Birdwatchers race the clock to raise funds for conservation in annual Twitchathon


Every year for more than two decades, avid birdwatcher Mick Roderick has competed in an annual Twitchathon — an event he prioritises over just about everything else.

“I wouldn’t miss the Twitchathon for the world … I’m more flexible around Christmas than the Twitchathon,” Mr Roderick said.

The event involves teams of birdwatchers recording as many different species as possible, which they must see or hear during a set time, with the longest race being held over a 30-hour period.

In recent years, Birdlife Australia has run a national Twitchathon, but that event is not going ahead this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This weekend, however, Twitchathons are running in New South Wales, ACT, and Tasmania.

‘You need to do your homework’

Mick Roderick, a member of the Hunter Bird Observers Club, says the annual Twitchathon is “a bit like Christmas”.(ABC News: Anthony Scully)

Mr Roderick, a member of the Hunter Bird Observers Club in NSW, said it would be his 22nd Twitchathon with his team — the Hunter Home Brewers.

He admits it’s not a “birdy” name but says there is a story behind it, not that he’s letting on.

He said most NSW teams would start in the west and make their way back to the coast.

“It’s as close to ‘sport’ as you get in birding,” he said.

“You need to do your homework and know where you’re likely to find things, especially nomadic birds that move around in response to things like rainfall.

A large black cockatoo holds onto a flower and nibbles on it.
Glossy black cockatoos are listed as endangered and teams will be out to spot them during this weekend’s Twitchathon.(Supplied: Mick Roderick)

“I also plan our entire Sunday around tides, because Stockton Sandspit provides so many new birds to your list that you simply must be there at the right tide.”

Teams also have to factor in short breaks.

“In the 30-hour race, there’s a six-hour compulsory rest break in the middle when you get some sleep,” Mr Roderick said.

Funds for fire recovery the priority

A small brown bird with orange chest feathers.
The rockwarbler is the only bird species endemic to NSW.(Supplied: Mick Roderick)

Peter West of the Hastings Birdwatchers group, based in Port Macquarie on the mid-north coast, is running the NSW and ACT Twitchathon.

He organised the event on behalf of the Bird Interest Group Network, BIGnet, a loose affiliation of birdwatching clubs and organisations.

Mr West said the competition was always fun but also had a serious goal —this year to raise money to help conserve and study the distribution of bird species affected by the 2019 bushfires, which destroyed large areas of forest and heathland habitat.

The focus is on rockwarblers, rufous scrub-birds, eastern bristlebirds, and ground parrots.

“The rockwarbler is the only bird endemic to NSW. It doesn’t occur anywhere else in the world.”

A small brown bird with its tail feathers raised, standing on some moss.
Rufous scrub-birds are endemic to south-eastern Australia and are listed as a vulnerable species in NSW.(Supplied: Mick Roderick)

The rockwarbler is confined to areas on and around the Great Dividing Range, mainly within a 240-kilometre radius of Sydney, usually around rocky outcrops and steep gullies.

“So, up in the Blue Mountains and through the national parks there, where there was a lot of devastation, those birds were affected,” Mr West said.

“The eastern bristlebird is another one that was affected. It lives in the heathlands that were affected in the fires, particularly on the NSW south coast.”

A multi-coloured parrot in a gum tree.
Critically endangered swift parrots migrate from Tasmania to the mainland each year and rely on flowering trees, including forest red gums.(Supplied: Bronwyn Ellis)

In Tasmania, a state-based Twitchathon is also going ahead this weekend.

It will be raising money for the endangered forty-spotted pardalote and the critically endangered swift parrot and orange-bellied parrot.

Dunbogan Drongos going for the win

An elderly man points to something in the distance as an elderly woman holds binoculars to her face.
Peter West and Sue Proust are hoping to spot a huge number of birds this year.(ABC News: Emma Siossian)

Mr West will be out during the NSW Twitchathon and has his binoculars ready.

“I have to say I am a little bit competitive,” he said, with a laugh.

“I will actually be out with my wife, Sue — we are called the Dunbogan Drongos, which we’ve been called for quite a while, [because] we live at Camden Head near Dunbogan.

“We try to see as many species of birds in our area in a year, and Sue and I are hoping to put one over everyone else.”

A grey and white bird with a sharp and long yellow beak sits in the sand surrounded by sticks.
Twitchathon teams often plan their routes around the tides when spotting birds like this little tern.(Supplied: John Turnbull)

Other teams in the Twitchathon will include the Dodgy Drongos, the Back O’Bourke Buzzards and the Binocularks.

Mr Roderick, who has recorded about 740 bird species in Australia alone, said spring was a great time for birdwatching.

“October is the peak month — we have birds active, breeding, and calling to each other, and also returning migrants are here and they are vocal,” he said.

“The Twitchathon gets us back into the range of birds we don’t normally spend much time with.”



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