August 20, 2019

The pecking order of protection

Birdwatchers often avoid hunting for the little brown birds, or “LBBs”, which are often hard to identify and offer little reward in terms of beauty and spectacle.

It now appears the LLBs are being overlooked on a wider scale – in the pecking order of birds to be saved from extinction.

This very issue has come to the fore in recent weeks with questions being asked in the Federal Senate about two unremarkable birds on King Island – the King Island thornbill and scrubtit – which have somehow slipped under the conservation radar.

The scrubtit has been declared Australia’s most at risk bird and the thornbill comes in at number three on the list. Squeezed between them is another Tasmanian species, the orange-bellied parrot.

Tasmanians might delight in the state’s prolific and diverse birdlife – there are 12 species here found nowhere else on earth – but it comes as something of a shock to discover that we have a trio of the most endangered ones, too. Another species, the swift parrot, is also on the critically endangered list, although with about 1000 pairs it is less likely to fall off the perch soon.

The migratory parrots, which breed in Tasmania and fly to the mainland in the winter months, have long been high-profile candidates for conservation efforts but little attention has been given to the two King Island LBBs.

The orange-bellied parrot, in fact, came in 20th in last year’s Australian Bird of the Year contest, garnering  2324 votes, but in all the hoopla not one bird lover voted for the King Island thornbill or scrubtit.

Sightings of the thornbill are so rare it is not even certain it has survived. Its decline, along  with the slightly more common scrubtit, has been attributed to habitat loss because of land clearing. In the scrubtit’s case the population collapsed in 2007 when a bush fire destroyed 90 per cent of a favoured melaleuca swamp.

In the Senate, Tasmanian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson asked representatives from the Environment and Energy Department about the progress of recovery plans for the two King Island species, and the orange-bellied parrot.

The government’s Threatened Species Commissioner, Sally Box, told the hearing the department would contact the Tasmanian Government to see if emergency intervention was required

The birds do not have species-specific recovery plans but are covered by the government’s King Island biodiversity management plan.

The problem for the King Island species is their small size and unspectacular plumage which makes them thoroughly unexciting to the untrained eye. They are both cryptic brown with few markings that distinguish them from other small brown species. And another factor which goes against them is they are both sub-species, with viable full species on the Tasmanian mainland. This makes it difficult to justify funding for them.

But the champions of these King Island sub-species, particularly nature lovers on the island itself, point out that Tasmania’s wedge-tailed eagle is a sub-species, and the Tasmanian and federal governments see merit in directing funds towards these.

Albatross with a legacy

A giant of a bird called Grandma is a legend at the Royal Albatross Centre near the New Zealand city of Dunedin.  Although I visited the centre recently with the intention of possibly seeing the birthplace of some of the royal albatrosses observed in Tasmanian waters, I came away instead with a notebook full of facts on one long-lived individual. Not only did Grandma live to the age of 62, in her final year she managed to add to her long line of offspring spanning six decades.

Most albatrosses have one mate and live for around 40 years. Grandma, however, had five husbands, three of whom she outlived and one she married twice.

Having seen both the royal and the wandering albatrosses – the world’s two biggest seabirds with wingspans of more than three metres – off Tasmanian shores over the years I decided to make a detour from a road-trip through New Zealand’s Southern Alps last month to visit the world’s only mainland albatross colony, on the Otago Peninsula close to Dunedin.

I arrived not knowing quite what to expect. Mating and egg-laying takes place between September and December and although the single young take a year to fledge, I wondered if any of the 13 chicks reared at the colony this season would be in view, let alone parents spasmodically coming and going with food.

My fears about not seeing the species were soon allayed. No sooner had I sent off on the regular tour of the reserve, climbing to the “royal box” viewing hide on Taiarora Head, an adult albatross swept over my head, gliding out over Otago Harbour.

Among the tussocks of grass in the reserve, four over-sized chicks could be seen. They were seven-kilogram bundles of snowy white feathers, the chicks destined to grow to 12kg before trimming down to their parents’ weight of nine kilograms once they become established on the high seas.

At this time, the juvenile albatrosses will vanish for five years, never touching solid ground on their travels until returning to Taiaroa Head to find mates. And after these young birds finally breed they will vanish again, spending a further year, alone, at sea before returning to Dunedin to re-establish their bond with their mates. They only breed every second year.

The new birds at the albatross centre last month were clearly getting restless, walking short distance and flexing wings, gearing up for their maiden flight in September. Then juvenile birds will bounce around on unsteady wings before finally being carried aloft and out to sea.  Once airborne, there’s no turning back.

I was looking at a new generation of these magnificent birds, but my thoughts were with Grandma. While rearing her last chick, she vanished after setting off on a feeding foray, never to return. Luckily, rangers at the reserve intervened to feed the chick with the standard albatross meal of squid. And under the tender, loving care of human foster parents the chick finally sailed forth, to ensure Grandma’s legacy continued.

Tamar on the ball with wetlands reserve

The great white egret gave me a menacing stare on the boardwalk which runs through the Tamar Wetlands Reserve in Launceston. The egret, standing more than a metre tall, had flown with slow, lazy flaps of his giant wings from his feeding ground in shallow water to roost on the boardwalk at mid-day.

The late autumn wind blowing in from the south had eased, and the beautiful egret with lacy, pure-white plumage wanted to soak up the sun which had just broken through the clouds.

Only I was invading its patch. There was only one thing for it. Although I knew the egret would not do me any harm with its long dagger beak, merely recognise a human was not to be challenged and move aside, I gave the egret a moral victory and turned back. It was probably more in need of a little warmth from the sunshine than I was at the time.

There was a sub-plot to egret wars on the boardwalk. My mission to Launceston was more about the great north-south rivalry that exists in the state. I won’t say the north has the best birds – the egret can be found close to Hobart – but Launceston certainly has the best facilities for viewing them, particularly the water birds.

I had gone to Launceston on family business but when I am in the northern capital I always try to call in at the information centre at the heart of the reserve, which is situated about 10 kilometres from the city centre, on the West Tamar Highway.

Every time I visit – if roosting egrets will allow it – I walk the 1.5km boardwalk to Tamar Island. And each time I ask myself: why can’t Hobart have such a wonderful amenity to open a window on the hidden corners of the River Derwent and its wider estuary?

The nearest local nature-lovers have to a Tamar-style wetlands centre is Goulds Lagoon at Austins Ferry but in recent years this has become a shadow of the reserve it once was when it was first established by nature lover Arthur Gould in 1938. Suburbia has encroached on the surrounding land and it is suffering the effects of urban pollution.

No such troubles at the Tamar Wetlands Reserve, whose spacious information centre is permanently manned by Parks and Wildlife staff and volunteers.

I found myself having difficulty pulling myself away to head south again, and on the Midland Highway a stream of cars passed emblazoned with the colours of the Hawthorn footy side, playing St Kilda at UTAS Stadium that afternoon.

With the egret encounter and the sighting of a hunting swamp harrier still in my thoughts, I was also thinking that the north-south wars in Tasmania did not stop at which city gets the biggest AFL team and the most games. The north can claim the Tamar bird-watching spectacle over the Derwent any time, along with the Hawks over the Kangaroos.


Lorikeet fun and games

Two musk lorikeets, their iridescent green backs illuminated by the summer sun, had found what in the bird world would amount to a bouncy castle and they were squawking with delight as they put it through its paces.

I had been in the process of learning the French game of petanque at Long Beach, Sandy Bay, and to the annoyance of my earnest teammates I had delayed throwing my boule, captivated by the antics of the lorikeets.

The “bouncy castle” – ironically close to a real one erected for children during the Australia Day festivities a few months previously – consisted not of an air-filled rubber structure but of a thin bare branch sticking at right angles from a blue gum.

Two lorikeets had landed on it during their travels and discovered its quality to fling them into the air under the weight of their bodies. Suddenly the game was on and the lorikeets either swayed wildly on the springy branch or, with one beat of their wings and a sudden release of their grip, allowed themselves to be catapulted into the sky.

It occurred to me at the time, ignoring the pleas of my fellow petanque players to get on with the game, that all roads seemed to lead in my life to Long Beach, and to the remarkable array of birds, and their antics, that I don’t see nearer my home just a few kilometres away.

My doctor’s surgery is there and so is the physiotherapist who got me on my feet after total knee-replacement surgery a couple of years ago.

On a sunny, autumnal afternoon  I found myself back at Long Beach again as part of the recruitment campaign to introduce new players to the delights of France’s favourite family game.

I didn’t need much persuasion, mainly because whatever I thought of the merits of petanque it would give me a chance to do a little recruitment myself – signing up members for Hobart’s unofficial bird admirer’s club.

As I always say, the beauty of birdwatching is that any activity, in any open space, will always reveal birds and, what’s more, will enhance the outdoor experience.

The petanque players did not need any convincing when they observed the antics of the lorikeets and one player was soon pointing out a sulphur-crested cockatoo performing acrobatics on a telephone wire.

Between recording petanque scores, the players were also noting bird sightings, mainly birds of the drier terrain along the coast which do not venture into the wet forests of my home Waterworks Valley in Dynnyrne. Among these are magpies, noisy miners, eastern rosellas and the musk lorikeets, along with the rarer swift parrots sometimes seen in spring.

My invitation to the petanque try-out came from players who are also members of the Waterworks Valley Landcare Group. They are campaigning for a “piste” in the Waterworks Quarry reserve and if they are successful, my petanque experience will in future include the songs of yellow-throated honeyeaters and green rosella more associated with my home area.


Penguins learn road sense

Crossing the Neck at Bruny Island one stormy night I was amazed to make out what looked like the shape of a penguin standing in the middle of the road.

As the wind lashed diagonal stripes of rain across the muddy dirt strip, I struggled to keep my focus on the puddled road ahead, knowing on one side was a steep drop into the waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel below me. But I soon confirmed my eyes were not deceiving me. There, staring straight at me, yellow in the light of my headlights, was a little penguin. I think we were both wondering at that moment what to make of it all.

The night is cemented in my memory because I was being a hard-news reporter for once, covering events across Bruny Island associated with the Bruny Island Bird Festival, and then going in search of a computer with a Wi-Fi connection from which to file my story. I had somehow mislaid my own.

The penguin finally waddled off through the puddles, seeking shelter on the side of the road bordered by sand dunes, and as I continued on my way across the isthmus to the southern end of Bruny Island I considered the eventual fate of penguins once a plan to seal the road was put in place. The rough, precarious nature of the road had ensured motorists paid it respect, whatever the weather, and in turn had given stray penguins a better chance of not ending up as roadkill.

My encounter with the penguins occurred some years back and the sealed section of the road was finally opened last year. And I am happy to report that the new route has not had the adverse effect on the penguin population that breeds in the sand dunes along the Neck as had been feared.

The happy outcome for the penguins can be attributed to the mitigation measures put in place along the road, primarily the incorporation in the road’s design of penguin tunnels so the little creatures can cross from one side of the isthmus to the other without actually venturing on to the tarmac.

The penguin-friendly design of the road is down to a partnership between BirdLife Tasmania and the Kingborough Council, which is responsible for Bruny. The council took into account the birding organisation’s recommendations for the road, particularly the need for tunnels to facilitate movement for the flightless penguins.

Tunnels have been used successfully in roadkill mitigation for penguins in New Zealand but it was not guaranteed the Bruny penguins would take to these culverts immediately.

BirdLife Tasmania monitored the penguins with cameras when the new road opened and were in for a surprise. The special tunnels created for the penguins were considerably larger than a second series of culverts designed to drain water from the road but, as the nocturnal footage revealed, the penguins preferred the smaller drainage culverts to the tunnels that had been built especially for them!

Eagle causes a flap

A low cloud had descended across the Tamar, making a visit to the mighty river’s wetlands pointless.  But every cloud has a silver lining and I was treated instead to a remarkable story with an eagle at its heart. 

As I sat in my sister-in-law’s home high above the Tamar Valley north of Launceston, rueing a missed opportunity to stalk the waterbirds at the Tamar Wetlands Reserve, she recounted the time a wedge-tailed eagle came to call.

Normally, there’s a view of a dam and vineyards from the Stanton home, before a more sweeping panorama opens across the valley to the historic church at Windermere on its far shores.

One afternoon recently Judith Stanton was watching a wallaby joey fresh out of the pouch munching on grass on the banks of the dam. Suddenly, an eagle appeared from low over the rows of grape vines in the vineyard. In a flash, the eagle swept across the grass of the dam wall, with talons outstretched. The joey, oblivious to the danger, didn’t stand a chance and the “wedgie” had soon grabbed it without touching the ground. With powerful flaps of the wings, it rose slightly and then banked into clear air where the steep sides of the valley on its western side fell away to the Tamar’s shores.

Judith Stanton could see the joey’s tail flapping in the backdraft from the eagle’s two-and-a-half-metre wingspan but her mind was focused less on the chances of seeing such a dramatic event in her own semi-suburban backyard. Her attention was now drawn to her son’s dog Bentley, a German schnauzer, which had been entrusted to her while her son and his family were on holiday.

Bentley had been given the run of the property’s extensive lawns during his visit and she was suddenly aware of the danger the eagle posed to the dog, something she would never have contemplated before.

I’ve long been aware of eagle attacks on pets but was not aware of its frequency until doing a little research. In fact, the wildlife authorities in Queensland last year issued an alert after a spate of eagle attacks in Brisbane’s northern suburbs. In one of these a baby goat was taken from a hobby farm.

In Tasmania, the only story I’ve heard so far is of an eagle taking a cat in Sorrell a few years back. The cat, though, was believed to be a feral animal so perhaps the eagle was doing the local wildlife, and pets, a favour.

Eagles, like all birds of prey, are totally protected by law and they can’t be blamed for snatching a meal, pet or otherwise, if an opportunity presents itself. They are, after all, natural born killers living in a world far removed from that of the household dog or moggie, as Bentley the friendly schnauzer could well have discovered.

And as for the rest of his stay in Tasmania, from his far safer home in Canberra? He was confined to the Stanton’s balcony.

The circus leaves town

Mother Nature has packed up her tent and moved on. The passing parade of birdlife over the spring and summer is well past and approaching the end of autumn I can only wait in anticipation of the circus’s magical return in September.

At this time of year I can’t resist the metaphor of the big tent to describe all the spectacle, the antics, the comedy and the drama that has played out since early September.

The avian circus has acts of all kinds including those of the flying trapeze and, of course, the show comes complete with its clowns.

Autumn and thus the approach of winter came earlier than usual this year. After a fiery hot spell there was suddenly a chill in the still air at the end of the day. And a silence. On an evening in early April, just after the sun had set, the absence of the birdsong of summer was palpable. The far-carrying calls of the most vocal of the summer visitors, the fan-tailed and shining bronze-cuckoos were no longer ringing through the woods above my home in the Waterworks Valley in Dynnyrne. The “pick-it-up” call of striated pardalote had also dropped from the airwaves as these tiny birds prepared to head north across Bass Strait.

The circus brings a rainbow of colour, a blast of bird music, a riot of frenzied activity when it hits town. It is mainly driven by migrant birds but the locals, too, are always in on the act as they declare breeding territories of their own.

This avian carnival arrives on the wings of welcome swallows. As the swallows flit and turn in aerial manoeuvres, grey fantails perform gymnastics in the understorey of bottlebrush and native cherry below the blue gums and stringybark.

The show never ceases, at least until mid-January. In the circus ring there is always a new act to follow the last. Taking their cue as the year progresses are the brightly-coloured resident robins and native honeyeaters. Each day, especially in early spring, the parade of bird species appears never ending.

And there are sinister figures at the fringes, more like actors in a Shakespearean play than a circus. The menacing forest ravens prey on birds that have eggs and young. In contrast, come the clowns. Sulphur-crested cockatoos jostle and argue and swing upside down from their perches, pecking at each other, and plovers with yellow masks and spindly legs dash through the grasslands followed by striped-pyjama young.

The carnival under sunny skies finally reaches its climax with the arrival of the last of the visitors – the beautiful satin flycatcher which graces the upper canopy in sparkling iridescent plumage, fluttering wings and tail as it tiptoes along the tightrope of the thinnest branches.

I loved the circus as a kid and always felt a little bereft when it left town. Autumn now brings on the same sensation but there is always the promise of the circus’s return in spring.



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.