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.