The recent news that an (unnamed as yet) birdwatcher had been found dead in the remote Kimberley, a few kilometres from his bogged vehicle and metres away from an empty water-bottle and his make-shift humpy, reminded me of the dangers that can accompany this most, apparently, benign of occupations.

The Brisbane Times reports:

Police are yet to establish how long the man had been travelling through the Kimberley before becoming stranded in rough country on the Meda cattle station near Derby, 220 kilometres north-east of Broome.

Professional camera equipment and birdwatching paraphernalia were found in the bogged four-wheel-drive yesterday, about seven kilometres from his body.

“He was an ornithologist and photographer and obviously on the trip of a lifetime,” Sergeant Lambert said.

“Unfortunately it went horribly wrong. The conditions up there are extremely harsh and I don’t think people from urban centres can appreciate just how dangerous it can be.

“We see it happen all the time. Even experienced people get caught out and finding water is a real skill.

“In 2003, we had two experienced Aboriginal bushmen who became bogged in similar circumstances without water. If they can’t survive it, no one can. It only takes one small mistake.”

Birdwatching in the 70+% of Australia that is in the arid zone – particularly anytime from August on – can be fraught with traps for the unwary or unprepared, but it should be said that there are more than enough warnings and prior incidents to give any traveler to these parts caution.

Over at Birding-Aus, the Australian birders web-group, there is speculation that the poor unfortunate the subject of these news reports was looking for the Black Grasswren Amytornis housei, a small bird that is locally common within its severely restricted range in the west Kimberley, near to where this fellow passed away…as one of the commentators there pointed out “I hope he got his grasswren.”

Mordant humour aside, birdwatchers must be, at times, among either the most stupid or luckless people that poke their way around the world looking for their elusive avian prey…I’ve succumbed to the temptation to stop dead in the middle of the road to peer after some feathered blur that rushed into the roadside bushes and there are plenty of reports on Birding-Aus, and elsewhere, of people doing silly things looking for small birds.

My mate Mark Cocker wrote a book about (some) birders doing stupid or unfortunate things in their searches for birds. Called, naturally enough, Birders – Tales of a Tribe (Random House, 2002), Mark’s book is a rambling collection of tales of (occasional) foolishness and adventures by birders seeking the elusive and remote across the globe.

The last chapter is most relevant for present purposes – titled “US Cops and Mexican Bandits” and he there relates several tales of disastrous, and occasionally fatal, attempts of birders seeking the elusive, rare or remote specials that sustain their most peculiar of pleasures – many of which I confess to share…

The first story tells of the sequential robberies of money, passports, wallets and birding gear (NOT MY BINS!!) suffered by Craig, Clive, Debbie and Ray in the southern US, Mexico and Guatemala and, twelve months later, in Kathmandu, Nepal. The next tells of the disappearance of one of Mark’s close friends, and fellow India and Nepal bird-trekker, Alan Adams, on a Nepalese mountain ridge at 12,000 feet.

Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra
Satyr Tragopan Tragopan satyra

Searching for the elusive Satyr Tragopan, a beautiful but elusive bird found in the eastern Himalayas, Alan could hear the Tragopan calling, and desperate to see the bird, his “glittering prize”, he set off alone late in the afternoon, never to be seen again. As Mark says:

The drive that gripped Alan that stormy night in the Himalayas can carry us into all sorts of situations. Most of the time the stories engendered add to the great canon of harmless eccentricities. But in some instances the birder’s drive can lead to dreadful tragedy.

Then follows two breathless tales of near misses with a speedboat in a tidal channel on the Norfolk coast, a near, bullet-riddled escape from bandits in the Hindu Kush and the death of David Hunt in 1985 by tiger in northern India:

…when they retrieved [David’s] body and possessions, they eventually took his last film for development. It showed a tiger in all its glory, the shots increasing in quality and drama from the moment of encounter to the point of the great cat’s charge.

The next sad tale of death while birding concerns the murder of two Britons, Tim Andrews and Mike Entwistle, at the hands of Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) guerillas at Tingo Maria in north-central Peru in 1990. While the precise details are unknown Mark sketches a story of ignorance of local conditions, miscommunication and a failure to appreciate the value of advice not to travel into the area around Tingo Maria.

A group of armed Sendero activists appeared suddenly and attempted to lead [Tim and Mike] away at gunpoint. One of the two…tried to make a run for it and was gunned down as he fled. The body apparently fell in the river and floated away. The surviving Briton was then…encouraged …to confess that he was either a CIA or US drug-enforcement agent. The bird guides and the notebooks and the English accent seemingly counted for little, because at some point the captive was liberally fed and watered, then shot. No bodies were ever recovered.

There are plenty of other references to birding as a dangerous business, including this blog posting from Stephen Moss at The Guardian, which references the experiences of US National Guardsman Jonathan Trouern-Trend, in his book, Birding Babylon.

And of course I’ve only here looked at the dangers that birders face from other humans…I’ll leave the issue of dangerous birds for another day…another post – but for now – see this article from the Smithsonian Institution on our very own Cassowary…

I encourage you to contribute your own personal experiences or anecdotes from birdings wild side…

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Photo of female Black Grasswren, Amytornis housei by Rob Morris