December 16, 2018

Ghosts of Christmas past

Evoking Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the ghosts of Christmas past paid a visit over the holiday period.

Not that I saw myself as Scrooge, with ghosts out to haunt me in a malign way as they do to the central character in Dickens’ story. The “ghosts” were friendly and benign, bringing a sackful of pleasant memories.

Christmas is a time for reflection and in my case recounting festive birding experiences shared with friends over more than 40 years or so.

Across the world there is a long-established practice of conducting a Christmas bird count, an event I have joined wherever I have lived at the time. I think the ritual started among birders in New York’s Central Park in the late 1970s and when I lived in the city myself in the early 1980s I joined the Manhattan birders for the festive-season count over a three-year period.

So when December 25 comes around each year I think of those days especially, and my old friends from that time.

Sometimes, with family commitments, it has been impossible to actually conduct the count on Christmas Day, either alone or with others, but this year I arose ultra-early with the intention of doing the count at my local birding spot, the Waterworks Reserve. Established practice is that the count has to be conducted in your home area, as part of an annual census of local birds in both summer and winter. These records compiled over many years by citizen-scientists are proving increasingly important for researchers plotting bird population trends, particularly at a time of deceasing numbers and species of birds.

I did not have time to linger at the Waterworks to conduct a full survey of birds seen, which usually takes a few hours, so I largely relied on birdsong to record numbers.

Luckily, I found many species were in fine song and on entering the reserve I immediately heard several very vocal grey shrike-thrushes, with their distinctive “joe whitty” song. Among 30 familiar species seen and heard were superb fairywrens, brown thornbills, silvereyes, pink robins, striated and spotted pardalotes and two endemic species, green rosellas and black-headed honeyeaters.

The New York bird count is conducted in winter, of course, often with a coating of snow on the ground, and the birders there concentrate on birds that migrate from the north in autumn to take advantage of weather in New York that is not so hostile. Sometimes they also find rarities which usually migrate further south, choosing to over-winter in the park.

In contrast, at the Waterworks Reserve at Christmas the focus is on summer migrants. On Christmas day I was pleased to find two familiar summer birds, the fan-failed and shining bronze-cuckoos, and what I consider the stand-out bird of the season, the satin flycatcher. On this occasion a lone male resplendent in shimmering midnight-blue plumage was joined by grey fantails in a merry hunt for flying insects in the canopy of the reserve’s blue gums.


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