I met Chris Hassell in 1996. We were in Broome, WA, to take part in an Australian Wader Studies Group expedition to catch and band migratory waders on the north-west Australian coast.
The leader of the expedition was the legendary Clive Minton, father of cannon netting in Oz, and there were some big name ornithologists along including Professor Theunis Piersma from the University of Groningen, Holland. Chris and I were just foot soldiers.
Chris, like me, is a pom. He comes from the midlands, not far from Leicester. He’d hardly settled in Oz when he set off for Broome.
The exercise we were engaged in involved setting nets just above the high tide mark in a spot where the birds would rest when the sea covered their feeding grounds. The nets were furled, camouflaged and attached to cannons that would shoot them over the unsuspecting flock when the time was right. The birds were then measured, weighed and banded with a numbered metal ring and released.
The work was hot and physically hard and the process considerably more nuanced than the summary above conveys. It ran for six weeks visiting Roebuck Bay, Ninety Mile Beach and Port Hedland. When it comes to cannon netting a good supply of willing volunteers comes in very handy.
Chris stayed on in Broome. For a while he was a warden at the Broome Bird Observatory, then he founded and ran Turnstone Nature Discovery Tours, showing visiting bird watchers and other interested visitors the delights of the region. Because of his knowledge and considerable ID skills he became sought-after for ecological research and census work.
When Birdlife and the Global Flyway Network needed a researcher on the shore of Roebuck Bay he was their man. He now has a little army of volunteers of his own. No longer a foot soldier, in my view he has surpassed the mighty Minton as a catcher of birds. Chris, very modestly, disagrees.
One of his volunteers, a primary school lad named Daniel Aspey, wrote the catch report for September 24, 2017, and here are some excerpts …
Do I like birds? If I tell you that last week I went to our school book parade dressed as the Field Guide to Australian Birds, with a bird bath on my hat, does that give you a big enough clue?This was my sixth cannon netting and there’s always a story. At school they tell us a good story has to have a problem. This time we had three. Firstly, the day was windy, which makes the birds flighty. Secondly, there were two Brahminy kites circling over head. And thirdly because of the big high tide, the net had to be set below thetide. Listening to the pre-catch talk about how to deal with this was therefore very important.What we didn’t reckon on was the fourth problem. One of the cannons didn’t fire . There are three cannons, right? Surely, two would do the job? But most of the birds (over 300) were in one corner of the net, while the cannons that worked, beautifully captured the 14 birds that were in the other corner.Chris was very brave. Very, very brave. Even though this is the second time this has happened this season, he didn’t swear in front of the kids, or cry in front of the adults. He did disappear for quite a bit, though.As there weren’t so many birds in the net, Chris gave us a great demonstration in tagging, banding and measuring the birds we caught.What’s in it for us kids? Well, firstly, if you can be quiet and still, you sometimes get to go with him to the hide, which means youactually see the net fire. You get to race to the net to get it out the water and help get the birds out and into the boxes. This time though, as there were so few birds, all the kids got to carry one to the cages, where the birds settle before tagging. If you’re calm and steady, you get to fetch the birds to the adults for measuring, and then release them in groups afterwards. Best of all, you get to take pictures of the birds up close. I really loved seeing the Ruddy Turnstone, the Grey Plover and the Greater Sand Plovers (who love pecking you).People say you should never work with kids and animals, but at the cannon-netting they do both, and with explosives too!
There’s a great future for that kid. And the reason this work is done is to ensure that there’s a future for the birds as well. I’m sure someone has thought of putting a marina in Roebuck Bay, maybe a five star hotel and a golf course. Research gives us an understanding of population trends, longevity and breeding success. These are essential ingredients in any argument to sway governments towards preserving the bay.
Stops along the migration route are also invaluable links in the chain that determines the survival of migratory shorebirds. When the birds take off for their breeding grounds Chris takes off from Broome bound for Bohai Bay in China where he helps monitor their passage. This year’s Bohai Bay Report can be found <HERE>.
Could be a bad summer for Chris this year, he still supports the English cricket team, no future for him in parliament.