April 27, 2018

A column for all seasons

Everyone has a story about birds. They are all about us and are our contact point with nature. The birds I see are usually in an urban environment and so I concentrate on these in my writing. I don’t pretend to be an expert but birds of the city and suburb are also the ones that most people identify with, the species you do not need a compass and binoculars to seek out. A scarlet robin singing in a garden is just as exiting as a swift parrot in an ancient forest and is worth just as many words in my On the Wing writings.

Scoop! News from the parrot front

William Boot, the bumbling war correspondent in the satirical novel about journalism, Scoop, and I have much in common. Or so I have been told by readers of “On the wing”.

Although I’ve tried to develop the image of a cool, jet-setting journalist – at least during my younger days – I’ve never quite escaped the shadow of William Boot, the nature writer for the Daily Beast who found himself sent to Africa to cover human conflict by mistake.

Notebook in hand, sharp pencil at the ready, and keeping an eye out for the neatest telex machine, I thought I had a “hold the front page” persona far removed from the dithering, confused and lost Boot during my own days covering wars in Africa. But Boot stalked me at every turn.

It was after all the lure of birds, and elephant, rhino and lion, which landed me on the Dark Continent in the first place and, strangely, a meeting with the man whose own deeds in northern Africa had inspired the Boot character. William Deedes, the editor of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, had come to the then Rhodesia to witness himself the last of Africa’s colonial wars.

Sipping gin-and-tonics with Deedes in Salisbury’s historic Meakles Hotel, it occurred to me at that time that Evelyn Waugh had displayed a spark of comic genius to make a nature writer the butt of satirical jokes about the world of journalism in the 1930s, and the nature of war.

The war correspondent, and conversely the nature columnist, had been the mainstay of the newspaper content in troubled times since the advent of the newspaper as we know it today in the Victorian age. And although the nature column had gone out of fashion in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as newspapers struggled in the age of television and later the internet, it was now making a comeback. So much so that the Guardian in Britain is not only publishing its century-old country diary each day, but some of those columns going back 100 years.

The Mercury itself employed the “Peregrine”, Michael Sharland, for 60 years before he retired in the mid-1980s and are happy for me to continue the tradition. But I don’t think the erudite Sharland was ever compared with William Boot.

My latest Boot episode came on a day when I was being a little more intrepid than usual. I had escaped my suburban environment to travel to the south-west wilderness in search of the orange-bellied parrot.

At that moment I was ecstatic, ticking off the bird at last after searching for it over several winters the hard way – unsuccessfully seeking the tiny parrot in its wintering grounds on the mainland.

As I waited on the remote quartzite runway at Melaleuca for the flight back to Hobart, a reader of the Mercury recognised me, saying: “You don’t look a bit like Boot!”

I wasn’t so sure. My thoughts were still with the parrot and the journalist inside me wanted to cry out “scoop” in celebration at finally seeing the bird.


A fantail in safe hands

Somewhere out in the great blue yonder a grey fantail is carrying an identification tag which might in time shed new light on the remarkable migration of our birds.

The fantail was given a leg band as part of a banding exercise In the Waterworks Reserve late last year, supervised by banding expert Catherine Young.

Although banding – or ringing as bird researchers describe it in my native Britain – is commonplace on the mainland, banders are few and far between in Tasmania.

Catherine is hoping this situation can be changed, so more birds travelling within, and from without, Tasmania reveal their mysterious movements.

On the day in question, five fantails, a brown thornbill and a crescent honeyeater were caught in mist nets strung up at two locations in thick bush at the southern end of the reserve.

The birds remained remarkably calm as they were disentangled from the fine netting and placed in a pouch so they could be taken to one of the BBQ sites in the reserve to be weighed and measured, and have the bands attached.

It might be stressful and traumatic for the birds at first but they are soon set free and, as I’ve noticed from witnessing previous banding exercises, the experience has no adverse or lasting effects. The tiny band itself is so lightweight and unobtrusive on the leg that the birds do not notice it is there.

The bands are applied by gentle and skilled hands and those birders wanting  to become banders have to undergo intensive training, and be registered. This explains why banders tend to be a rare breed.

The individual bands come in coils issued by the Australian Bird and Bat Banding Scheme and each one has a unique number so birds can be easily identified if and when they are recovered. Anyone recovering a banded bird simply has to notify the banding authority, giving the time and place. This information can be matched with information supplied by the bander and entered into a national data base. Recovered birds might also be weighed and measured,  as in the practice at the banding site.

Banding programs worldwide have traditionally been the main source of information about bird migration but in recent years the fitting of transmitters on migratory birds has enabled birds to be actually tracked during their incredible journeys.

Although the latter method of surveillance has provided headline news about long-distance journeys – the fact, for instance, that bar-tailed godwits can fly more than 7000 kilometres nonstop – banding still remains the bread-and-butter method of plotting the movement of birds.

The problem with the latter, though, is that birds dead or alive have to be recovered and only a tiny fraction of bands are ever found.

I’ve often stood in awe, on four continents, as the banders have gone about their business but it is something I’ve never tried myself.

I’m notoriously ham-fisted and I’d hate to contemplate the fate of, say, a fragile fantail in my grip, pliers in hand. That’s one of the facets of bird study I’ll leave to the nimble-fingered experts.

Striated pardalote leaves it late

The birds were scurrying for cover as a cold blast roared in from the south-west, rain falling in diagonal grey stripes from behind kunanyi/Mount Wellington.

Among them I was surprised to see a straited pardalote, a summer migrant who should have been well on the way to Bass Strait and crossing to the mainland by mid-autumn.

If the tiny pardalote had been in any doubt about the time to leave, the threat of snow on the high country would have finally spurred he or she on their way.

A pardalote so late in the season was not the only surprise. Scanning the shrubs and trees on one of my favourite walks, the first part of the Lenah Valley Track out of the Springs to Sphinx Rock, I caught sight of two juvenile scarlet robins.

The robins are common on the higher slopes of the mountain in spring and summer where pairs establish breeding territories, but when the weather turns colder in autumn they return to warmer wintering habit nearer the coast.

In autumn, beyond recording the departures of the summer visitors, I also take stock of what young have been produced during the year.

It’s always reassuring to see young birds on the wing, with the promise they will become parents themselves and keep the avian showcase alive and kicking for the next season, and beyond.

And here were two young scarlet robins and, more importantly, young of different ages. They were from two broods, probably from the same pair of successful breeders.

The flame robins are familiar to me from this section of track because I have monitored them there for many years. They even feature in my book, The Shy Mountain, in which I described their efforts one season to avoid the attentions of fan-tailed cuckoos, which use the robins as surrogate parents along with other species.

The juvenile scarlet robins, dropping from branch and rock perches to feed on insects, were clearly independent parents but some young were still relying on their parents for food.

A travelling party of silvereyes, like the pardalotes making a late departure for the mainland, made their way north around the escarpment forming Sphinx Rock, finding insects in clumps of blanket-bush as they went. The adults had juveniles with them, the young birds in scruffy brown plumage and still to gain the distinctive russet flanks that separates Tassie silvereyes from those of the south-west mainland in their winter grounds of southern Queensland.

And the young of non-migrants were out and about. A male and female yellow-tailed black cockatoo, with a youngster in tow, flew over my head before alighting in the upper branches of a gum-topped stringybark.

The youngster, with an incessant whining, demanded the grubs the adult cockies were plucking from a dead upper branch of the tree, and the parents obliged.

Another young bird on the wing, to join the flock of myriad species that grace our woods and forests, and paddocks, in all seasons. I watch in wonder, feeling a part of it all.

Freckled duck finds sanctuary in Tasmania

Australia’s rarest waterfowl, the freckled duck, has made a welcome return to the wetlands of the Derwent with two being spotted at Goulds Lagoon, Austins Ferry, earlier this month.

It was with pure coincidence that a species endemic to Australia should arrive just as the duck hunting season was opening in the state.

I’ve seen the freckled duck on several occasions at Goulds Lagoon after I first added it to my checklist of birds spotted in 2013.  On that occasion, I had dashed to the reserve on hearing the news of the arrival of a small flock of the ducks, one of only a handful of sightings in Tasmania since records began after European settlement in the early 1800s.

Freckled ducks have been at the centre of controversy on the mainland this year with BirdLife Australia successfully campaigning for the closure to hunters of several wetlands in Victoria where the ducks occur.

The birding organisation had argued that in past years freckled ducks had been shot by hunters, even though they are wholly protected.

Because of their rarity in Tasmania, freckled ducks are unlikely to fall in the sights of Tasmanian duck hunters, although I would not want to suggest that local shooters target birds outside of the five species that are allowed to be hunted during the season. These are chestnut teal, grey teal, wood duck, Australian shelduck (mountain duck) and Pacific black duck.

The freckled duck is certainly uncommon on the mainland with an estimated population of less than 20,000. They breed in the areas around the Lake Eyre Basin, western NSW and south-west Queensland, often after flooding. After successful breeding years they move out of their breeding areas as the interior dries, seeking better conditions. If drought persists they irrupt into coastal areas, some flying as far south as Tasmania.

Unfortunately, these irruptions often coincide with the wildfowl shooting season in the states where hunting is allowed. These include South Australia along with Victoria and Tasmania.

It’s easy to understand why these shy, beautiful ducks win the hearts of birders, even though they are not as colourful as some other species that attract the eye. As their name suggests, freckled ducks have a freckled pattern over their entire grey-brown bodies ­- they are also called oatmeal ducks – and are also distinguished by a slightly crested head and a bill  in the shape of a dish. In the breeding season the males have a bright red area between nostrils and forehead on the upper mandible.

These dabbling ducks are unusual in having a feeding method called “suzzling”. The word refers to the action of filter feeding, where the duck sucks particles into the bill tip and expels water near the bill base, as it feeds on seeds and small crustaceans.

Quotas for duck hunting in Tasmania are based on the apparent abundance of the five listed  species but BirdLife Tasmania argues these figures can be inflated by duck arrivals from the mainland, especially in times of severe drought.

The amateur has their place in science

Over the years I have been proud to declare myself a “citizen scientist” when I‘ve gone out to monitor bird numbers in places as far-flung as New York City, or the Glenorchy rubbish tip.

The subject was seagulls on both occasions and although gulls might be considered by many a humble and non-attractive species I was happy to do my bit in the interests of research into their habits and numbers.

I may have been making a mistake, however, proclaiming myself a citizen scientist.

According to the doyen of bird monitoring in Tasmania, Mike Newman, I and all the other thousands of birdwatchers who take part in bird surveys across Australia should proclaim we are merely enthusiastic but dedicated amateurs making a contribution to the science of ornithology in our own way.

We should not tread on the true scientists’ toes, or at least give the impression that we might have more expertise.

Dr Newman, one of only three Tasmanians to be awarded a life membership of BIrdLife Australia, discussed the role of the amateur when he gave the keynote address at the annual meeting of the national organisation’s local affiliate, BirdLife Tasmania earlier this month.

The “rebranding” of the term citizen scientist came as a disappointment to me. I was never interested in science at school, never went to university and started life as a messenger boy in the world of journalism, so to carry the “scientist” label had given me much pride.

The “amateur” carries a sense of the eccentric about it too but, then again, anyone who dodges muggers In Spanish Harlem on Manhattan to count numbers of laughing gulls, or braves icy winds at the Glenorchy tip on a winter’s day to survey silver and kelp gulls must be considered eccentric, if not mad.

Dr Newman’s point is that a line can be drawn between the work of the amateur and the profession of ornithologist, if not a rigid one.

The scientist might consider the surveys compiled by the amateurs as “grey literature” as opposed to the peer-reviewed publications of the professional researchers but the former still provides vital and unique information for scientific research.

As Dr Newman pointed out there was much cross-pollination between the scientists and the amateur.

“The amateurs need expert help, and the professionals desire data,” he said.

Mr Newman has been involved with monitoring Tasmanian birds over a period of 50 years,  about the same time the first systematic annual surveys of Tasmanian wading birds started, the oldest data sets in Australia.

The convener of BirdLIfe Tasmania,  Dr Eric Woehler, said the Tasmanian records went back way before monitoring became – dare I saw it – more professional with dedicated surveys in defined areas. The Tasmanian records – approaching 1.6 million of them – in fact extend to the 1840s when the pioneers and settlers started to jot down their bird sightings at random, including those of the “stump bird”, the dusky robin that was noted as perching on the stumps of cleared trees.

A precious space under threat

The autumnal sun shone hard and bright when a flock of tiny silvereyes started out on its epic migratory journey.

From my vantage point atop Rosny Hill on the Eastern Shore I watched about 20 birds, male and female with young in tow, fluttering north in undulating flight cross the wide expanse of the Derwent River below me.

Soon they became mere dots and I was pleased the young peregrine falcon which had patrolled the airspace above the Tasman Bridge last autumn and winter was not around to notice them.

The silvereyes, smaller than a sparrow, would only have provided the falcon with a snack anyway, nothing as substantial as his usual meal of starlings plucked from the skies.

The silvereyes earlier this month were heading for their wintering grounds on the New South Wales-Queensland border and the reserve was a convenient launch point, or stopover if they had come from further south, on such a long journey because it forms one of a series of important staging posts along their migratory flyway. The silvereyes were heading in the direction of the Domain over the river, and from there they would island-hop forested hills all the way to Bass Strait, before making the crossing.

I had gone to the Rosny Hill Nature Recreational Area not only to watch silvereyes but record the other birds it had to offer, at the urging of the Rosny Hill Friends Network.

The group is concerned about a proposed hotel development on the hill, and how it will impact on the native flora and fauna. I promised to draw up a bird list for them, and have now been persuaded to lead a bird walk there on  Sunday, March 18, starting 9.30am, to which everyone is invited.

The Friends make the point that the hill not only forms part of the flyway for migrating birds but is also home to resident ones like the endemic yellow-throated honeyeater and musk lorikeets and eastern rosellas I saw there on the day.

I’d only been to the reserve once before, taken there many years ago by my late mother-in-law, and I now feel regret that is has been off my radar for two decades.

Beyond the birds, and flora like mature white gums and leafy sun-orchids, the look-out on the hill offers a splendid panorama of the city, the best from the Eastern Shore.

The Friends would welcome a small restaurant/cafe at the summit car park but feel the proposed 100-room hotel, incorporating a 200 seat-conference centre and indoor swimming pool, is a step too far for a public space. They are mounting a vigorous campaign to stop it.

The former Parks and Wildlife reserve now falls under the control of Clarence Council which has rezoned the site, allowing for the hotel development but at the same time incorporating a smaller nature reserve around the base of the hill.

As the silvereyes slowly make their way to Queensland, the fight between local residents and council goes on.

Where are all the eagles?

In the great wide world of wildlife, nothing in Tasmania compares with the sight of wedge-tailed eagles riding the thermals. They are truly awe-inspiring, with majestic statistics to match. The “wedgie” is the fourth biggest eagle in the world and the distinctive Tasmanian sub-species is the biggest found on the Australian continent. 

But the statistics related to the size and power of the eagles are matched by those that refer to its dwindling status.

Although the eagle might be familiar to all of us – I receive more reports of eagle sighting than any other bird – the species is in fact threatened and declining in Tasmania, with numbers put at fewer than 1000.

Eagle conservation has traditionally been in the hands of the state government wildlife authorities and a few individuals – like Craig Webb at the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge at Kettering – but now an initiative has been launched to involve the public in general, especially schoolchildren.

This project, called Where Where Wedgie, aims to share the joy and science of Tasmania’s birds of prey, with emphasis on the wedge-tailed eagle, culminating in a survey of these species at the end of May.

And last month the Bookend Trust, a not-for-profit organisation founded in Tasmania in 2008  inspire people of all ages and abilities to develop careers and interest in the environment, launched a Pozible crowd-funding campaign to ensure that their new project could include the whole community.

Tasmanians of all ages are  invited to participate in the Where Where Wedgie survey, to obtain baseline data on how this threatened species is tracking.

Survey success depends on inspiring enough people to train up and participate.

Tasmania’s Department of Education is funding the schools component of Where Where Wedgie, but the Bookend Trust is still seeking financial support to run community workshops and other training and promotional resources.

“For the general public, these workshops are the human side of the project,’’ said Clare Hawkins, threatened species zoologist and citizen science coordinator for the Bookend Trust. “We’re building some wonderful resources online to enthuse potential participants, explain the survey methods and get everyone’s skills up – but nothing beats talking it over face to face.’’

The Trust is hoping to raise $20,000, which would enable it to deliver at least 18 workshops across the state.

Dr Hawkins explained: “The survey methods are simple, but it’s really helpful to be able to discuss and demonstrate them in person, and also to bring together everyone who might be interested. These workshops will provide a chance for people to share their experiences of wedge-tailed eagles and other birds of prey, to learn from each other and to form a bit of a team across their local area.’’

Where Where Wedgie’s citizen science survey is a new approach and Dr Hawkins is hoping that the project will enable Tasmanians to obtain high quality, up-to-date information on the state of their eagles and other birds of prey. If the work goes well, the survey will become an annual event.

Pozible campaign: https://pozible.com/project/where-where-wedgie-for-grown-ups

Montgomery steals the show

The founder of the Raptor and Wildlife Refuge of Tasmania, Craig Webb, set out more than a decade ago to provide a home for eagles coming to grief in mankind’s world.

Over time Webb has released 20 injured wedge-tailed and sea eagles that have received tender, loving care at the refuge at Kettering but it is a bird actually born in one of the rehabilitation aviaries which has stolen the headlines in the past year.

A masked owl called Montgomery has become a free-flying attraction of the walk ‘n’ talk fund-raising experiences that Webb has introduced in the past year.

The story of Montgomery is a remarkable one, something Webb could never have imagined when I first met him at the fledgling refuge all those years ago. At the time, I was interested in writing a column about his adoption of eagles from a rehabilitation program within the grounds of Risdon Prison, in which prisoners had taken part. Webb had stepped in when the aviary was closed under  redevelopment plans at the jail.

Over time I have seen the yearly expansion of the refuge from a set of huge aviaries catering purely for eagles to ones that are now devoted to smaller birds of prey, including owls.

It was the rehabilitation of two owls that set the refuge on a new course, that of a “nursery” for birds born in captivity. On his rounds Webb noticed that the owls – brought to the reserve with injuries which precluded their release –  had laid eggs in a makeshift nest. This first attempt at nesting was unsuccessful, as was a second, but a third produced a viable male chick, which Webb named Montgomery.

And says Webb of his new charge: “Monty is a highlight of my life dealing with birds and animals. He is amazing in every way. He is a superstar here at the refuge and enthrals visitors.”

The reserve was primarily intended to be a raptor rehabilitation centre to deal with eagles injured by coming into contact with powerlines  or motor vehicles or being poisoned and shot. Another dimension was soon been added with wild eagles coming to visit, these birds perching on the top of the giant aviaries to view the injured eagles inside, and Webb soon constructed perches for the wild birds.

At first it was only wedge-tailed eagles coming to visit but increasingly other raptors arrived.

As Webb puts it: “Drop-ins range from wedgies to goshawks to masked owls screeching at night: unless I had seen and heard it, I would find it hard to believe; in a nutshell, it’s bloody spectacular. I believe the terminology is kleptoparasitism when birds are hanging around to pinch a feed. Whatever it’s called, myriad raptors constantly come to the refuge for a ‘free lunch’.’’

And remarkably this situation has been reversed. One breeding season Webb saw a male brown goshawk feeding an adult female through the slats in her aviary.

Meanwhile, the masked owl story has entered a new chapter. The latest news from the refuge is  the resident owls have produced another youngster.

Swallows safely on their way

The long, hot and lazy days of summer are not without a little tension and anguish down at the Waterworks Reserve where I monitor the seasons, and the birds arriving and departing.

Over the years I have developed a one-sided relationship with a family of welcome swallows and each year I wait for them to arrive and then go through the trials and tribulations of parenthood with them.

I regard the swallows visiting the reserve, well at least one pair and their successive generations, as family.

It’s not known where our swallows go to in winter to find food. I used to believe they travelled, like other popular migrants, the silvereyes, along the east coast of the mainland to warmer climes, but there is a suggestion that the swallows might turn left at Melbourne, follow the Victorian coast and then head north to the west of the Great Dividing Range.

When they return to the Waterworks, I share their anxiety in the first days of spring when snow still clings to kunanyi/Mt Wellington and insect food is in short supply to replenish energy after the long migratory journey. Then in drought I worry that they might not find the moist soil to build their mud-cup nests and later, with young in the nest or newly on the wing, I fear for their safety when the currawongs and ravens come to call.

The swallows, of course, are obvious to my interest in their wellbeing, but I like to think that they appreciate my presence when danger threatens, especially when the most feared predator of all, the brown goshawk, is on the wing.

And so it went this spring and summer.  I always approached the Waterworks and the swallows’ nest site in one of the BBQ huts with trepidation that all might not be well.

The swallows always arrive in the first weekend of September, although they  were a little late this year,  and just before they were due I checked the hut and saw that the previous year’s nest had been swept aside by council workers giving the hut a spruce up.

Within days of the swallows’ return, however, I noticed layers of mud piling up on the hut’s wooden roof beam, and within just a few days the nest had taken shape, the mud saucer about nine centimetres high.  A layer of feathers from white feral geese resident on the Waterworks reservoirs added a flourish to the construction.

Soon the female was incubating the eggs and after about 20 days, the male and female were bringing food for a growing brood. Another 20 days and I returned to find the three young happily demanding food from a perch on a wire fence.

The parents, with chittering calls, twisted and turned, wings flickering, as they chased insect food over the still waters, suddenly freezing in flight, stalling, floating and snatching gnats and mosquitos.

Another summer, another brood, and after the anguish of the breeding season, I’ll feel a pang of sadness when at the start of autumn the air is not  filled with the sound of excited swallow chatter.

Ibis listing a bitter quill

Tasmania left off the map again, this time when it comes to birds.

That was my first thought when I read that the white ibis – which does not occur here – was leading the poll to name Australia’s favourite bird for 2017. Thankfully, bird enthusiasts taking part in the survey came to their senses and named the magpie as number one.

The white ibis winning the Guardian Australia/Birdlife Australia bird of the year contest would have been a bitter pill – or should I say  bitter quill – to swallow.

The ibis is the poster bird of the Anthropocene, the scruffy “bin chicken”, and no amount of defending it in the avian press, people extolling its capacity to adapt to mankind’s world, will win Tasmanians over, at least this Tasmanian.

As it happened, in spite of intense lobbying for the ibis, and suspected vote rigging for another species, the powerful owl, the Australian magpie familiar to Tasmanians swooped to victory with a vote of 19,926. But still the ibis came second just 843 votes behind.

The magpie will do us fine, compared with some others on offer, especially the troublesome kookaburra and rainbow lorikeet (listed no 3 and 6 respectively in the top 10), imports to Tasmania from the mainland who cause as much mayhem down here as a team of visiting footy players on season-ending tours.

That ibis, with its airs and snooty look of arrogance from pictures we seen of it, appears out on limb. And anyway we have our own species finding a home in city and suburb, the silver and kelp gulls.

Both these gulls, sharing the fast food that’s also on the human diet, have been recorded also sharing the same ailments which blight obese humans, including high levels of cholesterol.

The poll was interesting in that it once again underlined our connection with the birds we see around us, the ones we see daily, the ones physically seen to share our world.

Of the top 10, most of the others in a list of 50 voted upon are common birds. Many of them are not seen in Tasmania because we simply have fewer species than the vast Australian mainland.

Along with the white ibis in the top 10, mainland species like the willy wagtail (no 7) and the cassowary (9) got the most votes.

The ibis, though, was a surprise, and certainly ruffled my feathers.  Most mainlanders only know it from raiding rubbish bins, or stealing sandwiches in city parks, but I remember spending many a happy hour at an ibis roost in far north Queensland, the mangroves on the Ross River in Townsville being shared with fruit bats. As the bats left in the evening, the ibis were returning.

There was one notable Tasmanian bird on the list, however, which would have been seen by very few of the voters, even if it does migrate to the mainland each year.  That was the orange-bellied parrot, down to just 16 wild birds at its last stronghold at Melaleuca in Tasmania’s far south-west. It came in at number 21 with 2324 votes.