As I inch towards a big project that marries birding to writing, something I’ve toyed with for years, it’s time to retool. Most birders keep lists – it doesn’t make sense (at least to most birders I know) to watch the bird life around you and then consign the experience to fickle memory. We’ve been using purchased software, a program called Birders Diary, for a number of years. It’s comprehensive, allows for different taxonomies (official bird lists), and has good reporting. But it’s clunky and fully private without any sharing.
On impulse a few years ago, I did a course on shorebird identification (it didn’t take, I still can’t ID them!) at the Broome Bird Observatory. I remember being blown away by the dedication and professionalism of the staff there. They constantly logged their sightings using eBird, an app and immense database managed by Cornell University. I recall they recommended using eBird, if only because all my observations would go into a worldwide pool and contribute to knowledge.
So … let’s grab eBird. How impressive it is! The website is stunning and motivating. The homepage doesn’t need to sell much because these are the numbers: eBird has data on 10,423 bird species (which is about the official total, are there are any species eBird hasn’t captured?) gathered by half a million birders who have submitted 37 million sessional checklists.
In the late morning, on the wonderful Mangrove Boardwalk at East Point in Darwin, I christen eBird with 17 observed species. A small step…
I’m amazed at the scope and power of Cornell University’s eBird, an app and a huge global database and much, much more. I’m starting to plan a road trip up north to find the Sarus Crane. Well, with eBird I can look up dated sightings at hundreds of locations, telling me where I’m most likely to get good results. Interestingly, some bird species are classified as sensitive, their locations not to be revealed. These are birds that the world needs to keep private because of very low numbers, or systematic hunting, or rapacious land developers, etc. Of my fifteen Crane species, only three are shielded by eBird: the Whooping Crane (but only in Wisconsin), the Common Crane (but only in the United Kingdom), and the Sarus Crane (but not our Australian race, instead one in an Indian location).
Never underestimate the power of regular, indeed obsessive, tasking. Do something every day and sure enough, one day, something big happens and you have liftoff! I am a little over halfway through the year of doing daily thinking and researching towards some kind of big birding/environmental project, and in the last few days, ideas have poured in and information has coalesced and… I have liftoff! I’ll start a new major writing/birding project with a separate blog site and Twitter identity, and I’m going to have fun!
I’ve kept burrowing away, daily, at the complexities of birds and my birding and how everything fits in, and some decisions are nearing. Cranes will be the focus of both my birding and my attempts to make sense of humans in the Anthropocene era in which we’re remodelling our Earth (for the worse). One of the items I came across today cheered me up. Led by amazing George Archibald, the International Crane Foundation has set up a network of 270 dedicated scientists in 55 countries, piecing together the global facts needed to defend the family of cranes. Presumably most of them are professionals employed in various capacities, with some of them only part time on this work, but still, the knowledge of this effort buoys me. What I need to do is figure out what this group knows, how they present it, and just what I need to extract from all that.
I’m working well, focusing well. Many birders are flush with guides and coffee table books and references. Our birding collection is small and haphazard. I decided not to fuss but to grab Simpson & Day’s 2014 edition of FIELD GUIDE TO THE BIRDS OF AUSTRALIA. No photos only drawings (but sometimes they reveal more than photos). Half a page on Australia’s Brolga (grus rubicunda) and Sarus Crane (grus antigione). I jotted notes on these two endemic (found in no other country) marvels. They’re big, almost shoulder height on me. You expect a field guide to be dry but Simpson & Day are parsimoniously poetic: both Cranes are described as “stately, long-legged” – doesn’t that conjure a picture? How about “soars in thermals” or “dancing displays of leaps, bows, high steps and loud trumpeting calls”? I read carefully enough to reckon I could pick one species from the other with binoculars, even though they’re so similar that Sarus Cranes have only been distinguished from Brolgas for fifty years. On the miniature maps, Brolgas are shown across half of our country, the east and north, while Sarus Cranes are only in the Cairns-and-north corner. I even read up on their (similar) nesting habits. The drawings, including a small dancing cameo, evoke my future. All of this stirs my mind and heart.
Birders go birding for many reasons. Mine?
- Some spend their lives studying birds, with any number of specialized foci. True naturalists who are birders count themselves in this group, as do properly entitled ornithologists. Me, I enjoy a modicum of research and knowledge but at age 63 I’d need to throw in a couple of fulltime years to become anything like fully knowledgeable. So this is not a primary driver for me, though for my Cranes project, I’ll dig in deep.
- Twitchers love to tick birds off a list; this obsession might derive from a love of details or some observers call this the modern equivalent of hunting. Bird photographers fall into this category. I love bird lists and end-of-the-day bird counts, and I get a real thrill out of snaring a lifer, but I don’t dwell on my lists, which are, I’ve begun to realize, a means to a deeper end. Perhaps ticking off a bird just makes me feel more competent (rather than the bad birder I am).
- Nature lovers swoon over observing birds, just watching them in their habitats. One of the reasons I bird is to feel that sense of connection with the wider natural, but I easily tire from extended observation. At heart, I’m an impatient city boy with no natural affinity for sinking into nature.
So I’m all of the above but none of them. I’m just a bumbling but devoted amateur. This realization hit me yesterday on a tram, thinking of the Cranes project. It came to me: I don’t have to apprentice as an ornithologist or aspire to 5,000 birds ticked or spend months in the bush. All I need do is realize there is some inner passion tugging me towards birding. Call the Cranes project my obedience to that passion. For this project and for this project alone, I’ll research the heck out of fifteen species, I’ll travel the world chalking up full observation and knowledge, and I’ll revel in our wondrous Earth.
Today I began digging into what seems like a major document, the Global Assessment of the IPBES (the flora/fauna equivalent of the IPCC, that is, the experts asked to check out how Earth’s animals, birds, trees, plants, etc. are doing). It’s the first such report since 2005 and should, I guess, be read in the context of accelerating global warming impacts. My little brain can’t readily absorb it all, so I thought: why not scan it (including any backing sources) in connection with my Cranes project?
It turns out the full report isn’t out yet. A 39-page “Summary for Policymakers” is and I grabbed that from a Guardian article and the image accompanying that post is from the Guardian. (Actually later I tracked down the full IPBES press release which includes additional material, though I haven’t parsed that yet.)
Specifically (and this is just off the top of my head, so it will change), I’m interested in the fifteen species of Cranes as a combined embodiment of the lousy legacy we’re leaving our grandchildren. ICF (the International Cranes Foundation) lists one species as Critically Endangered, three species as Endangered, and seven as Vulnerable, which sounds to me an overall harbinger of crane doom. What does this bellwether IPBES report say, if anything, about Cranes? Who rates species as healthy or about to go under? Am I able to glean from these initial steps if my beloved Cranes species will be around for my grandchildren to go see with binoculars? If I can’t judge thus, who do I need to ask?
A plan. I’ll keep going everyday with sharp bursts of research and writing, but drop the time requirement to half an hour a day. That’s all I need, but I do wish to stick the course with daily attention. Daily works best, in my opinion. I’ll now focus on what I need to do to start a Cranes project next year: a project plan, a rough budget, a marketing pitch, and essential background knowledge. Onwards!
(A dancing Red-crowned Crane, photo from Shutterstock)
I’ve kept up with daily thinking and research on birding but my heart hasn’t been in it. Only now do I realize just how painful was the ditching, back in February, of my vague dream to see all fifteen crane species, dotted around the globe, in one calendar year. A Cranes Big Year I’ve been calling it for nearly four years. And now it’s abandoned. I know this decision was correct – too tough, too expensive, too ambitious – but quitting a dream hits hard. At the time, I decided to reshape that big year as a multi-year project but have felt no motivation since to do so. Now I’ve decided to reshape this Wings Big Year, for the remaining eight months of 2019. I’ll reshape it around that longer-term project to bear witness to these magnificent birds before they vanish from the face of the earth. Tomorrow’s job of concentrated re-imagination…
I posted a while back that Sean Dooley, one of Australia’s prominent birders, said that the Royal Australian Ornithological Union put the number of Australian species, back in 2005, was “around 830.” Let me now peruse a far more academic tome, the sumptuous 566-page 2017 “bible”: “The Australian Bird Guide,” written by six ornithologists headed by Peter Menkhorst and published by CSIRO. It’s an exhilarating yet intimidating book for a keen but amateurish birder like me. Here ‘s the numbers skinny from the experts:
About 936 bird species have been recorded n the field guide region; of these, 747 are breeding residents or regular migrants that occur annually, and 29 were introduced. One hundred and sixty species are considered vagrants – stray birds that have occurred in Australia but do not normally do so.
So, for my purposes, of the 10,500 global species, I could aspire to witness 776 in my own land. We’ve got just over 7% of the world’s birdies. Again, as asked yesterday, how many of the 776 might I aspire to see/tick? It’d be easier, obviously, to aim high here than across the entire world, and in our birding travels, we’ve met singles or couples with life lists of high numbers, but is that what I want? Are numbers a worthy goal?