July 28, 2017

Numbers holding but gulls not in good shape

Standing at the summit of the Glenorchy tip to the north of Hobart with grey clouds over the mountain threatening snow, it occurred to me there was a downside to birding.

Once upon a time it was enough to just watch birds, and revel in the beauty of their plumage and sweet melodies. Now it’s incumbent on the birder to also engage in citizen science to record bird numbers, especially of the many species decreasing in population across the country.

So on a winter’s day here I was on the Glenorchy tip, facing into a chilly wind with not enough power in it to carry the smell of rotting rubbish away from my nostrils

Species of kelp and silver gulls were having a fine old time, however, along with forest ravens.

Despite my discomfort, I wasn’t complaining. I was doing my bit, making a difference even if the subject of this project – gulls – might not be at the forefront of the fight to save birds in general.

Gulls occupy a niche in conservation science which is not only about vanishing species but also about how birds can be a pointer to the health of an environment which also embraces humans. Not only can they indicate poisons, like lead, on land and in water they can also mirror the health of the people with whom they share the habitat of city and suburbia.

Gulls tend to share the same unhealthy fast-food and, as I have written in the past, research in recent years into the health of city gulls has taught us that they are afflicted by very much the same health issues that city-dwelling humans are. Namely, they are obese from a lazy lifestyle in which they do not have to travel far for food, and as a result they have dangerous levels of cholesterol and glucose in their systems.

Perhaps more than any other group of citizen, birdwatchers are ideal candidates for citizen science because their hobby involves noting and counting bird species.  Now, instead of merely compiling lists of birds for checklists of species spotted, birdwatchers are increasingly monitoring bird populations on their home patches for a data base compiled by the national bird organisation, BirdLife Australia.

Clutching my clipboard at the Glenorchy tip, I attracted as much attention from people arriving to dump their rubbish one Sunday morning as I did from the gulls.

Out of the three species of gulls found in Tasmania kelp gulls were clearly the majority at the tip, about 300 of them flying around, and I was tasked with  separating the species into groups incorporating black-and-white adults, juveniles aged between two and four years in “salt and pepper” plumage, and first-year birds which are mainly clothed in brown. Silver gulls, were easier: there were only about 10 of these and none of the third species of gull found in Tasmania, the Pacific gull, which prefers a marine environment.

Comparing surveys over the years, BirdLife Tasmania, the local affiliate of the national ornithological organisation, reports gull numbers in Tasmania are holding their own, But that’s not to say they are in good health.

Raptors face rat-poison peril

A few years ago a bird of prey feared by my neighbourhood songsters stopped visiting my garden and I had my suspicions as to the reason why.

At the time wildlife biologist Nick Mooney was warning that a new range of anticoagulant rodenticides were taking a toll on birds of prey.

Mooney said that a more powerful second generation of the rodenticides which hit with a single dose had replaced a slow-acting earlier version. Both the rodenticides were still on the market, and still are, and Mooney urged farmers and gardeners with raptors on their properties to consider the earlier versions, which ultimately still did the job of killing rats and mice but did not have the same potency to immediately kill birds.

Mooney’s warning struck a chord with me because not only was I long longer hearing the chattering alarm calls of my resident new holland honeyeaters, I had noticed a spate of chicken coops springing up in the extensive gardens of properties in my peri-urban neighbourhood. I surmised that this surge in backyard farming had prompted a surge in rodents, and thus the application of rodenticides.

Mooney is again drawing attention to the menace of these powerful rodenticides, as we approach spring when rat and mice populations are on the rise.

Mooney has written a paper on the issue for the annual Tasmanian Bird Report, soon to be published by BirdLife Tasmania.

Mooney, however, is not pointing a finger at gardeners wanting to protect their chicks, eggs and crops, but merely suggesting an alternative strategy that is less dangerous to birds and indeed native mammals.

The less harmful rodenticides with warfarin or coumatetralyl as the active ingredient carry the trademark of Ratsak Double Strength and Racumin.  Those more dangerous to birds are Talon and Ratsak Fast Action.

Mooney also points out there are alternatives to anticoagulants which are harmless to birds.




In his paper, Mooney gives details of bird species confirmed by necropsy to have been killed by the poisons. Especially at risk are masked owls, 11 dying in the Hobart area in recent years, including one recovered from Salamanca Place.

Mooney points out this number is probably only the tip of the iceberg.  The vast majority of the masked owl population occurs in rural landscapes inter-dispersed with patches of dry woodland, villages and towns. Excluding the woodland, Mooney estimates that about two-thirds of the estimated population of a little less than 1000 birds of the rare and threatened owl could be exposed to the second-generation rodenticides. Of these, Mooney estimates that 10 per cent, or 100 birds annually, could be killed.

Other birds listed as being killed by the powerful rodenticides include boobook owls, white goshawks and the brown goshawks of my garden.

When Mooney first raised the issue I wrote about it extensively and spoke to hobby farmers in my home valley in Hobart where suburbia meets bush who might be using the poisons.

I am pleased to report that in recent years the brown goshawk, and a smaller goshawk, the collared sparrowhawk, have returned, much to the annoyance of the honeyeaters.

Yellowthroat struts the stage

Right on cue, like an actor strutting the stage, a striking male yellow-throated honeyeater made his presence felt in the Waterworks Reserve.

With the first snows of winter settling on kunanyi/Mt Wellington , the honeyeater always lays claim to a patch of exotic winter-flowering vegetation and he takes on all comers.

The flowers of the “Ned Kelly” grevillea are a vital food source in the winter months and they are eyed enviously by other members of the honeyeater family visiting the reserve.

Male yellowthroats defend mating territories year-round and after the breeding season the bird I’m familiar with appears to extend his range to include a flower bed in the centre of the reserve, framing a children’s playground.

The yellowthroat is happy to tolerate the children coming to play, but gives crescent honeyeaters and eastern spinebills short shrift.

The crescent honeyeaters and spinebills come down from their summer breeding territories on the mountain to establish winter ranges closer to the coast. All winter long they engage in skirmishes with yellowthroats. The crescent honeyeaters generally come off worse – being chased off without getting a feed – but the spinebills use their smaller size and aerial dexterity to nip in to steal a quick sip of nectar.

The spinebills, with long scimitar bills as their name suggests, are the “pick-pockets” of the bird world, stealing food before the yellowthroats realise what is going on.

Throughout the Hobart suburbs these jousts take place during the winter months.  In gardens that do not have the tall native trees favoured by the yellowthroats – from which they glean insect food if they are not feeding on food produced by flowers – the wars in the grevilleas and bottlebrushes usually take place between resident New Holland honeyeaters and the crescent honeyeater and spinebill raiders.

My interest though in the autumn and winter months is concentrated on the yellowthroats. I find them stunningly beautiful birds and it is no surprise that when BirdLife Tasmania was founded it was decided to choose an image of the species as the organisation’s official emblem. BirdLife Tasmania’s newsletter is, in fact, called The Yellowthroat, but many Tasmanians unfamiliar with birds are unaware of its existence.

Because it often hides in the canopy of tall eucalypts  the yellowthroat escapes our notice, although its familiar song,  which I can only describe as a rapid-fire “chortle”, rings through the leafier suburbs.

The yellow-throated honeyeater is a medium-sized honeyeater with a relatively long tail. The average length is 21 cm.[2] The plumage is bright olive green above, with a silver-grey crown, face, and underbelly contrasting with a distinctive bright yellow chin and throat. Females, which are smaller than males, are duller in colour.

The yellowthroat is only found in Tasmania – one of 12 species endemic to these islands –  and so is much sought-after by mainland birdwatchers wanting to add to their Australian checklists of birds spotted.

It may often slip under the radar in its home state, but the large number of visiting birdwatchers to be found searching for it at the Waterworks Reserve in the spring and summer months are evidence that its reputation has spread far and wide.

Website: Donldknowler.com






Dark Mofo enters the soundscape

The duel of the decibels – the chorus at dusk when birds try to outdo each other to dominate the air waves as light fades – was particularly vocal one mid-winter evening.

The clinking of currawong, the caw of raven and the trilling of new Holland honeyeater was in competition with another, alien sound.

As I walked the streets of South Hobart, I had forgotten that the Dark Mofo winter festival was about to start, even though the night before I had seen city buildings and the Tasman Bridge already bathed in the festival’s signature red light.

A feature of the 2017 festival had been billed the Siren Song, in which at dawn and dusk unconventional sounds would be broadcast across the city from 450 public address speakers placed atop buildings around the waterfront.

According to the pre-festival blurb, what I can only describe as the sonic version of installation art would be heard from up to two kilometres away, and here I was, double that distance, being bombarded by sound on two fronts. The birds, particularly the forest ravens for some reason, were responding in kind. It was surreal and unnerving.

The festival organisers described Siren Song as exploring “sound as an expression of patriarchal power and authoritarian control … and in turn, how sonic tools used to control and communicate might give voice to beauty and abstraction”.

For me, its timing at dawn and dusk over 10 days tapped into something far deeper than a celebration of sound in all its forms.

The Dark Mofo festival delves into centuries-old winter solstice rituals, exploring the links between ancient and contemporary mythology, humans and nature, religious and secular traditions, darkness and light, and birth, death and renewal.

Humans claim such rituals as their own, but the division of light and dark has been recognised since long before Homo sapiens entered the frame.

The dawn and dusk chorus is nature’s clock, telling the creatures of the wild when to wake and when to sleep, although for nocturnal creatures the sequence is reversed.

With the parameters of day and night cemented in their genes, birds sing loudly at dawn to re-establish bonds and declare territories. And at dusk, they call each other to night roosts, often gathering together for safety in numbers. At no other time of the day are they so vocal.

Birdsong is so important, so vital to birds, that those living in our cities across the globe have been found to be moderating their songs to take into account the loud sounds of the human world, particularly motor traffic.

Blue and great tits in European cities, for instance, sing louder than their counterparts in the country, as I have discovered myself in London.

Birds that use mimicry to enhance their repertoires are also increasingly using sounds from the human world, with lyrebirds now mimicking chain-saws.

I suspect, though, the birds of South Hobart were pleased to welcome the relative silence when Dark Mofo was over and were cocking their ears in a different direction.

A silent prayer for a tree  

Don Bentley and his silver birch had much in common. It had not become apparent at first but over the years Bentley had discovered a symmetry between their lives. They were soul-mates. Bentley had happened on the tree walking to work one morning. At the start of spring he always took a detour through St David’s Park in the heart of Hobart. He found the dappled glades in spring sunshine, and the songs of the birds, calming before the turmoil of the working day.

The park represented an arboretum of European tree species, in the tradition of the Victorian colonial park from the time it was designed, constructed and planted. English-born Bentley had lived in Australia for a decade but he was still drawn to European flora, its changing spring and autumn foliage, its austerity in winter, which gave shape to the seasons.

There was only one native tree in St David’s Park, a blue gum, and on spring days when Bentley’s heart was pulled towards England he thought that was just about right.

And that silver birch. Bentley was from Surrey, the county of the birch and pine which thrived on the sandy soils dumped there by glaciers in pre-history. Bentley recognised the tree immediately, of course, as being from his home county. He thought its situation, standing on its own well away from the other trees, was appropriate because it allowed the features of the tree  – its drooping aspect, silver bark and small, triangular leaves in various shades of green – to stand out among the richer and fuller-leafed foliage of the other deciduous species.

You could say the specimen in St David’s Park was solitary, lonely, in its spacious situation but Bentley would say independent. Much like himself.

When the sun shone strong and hard at the start of the day Don Bentley would set out for work early, to give himself 10 minutes or so to sit in the park. He chose the same seat on these mornings, a wooden, slatted bench that faced south so the early-morning sun cut through the park from the east and set a yellow light on trunks and branches, the full grandeur of the trees rising from their night slumber. On these days the rising sun gave the bark of the birch a pastel-yellow hue, and darkened the clusters of leaves so they looked the bottle green of the bottles of Bentley’s favourite brew, Boag’s.

The great trees of the world – the biggest oaks, elms, chestnuts and, in Australia, eucalypts among them – have been described as nature’s cathedrals. Indeed, the sweeping boughs of the elm are thought to have inspired the Gothic style of architecture. Bentley, though, looked more to fine art. Trees, he would say, set out a stunning array of shapes and colour and beauty on a canvas that was forever changing.

On days when Bentley’s spirits soared to the upper branches of his works of art, trees became not merely decorative art, they were nature’s installations, reaching out to the viewer. They were tactile and asked to be caressed and hugged. They interacted with those that came within their embrace.

Bentley would say his life had a symmetry with the birch but they were also symbiotic. Their lives intertwined on those mornings when he stopped to admire the tree, and took a breath of the cool, scented air that enveloped it. And Bentley would approach the park keepers, to urge them to give his tree extra water on dry days, and a little extra mulch to keep the sun from drying out the moisture around the roots.

The park keepers took more than a casual interest in Bentley, paying him close attention, even at a distance. Who was this man who stood for 10 minutes or so to admire a single tree, talking to it sometimes and wishing it goodbye when he left? In smart suit and tie, Bentley didn’t look like the usual oddballs who sometimes made the park their home, and talked to the trees. He was harmless enough.

Some days, if he had time, Bentley would touch the park’s trees, responding to their invitation to engage them, as he did sometimes at installation art events at Hobart art galleries, if exhibits and artists demanded it. The flaky bark of the birch, curling at the ends, like the hair of a curly-haired child; the beech’s smooth, grey bark like that of  tough, rutted elephant skin; the oak and elm, their soft bark the pliable cork of a  good bottle of Shiraz.

If Bentley had been born a tree he would have liked to have been a silver birch. Bentley had noted in his youth, when flower power and eastern mysticism were all the rage in the 1960s, that some faiths believed humans came back as animals when they died. Bentley didn’t believe it, of course, but if it was true he would specify his ticket back to earth was changed from his favourite animal, the badger, to that of a tree, the birch.

It was a thought that made him smile some mornings, standing there admiring his tree, once to the disquiet of a female jogger hurrying to complete her run before the beginning of the working day.

Eccentric. That was the term the park rangers finally ascribed to Bentley, the man who loved trees, or a tree, with such passion it made him late for work each day. Bentley was well aware of the way the world, or the microcosm of the world contained within the confines of St David’s Park, viewed him. Thirty years previously, when he had worked at the heart of the British newspaper industry, Fleet Street, he had known an Australian who spent his rest days in the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew “touching base”, as the Australian journalist put it, with his homeland through its native trees.

The colleague took Bentley there once to admire wattles and gums, sheoaks and paperbark. The Australian had a favourite, a giant blue gum, and, like Bentley with his birch in St David’s Park, he would stand before it for sometimes 30 minutes or more, as if in prayer.

The Australian might not have known it but he was engaged in a ritual that spanned the history of mankind, and all its peoples. Two African tribes, the Hereros and the Ovambos of Namibia regarded the the leadwood tree (Combretum imberbe Wawra) as the great ancestor of all animals and people and they never walked past it without paying it respect.

Bentley often thought of the Australian when he viewed the lone blue gum in St David’s Park, the tree alone among the “Poms”. The gum could even be a metaphor for the Australian’s transplanted existence in London, as the silver birch was for Bentley’s life in Tasmania. Why was it that humans out of their home environment, the comfortable habitat they knew, found it was trees that drew them home in thought? Trees not only shaped a specific environment but called to something ancient in humans, plumbed the sap of their primordial roots.

In ancient mythology trees were said to link the Earth to the sky. Did ancient people know that trees produced the very air that we breathe? What was obviously known was that trees, along with lesser plants, provided food for not only humans, but the animals humans hunted. Trees had nourished and nurtured the rise of mankind, providing fuel, food, shelter and hiding places.

Bentley was gratified the world was waking up to the importance of trees and forests, or so it seemed from what he read in the press and saw on the television news. Trees were now deemed precious, not just for their beauty, and their capacity to produce oxygen, but their role as carbon sinks in a climate of global warming.

He was pleased to note, too, that a movement had started in his native Britain to compile a list of truly ancient trees. One, the Fontingall yew in Scotland, had been found to be between 3000 and 5000 years of age.

Ancient trees had been recorded in Tasmania, too. A swamp gum in the Florentine Valley in the state’s south-west – an area being logged – had been carbon-dated by researchers to starting its life when Henry VIII was on the throne in England.

It wasn’t that Bentley did not like Australian trees. They had their own beauty. They might not assume striking autumnal plumage before dropping their leaves each winter but the gum and wattle leaves changed in colour during the year when new growth – often in shades of deep reds and maroon, the colour of autumn in Europe and North America – replaced old and worn foliage. And the bark of eucalypt and wattles was as interesting and varied as anything found on European trees. On his rambles in the woodland on the fringe of Hobart, Bentley could see that some bark was shaggy and flaking, some bare and streaked in yellows and pinks, colours that changed when the trunks were washed with rain.

Bentley had always looked to the shape and form of trees, and not their age. The British ancient tree register confirmed that oaks and elms were truly ancient, but Bentley, when he read it, was interested to learn that his silver birch merely had a lifespan of 70 years, the biblical three score and ten of a human. It was another reason to warm to the birch, to find symmetry and symbiosis with it.

Bentley had never aspired to be an oak or elm, the leader of the forest, which put other trees in the shade. Bentley had never considered himself  a leader of men. He had worked as a journalist for 40-odd years, as a reporter and sub-editor, but he had never aspired to the top job, that of editor. He left that to others and was happy to operate just under the canopy, to be a lesser tree in the forest, or the human jungle, of journalism.

Yes, Bentley was a birch. Workman-like and vital without pretension. The birch was the tree to reclaim recently disturbed land and make its contribution before standing aside for others. In its relatively short life it would provide leaf litter and bark debris to nourish the soil. When dead, its rotting core attracted jays looking to hide acorns and provided shade and shelter for oak seeds forgotten by the birds to grow.

Sitting on his park bench some mornings, Bentley often thought that if he was Australian born, and had developed a love for Australian trees as he had done for British ones in his youth, he would have looked to the silver wattle for its inspiration, or the blackwood, or in the rainforest, myrtle and sassafras.

Bentley, on trips to wild, native forest beyond the Hobart suburbs would look up at the towering swamp gums, admire them and acknowledge they were the tallest flowering trees on the planet.  Bentley, though, would still be happy to stand with the sassafras in the shadows.

The eucalypts of the forest might pre-date European history in Australia but Bentley’s birch had a history of its own. A modern history. It was a baby boomer tree, born after World War II when European trees in Australia still had a currency, a value, that they were not given in the 21st century. What Bentley termed the “tree police” would not allow a non-native tree to be planted today for its own sake.

And what had the birch seen out there on Davey Street, adjoining the park, and in the park itself? Joyous crowds celebrating the end of war and new-found freedoms, especially for the post-war generation. Rock-and-rollers taking over the bandstand in the centre of the park, hippies with love-ins in the flowerbeds, flower power and pot among the glades. Soldiers marching off to the Korean and Vietnam wars, protest over dams and then forests. Bentley’s birch was a repository of modern history, as vital as Bentley’s recollection of it.

Yes, a babyboomer tree, a hippy tree, Bentley would say to himself some days, in quiet contemplation of the birch. He and the birch were rooted in place and time on the planet. He could not connect in the same way to the oaks and elms, beeches and poplars which had their own place in time, a place that pre-dated the birch and Bentley.

It so happened in St David’s Park that the elms and oaks were grouped together so their true, sweeping beauty could not be fully appreciated. The park had replaced a pioneer cemetery in the early 1900s and the trees had been planted to line and frame avenues. Conversely, it was the silver birch that stood alone, finding its own space, revealing its own elegance and beauty, so often overlooked in its natural habitat.

The tree over the years remained rich in symbolism for Bentley and each day it seemed that he developed a new connection with it. One morning, Bentley saw the birch as a metaphor for his life in Australia, a country he had made his home after marrying a Tasmanian whom he had met in London. Bentley had grown to love Australia, and the wide horizons stretching from earth to sky that were impossible to contemplate in over-crowded southern England; a place, geographically and socially, Bentley increasingly found to be flat and boring.

Bentley had worked worldwide as a foreign correspondent at various times in his career and his wife’s desire to raise their only child in Australia had given him the chance for one last adventure at the tail-end of his career, at the tail-end of the world.

He still stood alone, however, even after a decade in Australia. He was an Australian citizen all right, meshed with his colleagues in pub talk of footy and cricket (even if during Ashes test he remained the “Pommie bastard”) , and drank their brew, but it was the environment beyond the office, beyond the city, in which Bentley so often felt adrift. It was in woods and forests that he sometimes longed for a birch or elm and the familiar birds and animals that made them their home. And even on city streets some days he could not escape this feeling of homesickness, the song of the blackbird – lusty, rich and vibrant – taking him back to twilight nights in England, or a dewy dawn where spider webs were painted with translucent cool mist.

Sometimes Bentley believed he didn’t belong. It troubled him and on these mornings he sought solace in his communion with his birch.

The birch, if he listened to the tree police, did not belong either but Bentley, after studying it for several years, could argue that it did. The birch might not be native but it made its own contribution to the ecology of the city, a false and distorted one anyway because it relied so much on imported flora and fauna.

The birch, although not as majestic as the hardwoods, still towered a good 20 metres over nearby flowerbeds of rhododendrons, camellias and azaleas and provided a perch some mornings for a hunting grey goshawk. Its layers of leaves were home to insects and in turn attracted grey fantails which danced in its shadow. Catkins brushed with pollen lured new holland and crescent honeyeaters in spring and in autumn dangling lambs’ tail seedpods, the seeds tiny like flakes of ground pepper, provided food for both eastern and green rosellas. The eastern rosellas were a joy to watch and some mornings, when flocks of six or seven birds festooned the tree, the tree itself went unnoticed.

Bentley was approaching his mid-60s, approaching retirement age, and if the birch could speak it would tell him it was also moving from the autumn to the winter of its life.

When Bentley had first learned of the birch’s limited three score and ten longevity, he had looked closely at the tree. The birch showed signs of its age. The trunk appeared sturdy and strong but the boughs were cracked and frayed. In winds, they swayed and creaked and in deep winter, leafless, the birch looked exposed and vulnerable and in pain. Did a birch feel that chill wind, did its boughs ache in an icy blast as Bentley’s bones and joints did? He believed so. The birch’s upper reaches were no longer full and rounded when in leaf in spring and summer. Dead boughs and twigs protruded through the canopy. Its crown was thinning.

Bentley feared for his precious tree when strong spring winds buffeted the city. After one particularly heavy pounding one night, Bentley hurried to the park next morning. Close to his home a poplar had crashed to the ground, broken and tangled and bringing powerlines down with it.

Bentley’s pace quickened. A feeling of dread, of impending loss, stalked him down Davey Street on his route to the park. Hollow. Gut-wrenching. He braced for the worst when he saw a tree-surgeon’s truck inside the park.

And there was the silver birch, spread out before him across the grass. It had come down in the night and the tree cutters had already dissected its trunk. The outer branches lie like roadkill, a plover or raven spread-eagled across the grass, two sections of canopy forming a blanket of wings.
A breeze whipped up a spray of silver bark flakes and yellow sawdust and Bentley, too, felt the murmur of death, its chill breath rustling his leaves.


Wings from the past

I heard it first before its giant shadow fell across me. Not the whoosh of wings you’d think an eagle would make, as it strikes for the kill, dagger talons outstretched. This was more a rustle of feathers, like the whisper of a gentle breeze brushing the grass of a paddock, or the canopy of the rainforest. With slow, deliberate flaps of its wings, the eagle bent its head to observe my every move, not more than 10 metres above me. Its eyes were firmly fixed on mine.

I felt that I could reach out and touch it.

Two metres of wingspan and a ferocious beak just above my head: I was unnerved. I ducked and felt the urge to run, but I stood my ground, gazing up at this giant bird, a combination of fear and awe rooting me to the spot.

As the eagle passed above me I expected it to merely fly on but, rising slightly, it splayed its wings, the outer long, delicate feathers trembling in the wind. It had angled into the breeze coming in off the Southern Ocean to the west; hovering above me, seemingly motionless, swaying and pitching to keep in balance.

A few days earlier I had headed to Tasmania’s wild north-west to get up close and personal to nature, but this was a little too close, and a little too personal. It was one of those moments when, despite a shelf-load of birding field guides back home, you realise that at heart you are an urban animal. Your habitat is the cosiness of the suburb.

It was lonely out there. I was three kilometres from the nearest road and at least 10 from the nearest human home but I had felt someone, something, watching me. I scanned the spiky, untidy coastal heathland for eyes, or ears. A wallaby, perhaps, or possum or pademelon.

All the while, high above and hidden in the glare of the sun, a wedge-tailed eagle followed. The male eagle had picked me out, stalked me and now snuck up behind me, from the direction I had come.

A bird from the past.

The sighting of an eagle had not entered my thoughts when I set out to walk the trail south from Marrawah towards the Arthur River. Tasmanian devils had been my focus and I was in the north-west to spend time on a farm where it is possible to watch devils at war and peace at night.

Something planned and expected, though, is not the same as something coming, literally, out of the blue. Not that “wedgies’’ are new to me, a new bird for my checklist of birds spotted. I see them frequently crossing the Hobart suburb where I live. There I gaze in wonder without a tinge of nervousness. On broad wings they cross the sky between the two valleys framing my home, untroubled by angry forest ravens that rise to send them on their way.

The wedgie brings that place we call “the wild’’ to our suburb. The eagle is the lush-green pasture in spring, the snow-capped peak in winter, the mountain scree coated with early-morning frost. The eagle is the swaying swamp gum, a tumbling stream in the rainforest. The eagle is a winged wonder that lifts our spirits, urges us to fly with it, it distracts us on our way to the office, to tell us that life exists beyond the computer screen, beyond the pressures that rule the human daily life.

Today the eagle may be symbolic of that world beyond the picket fence, the hedgerow and car port but in other ages it has carried a different kind of symbolism on its broad wings.

When Aborigines and eagles shared these lands, the silhouette of the eagle was etched into every horizon. In some Aboriginal cultures, the eagle was written into the night sky, the stars of the Southern Cross depicting a talon or the eagle itself.

The Aborigines who walked this track before me had known the eagle. It would have followed them, too, casting them in its shadow. It had been a witness to Aboriginal history for more than 40,000 years; fraternity and unity in a hard place by the sea. It would have followed them on their journeys south to trade for the hard rock to make their tools and weapons, and their migration inland when the fish weren’t running, or seals to be hunted had not come.

Before the eagle appeared on my walk I had seen evidence of Aboriginal settlement all around me. There were deep depressions in banks of sea-polished stones where Aboriginal hunters had lain in wait to ambush seals. There were hut hollows on raised ground just above the beach where the first Australians anchored shelters of bent tea-tree branches and kangaroo hides. The vantage point gave them a sweeping view of rock pool and beach, so they could watch over their children playing in the ocean, or watch for enemies.

The eagle witnessed modern human history, too; the arrival of the first European explorers, and pioneers and settlers. George Augustus Robinson, charged with rounding up the last of the Aborigines for transhipment to islands in Bass Strait, passed this way, as did his fellow traveller, Truganini, believed to be the last full-blood Tasmanian Aborigine.

I had spent a restless night at Kings Run near Marrawah, a former cattle property that is now a tourism venture operated by Geoff King who introduces visitors to not only the world of the endangered Tasmanian devil but the wider, beautiful environment in which they live in this part of the world.

The 214ha property of coastal heathland, tussock grass and sedge is washed on one side by wild ocean and after watching devils most of the night, and then being kept awake by their fighting under the hut in which I was sleeping, I had risen at dawn to go in search of birds.

I had in mind white-fronted chats combing the seashore for food, sooty oystercatchers on the rocks and, in the coastal heath, tawny-crowned honeyeaters. An eagle was not on my radar.

The wedgie had stayed with me for 20 minutes, before appearing to lose interest. At last it allowed the sea breeze to lift it higher, the eagle veering out over the wild ocean, then banking to come around in a wide sweep, a silhouette against the sun, and in a blink it was gone.

The thought occurred to me that Geoff King feeds roadkill to eagles, as he does devils on the nights be operates his Kings Run devil viewing spectacle, and a little later when he came to pick me up in his ute I mentioned the eagle sighting, still excited by it.

He doesn’t feed eagles and described his own encounters with them when he drove cattle on horseback. They would follow him for hours. No doubt the rumble of hundreds of cattle on the move, the pounding of horse shoes in the dry earth, would have flushed wallabies and pademelons, and smaller marsupials for the eagles to swoop on.

The King family who settled these lands in the late 19th century introduced cattle, and later drove the herds 300 kilometres south to the booming mining settlement of Queenstown. Geoff King remembers the cattle runs in their later stages, when the distances were not so vast, trains taking the cattle to the miners from railheads in the north. As if drawn back to these times, by talk of eagles and horses, he tells me to “mount up’’ when it’s time to climb into his ute to leave.

Before the cattle runs, Aboriginal hunters would have also disturbed and flushed animals and provided an added bonus for the eagles: discarded carcasses of skin and bone for the eagles to scavenge. Certainly Geoff King has encountered problems with eagles stealing the roadkill he has put aside for the devil “restaurant “ at night.

I wanted to believe the eagle encounter was spiritual, we were fellow travellers meeting on a mysterious, magical journey. It was something of a letdown to discover I was merely a meal ticket. There was a bond, though; a fraternity. The meeting of eagle and man had started 40,000 years ago and over the millennia the knowledge that man could provide food directly and indirectly had been planted and locked in the eagle’s DNA. In that time the eagle had learned humans were not a threat, they were not to be feared.

A bond that had survived for eons, that had pre-dated the last ice age, had been broken in the past 200 years when settlers from Europe came to these lands. Suddenly the eagle was seen as an enemy and paid the price. It was hunted mercilessly, and killed in its thousands, across the entire continent.

The eagle had gotten a bad press and a price was on its head in bounty payments for the harm it did, supposedly, to the sheep industry.

Tales of eagle slaughter and carnage are commonplace, and horrific. I remember seeing an ABC documentary on sheep barons in Queensland, lamenting the break-up of their vast properties on government directive. The footage had scenes of the graziers enjoying the good times in the 1950s, barbeques and country horse race meetings. It also showed an eagle cull: farmers beating eagles to death with baseball bats. The eagles had been ensnared in foot traps as carcass bait. In Tasmania poisoning was the preferred method of eagle control. The latter method was also used to kill Tasmanian devils.

Many farmers maintain to this day that eagles take live lambs in great number, although research does not bear this out. The fact that eagles are frequently seen on sheep carcasses does not prove they were the actual instruments of death for these farm animals. Because there are no vultures on the Australian continent, the wedge-tail eagle, together with being a skilful and powerful hunter, fills the niche of scavenger.

The Tasmanian sub-species of wedge-tailed eagle is Australia’s biggest with a wingspan that can reach 2.5 metres but it is endangered, with only between 200 and 230 breeding pairs left in the wild. At present the mortality rate from accidents is outstripping the reproduction rate, putting the eagles in peril in the near term.

Eagles bring out the best and worst in people, especially so in the modern Australia.

Tasmanian eagles meeting turbulence in man’s world, either maimed on farms or on roads, once found themselves receiving a little tender, loving care at Risdon Prison from some of the state’s most hardened criminals.

An irresistible metaphor took flight when the Parks and Wildlife Service set up a raptor rehabilitation centre within the grounds of the prison: the raptors behind bars longing for the open skies, to fly free without restriction. Release for rehabilitated eagles came much quicker for the raptors than for most of their carers.

When the prison aviary was closed a few years back, to allow redevelopment and expansion of the jail, an individual who loves birds of prey provided the eagles with a new home, building a set of the biggest aviaries in the southern hemisphere with discarded fish-farm nets, to give injured eagles a fighting chance.

Rehabilitated wedge-tailed and sea eagles are now released, with the aid of a band of volunteers, at the rate of about six a year.

Today in a more enlightened age the eagle is not so misunderstood and maligned. More people now want to see it crossing their skies than see it killed.

Evidence of shooting and poisoning, and acts of vandalism to nests, are becoming less frequent but as one threat dies another emerges. Eagles fall victim to increasing traffic on Tasmanian roads, and die flying into powerlines. The emergence of wind-farms poses a new threat, with eagles increasingly coming to grief in the wind-farm turbines.
* * * * *

On the drive back to Hobart from Marrawah I notice a sign I didn’t see on the outward journey, a plea to drivers to watch out for eagles feeding on roadkill along a stretch of road near Smithton.  And as soon as I have parked the car in the car port of my home, I look for eagles in the sky. In the garden I establish a lesser connection with the wild, lesser in size if not significance. As I walk, scattering leaves that have fallen on the lawn, a grey fantail seeks me out and follows me. He hunts the insects disturbed by my plodding feet, his long, fanned tail in a shuttlecock. Then a male fairy-wren flits in to join the fantail in a merry dance as they scamper across the lawn in chase of insects, rising and swooping in a theatrical dive on gnats and mosquitos. In the sunlight filtered through the overhanging wattles, it is a glorious sight.

My thoughts, however, remain in Marrawah. They are with the lone eagle and my fleeting, symbiotic connection with it, a connection that I still believe is not of science and circumstance but of the soul. I recall in fine detail each of the precious minutes the eagle stayed with me, before it drifted to the east, rising higher, until it was suddenly gone.

It had come from the past and was, hopefully, flying into the future.


Emotion and the orange-bellied parrot

Dawn breaks over Bathurst Harbour as if it’s being sketched in charcoal by the hand of an artist. Distant mountains etched in fine strokes from a sharpened pencil, smudged here and there to portray mist. Hills between mountain and shore in darker shades and rainforest hugging the waters’ edge drawn vertically in a rougher, heavier hand.

It’s barely light as I lie in my bunk bed with a view over the stern of the luxury tourist vessel, the Odalisque, moored in a sheltered spot at Clayton’s Corner mid-way along a body of water three times the size of Sydney Harbour.

Too early for the black currawongs to utter their trumpet call, or the sooty oystercatchers to pipe in the new day, but as the birds finally start up Mother Nature mixes the colours of the morning on her palette. Buttongrass glows mossy now, peppermint gum along the shores are transformed into shades of green and tranquil waters first seen at dawn as uneven sheets of tinfoil reflect the dazzling blue of the sky.

I’m lying in my bunk bed aboard the Odalisque trying not to get emotional, even if the day before, as a bird-watching tragic, I had realised a life-long ambition to see an orange-bellied parrot in its natural habitat, nine kilometres to the south at Melaleuca. Emotion would be a bad look to present to the rugged skipper and owner of the Odalisque, Pieter van der Woude, and the equally rugged tour guide, Peter Marmion, to say nothing of my fellow passengers, a party of travel journalists.

I’m overwhelmed, though, by the beauty of it all. I feel a little foolish now that my interest in this pristine part of the world, a place where wilderness is spelt with a capital W, had been centred just on one species of bird. I’d never looked to the broader horizon, never known that the Port Davey Marine Reserve, which embraces Bathurst Harbour, is so vast, untrammelled and mountainous.

How do you describe it, portray it in all its glory and uniqueness? I look at the photographs I have taken and they are not enough. Only an artist can bring this area to life. To write my story about the Odalisque and the window it opens on this precious part of the world I look for art-world metaphors.

A voyage through the channels, inlets and bays of Bathurst Harbour is in fact like a visit to an art gallery, with each picture, in each room opening up a fresh image. It’s the Louvre, or the Tate, or even the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) in Hobart, if the region’s natural beauty combined with human eccentricities are taken into account. The legend of tin miner, naturalist and painter Deny King is here, along with tales of Win and Clyde Clayton eking out a living from a fishing boat moored close to their hand-built wooden home, which is now a museum. And there’s the story of Critchley Parker, who in an effort to impress his Jewish lover trekked into the area shortly after World War II with a dream of establishing a Jewish homeland there, “a new Jerusalem”. When he vanished from view searchers found his body in his tent pitched among the buttongrass and sprengelia. He had starved to death.

Although the Odalisque, operated by Tasmanian Boat Charters, is at the high-end of tourist travel with chefs on board borrowed from the best restaurants in Hobart – in our case Zac Matthews – to provide five-star cuisine, the ethos of Peter van der Woude is to provide a floating base for a genuine wilderness experience.

This is not wilderness in the abstract, viewed from a helicopter or a plane, or luxury hotel room. During this experience the wild can be heard, smelled and touched. The Odalisque does not provide a cruise around Bathhurst Harbour as such. There is no set itinerary. Guests are free to choose what they want to do – whether viewing the pioneer cultural and historical sites around Melaleuca, Aboriginal walks to explore the history of the ancient Needwonnee people of the south-west through rock paintings and ochre mines, or taking the many hiking trails up hill and mountain – “getting your feet wet,’’ as Pieter van der Woude puts it. Specific interests – perhaps botany or bird-watching – can be catered for by the hand-picked guides with years of experience in the area.

A trip on the Odalisque also provides an escape from an increasingly fast-paced world.

“This is a digital detox,” says van der Woude. “You can put your smart phone away – we are out of range anyway – and tell people you will be totally out of touch for a few days.”

The Tasmanian Liberal government is setting in motion plans to open up the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area to increased levels of tourism, and various proposals are under discussion. There are fears that some ideas might compromise the definition of wilderness. The Odalisque is never in danger of doing this. Guests, for instance, are ferried to shore in dinghies so not even jetties – I only saw one beyond the pontoon at Melaleuca – intrude.

The Odalisque also takes out what it brings in, and so its footprint is merely a gentle wake in still waters.

Although my orange-bellied parrot experience proved to be a personal highlight, I soon came to put it in a broader context of emotion. Within a few hours of seeing the critically-endangered parrot after arriving on a Par-Avion flight from Hobart, we were ferried by dinghy along the Melaleuca Inlet to board the Odalisque itself. After lunch we were climbing the 276-metre Mt Beattie with its stunning view of Bathurst Harbour stretching south. It was one of several walks during the trip, including a hike to discover Critchley Parker’s resting place, his grave and marble plaque marked out by the quartzite of the surrounding mountains.

On the last night we moored close to where the harbour meets the Southern Ocean, screened by a range of islands appropriately named The Breakwaters.

Glasses of champagne in hand, we watched the sun set between two rocky islands to the west. Vistas during the day, bathed in soft sunshine, could have been painted by John Glover and now a stabbing orange light from the setting sun brought the wild hand of Brett Whiteley into play. We toasted the sunset and lingered until a crescent moon and stars appeared. Another room in nature’s gallery opened, and the Southern Cross called to us as strongly as Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night.

Cuckoo reluctant to leave

The far-carrying, trilling call of a fan-tailed cuckoo rang out across the Waterworks Valley. It’s a constant refrain in the summer months but this was at the start of winter.

Was it a fan-tail choosing to make an ultra-late departure for its wintering grounds on the mainland or one choosing to take its chances and brave the Tasmanian winter.

Certainly a cold snap earlier in the month of May had given the cuckoo every incentive to leave.

It’s not the first time I have heard a fan-tailed cuckoo in winter, and indeed the fan-tails were the first of the migrants to arrive in my home valley ahead of spring last year,  beating another early arrival, the striated pardalote, by a few days in the last week of winter.

The fan-tail is one of four species of cuckoo (there are 17 Australian family members) to visit Tasmania, the others being the pallid and shining and Horsefield’s bronze-cuckoos.

The fan-tail appears to be the most common, certainly in my valley, and I must confess I feel a sense of relief when its stops singing along with the others at the end of the breeding season at the end of February.

I’m not a fan of cuckoos, especially the fan-tail, which because of its intermediate size is able to exploit a whole range of nests, from the dome, forest-floor constructions of the fairy-wrens to the open, tiny cup nests of the pink robins hidden in dogwood.

Every time I hear their calls and songs I know the cuckoos’ anti-social work is at play. They out-source parenting, of course, laying a single egg in the nests of other birds.

The cuckoo chick grows rapidly, using its large yellow-gaped beak to demand an uneven delivery of food normally shared through a brood. Then the cuckoo chick manoeuvres its body to eject its “siblings” from the nest, or merely suffocates them below its larger body.

As if the thought of that is not bad enough, the most disheartening sight to my eyes is seeing the harried parents feeding the outsized chick. Last summer I saw a pair of black-headed honeyeaters flying to and fro to a belligerent pallid cuckoo chick, the honeyeaters only about a third of the cuckoo’s size.

By coincidence, a day after hearing the calling cuckoo I read an account in a British newspaper expressing joy at the arrival of the first cuckoo of spring.

The cruel European winter cannot really be considered to be over until the onomatopoeic call of the European cuckoo – the only species to visit Britain – is heard, and for more than a hundred years there has been a tradition of readers of The Times of London announcing its arrival on the newspaper’s letters  page.

The cuckoo, however, has carried a more sombre message in recent years. Cuckoos are increasingly failing to arrive from their wintering grounds in Africa, the clearing of native woodland and drought thought to be the reason.

So when the cuckoo calls, Britons can be forgiven for putting its anti-social behaviour at the back of their minds.

Students tackle lorikeet menace

A group of students from Hobart College certainly demonstrated they were out to make a difference at a World Environment Day event earlier this month.

Their “A Fair Go for Swifties” presentation attracted a big crowd at the Hobart Sustainability Learning Centre, during which the students laid out plans for not only monitoring populations of the critically-endangered swift parrot but an invasive bird species, the rainbow lorikeet

More than 80 students at the college have this year volunteered for the Student Environment Team (SET) and, after first tackling such green initiatives as Clean Up Australia Day, the teenagers have settled on their most ambitious project to date.

With the parrot project they are fortunate to be working with a conservation biologist from the Australian National University, Dr Dejan Stojanovic, who is leading the campaign to save the swift parrot and devising ways to keep numbers of the introduced rainbow lorikeet under control.

Dr Stojanovic is training the SET team members to be effective citizen scientists, working towards a paper on the collaborative results gained from their research. Hobart College has been awarded two grants to help with the Fair Go for Swifties Unwanted Rainbow Lorikeets Project. The largest, from Natural Resource Management South, provides $7000 to assist with building more than 50 rainbow lorikeet nesting boxes and developing data bases and technology equipment to make accurate field observations.

The college’s Information technology students gave presentations during World Environment Day on how members of the public could contribute to the data bases and also showed examples of the specially-designed nesting boxes they have designed to aid parrot nesting success.

Nest boxes have also been designed to trap rainbow lorikeets – which compete with swift parrots for nesting cavities – so they can be destroyed humanely.

Dr Stojanovic said during the event the rainbow lorikeet, which is native to south-eastern and eastern Australia, could also pose a serious problem to farmers and fruit growers if left unchecked.

The researcher said the lorikeets had already caused serious problems in Western Australia, where they had also been introduced.

Dr Stojanovic said that he is concerned that the same scenario might play out in Tasmania.

“We’re quite worried that in Tasmania they might have a quite serious impact on the grapes and the fruit growing industries that occur around the areas where they now live,” he said.

The rainbow lorikeet – a beautiful parrot which as its names suggests incorporates the colours of the rainbow in its plumage – is mainly confined to the Kingston area at present but it is slowly extending its range. There is another isolated population in the north-west of the state.

Another concern is that the rainbow lorikeet might interbreed with a closely-related parrot which occurs naturally in Tasmania, the musk lorikeet. Already hybrid birds are being seen in the greater Hobart area.

Dr Stojanovic said that while the lorikeet population is small, the best strategy is eradication rather than containment

“At this stage, since it’s early in the invasion process, eradication is a real possibility,” he said.

Dr Stojanovic said that while the lorikeet population was small, the best strategy was  eradication rather than containment.

Birds unite people across the globe

No two places have the same birds and that, partly, is the magic of birdwatching. Travel short distances and the birds change, as do the people who watch and study them. Birds are not merely inspiring creatures, filling us with wonder and awe as we observe them in our gardens or contemplate their remarkable trans-continental journeys. Their global presence gives birds the power to unite people across the globe in appreciation of their beauty. They bring birders together across cultures, languages, and international borders. 

The worldwide interest in birds is now celebrated by an event called the Global Big Bird Day in which teams of birders across six continents compete over 24 hours to see who can see the most species

On May 13 this year, almost 20,000 birders from 150 countries around the world joined together as a global team, contributing more than 50,000 checklists containing 6564 species—more than 60 per cent of the world’s birds. This is a new record for the number of bird species reported in a single day from the time the competition was started three years ago.

Four countries topped 1000 species for the tally: Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia. In past years Brazil and Peru had always vied for the Number 1 slot but in 2017 there was a new champion: Colombia.

With 1486 species on a single day, the organisation of the Colombia team was impressive, reporting almost 2500 complete checklists—and close to 15 per cent of the world’s birds. Peru (1338 species), Ecuador (1259), and Brazil (1079) were not far behind.

The contest is skewed, of course, because some countries have more species than others, but it is also possible to give countries ratings on the percentage of birds they found out of their national total.

On this score, Australia fared well. This year’s 487 species – out of a national total of about 900 – came from about 350 people, covering all states from Tasmania to the Top End. Tasmania – with just 350 species – was never in the running for the top score within Australia. This was achieved in Queensland where 144 species were tallied on the day but Tasmania stood out in the tally – more endemic species recorded than anywhere else.

What it lacks in number Tasmania makes up with its 12 species found nowhere else on earth – plus the critically endangered, migratory orange-bellied and swift parrots – and these are attracting increasing numbers of both mainland and international birders to these shores.

The hobby of birdwatching is booming worldwide and with it an associated spending on equipment and travel. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service estimates there are 46 million American birdwatchers, putting US$46m into the economy, including on travel. A Caribbean Tourism Organisation survey estimates at least three million tourists travelling the globe have birds in their sights, and West Indian nations are mounting campaigns to attract them to their islands.

The Global Big Bird Day plugs into this growing interest in birdwatching and countries and states with unique birds, like Tasmania, are in a perfect position to obtain a slice of the birding pie.