This book is both a study and a celebration. Cranes, Herons and Storks are not closely related but they share many characteristics, including all being fascinating and it is very much a personal choice to work on them all together.
It has taken 16 years to complete the project. A number of the species have been comparatively easy to find and photograph but, at the other end of the scale, some were so difficult that I began to doubt if I would ever manage to complete what I had set out to do. In the end, I did manage to study and photograph all 17 species, including 15 at the nest.
There is a chapter devoted to each species. This has been a personal study in the field and the text reflects this, detailed and accurate but also bringing out the colour and drama in these birds lives. In particular, the Sarus Crane and two of the bitterns, Australasian and Australian Little proved to be the most difficult of all and the lengths of their three chapters bears witness to the dance that they led me.
As much as possible, I have tried to make the photographs and the text complement each other. A story has more impact if there are pictures to go with it and there have been a number of instances where this is possible but there are many other photographs which stand alone.
We live in a rapidly changing world, where many of the old constants are no longer constants at all. My aim in this book has been to give as complete a picture as I can of these three groups of birds in the early 21st century. Hopefully, it is a picture which will remain constant into the future and not become merely a record of what we once had.
This was a combined effort with Clive Minton, arguably the world’s greatest expert on waders. Clive and I have been friends since schooldays and so, when he suggested that we should work together on a wader book, there was only ever going to be one answer. Clive knows just about everything that there is to know about waders and so the arrangement was that he would provide the expertise, while I took the photographs and did most of the writing. It worked very well.
There are 80 species of wader on the Australian list, divided almost equally into thirds, the resident breeding species, the non-breeding migrants and the vagrants, accidental rarities which have lost their way during migration and arrived by chance in Australia.
With Clive, I undertook many expeditions to Broome and Eighty Mile Beach in Western Australia, Corner Inlet and Western Port Bay in Victoria and a number of sites in South Australia, while my personal searches took me to North Queensland, the Riverina district of New South Wales and, in Victoria, my home district around Orbost plus many visits to that bird-watching nirvana, the Western Treatment Plant at Werribee. Through all these trips, I managed to study and photograph all the residents and regular migrants and some of the accidentals. Photographs of the remaining accidentals were provided by a number of contributors.
Migration plays a major role among Australia’s waders and four of the early chapters are devoted to this subject and to wader study, which, under Clive’s leadership, has made huge advances in our knowledge of migration, breeding, longevity and the harm being caused by the destruction of coastal wetlands in the Yellow Sea. Topics covered include cannon-netting, banding, flagging and the use of both satellite transmitters and geolocators.
The next 19 chapters are devoted to the birds themselves, with species by species of varying length; from 23 pages for the remarkable Banded Stilt down to less than half a page for some of the vagrants. Clive has written chapters on moults and breeding productivity, there is a chapter on changes around the Yellow Sea and another on wader sites around Australia. The book ends with a Field Guide section for all 80 Australian waders.
This was a fun project. Kingfishers and kookaburras are a colourful group and a joy to work with but it still took eight years to find and photograph them all and I never did find a nest of the Little Kingfisher, even though I was able to track it down elsewhere.
Even though there are only ten species, it still entailed a lot of travelling, particularly to North Queensland but also to the inland in search of Red-backed Kingfishers.
Kingfishers and kookaburras lend themselves well to light beam photography with the bird triggering the camera when it passes through an infra-red beam, dispensing with any need for the photographer to having anything to do with the process once he has set it up. Using this technique, I was able to photograph Sacred, Forest, Red-backed and Azure Kingfishers, Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfishers and both species of kookaburra.
Sadly, this book has been out of print for some years with no certainty that it will ever be re-printed.
With Owls Frogmouths and Nightjars completed, I could not bear the thought of no longer working with owls. I had already photographed a few owls overseas and so was born the idea of travelling to a number of countries with the specific purpose of finding and photographing one or more owls there. It worked beyond my wildest dreams and, in a total of 12 expeditions, I had only one failure.
There were many memorable ones; the thrill of finding the nest of the spectacular Snowy Owl in the snows of the Alaskan tundra and then, at 2.0am, photographing the female by natural daylight as she flew in to feed her chick; the fleeting sights of the beautiful Spectacled Owl in a Costa Rican rain forest, shy and wary, yet prepared to stay if I made my movements with the utmost care; the shadowed appearance of two endangered Blakiston’s Fish Owl, one of the world’s rarest owls, fishing only metres in front of my hide in Hokkaido, Japan.
All these sights and many more made the project well worth the expense and effort. Since then, I have photographed several more owls overseas but there is unlikely ever to be a revised version.
Owls have always been my greatest love but are extremely difficult to study and photograph. Fortunately, I had the help of John Young, Australia’s greatest living naturalist, whose skill at finding owls and building hides high in trees is legendary. With both John and a number of other owl enthusiasts, I found and photographed all of Australia’s owls plus the frogmouths and nightjars, often staying all night in hides high in the trees.
Australia’s owls are mostly very little known and most had never been photographed at the nest prior to this project.
This book goes a long way to filling in all of those gaps; the Powerful Owl, often stolidly indifferent at its daytime roost but incredibly shy and wary around the nest; the Rufous Owl which flew in over John Young’s shoulder and into the nest when he was clinging onto the tree, barely a metre from the hole.
This book evolved in two parts. It was initially published as Birds of the Night but I was never entirely happy with the result. Some years later, a young scientist, Rohan Bilney, was studying owls in eastern Victoria for his Ph.D. thesis and he and I spent a lot of time in the field together. The result was a greatly expanded and improved version, now entitled Owls Frogmouths and Nightjars of Australia. This book also won a Whitley Award.
As a postscript, I was once told that my owl work would never be exceeded because nobody else would be mad enough to try. As far as the book goes, this remark speaks for itself.
It was in the early 1970s that I first made a tentative start to photographing all of Australia’s 24 diurnal birds of prey. The enthusiasm was always there but, right from the start, there was the problem of how to reach the height in the trees where most of these birds nest. The scheme could have had an early demise without a fortuitous meeting with Jack Cupper from Mildura, who was embarking on a similar project. Jack had devised and built a portable, telescopic aluminium tower, reaching to a height of over 20 metres and fitted with a hide on the top. This could be carried on a vehicle and then set up at the chosen site for photography. Jack and I made many expeditions together and Jack also generously made a tower for me, enabling me to work independently.
This project took me until 1983, by which time I had seen, watched and photographed every Australian species, including studies at the nest of the rare Grey Falcon and Red Goshawk. Eagles Hawks and Falcons of Australia was published in 1984 and, in that year, won the Whitley Award for the Australia’s Best Illustrated natural history book. It was re-printed in a slightly expanded version in 2003 but is now close to being out of print. A new and completely re-designed edition is planned but does not have a publication date.