Wings Big Year: When did Dooley tick the cranes?

Wings Big Year

Yesterday I asked one question of Sean Dooley’s “The Big Twitch?” Today I went hunting for two birds in particular. Where did Sean, back in 2002, sight our two cranes, the quite common Brolga and the rather uncommon Sarus Crane? Determining the answer did not prove to be straightforward, for the book isn’t indexed. I find a list at the back of the book of his 705 sightings from January 1 to December 31. Brolga was #316 sighted in Brisbane (really? is it that easy?) on February 15, a tick that apparently wasn’t exciting enough to mention anywhere in the book. But on August 30, he saw Sarus Crane, #564, at the Weipa sewage ponds, his mention being just that, a mention.

Wings Big Year: A bird is a tick

Wngs Big Year

Few keen birders avoid the pleasure of ticking off the birds they see against some kind of master list. I know “twitching,” the obsessive pursuit of ticks, can arouse scorn, but shouldn’t a systematic pleasure be stronger than an unfocused pleasure?

A core inspiration for my own birding was Sean Dooley’s 2005 masterpiece about a ticking obsession, “The Big Twitch: One Man, One Continent, A Race Against Time – A True Story About Birdwatching.” The book narrates how in 2002 he ticked 708 Australian bird species, a big advance on the previous record of 633 set by Mike Entwhistle in 1989. Dooley’s book is a captivating, funny yet earnest paean to a fine obsession. Triumphant at the end, he wrote:

There are a million ways to occupy your time on this planet. They’re all pretty much absurd if you analyse them too closely. I chose twitching, one of the more outwardly absurd of them all I suppose but really no more ridiculous than anything else, yet that year of absurdity has had a profound effect on my life since.

Ever since 2005, I’ve wanted to reread “The Big Twitch” but time is too short right now, so today I confine myself to two bits of factual research. The first is: how many Aussie birds were there in 2002? Unfortunately, on this topic Dooley is not as precise as I wish him to be, simply saying there are “over 830” on the 1994 RAOU Australian Bird Checklist. He also says that after eliminating “extreme vagrants” (only once-off sightings), this comes down to “around 710,” which means he saw nearly ALL the birds in this country.

See a bird on its flyway

Wings Big Year

Study is such fun. Yesterday’s Wings Big Year reading unearthed a technical term I’d kind of known about but never appreciated. For migratory birds – creatures who breed in one place and then regularly fly somewhere else, often far away, for the other half of the year – a “flyway” is its annual path on a map of the globe.

This is most relevant for me. If I do indeed launch a special project next year on cranes, which mostly migrate, here are the words of advice of Harry Saddler (author of the terrific “The Eastern Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird”): “The idea of writing a book about migration without travelling along the migration route is inconceivable…”

That simple phrase might not strike you as particularly profound but it hit me like a hammer.

On the toenail of an ostrich…

Wings Big Year

My Wings Big Year… an hour each day gnawing away at the question: what is a bird? One aspect of that multifaceted question is: how big are they? Noah Strycker, in “Birding Without Borders,” offers a typical stylish answer: “The smallest, the Bee Hummingbird of Cuba, could perch comfortably on the toenail of the largest, the Ostrich.” Ever since I read that, I’ve pictured that petite hummingbird resting for a moment on the gnarled toenail of an ostrich. Such an image is a much stronger mnemonic than 5 centimeters compared to 2.75 meters.

How many ways can we ask: What is a bird?

Wings Big Year

Musing on this question, I’d like to figure out what, to me, a bird MEANS. Here’s what Melbourne birder and writer Harry Saddler says, in his wonderful book “The Easter Curlew: The Extraordinary Life of a Migratory Bird”:

The world is vast and no birds encompass this vastness more than shorebirds. Yet by navigating the world so consummately, by isolating and utilising those landscapes that find parallels across the world, by shaping the ecosystems of that world as they go, perhaps shorebirds also, unwittingly, make and have made the world – or parts of it, at least.

Wings Big Year: Boring? No!

Wings Big Year

The technical specs of birds (and animals and everything) sounds boring and is boring until it isn’t and you want to figure out “what a bird is,” that is, how it sits as a species among the 10,000-plus species.

I’ve been reading various books but the best and best-written one so far is Colin Tudge’s “The Secret Life of Birds.” I can’t pretend to have mastered any of the technicals but here is how a particular bird of interest, the Brolga (one of the fifteen crane species), is classified:

Kingdom: Animali
Phylum: Chordata (don’t know what this is and don’t care to learn)
Class: Aves (now we’ve got down to our feathered friends, the birds)
Order (there are 31, I think:) Gruiformes
Family: Gruidae (the family of fifteen crane species)
Genus: Antigone (this puzzles me because most people seem to use Grus or another genus name)
Species (my Brolga!): Antigone rubicunda

Amazing! I know something!

Wings Big Year: How many families?

Wings Big Year

When I tick sighted birds off a list, I’m ticking off a species. But species fit into “families.” How many families? In 1984, Simpson and Day showed this map. It’s interesting that the most number of families in one continent is 86 in South America, which also has a staggering number of 31 families found on no other continent. Australia has the second largest number of endemic families, namely 15.

Here I’m merely nibbling at the edges of the question of how many families exist, and will need to find a different book/text. I hope I don’t get confused.

What a bird isn’t

Wings Big Year

Such a pleasure putting everything else aside each afternoon (or sometimes at night) to spend my Wings Big Year hour musing on this:

What’s a bird?

When we were holidaying recently, we stumbled across a copy of the Simpson & Day bird guide incarnated in its 1984 edition. Here’s the start of its influential words and I like the practical orientation: “When you see a bird, it is going about one aspect of its day, its year, its life.” A bird is a bird. It is not “cute” or “friendly” of “happy” or any other human-oriented adjective. Birds are birds and humans are humans.

Wings Big Year: What then is a bird?

Wings Big Year

That’s the quandary to ponder an hour each day. When I begin on something like this, you’d think I’d use a systematic approach but no, I stab at the topic.

Why not use a “proper” approach? Under such an approach, I might go to Wikipedia or a dictionary, or I might Google looking for a reference work or textbook. In other words, find the definitive masterpiece tackling the topic. I’d then examine its bibliography and select a dozen books that address the topics I’m interested in exploring. I’d buy them and get to taking notes. Great, yes?

No, not great, at least for me. It seems far too daunting to tackle a big reading list. Instead, I seize a book I have or have glanced at or have heard about, and just zip through it. If it’s a waste of time, I try something else. If it adds something, I rather haphazardly pick one of the references in the book and repeat the process. In other words, I “have a go” and flail away. In my experience, what then happens is that my brain starts ordering my activities. Over time, some kind of logic of data collection or of initial thinking reveals itself. Over time, I become more organized. Over time, order emerges from chaos.

Does this method waste time? You’d think so but no, again in my experience, this process is pretty efficient. It gets me into the meat of the subject fast, it produces data fast, it gets my thinking up fast.

Anyway, that’s my methodology and I’m sticking by it.

Wings Big Year: An hour’s work

Wings Big Year

Let’s zero in on this exploration of what a bird is. What is a crane? With only fifteen species, I’ll see what I can do as fast as I can. A summary, that’s what I’m after. The go-to book (though not necessarily the best kind-of-textbook; we shall see) is The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes by legendary naturalist and novelist Peter Matthiessen. This hardcover, which I bought when it came out in 2001, is one of my few remaining physical books.

First things first: 11 of the 15 are of the species Grus, 2 are Anthropoides, 2 are Balearica. 14 of the 15 are called “crane,” while Australia’s predominant species is the Brolga. Andres, memorise, please.

The first notable in the book is a map inside the front cover, “Cranes in the Western Hemisphere,” which is essentially North America and some of Greenland and Siberia (why isn’t South America included?). Only two cranes appear, the Whooping Crane, shown as breeding only in a Canadian national park; and the Sandhill Crane, of which Matthiessen says it breeds from Eastern Siberia to Canada and northern USA, plus a few permanent populations shown down eastern U.S.A. The map shows eight protected sites and six other locations with unfamiliar names.

Inside the back cover is the flip map, “Cranes in the Eastern Hemisphere,” which is far more busy. Europe has the Eurasian Crane (or the Common Crane, the one we probably noticed in kids’ books), possibly more in the Urals than in the populous areas. Africa has the Black-Crowned Crane up in the northwest, in countries I know nothing about; the Gray-Crowned over in Ethiopia and down south; the Wattled all through the south and east; and the Blue only in Botswana. Australia has the Brolga (this is the only crane I’ve seen!) and up in the remote north, the Sarus Crane. The Siberian Crane is where you’d think it is. Mongolia is where you’ll find the Demoiselle (what a name!), go to Afghanistan or Nepal for the Black-Necked, the Hooded is near Lake Baikal in most remote Siberia, and the White-Naped seems to be in most northern China. The only crane I’ve read a little about, the Red-Crowned Crane, is in a couple of spots, north and south, in Japan. Confusingly, this map says “winter ranges not indicated” (more complexity!) Triumph! After an hour, I now know something. If I’m bored tonight, I can memorise and mentally recreate maps. Tomorrow: how many of each of these 15 species fly the skies of the world?