• CommonWombat (Custom)
    • Jas Scotia
Dec 25: That’s it folks

Today was my last day in Brisbane this year, and I’m writing this from 40,000 feet in the air aboard a flight bound for Dubai, then on to the UK, where we will be until Jan 24. As I crossed the Gateway Bridge, the view of the distinctive CBD skyline in the setting sun symbolised a great year spent birding in Brisbane. Surely one of the birdiest cities in the world! It’s official, I will finish the year on 305 species, which far surpassed my initial prediction of 253!! In the end, 9 birders finished above that total of 253. I’ll go through the birding highlights in more detail in another post, but several aspects of the big year surprised and delighted me, and I’m totally pleased that I did it.

First and foremost, I reconnected with nature. The last few years have been increasingly busy at work. Very enjoyable, but very busy – and like many jobs, academia will take all you can throw at it, and more. The basic truth is that if you work more hours, you’ll produce more scientific output. It really feels like a slippery slope – easy to get addicted to an ever-increasing time commitment to work, at the expense of other important things in life. My young family has been a huge priority for me since our daughter was born in 2012, and the increasing busy-ness of work has led to nature study being squeezed out of the diary, with almost all my time being spent at work or with family. This was a shame, because a love of nature was the thing that got me into science in the first place, and increasingly I believe it is fundamental to my wellbeing. This year compelled me to spent lots of time in nature, and I felt much the better for it. Being in nature, and particularly doing something purposeful like birding means that one really only cares about the present – what is happening around you and why? It enforces a kind of mindfulness; the past or the future don’t matter.

Second, I discovered what a brilliant community of birders there is in Brisbane. A group of folks where the experts freely give their time and expertise to help beginners, and there’s a real sense of camaraderie and shared purpose. Kindness, and not much politics. Really refreshing, having been brought up in British birding, which is a fascinating scene, but overly dominated by some strong characters and an at time and intense game of politics.

Third, it cemented my love of eBird. Almost all the keenest birders in Brisbane use eBird to document their observations, and this is gold for the group of folks engaged in Brisbane year listing. We could communicate quickly and efficiently with each other – alerts would email us at hourly intervals with any observations of year ticks, and I was frequently spurred into action by the appearance of an eBird alert. I became convinced that eBird is the way of the future – sharing, documenting, archiving all birding records. And not just for birders, but for ecology and conservation research too. Validated eBird records get passed to Birdlife Australia’s Birdata database, the Atlas of Living Australia, and also on to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility. This means the records are available to scientists and others studying biodversity anywhere around the world. Truly brilliant stuff! Have a think about where your valuable records go – do they end up somehwere they can be used and stored for the future? If not, I encourage you to get yourself a free eBird account today and get started. Will your birding discoveries just die with you, or will they be around for future birders to learn from?

Fourth, I learnt heaps about Brisbane’s birds. For example, I hadn’t realised how rare Crested Terns become in the cooler months – they pretty much completely clear out of Brisbane during winter, presumably to breed on the Great Barrier Reef, starting to return in December or so. A number of new sites for Barn Owl were documented during the year, several singing Jacky Winters were present out west, and a huge invasion of White-browed and Masked Woodswallows was a highlight. All these were good learning experiences for me, yet it also brought home to me how little birding effort has been put in to the western woodlands flanking the west side of Mount Nebo and Mount Glorious. This all cemented my goal of creating an Atlas of the Birds of Brisbane, to bring together in one place everything we know about Brisbane’s birds. I will write a post about this soon, and we’ll be launching the Atlas on 1 Jan 2019 – look out for it, and especially how you can contribute to filling in survey gaps and writing species accounts. For a sneak preview check out http://brisbanebirds.com

Fifth, it reconfirmed to me what a strong family we are. My wife was super supportive of (if a little baffled by) the big year effort, and recognises my need to spend time in nature. On many occasions she had to do the heavy lifting at home while I dashed off for yet another stomp round Oxley Creek Common or some other such flight of fancy. I am truly grateful. The kids were flummoxed by the whole thing – “Daddy, birdwatching is boring snoring…” But we made it through.

For all its thrills and successes, the year was also undeniably hard work in places, with 17 dips on Black Bittern in the end – a species that continued to taunt me right to the end, when yet another photograph of one appeared on the Facebook feeds, this time from the northern bank of the Brisbane River (and hence just inside the Brisbane LGA) at Colleges Crossing on Christmas Eve! I also remember the cheerless mope around Shelley Road Park in the dense fog looking for a Red-backed Kingfisher that had been seen the previous afternoon, but never reappeared. And the heartstopping moment when Ged Tranter phoned to say he’d found Brisbane’s first Buff-breasted Sandpiper at Tinchi Tamba, while I was at the other end of the country in Hobart – the bird was twitched by a few local birders that afternoon but then promptly disappeared. However, this particular demon was eventually exorcised a few weeks later when the same bird or another was found at the Port of Brisbane roost by Tina Rider and Sean Nolan and widely twitched by local and interstate birders. Another low was crashing out of the March pelagic because of being hospitalised with pneumonia, during which episode they also discovered I had Type I diabetes. Once I was out of hospital, the diabetes didn’t disrupt birding too much at all, and with careful planning, I don’t think it’ll limit future birding in any way. It does have an impact on lifespan, which is irritating given my plans for retirement world birding(!), but I’m trying to limit that with very tight blood sugar control. And ironically I’m probably healthier now than I’ve ever been, with a carefully thought-out and super healthy diet!

Would I have done anything differently? Well, perhaps. In general, my strategy was built around focusing on difficult species rather than trying to amass a high species count quickly. Going for rare stuff first, and moving quickly whenever the chance arose to try for a difficult species. Inevitably, there were times when I bumped into a species again, after having put in huge amounts of effort for it (e.g. a Little Eagle sailing over suburban east Brisbane after spending multiple days searching for the lingering bird at Shelley Road Park). There were plenty of dips, but most of those defeats were fair and square, not through poor strategic decision-making. I should have gone to Moreton Island more times, but those trips are time consuming, and doing more of them would have entailed unacceptable amounts of time away from family, at short notice, which is very disruptive. If I ever do this again, it’ll have to be post-retirement, when I can do a series of multi-day trips to Moreton Island at short notice for seawatching. Also, more adventure birding would have been good. I should have bought a kayak and spent time checking out Brisbane extensive network of creeks. This would almost certainly have landed me Black Bittern, and it’s a project I want to try out next year. A more complete attempt to look for Black-breasted Button-quail, based on systematic searching in appropriate habitat. In general, more careful use of vegetation mapping to guide searching for some of the rarer species might have paid dividends, but again I would have needed big blocks of time, and time was a scarce commodity. More expeditionary birding in the western woodlands would surely have yielded some additional species, but again the time commitment was not possible for me. In short, there is lots we still don’t know about which species occur where in Brisbane, highlighting the urgent need for the Atlas of the Birds of Brisbane.

What will I do next year? I will focus on birding to fill gaps in the Atlas of the Birds of Brisbane. This year has necessarily entailed spending much time at heavily visited sites – these are often the places where rare birds get found, and the dedicated year lister cannot avoid them. Next year I’m going off the beaten track. I’ll be searching out birds in under-watched Atlas squares (like Whoa Boy and ), hoping to find new sites for birds, and maybe locating one or two difficult-to-find species that I didn’t see this year, such as Yellow Thornbill, Glossy-Black Cockatoo or Black-breasted Button-quail.

Brisbane CBD, as viewed from the Gateway Bridge en route to the airport in an Uber. Sunset on a brilliant year of Brisbane birding.