News archive

March 2019

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Sunset over Cliffe, Kent

Big Day Downunder by Alan Pearson

I certainly do have a competitive streak in me, but I really don't think that's it. Why then do I enjoy 'Big Days' so much?

For those unfamiliar with them, the idea is to see or hear as many species as possible within a day, and within a specified area. The latter could be, say, within your garden, within a particular nature reserve; within your borough; perhaps within the Oystercard area, or even just 'within the British Isles'. Quite apart from the environmental concerns of covering a large area though (which necessitates driving), time is always of the essence. The important thing is trying to visit as many habitats as possible without wasting time in between.

So just what is the appeal? I find it great to be truly focused for a whole day, making sure that every bird gets identified and that none of the common birds get forgotten or overlooked. It's then really rewarding watching the list grow, either through your own effort or with the camaraderie of teamwork. It's also a great way of raising money through sponsorship for the RSPB.

The planning and strategy is a rewarding intellectual exercise too. Which birds might you only encounter at dawn or dusk? Are there any particular sites that are necessary for certain species, and can you afford the time to visit them? How do you get round your chosen sites as efficiently as possible? Yet another thing I love is that a Big Day gets me around all the places I sometimes forget about, giving me the extra incentive to visit those sites that are off my regular circuit. Our borough for example has a very respectable diversity of sites and habitats. As well as the obvious gardens, parks and woodland, there's also lakes, ponds and wetland, and chalk downland. All in all then I was delighted when in 2015 John Birkett introduced The Big Day challenge for our borough, with the aim of raising money for the RSPB.

Last May however I wasn't to be in Croydon, so I couldn't compete in my usual team, 'The Dodgy Tickers'. I felt disappointed at this, but then wondered why being on the other side of the world should stop me.

My wife and I were visiting Western Australia at that time, but since we were on holiday I said I'd match the date that suited my usual fellow team members - it's never easy for a team to find a mutually convenient date. This meant that I would be a few days into our trip, but hopefully by then I'd be accustomed to the calls of at least the most common species, a real help for identification. I was also armed with one of the world's best field guides, the excellent 'Australian Bird Guide' by Peter Menkhorst et al. Fortunately the chosen date landed me in an area that promised a nice mixture of habitats in an area roughly the size of our borough at home: Esperance on the South West coast. A study online showed it held ponds, lakes, heath and a rocky coastline.

I won't bore the reader with a complete bird-by-bird account, but in a nutshell I started at dawn overlooking the tree-fringed ponds at our new accommodation in the excellent 'EcoValley Retreat' just outside town. I listened to the bizarre mixture of twanging, yodelling, shrieks, rattles and roars that makes up the Aussie dawn chorus, identifying the species I'd already learnt. By now I was familiar with the more obvious and iconic Australian species such as currawongs, magpies and Willie Wagtails, though some of the bird families there are unrelated to those of the same name in Europe. I found a new bird or 'lifer' for me, a Western Wattlebird: a brown, streaked, long-tailed and roughly thrush-sized bird. As I continued around an area of sandy heath, surprises included a flock of lorikeets and a Fan-tailed Cuckoo, which against the often secretive ways of its family was sitting obligingly out in the open.

By breakfast my list was at eighteen plus a couple of 'possibles' - these were soon confirmed with further views from our balcony once I was suitably fortified. It was clear by now that it was going to be a gloriously sunny late autumn day.

The morning was largely spent around the area of Windabout Lakes. Wetlands are always great for increasing the species diversity and I was not disappointed by the selection of waterfowl and landbirds, including a delightful Red-capped Robin which brought my total to forty species. A quick visit to the wonderfully named Bandy Creek brought a couple of cormorant species, but my attempt to visit the local water treatment plant was thwarted by fences and strict 'no entry' signs. Undeterred, I got the best views I could by climbing up onto the car to use as a vantage point, successfully adding another couple of waterbirds - Australian Shelduck and Cape Barren Goose - along with a fly-past Tree Martin and two species of pigeon.

In town we made a brief stop outside the Tourist Information Centre where I checked through the melee of honeyeaters in the flowering trees, finding my second lifer of the day, the recently recognised species, Gilbert's Honeyeater, amongst the scores of New Holland Honeyeaters, one of the continent's most common and conspicuous birds.

The afternoon saw a complete contrast as we drove along the spectacular coastal road, looking down onto an unfeasibly blue sea and crashing waves. Some great seabirds including Australian Gannets, Crested Terns and Sooty Oystercatchers (like an all black version of our own) brought my list to fifty four. One beach I'd hoped to scan for waders however held a naked man walking up and down enjoying the sunshine. I wasn't going to take my telescope out there!

By the time we headed back into town the sun was setting and it looked like I was finished for the day - probably at about the time my friends in England would be identifying their first birds! It wasn't over yet though. Stepping out of a grocery shop we were treated to the sight of several Carnaby's Black Cockatoos heading over towards their roost site. These huge, black parrots look almost harrier-like in flight and the unexpected sight of them drifting buoyantly overhead against the red sky was exhilarating.

I was beaten fairly comprehensively by others, but it was still great fun and one of the standout days of a very memorable trip. I certainly hope my experience will encourage anyone who is wavering: they really should take part in this year's event. Although I don't want to undermine the group's very important local ethos, I'd also point out that being out of the area is no excuse!

My thanks go to my long-suffering wife Anne, who put up with the day's shenanigans, tirelessly acting as companion, caterer, map reader and cheerleader. Should you be lucky enough to be visiting Western Australia at any time I'd also thoroughly recommend the Esperance area and especially the wonderful EcoValley Retreat at Pink Lake.