Bird & Bush Photography in Australia with Ian Smissen

In this Interview In Depth lesson, we’re going to study a portion of the episode: AE 420: Bird & Bush Photography in Australia with Ian Smissen.

Read and listen to the full interview here.

How to complete this lesson:

  1. Listen & read
  2. Complete the quizzes

AE 420: Bird & Bush Photography in Australia with Ian Smissen

Difficulty: Beginner

Blue text – Lesson vocab

So, what is your bird list like, dad?

My bird list isn’t even six hundred in Australia.

Isn’t even, guys. Isn’t even six hundred.

It’s over five hundred.

About four hundred of those have been photographed, but…

So, you’ve seen, or you’ve photograph, potentially more than half of the bird species that exist in all of Australia.


That’s pretty crazy.

Well, yeah, but again, I haven’t deliberately gone out to try and do that. I just go to a range of different…

So, it could be easier if you‘re putting in more effort, huh?

I go to a range of different places and locations and go out and photograph, and I often photograph birds. Almost by accident, rather than intent, I will start to pick up new species. So… but, you know, there’s a friend, acquaintance, of mine who did a drive around Australia one year, took him about, I think it was eight or nine months, just to see how many bird species he could photograph in one trip around Australia, and he got over five hundred.


Just in eight months, just driving around Australia.

So, when does it start getting difficult, though? Because I imagine that as you get to four, five, six hundred that’s relatively easy related to the last portion, it must get exponentially harder with the last hundred or fifty or something…

It obviously does, and at five hundred, all I really have to do is go to Northern Australia, and I… you know, North Queensland…

The Northern Territory, Western Australia.

…Where I have been and I’ve seen a lot, but Northern Territory, Western Australia, do more travels around the Outback of Australia and I’d pick up more, but it gets to be challenging once you‘ve ticked off all the common ones, or the ones that are relatively easy to find.


And then you get the rare ones, but also the vagrants, the things that come once every 10 years to Australia. They’re not here on a regular basis.

So, they’re still included, though, as Australian birds?

Anything that has ever been seen on Australian territory is included on that, The Great List. Some people exclude the offshore islands. They’ll include things like, obviously, Tasmania, it’s a state, but they’ll include things like the Coral Islands around the Great Barrier Reef and things.

What about The Torres Strait Islands or…?

But not go out to The Torres Strait Islands or to Christmas Island or the Cocos and Keeling Islands, The Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia, and so on. So, it’s more mainland stuff, but ultimately, the Cocos and Keeling Islands are a territory of Australia. So, if a bird is seen there, and they have a number of birds there that are indigenous, you can’t see them anywhere else. So, and certainly nowhere else in Australia.

So, what makes a difficult bird to photograph? What are those species that are really difficult and why are they difficult? Is it that they have really small areas or population, sort of, distributions?

Well, it depends on… difficult to find is one thing.


Difficult to see, when you do find them, so in forests, for instance, it’s actually quite difficult to see birds. You know that they’re there, you can hear them, and I can see flashes of them in the trees, but often they’re high up in the leaves so that you can’t see them. Now, if you want to take your photography seriously, people end up building platforms in trees with great long ladders or ropes and sitting on the platform for three days waiting to get a, you know, photograph of the bird at their level, rather than trying to shoot up through the trees with the sun lit behind you.

Getting a photo of their bum.

Getting a photograph… yeah, here’s a, you know, a bird’s bum flying in the other direction, and all it is is a silhouette of a blur.


Yeah, but then there are birds that are just hard to photograph, because of other forms of the environment, there’s lots of seabirds. Small seabirds are quite difficult to photograph. First, because they’re small, but secondly, you’ve got to be in a moving boat to get out there. So, you get on a small boat, you go 30, 40, 50 kilometres offshore, and you’re sitting there in a rocking boat in the swell, and you’re trying to handhold the camera and photograph a tiny little bird that’s 20, 30, 40 metres away.

And the lens is big enough to kill a bear.

Yeah, yeah exactly. So, that becomes quite a bit of a challenge, but it’s quite entertaining. It’s entertaining because you can see them and identify them just by eye, but actually pointing a camera at them and going click and getting them in focus and in your frame.

If you managed to get a good photo. Otherwise, it’s just frustrating.

Well, it’s entertaining while you do it. It’s more entertaining when you get back and put them on the computer.

It’s kind of like… It’s entertaining to go fishing. assuming you can get the fish that you catch onto the boat. If it escapes, that tends to be pretty frustrating.

Or you don’t catch anything at all.

Yeah. Crazy, crazy.

So, what about what are the most difficult birds to photograph in Australia? I remember hearing that the previously thought to be extinct Night Parrot was recently rediscovered, and the person who rediscovered them has not released where he’s seen them for the obvious reason of not wanting them to be hunted down or something.

So, yeah, there are obviously the rare species are very difficult because, firstly, you’ve got to be able to find them, and there’s things like the Night Parrot that was believed to be extinct.

And the crazy thing about them, to just add, is the fact that they’re this beautiful green parrot that is not only nocturnal, so only is found out active at night, it is found on the ground. It doesn’t fly around. It’s a grass parrot and it’s green and it lives in grass and comes out at night and nobody knows where they are.

That’s Australia’s version of looking for a polar bear in a snow storm.

Exactly, at least polar bears will open their mouth when they get close to you.

So, yeah, that can be… obviously, there’s that rarity challenge, but then there are the ones that are relatively common, but lots of little small passerine birds, perching birds, songbirds, even if they’re common, they’re often in shrubs, in the brush, that’s difficult to actually get to see. You can… by eye you can identify them, because you can see them flitting around and you can hear the calling things, but getting a camera to focus through the branches of the shrubs on a tiny little brown bird that’s, you know, smaller than the size of your fist.

And it only smiles for like a second, right?


ST = something

SW = somewhere

SO = someone

…, right? – used to ask if SO agrees with you; if ST is correct
…is one thing – …is one particular example
“Isn’t even” – here I’m being sarcastic, as my dad says his bird list “Isn’t even 600”, as if it’s not impressive, whereas I think it’s very impressive.
A bird list – the list of birds that one has seen as a bird watcher
A blur – a thing that cannot be seen or heard clearly
A branch – a part of a tree which grows out from the trunk
A bum – a bottom; a butt
A fist – a closed hand
A flash – a sudden brief burst of bright light
A grass parrot – a small parrot frequenting grassy country
A ladder – a piece of equipment consisting of a series of bars or steps between two upright lengths of wood, metal, or rope, used for climbing up or down ST
A passerine bird – a perching bird in the formal scientific order Passeriformes
A perching bird – a bird in the formal scientific order Passeriformes
A platform – a raised level surface on which people or things can stand
A population distribution – the area in which a population of a species is distributed
A portion (of ST) – a part (of ST)
A rope – a length of thick strong cord made by twisting together strands of hemp, sisal, nylon, or similar material
A seabird – a bird that frequents the sea or coast
A shrub – a woody plant which is smaller than a tree and has several main stems arising at or near the ground
A silhouette – the dark shape and outline of ST or SO visible in restricted light against a brighter background
A songbird – a bird with a musical song
A vagrant (bird) – a bird that has strayed or been blown from its usual range or migratory route
An acquaintance – a person one knowns slightly, but who is not a close friend
An intent – an intention or purpose
Brush – shrubland; many small bushes
By accident – not on purpose
By eye – using one’s vision
Challenging – testing one’s abilities; demanding
Conspicuous – clearly visible
Crazy – used here to express being impressed or in awe
Deliberately – consciously and intentionally; on purpose
End up + gerund – finally be + gerund
Entertain – enjoyable; amusing
Exist – have objective reality or being
Exponentially – (with reference to an increase) more and more rapidly
Extinct – (of a species, or other larger group) having no living members
Flit around – move swiftly and lightly in many directions
Frustrating – annoying; upsetting
Handhold ST – hold ST with/in one’s hand
Hunt ST down – chase or search for ST
Identify ST – establish or indicate who or what (ST or SO) is
In all of Australia – in the entirety of Australia
In your frame – within the frame of the camera
Indigenous – native to a particular area
Jesus! – used here to express shock or awe
Light ST – provide with light or lighting; illuminate
Looking for a polar bear in a snow storm – this is a common saying in English when talking about something incredibly difficult to find or see
Manage ST – succeed in surviving or in achieving ST despite difficult circumstances; cope
Nocturnal – active at night
Offshore – situated at sea some distance from the shore
On a regular basis – in a regular manner
Once every 10 years – occurring one time in 10 years
Pick ST up – collect ST
Potentially – with the capacity to develop or happen in the future
Put in more effort – try harder to achieve ST
Rediscover ST – find ST again
Relatively – in relation, comparison, or proportion to ST else
Release ST – Publish ST
Rock ST – move gently to and fro or from side to side
Shoot (ST) – photograph ST
Swell – a slow, regular movement of the sea in rolling waves that do not break
Take SO about + period of time – need or require + period of time to happen or be done
That rarity challenge – here he’s referring to the challenge of finding or photographing the rarer birds and adding them to his bird list
That’s pretty crazy – used to express being impressed or in awe
The Great List – the list of Australian birds that birdwatchers aim to complete
The lens is big enough to kill a bear – there’s a joke often made about photographers with big lens that they could kill a bear with it, i.e. if they were photographing bears they could defend themselves with the camera lens
Though – however
Tick ST off – mark an item on a list with a check or tick
Tick! – used here to say that an item has been checked off a list
To just add – also mention ST