Mark Carter is an independent professional birding guide and wildlife surveyor living in Alice Springs, Central Australia. Originally from Scotland, Mark has lived and worked in continental Europe and North Africa before settling in Australia’s “Red Centre” to work for the Northern Territory Parks Service. In 2008 Mark founded the annual Red Centre Bird Week and Twitchathon which occurs each September/October in Alice Springs. Today Mark owns and operates the wildlife guiding and biodiversity survey company Desertlife.com.au. He writes regularly for Australia’s own birding blog “Bird-O.com” and spends all his free time either looking for desert land snails or, you guessed it, birding. Here Mark shares the story of his Loo List.
Lists, it is often said, are one of the defining features of birding. It is expected that most birders will keep a life list, a glorious tally of every species which has crossed one’s path over the years around the globe. It is also quite normal to keep a year list, a home country list and a local list. Some birders go further. Some keep lists of everything seen on their “home patch.” Or of birds seen at their place of work. Or in their garden. I have a confession to make. I go further. I take listing somewhere you might think it should never go. I take it to the toilet. Yes, fellow birders, I keep a detailed list of all the species I have seen whilst I have been on the throne, peeing behind trees, or making like the proverbial bear in the woods.
I call it the Loo List. It all started when I was a keen birding youngster in my native Scotland. I had visited a pinewood site in search of the grandest of the caledonian game birds, the mighty Capercaillie. I was having no luck and was on the verge of heading back down the long track to the bus stop for the ride home when I absent-mindedly took a detour off the track in search of a spot to relieve myself. I trudged through the blaeberry and purple heather, allowing my bladder to navigate in search of a welcoming place to pee. As I watered the shrubs I noticed a hint of a red wattle 20 meters off behind a juniper. I stood there, frozen mid-piddle, and the most incredible bird I had so far seen stepped forward. A glorious black monstrous male, he pecked at a berry with his ivory-white beak then turned and ducked back behind cover. It was over before I’d even finished. I bounced home that day thinking wan’t it funny that the bird should appear exactly then.
But there was nothing funny about it. Over the years to come I would see so many good birds whilst having a wee pee in bushes or even an alfresco numero due that it has almost become normal. In Kent I found my first Dartford Warbler whilst taking a dump behind a gorse bush. In the Spanish Pyrenees I saw my first Alpine Chough while making yellow snow. In Chile I got the best view of an Andean Condor of the entire trip while having a cheeky poo under a monkey puzzle pine on the side of a volcano. And it wasn’t just birds either: also in Chile one time I sped out of my tent and jogged into the forest for an urgent night poo. As I crouched down, trowel in one hand, toilet roll in the other, I found myself face to face with a Puma across a clearing. I was convinced that this was to be the end- I pictured the headline: crapping birder eaten by big cat. Could it be possible to fight off a 100kg feline with this small garden implement? The beast blinked slowly in the feeble light of my headlamp, turned and silently slunk into the Patagonian dark. They do have a sensitive sense of smell I suppose.
I have worked in the outdoors for most of my adult life so bodily functions in the fresh air are a simple necessity. By simply keeping my eyes open in the process I have acquired a long and growing role-call of these ‘toilet-ticks’. After years of thinking that there was some sort of Murphy’s Law at work as time and again the best bird of a trip would appear only after I’d stopped looking and had taken five to answer a call of nature, I am now beginning to suspect that there is something about bush-toileting which makes encounters more likely. I assiduously follow ‘wild-pooping’ best practice which generally means going nowhere near anybody else ever. In seeking out seclusion we perhaps use the same part of our brains that some birds do when seeking safe repose? Or maybe its the only time we relax and stop crashing around long enough for birds to make themselves heard? Who can say? All I know is toilet-birding works for me.
Here in Australia my list continues to accumulate. In Tasmania Southern Emu-wren joined the club when I happened to choose the buttongrass hummock next to theirs to take a leak. My only close view of Spotted Nightjar roosting by day was gleaned while relieving myself under the tree next to its, the dark eyes peering through the slits at me with caprimulgid disgust. Dusky Grasswren has multiple entries as they seem to find a human squatting on a desert mountain fascinating. My first Princess Parrot? You guessed it- I was on the dunny. Only last week I dug a hole and settled down at a remote woodland site when I was practically mobbed by a flurry of twittering Varied Sittellas. On that happy occasion I happened to have a camera hanging from my shoulder so I snapped the picture accompanying this problematic article.
I suspect I am not the only birder who secretly keeps such an ornitho-scatalogical list. I can’t be. Let us end this silence. Now my loo-listing friends, now is the time to come out of the water-closet. But please, do wash your hands properly when you have finished.
Poop Week is a week of themed posts on 10,000 Birds that cover the intersection of poop and birding, a fertile precinct if there ever was one. Rather than just discuss the horror of a pigeon dropping droppings on someone’s head we decided to really get down the nitty-gritty details of poop, to the point where it is squishing up between our toes. Not only is Poop Week a fascinating way to spend seven days in June it is also a serious attempt to elevate the level of discourse in the bird blogosphere, which, as we all have no choice but to admit, is far too low. Enjoy, and make sure to wipe up afterwards, would you?