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<   No. 3302   2013-10-20   >

Comic #3302

1 {photo of a purple swamphen}
1 Caption: Birds are Cool

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North Narrabeen Baths
The ocean pool at North Narrabeen.
I spotted a new bird last weekend.

I'd got up at 5 a.m., grabbed my camera gear, and driven about 30 minutes out to the coast, to one of Sydney's many beaches to photograph the sunrise. Specifically, I went to the tidal swimming pool at North Narrabeen. I'd arranged to meet Andrew, a friend from work, there and saw him walking from his car down to the pool as I arrived. We went down to the pool together, set up our tripods and cameras, and began snapping photos and waiting for the sunrise.

When we arrived at the pool, there was another photographer already there, and another arrived very soon behind us. We greeted each other in the way that people of obviously similar interest drawn to unusual places for the same reason greet one another. In truth, we could all tell by the slight brightening of the sky and the conformation of clouds now visibly smothering the horizon that the sunrise would rather plain, instead of the sky-filling dapples of pink and orange cloud that makes for spectacular photos.

"Looks like a bad one this morning."

"Yeah, you never can tell. Just have to get up and try."

"Yep."

Sooty Oystercatcher
The sooty oystercatcher I saw.
We turned our attention to photographing the swimming pool and its picturesque wooden catwalk. One of the other photographers commented, "This must be one of the most photographed pools in the world." We nodded our agreement.

After taking a few shots of the pool, Andrew and I walked out along the side of the pool to the rock shelf separating it from the ocean. The tide was low, meaning there was an exposed expanse of slick wet sandstone about the size of a football field, which would be have been covered at high tide. It's pocked by tidal pools and limpets and barnacles, and, on this morning, more photographers. Others arrived after us, and I counted around 20 of us altogether, scuttling around like crabs with our tripods, seeking the best vantage points for shots of the surf washing over the rocks, in the absence of a light show from the sky.

Once the sun appeared and began blazing its ruddy morning light across the landscape, Andrew and I turned to head back to our cars and a well-earned breakfast at a nearby cafe. On the way, as we passed the pool and the smaller rock shelf near the beach, we saw them. Two birds, about the size of large gulls, combing the rock. Their feathers were pitch black, while their beaks, eyes, and legs were bright red. Andrew said, "Look at those birds." I said, "I don't think I've ever seen those birds before!"

I hastily put down my gear, swapped my lens for the longest one I had on me (70-200 mm), and fired off a few shots from as close as I could easily get. Then we went to get breakfast. Back at home later that morning, I examined the photos I'd taken. The first thing I looked at was the bird photos. I pulled out my copy of The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds and flipped through the pages until I found it. The mystery birds were sooty oystercatchers, a species I had indeed never consciously observed before. My Field Guide tells me they are common in coastal areas all around Australia, but I don't recall ever seeing one before. I may merely have been unobservant, as I have only fairly recently begun trying to be aware of and recognise all the birds I see.

Nankeen Night Heron
Nankeen night heron, Kakadu National Park.
It really began on a trip I took to the Northern Territory in 2008. Being in an area with great natural beauty is a dream for a photographer, and I took many landscape photos, possibly my favourite type of photo. But amidst the red desert and the tropical wetlands and the rocky escarpments was a bewildering collection of wildlife. Colourful and interesting. Species, many of which I'd never seen before. There were some marsupials and some very big reptiles, but most of all there were birds.

Birds are fascinating photographic subjects because of the profusion of shapes and colours, and also because we seem to be drawn to other living creatures. Living things fascinate us. I won't venture to advance a theory on why, but I'm sure that given a random photo of a rock and one of a bird, most people would prefer to look at the bird. So even though surrounded by gorgeous landscape, I naturally turned my camera to the small creatures flitting about in an effort to capture them. After doing this in the desert regions,I felt a need to identify what I'd captured. When I arrived in Kakadu National Park, the accommodation I stayed at had a small field guide to birds of the Northern Territory for sale, so I bought it. This turned out to be a good move, because a day or two later I took a dawn cruise on the wetlands. Besides seeing an absolutely incredible sunset and dozens of crocodiles, there were birds. Lots and lots of birds. Our guide kept up a non-stop patter, pointing out different birds, rattling off species names, and telling us details about them. This being the tropics, these were all birds I'd never seen before. I came away with photos of 20 or 30 different species.

When I got home, I had to re-identify them from the field guide, and found some that weren't in there. So I went to a book store and found a more comprehensive guide to Australian birds (mentioned earlier). Now the collector mentality had set in, and I began observing birds in the city, around where I live and work. I would not call myself a "bird watcher" in any serious sense, but I became more conscious of the birds I saw, and tried to photograph and identify the ones I'd never really noticed before.

Crested Pigeon
Crested pigeon, walking distance from my home.
I was amazed by two different things. Firstly, there were a lot more different bird species around in the city than I had ever realised, and secondly, many of them I'd never been aware of before. They'd previously just been this undifferentiated mass that I would see and quickly file away as "bird" in the scene recognition part of my head. Now I was seeing noisy miners and masked lapwings and crested pigeons. So I started documenting them by species, labelling my photos, and making a list of which ones I had captured.

My field guide says there are 744 bird species found in Australia.[1] I have barely made a dent. When I began, after my trip to the Northern Territory, I had maybe 30 or 40. Now, as I write this, the sooty oystercatcher I saw the other day has brought me up to 71 species. I've been adding them haphazardly, rather than make any particular effort to go out and find new species. I'm sure there are a few living within squawking distance of my home that I haven't yet managed to get a photo of.

When I travel now, I keep an eye out for birds, but I don't especially seek them out. Many have ranges that don't cover my home, so travelling is a good opportunity to see a new one, doubly so because I'll usually have a camera with me when travelling. I've also captured some non-Australian species on various trips overseas. I keep these in a separate list.

So without really trying I've become somewhat interested in birds. I'd never before understood why some people are so keen on observing birds, thinking that many other creatures are much more interesting. Big cats are cool, giant reptiles are cool, bugs are fascinating and creepy, birds are kind of everyday and boring. Of course as a kid I was fascinated by big creatures, and dinosaurs in particular. Even though they were long extinct, the idea of dinosaurs was so incredible that it sustained an interest even greater than most extant animals.

His beak can hold more than his...
Australian pelican.
When I was growing up, it was kind of known that birds were somehow related to reptiles. They had scaly feet like the skin of as reptile, and there were sort of similarities between ancient birds like Archaeopteryx and the pterosaurs, or flying reptiles, that existed during the time of the dinosaurs. Archaeopteryx had feathers so was clearly a bird, but it also had teeth, something no modern bird has. Feathers are such a unique biological structure that they are considered the defining characteristic of birds. Or at least they were...

In the 1990s, several new fossils of ancient bird-like creatures were discovered in China. Sinosauropteryx, Caudipteryx, and Protarchaeopteryx all dated from the early Cretaceous period, and were indubitably dinosaurs, showing clear anatomical relations to other small theropod dinosaurs, such as the relatively well-known and popular dinosaurs Ornithomimus, Velociraptor, and Deinonychus. However, the new Chinese fossils had feathers. Within the last 20 years, the link between birds and dinosaurs has been strengthened by findings of new fossils of known dinosaur species with evidence of feather structures. Palaeontologists now consider it highly likely that some of our favourite dinosaurs like Velociraptor in fact had feathers. So far there is no direct evidence (i.e. a fossil with feathers), but the balance of opinion among dinosaur scientists is that it is more likely than not that even Tyrannosaurus had feathers. The largest dinosaur fossil which has been found with feathers is currently Yutyrannus, a close relative of Tyrannosaurus, and a 9 metre long, one-and-a-half tonne giant predator. Not as large as its more famous cousin, but still impressive and a feathered beast you would definitely not want to meet in a dark alley.

So birds are cool in two different ways. They are interesting to look at, and to collect if you have any sort of a collector mentality. But they are also undoubtedly the direct descendants of dinosaurs.

What I learnt at school when I was growing up was wrong. The dinosaurs didn't die out 65 million years ago. They continued to be one of the most successful groups of life on Earth, diversifying and leaving thousands of different species all over the planet, from the tropics to the icy wastes of Antarctica, and everywhere in between. The age of the dinosaurs never really ended at all. There are dinosaurs outside your window right now. In every biological and evolutionary sense, birds are dinosaurs.


Title image is a purple swamphen, photographed in the Royal National Park, less than an hour's drive from my home.

[1] Wikipedia lists 842 species, but includes many very rare vagrants, and birds only seen on extreme outer island territories of Australia, like Heard Island. Despite being included on Wikipedia's list, I have basically zero chance of ever seeing a wild emperor penguin on Australian soil.

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