day sees teams of twitchers trying to observe as many birds they can in a 24 hour period. A Big Year involves an individual trying to record as many birds as possible in one calendar year. This was the subject of a 2011 movie, The Big Year, staring Jack Black, Steve Martin and Owen Wilson. Loosely based on true events it traced the 12 month journey of three twitchers as they chased the record of the most birds seen in the United States in one year. Of interest is that an Australian, John Weigel, is leading the current 2016 Big Year chase and has already smashed the old record for most birds seen in the USA in one year. And a Big Sit or Big Stay involves seeing birds from within a proscribed circle (for example a 3 metre circle). While they can leave the area to confirm the identity of a bird once seen they can only count birds seen from within that circle.

Zebra Finches drink at a waterhole near the Barkley Homestead, Northern Territory
While I became a bird watcher when I received a copy of  'What Bird is That?' as a Christmas present in 1967, it wasn't until I bought my first camera a few years ago that I started to actively seek out different species of birds. This intensified when I read an article about the world's best birder who had just seen his 9000th bird. I started recording my bird list on a blog: and before long I was chasing new birds as I tried to tick off birds in my second-hand, 2002 copy of the Pizzey and Knight 'Field Guide to the Birds of Australia'. While each twitcher has their own rules, some just needing to see or hear the bird, my own rule is I need to take an identifiable photograph to count it. 

Of interest, there are just over 10,000 bird species in the world today. According to my field guide there were 778 species of birds in Australia, but because of splits, new discoveries and the arrivals of vagrants there are now over 900 species. The top Australian twitcher, Mark Carter has recorded an amazing 879 species (totals can be seen on My list? Well currently my world list stands at 803 and my all important Australian list at 647.

To observe the birds you have to go where they are. Pelagic trips are becoming popular in order to see birds such as this Albatross.

Friday, November 2, 2012


The first sheep arrived in Australia aboard the First Fleet. They were brought to start a flock which could supplement the meat supply in the infant colony. In 1798 the colony’s minister, Samuel Marsden and an officer of the Rum Corp, John MacArthur imported Spanish merinos from South Africa. It wasn’t long before they sent wool samples from these sheep back to England. The flocks in Australia grew rapidly and when the Napoleonic Wars broke out Australian wool gained a foothold in England as traditional wool suppliers couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Modern day shearing is still back-breaking work.

By 1830 the Australian flock had increased to two million sheep and had gained a reputation as extremely fine wool. Over the next 10 years they challenged Germany and Spain as the main supplier of wool to England. In 1870 Australia became the number one wool producer in the world with over 40 million sheep producing quality wool. In 1970 Australia had 180 million sheep.

These sheep needed shearing. In the early colony this was done using hand clippers or ‘blades’. The record for the most sheep shorn in a day was set in 1835 when Tom Merely shore 30 sheep.  To keep up with the shearing one South Australian company used women immigrants from Germany. The first shearing machine was patented in 1868, and a rope drive machine in 1877. Blade shearers became worried as the popularity of shearing machines grew, especially when a 40 machine shed was built on Dunlop station near Louth.  A shearers union was formed at Ballarat. 

The Jondaryan wool shed today is a rural museum.
In 1891 shearers passed a motion banning union members from working alongside non-union members. This was tested when workers went on strike because non-union shearers were employed at the Jondaryan shed in Queensland. The strike lasted for 6 months and spread across the country. Queensland was on the verge of civil war as armed camps of shearers were set up on the outskirts of townships. Soldiers were called in to protect non-union shearers. The shearers raided shearing shed sabotaging machinery and harassing non-union workers. The Rockhampton wharvies supported the shearers and refused to load wool. However it was a poor shearing season and many of the shearers lacked money and ran out of food. Eventually the squatters won and the shearers returned to work.  The failure of this strike and the abuse of workers rights did however contribute towards the creation of the Australian Labor Party.

The wool industry became important, especially in wartime. During World War II it was considered such an important industry that shearers were not allowed to enlist in the armed forces. There were other shearer strikes. In 1956 the shearers won a 10 month strike when pastoralists tried to reduce the rates paid to shearers. In 1983 there was a 10 week strike over the use of wide-toothed combs being used on shearing handsets. This strike did not have wide-spread support and the shearers eventually lost.

Maybe the next step for shearers has already begun. In 1979 James Trevyan created a robot which took the first cut of wool from a sheep. In 1990 the Merino Wool Harvesting Company of South Australia developed a robot to part shear a sheep, only the company going out of business prevented this being taken further. However in 1997 the CSIRO commercialised ‘defleecing techniques’ as an alternative to shearing.

For many years the Australian economy was described as ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ so important was wool and the export of wool. Whatever the future of the Australian wool industry the shearer has been a romantic imagine of the Australian bush. He has been painted, stories and poems have been written about him and songs and movies have made him a part of Australian culture.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Situated in the Weddin Shire in central New South Wales is the historic township of Grenfell. Many of the buildings of the main street support lacework and veranda posts, which give the town a relaxed country charm. Originally known as Emu Creek, it is the birthplace of one of Australia’s most famous poets and short-story writer Henry Lawson. Grenfell celebrates its famous son every June long weekend with the holding of the Henry Lawson Festival of Arts. The festival includes poetry and drama, craft and photography exhibitions, a street parade and carnival, go-kart races, wood chopping events and food and wine in abundance. However the highlight of the festival, for me, is the Guinea Pig Race Meeting.

The start of one of the sprint races with competitor getting a little encouragement.
About 30 minutes out of Grenfell is the only registered guinea pig racing club in the world: the Pinnacle Guinea Pig Racing Club. It has its own facilities and its own racetrack. There is a stadium with tiered seating, and a racetrack where guinea pigs compete in the sprint or hurdle races. The club holds an annual race meetings on the Sunday of the June long weekend. The race meeting is conducted by volunteers and all money raised goes to local charities. 

The 'gentry' picnic in the carpark.
The race meeting attracts visitors from around the world and across Australia. When I attended there was a couple who had travelled from America just to attend the race meeting they had heard so much about. There were also visitors from Western Australia and South Australia as well as all the eastern states. Although ‘country dress’ is the most popular, there were many who took the excuse to dress in their finest race-day fashions. Many groups also produced the bubbly and picnic spread beside the land rover in the carpark which gave the event an atmosphere probably only rivaled by the Melbourne Cup.

The hopeful 'Master of Ceremony'.
There were a number of events during the day. Bookies took bets, though these were often for only 50 cents or a dollar and usually paid 2 to 1 no matter whether the winner was a favourite or a complete outsider. Most of the owners appeared to be children, but I am sure this was only a tactic by ruthless guinea pig owners and serious trainers to lull their opponents into underestimating them. The races began at a furious pace, with the guinea pigs being followed by the young owners, and the official course motivator, encouraging bewildered animals to run the complete length of the track.

The stadium.
In all it was a fun day with a real family and country atmosphere. The event was made even more entertaining by the female 'master of ceremonies', dressing fashionably in painted gum boots and a fur coat, and the male race-caller as they tried to find a date for the 'mc' from all the single men in the crowd. This led to much embarrassment from the single men and terrific crowd participation and laughter. It is a country event that needs to be experienced at least once, but for which you will return time and time again.

'The bookie'
'The encourager'

An obvious guinea pig talent scout.
A young owner.

Gold and silver guinea pig trophies.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


A Nepalese child watches from windows built hundreds of years ago.
Located 13kms from Kathmandu, in Nepal, Bhaktapur is a world heritage site. It was built between the 13th and the 17th centuries. The city contains a mixture of ancient Nepalese and Indian architecture. Wandering around the streets you get glimpses of what life was like hundreds of years ago. The architecture, the temples, the paved street even the old well, all must have amazing stories to tell.

Cars are banned from the cobbled streets.
The city lies on an ancient caravan trade route between Tibet and India, and because of this became wealthy and prosperous. The numerous temples, artworks and old buildings built centuries ago attract tourists and the devout to Bhaktapur every day. The temples are mainly Hindu. The wood, metal and stone artworks adorn buildings and line streets, and the architecture is a mixture of Nepalese and Indian culture. To help preserve the site cars are banned from the cobbled, overhanging streets. Bhaktapur is known for its pottery and for its yoghurt or curd Ju-Ju Dhau, which is sold in small clay bowls.

Religious building contribute to the artworks of the city.
The ancient name for Bhaktapur is 'Khwopinggram'. The name Bhaktapur comes from Sandkrit Nepali and means "the town of devotees'. At times it is also referred to in the Kathmandu Valley as Khwopa, Bhadgaon or the 'Ancient Newari town'.

One of the most exciting annual events in Bhaktapur is the festival of Bisket Jatra. This festival lasts for several days and its end signifies the beginning of the Nepali New Year. As part of the festival villages hauling a symbolic chariot through the city. The chariot is huge and ponderous, swaying from side to side and creaking as it lumbers along the cobbled streets. It carries the images of the god Bhairab. At one point it stops and there is a fiercely contested tug-of-war over the chariot by villagers from the west side of town against villagers from the east side of town. It is considered that the god will bestow a blessing for the coming year on the side of town which is victorious in the tug-of-war.

After the chariot is dragged into the centre of the town there is a huge, 25 metre, phallic symbol erected. This is eventually pulled down, again in a tug-of-war, to symbolise the start of the New Year. The festival takes place from the 12-15th April each year.

Some of the ancient building are in need of repair.

In Nepal ancient cultures and new have blended together.

Spectator sit on the steps of this temple.
The phallic symbol is pulled down to start the New Year
My grand-daughter, Eve was a hit with locals
The crowd dragging the chariot

Youths climb to the front of the chariot urging the crowd on.

Large ropes are used to drag the chariot, while other villagers push the wheels and the rear .

The chariot is slowly moved into the centre of the town.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The Milmerran Camp Oven Festival attracted many spectators.
 Millmerran is a small country town of 1,200 residents in southern Queensland. Last weekend it was swamped by an extra 7,000 visitors and thousands of caravans as they held their two yearly Camp Oven Festival. The festival began on the Friday morning with a workshop for beginners and experienced camp oven cooks. Throughout the Saturday and Sunday there were cooking workshops, displays, competitions, trade stalls and entertainment.

An array of camp ovens cooking a meal.
A camp oven is a thick-walled, cast-iron cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid. The camp oven originates from the Dutch oven, used in the Netherlands for hundreds of years. The Dutch manufactured them using dry sand to make a mould. In 1704 an englishman, Abraham Darby travelled to the Netherlands and after observing how the Dutch manufactured them he patented his own design. From England the oven spread to the colonies of America and Australia. Suited to life in a wilderness the oven became an essential item with the design often being changed to suit the environment or what it was used for. They also became such a valuable item that owners would specify in their will who their cooking pot should go to.

Dutch immigrants also took these pots to South Africa. Here they are round and have three legs arranged as a tripod. They are known as 'potjie pots', potjie being translated from the Afrikaans or Dutch word meaning 'little pot'. Potjie can also refer to the technique of slow cooking and layering of food to cook in these pots. Camp oven, Dutch oven or potjie pot, all have become popular because they are suited to cooking over a campfire. They are well suited to cooking slowly and for making flavoursome stews, soups, roasts and casseroles.

These ovens produced trays of fresh-baked pies.
The weekend centred on the camp oven. I watched the workshop on the Friday morning. Each 'expert' had their secret tip on how to produced the best results over a camp fire and I was able to pick up a few tips. Watching the ingredients table I could see the participants coming back time and time again just to add that little bit of extra sauce, relish, sugar or spice. There was a bottle of red cordial on the corner of the table and I did wonder wether I should move this before someone tried to add a dash to their simmering stew. I was also amazing and as a beginner maybe a little overwhelmed by the vast range of camp ovens and the uses that the experts could put them to. There were large oven where stews could be made for large groups, special arrangement to bake dampers and cakes, and 44 gallon ovens used to cook trays of pies. 

At different times over the weekend there were other workshops, cooking displays and cooking competitions. One group of beginners produced breadrolls, a sweet bun and a cheese and herb damper from three ovens. The competition had teams cooking full roast dinners, apple pies with custard and an assortment of curries and stews. The versatility of these ovens seems unlimited.

Breakfast with a bush poet.
Supporting acts include a tractor pull competition, including competitors who must have been about 12 years old, damper throwing, whip cracking, and a poets' breakfast. The breakfast was attended by about 3,000 people. Bushies told jokes and recited poems about how the farm shed was kicked down by the cow or how the visitors from the city outlived their welcome and had a nasty experience. "Rural culture at its best". Later in the day there was a line up of country singers. There were also displays and talks by bush historians and a blacksmith demonstration. Other displays included the rural fir brigade, racing go-karts and old machines which had been restored and were working pumping water.

'Bragging rights' from previous competition winners.
All in all it was a good fun weekend. I did manage to pick up some good tips. I had also been surprised at the size of the crowd there for what is a friendly country weekend.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Ute Musters are a particularly Australian festival. They are often held in conjunction with local shows or country music festivals.  They are held in many towns around rural Australia and celebrate the iconic Australian vehicle, the ute (short for utility vehicle). The Deniliquin Ute Muster is the largest festival of this type in the world. The 14th Deni Ute Muster was held last weekend and, despite rainy conditions, attracted a crowd of 15,000 people. While the event focuses on the ute, having the Ute of the Year competition, Show 'n Shine, the National Circle Works Championships, the Holden Grunt Off and Ute barrel races, the event had everything. 

Ute enthusiasts can often be obsessive with their vehicles and add extras such as stickers, aerials, driving lights and bull bars. But many are also polished until they glow and the owners have them expertly painted and detailed. The Ute of the Year competition is for the best of the best and is a very prestigious award. Utes are judged on their body and paint work, interior trim, under carriage, tub condition, customisation and modification and their general presentation. This is a chance for owners to show their vehicle at its best and there are a number of different categories in which prizes are awarded.

Circle work in the main arena.
Maybe the best known part of the Deni Ute Muster is the National Circle Work competition. Deniliquin added this event in 2007 and it has become popular ever since. Drivers show their skills in completing circles, figure 8s and drifts around a dirt paddock. Heats are held in several places around the country and some competitors have driven long distances to participate. The drivers push their vehicle around the arena sending up a spray of smoke and mud. Some drivers smoked up their tyres drawing loud cheers from the crowd. A few burnt rubber until the tread disintegrated leaving chunks of rubber in the arena and a burning smell in the air. At least one ute had the tyre come away completely from the rim. 

A close finish in one of the Go to Wo races.
The utes also competed in races over a short distance where they had to stop within a specified distance from a marker. This allowed them to show how fast they could get off the mark without driving at excessive speeds. However one of the most exciting events was the ute barrel race. Utes raced each other around three markers and then across a finish line, similar to horse barrel races at a rodeo. To the delight of the Deniliquin crowd it was the smaller Datsun utes that were 'whipping' the larger, more favoured utes in this event.

However the weekend wasn't all about utes. There was an array of events with a country carnival flavour. The first I saw was the Duck Fashion parade. Yes, ducks were walking the cat walk in a variety of fashion outfits, including a bride and groom outfit. The more traditional were sheep dog displays, tractor pulling, whip cracking competitions, bull riding, wood chopping, swag throwing, wrestling and magic acts. There was also a fly over by the airforce aerobatic team and stunt motorcyclists jumping in the arena.

Lee Kernigan.
On the Saturday afternoon there were two large screens, one either side of the main stage so that football fans could watch the grand final of the Aussie Rules live from Melbourne. In the evenings the large crowd was entertained by an array of country music artists. These included, on the Friday night, John Williamson, the McClymonts, Amber Lawrence and Lee Kernaghan; and on the Saturday night Jasmine Rae, Joe Nichols, Morgan Evans and Kelly Clarkson.

There were also two world record attempts. The first was for the greatest number of legally registered utes gathered in a parade at one time. The record was set at the Deni Muster in 2010 when 10,152 gathered. However this year the number of people attending was a little less than expected and with only around 6,000 utes, so the record stayed unbroken. The second record was for the most number of people wearing blue singlets. The record was also set at the Deni Muster in 2010 and still stands at 3,500 people.

A small part of the camping grounds.
A large number of people camped around the grounds and the event was well organised. Rain did delay some of the events on the Friday morning and it was sometimes difficult to know what to watch as there was so much happening. Though events such as this may have a reputation of attracting 'yobbos' this certainly was not the case. The crowds were extremely well behaved, there were a lot of families there and the whole event seemed to be very professionally run. Certainly a festival worth attending.

A relaxing atmosphere.
Competitor in the tractor pull.

On the way to the 'blue singlet' record attempt.
Young competitor in the whip cracking competition.

Ute doing circle work.

More circle work stunts.

Smoking up the tyres.