November 20, 2018

A letter to the editor

For more than 100 years, The Times newspaper in Britain has heralded the approach of summer by publishing a letter from the reader who hears the first call of the migratory European cuckoo.

I’ve now learned that for many years there was a similar tradition in Tasmania, recording not the arrival of one of our cuckoo species from the mainland but that of the welcome swallow.

The swallow clarion call came from a single reader, Charles Burbury. He wrote to the Mercury about the migrating swallows and other interesting matters over a number of years until his death in 1946.

His letter writing was recounted to me by his granddaughter, Doris Kouw, when I was invited to speak about birds to the Ladies Probus Club of Lindisfarne in September. Mrs Kouw promised to dig out one of his letters about the swallows but instead I received an equally fascinating one about Mr Burbury’s apparent discovery of where another fast-flying, insect-eating visitor to Tasmania breeds.

On a visit to Japan just before the outbreak of World War II, Mr Burbury thought he had found the nesting site of the swifts which grace Tasmanian skies in spring and summer.

In 1937, the Mercury reported at length on Mr Burbury’s visit.

“Interested in ornithology since boyhood, Mr Burbury made an interesting discovery concerning the swift, a bird similar in appearance to the swallow. It has been said that only on rare occasions has the swift settled while passing over Tasmania in the autumn.’’

The newspaper does not specify which of the two swift species to visit Tasmania it might have been, the white-throated needletail or the less common fork-tailed swift. The needletail breeds right across central Asia as far east as Japan and is far more likely to be the bird.

The article described Mr Burbury visiting the 300-metre-high Kegan waterfalls near the town of Nikko north of Tokyo  and descending in a cage to view it more closely. There he saw thousands of swifts coming and going to the ledges on the cliff-face.

Just four years before Japan entered World War II with its bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is not surprising that Mr Burbury described to the newspaper seeing “much military activity in the cities where men and youths were being conscripted”.

Growing up at the historic Inglewood estate in the Midlands, founded by his pioneering forebears, Mr Burbury also noted how overcrowded Japan was, and how little of its land was suitable for cultivation.

His thoughts clearly drifted from his desire to see Japan’s bird species when he viewed how intensively the 20 per cent of land under cultivation was being farmed.

With remarkable prescience for the time, Mr Burbury sensed during his visit that Japan had plans to expand its borders across the Pacific.

As the newspaper report of his trip stated: “The idea among Australians that Japan had covetous desires on Australia could be scouted, he considered.”

Coincidentally, the week I received the cutting marked the 75th anniversary of a crucial event in  Australia’s campaign against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

On November 2, 1942, Australian troops captured the jungle settlement of Kokoda to further hamper Japan’s attempts to advance on the capital, Port Morsby.




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