Christmas Bells

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Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Bird Watching in 1961 - a more innocent time.

This is an extract from an article which I was sent tonight by a lady in Canberra. It was written by my father, Steve Wilson, in July 1976, and recounts events from February 1961. I was a mere "puppy" then, being only 13 years old at the time. Needless to say, the story "rings true" but I cannot confirm the details, especially to do with the firearm mentioned.
This aerial photo shows Parliament House in the foreground, and the tall spike of the Memorial in the far distance. The reason for this photo will become apparent, as you read on.
Australian-American Memorial
(on Russell Hill) 1954.
Chestnut-rumped Thornbill (Click link, for an image) (Acanthiza uropygialis)
This species was added to the list by Lamm et al (1963). The circumstances were that on 14 February 1961, while bird watching on the hills in the area between the developed area of the suburb of Campbell and the area where the Defence Offices now stand at Russell Hill, a strange species was sighted. On that occasion and on three subsequent trips the Wilson boys, Brendan and Denis, were also present.
Realising that it was a strange species for the A.C.T. a further try was
made at identification on the following two days (15 and 16 February 1961). Mist nets were erected on both days in the area where the birds were seen on the first occasion; the area at that time had many large plants of the introduced boxthorn among widely spaced eucalypts.
The nets in use at that time were 11/2 inch mesh made from nylon, nets which proved incapable of holding most of our smaller species. A group of four of the strange species was sighted at quite close range on both days and they were identified as the Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, a bird with which the three observers were familiar from trips to the Riverina district. Many attempts were made over several hours on each day to flush the birds from the bushes into the nets and individuals hit on several occasions. The mesh was too large and the birds escaped through the nets.
As work on the illustrations for Birds in the Australian High Country was
then well advanced, a request had been made for a specimen to be collected which would be lodged with the Museum, CSIRO Division of Wildlife Research. As the two netting efforts had failed to catch one of the birds, a further collecting effort was made on 17 February 1961, this time with a 45-bore, dust shot, hand gun. But by then the four birds had disappeared. This species is somewhat nomadic and is very common as one reaches the flatter country of the inland not far to the west.
There are no other
A.C.T. records and it would be interesting to know how close to our area it has been seen by other observers. Species such as this could be sighted here at any time but especially in drought years; but 1961 was not a drought year.
Source: Canberra Bird Notes:
Further Details of Three Rare Species in the A.C.T. List , CBN 3(7) July 1976: 11-12

My response to this email includes the following notes:

Dad is highly regarded as an ornithologist, and in 1961, the records of birds in the ACT were pretty sketchy, so the Wilson family added a number of species to the list in those days. I have only the vaguest of memories of this incident, but it certainly rings true. The practice of collecting rare specimens was regarded as "legitimate". The fact that Dad's article refers to CSIRO support for the practice is important to acknowledge.
Russel Hill complex 2004
I know we did quite a lot of bird watching on Russell Hill in those days, as my father worked close by, in one of the two "Navy Office" buildings there. There was indeed a good patch of bushland there. Today it is a highly developed "compound" of military and security establishments - the nerve centre of Australia's Defence, Security and Intelligence organisations. As you can see from this modern photo, there is still some bush left.

Photos courtesy Dept. of Defence, Media Unit website. (Russell Offices and the Australian
-American Memorial photos).

To the best on my knowledge, none of my family has ever owned a "45-bore, dust shot, hand gun",
however, Don Lamm who is mentioned as having formally reported this bird species as occurring in the ACT, may well have done so. Don was the First Secretary at the US Embassy, and had travelled the world, courtesy of the US Government, and he selected his postings according to the interest value of the local bird life. He told stories about collecting specimens (from Central America mostly) for the Smithsonian and the Audubon Museums, in the USA. He certainly was familiar with "bird shot", as he described it. Whether he owned such a weapon (as described), I cannot say, but it is certainly "possible", if not "likely".
The thought of a bunch of bird watchers running around Russell Hill with a hand gun, these days, would produce a spectacular "anti-terrorism" response, as the location is within one hundred metres of the Defence Department HQ, and other un-named "Security" establishments (ringed with "razor wire").

If the "armed bird watcher" turned out to be the No. 2 officer of the US Embassy, it would lead to a major diplomatic incident !!!

We lived in more innocent times, back then!
An "update" on the weapon. It was indeed owned by Don Lamm. One of my brothers, Brian, who was not a "birdwatcher", but who was (is) fascinated by gadgets, has advised me as follows:
"The pistol looked like an old “pirate” pistol, .410 caliber, twin barrel, two hammers and only one trigger, break action and chambered for the smallest shells only. (.410 was available in standard and Magnum). Don had it made in Mexico. It may have been a modification of a standard shotgun with a cut down barrel and a new pistol stock.
"At short range with “Dust Shot” it would knock down a small bird but not destroy the feathers so that it was an ideal piece for collecting specimens but it only had a range of 15 to 20 feet."
So, there you go. DJW
Thanks to Brian for the info.

1 comment:

Gaye from the Hunter said...

Interesting, and somewhat amusing (amusing regarding the reference to having, and using, a fire-arm of any sort in such a prominent place in Canberra; and amusing as to choosing postings as to the birdlife - good on him).

I have never heard of this "dust shot" before so this is all new to me, and I'm not much younger than you. How times have changed.