July 21, 2019

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.

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