10 Years of Bird Surveys: Celebrating Another Feather in Judith’s Cap

20 May. 2024
Judith Hoyle/AWC

What did your sixties look like, or if you’re not there yet, what would you like them to contain?

For many, these golden years are a time for relaxation, leisurely pursuits, and enjoying the fruits of retirement. But for AWC volunteer Judith Hoyle, this decade has been anything but sedentary. Instead, Judith has spent weeks in the Australian outback each year, coordinating volunteers for Australia’s largest arid zone bird study.

A retired nurse, Judith has continued her commitment to caring through volunteering, advocating for environmental protection laws, and serving as a board member for Birdlife Australia. This year marks her tenth as the volunteer coordinator at our Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, on Ngalia-Warlpiri/Luritja country. We are extremely grateful to Judith for this monumental achievement.

Speaking about her choice to invest this time, she says, “I think, what is wonderful about the Newhaven bird survey is that it’s volunteer-led… We come from all over the country to do this, we dedicate huge amounts of time, and as a result of that commitment the Newhaven bird survey data, long-term data on arid zone birds… there’s absolutely nothing that compares. And that’s a great source of pride. I feel very honoured and humbled to be involved in that.”

She describes herself as an ‘all-in’ person and that passion is clear in her connection to sanctuary.

It takes very little for her to wax lyrical about her favourite Newhaven residents. Whether she’s giggling over the Chaplin-esque dance of an overenthusiastic Spinifex pigeon or mimicking her delighted shriek when an endangered Grey falcon whizzed past her, her enthusiasm is highly catching.

Grey Falcon T Henderson/AWC
Grey falcon soars, having recently divebombed a zebra finch right in front of Judith.

She even has a favourite tree. “It’s just this lone tree in a flat calcrete area, and it’s not particularly outstanding, but it’s my tree. And I give it a big hug and say, ‘Hello, Tree.’”
Asked how she picked the tree she responds simply, “I don’t know—it picked me!”

For Judith, Newhaven has become a second home. Having watched the sanctuary managers’ children grow up from “weeny teeny babies,” she says they’re all like family to her.

“Volunteering has given me such a meaning to life. I’ve met wonderful people, and it takes you places to that, you never ever thought in your wildest dreams you’d end up. And because you’ve got the quartzite hills and ranges, it’s got this magical light about it. We start our surveys right on sunrise, so we’re leaving usually, before dawn and the Milky Way is so, so bright, and Jupiter, I mean – you can see the disc of Venus with binoculars. Being out on the dunes, just before sunrise, you can see the West McDonald Ranges, desert oaks and ghost gums, and the colours, the Namatjira colours, it’s hauntingly beautiful.

“And it’s a place where you really do connect with country, you know you’re on country. You can feel the whispers of the generations of the First Nations people there, it’s always resonating.”

Judith Hoyle. The View To The East Of The Big Shed At Sunset J Hoyle/AWC

For all its majesty, Newhaven can be a very unforgiving environment. Volunteers once braved desert conditions while camping, enduring omnipresent weather stressors and bugs. Though they now have accommodation, hiking seven to ten kilometres a day, sometimes in 40-degree weather, remains no small feat.

“It’s hard yakka. So my job is to have a team that’s happy, that’s safe, that’s competent, and well fed,” Judith explains.

In addition to coordinating logistics like inductions and feeding rosters, she supports volunteers’ wellbeing, often finding novel ways to bring joy to their stay. Her small changes have made a big difference in keeping the team occupied and happy, with the introduction of small prizes for the best contribution to the meal roster shifting the quality of food from tinned spaghetti and fruit to “gourmet.” Her daily half chocolate bar awards for outstanding bird finds foster camaraderie and excitement, while this year’s waggish scoring system for the most bogged vehicle kept people from getting too mired by the frustration of the floods.

Judith Counting Grebes At Susie's Lake. C Johnston C Johnston/AWC
Judith counting grebes with her husband at Susie’s Lake.

A positive outlook has been crucial for Judith, as she’s encountered a lot of challenges in her years volunteering.

She was at Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary in 2009 when “the most biblical dust storm” blew up—Australia’s worst in seventy years.

“My son and I had two tents and they were completely ripped to smithereens. I didn’t find an awful lot of my camping equipment; God knows whether it’s still at Kalamurina somewhere. And it was great. I loved every bit of it.”

A decade later, she supported volunteers through an extreme trough in Newhaven’s boom and bust cycle.

“It was so hot that I witnessed birds falling out of trees dead. There were thousands fewer birds that year than previously, and the impact of the drought was so stark that most of the mulga trees at Newhaven died that year. Emotionally it was really, really difficult—everyone was so impacted by what they were seeing.”

Having now completed a survey with a broken wrist, and responded to a pandemic, cyclone, and flood with grace (and colourful spreadsheets), Judith seems ready for anything.
“There’s no room for dummy spits at my end. I don’t want to show frustration because it’s not about me. I’m there to meet the needs of the volunteers, and make sure that the team knows they’ve got someone who’s on their side, who’s done it too.”

“I meet my needs by taking a bit of me time every day. That might just be lying down, doing nothing. Time to think helps me make optimal decisions later. Also, having the support of the AWC staff, it’s like a small village. It’s just wonderful knowing how invested they are—you’re working with really remarkable people.”

Judith's Lucky Medallion Gift From The Newhaven Team, Featuring A Greater Desert Skink, Hopping Mouse And Wren J Hoyle/AWC
Judith’s lucky medallion, an anniversary gift from the Newhaven team featuring a Greater Desert Skink, hopping mouse and wren

As her 70s fast approaches, Judith’s dedication to conservation and volunteering remains steadfast.

“I keep thinking as more of my friends get sick and are no longer with us, you just have to seize every day, and be thankful. If there’s one defining thing about me it’s that I’m just so grateful, for everything.”

“This is an opportunity to make a difference… and as I always say, I’ll keep going surveying until I need a wheelie walker.” Judith laughs. “I hope it’s not for a while!”

From the bottom of our hearts, AWC thanks Judith for her dedication to supporting AWC’s birdlife, staff and volunteers. Her empathy, diligence and resilience have touched countless lives, and our gratitude cannot be overstated. Thank you for being such an integral part of the Newhaven family.