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
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.
Wings Big Year work: IPBES and the Crane species
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?
Wings Big Year: A restart
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)
Wings Big Year: The pain of giving up a dream
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…
How many Aussie birds?
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?
Strycker’s global numbers and he should know
In round figures I’ve always “known” there are something like 10,000 bird species on this Earth of ours. But what’s the precise number? Not having tracked down a full range of data sources, not being an academic, all I’ve done so far is flail around in some books.
Noah Strycker’s “Birding Without Borders: An Obsession, A Quest, and the Biggest Year in the World,” relates how he kicked off January 1, 2015 in Antarctica and then sought 5,000 bird species in South America, Central America, U.S.A., Europe, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia. It’s a beguiling tale and a beguiling read, but today I was most interested in one question: if 5,000 species was the target over 2015, how many species does he reckon exist? I used to be an actuary, so numbers are important, right?
Well, Strycker writes thus:
Although hard to believe in this globalized age, there is no single, agreed-upon checklist of all the bird species on Earth. Instead, we have competing interpretations: the Americans versus the rest of the world. In the United States, most birders use the Clements Checklist, which is periodically updated by experts at Cornell University and which recognized 10,365 living bird species while I traveled in 2015. In Europe and other parts of the world, birders tend to rely instead on the International Ornithological Congress (IOC), a progressive committee that acknowledged 10,612 species in 2015.
So, let’s call it “around 10,500.” What do I want to DO with this number. Do I wish to see and tick off a certain portion of this 10,500 – what, 2,000 or 5,000 in my lifetime – or am I interested in pursuing select species, to get to know them? Who knows? Thinking cap time.
Wings Big Year: When did Dooley tick the cranes?
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
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
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.