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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect

A week or so ago I got a phone call from an old birding mate, with the peculiar question "How many Australasian Bitterns have you seen this morning?". Very peculiar in fact - he knew as well as I that there have been no reports of this cryptic and extremely rare species in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) for at least 70 years. In other words no living birder had seen one here. Needless to say work suddenly lost its importance and I drove across to the far side of town, to an urban wetland in the northern suburb of McKellar, to join half a dozen excited hard-core birdos watching this remarkable bird lurking, as they inevitably do, in the reeds.
Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus, McKellar Wetlands, Canberra.
When I posted this pretty ordinary picture on the Canberra Ornithologists' Group's email line,
it was the first photo ever published of this species taken in the ACT.
There are estimated to be less than a thousand left in Australia, perhaps the same in New Zealand,
and apparently none surviving in New Caledonia.
I have had one record of this species on my life list, from about 40 years ago in the South Australian
deserts. It's worried me often though; was I good enough back then?, could it have been
an immature Nankeen Night Heron? Finally my conscience is clear!
While we were there, a White-bellied Sea-eagle drifted over. These magnificent birds appear regularly but sparsely here - not in the same category as the bittern, but certainly not an everyday sighting.
White-bellied Sea-eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster; not the McKellar Wetlands in the background,
but the Southern Ocean at Point Labatt, South Australia!
The next day, other birdos at McKellar found another bittern species, the tiny Little Bittern Ixobrychus dubius; this one is also commoner than the Australasian but is still very rarely sighted and officially described as a Rare Visitor here, though I suspect it could be resident in the ACT. Its habits and habitat make sightings very unlikely and infrequent.
This is as good a look as you're likely to get of a Little Bittern, and is also one I prepared earlier;
this time at Jerrabomberra Wetlands in Canberra a couple of years back.
So, from all this one might conclude that McKellar Wetlands is a veritable hotspot for unusual birds. Well maybe, but...

And here's where the Patagonian Picnic Table comes in. You may surprised to hear that the cold wet and windy far south of South America even has picnic tables! Well it does in fact, but we're not talking about that Patagonia, but a hamlet in Arizona, which has a roadside rest area with picnic table a little out of town. Back in the early 1970s a resting birder was delighted to come across the first Black-capped Gnatcatcher ever seen in the US (it is Mexican); in the ensuing rush, someone else recorded the first ever North American sighting of a Yellow Grosbeak (this must refer to the Southern Yellow Grosbeak), and then some other notable goodies.

So, did this mean that the picnic area formed fabulous habitat for rare species? Possibly, but almost certainly not - it's just that lots of experienced people looking for rare birds are going to turn some up from time to time, and when they do, more birders come and... well, you get the picture.  Had we not been gathered to revel in the Australasian Bittern, the sea-eagle would doubtless have drifted over without anyone noticing. Had not people been peering diligently into the reeds for hours, it is unlikely that the Little Bittern would ever have been noticed.

It happens in other fields too of course. A couple of summers back I was invited to see a very special orchid for our part of the world; the Horned Orchid Orthoceras strictum is only found in the ACT in a small area on Black Mountain near the city centre. I'd never managed to find it, so I was thrilled to finally see it for myself.
Horned Orchid, Black Mountain.
This is the only Australian member of the genus, with another in New Zealand.
Having enjoyed this for as long as we liked (once you've found them, they're easier than bitterns to keep track of!), we inevitably poked around, and of course the aura of the distant picnic table hovered over us. Firstly there was a colony of the strange Small Duck Orchid Caleana (formerly Paracaleana) minor. This is not so rare, but they're not easy to find, and I'd never before found this colony.
Small Duck Orchids, Black Mountain. Very ducky!
Finally, not far away again, another species I'd never managed to find - the Late Beard Orchid Calochilus therophilus, so called because it is the last of the genus to flower locally. This is a scarce member of a favourite genus of mine (we share an obvious adornment for a start), recorded from only three far-flung sites in the ACT.
Late Beard Orchid, Black Mountain.
Had we not been attracted to this site by the Horned Orchid, and probably had I not been with a couple of other skilled pairs of eyes, I'd never have seen the other two.

Perhaps too the reverse side of this phenomenon is displayed by the use of Where to Find... guides, and web sites. How often have we driven past rare and exciting animals or plants, because we're heading determinedly for the place to find them?

Anyway, it all got me thinking, and if you're reading this line it's probably triggered some interest in you too. Thanks for taking the trouble.



Flabmeister said...

The Patagonia in question is in the centre of a generally excellent birding area. Being close to the border with Mexico the area gets a relatively high number of species of birds that don't seem to worry about human administrivia such as national boundaries.

Neither do some humans and, while birding in an area near Patagonia, we were advised that if we saw someone dressed in black running along with a backpack to leave the area quickly!

Flabmeister said...

One other thought that could be considered as a bit more evidence of a Patagonian effect is that an Osprey (I think the first confirmed sighting in the ACT) was made about 100m NW of this wetland, flying along Ginninderra Creek. This was a few years back but the record is preserved in the Archives of the COG chatline http://bioacoustics.cse.unsw.edu.au/archives/html/canberrabirds/2011-05/msg00064.html.


Ian Fraser said...

I'd forgotten that Osprey. Is that down to PPTE though?

Flabmeister said...

There possibly needs to be a taxonomy of Human Intervention Effects. I see the paper in Nature now "Why people HIE to certain geographic locations." (Sorry , couldn't resist.)

However at a general level all these birds were sighted because birders were in the area, not necessarily because its a great area. In this case it is because one birder lives nearby rather than one stopped for a cuppa but I think it is within the family of PPTE. I am open to debate however!

Ian Fraser said...

No, no, the fact that an observant observer lives nearby certainly puts it in the PPTE family - I hadn't thought of that. At Turner at different times I had a Barn Owl and a Painted Button-quail in the yard - based on that the non-birding people four doors up probably had a Night Parrot!
The HIE joke however is not to be encouraged...