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Sean Dooley The Big Twitch, 2005
Occasionally, you read a book that you wouldn’t normally and it surprises you. The Big Twitch is such a book. We were staying with Denise’s mother in Cowra a week ago and I picked up The Big Twitch and began to read it. I found it hard to put down.
Sean Dooley was a comedy writer for several TV series, but he’d been a birder since primary school. A birder is a (serious) birdwatcher. A twitcher is a person who ticks off the birds they have seen on a list and pejoratively is only interested in the ticking and not in the watching of birds at all. In a group of birders unfamiliar with one another, the term twitcher will be used with derision.
Sean Dooley in his Glossowary, after his two Forewords, defines Twitcher as: An extremely dangerous creature with a nasty reputation. However, he goes on to say that it doesn’t have the extremely negative connotation in Australia that it does in the UK.
Sean has a very difficult task in writing this book as he begins with two mutually exclusive audiences who initially are both hostile to the content. He solves this initially with his two Forewords and Glossowary. Both are amusing and serve the purpose of relaxing you and luring you into the book. Others have used the approach successfully and unsuccessfully; the tone has to be just right.
The two Forewards are for birders and non-birders. They are exactly the same with minimal word changes, but a completely different emphasis. Each group is disparaged: as I try and placate those weird birdo/non-birdo readers. Clever but not too clever; amusing rather than insulting.
Once lured the author still has to attract and sustain your interest. This is not so easy, when you learn that the book is about a nerdy birder who has taken time off working to see as many birds in one calendar year as is possible from an official list of Australian birds.
Sean’s brilliance is that he grasps your interest immediately and manages to sustain it throughout. I found the book hard to put down. There were no slow patches. Besides, it provides a great summary of the natural environments in Australia.
My non-birder status
I am a non-birder but as a zoologist I had privileged access to professional ornithologists (birders) in my twenties. On field trips and excursions I travelled with people who were excellent birdwatchers, as well as being experts on bird behaviour and ecology. In later life I have about three friends who are birdwatchers and on rare occasions I go out with them.
We also went on a trip to the Kimberley in May 1998 for a month with Denise’s mother Shirley. The trip started and ended in Alice Springs. I had always wanted to cross the Tanamai Desert, which we did twice. The trip was with Northwest Safaris (Peter and Janet have since retired) and was a birders’ trip, though probably about half the 14 participants were birders. We consequently visited the Broome observatory on Roebuck Bay and other birder locations mentioned by Sean, and on other trips I have visited some of the prime birding locations, but very few of them.
I must admit that the birders on this trip, as with the professional ornithologists and others, were very generous of their time and expertise, whilst still exhibiting the weird nerdy and competitive character traits mentioned by Sean.
As a non-birder I have probably seen more Australian birds than some birders have, but I am not in the league of Sean and his mates. I must start to count them (oh, no!). I am a hopeless birder, I can never see what others see unless it is carefully pointed out to me and even then…
Having talked to Shirley and other birders, Sean says as well, the skills acquired by birders over the years are substantial. One has to practice at seeing birds in the wild and identifying them is often not easy. You have to constantly refer to the books, memorise key criteria, and then put them into practice, when sometimes seeing birds for only a few seconds.
The Big Twitch
Sean Dooley doesn’t go into his plan in detail, but he gets together with his closest birding mates Puke and Groober to develop a strategy for the maximum birds to see in a year and then floats it to other mentors in the birding community. He also publicly floats what he is going to do on the Birds Australia website — to mixed reactions, many of which are probably discussed more behind his back.
As the book progresses, one gradually gets the idea that he is going to visit the best birding sites in Australia (and its external territories) at the most appropriate times of year, within a very carefully selected strategy. Some of the bird sites are pelagic and involve travelling on boats out to the continental shelf. There are also considerable flights involved to get around quickly.
Sean doesn’t go into his strategy (because it would be boring) but you soon realise that it is somewhat akin to a military campaign. He is in constant touch by social media, email, text and phone with the birding community who support him with information.
He finds some birds easily, some require huge efforts and some don’t appear at all — this is called dipping out. Grip off is another unpleasant experience for one party — it is teasing another birder, after seeing a bird the other hasn’t.
Sometimes Sean has to make decisions instantly to abandon what he is doing and fly across the country to view a rare bird, or one that shouldn’t be in Australia at all. At one point he flies from Perth to Sydney and back to see a Canada Goose that shouldn’t be there, at Shoalhaven Heads south of Sydney. (He also sees a Koel at Sydney airport that he has been missing everywhere. We had our first Koel in a tree outside our house in Canberra blown in from the coast by a storm. We heard it, did we hear it, but we couldn’t see it for a few days.)
On another occasion, he flies from Derby WA to Cairns and back to see an Issebelline Wheatear (a small bird that should be no closer than Africa or India, but has one sighting record from Burma). The amazing thing is that at airports he meets other birders he knows who at are crossing the continent on similar mad scrambles.
The book contains 35 chapters in date order, each of which have a helpful small map of Australia showing his journeys for that part of the trip and in each he describes what he is up to. There is also an Epilogue and a bird list at the end.
Sean’s genius is that he can intersperse the descriptions of what he is up to and the birds he is seeing, with excellent descriptions of each part of Australia, the people he meets up with and he uses these as jumping off points for stories about different parts of his life. The book is amusing rather than funny, the stories interesting and warm-hearted. Sean is self-deprecating but not overly so. You believe him.
Over time one also builds up strong impressions of the people he meets and knows and of birders or twitchers in general. Although all amateur birdwatchers would deny this vehemently, from Sean’s descriptions they are all twitchers.
Sean Dooley is apologetic about the nerdy, poorly socialised and weird fraternity of birders at the beginning and continues the theme, but you realise soon that it is a loving portrait. Many traits are admirable, particularly as you meet his friends, mentors, colleagues and altruistic supporters many of them several times. But, there is a nasty edge to birding too. Big egos are involved.
On our birding trip to the Kimberley, Denise and I were not engaged in the birder dynamic, because we were beginners and of no consequence. People were mostly nice to us. One of the first things we noticed was that one person was particularly good at spotting birds, named all the birds in the area casually but early, which some hadn’t seen. He was rather irritating, even for us.
We became excited at some of the things we saw but had to learn to be careful to avoid put downs and unspoken disdain. For example, we saw our first pair of Pheasant Coucals and followed them for half-an-hour. We were gobsmacked by these beautiful birds, but no-one else seemed interested when we got back. Hence years later, I am heartened by Sean’s description of the same thing.
The largest member of the Australian cuckoos, the Pheasant Coucal looks more like an archaeopterix than the birdie that pops out of a clock, so it is quite an impressive bird. One flapped across the road as we were driving and Chris slammed on the brakes and was out stalking it with such concentration that Jules [Chris’s girlfriend] and I were in hysterics. His sheer delight at seeing it reminded me of the thrill of discovery that got me into birding in the first place.
Sean’s description of the birder’s yacht trip to the Torres Strait is quite funny in parts and explains why he often prefers to go birding alone or occasionally with close companions. Sean explains:
Of the others, only Fred was able to get a tickable view of the pigeons, which made for a rather subdued evening aboard. And this was not the only little storm cloud brewing over us. There was also the pratincole protocol.
He goes on to talk about The Australian Pratincole. Three people announce that they’ve also seen an Oriental Pratincole. There is disbelief from others who also saw the darker bird in the flock, but it was not big enough… And Mike puts a query against it in the log.
Sean says in an attempt to defuse the situation:
‘Maybe there was another darker bird and it had blown away before we could scope it?’
‘Yes there must have been,’ came the grim faced reply.
After this, there were several other incidents and a schism in the group. Sean stayed with his friend and mentor Mike who was the cause of the dissent, as did some others. This led to Sean’s group seeing the Red-Capped Flowerpecker while the others didn’t. Emotions seethed.
On our trip to the Kimberley we saw the bird that Sean didn’t see in his Big Twitch the Black Grasswren on the Mitchell Plateau. (The road was closed because of the impending wet and he lacked the funds at this stage to pay $2000 for a charter flight.) However, in our group there were also some who didn’t see the bird. By this stage of the trip, at least one person (and probably more), normally the most amenable and generous of people, were quite determined not to aid certain other members of the party in seeing it. Ah, the travails of birdwatching.
Throughout his pursuit of The Big Twitch Sean did meet some negative feedback, particularly at one stage from someone he didn’t know, who was incensed at his temerity.
Another confession from a fellow birder on the Lamington Plateau, Qld is poignant.
I remembered talking with Geoff on the first Port Fairy Pelagic back in March, when he’d seemed totally flummoxed that I was presumptuous enough to say I was going after seven hundred species for the year.
Later he confessed to me that until that day out on the Lamington Track he had not only been sceptical but a little peeved at my attempt, fearing if I did manage to reach seven hundred on my first try it would somehow devalue it for everybody else. But as he left me on the mountain that day feeling quite knackered after his recent birding efforts, his attitude to my quest was turned around. He couldn’t believe I was still out there trying to chase this recalcitrant bird down and thought, ‘If Sean’s going to put that much into it. He’s welcome to the record.’
Sean doesn’t lose his sense of humour though at times things must have seemed desperate.
Sean did manage to see 703 birds in twelve months in 2002 (see list below). The previous records were 545 by his hero Roy Wheeler in 1979, 607 by Kevin Bartram in 1982 and 633 by Mike Entwhistle in 1989.
Two years later in 2004 he says that he is happier and totally comfortable in his own skin as a legacy of the Big Twitch.
Sean says on several occasions that he used his inheritance to finance the trip. The attempt was not inconsiderable in time travel or hardship. He took his own four-wheel drive, camped and stayed with friends regularly throughout. Nevertheless, not including the car:
It took me twelve months of hard slog, almost a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres of travel: eighty thousand by road, sixty thousand by air and two thousand by boat. It cost around forty thousand dollars not including the price of the four wheel drive, video and other equipment, all for seven hundred and three species and a swag of amazing memories.
Key words: Sean Dooley, birdwatching, birder, twitcher, Australia, Australian Birds, calendar year, record, conservation, environment, Birdlife Australia, Australian Birdlife
Steve Weigel in 2012 broke Sean’s record of 720 bird species in 2002 (enlarged by changes in the official lists — subspecies becoming species, etcetera) with 745 species. However, bird numbers and bird species in Australia are in long-term decline.
From 1896 some gentlemen ornithologists began dining together in Melbourne. In 1901 The Australasian Ornithologists Union and in 1905 the Bird Observers Club came into being. These two organisations now called Birds Australia and BOCA (work it out) amalgamated in 2010 to become Birdlife Australia a new and stronger conservation organisation. Birdlife Australia has over 10,000 members and a further 65,000 supporters, 30 local branches, two reserves, two observatories, a member’s magazine and two peer-reviewed scientific journals. Sean is involved in the magazine Australian Birdlife.
The birding community in Australia run mainly by volunteers has been at the forefront of developing knowledge on bird numbers, habitat and conservation. Nevertheless, bird numbers (particularly water and woodland species) are declining drastically.
This is in a country where politicians have made the term greenie a dirty word and a large number of them deny that climate change is even happening.
Conservation and the environment are not given much support at government level in Australia, economic development is God and subsumes everything else. Whilst the bulk of the population believes that protection of the environment is one of the biggest issues we face.
This dichotomy will disappear over time, but the damage caused will be very difficult to reverse. The birding community is very important in fostering this change.
An excellent book. Well worth reading, even if you have no interest in birdwatching.
Sean Dooley The Big Twitch Allen & Unwin, 2005 (322 pp)
Sean’s quotes in order are: Pheasant Coucal p. 266; Torres Straight Ch 22 p. 194 et seq.; Conversation with Geoff on the Lamington Plateau p.219; Summing up p. 299.
Some more information on Sean Dooley
Sean Dooley in Conversation with Richard Fidler (52.15 min)
Liza Power The Sydney Morning Herald Twitching and the city, 1 September 2012
ABC Radio Transcript Birdwatcher Interview with George Negus, 24 November 2004
Announcement of first issue of Australian Birdlife
Australian Big Years List to 2010 (Note: Sean’s Comment below)
Wikipedia’s article is very USA focused but lists at bottom a series of published books including Sean’s
Steve Weigel beats Sean’s record in 2012
Sean Dooley’s Big Twitch Bird List PDF
World Big Twitch
Ruth and Allan Davies World Twitch 4000 birds in 2010
Noah Stryker in 2015 saw 6042 species in on year