February 2006

The Nation Reviewed

A twitch in time

By Clare Barker
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Since the recent publication of Alan McArthur’s and Steve Lowe’s Is It Just Me or Is Everything Shit? the media has been full of comment about the generally crap state of modern middle-class life, a sort of creeping cultural atrophy that’s seen quality – of art, behaviour, schooling, food, recreation, communication, and everything in between – supposedly lie down and die, leaving an enormous hole.

That hole has purportedly been filled with all sorts of junk, such as Starbucks, Playstation and thumping old people in the street (while videoing it on your mobile phone); with franchised theme pubs and painfully shallow stars and the rubbishing of all the good old-fashioned stuff that made our parents happy. Whatever happened to real butter, and the theatre, and looking your age? Whatever happened to birdwatching? Happily this, at least, is still alive and kicking in inner-city Sydney.

“I’m not your stereotypical birdwatcher,” says the debonair Charles Hunter, pint in one hand, fag in the other. To discuss Hunter’s unlikely passion for ornithology, we’ve met in a Darlinghurst pub, the sort peopled with web designers and fashion stylists, where the barman is just filling in time before his band’s sound-check.

I’d expected some sort of Bill Oddie-in-waiting, part eager young naturalist, part bearded loon. But Hunter, 29, is a media buyer for Austereo, a handsome creative who digs Prada and calls Elizabeth Bay home. Last month he got hitched to his girlfriend Ainslie, general manager of the hip make-up emporium Mecca Cosmetica, in a flashy harbour-side restaurant, a place where media people go to see and be seen.

Like others of his ilk, Hunter works long hours and battles all the stresses of your average alpha male. “I’m a very intense person,” he concedes. “I need an outlet. I guess I could do yoga, but I prefer to look at birds.” Tee hee.

As a child Hunter was introduced to birdwatching by his father, a keen bushwalker. Hunter has three sisters who failed to take the birding bait – “they still groan when I bring it up at dinner” – but his uncle, a doctor, is a serious ‘twitcher’, a man who thinks nothing of hopping on a flight to Antarctica to spot a giant petrel, or “spending a week in the desert to see one rare bird”. Hunter says his uncle’s species sightings are approaching the high six hundreds (Australia and its territories are home to over eight hundred species of birds).

Hunter’s own tally hovers at “four hundred or more”. He doesn’t photograph his quarries, simply notes their details in his field guide, then logs them back home on a spreadsheet. “Some people are obsessive tickers; they have to tick a book to complete their experience. But I’m not in it for the numbers. It’s about the thrill of a new bird: a cassowary and four chicks or your first buff-breasted paradise kingfisher. It’s also about conservation; you become more aware of your environment the more time you spend in it. For example, I pick up litter, I don’t throw my cigarette butts in the wild,” he says, poker-faced.

Perhaps it’s the sisterly teasing that has left Hunter rather fierce and protective about his hobby, but he certainly has no time for critics. “I don’t give a shit if people think it’s daggy,” he snaps, when I gently rib him about it. “Yes, there are societies that meet and talk birds. What’s so funny? It’s no worse than going salsa dancing, is it? It’s a social activity.”

In truth the members of such groups do email each other reports that are a touch nerdy: “Paradise Rifebird (male). At the end of our trek I heard that distinctive ruffling and mid-way in the canopy was a male bird. We observed for around one minute, hearing it call twice (a powerful call), before it flew up higher out of sight. Bassian Thrush? Two seen,” writes Hunter in the birding diary from his honeymoon.

His honeymoon? Alas, it seems Mrs Hunter is not yet hooked on her husband’s hobby. “Rudely enough I chose my honeymoon – Oak Beach, near Port Douglas – with birdwatching in mind,” Hunter says. He checked out other birds three days out of seven. (“It was all I could negotiate.”) But he insists that Ainslie will come around to his hobby: “She does tease me, with all her friends, but they are starting to get excited about it. [Her friends] see a birding article and they cut it out and give it to her; they pretend they’re not interested but they can’t help themselves.”

Hunter believes that although the stereotype still rings true – most twitchers are “retirees with time on their hands” – the demographic is shifting. “What I gather from the online community is that there are more and more professionals [getting involved]. And the conservation angle is inspiring younger people.” This can only be a good thing, according to Hunter. “I have friends who don’t have any hobbies, and I think that’s sad. I think it’s really important to have something to keep you interested outside of work. And this is for life, birdwatching is for life.”

Just don’t make jokes about him ogling other birds when his wife’s not looking.

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