May 22, 2018

The Shy Mountain

ShyMountain_cover

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 haven for bird life, 200 years on

It took a royal visitor to point out what we in Hobart take for granted – the majestic realm that is the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens.

Prince Edward was on a walk-about in the gardens as part of their 200 anniversary and when he stopped to ask a group of locals if they visited the gardens often he was surprised to hear that for one couple it was their first visit. “But the gardens are so special,” he enthused, “You must come more often.”

He had a point. As a local myself, the gardens might not be new to me but I have to confess I’m not a frequent visitor, preferring untamed Australian bush of wattle and gum for my birdwatching excursions. One time I do visit, however, is during the autumn. If the native bush has a drawn-back for someone  born in Britain, it is native flora does not give shape to the seasons as do the deciduous trees of the northern hemisphere.

During March, April and May in the gardens I revel in the glory of the autumn foliage – the colours of gold, scarlet, bronze and copper as the leaves turn.

Many people are critical of such deciduous trees, however, in the Australian landscape and I am sympathetic to the views of the “tree police”. All the same time, native birds are attracted to the seeds and fruits of these exotic species and they were abundant in the gardens during the morning of the prince’s visit.

The music from a string quartet assembled for the prince’s unveiling of a plaque commemorating the anniversary was accompanied by the “cossick, cossick, cossick” call of green rosellas flying between European silver birches in search of seeds.

The green rosella is one of 12 birds found only in Tasmania and another “local” to make an appearance was the yellow wattlebird. These magnificent birds – about the size of a magpie and the largest of the honeyeater family – have long wattles hanging from their faces, reminding me of haughty Victorian dowagers, with pendulous earrings, from the age the gardens were born.

The botanical gardens, covering 14 hectares and established just two years after Australia’s second oldest, those in Sydney, started out as a convict vegetable patch and have since grown to achieve international acclaim for their collection of rare and endangered Tasmanian plants, as evidenced by the visit of Queen Elizabeth’s youngest son. The plants include those from Macquarie Island, housed in Australia’s only subantarctic plant house.

These collections are trying to right the wrongs of the past, when endemic flora and fauna suffered under the weight of Eurocentric colonial possession authorised by the prince’s ancestors. Much of the native kangaroo grass is gone, the Tasmanian emu can no longer be found feeding on its seeds and two of our parrots, the orange-bellied and swift, are critically endangered. And the Tasmanian tiger breathed its last breath in the former Beaumaris Zoo, not 200 metres from the gardens themselves.

Scoop! News from the parrot front

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 “On the wing”.

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.

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 the then Rhodesia 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 world of journalism in the 1930s, and the nature of war.

The war correspondent, and conversely the nature columnist, had been the mainstay of the newspaper content in troubled times since the advent of the newspaper as we know it today in the Victorian age. And although the nature column had gone out of fashion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as newspapers struggled in the age of television and later the internet, it was now making a comeback. So much so that the Guardian in Britain is not only publishing its century-old country diary each day, but some of those columns going back 100 years.

The Mercury itself employed the “Peregrine”, Michael Sharland, for 60 years before he retired in the mid-1980s and are happy for me to continue the tradition. But I don’t think the erudite Sharland was ever compared with William Boot.

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 the south-west wilderness in search of 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 seeking 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 bird.

 

A fantail in safe hands

Somewhere out in the great blue yonder a grey fantail is carrying an identification tag which might in time shed new light on the remarkable migration of our birds.

The fantail was given a leg band as part of a banding exercise In the Waterworks Reserve late last year, supervised by banding expert Catherine Young.

Although banding – or ringing as bird researchers describe it in my native Britain – is commonplace on the mainland, banders are few and far between in Tasmania.

Catherine is hoping this situation can be changed, so more birds travelling within, and from without, Tasmania reveal their mysterious movements.

On the day in question, five fantails, a brown thornbill and a crescent honeyeater were caught in mist nets strung up at two locations in thick bush at the southern end of the reserve.

The birds remained remarkably calm as they were disentangled from the fine netting and placed in a pouch so they could be taken to one of the BBQ sites in the reserve to be weighed and measured, and have the bands attached.

It might be stressful and traumatic for the birds at first but they are soon set free and, as I’ve noticed from witnessing previous banding exercises, the experience has no adverse or lasting effects. The tiny band itself is so lightweight and unobtrusive on the leg that the birds do not notice it is there.

The bands are applied by gentle and skilled hands and those birders wanting  to become banders have to undergo intensive training, and be registered. This explains why banders tend to be a rare breed.

The individual bands come in coils issued by the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme and each one has a unique number so birds can be easily identified if and when they are recovered. Anyone recovering a banded bird simply has to notify the banding authority, giving the time and place. This information can be matched with information supplied by the bander and entered into a national data base. Recovered birds might also be weighed and measured,  as in the practice at the banding site.

Banding programs worldwide have traditionally been the main source of information about bird migration but in recent years the fitting of transmitters on migratory birds has enabled birds to be actually tracked during their incredible journeys.

Although the latter method of surveillance has provided headline news about long-distance journeys – the fact, for instance, that bar-tailed godwits can fly more than 7000 kilometres nonstop – banding still remains the bread-and-butter method of plotting the movement of birds.

The problem with the latter, though, is that birds dead or alive have to be recovered and only a tiny fraction of bands are ever found.

I’ve often stood in awe, on four continents, as the banders have gone about their business but it is something I’ve never tried myself.

I’m notoriously ham-fisted and I’d hate to contemplate the fate of, say, a fragile fantail in my grip, pliers in hand. That’s one of the facets of bird study I’ll leave to the nimble-fingered experts.

Striated pardalote leaves it late

The birds were scurrying for cover as a cold blast roared in from the south-west, rain falling in diagonal grey stripes from behind kunanyi/Mount Wellington.

Among them I was surprised to see a straited pardalote, a summer migrant who should have been well on the way to Bass Strait and crossing to the mainland by mid-autumn.

If the tiny pardalote had been in any doubt about the time to leave, the threat of snow on the high country would have finally spurred he or she on their way.

A pardalote so late in the season was not the only surprise. Scanning the shrubs and trees on one of my favourite walks, the first part of the Lenah Valley Track out of the Springs to Sphinx Rock, I caught sight of two juvenile scarlet robins.

The robins are common on the higher slopes of the mountain in spring and summer where pairs establish breeding territories, but when the weather turns colder in autumn they return to warmer wintering habit nearer the coast.

In autumn, beyond recording the departures of the summer visitors, I also take stock of what young have been produced during the year.

It’s always reassuring to see young birds on the wing, with the promise they will become parents themselves and keep the avian showcase alive and kicking for the next season, and beyond.

And here were two young scarlet robins and, more importantly, young of different ages. They were from two broods, probably from the same pair of successful breeders.

The flame robins are familiar to me from this section of track because I have monitored them there for many years. They even feature in my book, The Shy Mountain, in which I described their efforts one season to avoid the attentions of fan-tailed cuckoos, which use the robins as surrogate parents along with other species.

The juvenile scarlet robins, dropping from branch and rock perches to feed on insects, were clearly independent parents but some young were still relying on their parents for food.

A travelling party of silvereyes, like the pardalotes making a late departure for the mainland, made their way north around the escarpment forming Sphinx Rock, finding insects in clumps of blanket-bush as they went. The adults had juveniles with them, the young birds in scruffy brown plumage and still to gain the distinctive russet flanks that separates Tassie silvereyes from those of the south-west mainland in their winter grounds of southern Queensland.

And the young of non-migrants were out and about. A male and female yellow-tailed black cockatoo, with a youngster in tow, flew over my head before alighting in the upper branches of a gum-topped stringybark.

The youngster, with an incessant whining, demanded the grubs the adult cockies were plucking from a dead upper branch of the tree, and the parents obliged.

Another young bird on the wing, to join the flock of myriad species that grace our woods and forests, and paddocks, in all seasons. I watch in wonder, feeling a part of it all.

Lambert comes looking for me

I’m sitting on a park bench looking up at a mountain as far away from Central Park as it is possible to get. The mountain at the end of the earth is wreathed in a fine blue haze, the colour of the cerulean warbler, a haze formed of eucalypt oils which ooze from blue gums and stringybarks on hot days.

The gums and the mountain – its sharp outline standing as if cut from paper with sharp scissors – cement time and place in Tasmania, but I’m not thinking of this island state at the tip of Australia, next stop Antarctica, and the things you see from a park bench there; butterflies and birds with names like the mountain blue and the mountain parrot. I’m sitting on a park bench in Central Park, New York, in the spring of 1984 with an elf of a man, adorned with white beard and woollen hat. His name is Lambert Pohner.

Lambert is looking forward to the butterfly season when monarchs and swallowtails will flip and flutter through the magnolias and azaleas, and over the heads of roller-bladers, and joggers, and lovers, and muggers and all the other people who make up the population of Central Park. For now, though, he is contenting himself with birds which arrive before the butterflies, and is waiting on his favourite bench, near a place called the Azalea Pond, for his first sighting of ruby-throated hummingbirds for the year.

Like birds and butterflies arriving in spring, and leaving in the fall, Lambert often flits through my thoughts, usually when I sit on a park bench wherever I am at the time. Park benches always summon the spirit of Lambert, it’s as though he’s sitting there with me, talking birds or butterflies, or the people who watch them.

All those years ago, as a foreign correspondent posted to New York and cutting a lonely furrow on weekend visits to Central Park, I was lucky enough to find in Lambert someone to reignite my interest in birdwatching, and someone to open my eyes to the marvels Central Park held for the nature lover. And the natural world beyond. Lambert’s interest in butterflies, however, I found difficult to share. The migratory adventures of birds arriving in Central Park meant more to a young Englishman with a zest for foreign travel. I hunted the magnolia and Canada warblers, the bluebird and Baltimore oriole while Lambert enthused over the swallowtail, the mourning cloak and the snout.

One butterfly stood out, though, probably because I had learned of its remarkable migratory journey from its breeding grounds in Mexico. It was the monarch, or “da monaark” as Lambert would announce it when it fluttered by. The arrival of the migratory monarchs each spring filled him with as much excitement as the first glimpse of the hummingbirds hovering above the azalea blooms.

We cut curious figures, Lambert and I, when I joined him in his search for the monarchs and on his insistence on searching for the rarer snout; Lambert the urban naturalist, the sage of East 83rd Street, a bachelor who had devoted his life to birds and butterflies, and this young gung-ho correspondent, out of Africa, with girlfriends dotted up and down the East Village. I’d forgotten all this, at least the butterfly part of it, until I sorted through some yellowing newspaper cuttings from my days in New York, mainly reviews of The Falconer of Central Park, which I wrote when I lived there. Among them were not just reviews, and letters about the book, but a cutting from The New York Times which gave an account of Lambert’s butterfly passion, with the headline “A butterfly aficionado stalks the snout”.

“This is the summer of the snout”, Lambert had told the reporter, who observed in her story that the butterfly enthusiast, then 57, had seen more than 40 summers come and go in the park. And there was an observation by me, on Lambert’s obsession with butterflies and the snout, about Lambert boring me with butterfly stories, of phoning me to say: ‘‘We had the snout today!”

Along with the birds, the snout, the monarch and the butterfly announcing the arrival of summer that year, the mourning cloak (The Times reported Lambert spotted it at midday on April 3), were to enrich what had been a bereft, lost first few months in New York. It had been hard city to settle into without friends and the ones I found in bars were soon replaced by Lambert and his wonderful tribe of birders in Central Park.

The three years I spent in New York were to prove the most memorable and rewarding of my life but eventually the time came for me to return to my homeland of Britain. I had been away from Britain too long, 13 years or so travelling Africa and North America, and I felt I needed to return home to touch base. I didn’t lose Lambert, and his snout and monarch sightings and stories, however. He still kept in touch, sending me weekly letters with poems and drawings of what he had seen in the park.

His last communication told me of a roosting long-eared owl in an evergreen and, on a London subway train, an owl’s feather fluttered to the floor when I opened the letter. A few weeks later I received a telephone call from New York to say Lambert had died suddenly. I had no idea Lambert had been ill, his letters never revealed it, a lump in the neck had been checked out and had turned into something sinister. He died shortly after the diagnosis. If he had said, told me he was dying, I would have been on a plane immediately. I don’t think he wanted that though. The butterfly and bird wanderings would never have been the same with the “mourning cloak” now taking on a different meaning. And I never got to go to the funeral. I had severely injured my arm on another sortie to Africa and I was awaiting surgery to have the pins removed which had held the broken arm in place.

I was sent the obituary which appeared in The New York Times, of course, with a reference to Lambert being the “hero” of the book I had written about a year in the life of the park. And I sent a brief eulogy to be read at a memorial service the birders held for Lambert at the Azalea Pond in the park. But it wasn’t closure and most painfully I never did get to return to New York, to go birding again with Lambert, as I said I would. And I have never since returned, it would still be too painful. All those wonderful memories relived would come at too high a price. “One of these days,” I merely say to my family when they suggest we take an overseas holiday far from the Tasmanian city of Hobart which we now call home, to Central Park, so they can witness themselves the places I wrote about, and the landmarks they see so often on the television and movie screen.

I have my memories. That corner of the planet, just 843 acres of it, made such impression on me  – when I was still at a relatively young, impressionable age –  that I sometimes think a part of me resides there. I travel between two worlds in mind and spirit. That’s a thought so bizarre, irrational, that it makes me feel uncomfortable, and uncomfortable, uneasy I certainly felt one day towards the end of the southern hemisphere summer, in early 2015.

I was sitting on a bench and thinking of that parallel universe, Central Park. A beautiful, if robust butterfly the colour of chestnuts in the fall bounced by on jerky undulating flight, carried by a warm northerly breeze blowing in from the Australian outback. It looked incredibly like the monarch which had first been pointed out to me by Lambert in the summer of 1982, and when I trained my binoculars on it, its black, veined pattern on the upper wing told me it was. The spirit of Lambert was in flight, my old, long-dead friend fluttering right before my eyes, carried on an upward draft against a backdrop of the Tasmanian high country.

I was soon to discover the butterfly I had known during the years I lived in New York did indeed reach Tasmania on occasion. In Australia it is called the wanderer, instead of the monarch, and this was perhaps the reason I had overlooked it in the past, at least the knowledge of its existence in the far south. Migratory monarchs, wind-blown from their southern migration in the fall within the United States, had reached Pacific Islands, had established populations there and in turn had colonised Australia, although sightings of them on the island of Tasmania remained rare. Although all the evidence was there, I was not after a rational, scientific explanation for the monarch’s arrival on a sunny day in Tasmania. I wanted to believe my monarch had come all the way from the Azalea Pond in Central Park. It was Lambert come to look for me.

Donald Knowler,  Hobart, Tasmania, June, 2015

New introduction to The Falconer of Central Park, published as an ebook 2015, first published hardback, New York 1984.

 

Freckled duck finds sanctuary in Tasmania

Australia’s rarest waterfowl, the freckled duck, has made a welcome return to the wetlands of the Derwent with two being spotted at Goulds Lagoon, Austins Ferry, earlier this month.

It was with pure coincidence that a species endemic to Australia should arrive just as the duck hunting season was opening in the state.

I’ve seen the freckled duck on several occasions at Goulds Lagoon after I first added it to my checklist of birds spotted in 2013.  On that occasion, I had dashed to the reserve on hearing the news of the arrival of a small flock of the ducks, one of only a handful of sightings in Tasmania since records began after European settlement in the early 1800s.

Freckled ducks have been at the centre of controversy on the mainland this year with BirdLife Australia successfully campaigning for the closure to hunters of several wetlands in Victoria where the ducks occur.

The birding organisation had argued that in past years freckled ducks had been shot by hunters, even though they are wholly protected.

Because of their rarity in Tasmania, freckled ducks are unlikely to fall in the sights of Tasmanian duck hunters, although I would not want to suggest that local shooters target birds outside of the five species that are allowed to be hunted during the season. These are chestnut teal, grey teal, wood duck, Australian shelduck (mountain duck) and Pacific black duck.

The freckled duck is certainly uncommon on the mainland with an estimated population of less than 20,000. They breed in the areas around the Lake Eyre Basin, western NSW and south-west Queensland, often after flooding. After successful breeding years they move out of their breeding areas as the interior dries, seeking better conditions. If drought persists they irrupt into coastal areas, some flying as far south as Tasmania.

Unfortunately, these irruptions often coincide with the wildfowl shooting season in the states where hunting is allowed. These include South Australia along with Victoria and Tasmania.

It’s easy to understand why these shy, beautiful ducks win the hearts of birders, even though they are not as colourful as some other species that attract the eye. As their name suggests, freckled ducks have a freckled pattern over their entire grey-brown bodies ­- they are also called oatmeal ducks – and are also distinguished by a slightly crested head and a bill  in the shape of a dish. In the breeding season the males have a bright red area between nostrils and forehead on the upper mandible.

These dabbling ducks are unusual in having a feeding method called “suzzling”. The word refers to the action of filter feeding, where the duck sucks particles into the bill tip and expels water near the bill base, as it feeds on seeds and small crustaceans.

Quotas for duck hunting in Tasmania are based on the apparent abundance of the five listed  species but BirdLife Tasmania argues these figures can be inflated by duck arrivals from the mainland, especially in times of severe drought.

The amateur has their place in science

Over the years I have been proud to declare myself a “citizen scientist” when I‘ve gone out to monitor bird numbers in places as far-flung as New York City, or the Glenorchy rubbish tip.

The subject was seagulls on both occasions and although gulls might be considered by many a humble and non-attractive species I was happy to do my bit in the interests of research into their habits and numbers.

I may have been making a mistake, however, proclaiming myself a citizen scientist.

According to the doyen of bird monitoring in Tasmania, Mike Newman, I and all the other thousands of birdwatchers who take part in bird surveys across Australia should proclaim we are merely enthusiastic but dedicated amateurs making a contribution to the science of ornithology in our own way.

We should not tread on the true scientists’ toes, or at least give the impression that we might have more expertise.

Dr Newman, one of only three Tasmanians to be awarded a life membership of BIrdLife Australia, discussed the role of the amateur when he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the national organisation’s local affiliate, BirdLife Tasmania earlier this month.

The “rebranding” of the term citizen scientist came as a disappointment to me. I was never interested in science at school, never went to university and started life as a messenger boy in the world of journalism, so to carry the “scientist” label had given me much pride.

The “amateur” carries a sense of the eccentric about it too but, then again, anyone who dodges muggers In Spanish Harlem on Manhattan to count numbers of laughing gulls, or braves icy winds at the Glenorchy tip on a winter’s day to survey silver and kelp gulls must be considered eccentric, if not mad.

Dr Newman’s point is that a line can be drawn between the work of the amateur and the profession of ornithologist, if not a rigid one.

The scientist might consider the surveys compiled by the amateurs as “grey literature” as opposed to the peer-reviewed publications of the professional researchers but the former still provides vital and unique information for scientific research.

As Dr Newman pointed out there was much cross-pollination between the scientists and the amateur.

“The amateurs need expert help, and the professionals desire data,” he said.

Mr Newman has been involved with monitoring Tasmanian birds over a period of 50 years,  about the same time the first systematic annual surveys of Tasmanian wading birds started, the oldest data sets in Australia.

The convener of BirdLIfe Tasmania,  Dr Eric Woehler, said the Tasmanian records went back way before monitoring became – dare I saw it – more professional with dedicated surveys in defined areas. The Tasmanian records – approaching 1.6 million of them – in fact extend to the 1840s when the pioneers and settlers started to jot down their bird sightings at random, including those of the “stump bird”, the dusky robin that was noted as perching on the stumps of cleared trees.

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: https://pozible.com/project/where-where-wedgie-for-grown-ups

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.