There were more tweets than when Justin Bieber dropped in on his local girls’ high school. But this was a different kind; the bird variety… all 31 of them this particular morning chirping at the Chiton Beyond housing development, including our contribution with the spotting of a Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae, better known as a seagull.
“Look; there’s a Red Gum Parrot… over here, a Dusky Moor Hen as well” so the keen onlookers observed. Welcome to Winston Syson’s local bird watching hour followed by a de-briefing on things like whether notable rarities including the Hooded Plover have been spotted.
Better known as Win (after Sir Winston Churchill), this spritely 71-year-old has enjoyed 60 years of birdwatching since he and his schoolmates in Nottinghamshire, England collected eggs, well before it became illegal, especially those from falcons.
It’s not everyone’s adrenalyn rush, but then, have you had the misfortune of catching a glimpse of a Bieber clip?
Win recalls racing from an egg hunt to the local library to look up books like The Birds of Britain and the Eggs and Nests of Britain.
“Some of the best-known Australian ornithologists or those who study birds started from collecting eggs themselves,” Win said.
“Every bird you have not seen before is something special, but I distinctively remember the 500th bird I spotted nine years ago was a Log Runner in New England, NSW, a non-descript little bird. There are lots and lots of birds that I have seen over the years and I am still looking for them. You are always hoping to find one of the species of the rarer birds, like the grass wrens, not the little wren in the backyard.”
The average bloke may not seem like he would get excited about seeing a Spotted Pardalote along the Milang Road, but Win likes to believe we all share an interest in our birdlife and the mysteries behind his passion – the migrating waders or shore birds.
With much authority, Win told of how 37 migrating birds fly here from Europe every year, return for the northern hemisphere summer, have chicks, and after the adult birds fly back here to the southern Fleurieu the chicks follow them. The question begs: how do the chicks know where to go?
“The Sharp Tailed Sandpipers do exactly that,” Win said. “They return here in groups of males, females and later as youngsters, and no one has any idea why or how they are able to meet up again.
“Experts think it is something in-bred; it must be. All sorts of studies have been done. Maybe they use the stars, sun and the moon to guide them; we don’t know.
“The unfortunate thing is that many do not make it home to places like Europe and the Siberian Desert. They have always gone home via Korea and China, but a lot of their natural water supplies have dried up because of development; their environment has been taken away from them, and they die.”
Win, of Port Elliot, takes the Chiton group, organised by Sylve Clarke, monthly, and included in this particular group were Cathy Arthur and Jim Digges from Phoenix, Arizona, US, and John Ellis.
John said he has been watching birds nearly all of his life life. “The birds are different here compared with those from the patch of scrub where I was brought up near McLaren Vale,” John said.
“There are always birds cropping up that you don’t think about. The other day I saw an Elegant Parrot, and I have not seen one here for three years.”
You may find Win out in the fields or hiding behind rocks, trees and shrubs at least once a week trying to spot a rare bird. “I love it,” he said. “The Fleurieu Peninsula is a great place to birdwatch because we have the different kinds of habitats – bush birds, water birds, sea birds and those that live along the shore line.
“I belong to Birds SA, which has 600 members, Birdlife Australia, which has thousands of members, and our local group, the Fleurieu Bird Watchers.
“I guess being a member is about learning something every day or watching something that you may have never seen before.
It makes people more conscious of birds, especially older people and those who go away caravanning and have a bird guide book with them at all times.
“I guess a lot of people who drive along the Port Elliot-Victor Harbor Road by Chiton might see a swan or a duck, but if you asked if they could name 10 birds the answer would be nine seagulls and a magpie. But then, I would ask whether it was a magpie with a white back or one with a black back; they are different.
“To some people birdwatching is a bit like trainspotting, but they may not realise how much money is involved. Birdspotting is promoted as an away destination all over the world now, and a lot of people make a good living from guiding tours here and overseas. Most of our local councils tell you about their bird trail and bird list. It can be a huge tourism drawcard for a lot of people, especially if there are rare birds people want to see.”
Birdwatching, however, has its drawbacks. Win declined to go into detail how you may get into trouble walking around some places with binoculars. He warns that in the UK, if a rare bird turns up in your garden and you proudly let the world know, you can expect thousands walking into your place the next day.
And, of course, there is the constant reference confronting every official birdwatcher about whether they watch the feathered variety or the non-feathered variety. “You would be surprised how many people say to me, ‘I hope you are watching the two-legged kind’, and I remind them the feathered variety have two legs too,” he said.
“I can assure you, my binoculars never stray.” Of course not; there is always the watcher of the birdwatcher, in Win’s case, his wife, Margaret.
The next walk-to-the wetlands leaving from Speargrass Road, Hayborough by the Chiton units is on Thursday, November 14 from 9.15-11.15am. Fleurieu Birdwatchers Inc: enquiries to Val Laird 8555 5995; www.users.bigpond.net.au/FleurieuBirdwatchers