Bird Watching

First published

My interest in bird watching was first whetted by the English cartoonist, Ronald Searle. Maybe you remember his famous sketches of 'A Lesser Titwort Avoiding a Worm' or 'A Mongolian Thick Surprised' and, of course, 'A Blue-Nose Chuck Brooding', Then, one time, I was almost caught by an Air Force organization that called itself Bird Watchers' Anonymous. Regrettably, the Bird Watchers proved to be a society that was more interested in a female species to be found in Collins Street, Martin Place and other good hunting grounds.

Yes, the bird watcher, or let's say observer, is one who has always been an object of an amusement. There's the classic case of the bird observer who was doing some bird photography at Heidelberg, Victoria. To take the pictures he wanted, he had to stand up to his waist in a swamp. When it came on to rain, he put up an umbrella to protect his camera. All perfectly logical to a bird observer. But to people driving past in their cars, here was a sad case indeed, and some even reported it to the authorities.

But in these times of atom bombs, threats and counterthreats across the Atlantic, parking meters, sputniks and population explosions, it's just possible that bird observers are the sanest people around.

The Bird Observers Club has its headquarters in Melbourne. It was launched in 1905, with 25 members, and like many another admirable club, no women were included. What's more it had no women until 1927. Now there are women a-plenty among its 750 members, and the club is booming. Membership has almost doubled in the past four years. They come from all over Australia, and the members include university professors, solicitors, doctors, tradesmen, priests, graziers, grocers, a particularly enthusiastic New South Wales policeman, to say nothing of one couple at Black Rock, Victoria, who go through 20 lb. of sugar a week. They put it round the house in little bags, and they put out cups of sweetened water as well. The birds come like pigeons in Trafalgar Square.

But perhaps the most interesting bird observer is the club secretary, Roy Wheeler. Roy is a postman. Every day he takes a 40 lb. bag of letters 12-14 miles around Prahran, a Melbourne suburb. He wouldn't take a job that was inside, where there are no birds to be seen. He is a man with an extraordinary capacity for conveying his enthusiasm to others, and his reputation has spread far afield. Recently, a Dutch ship arrived in Melbourne, and the one man the captain wanted to meet was Roy Wheeler. Roy went down to the ship for lunch. So there, aboard the ship, the Dutch sea captain and the Melbourne postman communed with each other on the birds of the world.

Another man who should be mentioned is Len Robinson, brilliant young bird observer, who was club president at 24. Last August, he, his brother Peter, Dr David Ashton, and David and Robin Morgan, both biology teachers, all went on an expedition. They achieved something, which to the bird observer, makes the putting of a man into space seem insignificant.

They spotted three Eyrean Grasswrens.

Now the Eyrean Grasswren was last seen by the Lewis expedition into the centre of Australia, in 1874. Some thought it was extinct. There are only three Eyrean Grasswren skins in existence. One is in the Sydney Museum, and the other two are in the British Museum. The British Museum folk thought they were so precious that they hid them down a Welsh coalmine for the duration of the war.

The expedition battled its way in two Land Rovers to the north of Lake Eyre, 100 miles from Warrina, in the north of South Australia. They spent a whole day travelling in second gear. Often they could only move a few feet at a time, laboriously placing wire netting first under the wheels of the car, then the trailer. Eventually they did see three Eyrean Grasswrens. The joy and the excitement was just in seeing and identifying the birds. Unlike enthusiastic bird-lovers of the past they made no attempt to shoot, capture or eat them. As for the Eyrean Grasswrens, Seeing their first humans for 87 years, one wonders now what they will think of Donald Campbell, if and when he attempts his world speed record on Lake Eyre in his Bluebird, at 500 miles an hour. It is doubtful whether the two birds will have much in common.

Like the gentleman who stood in the swamp at Heidelberg, maybe the most enthusiastic of all are the photographers. It is nothing for a man to work night and day for five days to get one picture of, say, a helmeted honey-eater or an eastern shrike tit. But it has to be done in the right way. Bird watchers who train their cameras on a nest for more than half an hour are frowned upon. The mother birds then are frightened to return, and their young could die. So the good bird photographer comes back and back and back, until his camera is familiar as a tree stump.

Take the occasion of the filming of the Avocet at Laverton, Victoria. The club learned that this Avocet had taken up residence near Laverton. Only two or three times has one ever been seen nesting near Melbourne, so the whole thing was planned like a military operation. First they built a hide of hessian, 50 yards from the nest, and behind it they put a dummy camera. The idea was to move the hide progressively nearer to their photographic model. So every night they drove 30 miles to Laverton, just to move that piece of hessian 10 yards nearer the nest.

Five days and 300 odd miles later, the hide was almost on top of the nest. The Avocet family was not disturbed. The bird observers took 200 still shots and a movie.

These people are almost priest-like in their serious approach to the work. They keep in close touch with the C.S.I.R.O, and Government departments. They bring out regular charts which faithfully list the numbers and types of birds to be seen Australia. They have banded 150,000 birds since 1953 and they have noted with interest that some of their birds have set up a better mileage than Qantas. There have been Waders that turned up in Japan and little Silver Eyes from Sydney that, in a matter of days, have hopped it to Tasmania. The club, too, is conducting a number of surveys which entail studying the life cycle, habitat, habits and numbers of a type of bird, down to the minutest detail. If you don't believe that these bird observers really observe here's an extract from the July 1961 edition of the club paper:

'I watched a silvertail feeding for 27 minutes. His scratching could be heard a chain away. There were 32 scratches with the left foot, 21 with the right, and 17 pick-ups to the minute. Another count gave 35 and 83, and 21 pick-ups to the minute.'

At the moment the club is working on an Altona survey of the Silver Gulls, a Phillip Island survey, a Swift survey, a survey of the rare Helmeted Honey Eater and a Lyre Bird survey. But it's at club meetings that you hear the fascinating bits of information. They have a session called "Field Notes" which, for the off-beat, rivals question time in Parliament. And if a member has seen something really good he can hardly wait for meeting night to come around. In recent times there was the member who spotted a Rufous Fantail on the lawn outside St Paul's Cathedral. There was the member who spotted a Quail dodging the terrific traffic outside the Weather Bureau. But the story I like is one from a lady at Merricks. Miss Cole rescued a baby Magpie from some crows. Its parents had been killed. This magpie had only one eye so Miss Cole called him Nelson. He was vicious: he'd attack anyone on sight. Yet when they set him free, an extraordinary thing happened. Nelson showed a complete change of personality and became the most charming creature around. He returned three times a day to be fed.

Then Nelson disapeared, presumably lost in battle or at sea. Some days later, there was a strange squawking from behind a bricked-up chimney. They unbricked the chimney, and out came a very jaded Nelson. Since then Nelson has been even more devoted and charming than he was before.

And some of the information is unusually informative. Donald Shanks, a former Mosquito pilot, has observed, time and again, the extraordinary mental telepathy that exists among birds. At one time on his property, there was an infestation of white grubs. A lone ibis came to feed on them, the only ibis he had seen for some time. Incredibly the information seemed to get around. Soon a whole cloud of birds arrived.

Then some members may have some notes on the habits of the mallee fowl. An ingenious bird, this. It scratches a little gully in which to lay its eggs. To keep them warm at night it covers the gully with four or five feet of sand and d├ębris. Next morning it uncovers the eggs again, so that they can have benefit of the warm sun. But here's where they are smart. Should a cloud come over the sun, or if the day is cold, fast as you bat your eyelid they seratch the sand over the eggs again. And they adjust the size of the mound exactly to give the right temperature.

While observing the habits of birds may be good for the ulcers, club members in turn have much to worry about over the senseless destruction of birdlife. Donald Shanks, who is a grazier, attributes most of the diseases and pests that attack our crops to the killing of birds and the imbalance of nature that follows. He cites the case of a few months ago. A farmer at Red Cliffs was fined 40 pounds. He had his refrigerator full of tiny thornbills, all ready to eat. 'He was probably a fruit grower,' says Mr Shanks. 'He didn't realize that his orchard wouldn't exist without the help of these thornbills to keep down the pests.'

The killing of birds in Australia could make a long sad story. Club members are worried about the Pied Geese of Townsville that have been slaughtered just because they interfere with the local jet aircraft. They are worried over the Kestrels and Black-shouldered Kites that are eternally shot at because they have the misfortune to look like hawks. They think about the fast-disappearing Cape Barren Geese, which are still given an open season in Tasmania, and all sorts of species that one rarely sees any more, such as the Bustard which once was common on the plains of Werribee. And they wonder, too, how atomic explosions in Siberia will affect birdlife. It doesn't take much to upset the life of such birds, Donald Shanks says that many of the waders that migrate regularly between here, Japan, Siberia and the Arctic might come to Australia and never return.

This could be another matter for the bird watchers to watch. You may wish to join them. They may seem strange in some of their habits, but, as I said before, just possibly they are the sanest people around.

This article first apeared in Walkabout Magazine, February 1962. The article with pictures, is available online at Trove.