March 19, 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.

A precious space under threat

The autumnal sun shone hard and bright when a flock of tiny silvereyes started out on its epic migratory journey.

From my vantage point atop Rosny Hill on the Eastern Shore I watched about 20 birds, male and female with young in tow, fluttering north in undulating flight cross the wide expanse of the Derwent River below me.

Soon they became mere dots and I was pleased the young peregrine falcon which had patrolled the airspace above the Tasman Bridge last autumn and winter was not around to notice them.

The silvereyes, smaller than a sparrow, would only have provided the falcon with a snack anyway, nothing as substantial as his usual meal of starlings plucked from the skies.

The silvereyes earlier this month were heading for their wintering grounds on the New South Wales-Queensland border and the reserve was a convenient launch point, or stopover if they had come from further south, on such a long journey because it forms one of a series of important staging posts along their migratory flyway. The silvereyes were heading in the direction of the Domain over the river, and from there they would island-hop forested hills all the way to Bass Strait, before making the crossing.

I had gone to the Rosny Hill Nature Recreational Area not only to watch silvereyes but record the other birds it had to offer, at the urging of the Rosny Hill Friends Network.

The group is concerned about a proposed hotel development on the hill, and how it will impact on the native flora and fauna. I promised to draw up a bird list for them, and have now been persuaded to lead a bird walk there on  Sunday, March 18, starting 9.30am, to which everyone is invited.

The Friends make the point that the hill not only forms part of the flyway for migrating birds but is also home to resident ones like the endemic yellow-throated honeyeater and musk lorikeets and eastern rosellas I saw there on the day.

I’d only been to the reserve once before, taken there many years ago by my late mother-in-law, and I now feel regret that is has been off my radar for two decades.

Beyond the birds, and flora like mature white gums and leafy sun-orchids, the look-out on the hill offers a splendid panorama of the city, the best from the Eastern Shore.

The Friends would welcome a small restaurant/cafe at the summit car park but feel the proposed 100-room hotel, incorporating a 200 seat-conference centre and indoor swimming pool, is a step too far for a public space. They are mounting a vigorous campaign to stop it.

The former Parks and Wildlife reserve now falls under the control of Clarence Council which has rezoned the site, allowing for the hotel development but at the same time incorporating a smaller nature reserve around the base of the hill.

As the silvereyes slowly make their way to Queensland, the fight between local residents and council goes on.

Where are all the eagles?

In the great wide world of wildlife, nothing in Tasmania compares with the sight of wedge-tailed eagles riding the thermals. They are truly awe-inspiring, with majestic statistics to match. The “wedgie” is the fourth biggest eagle in the world and the distinctive Tasmanian sub-species is the biggest found on the Australian continent. 

But the statistics related to the size and power of the eagles are matched by those that refer to its dwindling status.

Although the eagle might be familiar to all of us – I receive more reports of eagle sighting than any other bird – the species is in fact threatened and declining in Tasmania, with numbers put at fewer than 1000.

Eagle conservation has traditionally been in the hands of the state government wildlife authorities and a few individuals – like Craig Webb at the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge at Kettering – but now an initiative has been launched to involve the public in general, especially schoolchildren.

This project, called Where Where Wedgie, aims to share the joy and science of Tasmania’s birds of prey, with emphasis on the wedge-tailed eagle, culminating in a survey of these species at the end of May.

And last month the Bookend Trust, a not-for-profit organisation founded in Tasmania in 2008  inspire people of all ages and abilities to develop careers and interest in the environment, launched a Pozible crowd-funding campaign to ensure that their new project could include the whole community.

Tasmanians of all ages are  invited to participate in the Where Where Wedgie survey, to obtain baseline data on how this threatened species is tracking.

Survey success depends on inspiring enough people to train up and participate.

Tasmania’s Department of Education is funding the schools component of Where Where Wedgie, but the Bookend Trust is still seeking financial support to run community workshops and other training and promotional resources.

“For the general public, these workshops are the human side of the project,’’ said Clare Hawkins, threatened species zoologist and citizen science coordinator for the Bookend Trust. “We’re building some wonderful resources online to enthuse potential participants, explain the survey methods and get everyone’s skills up – but nothing beats talking it over face to face.’’

The Trust is hoping to raise $20,000, which would enable it to deliver at least 18 workshops across the state.

Dr Hawkins explained: “The survey methods are simple, but it’s really helpful to be able to discuss and demonstrate them in person, and also to bring together everyone who might be interested. These workshops will provide a chance for people to share their experiences of wedge-tailed eagles and other birds of prey, to learn from each other and to form a bit of a team across their local area.’’

Where Where Wedgie’s citizen science survey is a new approach and Dr Hawkins is hoping that the project will enable Tasmanians to obtain high quality, up-to-date information on the state of their eagles and other birds of prey. If the work goes well, the survey will become an annual event.

Pozible campaign:

Montgomery steals the show

The founder of the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge of Tasmania, Craig Webb, set out more than a decade ago to provide a home for eagles coming to grief in mankind’s world.

Over time Webb has released 20 injured wedge-tailed and sea eagles that have received tender, loving care at the refuge at Kettering but it is a bird actually born in one of the rehabilitation aviaries which has stolen the headlines in the past year.

A masked owl called Montgomery has become a free-flying attraction of the walk ‘n’ talk fund-raising experiences that Webb has introduced in the past year.

The story of Montgomery is a remarkable one, something Webb could never have imagined when I first met him at the fledgling refuge all those years ago. At the time, I was interested in writing a column about his adoption of eagles from a rehabilitation program within the grounds of Risdon Prison, in which prisoners had taken part. Webb had stepped in when the aviary was closed under  redevelopment plans at the jail.

Over time I have seen the yearly expansion of the refuge from a set of huge aviaries catering purely for eagles to ones that are now devoted to smaller birds of prey, including owls.

It was the rehabilitation of two owls that set the refuge on a new course, that of a “nursery” for birds born in captivity. On his rounds Webb noticed that the owls – brought to the reserve with injuries which precluded their release –  had laid eggs in a makeshift nest. This first attempt at nesting was unsuccessful, as was a second, but a third produced a viable male chick, which Webb named Montgomery.

And says Webb of his new charge: “Monty is a highlight of my life dealing with birds and animals. He is amazing in every way. He is a superstar here at the refuge and enthrals visitors.”

The reserve was primarily intended to be a raptor rehabilitation centre to deal with eagles injured by coming into contact with powerlines  or motor vehicles or being poisoned and shot. Another dimension was soon been added with wild eagles coming to visit, these birds perching on the top of the giant aviaries to view the injured eagles inside, and Webb soon constructed perches for the wild birds.

At first it was only wedge-tailed eagles coming to visit but increasingly other raptors arrived.

As Webb puts it: “Drop-ins range from wedgies to goshawks to masked owls screeching at night: unless I had seen and heard it, I would find it hard to believe; in a nutshell, it’s bloody spectacular. I believe the terminology is kleptoparasitism when birds are hanging around to pinch a feed. Whatever it’s called, myriad raptors constantly come to the refuge for a ‘free lunch’.’’

And remarkably this situation has been reversed. One breeding season Webb saw a male brown goshawk feeding an adult female through the slats in her aviary.

Meanwhile, the masked owl story has entered a new chapter. The latest news from the refuge is  the resident owls have produced another youngster.

In the shadow of William Boot

William Boot, the bumbling war correspondent in the satirical novel about journalism, Scoop, and I have much in common.

Or so I have been told by readers of my “On the wing” newspaper column.

Although I’ve tried to develop the image of a cool, jet-setting journalist – at least during my younger days – I’ve never quite escaped the shadow of William Boot, the nature writer for the Daily Beast who found himself sent to Africa to cover human conflict by mistake.

Notebook in hand, sharp pencil at the ready, and keeping an eye out for the neatest telex machine, I thought I had a “hold the front page” persona far removed from the dithering, confused and lost Boot during my own days covering wars in Africa. But Boot stalked me at every turn, making the press clubs of the continent a troubling environment. It was as though I always carried a pair of binoculars strung around my neck, to match the metaphorical Indiana Jones fedora with a press card jutting from the hatband.

Then again, my eyes were often trained on the skies, or the treetops, and my reports from various fronts in war and peace had more references to birds, and wildlife in general, than was usual for a war correspondent. And the lexicon of the foreign correspondent sometimes strayed into that of the twitcher. The other journos gathered in the press clubs of Cape Town, Johannesburg and the old Salisbury, Rhodesia, tweeted as much when I walked into the bar, long before tweets became fashionable in the electronic age.

It was after all the lure of birds, and elephant, rhino and lion, which landed me on the Dark Continent in the first place and, strangely, a meeting with the man whose own deeds in northern Africa had inspired the Boot character. William Deedes, the editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, had come to Salisbury to witness himself the last of Africa’s colonial wars.

Sipping gin-and-tonics with Deedes in Salisbury’s historic Meakles Hotel, it occurred to me at that time that Evelyn Waugh had displayed a spark of comic genius to make a nature writer the butt of satirical jokes about the cut-throat world of journalism in the 1930s, and the cut-throat nature of war.

The war correspondent, and conversely the nature columnist, had been the mainstay of the newspaper content in troubled times, not just the tense period in the build-up to the Second World War, but to the Boar and First World Wars.

If you were going to write a satire about war and its coverage, why not base it on a man who loved badgers?

Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selbourne, published in 1789, might have fired my interest in nature writing – probably because it covered the area in southern England where I spent my youth – but it has always been the nature notes published in newspaper columns that I have turned to first instead of books on wildlife.

The columns link my two great passions in life, nature and newspapers. The Guardian of England’s Country Diary – first published in 1904 – has been the stand-out and the modern age of the internet now allows me to read it each day, wherever I am.

The Guardian writers, though, have rarely been working journalists as such. There’s even a hint of Boot in their eccentricities, often as interesting and entertaining as the nature they cover. On a rare gathering in London, one of the correspondents was reported to have arrived with a luggage label attached to his duffle coat. On it was written his name and home address in Wales just in case he got lost in the metropolis.

In contrast, my predecessor at the Mercury, Michael Sharland, was very much a journalist, writing his nature notes under the name of the “Peregrine” for 60 years before retiring in the 1980s. In all that time, Sharland missed only three editions, and that was because he was preoccupied with war himself, serving with the Australian forces in Papua New Guinea in World War Two.

The nature column has always had its place in newspapers. It might have gone out of fashion in recent years, as newspapers themselves have in the age of television and later the internet, but it is now making a comeback.  So much so that the Guardian is printing each week columns going back 100 years, revealing that the connection between nature scribes and war pre-dates Evelyn Waugh. One column published in April 23, 2017, gave an account of events on the Somme a century previously, with the headline “Birds on the battlefield”.

The battlefield aside, if there has been a constant theme in nature writing over the past century it is the shrinking habitats available to wildlife, and thus declines in populations. Ironically, the same can be said of the nature writer, who has found competition for shrinking column space. But like birds fighting to defend territories, the nature writers have held their own, patrolling what I consider the world’s most important front line, between nature on the retreat and the advance of humankind.

In more modern times the nature of nature writing itself has slowly evolved into another genre. We now have what is termed new nature writing, following in the tradition of new journalism which puts the writer in the story, instead of he or she merely sitting back and observing.

There is room, though, for both genres, and I find myself straying out of the “On the Wing” format to the   other from time to time.

When I met the real Boot, I soon discovered he was not a bit like the character lampooned by Waugh in the late 1930s. All the same, as a naïve but enthusiastic 22-year-old setting out on his first assignment by equipping himself with 270 kilograms of luggage for travel to foreign parts at a colonial outfitters in the British capital, Deedes caught Waugh’s attention, and imagination.

Bill Deedes was now a grand old man – who had taken time out from journalism to serve in Winston Churchill’s War Cabinet during WWII – and I felt it inappropriate to mention Boot.

Not so the people I come across these days, even in far-flung Tasmania, so far from the Fleet Street where Scoop was set and where I once worked as a wordsmith myself.

My latest Boot episode came on a day when I was being a little more intrepid than usual. I had escaped my suburban environment to travel to Tasmania’s south-west wilderness in search of the rarest wild bird in the world, the orange-bellied parrot.

At that moment I was ecstatic, ticking off the bird at last after searching for it over several winters the hard way – unsuccessfully hunting for the tiny parrot in its wintering grounds on the mainland.

As I waited on the remote quartzite runway at Melaleuca for the flight back to Hobart, a reader of the Mercury recognised me, saying: “You don’t look a bit like Boot!”

I wasn’t so sure. My thoughts were still with the parrot and the journalist inside me wanted to cry out “scoop” in celebration at finally seeing the parrot.


Swallows safely on their way

The long, hot and lazy days of summer are not without a little tension and anguish down at the Waterworks Reserve where I monitor the seasons, and the birds arriving and departing.

Over the years I have developed a one-sided relationship with a family of welcome swallows and each year I wait for them to arrive and then go through the trials and tribulations of parenthood with them.

I regard the swallows visiting the reserve, well at least one pair and their successive generations, as family.

It’s not known where our swallows go to in winter to find food. I used to believe they travelled, like other popular migrants, the silvereyes, along the east coast of the mainland to warmer climes, but there is a suggestion that the swallows might turn left at Melbourne, follow the Victorian coast and then head north to the west of the Great Dividing Range.

When they return to the Waterworks, I share their anxiety in the first days of spring when snow still clings to kunanyi/Mt Wellington and insect food is in short supply to replenish energy after the long migratory journey. Then in drought I worry that they might not find the moist soil to build their mud-cup nests and later, with young in the nest or newly on the wing, I fear for their safety when the currawongs and ravens come to call.

The swallows, of course, are obvious to my interest in their wellbeing, but I like to think that they appreciate my presence when danger threatens, especially when the most feared predator of all, the brown goshawk, is on the wing.

And so it went this spring and summer.  I always approached the Waterworks and the swallows’ nest site in one of the BBQ huts with trepidation that all might not be well.

The swallows always arrive in the first weekend of September, although they  were a little late this year,  and just before they were due I checked the hut and saw that the previous year’s nest had been swept aside by council workers giving the hut a spruce up.

Within days of the swallows’ return, however, I noticed layers of mud piling up on the hut’s wooden roof beam, and within just a few days the nest had taken shape, the mud saucer about nine centimetres high.  A layer of feathers from white feral geese resident on the Waterworks reservoirs added a flourish to the construction.

Soon the female was incubating the eggs and after about 20 days, the male and female were bringing food for a growing brood. Another 20 days and I returned to find the three young happily demanding food from a perch on a wire fence.

The parents, with chittering calls, twisted and turned, wings flickering, as they chased insect food over the still waters, suddenly freezing in flight, stalling, floating and snatching gnats and mosquitos.

Another summer, another brood, and after the anguish of the breeding season, I’ll feel a pang of sadness when at the start of autumn the air is not  filled with the sound of excited swallow chatter.

Ibis listing a bitter quill

Tasmania left off the map again, this time when it comes to birds.

That was my first thought when I read that the white ibis – which does not occur here – was leading the poll to name Australia’s favourite bird for 2017. Thankfully, bird enthusiasts taking part in the survey came to their senses and named the magpie as number one.

The white ibis winning the Guardian Australia/Birdlife Australia bird of the year contest would have been a bitter pill – or should I say  bitter quill – to swallow.

The ibis is the poster bird of the Anthropocene, the scruffy “bin chicken”, and no amount of defending it in the avian press, people extolling its capacity to adapt to mankind’s world, will win Tasmanians over, at least this Tasmanian.

As it happened, in spite of intense lobbying for the ibis, and suspected vote rigging for another species, the powerful owl, the Australian magpie familiar to Tasmanians swooped to victory with a vote of 19,926. But still the ibis came second just 843 votes behind.

The magpie will do us fine, compared with some others on offer, especially the troublesome kookaburra and rainbow lorikeet (listed no 3 and 6 respectively in the top 10), imports to Tasmania from the mainland who cause as much mayhem down here as a team of visiting footy players on season-ending tours.

That ibis, with its airs and snooty look of arrogance from pictures we seen of it, appears out on limb. And anyway we have our own species finding a home in city and suburb, the silver and kelp gulls.

Both these gulls, sharing the fast food that’s also on the human diet, have been recorded also sharing the same ailments which blight obese humans, including high levels of cholesterol.

The poll was interesting in that it once again underlined our connection with the birds we see around us, the ones we see daily, the ones physically seen to share our world.

Of the top 10, most of the others in a list of 50 voted upon are common birds. Many of them are not seen in Tasmania because we simply have fewer species than the vast Australian mainland.

Along with the white ibis in the top 10, mainland species like the willy wagtail (no 7) and the cassowary (9) got the most votes.

The ibis, though, was a surprise, and certainly ruffled my feathers.  Most mainlanders only know it from raiding rubbish bins, or stealing sandwiches in city parks, but I remember spending many a happy hour at an ibis roost in far north Queensland, the mangroves on the Ross River in Townsville being shared with fruit bats. As the bats left in the evening, the ibis were returning.

There was one notable Tasmanian bird on the list, however, which would have been seen by very few of the voters, even if it does migrate to the mainland each year.  That was the orange-bellied parrot, down to just 16 wild birds at its last stronghold at Melaleuca in Tasmania’s far south-west. It came in at number 21 with 2324 votes.


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.