Category Archives: David Ap-Thomas

A ‘madness’ called the Challenge Bird Count

On the first Sunday in December every year, 400 plus birdwatchers go tearing around the countryside counting birds. This madness is called the Challenge Bird Count.
Laughing Kookaburra © Bryon Samuels 2012
Laughing Kookaburra © Bryon Samuels 2012

It started in 1967 when Roy Wheeler, President of the Bird Observers Club, organised a challenge between Melbourne and the USA teams taking part in the Audubon Society Christmas Count. He divided the Melbourne/Geelong region into eight areas, each with a team of four to six observers. Each team had to record as many species as possible during a 24 hour period and the results were added together.

The original idea was to get the eight groups to cover as many species as possible. Team A covered the forests above Healesville down to Gembrook, and were required to get Pink Robin, Wonga Pigeon, Lewin’s Honeyeater and Cicadabird etc. Team E covered the Werribee area and had to get most of the waders whilst Team B went down to Phillip Island and got Short-tailed Shearwaters and other seabirds.

In the June 1969 Bird Observer, Roy Wheeler gave the results. He wrote:

‘The first count on 10th December 1967 was an attempt to beat the then American record of 204 species seen in one day. The BOC recorded 209. The members of the San Diego, California team during their Christmas Birdcount on December 21, 1968 regained the lead with 217 species beating the BOC 1968 total of 213 species. In December 1969 the Melbourne and Geelong teams regained the lead from the USA with 222 species.’

By 1973 things were changing. The USA connection had gone and they tried a three-way challenge with Sydney and Brisbane but this didn’t last long, probably because those two cities had far bigger lists and December was not ideal for them. So, by 1982 it was simply a challenge between the eight teams around Melbourne. Geoff Deason compiled the results for many years and, in 1982 a total of 230 species were recorded. Team E, led by Fred Smith assisted by John Barkla and Bob Swindley, recorded the total of 157 species.

In 1985 I took over the running of the Challenge Bird Count and broadened the participation by inviting all BOCA Branches to take part. Shepparton, Corowa, Ballarat, Nhill and East Gippsland joined in the first year.

In 2012 we had 35 teams from all states and territories except Western Australia. and the Northern Territory, with a total of 404 people taking part. Cairns/Mossman recorded 203 species with Tweed Heads getting 197. Team sizes varied from 32 in the Tweed Heads team to three people in a number of teams.

Graeme and Judy Hosken have compiled the results for many years and I thank them for all the work they have done. Adriana Bianchi has now taken over this role and I really appreciate her involvement. Results of previous years’ Challenge Bird Counts are posted on the BirdLife Australia website.

John Barkla, on his fortieth consecutive Count, led an 11-strong team on the 2013 Challenge Bird Count, covering an area within a 25km radius from Werribee.  John wrote:

‘We recorded a total of  183 species, which we have only surpassed twice before.

Our principal efforts are always in:

    • You Yangs Regional Park:
    • Serendip Sanctuary (wild birds only);
    • Melbourne Water’s Western Treatment Plant;
    • Werribee River Park and adjacent sites (Werribee South & Werribee Park Mansion);
    • The Spit State Nature Conservation Reserve;
    • The former Cheetham Salt Avalon Operations (Ridley Corporation completed the sale of Cheetham in February 2013, but retained the Avalon and Moolap assets. Given the extremely high conservation values of these two sites, it is hoped that they do not intend to develop them);
    • Point Cook Coastal Park; and
    • various sites around Altona (including Kororoit Creek, Jawbone Reserve & Mount St Joseph’s pond).

This year we had one of our strongest count teams, comprising:

    • John Barkla (leader)
    • Lyn Abreu
    • Scott Baker
    • Tim Bawden
    • Paul Dodd
    • Chris Lester
    • Rosemary Lester
    • Elizabeth Lloyd
    • Alison Street
    • Ruth Woodrow
    • Jim Wright

As in prior years, the count commenced from midnight on Saturday in the You Yangs. Three of our team members had only returned from overseas (two from Brazil and one from Vietnam) in the early hours of Saturday morning and another had a serious leg injury, so by late on Sunday a few of us were feeling the strain. The easy consensus was to conclude our count earlier than most other years, a little after 7.00pm on Sunday.

As I have reported for the last few years, during the most recent decades the species counts have been consistently higher than those of earlier decades. In the 10 years from 1991 to 2000, the average number of species counted was 154. In the following decade from 2001 to 2010 the average increased to 169 and for the first three years of this decade we have achieved an average of 185. This has been attributable, in part, to better coverage and more counters.

Some highlights of the count this year were –

    1. We had our first record of Pied Currawong, with a single bird in Lara, but missed Pacific Gull for the first time.
    2. We had only our second record of Black-faced Cormorant.
    3. We managed to find a selection of rarer waders (Ruff, Broad-billed Sandpiper and Pectoral Sandpiper) at the Western Treatment Plant.
    4. We found Speckled Warblers in two sites in the You Yangs.
    5. We missed a number of species which we knew to be in our area (Darter, Nankeen Kestrel, Grey Plover, Latham’s Snipe, Sanderling and Southern Boobook).
    6. As I have said for a few years, we saw more than 20% of Australia’s bird species and approximately 42,000 individuals within 40 minutes drive of a city of 4+ million people in an area of only 25 kilometres radius: than in my view puts our area on a level comparable with anything else in the country and many other parts of the world.
    7. In recent years I have been reporting that  a few species are obviously increasing in number in our area.

a)  Brush Bronzewings seem to have been transformed from a rare bird (in our area) to one we can expect to record each year. We did not record this species during the 16  years from 1974 to 1989. We recorded it four times in the next 16 years to 2005, but we have now recorded it in each of the past five years.

b) Cape Barren Geese were only recorded twice in the 20 years to 1994, but increased steadily between 2002 and 2009. Since the high of 90 in 2009, numbers have fluctuated and this year we recorded 57.

c) Black Kites were only recorded once in the 20 years to 1994 and from 2002 had been increasing. This year we saw our highest count of 20.

d) Crested Pigeons were not recorded in the 26 years before 2000, but we have increased enormously since then. This year we saw 41, but know many more were about.

e) Rainbow Lorrikeets continue to expand their range. We recorded our first in 1998 and have recorded them in each of the past 5 years.

Finally, it was another year when we could not find some species. All of these species used to be regularly recorded, but have now either disappeared or become very rare in the area we cover (last record during a count is in brackets) –

    1. Eastern Curlew (2003)
    2. Grey-tailed Tattler (1991)
    3. Lesser Sand Plover (1989)
    4. Greater Sand Plover (1986)
    5. Brown Treecreeper (1980, but we now know of a small colony at Eynesbury, which may be in our area and we will investigate this for next year)
    6. Hooded Robin (1995)

As in previous years, I am indebted to a number of people who provide assistance by allowing access to the sites we visit. For helping me with the necessary access approvals and keys, I would particularly like to thank –

    1. Peter Gall, William Steele, Ben Pratt and George Judkins of Melbourne Water;
    2. John Argote & Bernie McCarrick of Parks Victoria, based at Point Cook Coastal Park;
    3. Mark Urquhart, Judy Locke, Mike Frislie and Joel Mossman of Parks Victoria, based in the You Yangs Regional Park;
    4. Ruth Woodrow of Parks Victoria, based at Serendip Sanctuary; and
    5. Brendan O’Dowd of Ridley Corporation (formerly Cheetham Salt).

Thank you to each of the participants for a prodigious effort.

We paid tribute on Saturday night to our friend and mentor Fred Smith, who started these counts shortly after WWII and was a regular participant until 2011. He died in June this year aged 90.

Given that this was my fortieth consecutive count, I hope to be assisting a much younger person to take over the leadership next year.’

Would you like to be part of the Count?

Anyone can enter a team which should preferably be at least three people. The area covered can be any size, not more than 25km radius, which can comfortably be covered by the team. This is not a twitchathon but is more a challenge to see how many species you can see in your patch.

The next Challenge Bird Count will be held on or around the weekend of 7/8 December. Please contact me at if you would like to take part.

Have fun.
David Ap-Thomas