I remember a day about a decade and a half or so ago when Laura and I were having some sort of conversation about Australian wildlife. ‘What about birds?’ Laura asked. ‘Birds are just so common‘, I replied, Yes, I meant that in a derogatory way. I must have been chasing sightings of Echidnas, reptiles, anything else but ‘birds’.
I was missing the point at the time. Yes, bird sightings are much more common than mammals and reptiles, but that is the wonder of them – they are all around us in all habitats. Some of the species, such as Silver Gulls, Noisy Miners and Eurasian coots seem to be everywhere and are certainly very common. But some bird species are certainly a rare and special find. And most can’t be found everywhere. It’s fair to say that my simplistic and blinkered view of our feathered friends has shifted somewhat since that day when I scoffed at the ‘commonality’ of the avian branch of the Animalia kingdom. People will often ask me if I developed my interest in birds from a family member at a young age, but my conversion was from a much more technological introduction.
Many hardcore traditionalist birdwatchers will often wonder why one needs to point a camera lens at a bird when a pair of binoculars will more than suffice. But for me I can thank my first DSLR camera for revealing the joy of birds. I was fortunate to live in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Altona when I would take my new toy for a walk or a bike ride around the neighbourhood. I was just looking for interesting ‘things’ to point my 300mm kit lens at. It was only from this exercise that I realised that my suburb had a diverse range of birds that I had never noticed before. Altona has a range of habitats; besides its beaches it has wooded areas, grasses, wetlands and creeks. According to eBird, Altona has recorded at least 169 species in a suburb that is only approximately 10km from the heart of Melbourne. So I had a great range of wonderful birds to hook me in to this wonderful interest.
Birds such as Black-shouldered Kites, Darters, Brown Falcons and seasonal shorebirds were a wonderful discovery. The size, shape and colours of these birds were a perfect subject for my camera. Yes, some of them were more sedentary and easier to photograph than others (and that is something that never changes by the way). But it was a fascinating challenge all the same.
I also wanted to know who these birds were and study their behaviour. I wondered why some birds would be there at some times of the year and not others. I would learn who lived where and what they would eat. And then came the books: my book shelves would start to fill with Field Guides, bird literature and anything else that could fill my head with bird knowledge. Well, they did that, and also managed to tempt me to go find amazing birds that I never knew existed. My camera wasn’t the only technology that came in handy. I was glad to find that the internet was growing with bird-related information and discussion.
While my Canon 400D was my initial medium for finding the joy of birds in the first place, birdwatching has become a medium in its own right. I established a social bird photography group where people could learn together. I made some good friends and learned a lot from being the organiser of this group.
Birdwatching is wonderful excercise on a number of levels. Aside from the walking and carrying of equipment in pursuit of an amazing sighting there is a lot to be said for exercising your senses.
Birdwatching could possibly be nature’s optometrist. Try sighting a tiny Brown Thornbill as it zooms in and out of Acacia implexa. It’s one thing to sight the bird, but another to track its movement patterns as it disappears behind a tree twenty metres away. I now always seem to be on Tawny Frogmouth lookout whenever walking around Melbourne. The species does very well to blend into trees, most people walking right past the stationary bird.
One of the many wonderful thing about Australia’s birds is that they are some of the world’s greatest songbirds. Not only is one of life’s simple pleasures to hear these songs and calls, but it’s a great listening and memory test to attempt to identify birds that you can’t see. Learning bird calls is akin to learning a language. I have even seen people who do a remarkable job of impersonating bird calls. I have even seen birds who are masters of mimicry themselves!
As you can see, bird watching is a multi-faceted interest. And it is one that anyone can do to any degree; you may become fascinated by what lives in your garden or local park, or you may be someone who spends great money and time, travelling to see as many bird species as possible. The phrase ‘The Joy of Birds’ has become a much used one, but it’s easy to see why.
The fascination and quirks of the avian world is enough justification to turn this into an ongoing series of articles that I hope that you enjoy. Maybe you’ll even be converted to birdwatching along the way.