The Story Of A World Record Breaking Parrot Australia October 2008

Bluebonnet Parrot record breaker

The very Blue Bonnet Parrot that broke the world record - though not sure he knew much about it!

Australia October 31st 2008 and we were close to setting a new world record for the number of bird species recorded in a single calander year...

Ruth picks up the tale. Sleep is for wimps not for world record-breakers, so Iain had us out on the road at 3.30am (yes, that’s 3.30 in the morning!) to drive to Round Hill, an area of mallee arid scrub, where we hoped to see some very special birds. With only twelve birds needed to break the record, every bird was important so I wrote each one down in my notebook to make sure we didn’t lose count during the day. Gilbert’s Whistler was first up, a fairly dull bird to look at compared to some of Australia’s beauties, but a great ‘pooo-eee’ call which carries through the bushes. Next was Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, a small brown-and-cream bird with not surprisingly, a chestnut-coloured rump. White-eared and Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters were next, followed by Southern Scrub-Robin who gave us the run-around amongst the bushes, and then Shy Heathwren (Hylacola) proved not to be too shy to show itself.

Six birds down, and six to go to equalise: the pressure was mounting. Bird number seven, Brown-headed Honeyeater lived up to its name. Number eight, Black-eared Cuckoo was sitting up in a spindly tree calling, and attracting the attention of a variety of honeyeaters which mobbed it continuously, until it had finally had enough and flew away in disgust. A Chestnut Quail-Thrush, a striking bird with prominent black-and-white badger-striped facial markings and a chestnut patch on its back, strutted across an open patch of ground. Hadn’t it read the bird books properly? It was supposed to be a skulking bird keeping well out of sight, not parading out in the open like this. Red-lored Whistler added itself to the list as number ten for the day, and we called a halt to have some breakfast in the field. This was the cue for every fly within miles to make for us at top speed and explore every inch of our faces, in our eyes and ears, up our noses and into our mouths as we opened them. They landed on our bowls of cereal; they slid around the rims of our plastic beakers; they swooped onto our spoons.

Australia does flies very well. I don’t. I hate them with a passion. I hate them when they buzz around your head, and I particularly hate them if I am trying to eat. I hate them if they land on my food, and I hate them even more when they land on the spoonful of cereal I am just about to put in my mouth. This was too much, and my temper exploded. I spat out my mouthful of cereal and fly, and threw the remaining cereal onto the ground in disgust, hurling the bowl and spoon after it in my fury. Why can only toddlers do this and get away with it? It’s so very satisfying!

Back to the serious business of birding, we carried along the rough tracks through the mallee looking for more birds. We encountered a carload of three birders and pulled over to join them to find out what birds they’d seen. It turned out that they’d had a couple of honeyeaters we needed for our list: both White-fronted and Black Honeyeaters. A striped bird swept into the tree and we contorted to get a good view of it through the branches. It was a juvenile White-fronted Honeyeater and was bird number eleven for the day. That put us onto 3622 species and equal to the world record. It wasn’t a particularly exciting bird, being brown, stripy and juvenile but it was an exciting moment. Now just for the next bird: Black Honeyeater would make a cool record-breaker. According to the field guide, it was a black bird with a white belly and central black stripe like a tie, with a long decurved bill. All we had to do was find it: it couldn’t have gone far. We checked the mallee scrub on both sides of the track for a stretch in both directions, trying to catch up with the bird that the other group had just seen. Alan, Iain and I, having rather more vested in finding the next bird than the others in our group, had got a little way ahead of them when a smallish black-and –white streak of a bird tore overhead and disappeared into the distance. What was that? Could it have been a Black Honeyeater? None of us had got a really good look at it, and despite hard searching, we couldn’t relocate it. That bird had gone for good. How frustrating was that? Not everyone in the group had seen the bird, and even the three of us who had, had not really been able to get a good enough look to confirm its ID, and certainly not good enough to break the world record. Although Iain was sure it was the bird, we weren’t familiar enough with the ID to count it.. If there was any bird that had to be seen clearly in full view by everyone in the group, it was bird number 3,663 to witness our new world record!

That seemed to be the cue for all new birds to disappear. As we drove and birded our way back towards Leeton, we saw plenty of great birds, but none of them new. Our list stuck firmly at 3,662 species. We were equal record holders but we just couldn’t edge past Jim Clements and into the lead. Alan and I were getting very tense, but much to Iain’s disappointment I didn’t repeat my earlier fly performance.

We called in at Griffith Golf Course, a site that Iain visited regularly for a nesting Tawny Frogmouth. This wasn’t a new bird for us, I’d misidentified one as a Koala at Daisy Hill a week or so earlier, but it was worth another look, and of course you never know what else may drop in. Griffith was hosting a golf tournament that day, so there were golfers and golf carts all over the place. It was hardly a peaceful place to go birding, but the hubbub didn’t seem to bother the Frogmouth who was sleepily sitting on its nest on a branch overhanging the car park. We walked to the edge of the first tee, right in front of the busy golf club, and caught sight of six parrots feeding in the rough beside the fairway. We frantically focused our binoculars with shaking hands to see what they were, and with a loud whoop of excitement, we ticked off a new bird, Bluebonnet, a type of parrot, bird number 3,663 on our list, and THE WORLD RECORD BREAKING BIRD! It was 2.15pm on 31st October 2008, and we had just broken the world record. It had taken us just ten months to beat the world record that had been set by the American, Jim Clements, in twelve months back in 1989, some nineteen years before. We had done it! A new world record had just been set!

Ignoring the tournament going on around us, we moved in closer to watch our record breakers, who were now perched up in a tree. As parrots go, compared with the rainbow birds we’d already seen, these weren’t the most exciting birds to look at: mostly brown with yellow and rust bellies and blue faces, but that didn’t matter. Right now, they were the most important birds in the world, though their instant fame didn’t seem to bother them much. They went about their business regardless, cleaning their bills on the branches over our heads, as if we didn’t even exist. We took photos, none of which came out too clearly given the combination of hands shaking with the emotion of the moment and the poor light conditions in the shady cover amongst the leaves. But that didn’t matter. They were very special birds and made a pretty special photo too.

I was bubbling over with excitement and wanted to go dancing round in circles and give Alan a big kiss for all that we’d achieved together. But miserable sod, he was playing it cool – oh yeah, just another record – so I had to make do with squeals of delight and big hugs from Jackie and Linda instead! We wanted to have a drink to celebrate, but because of the tournament, we weren’t allowed into the clubhouse, so we drove back to the Town Centre Motel, picking up some bottles of champagne on the way. We all squashed into Iain’s room, and together with Iain, Jackie, Ken, Linda and Len, we all drank a toast to Alan and me, to our achievement together, and to the support that Iain and his colleagues at Tropical Birding, and that all our birding friends around the world had shown us so far, ever since we mentioned our little birding idea back in 2006. What a great way to break the record – with Iain who’d encouraged us to up the ante from a gentle birding tour around the world to a full-blown world record attempt, and then pulled lots of strings to help us achieve it, and on his home turf too, together with a group of international birders.

While the others grabbed a spot of downtime, Alan and I did another interview set up by Jenny, the proprietor of the Town Centre Motel, this time with journalists from The Irrigator, Leeton’s leading local newspaper. They seemed delighted that we’d broken the record in their town, and asked us plenty of questions before taking our photo in the garden. We were the lead story on the front page of the next edition – though maybe sharing the page with a story about a lost kitten did detract a little from our glory!

World record holders or not, Iain lost no time in kicking us back into the bus again, and taking us back to Fivebough Swamp for more birding, adding two more new birds before bedtime. Someone in the research team of BBC Radio Wales had got the time difference a bit mixed up as they rang for a phone interview in the middle of the night. Luckily we don’t have a video phone so they couldn’t see Alan lying in bed as he talked about birding in the field!

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