Migratory bird has watchers 'twitching'

FOCUS: The lone Long-billed Dowitcher, the bird that has bird watchers in a flap. 
Picture: PAUL DODD.

FOCUS: The lone Long-billed Dowitcher, the bird that has bird watchers in a flap. Picture: PAUL DODD.

THE first recorded Australian sighting of a northern hemisphere shorebird has bird watchers flocking to a lake near Kerang.

One Long-billed Dowitcher observed amongst other waders at Lake Tutchewop is tens of thousands of kilometres away from its normal migration path.

Bird watchers - also known as twitchers - from all over Australia have been attracted by the find, with enthusiasts driving from Sydney and flying from Queensland to catch a glimpse.

The Long-billed Dowitcher's breeding habitat is wet tundra in the far north of North America and eastern Siberia and the birds migrate to the southern United States and as far south as Central America. It is also a rare but regular visitor to western Europe.

The bird was first observed at Lake Tutchewop earlier this month, then was verified before being listed on bird-watcher websites and Facebook pages.

Groups of people have been strategically placed on the Lake Tutchewop shoreline, 40 kilometres north-west of Kerang.

TWITCHING: Gary Oliver aims for a picture of the Long-billed Dowitcher.

TWITCHING: Gary Oliver aims for a picture of the Long-billed Dowitcher.

"I just had to come and see it," Carisbrook enthusiast, Gary Oliver said.

He located and photographed the Dowitcher early on Tuesday afternoon before it and a flock of stilts flew to the other side of the lake.

Mr Oliver, a retired school principal, said that he had viewed and recorded more than 600 of Australia's 800 species of birds over the past 30 years.

"It stood out in a flock of grey stilts with its beautiful chestnut colour," he said.

"It was very exciting; certainly had me twitching!"

Mr Oliver said that he had booked into a caravan park for a couple of nights to provide an extended opportunity to see the bird.

Echuca bird watcher, Keith Stockwell suggested that the bird "took a wrong turn at Siberia."

"It might have been frightened off the water or was in a wind draught with other birds and just kept going."

Bird observer and wildlife photographer, Paul Dodd said that this species has rarely been seen south of the equator.

"This is the first time that the bird has been found in Australia, so it has gained a lot of interest from bird watchers around the country and around the world," he said.

The bird was first found on Friday, November 7 by Peter Sawyer, however it was another day or so before news got out.

Mr Dodd said that it was initially reported as an Asian Dowitcher - a similar species that breeds in South-eastern Asia and is an occasional visitor to Australia, with generally one or two reported every year or so.

"Once pictures were available, local experts quickly identified it as one of the two American species, Long-billed or Short-billed Dowitcher, and a great deal of debate raged around its identity. The two species are extremely difficult to tell apart in the field".

The bird was seen by a group of bird watchers on November 10 and again the following day, but then it disappeared. Many people travelled large distances to see the bird on November 12 and on subsequent days, only to be disappointed. This is known as "dipping" in the birdwatching community.

Last Saturday, word spread around 11am that the bird had been seen again.

Mr Dodd said that he and his wife, Ruth Woodrow drove four hours to Lake Tutchewop to look for it, and to hopefully photograph it.

"Fortunately, we were successful, unfortunately however, a birdwatcher who had driven from Adelaide arrived about 20 minutes too late as the bird had flown off to the north and wasn't seen again that day!

"Fortunately for her, the bird was relocated the following morning and has now been seen daily since."

The consensus amongst the experts is that this bird is indeed a Long-billed Dowitcher and not the similar Short-billed.

One thing that has confounded bird watchers and experts is why this bird is still in breeding plumage, as the northern breeding season has been over for many months now. The usual question of, "Why has this bird arrived in Australia?" remains unanswered, of course - the truth is that no-one really knows why vagrant birds suddenly turn up thousands of kilometres from their usual locations.

Fellow bird watcher, Simon Starr said that the wetlands around Kerang are a wonderful asset.

"It doesn't surprise me that rare birds appear, in fact I have seen a number myself over the years, however never a first for Australia," he said.

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