28 October 2022

Canberra birdwatchers race against the clock to help save gang-gang cockatoo in annual Twitchathon

| James Coleman
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Canberra birdwatchers

Canberra birdwatchers, Ryan and Jamie Hopkins. Photo: Jamie Hopkins.

Birdwatching is becoming a fully-fledged sport this weekend with the return of the annual Twitchathon.

Teams of avid birdwatchers from across NSW and the ACT will compete against each other and the clock in a bid to record as many bird species as possible over 29 and 30 October.

Teams can choose between entering a three-hour Birdathon or 12-hour Champagne Race, or the formidable Big Weekend – a 30-hour overnight event described as a “mega twitch for the crazy and dedicated”. Fortunately, for the birds, it includes a mandatory six-hour rest break.

There are no prizes or trophies this year, but money raised by the teams goes toward helping the gang-gang cockatoo, the fauna emblem of the ACT.

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Twitchathon is organised each year by BIGnet, a loose affiliation of birdwatching clubs and organisations across NSW and the ACT. Over the past three decades, it has raised significant funds for a range of conservation projects. They’re hoping to crack $30,000 for 2022.

Teams taking part include the Western Warblers from Western Sydney, the Gunnedah Galahs, the Dunbogan Drongos from the NSW Mid-North Coast, The Bossy Bush Hens from the Northern Rivers and the Crested Hoppies from Canberra.

Ryan and Jamie Hopkins only moved to Canberra from Townsville about a year ago, but are already in love with the local wildlife that lands on their balcony every morning.

“We are so glad we moved here and wish we could have done so earlier,” Ryan says.

“It’s such a green city and the perfect location for a bird-watching Twitchathon. We could do a three-hour walk along Lake Burley Griffin or even from Haig Park to Glebe Park and we would still see plenty of species.”

Ryan and Jamie Hopkins

Ryan and Jamie Hopkins atop a Canberra mountain. Photo: Ryan Hopkins.

As it is, the Crested Hoppies will tackle Mount Majura over three hours, armed with a bird-watching pack. This includes a first-aid kit, three to five litres of water, snacks, binoculars, a bird identification book and five bird identification apps on Jamie’s smartphone.

“We’ve done a lot of bird-watching and identifying, but this is the first time we’ve ever done it as a competitive event,” Ryan says.

“So we thought we’d start off with the little hike – take it easy and combine a good day out with our little bird-watching love. If we enjoy it, we’ll build up to the next level next time.”

Ryan, a public servant within the Department of Defence, says his wife Jamie holds a doctorate in ecology and is the reason they both share the passion.

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“Growing up, I was more of a dog person, but she never had any pets so her outlet was native birds around her. Her career was then vested in that, starting as a vet nurse and then studying ecology. I’ve been dragged along, willingly.”

The couple are hoping to catch sight of the glossy-black cockatoo on their hike up Mount Majura, one of the most threatened species of cockatoo in Australia and listed as a vulnerable in NSW. But Ryan says there has been a number of recent sightings in the ACT.

“The other rare one we’d like to see is the superb parrot, and obviously the gang-gang would be pretty cool too. We’ve been lucky enough to see them around Canberra, particularly near the Australian War Memorial.”

The gang-gang has gone from a species considered of least concern to being listed federally as endangered after the 2019/2020 bushfires. The national population has declined by 69 per cent over the past three generations.

Gang Gang cockatoo

A male gang-gang, his wispy headdress flopping in the breeze. Photo: Ian Fraser.

BigNET says the Twitchathon will play a part in finding out more about their lives and habitat requirements.

“There is an urgent need to consolidate our knowledge of the species, better protect habitat and engage the community in efforts to monitor and conserve them,” their website reads.

Birdlife Australia will use money raised during the Twitchathon to set up a pilot project in partnership with the Campbelltown City Council and the University of Sydney. This will investigate where exactly gang-gangs are breeding in south-west Sydney bushland, examine whether artificial hollows can be used to increase breeding, and encourage individuals to create their own gang-gang-friendly habitats.

This knowledge will then have applications across the country, including Canberra.

The NSW & ACT Twitchathon will be held this weekend (29 to 30 October). Register a team or donate online. Visit the website or Facebook page for more information.

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