February 22, 2018

The Shy Mountain


Silent and brooding, the Shy Mountain does not have to speak her name. We know she’s there, watching us, even when she chooses to hide beneath a blanket of low cloud. Although she’s not a mountain of legend like Everest, Kilimanjaro or even Kosciuszko, she has her own claim to fame. Kunanyi / Mount Wellington brings wilderness to the very doorstep of a significant centre of population, and how many mountains can claim to do that?

Some see menace, anger there; others a benign face bathed in early-morning sunshine.

As Donald Knowler discovers on a mission to record a year in the life of the 1,271-metre peak, she provides an escape from the human pressures of the city, blunting concrete and glass with leaf and bark. Kunanyi / Mount Wellington is also a vital refuge for wildlife with strands of the tallest flowering plants known to nature, and birds and animals found nowhere outside Tasmania.

These, and more, are the Shy Mountain’s gift to Hobart.

The Shy Mountain is available for $29.95 from Hobart bookshops and Forty South Publishing.

Nesting pardalotes put best foot forward

My favourite pair of boots have been out of commission all spring and summer – after a family of striated pardalotes chose them as their home.

Sounds bizarre I know, but I had an inclination it would be a summer of discontent when I saw the pardalotes inspecting my worn and trusty Blundstones at the start of their nesting season in early September.

The boots had been left out on the car port of my home, the footwear not going on its usual birding adventures in the winter months simply because I was recovering from knee surgery, which curbed my outings while I recovered.

There are three species of pardalote found in Tasmania – the striated, spotted and forty-spotted – and they all nest in cavities, ranging from holes in trees to holes in the ground, even holes in piles of grass cuttings if they are left in place long enough.

I’d heard of striated pardalotes nesting in hanging flower baskets, but all the same could never have imagined until this summer they would use my boots, although the car port itself had proven an attraction in recent years. A male pardalote, nesting in a hole under a neighbour’s drive, had chosen the roofed car port to broadcast it’s monotonous, far-carrying “pick-it-up” territorial song which had proven a little more than annoying. It seemed the bird never stopped singing – for hours, days, months – none-stop during daylight hours.

I thought that my pardalotes might be unique in the bird world to put their best foot forward when it came to nesting in unusual places but it appears a family of cape wagtails in South Africa have beaten them to it.  And at the risk of being accused of product placement, Forbes business magazine in the United States reported last year that a pair of birds had also chosen Blunnies as a home to rear their young, like the pardalotes.

The magazine had written an article on the “cult” status of Tasmanian Blunnies around the world and, together with accounts of Hollywood and sports stars seen wearing them, were unusual anecdotes about the boot brand, including the wagtail one from a South African Blunnies fan. The South African noted the birds had returned seven years in a row to nest in the same boots and each year he couldn’t bring himself to clear out their straw nesting material once they had started nest building, as he vowed he would.

Not wishing to sound like a birding pedant, the article stated that the wagtails were migratory, when in fact they are largely resident, not moving season to season more than a kilometre from a pair of boots.

The striated pardalotes, on the other hand, are definitely long-distance travellers and this year I’m eagerly anticipating their departure in early March.  They reared two sets of young and no doubt, like their parents, these will be returning from the mainland  for their own breeding season.  And on the pardalotes’ return in late August I’ll make sure the new Blunnies I have now acquired are placed out of sight.

Australia Day ruffles cormorant feathers

The cormorants had to move over from their prized pontoon at Long Beach, Lower Sandy Bay.

It was Australia Day and the pontoon anchored just offshore was in great demand from revellers taking a dip during and after the festivities on the lawns of the adjacent Long Beach Park.

The three species of cormorant – great, black-faced and little pied –  are used to giving up their roosting and preening site from late morning during the summer months, but on January 26th the swimmers had arrived a little earlier.

Cormorants moving over for Australia’s human inhabitants, especially new arrivals only recently setting foot on these shores: it is an apt metaphor for what has happened to Australia’s original inhabitants, both animal and human, for the past 200 years.

The cormorants, representatives on this occasion of Australia’s fauna and flora, have lived in harmony with humans for forty-odd thousand years but it is only during the past two hundred years that they have felt out of step with the dominant species with which they share the planet.

Australia, in fact, has the fourth most extinct species; most of these extinctions occurring since the arrival of the First Fleet in January 1788, the occasion now marked by the Australia Day public holiday.

Without getting into the Australia Day debate – and whether what the first Australians term an “invasion” should be celebrated in such a way – there is certainly cause to consider the devastating impact the settlers have wrought on the country’s wildlife.

In Tasmania, we have a notable extinct mammal species, the thylacine or Tasmanian tiger, and the next biggest marsupial carnivore, the Tasmanian devil, fighting for survival. We can hardly blame the settlers for Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease which has reduced devil populations by up to 90 per cent in some areas, but certainly persecution by farmers and death under the wheels of speeding cars on Tasmanian highways has contributed to the devil’s demise.

Of bird species, we have two parrots fighting for survival, both species notable because they are the only parrots known to undertake migration. The orange-bellied parrot, which maintains a foothold at a breeding site at Melaleuca in the far south-west, has suffered the draining and development of its winter feeding areas on the saltmarshes along the Victorian and South Australian coasts and the swift parroting’s breeding has been affected by the clearance of its favoured blue gums, and the introduction of the sugar glider which eats its young in cavity nests.

Against this background of human interference in the everyday lives of our wildlife – the sugar glider, for instance, was introduced by Tasmanians wanting this cute little creature from the mainland as a pet –  the cormorants on the pontoon at Sandy Bay could be forgiven for casting a wary eye on the festivities taking place beyond the shore.

Out of three  birds species which can be killed at will in Tasmania without a permit, two of them are cormorants – the great and the little pied – because they are  considered to be a threat to the fish farm industry. The third is the forest raven.

Poetry in flight and motion

Birds are our contact point with nature, our window on the natural world. There are mammals about, and reptiles and amphibians, but we never see or hear them. It’s not obvious they share the planet with us.

Birds are all around us, each and every day. If we can’t see them, we hear them, even in the heart of our cities.  They inspire us to flight, to soar in hope and spirit.

I’m quick to celebrate the idea of birds’ lives meshing with ours and I was given the opportunity to explore the theme when I launched a chapbook of bird poetry, Still Bravely Singing, by Robyn Mathison at the Hobart Bookshop late last year.

Poetry is just one of the arts that reflect our avian connection. Birds over the millennia have inspired not just poetry, but prose, visual art, and song. It’s even suggested they may have inspired human song, and even speech.

Artists, though, tend to merely copy the image of a bird, and composers of music their songs. The poets like Mathison bring something else, something spiritual that defies definition.

Bird poetry is as old as poetry itself. And, because of our links to the “old country”, the quality and volume of such poetry tends to be measured in British terms. Over time a remarkable number of British poets have written poems about birds, from Keats’s nightingale and Shelley’s skylark to Yeats’s swans, to Thomas Hardy’s thrush.

Australian poets, of course, have also sung of birds and Robyn Mathison is part of this tradition.

I’m not a poet, I’m a newspaper wordsmith, but Mathison and I share some common ground. In my journalistic writings, and Mathison’s poetry, we share a habitat where birds gather. This is largely the city and suburbs. In the On the Wing column I use the birds I see in my garden and the immediate neighbourhood as subjects. Mathison uses the birds she sees in her cityscape as subjects for her poems. One poem is even titled In the City Desert.

Joyous birdsong and the other sounds of nature, like the wind buffeting rain-jewelled leaves – as Mathison writes in Mist – sing from her poems. There is also a dark side, the reality that when wildlife comes into close contact with the human world there is not always a happy outcome.

She mentions 19th century Italian philosopher and author Giacomo Leopardi who, in his In Praise of Birds, suggested that where people were gentler birdsong was too. And she asks was the singing of the wattlebirds sweeter prior to 1788?

There are roughly 10,000 birds in the world and about 1000 of these have been mentioned in poetry.

Although birds are declining in both species and number, they are still bravely singing.  So for poets like Mathison there remains plenty of material out there in the canopy and in the skies to – like birdsong – bring joy to our lives.

Still Bravely Singing is published by Picaro Press, and is available from the Hobart Bookshop.                 

Ghosts of Christmas past

Evoking Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the ghosts of Christmas past paid a visit over the holiday period.

Not that I saw myself as Scrooge, with ghosts out to haunt me in a malign way as they do to the central character in Dickens’ story. The “ghosts” were friendly and benign, bringing a sackful of pleasant memories.

Christmas is a time for reflection and in my case recounting festive birding experiences shared with friends over more than 40 years or so.

Across the world there is a long-established practice of conducting a Christmas bird count, an event I have joined wherever I have lived at the time. I think the ritual started among birders in New York’s Central Park in the late 1970s and when I lived in the city myself in the early 1980s I joined the Manhattan birders for the festive-season count over a three-year period.

So when December 25 comes around each year I think of those days especially, and my old friends from that time.

Sometimes, with family commitments, it has been impossible to actually conduct the count on Christmas Day, either alone or with others, but this year I arose ultra-early with the intention of doing the count at my local birding spot, the Waterworks Reserve. Established practice is that the count has to be conducted in your home area, as part of an annual census of local birds in both summer and winter. These records compiled over many years by citizen-scientists are proving increasingly important for researchers plotting bird population trends, particularly at a time of deceasing numbers and species of birds.

I did not have time to linger at the Waterworks to conduct a full survey of birds seen, which usually takes a few hours, so I largely relied on birdsong to record numbers.

Luckily, I found many species were in fine song and on entering the reserve I immediately heard several very vocal grey shrike-thrushes, with their distinctive “joe whitty” song. Among 30 familiar species seen and heard were superb fairywrens, brown thornbills, silvereyes, pink robins, striated and spotted pardalotes and two endemic species, green rosellas and black-headed honeyeaters.

The New York bird count is conducted in winter, of course, often with a coating of snow on the ground, and the birders there concentrate on birds that migrate from the north in autumn to take advantage of weather in New York that is not so hostile. Sometimes they also find rarities which usually migrate further south, choosing to over-winter in the park.

In contrast, at the Waterworks Reserve at Christmas the focus is on summer migrants. On Christmas day I was pleased to find two familiar summer birds, the fan-failed and shining bronze-cuckoos, and what I consider the stand-out bird of the season, the satin flycatcher. On this occasion a lone male resplendent in shimmering midnight-blue plumage was joined by grey fantails in a merry hunt for flying insects in the canopy of the reserve’s blue gums.


A little help from a friend

Seagulls gliding and soaring over AAMI Park in Melbourne, their outstretched wings in a rainbow of colours, pulsating in the night sky: pinks, yellows, greens and blues.

The shimmering silver gulls were having a psychedelic moment and so was I. Far down below them, and far below my seat in the top tier of the stadium, Paul McCarty was into the second of about 40 numbers on the latest leg of his Australian tour, the strobe lights illuminating the stage escaping into the air and spotlighting the gulls.

My teenage years, when I did all sorts of things I would never do today, had come back to find me.  And as part of this out-of-mind experience, the gulls and McCartney became a double act.

Looking back to the “Swinging Sixties’, it wasn’t just the music of the Beatles that eased me through those tough, 12-hour days as a cub reporter on the Woking News and Mail in Britain but, conversely, the sight of resident birds in semi-rural Surrey which sent me happily on my way.

Because of my obsession with the Beatles and birds, it’s not fanciful to link the two. Birds have always been an inspiration for art and possibly with a little bias I think the music of the Beatles and the impact it still has on popular culture is art of the highest kind.

Just as the first poets used birds as inspiration so have the composers of music.

In the modern age of popular music we even have bands named after birds. The Eagles spring to mind immediately, and in this category can we include the band Paul McCartney formed after the Beatles, Wings, or even the Byrds!

Like the birdsong I hear in different places, music – especially the music of the Beatles, and another obsession, Bob Dylan – cements time and place in my memory.  Twist and Shout takes me back to the place I bought my first record, not so far from London’s Fleet Street where I worked in the mid-Sixties as messenger boy, and the song of the yellowhammer – “A little bit of bread and no cheese” – reminds me of cycling Surrey country lanes as a cub reporter a little later.

Times pass, but I’m still learning from the Beatles. I always thought the McCartney song Blackbird was a homage to the bird that still wakes me each morning with its beautiful song. But no, as McCartney said during the Melbourne concert, Blackbird is in fact a protest song. It goes back to the civil rights movement of the southern United States in the late 1960s.

It was a song of solidarity, one of many special messages that the Beatles carried in their songs, more commonly about the advancement of the working classes, to which they proudly belonged. McCartney is also a passionate  environmentalist and a campaigner for vegetarianism, saying he would never eat anything with a face, which of course includes birds.

Like the rest of the wild world, the silver gulls flying over AAMI Park during the concert, in tandem with the occasional night heron and fruit bat, were certainly getting by with a little help from a friend.

Beauty treatment for first-class travel

A gannet, steel-blue eye and yellow wash to its gleaming white plumage, wrestled with a giant fish it had caught out on the Derwent.

All was not going well for the gannet. Not only was the fish extra-large, but the activity on the water had attracted the attention of a white-bellied sea-eagle.

Although it should have been a skirmish made in heaven for eagle-lovers abroad a tourist vessel, it spelled trouble for the whole point of the mid-winter cruise – the release of an injured sea-eagle which had been under rehabilitation.

The eagle release in fact proved to be the highlight of my birding year, as I look back at the past 12 months as 2017 draws to a close.

The trip had been organised by the owners of the luxury tourist vessel the Odalisque, Tasmanian Bot Charters, as both a fund-raising exercise for the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge at Kettering and a way to set the female eagle free among familiar surroundings.

The eagle, which had spent about a year at the refuge recovering from damage to a leg and wing after a collision with power lines had been recovered from the Channel area, where it was set for release off Bruny Island.

The main danger for the eagle, however, was posed by the very eagle harassing the gannet, and a further two spotted as the Odalisque made its way down the Bruni d’Entrecasteux Channel.  Both wedge-tailed and sea eagles are fiercely territorial and will attack any other eagle invading their patch.

The eagle and owner of the refuge, Craig Webb, had been picked up at Kettering and now we cruised the Channel looking for a sheltered spot not too far from the coast free of possible rivals for the female.

Once the coast was clear, Craig Webb climbed to the upper deck and took the eagle out of its protective, carrying tube.

He had ensured it had received much exercise in the extensive eagle aviaries at the refuge in preceding months and with a with a little encouragement it was soon flying free. There was one anxious moment when it dipped towards the water but with powerful flaps of its wings it was soon rising again, making its way on a a perch on a dead gum at the water’s edge.

There was applause all round from the 30 or so paying passengers, tickets for the unique cruise raising about $2200 for the refuge.

Mr Webb has released about 20 wedge-tailed and white-bellied sea-eagles in the 12 years he has operated the refuge but this is the first one to receive such high-end treatment aboard a luxury vessel, which normally plies the Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

“I’m really stoked,” said Mr Webb as the bird landed. “This is the whole point of the refuge. It’s to get the birds back into the wild. Our motto is ‘get ‘em in, get ‘em out’.”

He said powerlines presented a constant danger to endangered wedge-tailed eagles and sea-eagles, although he was working with the electricity transmission authorities to alleviate the problem.

“But don’t get me on to wind farms,” he said to about 25 passengers on Odalisque, who had paid for the voyage as part of a fund-raising exercise for the refuge. “My language will be too colourful.”

The owner of the Odalisque, Pieter van der Woude, said his operating company, Tasmanian Boat Charters, had always been a strong supporter of the refuge.

“We see the eagles as part of our story,” he said. “Down at Port Davey we always point them out to our guests. We saw 14 sea-eagles within a couple of hours once, feeding on couta that had come to the surface.

“And there’s nothing like seeing a soaring sea-eagle. Our guests love seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild.”

As a final flourish during the release, the sea-eagle, a female,  was given a dab of nail varnish on her talons. Far from a beauty treatment befitting first-class travel, the nail varnish would identify her if she should come to grief and be brought to the refuge again.

The battle for the wild world

The battle to protect and conserve Tasmania’s pristine wild places was brought home to me within days of arriving in the state from Britain 20 years ago.

I was staying with my mother-in-law in Howrah at the time and wandered down to the Shoreline shopping centre where I came across an exhibition being mounted by the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.

Peter McGlone, who was manning the trust’s stall, was quite possibly the first person I had met in Tasmania outside of my wife’s family.

I was intrigued because he was holding a sprig of gorse, explaining that it was a weed in Tasmania and he had recently been engaged in digging it up from Tasmanian soil.

There was something ironic in the conversation because just weeks previously I had been engaged in planting gorse in Britain, a vital species vanishing from the British countryside.

Irony, I was to discover, travels with wildlife conservation, not just in Tasmania but world-wide.

Gorse in Britain is a signature species of plant for the most threatened environment in the British Isles. It grows in the sandy soils forming a belt across southern England, areas that can be considered wilderness because they have never been cultivated and never built on, until now.

There is even a nature reserve at Arne, in the south-west country of Dorset dedicated to gorse where, as a volunteer, I planted the stuff just before coming to Australia.

These sandy soils were dumped by glaciers at the end of the ice age and for thousands of years were classified as common land. Animals allowed to roam on them never did any damage because they were merely domestic forms of animals, like wild boar, which had gone before. And these areas retained their unique flora and fauna. The sandy heaths of southern England might have been unfit for cultivation but the land has proven to be ideal for housing development close to London and south-west towns and cities. I grew up on a vast housing estate on the fringe of London constructed on such soils. Luckily some of the common land remained, in the shape of Horsell Common near the town of Woking where H G Wells set his War of the Worlds novel, and discovered their worth when I first started to develop an interest in wildlife while still at primary school. In fact, these areas might well have inspired that interest.

Although they were not classed as national parks as such, I saw these stunted forests as truly wild places and as I grew older I went in search of areas with that designation, mainly in the north of England.

And I soon learned that wilderness and national parks could represent  different concepts.

I actually worked on a farm in the Peak District national park, but believed at the time these were wild places even though the park mainly composed ancient farmland dissected by drystone walls. Only the tops of the moors, along the Pennine Way forming the spine of Britain between England and Scotland could be classed as truly wild.

When my travels took me to East and Southern Africa I continued to go in search of what I considered at the time as wilderness. I ignored the roads and railway lines dissecting national parks where elephants roamed free.

I lived in America for a time and didn’t explore some truly wild places there, to my regret, so I can’t comment on these. I spent my time in New York writing a book about Central Park, which in its own sense can be termed a wild place!

And then I came to Tasmania, and realised what wild and wilderness really meant, discovering only recently that there are very strict guidelines set down by international conservation bodies defining wilderness. And it doesn’t include roads or railways or even huts.

In recent years I have had the chance to look again at “wild” places in southern Africa and was shocked and appalled by the Kruger Park and the Victoria Falls National Park, in the light of my Tasmanian experience.

The Kruger Park has a more extensive network of roads from the time I remember it 40 years ago, and franchise fast-food outlets in its camps. And the Victoria Falls is ringed by a high fence, guaranteeing that visitors pay a $50 American dollar entrance fee to view it. The Victoria Falls serves to give the Zimbabwean Government precious foreign currency

My disenchantment with the places I once loved in Africa has coincided with a push by the Tasmanian Government to open our own wild areas to business.

I’m not really qualified to comment on specific projects – beyond the proposed cable car up kunanyi/Mount Wellington – but at the same time I have become increasingly worried about this assault on wild places in general.

I might have tolerated roads once, and crossed the Wankie park in the old Rhodesia by train (seeing elephants and lions from the carriage windows) but in recent years I have become a wilderness tragic.

I’m like the smoker who gives up cigarettes. There’s no one worse amid tobacco fumes as a reformed smoker and amid the scent of eucalypt oil in the gum forests, a reformed wilderness tourist.

And the word irony keeps emerging. Am I the only person who sees the notion that we ruin the very thing we consider beautiful and precious by “opening it up for business” so greater numbers of people can see it, and worse, exploit it.

We are told trails that at the moment present a challenge to cross them in pristine areas of the Tasmanian wilderness, and add to the spirt of adventure, need huts so more and more people can enjoy them.

We are told that wild areas, wilderness and otherwise should be opened up for mass tourism. These area can’t just lie there, they must turn a profit.

But so often these apparently harmless and non-intrusive schemes to allow more people to see, feel and hear wild places turn out to be the thin edge of the wedge.

I was once a great supporter of the bike and mountain bike lobby, seeing value, for instance, in turning disused railway lines into bike tracks.

This has been successfully achieved in Britain and I’ve walked many of these level trails through some spectacular country inaccessible by any other means.

When I first learned of the north-south bike track across kunanyi/Mt Wellington, I walked it and had an enjoyable experience, walking but at the same time showing the cyclists respect because it was after all their trail.

A gentle bike ride, however, has suddenly become something else. Now the bikers are demanding high-speech, zig-zag tracks down mountainsides, a bike ride has become an adventure sport.

I’m not opposed to living life at the edge, however. But plans for such a track cut into kunanyi/Mt Wellington concerns me. I gather there are plans for a downhill/gravity track from Big Bend on the mountain down to Junction Cabin.

I see that in recent years mountain biking has been listed on the Wellington Cable Car Company’s website as one of the pursuits the cable car will make possible.

But why do these things like bike tracks have to be in high-value natural areas. Around Hobart I can think of many hilly areas already modified by farming or even industrial activity, like rubbish tips. Perhaps we could have descending, zig-zag bike trails threading their way through the forests of alien gorse which litter the state.

Again, like five-star huts for hikers, I see cyclists as the thin end of the wedge. Allow one bike and you have a bike track, and a cable car to take bikers to it.

As I say in my book, The Shy Mountain, the beauty of kunanyi/ Mount Wellington is it brings the south-west wilderness right to the very doorstep of a state capital city.

A cable car would reverse the process. It would take the city – with its glass, and concrete and steel and its commercialism – to the mountain.

The government mantra of being open for business, opening up our wild areas also raises the question of access by air, and noise pollution. I accept there must be air routes open to the far south, even for emergencies. I’ve travelled to Melaleuca by Par-Avion and know the orange-bellied parrot recovery program could not be possible without this air link.

But one or two planes a day is something different to frequent flights by helicopter, dropping off tourists here and there.  I’ve written in the past of the movement in the United States to declare a portion of at least one national park a human-noise-free zone.

Gordon Hempton has established what he describes as “one square inch of silence” in the Olympia national park in Washington state. He describes the site in the Hoh Rainforest as the most pristine, untouched and ecologically diverse area of the United States  and has even persuaded some airlines to route their high-flying aircraft away from the area so the people down on the ground don’t even see their vapour trails.

Is this man eccentric to the point of being a little mad? I certainly don’t think so. Part of my latest Victoria Falls experience was having the day ruined by three helicopters at once hovering over the falls, one afternoon drowning out the call of the beautiful Heuglin’s robin, a bird I had searched for without success in all the years I had spent in Africa. And here it was in a patch of rainforest at the falls edge, and I couldn’t hear its song, one of the most beautiful in Africa.

We hear the phrase loving places to death, and the Victoria Falls is a perfect example of what dangers lie in allowing more and more of what I call “trippers” access to nature’s masterpieces, to allow them to have an experience beyond just walking and seeing and hearing.

Closer to home we have a place I love, not wilderness as such, just the route of a road.

I am intimately familiar with The Neck on Bruny Island, having watched penguins and short-tailed shearwaters there on many a spring and summer night. The paving of the road was a concern because I thought the penguins I had seen at night on its dirt surface would end up as roadkill. I’m told tunnels under the new road have alleviated that problem, but I think we have all been blindside by the decision to site a car park at The Neck which ruins the view from the lookout, looking south.

Now that is ironic. And as I said earlier, in my lifetime irony seems to have travelled with the trashing of the environment.

Take that housing estate I told you about, Sheerwater in Surrey, where I grew up.

It was designed to provide a home for us Londoners displaced by the bombing during the blitz in the Second World War. About 6000 Cockneys were planted down on what had been considered wilderness, even if it was only about 35 kilometres from London.

Soon after the birches and the pines, and the gorse, were cleared, and construction of more than 1,500 homes started, the planners and developers suddenly realised the Cockney sparras being transplanted to the countryside from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and the Old Kent Road would need a focal point, a pub.

One was soon built on what had been the pristine forest – and it was named The Birch and Pines.

Address to the annual general meeting of the Tasmanian National Parks Association on November 26.


Flycatchers come rain or shine

The common koel, a species of cuckoo, acted as my barometer when I lived in far-north Queensland two decade ago. 

The koel’s plaintive, far-carrying call coincides with the arrival of the rainy season in tropical Australia at the end of winter and so the bird is given the name “rain bird”.

My own barometer of the weather in Tasmania, however, is another bird usually associated with the tropics, the satin flycatcher. It’s got nothing to do with rain – we get that all year in Tasmania. The arrival of the flycatcher, and the first hearing of its repetitive song and scratchy contact call, indicates summer has finally arrived after much anticipation of the warmer months through the often cold, early period of spring.

It’s the final piece of the migrant jigsaw to fall into place, the last bird of summer to hit our shores.

When I hear its song at last – well into the latter part of October and sometimes as late as the first weeks of November –  I know we are on the way to the summer holidays.

In the past two years, however, the satin flycatcher has heralded not sun but snow. The arrival of the flycatcher has brought with it blizzards. At the time I heard the flycatcher song this year and last, snow lay thick on kunanyi/Mt Wellington and this year, on November 3, the road to the summit was closed.

The flycatcher’s arrival last month was particularly bizarre. No sooner had I heard the bird, I became worried how this insect-eater, a bird which travels to the insect-rich tropics come autumn, would fare in this unseasonal Tasmanian “winter”. But the satin flycatchers calling about me didn’t have to wait long for the weather to clear. The next few days brought a heat wave, with the temperature on one day topping 32 degrees.

I’m not going to explore the controversial subject of climate change here, and extreme weather patterns which seem to be increasingly afflicting the planet. But I will say that in the way the common koel is said to summon rain, the satin flycatcher certainly summons uncertainty in my mind. I never know whether to pack a winter coat, a raincoat or a sun hat on my travels at the end of spring.

The stain flycatcher is possibly the most beautiful of the birds to either be resident here or visit in summer. Its plumage is painted in the shimmering hue of midnight blue on the head and back, with a silver underside. The female has brown-grey head and back instead of the blue, and a slash of chestnut feathers on her upper breast. If the plumage cannot be determined in the treetops, the birds also have a distinctive habit of flicking their tails when calling and feeding.

Sometimes I don’t find flycatchers at all in the Waterworks Reserve in South Hobart where I monitor the seasons but I’m happy to report this year they are plentiful, come rain or shine, and even blizzard.

Strongbill in the sun

A strong-billed honeyeater sat on a thin twig above a stream, ruffling and shuffling its feathers. The bird had just had a bath and looked slightly bedraggled as wet birds do, the water making its plumage spiky and stiff.

A quick shake of the head and wings, so quick the bird was momentarily a blur as if in an animated cartoon strip, Woody Woodpecker or Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame.

The honeyeater had caught my attention dunking and splashing in the sheltered, rocky reaches of the stream just below Fern Tree.  Flying from the shadows he or she now sat in full sunlight. As the strongbill – a bird only found in Tasmania – twirled and fluffed up feathers, droplets of water were thrown about, sparkling like gems as they caught the light, diamonds suspended in the air for a nanosecond before falling to the ground, treasures lost in the swirl of the rivulet.

Drinking and bathing, and then drying wings in sunlight, is a dangerous time for the smaller birds. Dunking is necessary to produce unmatted and clean, efficient feathers and these must be dried quickly so heavy waterlogged plumage does not impede flight. That’s why birds choose sheltered, hidden places so their splashing will not fall into the gaze of a passing brown goshawk or collared sparrowhawk, raptors which largely have ambush in their hunting repertoire.

The strongbill, though, sitting exposed on a sunlit branch, appeared to be throwing caution to the wind. Did it know I was there, to offer protection? I like to think so but in all probably it was rejoicing in the first really hot days of spring, with temperatures hitting the 28 degree mark.

Warming up tired feather, flesh and bone after the rigours of winter on the slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, the strongbill was symbolic of spring and the optimism that hung in the air for the coming summer.

It was an optimism scented by the blooms of flowering plants. Above the honeyeater’s bathing pool, the dogwoods providing shelter were adorned with  clusters of tiny beige flowers contrasting with the plant’s think, dark green veined leaves, and stinkwood threw up spikes of delicate white flowers from long and lanky three-pronged leaves.

A little higher up a slope leading from the rivulet, yellow puff-ball flowers of prickly moses and vanished wattle maintained the fragmented golden glow which in late winter and early spring had been introduced to the woods by the blooms of silver wattle. On slopes that caught full sun prickly beauty, or golden shaggy pea, mixed yellows and reds in its pea flowers, and in a final flourish from nature’s palette, a contrasting, more striking colour. Draped through the undergrowth were the creeping purple tentacles of blue love creeper.

But amid the fecundity and floral profusion, my gaze remained fixed on a beautiful strongbill in spring mating plumage, the sun giving a sheen to the black stipes of its black-and-white capped head, the mossy green plumage on its back and wings matching the richness of dogwood leaf.