Talons come out and feathers get ruffled in the surprisingly intense and competitive sport of birdwatching.
Bird-watching is either the most scientific of sports or the most sporting of sciences.
So opined environmentalist and ornithologist E. M. Nicholson in his 1931 book The Art of Bird-Watching. One of the first people to codify the emerging birdwatching scene, Nicholson was foremost a scientist and felt that birdwatchers should always work within a methodical framework. He was disdainful of those whose only goal was to chase novelty:
In order to be of value, observation must be pointed. There are persons who spend their leisure dashing from one sanctuary or haunt of rare species to another, bagging fresh experiences. Such persons can scarcely rank as bird-watchers. Although less destructively inclined they are essentially as childish as unscientific egg-collectors, or perhaps, better still, as autograph-hunters or stamp collectors. […] Whether bird-watching is embraced aesthetically or scientifically, or even as a sport, this restless, superficial flitting from one subject to the next in the spirit of going on to yet another night club is totally destructive of real enjoyment.
Nicholson would then no doubt be shocked (and a little appalled) at the extremes of modern birdwatching. Like most sports, there is a spectrum of involvement. This ranges from dabblers who simply like to take notice of the birds in their garden, to hard-core birdwatchers – known as twitchers – who stop at nothing, risking their safety, finances and personal relationships just to catch a glimpse of a rare bird. Birdwatching may seem like a genteel pastime to outsiders, but it can have an unexpectedly intense, competitive dimension.
Many may be surprised that such a thing even exists. How can birdwatching have a competitive element? It all comes down to lists: life lists, year lists, country lists, state lists and so on. There are also coordinated, state-wide ‘Twitchathons’ overseen by BirdLife Australia in which teams compete to see the most species in a 24-hour period.
I have participated in a couple of Twitchathons (a silly team name is almost mandatory, ours being ‘The Bob Hawks’) and it’s hard to imagine a more gruelling sport. Staying up late into the night looking for owls and nightjars, rising well before dawn the following morning, and then speeding cross-country in a state of bird-induced delirium – a 24-hour Twitchathon is a zoological extreme sport.
When you’re a birdwatching beginner, it’s very easy to find new experiences; almost every bird you see and identify is a new ‘tick’ for your life list. But as with any game of diminishing returns, as you progress, new species become harder and harder to find.
Once you’ve exhausted all the resident bird species of your home state or country, how do you add new ticks to the list? You can travel to new areas with different communities of birds, you can go out at night and look for nocturnal species, you can get on a boat and make your way out past the continental shelf to find pelagic seabirds, or you can chase vagrants – birds, usually migratory species, that appear without warning far outside of their normal geographical range. It’s the randomness and unpredictability of this last example that seems to bring out the most frenzied and competitive elements of birdwatching.
In the UK, where it began, twitching reaches its most insane heights. At its worst, the British twitching elite engage in deception, subterfuge and outright lies to prevent their rivals from seeing the rare species that would contribute to them beating their list.
A well-publicised example is the bitter rivalry between top UK twitchers Adrian Riley and Lee Evans, competing for the 2002 ‘Big Year’ record – the most species seen in the country in the space of a year. Although Riley won with 380 species, the contest cost him his retirement nest egg and led to the breakdown of his marriage. "The battle with Lee had probably ruined my hobby for good," he later reflected.
I am an active birdwatcher myself, and have encountered puzzlement from friends at the idea that all of these observations and lists are usually based solely on the word of the birder. “If it’s lots of species you want,” they shrewdly observe, “why don’t you just make it up, add a few more to your list – how would anyone know?”
But in the birdwatching world, reputation is everything, and dishonesty in the community is rare. Yet there are occasional instances of exaggeration, wilful misidentification and even blatant fabrication, as was the case in Victoria recently.
A young birder rose to prominence with a highly publicised run at the 2014 Victorian Big Year record. The birder in question was racking up species at an amazing rate, and seemed to be almost supernaturally lucky when it came to finding rare and vagrant species.
I followed this young turk’s journey on Facebook with interest. I had no idea anything was amiss until I commented that I was planning to follow up one of his more intriguing sightings: a scarlet honeyeater (Myzomela sanguinolenta) in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. (I’m only human!) I received a private message from another birder warning me that the report was probably spurious.
Soon after, amid much gossip, the would-be Big Year champion confessed that he had falsified numerous reports and even invented fake social media profiles to reinforce their authenticity. The tight-knit birdwatching community felt betrayed and annoyed at having spent their time and energy looking for birds that never existed. The Victorian Department of Agriculture even got mixed up in the saga, as the birder had reported a vagrant house crow (Corvus splendens) in the Melbourne CBD – a highly invasive species classified as a prohibited pest that warrants investigation wherever it’s recorded.
This dramatic episode notwithstanding, twitching in Australia is generally a laidback and friendly affair. Rather than nastiness or dishonesty, there is a cooperative approach, with many people spreading the word of rare sightings via social media and organising together to see new birds and help others to get involved.
A lot of Yuletide festivities were ruined last year when a Hudsonian godwit (Limosa haemastica) turned up on Wollumboola Lake, NSW on Christmas Day. The bird, affectionately known as a ‘Hudwit’, is what twitchers call a 'mega' – a very rare bird that has strayed significantly from its natural range. The Hudwit is native to the Americas, breeding in subarctic North America in the summer and then migrating to South America for the winter. Its appearance in Australia, thousands of kilometres away, was a shock. Immediately, Australian twitchers looked for ways to ditch familial Christmas celebrations and glimpse this mega rarity.
“The family wasn’t overly impressed,” said Melbourne birdwatcher and member of ‘The Filthy Flockers’ Twitchathon team Phil Peel, one of many twitchers who ticked the Hudwit. “I got the notification at my partner’s grandparents’ place and then calls, messages and texts. By the end of that night, four of us had arranged to drive up on Boxing Day.
"We left at 7pm, drove straight through to Wollumboola Lake by 5:15am, where we located the bird, returning home late the following evening. We drove for 30 hours without sleep. It was an awesome feeling arriving just on dawn and hearing a new area’s bird calls. It was relatively easy to locate the bird. I literally saw it within three or four minutes, but stayed with everyone until they were satisfied with their views.”
It’s worth noting that the Hudwit is an unremarkable-looking bird, barely distinguishable from our own native godwits, which are fairly easily observed in coastal areas. But it represented a new tick on the life list, and that’s all that matters.
For some Aussie twitchers, this fixation isn’t just for one-off visits from vagrants; it takes over their whole life. Conservationist and blogger Kay Parkin wanted to dedicate all her resources to birding, and so decided to forego a home for six years, spending the time housesitting and making twitching trips all over the country.
Kay told me, “On work days I would spend my evenings researching what birds I still needed, their location, and would plan the trips. If a vagrant arrived, I dropped everything and took off, driving through the night if unable to get a flight.”
These trips included sites all over the country, and even far-flung Christmas, Lord Howe and Norfolk Islands. (Remember: regardless of its geographical location, if it’s an official territory, you can count it on your Australia list).
“After six years living like that, I ended up totally exhausted and burnt out, and decided I needed to grow up for my health’s sake and have a house again," said Kay.
In the midst of these obsessions, it’s easy to lose sight of the birds. Does this strange human behaviour have a negative effect on their avian subjects? There are fears that the constant, close-range monitoring may increase birds' stress levels, particularly during breeding season. I have even heard horror stories of bird photographers interfering with active nests, ripping off branches and leaves so they don’t obscure a perfect shot.
With the widespread use of smartphone apps, there are a rising number of birders who employ playback of calls to lure out target species, which can affect their behaviour. Werribee’s Western Treatment Plant, one of Australia’s most popular birdwatching spots, has recently banned birders from using call playback to attract secretive crakes and rails, due to fears that this will cause the birds stress.
However, the majority of Australian birdwatchers are not fanatic twitchers or people who would disregard the wellbeing of their subject just to get a nice picture. One of the main positive outcomes of birdwatching is the huge amount of quality data collected. With the incorporation of smartphones and the internet, data on bird distribution are collected with greater accuracy and frequency than any time in history. Many Australian birdwatchers upload their data to sites like eBird and the Atlas of Living Australia, contributing to exhaustive databases of bird abundance and diversity that are freely available to the public and researchers.
And it’s not all about mega-rare species either: if you want to know, say, where to find a kookaburra in the greater Sydney area, it’s only a click away.
This sense of a community contributing to scientific knowledge is the side of birdwatching that I love. I’m not what you’d call a twitcher, but I do understand what drives that passion. I think it’s important to steer that enthusiasm towards helping our native bird communities with data collection and hands-on conservation work. Otherwise, there’s a risk of valuing lists and personal stats more than the animals themselves.
There’s a further risk of becoming consumed by obsession and alienating family and fellow birders. While discussing the recent falsified reports saga, Melbourne birdwatcher Gary Gale said, “It was a wakeup call for me. It stopped me snowballing to the point of becoming a competitive birder. I took a step back and said to myself, ‘enjoy the journey’.
"Yes, the numbers are good, but they should always take at least a second place. Having limited time due to work commitments, I dropped back a couple of notches and made sure I spent time with my wife. The fortunate result is that my wife is becoming a keen birder, too.”
Edited by Andrew Katsis and Ellie Michaelides.