January 20, 2018

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.

 

A little help from a friend

Seagulls gliding and soaring over AAMI Park in Melbourne, their outstretched wings in a rainbow of colours, pulsating in the night sky: pinks, yellows, greens and blues.

The shimmering silver gulls were having a psychedelic moment and so was I. Far down below them, and far below my seat in the top tier of the stadium, Paul McCarty was into the second of about 40 numbers on the latest leg of his Australian tour, the strobe lights illuminating the stage escaping into the air and spotlighting the gulls.

My teenage years, when I did all sorts of things I would never do today, had come back to find me.  And as part of this out-of-mind experience, the gulls and McCartney became a double act.

Looking back to the “Swinging Sixties’, it wasn’t just the music of the Beatles that eased me through those tough, 12-hour days as a cub reporter on the Woking News and Mail in Britain but, conversely, the sight of resident birds in semi-rural Surrey which sent me happily on my way.

Because of my obsession with the Beatles and birds, it’s not fanciful to link the two. Birds have always been an inspiration for art and possibly with a little bias I think the music of the Beatles and the impact it still has on popular culture is art of the highest kind.

Just as the first poets used birds as inspiration so have the composers of music.

In the modern age of popular music we even have bands named after birds. The Eagles spring to mind immediately, and in this category can we include the band Paul McCartney formed after the Beatles, Wings, or even the Byrds!

Like the birdsong I hear in different places, music – especially the music of the Beatles, and another obsession, Bob Dylan – cements time and place in my memory.  Twist and Shout takes me back to the place I bought my first record, not so far from London’s Fleet Street where I worked in the mid-Sixties as messenger boy, and the song of the yellowhammer – “A little bit of bread and no cheese” – reminds me of cycling Surrey country lanes as a cub reporter a little later.

Times pass, but I’m still learning from the Beatles. I always thought the McCartney song Blackbird was a homage to the bird that still wakes me each morning with its beautiful song. But no, as McCartney said during the Melbourne concert, Blackbird is in fact a protest song. It goes back to the civil rights movement of the southern United States in the late 1960s.

It was a song of solidarity, one of many special messages that the Beatles carried in their songs, more commonly about the advancement of the working classes, to which they proudly belonged. McCartney is also a passionate  environmentalist and a campaigner for vegetarianism, saying he would never eat anything with a face, which of course includes birds.

Like the rest of the wild world, the silver gulls flying over AAMI Park during the concert, in tandem with the occasional night heron and fruit bat, were certainly getting by with a little help from a friend.

Beauty treatment for first-class travel

A gannet, steel-blue eye and yellow wash to its gleaming white plumage, wrestled with a giant fish it had caught out on the Derwent.

All was not going well for the gannet. Not only was the fish extra-large, but the activity on the water had attracted the attention of a white-bellied sea-eagle.

Although it should have been a skirmish made in heaven for eagle-lovers abroad a tourist vessel, it spelled trouble for the whole point of the mid-winter cruise – the release of an injured sea-eagle which had been under rehabilitation.

The eagle release in fact proved to be the highlight of my birding year, as I look back at the past 12 months as 2017 draws to a close.

The trip had been organised by the owners of the luxury tourist vessel the Odalisque, Tasmanian Bot Charters, as both a fund-raising exercise for the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge at Kettering and a way to set the female eagle free among familiar surroundings.

The eagle, which had spent about a year at the refuge recovering from damage to a leg and wing after a collision with power lines had been recovered from the Channel area, where it was set for release off Bruny Island.

The main danger for the eagle, however, was posed by the very eagle harassing the gannet, and a further two spotted as the Odalisque made its way down the Bruni d’Entrecasteux Channel.  Both wedge-tailed and sea eagles are fiercely territorial and will attack any other eagle invading their patch.

The eagle and owner of the refuge, Craig Webb, had been picked up at Kettering and now we cruised the Channel looking for a sheltered spot not too far from the coast free of possible rivals for the female.

Once the coast was clear, Craig Webb climbed to the upper deck and took the eagle out of its protective, carrying tube.

He had ensured it had received much exercise in the extensive eagle aviaries at the refuge in preceding months and with a with a little encouragement it was soon flying free. There was one anxious moment when it dipped towards the water but with powerful flaps of its wings it was soon rising again, making its way on a a perch on a dead gum at the water’s edge.

There was applause all round from the 30 or so paying passengers, tickets for the unique cruise raising about $2200 for the refuge.

Mr Webb has released about 20 wedge-tailed and white-bellied sea-eagles in the 12 years he has operated the refuge but this is the first one to receive such high-end treatment aboard a luxury vessel, which normally plies the Bathurst Harbour and Port Davey in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area.

“I’m really stoked,” said Mr Webb as the bird landed. “This is the whole point of the refuge. It’s to get the birds back into the wild. Our motto is ‘get ‘em in, get ‘em out’.”

He said powerlines presented a constant danger to endangered wedge-tailed eagles and sea-eagles, although he was working with the electricity transmission authorities to alleviate the problem.

“But don’t get me on to wind farms,” he said to about 25 passengers on Odalisque, who had paid for the voyage as part of a fund-raising exercise for the refuge. “My language will be too colourful.”

The owner of the Odalisque, Pieter van der Woude, said his operating company, Tasmanian Boat Charters, had always been a strong supporter of the refuge.

“We see the eagles as part of our story,” he said. “Down at Port Davey we always point them out to our guests. We saw 14 sea-eagles within a couple of hours once, feeding on couta that had come to the surface.

“And there’s nothing like seeing a soaring sea-eagle. Our guests love seeing these magnificent creatures in the wild.”

As a final flourish during the release, the sea-eagle, a female,  was given a dab of nail varnish on her talons. Far from a beauty treatment befitting first-class travel, the nail varnish would identify her if she should come to grief and be brought to the refuge again.

The battle for the wild world

The battle to protect and conserve Tasmania’s pristine wild places was brought home to me within days of arriving in the state from Britain 20 years ago.

I was staying with my mother-in-law in Howrah at the time and wandered down to the Shoreline shopping centre where I came across an exhibition being mounted by the Tasmanian Conservation Trust.

Peter McGlone, who was manning the trust’s stall, was quite possibly the first person I had met in Tasmania outside of my wife’s family.

I was intrigued because he was holding a sprig of gorse, explaining that it was a weed in Tasmania and he had recently been engaged in digging it up from Tasmanian soil.

There was something ironic in the conversation because just weeks previously I had been engaged in planting gorse in Britain, a vital species vanishing from the British countryside.

Irony, I was to discover, travels with wildlife conservation, not just in Tasmania but world-wide.

Gorse in Britain is a signature species of plant for the most threatened environment in the British Isles. It grows in the sandy soils forming a belt across southern England, areas that can be considered wilderness because they have never been cultivated and never built on, until now.

There is even a nature reserve at Arne, in the south-west country of Dorset dedicated to gorse where, as a volunteer, I planted the stuff just before coming to Australia.

These sandy soils were dumped by glaciers at the end of the ice age and for thousands of years were classified as common land. Animals allowed to roam on them never did any damage because they were merely domestic forms of animals, like wild boar, which had gone before. And these areas retained their unique flora and fauna. The sandy heaths of southern England might have been unfit for cultivation but the land has proven to be ideal for housing development close to London and south-west towns and cities. I grew up on a vast housing estate on the fringe of London constructed on such soils. Luckily some of the common land remained, in the shape of Horsell Common near the town of Woking where H G Wells set his War of the Worlds novel, and discovered their worth when I first started to develop an interest in wildlife while still at primary school. In fact, these areas might well have inspired that interest.

Although they were not classed as national parks as such, I saw these stunted forests as truly wild places and as I grew older I went in search of areas with that designation, mainly in the north of England.

And I soon learned that wilderness and national parks could represent  different concepts.

I actually worked on a farm in the Peak District national park, but believed at the time these were wild places even though the park mainly composed ancient farmland dissected by drystone walls. Only the tops of the moors, along the Pennine Way forming the spine of Britain between England and Scotland could be classed as truly wild.

When my travels took me to East and Southern Africa I continued to go in search of what I considered at the time as wilderness. I ignored the roads and railway lines dissecting national parks where elephants roamed free.

I lived in America for a time and didn’t explore some truly wild places there, to my regret, so I can’t comment on these. I spent my time in New York writing a book about Central Park, which in its own sense can be termed a wild place!

And then I came to Tasmania, and realised what wild and wilderness really meant, discovering only recently that there are very strict guidelines set down by international conservation bodies defining wilderness. And it doesn’t include roads or railways or even huts.

In recent years I have had the chance to look again at “wild” places in southern Africa and was shocked and appalled by the Kruger Park and the Victoria Falls National Park, in the light of my Tasmanian experience.

The Kruger Park has a more extensive network of roads from the time I remember it 40 years ago, and franchise fast-food outlets in its camps. And the Victoria Falls is ringed by a high fence, guaranteeing that visitors pay a $50 American dollar entrance fee to view it. The Victoria Falls serves to give the Zimbabwean Government precious foreign currency

My disenchantment with the places I once loved in Africa has coincided with a push by the Tasmanian Government to open our own wild areas to business.

I’m not really qualified to comment on specific projects – beyond the proposed cable car up kunanyi/Mount Wellington – but at the same time I have become increasingly worried about this assault on wild places in general.

I might have tolerated roads once, and crossed the Wankie park in the old Rhodesia by train (seeing elephants and lions from the carriage windows) but in recent years I have become a wilderness tragic.

I’m like the smoker who gives up cigarettes. There’s no one worse amid tobacco fumes as a reformed smoker and amid the scent of eucalypt oil in the gum forests, a reformed wilderness tourist.

And the word irony keeps emerging. Am I the only person who sees the notion that we ruin the very thing we consider beautiful and precious by “opening it up for business” so greater numbers of people can see it, and worse, exploit it.

We are told trails that at the moment present a challenge to cross them in pristine areas of the Tasmanian wilderness, and add to the spirt of adventure, need huts so more and more people can enjoy them.

We are told that wild areas, wilderness and otherwise should be opened up for mass tourism. These area can’t just lie there, they must turn a profit.

But so often these apparently harmless and non-intrusive schemes to allow more people to see, feel and hear wild places turn out to be the thin edge of the wedge.

I was once a great supporter of the bike and mountain bike lobby, seeing value, for instance, in turning disused railway lines into bike tracks.

This has been successfully achieved in Britain and I’ve walked many of these level trails through some spectacular country inaccessible by any other means.

When I first learned of the north-south bike track across kunanyi/Mt Wellington, I walked it and had an enjoyable experience, walking but at the same time showing the cyclists respect because it was after all their trail.

A gentle bike ride, however, has suddenly become something else. Now the bikers are demanding high-speech, zig-zag tracks down mountainsides, a bike ride has become an adventure sport.

I’m not opposed to living life at the edge, however. But plans for such a track cut into kunanyi/Mt Wellington concerns me. I gather there are plans for a downhill/gravity track from Big Bend on the mountain down to Junction Cabin.

I see that in recent years mountain biking has been listed on the Wellington Cable Car Company’s website as one of the pursuits the cable car will make possible.

But why do these things like bike tracks have to be in high-value natural areas. Around Hobart I can think of many hilly areas already modified by farming or even industrial activity, like rubbish tips. Perhaps we could have descending, zig-zag bike trails threading their way through the forests of alien gorse which litter the state.

Again, like five-star huts for hikers, I see cyclists as the thin end of the wedge. Allow one bike and you have a bike track, and a cable car to take bikers to it.

As I say in my book, The Shy Mountain, the beauty of kunanyi/ Mount Wellington is it brings the south-west wilderness right to the very doorstep of a state capital city.

A cable car would reverse the process. It would take the city – with its glass, and concrete and steel and its commercialism – to the mountain.

The government mantra of being open for business, opening up our wild areas also raises the question of access by air, and noise pollution. I accept there must be air routes open to the far south, even for emergencies. I’ve travelled to Melaleuca by Par-Avion and know the orange-bellied parrot recovery program could not be possible without this air link.

But one or two planes a day is something different to frequent flights by helicopter, dropping off tourists here and there.  I’ve written in the past of the movement in the United States to declare a portion of at least one national park a human-noise-free zone.

Gordon Hempton has established what he describes as “one square inch of silence” in the Olympia national park in Washington state. He describes the site in the Hoh Rainforest as the most pristine, untouched and ecologically diverse area of the United States  and has even persuaded some airlines to route their high-flying aircraft away from the area so the people down on the ground don’t even see their vapour trails.

Is this man eccentric to the point of being a little mad? I certainly don’t think so. Part of my latest Victoria Falls experience was having the day ruined by three helicopters at once hovering over the falls, one afternoon drowning out the call of the beautiful Heuglin’s robin, a bird I had searched for without success in all the years I had spent in Africa. And here it was in a patch of rainforest at the falls edge, and I couldn’t hear its song, one of the most beautiful in Africa.

We hear the phrase loving places to death, and the Victoria Falls is a perfect example of what dangers lie in allowing more and more of what I call “trippers” access to nature’s masterpieces, to allow them to have an experience beyond just walking and seeing and hearing.

Closer to home we have a place I love, not wilderness as such, just the route of a road.

I am intimately familiar with The Neck on Bruny Island, having watched penguins and short-tailed shearwaters there on many a spring and summer night. The paving of the road was a concern because I thought the penguins I had seen at night on its dirt surface would end up as roadkill. I’m told tunnels under the new road have alleviated that problem, but I think we have all been blindside by the decision to site a car park at The Neck which ruins the view from the lookout, looking south.

Now that is ironic. And as I said earlier, in my lifetime irony seems to have travelled with the trashing of the environment.

Take that housing estate I told you about, Sheerwater in Surrey, where I grew up.

It was designed to provide a home for us Londoners displaced by the bombing during the blitz in the Second World War. About 6000 Cockneys were planted down on what had been considered wilderness, even if it was only about 35 kilometres from London.

Soon after the birches and the pines, and the gorse, were cleared, and construction of more than 1,500 homes started, the planners and developers suddenly realised the Cockney sparras being transplanted to the countryside from Bermondsey and Rotherhithe and the Old Kent Road would need a focal point, a pub.

One was soon built on what had been the pristine forest – and it was named The Birch and Pines.

Address to the annual general meeting of the Tasmanian National Parks Association on November 26.

 

Flycatchers come rain or shine

The common koel, a species of cuckoo, acted as my barometer when I lived in far-north Queensland two decade ago. 

The koel’s plaintive, far-carrying call coincides with the arrival of the rainy season in tropical Australia at the end of winter and so the bird is given the name “rain bird”.

My own barometer of the weather in Tasmania, however, is another bird usually associated with the tropics, the satin flycatcher. It’s got nothing to do with rain – we get that all year in Tasmania. The arrival of the flycatcher, and the first hearing of its repetitive song and scratchy contact call, indicates summer has finally arrived after much anticipation of the warmer months through the often cold, early period of spring.

It’s the final piece of the migrant jigsaw to fall into place, the last bird of summer to hit our shores.

When I hear its song at last – well into the latter part of October and sometimes as late as the first weeks of November –  I know we are on the way to the summer holidays.

In the past two years, however, the satin flycatcher has heralded not sun but snow. The arrival of the flycatcher has brought with it blizzards. At the time I heard the flycatcher song this year and last, snow lay thick on kunanyi/Mt Wellington and this year, on November 3, the road to the summit was closed.

The flycatcher’s arrival last month was particularly bizarre. No sooner had I heard the bird, I became worried how this insect-eater, a bird which travels to the insect-rich tropics come autumn, would fare in this unseasonal Tasmanian “winter”. But the satin flycatchers calling about me didn’t have to wait long for the weather to clear. The next few days brought a heat wave, with the temperature on one day topping 32 degrees.

I’m not going to explore the controversial subject of climate change here, and extreme weather patterns which seem to be increasingly afflicting the planet. But I will say that in the way the common koel is said to summon rain, the satin flycatcher certainly summons uncertainty in my mind. I never know whether to pack a winter coat, a raincoat or a sun hat on my travels at the end of spring.

The stain flycatcher is possibly the most beautiful of the birds to either be resident here or visit in summer. Its plumage is painted in the shimmering hue of midnight blue on the head and back, with a silver underside. The female has brown-grey head and back instead of the blue, and a slash of chestnut feathers on her upper breast. If the plumage cannot be determined in the treetops, the birds also have a distinctive habit of flicking their tails when calling and feeding.

Sometimes I don’t find flycatchers at all in the Waterworks Reserve in South Hobart where I monitor the seasons but I’m happy to report this year they are plentiful, come rain or shine, and even blizzard.

Strongbill in the sun

A strong-billed honeyeater sat on a thin twig above a stream, ruffling and shuffling its feathers. The bird had just had a bath and looked slightly bedraggled as wet birds do, the water making its plumage spiky and stiff.

A quick shake of the head and wings, so quick the bird was momentarily a blur as if in an animated cartoon strip, Woody Woodpecker or Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame.

The honeyeater had caught my attention dunking and splashing in the sheltered, rocky reaches of the stream just below Fern Tree.  Flying from the shadows he or she now sat in full sunlight. As the strongbill – a bird only found in Tasmania – twirled and fluffed up feathers, droplets of water were thrown about, sparkling like gems as they caught the light, diamonds suspended in the air for a nanosecond before falling to the ground, treasures lost in the swirl of the rivulet.

Drinking and bathing, and then drying wings in sunlight, is a dangerous time for the smaller birds. Dunking is necessary to produce unmatted and clean, efficient feathers and these must be dried quickly so heavy waterlogged plumage does not impede flight. That’s why birds choose sheltered, hidden places so their splashing will not fall into the gaze of a passing brown goshawk or collared sparrowhawk, raptors which largely have ambush in their hunting repertoire.

The strongbill, though, sitting exposed on a sunlit branch, appeared to be throwing caution to the wind. Did it know I was there, to offer protection? I like to think so but in all probably it was rejoicing in the first really hot days of spring, with temperatures hitting the 28 degree mark.

Warming up tired feather, flesh and bone after the rigours of winter on the slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, the strongbill was symbolic of spring and the optimism that hung in the air for the coming summer.

It was an optimism scented by the blooms of flowering plants. Above the honeyeater’s bathing pool, the dogwoods providing shelter were adorned with  clusters of tiny beige flowers contrasting with the plant’s think, dark green veined leaves, and stinkwood threw up spikes of delicate white flowers from long and lanky three-pronged leaves.

A little higher up a slope leading from the rivulet, yellow puff-ball flowers of prickly moses and vanished wattle maintained the fragmented golden glow which in late winter and early spring had been introduced to the woods by the blooms of silver wattle. On slopes that caught full sun prickly beauty, or golden shaggy pea, mixed yellows and reds in its pea flowers, and in a final flourish from nature’s palette, a contrasting, more striking colour. Draped through the undergrowth were the creeping purple tentacles of blue love creeper.

But amid the fecundity and floral profusion, my gaze remained fixed on a beautiful strongbill in spring mating plumage, the sun giving a sheen to the black stipes of its black-and-white capped head, the mossy green plumage on its back and wings matching the richness of dogwood leaf.

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 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.

 

 

 

Hobart’s mountain playground

WHERE I come from we do not have mountains or wilderness.

It is not surprising then that someone like myself born in London and brought up on its suburban fringes should have a fascination with the high country. To say nothing of the south-west wilderness.

Along with exotic animals, mountains always seemed to feature in the picture books I was bought as a child. They reared off the page, always with their jagged tops painted white to indicate snow.

But us Cockney kids did not have mountains to call our own. At the time Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were conquering Everest in 1953 we had to make do with the stairs, and ropes slung to banisters.

Forget mountains, I grew up in place that did not even have a horizon.

It was a flat landscape that did not extend as far as the eye could see. The panorama, if it can be described as such, was obscured by red brick and glass and framed by grey cloud.

My home was a vast housing estate on the fringe of London in Surrey, built to house the people of south-east London who had lost their homes during the blitz of World War II.

It was supposed to be utopia, paradise, for Londoners escaping the smog and over-crowding of their city. We were in the country, after all, “at one with nature” as the term went in those days but even at a very young age I knew something was missing.

We were in a false environment divorced from nature. And even out in the country there was still no mountain to relate to. The highest point in Surrey was Leaf Hill on the North Downs, standing at 294m. In old money it was just below 1000 feet until an eccentric gentleman in Victorian times built a tower to put it into the “1000 club”.

In fact, kunanyi/Mt Wellington eclipses the highest point of England, Scafell Pike in the Lake District, which is 293m lower than our mountain, and the highest in the entire United Kingdom, Ben Nevis in Scotland, tops it by only 74m.

The knowledge of these statistics might reveal I have a bit of an obsession about Hobart’s very own mountain. I can get very boring talking about it. It represents something denied me in my youth, a playground for the budding nature lover, a destination for adventure and discovery.

I can understand people growing up in Hobart taking their mountain for granted, not viewing it in actually the same emotional way. Perhaps it takes an outsider to see the mountain and all it represents in a different perspective.

I didn’t know it at the time but a wilderness of a kind had made way for the housing estate where I grew up, a wilderness that has become the most endangered environment in Britain.

It’s a landscape formed by glaciers in the ice age, dumping sands on areas of southern England. The soil was so poor that over thousands of years it was never cultivated and it was left in place, wilderness, as common ground. It is now providing land for housing developments.

What remains of it has unique fauna and flora, the main feature being silver birch, pine and heather in place of the rich deciduous forests of oak, beech and elm found in other areas that did not fall under the plough.

Although my homeland was on the other side of the world, when I arrived in Tasmania I found a striking parallel with what had occurred, and was still occurring there, to what was happening to wild places in Tasmania. This is commercial interests eyeing wilderness as something not to be left as it is, as wilderness, largely untouched by mankind, but as a means to make money. The site of the housing estate in Surrey could just as well be land in Tasmania not yet put to the process of generating a profit.

Sometimes it takes an outsider, like myself, to see the bigger picture.

I’m not saying Tasmanians don’t care about their environment, their mountain, but it is so familiar, part of the scenery, it’s easy be become blase about it.

But people who want to view the mountain in its largely pristine state are now waking up and fighting to make their case known, fearing that if they don’t speak out a carpet bagger will come and take the mountain for themselves.

The clock is already ticking in the countdown to development on the mountain. The cable car proposal has just had legislation to ease its progress passed by parliament.

I agree there’s a strong argument for making our mountain more accessible, especially in winter when snowfall sometimes closes the Pinnacle Rd to the summit, even if in my view this argument overlooks the fact that the inclement weather which so often wreaths the mountain in low cloud would make the project unviable, to say nothing of disruption caused by high winds.

All the same, the cable car proponents and their supporters see the mountain as a tourist “asset” to be realised. I see it differently and align myself to those who want it left in its natural state, in the raw.

The mountain brings the magic and mystery of the south-west wilderness, the notion of the primordial and pristine, right to the doorstep of a major centre of population. A cable car would form a bridge in more than a metaphorical sense between concrete and glass and the wild world. Instead of wilderness coming to the city, the city would come to the mountain.

Talking Point, the Mercury, Hobart, September 29, 2017.

Tiny parrot in peril

Diagonal streaks of freezing rain, and a little parrot sits on a thin twig, blinking and shaking its head. The rain drops cling to the bird’s plumage like diamonds, sparkling as shuffled, ruffled feathers toss them into the air.

The scene comes from a new documentary on the orange-bellied parrot and demonstrates the power of film, bringing what could be considered a small, insignificant piece nature to life on the big screen.

The orange-bellied parrot braving the elements on its twig certainly loomed larger than life. Lime-green breast, darker lemon-green shimmering back, steel-blue flight feathers and a tiny azure-blue streak spreading across the parrot’s forehead. And of course, that orange belly.

The Desperate Plight of the Orange-bellied Parrot was given its premier at the State Cinema on November 13th.

I’ve been lucky enough to have seen this critically endangered bird in the wild, at Melaleuca in the far-south west of the state, late last year.

To say this little bird – barely 20 centimetres in length – is critically endangered is a gross understatement. In fact, only 12 exist in the wild, the migrants returning last month from their wintering grounds in Victoria. This population is being augmented once again by releases at Melaleuca from a captive breeding program.

I won’t go into detail about this complex and costly plan, and concentrate on the documentary by photographer David Neilson.

Perhaps we have to see the bird in close-up, freeze-framed in some shots, to appreciate its beauty and feel a sense of sadness that it is so close to extinction.

Not only does Neilson’s photography serve to showcase the parrot’s sheer beauty, we learn that these little creatures have personalities and character, and behavioural quirks.

We see them pairing and bonding, mating, rearing young and then encouraging the young to fly.

There are also amusing scenes of captive-bred birds being released. When the doors of their quarantine aviary at Melaleuca are opened some immediately fly to freedom. Some sit twittering on the outside of the cage, clearly showing doubts about going out into the wide world, and some shoot back into the safe confines of the aviary. Others return after a few minutes and there is even a shot of wild bird arriving to coax the captive-bred birds out of confinement. Quite possibly this male bird is looking for a mate.

Like all cinematic epics, this film has a hero. This is a nine-year-old male survivor who has made possibly 18 crossings of Bass Strait in his lifetime. This male’s longevity might hold clues to parrot survival.

The documentary also features interviews with the scientists and supporters who have been at the heart of the campaign to save the parrot, including Bob Brown who on the day of the screening launched an appeal for $1m in federal government funding.

During a question and answer session after the screening, Neilson said he hoped the documentary would inspire others to help save the parrot and it would not become a record of extinction like the black and white footage we see of the last Tasmanian tiger filmed in the 1930s.