Comedian Sean Dooley proves that people have been drawing lorikeets since at least 1795. Photo: Justin McManus
Sean Dooley visits one of Melbourne's sacred sites to reflect on the art of birdwatching.
ART can be frustrating for birdwatchers. A splash of beak and plumage might be quite enough to scratch an impressionistic itch but a lack of verity or detail can fly in the face of the aficionado's appreciation of species and habitat.
Sean Dooley recalls one illustrious exception with relish. ''There's a Sidney Nolan painting called Pretty Polly Mine with this yellow-tailed black cockatoo flying through,'' he says. ''I always remember seeing that for the first time and thinking, 'Wow, he's actually got that right'.''
A seasonal sighting of the magnificent black beast swooping down from the mountains into the Yarra Valley is high on his wish list when he returns to Nolan's old stomping ground at Heide this Saturday.
Together with gallery curator Kendrah Morgan and artist Louise Saxton, the Melbourne comedy writer and editor of Australian Birdlife magazine will visit the ''sacred site for artists'' to reflect on the little-known twitching activities of its founders, John and Sunday Reed.
''John Reed was a member and benefactor of [conservation society] Birds Australia for many years,'' he says. ''He filled notebook after notebook with his bird observations both at Heide and at Sorrento.''
From his reading of the book Sunday's Garden - the seed for a new exhibition opening at Heide on Saturday - Dooley suspects that she was less passionate than her husband, though he recalls one episode in which the sight of a diving peregrine falcon threw her to her knees weeping.
Such is the fervour of the committed bird fancier.
Dooley's own tragicomic obsession is documented in his book The Big Twitch, which recounts his global sojourn to break a record for sighting 700 birds in a year.
He never formally studied ornithology, he says, instead opting for ''the traditional road to comedy in this town: studying law at Melbourne Uni''. From Kitson Fahey to Full Frontal and Comedy Inc, he graduated to great success. But by marrying words and birds, his current position with Birdlife Australia is ''a dream job''.
''As a comedy writer, you spend your time raking over the coals of absurd human behaviour to find something you can laugh at,'' he says. ''It wasn't until about five years into my comedy-writing career that I thought, 'Hang on, I'm part of a cohort of blokes who go out to a sewage farm, wade up to their waists in stinking mud and look for one brown bird in a flock of other brown birds. Hello? Comedy?'''
Which is not to trivialise the conservation aspect of the twitcher's passion. Beside the more established English oak garden, Dooley marvels at the Reeds' foresight in nurturing native flora at Heide from the 1950s onwards, ensuring the presence of many species that would otherwise have flown.
''On a quick walk around Heide, you'll easily see 15 species, many of them very beautiful,'' he says. ''Lots of parrots and cockatoos, eastern crimson rosellas, red rump parrots, then the waterbirds and the smaller birds that use the dense plantings around the gardens, scrub wrens and thornbills …''
Until midwinter, visitors can also check out Saxton's related exhibition Sanctuary, which creates a natural panorama of birds and insects from layers of reclaimed needlework.
''In a way, she's rescuing threatened species, too,'' says Dooley. ''A lot of the birds she's [depicted], if the species itself isn't threatened, certainly a lot of the original artwork is fragile and represents something that is being lost to us.
''For me, what is really interesting about Heide is obviously this great cultural heritage, but also that it sits on a wider national heritage, the heritage of the landscape and the birds as the voices of that landscape.''
Twitching at Heide is on Saturday from 11am. The Sunday's Garden: Growing Heide exhibition runs Saturday until October 14. Louise Saxton's Sanctuary finishes July 29. heide.com.au