Monday, May 08, 2006

This was how it all started. A book review for Canberra Bird Notes, and the final sentence...'As for me, after reading the book and trying it for myself I am attempting my own big year in 2006 within the ACT... stay tuned'.

The Big Twitch by Sean Dooley
One Man, One Continent, A Race Against Time - A True Story About Birdwatching

336 pages Publisher: Allen & Unwin September 2005 ISBN: 1741145287

Reviewed by Alastair Smith


While participating in the COG ‘Blitz’ weekend in October 2005, Michael Wright and I stumbled upon a female Turquoise Parrot in Namadgi National Park. The ‘Turk’ was deemed the most twitchable bird of the weekend we won a copy Sean Dooley’s book The Big Twitch, though, not without a catch – I was obliged to write a review for Canberra Bird Notes.

Using money left to him by his recently deceased parents, thirty-something Sean Dooley suffering from a liberal dose of Aspergers Syndrome set out ‘to piss an inheritance up against the wall’ on what he coined as ‘The Big Twitch’, an effort to see more than 700 species of Australian birds in the 2002 calendar year - a goal many of the country’s leading twitchers including Mike Carter had told him was unobtainable.

Possibly to keep himself honest but more likely to ensure that he couldn’t back out without humiliation, he informed the wider Australian birding community in an email to the birding discussion group ‘Birding-aus’ before he set out to find his first bird on the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2002 (which for the record was a sooty owl). The Big Twitch is the story of that year.

Those of us who were subscribed to Birding-aus in 2002 were able to follow the twitch from inception to finish in weekly instalments and I remember eagerly anticipating the post. Indeed for those looking for a read that is more bird-centric and less travelogue, I recommend you search the archives and read these posts.

While I have read one critique where the reviewer just did not get the birdwatching thing, the general birding audience will find the book an immensely readable account of the highs and lows of Sean’s crusade to achieve what he calls the ‘greatest pathetic achievement in Australian history’. You’ll have to read it yourself to see if Sean was successful and whether or not he ticked the Grey Falcon and found a girlfriend (two minor sub plots to the story).

The Big Twitch joins a number of books in the genre, the majority of which are set in the US; most recently Mark Osmascik’s bestseller The Big Year (2004), but also Kingbird Highway by Kenn Kaufman (1997), Call Collect ask for Birdman by James Vardaman (1980) and two by America’s number one twitcher Sanford Komito, Birding’s Indiana Jones: A Chaser's Diary (1990) and I Came, I Saw, I Counted (2005). I know of only one British book, Arrivals and Rivals by Adrian Riley (2004).

Having read these accounts, with the exception of Komito’s books, I was expecting a similar formula, except with Australian locations and Australian birds thrown coupled with the names of a few birders whose names are familiar to me. To a limited extent the book does follow a formula, but only inasmuch as all these books are about a quest to observe more birds in a geographical area than anyone else in a 12-month period.

Where Sean has it over all the other writers is that not only is he a twitcher but he’s also a lawyer, a comedy writer and a stand up comic - not surprisingly his one man show was about birdwatching. While I won’t hold the first against him, it is his witty, satirical and self depreciating view of the world and himself that makes the account so readable, I am sure to both birders and ‘dudes’ alike.

Indeed you know you’re in for an amusing read when you notice that the book has two forwards - the first ‘for birders’ starts, ‘White-bellied cuckoo shrike. Red-necked Phalarope. Forty Spotted Pardalote. There now that the non-birdwatchers have lost interest …’ , whereas the other forward ‘for non-birders’ starts ‘Feelings. Relationships. Social Interactions. Now that the birdwatchers have lost interest...’. I read these forwards out aloud to my non-birding wife and even she showed interest in reading a bird book.

For 52 weeks in 2002 Sean spent in excess of $40 000 travelling throughout Australia and its overseas territories (excluding Antarctica) adding birds to his list in an attempt to shatter the previous record of 633. In his attempt Dooley would travel twice around Australia (80 000 kilometres by car and 60 000km by plane) as well as 2000km by boat. Englishmen Mike Entwhistle had set that record in 1989 - and incredibly his score was achieved only on mainland Australia and not the external territories. Unfortunately Mike went on to show that twitching can also be a dangerous pursuit where when while birding in Peru, he was murdered by shining path guerrillas who thought he was a CIA operative.

I remember reading on Birding-aus and later in the book, his revelation in late September that he was near to giving it all away stating, ‘I was over it’. I have not experienced what Sean experienced - his lonely long distance chase, highlighted by a constant fear of dipping and not achieving his publicly stated goal. Sean must have been plagued with the fear of failure as well as exhaustion. I was intrigued why he would consider throwing it all away when many birders would give their eye-teeth to bird solidly for 12 months. I have an inkling that the twitching game requires enormous mental and physical effort and I now applaud his stamina.

While twitching is often a pursuit looked down upon by the general bird watching fraternity, I wonder how many reading this review have at some stage twitched a bird. I’ll admit to twitch anon. ‘My name is Alastair Smith and I maintain an ACT list and I travel within the ACT to twitch new birds. There, it’s in the public domain. Prior to last year, however, I had never travelled far to twitch a bird – indeed til then the furthest I had travelled was the Vespa from Civic to Dunlop after a Zebra Finch - I had not experienced the rollercoaster of emotions that come with dipping while attempting to reach a seemingly impossible goal. I wanted to explore this further and was offered an opportunity late last year when the navy asked me to spend three weeks in Darwin.

Unlike previous stints with the navy sailing to exotic locales like Ashmore Reef, this time I was to be a landlubber. This would provide a perfect opportunity to clean up on those pesky NT endemics I needed for my life list while experiencing first hand the trials and tribulations of twitching. In previous visits I had just birded whereas this time the birding was serious - thus for a three week period I undertook a serious experiment for this review – I lived the life of a twitcher.

Thus with judicious planning, a copy of ‘Birds of Darwin, Kakadu and the Top End’ and armed with local knowledge, November saw me in and around Darwin and the national parks of Kakadu and Litchfield, travelling on the roads that Sean had travelled three years previously, looking for the same birds in those same trusted places. I spent one weekend visiting Kakadu with the aim of seeing 17 species. On the first day things went well and I added Letter-winged Kite near Fogg Dam, Mangrove Golden Whistler and Arafura Fantail at Adelaide River and both Black-tailed Treecreeper and Masked Finch at Bird Billabong.

With an authoritative guidebook to follow I was beginning to think that the twitching game was easy, until I dipped on the Buff-sided Robin both at the bamboo walk at the Mary River Lodge and the recently burnt vegetation at Mamukala Wetlands –supposedly a certainty in both locations. Undeterred my campaign continued across Kakadu to Bardedjilidji and the Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon (tick), Sandstone Shrike-Thrush (tick) and White-lined Honeyeater (dip). Onto my last site at Nourlangie in the oppressive heat and humidity of the build-up I found the White-lined Honeyeater but dipped on the Banded Fruit-Dove.

The following weekend it was a 500km detour back to Bird Billabong for the robin (tick) but in the heat I decided against a further attempt for the Fruit-Dove. It could wait for my next Darwin trip - whenever that may be. Thinking about my decision I glimpsed the world of Sean Dooley. Sean did not have the luxury of leaving a species unticked and would have stayed to find that pigeon. From that moment I understood and respected his inner strength and stamina. With approximately 830 birds on the Australian list, of which he assessed only 710 to be achievable, Sean could ill afford any dips. Each and every site around this continent needed to reveal its key species before Sean could move on or the risk potential failure.

And if you think that Dools got the twitching bug out of his system, he went birding again on 1 January 2003. Moreover if you think in the intervening years he may have slowed down he has just posted a piece on Birding-aus about ‘A Big Day’ which was his attempt to see more birds in Victoria in a calendar day than…well who knows …he’s not sure if it has been done before.

While there are those birders that don’t write lists and look scornfully at the ‘sport’ of twitching I am sure all COG members will find something in this book that they enjoy even if it is the ‘feelings, relationships and social interactions’.

As for me, after reading the book and trying it for myself I am attempting my own big year in 2006 within the ACT... stay tuned.