Now I understand how birds navigate

David Barrie book

My 2019 Wings Big Year is a sheer pleasure. Every day I force myself to take time out to pursue an aspect of birding and birds that I’d not tackle otherwise. Over the last two months, I’ve been lucky to work through David Barrie’s masterful “Incredible Journeys: Exploring the Wonders of Animal Navigation.” He’s a real navigator as well as a wonderful researcher. Whilst I don’t actually understand fully the wonders of how birds navigate, I’ve got a fair handle on the topic and can probably write about it. All from one book!

I had intended to find ways to create my own maps of how my beloved Cranes pulse across the world annually. But it turns out there’s no need. The International Cranes Foundation has just issued fifteen brand new location/migration maps, one for each species.

What I will pursue over my final month and a half is the more general issue of bird migration. How many bird species migrate? How far? Why? Is it baked into their genes? Do they fly high or low? Do they fly in the night or the day? How do my Cranes fit into this panoply of migration scenarios? What impact have we humans had?

I can’t wait to get cracking. Day by day.

Wings Big Year update

Birding near Nijmegen

From Nijmegen we cycled out into the Ooijpolder park area and worked on our rusty birding skills. Quite a few species although the only unusual bird (for us) was a Snipe pointed out by a grizzled fellow birder. We also took binoculars yesterday when cycling out from Bruges to the North Sea but we only saw the dozen or so garden variety of birds one sees everywhere. I get the distinct impression that Europe has terraformed its land so much, and shot so many birds, that not much is left. One is reduced to waiting at annual northern-Europe-Africa flyways for passing species.

Now that’s the kind of thing that interests me, understanding what is actually happening at very macro levels. To what extent is Europe now a bird wasteland save for those flying through? Where are the pockets of ongoing local bird species? Etc., etc.

So on this trip I’ve mostly kept to my daily requirement to do some birding-related work. Not every day (as is strictly required by the Big Year, but hey, I’m ahead on total hours) but I’m retaining some pride. Right now I’m reading up on how birds migrate, something I need to understand accurately and very broadly.

Create something worthy?

A way forward

Quite some time back, I went to a bookshop reading by Marina Benjamin, author of the remarkable “Insomnia.” Quoting Miles Davis on how he “plays what’s not there,” that is, invented new forms of music, Benjamin observed that writers find the idea of writing what’s not there (that is, inventing new fields and forms of writing) as “very seductive.” My immediate excited thought was: can I frame my nearly-dead Cranes book as a new way of writing about birds and birding? One reason this notion is “seductive” to me is that I now know (and this has taken me years to realise) that the normal books about birds are not ones in which I can shine. I’m neither a good birder, nor a naturalist, nor a travel writer.

But if I reframe the project and the book, can I create something worthy? Can I save the world?

Out of that bookshop brain niggle came my 15 Cranes in the Anthropocene idea. More on that later.

Wings Big Year – a resounding success so far

Little Raven photo

Allocating an hour a day to something quite nebulous sounds like a bad idea. But forcing myself to attend to what I actually want to do in the future with birding and writing and all the ideas and emotions attached to the confluence of those two activities … well, it’s been a life changer. Originally I thought I’d do a 2020 Big Year based on a birding idea but that idea proved undoable, but nagging at the idea has transformed it into a major project to unfurl over the next half decade. Without the Wings Big Year, I’d have nothing.

Now comes a dilemma. I’ll be focussing on Cranes and climate change and what a novice might write about those subjects in tandem, but what now for the Wings Big Year, its final five months. One hour a day, remember?

Well, I’ve decided to scratch away at all those impediments to being a good birder/naturalist/writer. More specifically:

  • How to learn more about ornithology without boring myself silly
  • How to get crane images, a recurring problem (see the image above, that’s me photographing a Little Raven – is that good enough for a book? Spare me!)
  • How to produce compelling maps of how Cranes migrate
  • What is migration and how does one think about it and write about it without being either “gee whiz” or boring
  • Etc., etc., etc.

An hour a day on this shit? Thrilling!

Wings Big Year: Retooling

Wings Big Year

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…

The modern way to find my Cranes

Wings Big Year

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).

Wings Big Year: Liftoff!

Wings Big Year

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!

Wings Big Year: I’m getting excited!

Wings Big Year

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.

Wings Big Year – restart of research

Wings Big year

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.

Why I go birding

Wings Big Year

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.