Find out what happened when we took The Australian Bird Guide for a spin

By Simon Mustoe

What better way to test CSIRO’s new Australian Bird Guide than a trip to some of Australia’s top birding sites. Then thrust the book into the hands of a young birder and see how they fair. 

Charlie (12) is my son and while he has a reasonable interest in birds, it’s embryonic. The new field guide has become a game-changer. 

At the end of the day I asked him, “did you like the book and why?”

          “I love the way it’s so easy to look things up, using the pictures that help you find what looks closest to what you’ve seen. And, the birds actually look like they do in real life!!” he said. 

We started on Saturday afternoon at the Brisbane Ranges, beautiful granite scenery and rolling forested hills, with incredible outback-views of Melbourne’s city skyline. Enroute, we discovered a group of Zebra Finches at a dam. We picked out Skylarks and Australian Pipits - the book has handy sections where oft-confused species are shown side by side. 

Similarly, there’s a comparison of Black Kites and Whistling Kites. By the following day, Charlie was picking them apart in flocks wheeling high above, even telling apart the mobs of Little Ravens and Brown Falcons. Each time we got back to the car, the book was reopened, so he could remind himself how it worked.  

The opening cover of the guide has a handy reference section which will be of value to the amateur and enthusiast alike (even lead author Peter Menkhorst says he uses it). If you’re new to birds, you’ll need to know they are arranged in taxonomic order. This means the are shown in order of how long ago they evolved with birds from each family depicted next to one another. Alphabetical order would be hugely confusing! 

It does, however, mean you have to be prepared to learn a little in order to look things up. So the authors have popped in two pages, immediately inside the front cover, where almost all Australia’s bird ‘types’ are illustrated.

You can divide birds roughly into two groups: Passerines (mostly the small, perching-type birds) and non-Passerines (everything else, including all your seabirds and waterbirds). For example, Lyrebird is a passerine. It’s actually the line of birds from which all songbirds on Earth evolved. So it’s the first after the Pittas, which are non-Passerines. 

The guide starts with marine and coastal birds, freshwater birds, then land birds and these are handily separated out in the opening cover. A single day out using the book with Charlie was enough for him to be competently referencing birds. If a 12-year-old can do it, I think that counts as a success.    

Back to our trip. 

We checked online Friday night and found that Banded Lapwings had been recorded on the road through Balliang, so we swung by. From a hill top, we watched soaring Wedge-tailed Eagles and heard a faint lapwing-like call. Just nearby, a pair of Banded Lapwings were tending to three chicks at a soak surrounded by ankle-deep crops. It’s great to set a target bird or two and Banded Lapwing aren’t always an easy bird to find, so a nice positive start.

Overnight we stayed at Park Victoria’s Friday’s Campground giving us chance to go spotlighting after dark, hearing (but not seeing), Owlet-Nightjars and Southern Boobooks. We spotted a Sugar Glider after hearing it yapping like a small dog, then followed eye-shine to a few Ring-tailed Possums and sidled up to some impossibly loud frogs. 

We got up a bit before sunrise on Sunday as we’d set ourselves a target of finding Spotted Quail-Thrush in a patch of likely looking habitat we discovered the day before. “Is it a quail or a thrush”, Charlie asked. “It’s a bit like both but it’s neither”, I said “take a look in the book”. So he did. 

Quail-Thrushes are a family only found in Aus. Our local species is a smart character with a black bib, white eye line and cheeks and beautifully-spotted chestnut flanks and back.

Up on one of the highest ridgelines with views of the western plains and You Yangs below, we were serenaded by White-cheeked Honeyeaters and raucous White-browed Scrubwrens, before we detected the faint high-pitched whistle of a pair of Quail-thrush fossicking among the leaf litter and tussock grasses. 

Our next stop was the You Yangs. We walked up to the Geoglyph and along the way, saw Yellow and Brown Thornbills. The birds that Charlie found the most curious to tell apart were Mistletoebird (it actually feeds on mistletoe) and Scarlet Robin. Both are quite different but on first impressions, to a new birder, not obviously so. They are both striking white, red and black. Again, we checked the facts and talked about the different posture, shape and families. The guide helped him differentiate not only the look but also the place of the bird among the various other bird families you find in Australia.  

We finished the day at the famous Lake Borrie. It’s a private area now tended as a conservation reserve by Melbourne Water. It was once an enormous treatment plant for Melbourne’s sewage but these areas are long-since unused and remain one of the world’s most important wetlands. It’s easy to see why.  

Winter is a stunning time to visit and this time, bird numbers and diversity were huge. Pink-eared Ducks had arrived in their tens of thousands. At one point, a Swamp Harrier spooked them and the sky became full of thousands of them, wheeling in tight flocks. Gazing across the lake, there were areas where there seemed hardly any water between ducks.  

Among the supporting cast were Freckled Ducks, Blue-billed Ducks, Hardheads, Pink-eared Ducks, Pacific Black Ducks, several species of Cormorant, Australian Pelicans, both small grebes (the book provided a direct comparison of immature plumages of these two confusion species), Chestnut and Grey Teal (again, directly compared in the guide), Australian Shelducks, Great-white Egrets, Black Swans and Purple Swamphens.  

The best and most exciting part of the day though, was yet to come.

No matter how often I’ve birded here, it’s always different and surprising. Just near Lake Borrie, on the ocean side, there is a hide that overlooks a place where birds roost safely at high tide. There must have been 5,000 all tightly packed together.

There were 15 or so Little Terns: fragile, beach-nesting seabirds, with fine black-tipped yellow beaks and a black cap. Nearby there was one Fairy Tern. We grabbed the book ... compared the features of both species, usually difficult hard to tell apart. There were also beautiful adult and messy immature White-winged Black Terns. To the ineducated eye, they could easily be mistaken for different birds.

A few hundred Red-necked Stints, coloured in fresh plumage and preparing for the several-thousand kilometre flight to the Arctic tundra, flew in on silvery wings. Curlew Sandpipers, Red Knot, Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and a single Terek Sandpiper with unfeasibly orange legs an upturned beak (like it had been put on upside down) frenetically paraded along mini-tidal rivers among sand banks. 

An adult White-bellied Sea Eagle flew over and everything took off. 

After all the birds landed again and thanks to having checked the field guide earlier, Charlie was able to refind not only the Fairy Tern but also the Terek Sandpiper. 

Then a flurry of wings and a couple of dark shapes and two Arctic Jaegers, seabirds that migrate from the planet’s far north, appeared like lightning, chasing Silver Gulls. These  thuggish kleptoparasites (meaning birds that steal food) were working in a pair, chasing the gulls, forcing them to disgorge hard-earnt meals. The birds were one dark and one light phase - same species, just different packaging, like white and dark chocolate Tim Tams. The guide covers them both!  

I often get asked why we need illustrations in the first place and why photos won’t do? 

Even with great optics (the subject of a future post about wildlife-watching), you mostly see an impression of a bird. To identify it, you have to create a ‘search image’ in your brain, an imprint on your mind, of the way a bird should look. 

Photos inevitably capture an incomplete picture: one angle, posture and plumage. It’s hard to fit enough images on a page to summarise the diversity. Juveniles are brown, camouflaged from predators. Then they moult into immature plumage. Even at this stage, they don’t look like adults. Birds are tetchy when it comes to sharing their territory and would quickly regard a new fully-coloured adult as a threat, even their own offspring. 

Most small birds mature over a year or so, before they reach their full adult (male or female) plumage. Others, like Albatrosses, can take many years. There are even colour variations (as mentioned for Jaegers, above) and subspecies that vary in look and size between different regions of Australia. For instance, north of the Great Dividing Range in Victoria, our common garden Magpies with white backs are replaced by smaller versions that have black backs. 

The illustrators of the new field guide worked for eight years, bouncing around pictures and text descriptions so you can see all the key features in a glance. 

The amount of digital reference material and knowledge these days surpasses anything that existed when people started to look at birds from museum skins or even until recently, slide images. The guys who wrote this book have amassed and processed a ridiculous amount of knowledge and synthesised it into something so concise, it can be shown in a few pictures and a couple of hundred words. 

It’s nothing short of amazing. 

And the proof is in the use of the book in the field.          

On the way back in the car, Charlie added four species we hadn’t seen that day, taking his grand total to over 120. He hasn’t put the book down since ... it’s been rather hard to write this review, while it’s being clutched so tightly.  

The opening pages of the guide show thumbnail images of 125 ‘types’ of bird. In 24 hours of casual birding, we saw representative of 58 of these. 

For anyone thinking of learning about birds but daunted by the prospect, consider that one day is sufficient for a 12 year old to learn most of the region’s birdlife. The area we visited is particularly rich. It’s been the subject of a December count for almost 70 years. In 2011, a record-breaking 188 species were recorded in one day, which is about one quarter of all Australia’s bird species less than 25km of Melbourne. But around any of our capital cities, you can see a huge variety of birds and other wildlife.  

This is a genuinely exciting field guide. You could question its size - it weighs in at 1.49kg but that only makes it a bit heavier than the existing guides and it’s pretty good going to cover a whole content so concisely.

The main criticism seems to be that it’s such a beautiful publication, you may want to buy more than one.  We already got some dirt on the small terns pages. Maybe another copy for the coffee table would be a good option? Or maybe Charlie’s own copy for his birthday, as it looks like the next trip out is being planned already. 




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Wildiaries • April 2017