Watch out, Drongos: competitive birders gear up for 30-hour Twitchathon challenge

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Mick Roderick is a five-time bird-spotting king, serial champion and former record holder. This week, he is ready to get back on top. In his sights are a team called the Dodgy Drongos, who have dominated the competition in recent years.

His sport of choice is the Twitchathon, a 30-hour cross-country birding challenge organised by conservation body BirdLife Australia as part of national bird week. His team, the Hunter Home Brewers, plan on travelling 11,000km, from the mountains of the Great Dividing Range to the New South Wales coast.

“If you want to be competitive in New South Wales, you need to start west of the Great Dividing Range,” he says. “Getting the maximum number of species is about covering the most kinds of habitats. You need to get some of those inland birds.” The intensive Twitchathon is only one of the bird-spotting challenges taking place this week.

On Monday, the celebrations began with the launch of the Aussie Backyard Bird Count – a more accessible project that brings ordinary bird enthusiasts together to sit down and get counting. Some 70,000 Australians are expected to spot more than 2 million birds in the week-long count, now in its fifth year.

Participants spend 20 minutes in a backyard, local park or outdoor space, noting bird species, numbers, size and colour and entering the data on an app or online. For the more hardcore, the weekend offers the thrill of competition. As well as the 30-hour challenge (known as “the big weekend”), BirdLife also runs a 12-hour and three-hour version.

BirdLife Australia’s Sean Dooley says the 70,000-person count plays a crucial role in conservation – enlisting enthusiastic citizens to help researchers.

“Australia is a vast country, we’ve got a small population and a ridiculously small research budget from various governments,” he says.

“There are still huge gaps in our knowledge about our bird populations. This count is our way to gather information about overlooked birds – everyday Australians become our reporters in the field.”

Data from BirdLife’s previous counts revealed a potential decline in kookaburra populations in urban areas. Backyard watchers have also noticed a rise in raptors (wedge-tailed eagles, powerful owls and other birds of prey) in urban areas – which they believe is the impact of drought. Dooley is hopeful this year’s backyard count will break last year’s record. By Monday afternoon, birdwatchers had already submitted 9,800 checklists and sighted 314,000 birds.

A nankeen kestrel
Birders will be looking to spot species like this nankeen kestrel. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAPIMAGE


“It’s gone up 110,00 since I looked at it an hour ago, at 8am this morning,” he said. Meanwhile competitors like Roderick have planned their routes for months, taken the measure of their opponents, researched recent sightings and already set out to scout their locations.

“The Dodgy Drongos, they have been dominating in the last few years. They set a new benchmark, scoring 264 different bird species in the 30 hours. Our team hold the record for the old 24-hour competition. We’ve won it five times and last year was the first time in 17 years we didn’t get a place, so we’re quite sore about that.”

This year, 19 teams are registered for the national 30-hour event, 37 teams for the 12-hour version, and 23 for the three-hour race. “The Twitchathon raises a substantial amount of funding for state-based local bird conservation projects,” says Dooley. “It has kept things like the powerful owl project going in Sydney, which has now expanded to Melbourne.”

Roderick can’t wait.“There is a special bird this year, called an Aleutian tern,” he says. “It is a very newly discovered species for Australia. The last two years in a row, the terns have arrived at a place called Old Bar on the NSW north coast. It’s kind of a new bird for Australia.

“We look forward to the Twitchathon every year. The following day after a Twitchathon you’re thinking about next year’s Twitchathon.”

Article Source: The guardian