Tuesday, 17 October 2023
When I first approached BirdLife Australia’s then Head of Communications, Diana Gibson, in 2013 saying, “I’ve got this crazy idea…” I had no inkling of what I had just unleashed. Diana recruited the wonderful Stacey Maden to be our first Aussie Bird Count Coordinator and after a mad scramble to get everything in place for that first year’s count, it was exhilarating when we got such a terrific response. It has been a thrill to watch it grow each year. So many incidents, events and people are connected in my mind with the Aussie Bird Count that it is almost impossible to single any out, but here’s my attempt at ten of the most memorable moments for me during my involvement.
We were extremely fortunate that British comedian and bird lover, Bill Bailey, happened to be playing a gig at the Opera House the same week we launched the inaugural event with a pop-up backyard on the harbourfront of the Opera House. Bill was the first of many brilliant celebrity ambassadors and a real drawcard for getting people interested. He was upstaged, however, by a Barn Owl that was brought along by a wildlife park for the launch. Forget the celebrity comedian, everyone wanted a selfie with the owl!
I’m always on the lookout for birds. Yet even I was surprised by what I saw the first time I did the Count. Not the birds themselves but the rhythms of nature that became evident when you just sit still even for just 20 minutes. It was all the more special because I did the Count with my then 6-year-old daughter. The combination of looking at birds and playing with an app on Dad’s phone was a real winner!
In that first year we set an upper limit of 20,000 for the number of a single species you could enter into the app. Our initial total had to be adjusted down when we realised that quite a few people had accidentally entered that upper limit. One that was likely not an accident was the entry for 20,000 Little Penguins in the Murray River at Echuca. When we saw that the email address of the observer was from a school, we were pretty sure we had been trolled by a student prank. It felt like a coming-of-age moment for us! And it also showed that our vetting worked. (We also set an upper limit of 2,000 birds for all future counts!)
The great thing about birdwatching is that birds have wings, and you never know what might turn up on any given day. During one Aussie Bird Count at a local bushland remnant near my house I found a Leaden Flycatcher, the first ever record for my local government area. If not for doing the Count, I would never have seen this cool, shimmering bird.
One of the great publicity ideas we had in the first few years was going on ‘bird dates’ with media personalities and doing an Aussie Bird Count with them. One of the first I did was with Australian television royalty Peter Hitchener, who has been reading the Channel Nine News in Melbourne for 40 years. Hitch turned out to be utterly charming, very interested in birds and we saw some really nice stuff in Melbourne’s Botanic Gardens, including up close views of Bell Miners and a Nankeen Night Heron.
Each year I would do a Bird Count at my kids’ primary school. The enthusiasm was fantastic, especially the year we found a Tawny Frogmouth nesting on the school grounds. But the best moment of all was when I recorded my son’s Year Two class telling us about what bird they hoped to see. It was so cute hearing their lispy pronunciations, but my favourite was from a kid called Angus who suddenly adopted a southern American accent and said he wanted to see a “Jim Bob Bird” much to the hilarity of his classmates. Our amazing designer, Anna Wilson created a fantastic rendition of the Jim Bob Bird for the video.
There’s nothing so iconic in Melbourne as a tram, so it was a real thrill when the Aussie Bird Count won the rights to deck out a tram with our promotional artwork. I was there to see the bird tram roll out of the depot for the first time, but sadly that was the only occasion I got to see it as Melbourne went into another long lockdown and my 5km zone didn’t have any tram routes on it!
Speaking of the pandemic, as we approached the 2020 Aussie Bird Count, we were faced with an interesting dilemma. With Melbourne still in lockdown and travel severely restricted within and between states, how could we have a physical launch of the event as we’d had in previous years? The whole world was meeting virtually, so why couldn’t we launch the Count online? Our three hour online launch extravaganza was hosted from my home office with the indefatigable Aussie Bird Count Co-ordinator, Jo Feely operating the technical stuff from her house. We did live crosses to the likes of Chris Bath, Myf Warhurst and Paul Kennedy, but rising above and beyond the call of duty was Gardening Australia’s Costa. He was not only a guest, but also helped us out beforehand to set up the technology. Is there nothing this beautiful man cannot do?
In 2017 we decided to do a roadshow to promote the Aussie Bird Count. It was all very rock’n’roll, as I would fly into a different capital city each evening, be up at dawn for a bird count, media and then another bird count in each city’s botanic gardens before flying on to the next destination. My favourite moment of all was undoubtedly doing a Count with one-time staff member, Amanda Lilleyman, at Darwin’s Lee Point. The birding was amazing, and it is so upsetting that our nature laws are not strong enough to protect this beautiful area from housing development. One of the offshoots of the Aussie Bird Count is that it has introduced many people not just to the wonders of their local birds and the benefits of monitoring them, but also the importance of saving the places we love.
This year, being the tenth year, where we are hoping for 100,000 participants, it really feels like the Aussie Bird Count has become part of Australian culture. Particularly because we even got our own series of stamps with Australia Post to commemorate it! They look tremendous. So much so that I can’t bring myself to use my set on posting an actual letter!
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