I often poke fun at listers I perceive as being more interested in ticks than birds. (Listing ticks I mean, I have yet to meet a birder who is really interested in icky parasites). Not that I don’t enjoy seeing new species myself, it’s just that they are an easy target and I am nothing if not lazy and mean spirited. But there is one kind of tick that I genuinely do enjoy, and as I do more and more birding it becomes harder and harder to get; new families.

Getting entirely new families is easy when you start birding. It is also a fun aspect of birding in new countries and continents for the first time. I remember my first sunbird (Nectariniidae, seen near Carins) my first auks (Alcidae, near my parents home in North Wales), my first finfoot (Heliornithidae, in a lake in Uganda), stone-curlew (Burhinidae, same lake as it happens), wood swallow (Artamidae, on the wires near Nadi airport in Fiji), tinamou (Tinamidae, Tikal in Guatemala), sugarbird (Promeropidae, drove past one in a protea farm in South Africa, obviously), or pitta (Pittidae, on a river trail high in the hills of Vietnam). Sometimes you gain armchair big ticks, like the White-tailed Blue-flycatcher I saw in Uganda in 2005 which later turned out to be in the Stenostiridae, a recently erected family. Sometimes you may even lose them, like the aforementioned woodswallows which are probably no longer a family. But as you do more and more birding and go to more an more places it gets much harder to get new family ticks.

I got my first Emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae), family Casuariidae, in West Australia back in 2000.

There are just two left for me in the Sibley Guide to Canada and the bits of the USA that count (Hawaii need not apply) – the Olive Warbler (Peucedramidae)and the silky-flycatchers (Ptilogonatidae). I’m fairly sure the only family I’m missing in Europe is the Wallcreeper (Tichodromadidae), assuming you don’t lump it with the nuthatches. Here in New Zealand te only potential big tick would be a lost vagrant painted snipe, and we’ve already established that I don’t enjoy that kind of vagrant hunting. Last year was a decent year for me and new families, I finally knocked off three problem families for me, the broadbills (Eurylaimidae), the leafbirds (Chloropseidae) and the Bearded Reedling (Panuridae). The Long-tailed Broadbill, the last one I got, was particularly satisfying, and was my bird of the year last year.  The year before I only got one, the shrike-tits (Falcunculidae), although if you include mammals also I finally got my lifer wombat (Vombatidae) too. They year before that were kiwis (Apterygidae) and diving-petrels (Pelecanoididae). At this point if I want to make any dent on the remaining families I haven’t seen I’d really need to go to either Madagascar or South America.

This particular Common Wombat (Vombatus ursinus), family Vombatidae, was the first I ever saw of the species and family.

I was thinking about this because I am currently planning my Christmas break, where I’ll be staying with family in Sydney, as well as escaping for a hot and damp week to Cairns in tropical Queensland. It’s been a long time since I was last in Cairns, and while I had fun there I wasn’t really much of  birder. The only birds I recall seeing were Olive-backed Sunbirds, Red-necked Crakes, Orange-footed Scrubfowl (my first megapodes as it turns out) and Brahminy Kites (remember what I said about not really being a lister? It turns out that if you keep really sloppy notes you can go back to a site and get all the birds again as lifers a second time!). A lot of the stuff I’m really hoping to see are from families (and even species) I’ve seen before but haven’t seen in a long time (bustards, stone-curlews, jacanas, cranes, magpie-geese, pittas). But as I read about what was possible up there it occurred to me that I could also get quite a few new families. I’ve done a descent amount of birding in Australia, but there is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of species and families with quite small ranges. There is a good chance I’ll finally get my first bird-of-paradise (Paradisaeidae), boatbill (a recently split family, Machaerirhynchidae), logrunner (Orthonychidae), platypus (Ornithorhynchidae), rat-kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodontidae) and bettong (Potoridae). There is a smaller chance I could get my first owlet nightjar (Aegothelidae), Australo-Papuan babbler (Pomatostomidae) and buttonquail (Turnicidae). There is even a theoretical but frankly unlikely chance I could get a painted snipe (Rostratulidae). At any rate, there are plenty of big ticks to try for.

So, rather than this just being about me going “neanerneanerneaner I’m going to Cairns!”, what was the last new family that you got? And how far from home did you have to go to get it?

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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.