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Bird help guide takes flight

The osprey (Pandion haliaetus), world famous for zooming down on unsuspecting fish and carrying them away, has now zoomed into the brand new, second edition of the Field Guide to the Birds of the ACT.

It wasn't in the first, 1993 edition (reprinted in 1999, 2006 and 2011) because there had been no recorded sightings of it here. Now, though, it is being glimpsed here (albeit infrequently) and so into the new edition, launched on Wednesday, it zooms. There, described as an ACT ''rarity'', it is exquisitely portrayed by distinguished wildlife illustrator Nicolas Day.

Nicolas Day painting "Emu".
Nicolas Day painting "Emu". Photo: Supplied

Day told us at the launch that, although making only a fleeting visit to Canberra, he had that very morning had an exciting ornithological encounter at the wetland at Dickson. He had seen a black-shouldered kite hurtle down on the morsel of a wren in a reed bed. This sounds grisly but Day had plainly enjoyed it and that reminded us that, in the Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (with text by Ken Simpson), his explicit illustration of an osprey shows it standing on a fish and tearing its bright pink guts out. His osprey pictures for the new ACT field guide (with authoritative text by McComas Taylor) are not so R-rated. However, elsewhere in the new guide, his wedge-tailed eagles and his white-bellied sea eagles are doing gory things.

Ospreys have zoomed into the new book (which, by the way, is a true field guide, slim enough to fit into a windcheater pocket and as light as a chunky iPhone) but the emu has walked into it, with a stately gait and on very long legs. It, too, wasn't in the first, 1993 edition but it gets a guernsey now, as Rod Griffiths, of the National Parks Association of the ACT, explained on Thursday (the NPA ACT is the book's publisher).

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''They were always in Tidbinbilla but now they've established a wild population outside that captive one,'' he said. ''So now we can say there's a wild, breeding population here.''

And so into the slender volume the long-legged species goes, joining the more than 200 other birds of the ACT that we can see in the ACT and at nearby Lake George and Lake Bathurst.

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The compact guide is essentially an easy to use, amateur and twitchers' birdwatcher's guide, complete with a note about how common the species is (rated in binoculars, so that the seen-everywhere crimson rosella is a five-binocular fowl while the nocturnal powerful owl, haunting tall forests, is a one-binocular recluse). The field guide does a little fun-smothering, counselling excitable twitchers against imagining they have seen something ''rare'' since ''when confronted by two possibilities, one common and one rare, it is more likely you have seen the common one''.

But it an exciting thought that rarely seen ospreys, sometimes called by the common name fish eagle, may be our neighbours now.

Nicolas Day painting "Osprey".
Nicolas Day painting "Osprey". Photo: Supplied

Day thinks there is a slight chance of our seeing them along regional waterways and perhaps even at Lake Burley Griffin. Our Australian osprey is very like its international cousins and Day thinks that ''the osprey is probably thought of internationally as quite an iconic bird''.

''It's an eagle-like bird and it dives so spectacularly to catch often quite large fish from just below the surfaces of lakes and estuaries,'' he said. ''The species is very similar all around the world [they're on every continent but Antarctica] but each population has evolved slightly different characteristics to favour its survival. Ospreys all around the world have suffered persecution by man because they're seen as competitors for fish stocks.''

Osprey nest platform, Staten Island, NY.
Osprey nest platform, Staten Island, NY. Photo: Supplied

He says they are prodigious travellers. In some parts of the world, they are even migratory, so that, for example, like sensible Scotsmen, they flee Scotland in the winter and go to somewhere warm.

Australian ospreys are known to go great distances in this dry continent, looking for watery places. It may be that the ospreys seen in the ACT are wanderers that have wandered from far, far away.

But we can dare to dream, he thinks, of ''the possibility of ospreys breeding in the ACT, perhaps even around Lake Burley Griffin''.

He reports that, in some osprey-appreciating parts of the world, ''they've been encouraged, with great success, by putting up artificial nesting platforms on poles and on structures like mobile phone towers, to encourage them to breed in urban places''.

We can do that, Canberra! For inspiration for, and for fun, Google ''osprey nests in cities'', where there are pictures of dozens of such nesting platforms and of their handsome, big-beaked, fish-ripping clients.

The Field Guide to the Birds of the ACT is available from discerning bookshops or through the National Parks Association of the ACT website, npaact.org.au.