A birdwatcher’s perspective

By Scott Newton 16 December 2009
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Chris Doughty has seen more birds in Australasia and the Pacific than anyone else in the world.

Birdwatching a peaceful pastime? In his quest to see as many of the world’s birds as possible, 55-year-old Melburnian Chris Doughty has crossed paths with muggers who demanded his money in Brazil, bandits who wanted his binoculars in Nepal, government soldiers who pointed bayonet-tipped rifles in his face in Sri Lanka and Venezuelan police who arrested him thinking he was a drug dealer. (He was released after an ornithologist was brought in to test his knowledge of birds.)

His “life list” consists of 6656 bird species – compiled over more than four decades of travelling through every continent and across every ocean in the world. He’s one of only two Australians to record more than 6400 types of birds.

Chris’s passion for birds was awakened in Lancashire, England, when he was 10 years old. Having only previously noticed pigeons and crows, he was fascinated when he spied a diminutive bird with a russet-coloured breast – an English robin – sitting atop a stone wall. The next day, he went to the library and borrowed a copy of The Observer’s Book of British Birds, then set about saving enough pocket money to buy his own.

He emigrated to Melbourne in 1973 as one of the last of the £10 Poms. Fourteen years later he’d ticked off the last on his list of Australia’s 640 breeding species, the lesser noddy. He’d also married and had four children, played pennant-level table tennis, worked in a high-level management position in a multinational pharmaceutical company and established Peregrine Bird Tours, which he now runs full time. “I was aware from a young age that you need a balance in life,” he says. “Family is very important to me. And having an understanding wife helps a great deal.”

Only 40-odd people have recorded more than 6400 of the world’s 9700 bird species. The world’s biggest “lister”, British-born Tom Gullick, has seen 8620. The previous world-record holder, Phoebe Snetsinger – whom Chris had guided around Australia – was killed in 1999 in a bus accident in Madagascar while searching for the red-shouldered vanga. Chris recalls Phoebe as a gentle, down-to-earth woman. “But if you got between her and a ‘lifer’ [a bird she hadn’t previously seen], she would mow you down,” he says. “It’s hardly surprising. People who see this many birds are rare and driven individuals. And the bigger your list, the higher the risks.”

Along with an adventurous spirit, excellent fitness and stamina, and a superb knowledge of field ornithology, Chris believes knowledge-sharing within the birding community is essential. As a young devotee back in the 1960s, he wasn’t exactly swamped by fellow enthusiasts – certainly none his own age. A birdwatching barber directed him to nearby Freckleton sewage farm where, among the reeds and millponds, he found ducks, herons, stilts and Harry Shorrock, an ornithologist who encouraged Chris to join a bird club. “Mentoring is invaluable, especially in the early years,” Chris says. “It ignites fervour.” Chris has repaid his mentor’s favour by teaching many others – four of whom have gone on to become respected ornithologists. “Helping others is one of the great joys of birding,” he says.

Chris doesn’t mind how many times he sees the same type of bird. “Allowing the time to actually soak up the experience rather than dashing off recordings, staccato style, is what it’s all about. If I add to my own tally, that’s fantastic.” He says he still derives pleasure from seeing garden-variety species such as magpies and galahs.

“I really think it’s fulfilling the hunting instinct,” he says. “I love to hunt birds. Instead of shooting them with a gun, I shoot them with a camera. I don’t have to photograph them. It’s enough just to track them down. But I still enjoy sharing common birds with clients, sharing in their excitement.”

After 24 years guiding birdwatching tours, Chris has noticed that less young people are becoming avid birdwatchers. “All children love wildlife, but as they get older, other things get in the way. Technology, school, university…there are so many things vying for their attention that a lot of them don’t come back to it until they’re older. But the wonderful thing is that birds are so easy to find.”

Despite Australia having one of the highest numbers of endemic birds species in the world, it snares a mere 2 per cent of the global birdwatching market – a statistic Chris attributes to its distance from the big-spending birders in America and Britain, as well as lack of effective marketing and promotion. As land-clearing, unsustainable forestry and the invasion of foreign plants and animals continue to threaten bird species worldwide, Chris sees ecotourism as a way to influence governments to commit more resources toward conservation.

“There are more bird sanctuaries being created in Australia, which is a good thing – not just for birds but for other animals,” he says. But while Australia is blessed with many beautiful birds that are still accessible to the beginner or casual observer, Chris notes that many species are becoming harder to find as their ranges fragment. “If you want to list birds,” he advises, “go now!”

Source: Australian Geographic Apr – Jun 2008