The Big Twitch

by Sean Dooley

Reviewed by Grant McCreary on December 30th, 2006.

cover of The Big Twitch

Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Date: August, 2006
Illustrations: none
Binding: softcover
Pages: 322
Size: 5 1/2″ x 8″
MSRP: $16.95

What’s a birder to do when he finds that he has some money to spare, very intermittent work, and no romantic attachments? A big year, of course! This confluence of events happened for Sean Dooley in 2002. Sean had wanted to do a big year for quite some time and found that now he was able to. His parents had left him with a moderate inheritance from their untimely deaths from cancer. He was a TV writer and did not currently have a show in production. And he did not have a girl. So he set out not only to do a big year, and not just to break the existing record for birds seen in a year, but to shatter it. He wanted to do the unthinkable, even the laughable (and one birder did literally laugh in his face when told of this goal), and see 700 birds in a single year. Yes, 700. You may be saying to yourself that several people have seen 700 species in a single year in the ABA area. And you would be correct. But that number hadn’t even been approached where Sean lives – in Australia.

In late 2001 when Sean decided to attempt this feat the record was 633 species set in 1989. But Sean looked at the list of regular and vagrant species that had occurred in Australia and its territories and listed all those he thought he could see given a little luck. The list came to 705 species (out of 730-odd species ever recorded). But that would include multiple pelagic trips, trips to outlying island territories such as Easter Island, and extensive traveling on the mainland.

By the end of the year Sean had traveled almost 150,000 kilometers (80,000 on the road, 60,000 by air, and 2,000 via boat). And before this review goes any further – no, I’m not going to say whether Sean achieved his goals.

I had not even heard of most of the species listed in the book, and was familiar with even less. I didn’t know that the Chestnut Quail-Thrush was neither a quail nor a thrush. And when the forward of the book mentioned the Zitting Cisticola I thought it was a made-up bird, only to find out otherwise later (in my defense, that may be the most outrageous bird name ever, and the forward is written in a very joking manner). Fortunately my unfamiliarity didn’t hinder my enjoyment. I was still caught up in the quest. Perhaps the best thing about the book is the way Sean takes what could have been a very boring extended trip report and species list and brings it to life. You feel like you’re on the journey with him.

The author’s writing ability isn’t as surprising after learning that he is a writer for TV sketch comedy shows. And his comedic ability definitely shines through in this book. One only has to look as far as the forwards to the book. Yes, there are two forwards – one for birders and another for non-birders. These are essentially mirror images of each other. In the first he warns birders that even though the main focus is birds he has had to add other details and exaggerate birders’ behavior for comic effect in order to satisfy non-birders. Next, he assures any non-birders that there is plenty of material for them and that even though it may seem he has exaggerated the behavior of birders, he has barely scratched the surface of their bizarre antics.

The journey chronicled in this book was a pleasure to read about, and in the process I learned a lot about the Australian birding scene, the birds, and the country. This book would be very useful and informative to anyone who will be birding Australia. But even for those who are not it should prove to be a delight.

Category: Miscellaneous

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