Birdspeak: David Harper & Sue Harper
"...in all seriousness it’s been very challenging so far but a hell of a lot of fun so just give it a go" - David Harper
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Our first guests on BirdSpeak are birding super-couple David and Sue Harper from Adelaide in South Australia. They are currently halfway through a South Australian Big Year effort, in an attempt to beat David’s previous 1994 figure of 315 birds. As on July 3rd, the couple are cruising along very nicely indeed, having just hit the 313 (David 313 and Sue on 304) mark. Somehow, I think they’re going to smash their own record without too much trouble, but the real interest is going to be seeing just how high they can score. Charismatic, entertaining and driven, David and Sue found some time to sit down and answer a few questions for us regarding their momentous 2017 birding adventures.
*All images provided by Sue & David Harper from their 2017 Big Year.
*All images provided by Sue & David Harper from their 2017 Big Year.
The Big Dip: David and Sue, tell us about your Big Year. What’s the attraction to you in committing a full 12 months of your life to chasing birds in a singular location, most of these species I imagine you’ve already seen? So why a Big Year?
David & Sue: Well that’s the sixty-four million dollar question! As I’m sure you and your readers know a Big Year is when you commit to a full 12 months of birding to try and record as many different species as you can. Usually attempted in a full calendar year from January 1st to December 31st. We did a Big Year back in 1994 and had a lot of fun doing it. Since then we’ve had two kids and spent most of our time working and raising them both. In 2002 we met Sean Dooley when he came over to SA to twitch a Hudsonian Godwit I’d found near Adelaide. I was fascinated with his story and his journey in doing a full Oz Big Year and we caught up a few times during that year in various parts of the country. We’ve always wanted to do something like that but a full Oz Big Year is just too daunting…..not to mention expensive. Since then we’ve followed John Weigel's exploits as he did his successful Big Year attempts in Oz and then his North American Big Year last year and so got inspired to finally have another crack. We decided a smaller manageable State based Big Year was something we could achieve while still working full time and the timing was about right for such an attempt. To be truthful we’d also become a bit jaded in terms of local birding. Since the demise and closure of Penrice Saltfields near Adelaide it was becoming increasingly difficult to find new areas to bird and that was another motivating factor to get out and visit places we’d never been to before. My State list is around 416, which is fairly healthy and we’ve lived and birded here for most of our lives having been a birder since I was born!........but there’s always room for new birds. There are still several State ticks to chase and even as we speak I’ve had two lifers already this year and Sue’s had eleven as a result of getting on more pelagic trips. That alone is another motivating factor. Over the years it was always Sue that would stay back in camp minding the kids while I took off into the bush ticking things off and so she missed out on a lot. Now it’s all about catching her up and we’re going to spend the whole of this year doing it together.
The Big Dip: You’ve already done a Big Year in the past, tell us about how that went, what you learned, biggest highlights/dips etc.
David: 1994 started out as a bit of a half-hearted competition between us and a couple of mates really, with a carton of beer going to the winner on New Years Eve. I guess I really like beer so we went pretty hard at it, although not as hard as this year. By years end, it was becoming increasingly challenging as Sue was heavily pregnant with our first daughter. It was a very dry period back then and we only managed to get out on a single pelagic trip as well. Given the number of seabirds out there that was the one thing we knew we’d have to improve on if we were going to have a real crack at it again. I remember hardly any migrants came down that year and among the bigger misses were White-winged Triller, Cockatiel and local birds like Striped Honeyeater. It wasn’t all bad though, as we managed to get a trip up the Birdsville and Strzelecki Tracks over Easter and got a number of birds that were lifers at the time, like Grey and Eyrean Grasswrens and Grey Falcon. It also still remains the only time I’ve ever seen a South Polar Skua in SA, on a seawatch from Newland Head.
The Big Dip: As of today, (July 4th) you’ve seen 310 species in SA, a very commendable effort by anyone’s standards. Is there a specific number you’re hoping for by the end of the year, and do you think you’ll reach it?
David & Sue: Well the original intention of doing it this year was just to see if we could beat our previous personal best of 315 and that still remains the primary focus. Obviously, with nearly a full six months left in the year, it seems we’re going to achieve this quite easily. After that, the sky’s the limit really, if everything fell in your favour and you have an incredible run of good luck then it could be possible to get well over 370 in SA. The current State record sits somewhere in the 350’s so it would be nice if we could get a little beyond that and set a new record but that would just be a bonus.
The Big Dip: What’s the number one toughest element to doing a Big Year?
David & Sue: For us, it would have to be the limited time factor. As both of us actually work full time for a living, trying to fit in all the birding we need to do is really difficult. It takes a great deal of planning to maximize the time we do have to spend out in the field. I have to do 24-hour standby for work 7 weeks out of the year, and with two weeks already spent on a birding trip in Thailand in February and family commitments included we’ll end up having only 42 weeks worth of weekends and annual leave to get the job done.
The Big Dip: What’s been the biggest birding highlight and the biggest dip so far?
David & Sue: Getting out to sea on pelagic trips out of Port MacDonnell in the far southeast is proving to be really enjoyable and providing us with the opportunity to get to grips with the multitude of pelagic species that occur off our shores. Both of us have had lifers on these trips so far and seabirds are probably the standout highlight. Lots of competition though as we’ve been lucky to catch up with some really rare species in SA like Little Curlew and Black-backed Bittern, and you can’t go past the celebrity Laughing Gull in Venus Bay affectionately named Chuckles by the locals. There have been misses along the way too though like Plumed Whistling Ducks at Bool Lagoon, a Bustard on Hindmarsh Island along with a Northern Shoveler in the same location. There’s also been Broad-billed Sandpiper overwintering along the Coorong and Painted Honeyeater and Olive-backed Oriole in Brookfield Conservation Park. Some of these we’ve chased and some we haven’t had a chance to, but the fact is they have been seen this year but not by us. Some of these species we’ll have other chances for as the year progresses and some we won’t. The reality is though there haven’t really been a string of true “vagrants” so far this year either and you need some of those to max out in a Big Year, so that’s a bit of a worry. Plenty of time left though. Another highlight has been meeting a lot of birders in the field who had perhaps only previously been Facebook acquaintances and all of them have been very helpful in providing info and site gen.
The Big Dip: On a similar note, do you have any stories or anecdotes you’d like to share from your adventures so far this year?
David & Sue: There have been some memorable moments so far for sure. One that springs to mind was when Sue was taking out the rubbish bins for collection (mind you we live in inner suburbia) she noticed some movement out the corner of her eye. Turned out to be a female Little Button-quail running around in the front garden. By the time she got me it had run across the road in a panic then flew back across towards us and hid under the neighbours boat. Best garden tick ever. Also camped out on New Years Eve in Lake Gillies Conservation Park we had Restless Flycatcher that managed to vanish overnight. It would be another four months before we finally added this species to our Big Year list over on Kangaroo Island.
The Big Dip: There seems to be a slight trend in Birding Couples with Big Years or bird exploration in Australia (birders Paul & Ruth and Hedley & Irena come to mind). What are the highlights (and lowlights?) of birding as a couple?
Sue: Just getting to share the experience together has been a real highlight. We’re lucky as a couple we share a passion for birding and the great outdoors and having recently gained our independence back from our kids it’s now all about us. Even though we’re going through this together, we don’t spend every waking moment in each other’s company and as a result Dave has seen nine more species so far than me, so that has to be a lowlight!...........oh……… and not having enough time to look at reptiles and bugs along the way.
The Big Dip: Are there any species or areas you’re not going to be able to fit into your Big Year?
David & Sue: Yes indeed. The entire northwest of the State is part of the APY lands and just off limits to the average birder. A pity really as there are a number of species that occur up there that we’ll never get to see like Dusky Grasswren, Grey-headed Honeyeater, Western Bowerbird, Western Quail-thrush and Spinifexbird. Not to mention some pretty spectacular scenery and the highest peak in South Australia, but it’s a very culturally significant area to Aboriginal people and you have to respect that.
The Big Dip: Do you recommend Big Years to other birders? Why/why not?
David & Sue: Yes absolutely…… if you’re stark raving bonkers, but unless you’re retired, be prepared to be time poor, tired, grumpy, or a combination of all three. No in all seriousness it’s been very challenging so far but a hell of a lot of fun so just give it a go.
The Big Dip: What have you learned or discovered you didn’t expect to this year?
Sue: I’ve discovered I really enjoy the pelagic trips we’ve done so far and intend to do more from around the country after the Big Year is over. At least until the first time I get seasick, then I might need to reassess!
David: The main thing for me is that I don’t know nearly enough about the distribution of birds in South Australia as I thought I did. Things have changed so much since we did this back in 1994. Oh….. and we’ve gotten really good at “tailgate lunches” I think I’m going to write a cookbook about that when this is all over!
The Big Dip: For those playing at home, can you give the audience an idea of how many km’s you’ve traveled this year?
David & Sue: We’re lucky to be in a position to have our 4WD set aside as a weekend escape vehicle. So far we’ve racked up 15500km’s in 6 months with some of the bigger trips coming up in the second half of the year. In the wash up when all is said and done we intend to be up front with not only how far we’ve traveled but also the cost. Something that is rarely discussed by Big Year birders.
The Big Dip: Where can people go to in order to follow your progress for the remainder of 2017?
David & Sue: We have a blog that we update as often as possible entitled “Dave and Sue’s South Aussie Big Year” and Sue tweets updates from the field @SueTytoalba. (http://teamharperbirding.blogspot.com.au)
The Big Dip: Now, just quickly, what do you both do when you’re not birding? What are your occupations?
David: I’m an electrician by trade and work as a service/repair technician for a local elevator company, but when I’m not doing that or out birding somewhere I like to play tabletop wargames and paint miniature figurines………….yes really!!!!
Sue: I’m an admin officer stuck behind a desk five days a week who spends half her time planning birding/wildlife holidays!!! But weekends that aren’t spent birding you’ll find me on hands and knees photographing reptiles or bugs…… I really like bugs!
The Big Dip: Finally, tell us what has been your favourite bird this year?
David: For me, it would have to be the Light-mantled Sooty Albatross we saw on the pelagic back in May. It’s a bird I’ve wanted to see now for a very long time and ended up being bird number 300 for the Big Year, so just perfect!
Sue: I can’t go past Bullers Albatross. Although it wasn’t a lifer for me this year they are still my favourite and we’ve managed to see them on every pelagic trip we’ve been on so far.