November 19, 2017

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.

Cuckoo finds a reluctant friend

Holding the tiny cuckoo in my hand, its warm body nestled in my giant palm, its eyes blinking in bewilderment, I regretted all the nasty things I had said about cuckoos over the years.

I had called them the sociopaths of the animal kingdom, loners preying on industrious doting parents, disrupting family life, callously leaving others to bring up their young.

The cuckoo modus operandi is well known, of course.  Instead of rearing young themselves, a female merely deposits her eggs in the nest of carefully selected host species.

The cuckoo egg hatches and the cuckoo chick – larger and growing more rapidly than its “siblings” – merely ousts them from the nest, or even suffocates them under its body.

For me the magic of spring, of rejuvenation and hope after the dormant, often cruel Tasmanian winter, is tinged with a little melancholy when, amid the optimistic musical notes of other songbirds, I hear the repetitive, far-carrying call of the four cuckoos which visit Tasmania in the breeding season. These are the pallid, fan-tailed, shining bronze and Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo.

I ask what misery and disruption they will wreak and it is confirmed a few months later when I see robins and honeyeaters struggling to feed rapacious, greedy “off-spring” which in the case of the pallid cuckoo can be three times their size.

The bird I had in my hand was a shining bronze-cuckoo, the smallest of the bunch along with the Horsfield’s.

Although I see and hear shining bronze-cuckoos all the time I didn’t realise how small and fragile they were. And here was this little bird – about the size of a grey fantail – seeking safety and security in my hand, the bird injured I think from hitting a wire fence in the Waterworks Reserve while under attack from brown thornbills who had twigged the cuckoo’s anti-social intent.

The cuckoo, dazed and struggling to flap its wings, looked to me for protection, clearly aware the thornbills were giving me a wide berth.

The cuckoo had been lying on its back in the grass and when I placed him on a strand of wire forming the fence he seemed to perk up. I gave the thornbills one last shoo to send them on their way and set off for home.

Although I might have rescued the cuckoo at this point my loyalties remained firmly with the thornbills. I couldn’t stop thinking, however, of this beautiful little bird in emerald-green livery with bronze head, narrow stripes across its grey breast, and the fate that would befall it if other, bigger birds joined in the attack.

I returned, chased off the thornbills again, and reached out my hand. It eagerly grabbed a finger, and I could feel its claws pressing into my flesh, tighter as the thornbills hovered. The cuckoo was now placed in a tightly-foliaged grevillea.

Next day when I returned the cuckoo was gone. Off no doubt to resume its seemingly mean-spirited business, but how could I feel antipathy towards a tiny bird struggling for day-to-day survival, merely carrying out the business that Mother Nature demanded of it.

 

Native-hens make friends in high places

A family of “turbo chooks” scurried across the tree-lined drive leading to Government House confirming what I had come to see – Tasmanian native-hens had taken up residence there.

I had written in recent months of native-hens and wood ducks invading the city and here was another example. The hens and ducks were keeping each other company, happily foraging on the manicured grass verge skirting the drive.

I had been alerted to the birds’ presence by the Official Secretary to the Governor, David Owen, and within days I was being given a tour of the mansion’s extensive grounds by Mr Owen and the Garden Supervisor, Steve Percival.

What’s more, Mr Percival had drawn up a checklist of the birds he had spotted in the grounds over the years, the native-hens and wood ducks new additions.

In all there were about 40 species on the list and as we strolled the grounds on a beautiful spring day we saw many of them, including a grey fantail snatching at insects disturbed by our footsteps.

The 15-hectare of gardens proved to be a bird haven and it was easy to see why. The grounds mix not only a formal parkland in the style of the English landscape garden designer Capability Brown, but open pasture and a smaller garden devoted to Tasmanian native plants. And at the garden’s centre is an ornamental, water lily-dotted lake which occupies the quarry that provided the  sandstone to build the Governor’s residence. Hidden to the side of this, reached by a narrow flight of sandstone steps, is a Japanese garden.

The lakes and the fringing riparian vegetation provide an additional lure for birds favouring such habitat. White-faced herons can sometimes be seen hunting fish and frogs in the main lake’s shallows and little black cormorants – which favour sheltered fresh water rivers and lakes over their marine counterparts – sometimes pay a call.

It’s not all rosy for the gardeners, however. Mr Percival and his staff charged with keeping the grounds, and the house, in tip-top condition are on constant watch for birds not giving the Governor’s historic home the respect it deserves.  In the orchard, apple trees have been netted for the first time after raids by musk lorikeets and sulphur-crested cockatoos have at times damaged the fabric of the actual 1855 building, including pecking at the face of the majestic clock.

The grounds of Government House are far from a static exhibit and a recent innovation has been the establishment of an imagined replica of the garden planted by the French during the d’Entrecasteaux expedition to Tasmania in 1792. Although the vegetables of that garden are long lost, Government House managed to source the seed varieties planted at Recherche Bay from a heritage nursery in Paris.

The garden will be a new point of interest to the public visiting Government House but it is strictly off-limits to the seed and grub-eating native-hens. The flightless birds may have made friends in high places but access to the French vegetable patch would be extending the welcome mat too far.

 

Pink robin plays hide and seek

Everyone was seeing pink robins except me. They are my favourite bird, and in past years I have watched them rear families every year. Spring was never complete without them.

This season, though, I had “lucked out’’, as birders describe missing a species that they should have seen.

It appeared pink robins were everywhere. Three overseas birdwatchers told me so. A man from Denmark said he had spotted them along the Fern Glade Track on kunanyi/ Mt Wellington and two American visitors from California said they had seen the beautiful robins in the same location, after first adding them to their life list of birds spotted on my own local patch, the Waterworks Reserve in South Hobart.

The robin is a must-see species for all birders, foreign or Australian, because it’s universally considered one of the most beautiful of all birds.

It might be called the “pink” robin but this tiny bird, a mere 12 cm long, is more magenta than pink, the colour on its breast contrasting with a sooty-black head and back.

It is a bird of the wet forest under-storey, of fern and thicket, and so is often difficult to see. Finding it in spring is made easier by the male’s gentle warble, which is sung with brief pauses.

I had been hearing the song from early spring, but never finding the robins, so one morning late last month I decided to hunt the Fern Glade Track out of Fern Tree to find a bird of my own.

I was pleased to find this popular track much wetter and lush than I had seen it earlier in the year, when a dry spell had given it a drought-stricken, tired and wan appearance. The wet forest birds at this time were giving it a miss and although conditions had improved I had no luck finding robins on my latest foray.  I didn’t even hear the male’s song so I pressed on higher up the mountain. The track eventually links with the Radford Track climbing to the Springs and, even though I had intended only a relatively short hike, I carried on through higher terrain.

After the cold snap at the start of spring, which had coated the mountain in snow, the sun now shone strong and hard and one of the first warm days of spring brought out several parties of walkers.

Climbing higher, stopping and starting, admiring the yellow blooms of silver wattle slower to make an appearance on the mountain than in the valleys down below, the robin still eluded me.

I was a little weary when I reached the Springs so I plonked myself down outside the Lost Freight take-away cabin erected there earlier this year. And by now I was really feeling miffed at missing the bird

“So you’re a birdwatcher,” said the proprietor, seeing my binoculars as she brought me coffee and a sausage roll. “I’ve just been watching this lovely little bird with a pink breast hopping about, right where you’re sitting.

“But he’s gone now.”

Fantails and ginger cake

A fantail flitted about our heads, its joyous, reassuring, relaxed warble giving a lie to the delirium and frenzy of spring all about us.

Birds dashing to and fro, a symphony of birdsong, males of the species showing off a fresh moult of spring plumage to dazzle the eye.

It was one of those glorious early days in spring, when for the first time the sun shines strong and hard to announce that winter has finally been confined to  painful memory, when an epidemic of flu and a late cold snap had made you believe we had entered a new ice age.

I was sitting in the Fitzroy Gardens on the border of South Hobart and Sandy Bay, soaking up the sun and the sweet scent of flowing daffodil, camellia and rhododendron for a special, once a year event which I have never missed. It’s the annual general meeting of the Friends of the Sandy Bay Rivulet.

Over the years since the organisation’s inception more than a decade previously, a small band of members have met to discuss work completed and work to be done, confirmation of minutes, election of officials, president’s and treasurer’s reports, and finally any other business.

Each year my fellow members have always turned to me during this last item on the agenda for a record of birds and other wildlife spotted along the rivulet, which winds from the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington to join the Derwent at Sandy Bay.

On this occasion, however, I missed the cue to report on native-hens returning to breed on the banks of the rivulet after drought, and of a rare sighting of a pink robin in the lower reaches of the water course.

I was distracted by the birds all around me, the songs of scarlet robins, silvereyes, spotted pardalotes and the flitting flight of the grey fantail.

The annual meeting has been held over 11 years in pubs, a scout hut and in members’ homes but this year was a departure:  an outdoor meeting close to the banks of the rivulet itself where it squeezes between Fitzroy Gardens and the Parliament St reserve.

It was a perfect setting, a perfect choice of meeting place, inspired not just by a beautiful spring day but the sight of the rivulet and the evidence of the industrious work the Friends have done over the years to restore the watercourse to its natural state, and to promote its value to the local community.

During regular working bees the members have planted riparian vegetation on the rivulet’s banks and reeds in the stream bed, the latter to provide breeding sites for native fish.

The ultimate ambition of the Friends, the dream that has fired their enthusiasm over the years, has been the creation of a trail along the banks of the rivulet all the way to the Waterworks Reserve.

I’m looking forward to the day we can have our AGM on a streambank along this trial. And we’ll still end our meeting with the coffee and ginger cakes produced by one of the members, as welcome as the fantail’s melody.

Angry plovers take to the skies

Angry plovers have been getting a “buzz” out of disrupting – even for brief moments – the lives of visitors to the Waterworks Reserve in recent weeks.

It’s a familiar story across the parks and paddocks of Tasmania at this time of the year. Walk across open space and sure enough the plovers will squawk noisily and then take to the wing to feign attack.

I saw feign attack because the plovers never inflict damage or injury. The aerial bombardment is merely meant to drive away anyone approaching too closely to their eggs or young hidden in long grass.

Attack time usually comes at the end of winter or the first weeks of spring. This is the time when the plovers – or masked lapwings to use the scientific name for them instead of the Tasmanian vernacular one – are in the midst of the breeding cycle.

A bout of flu curtailed my daily visits to the reserve at this time of year, when bird activity is in a frenzy with migrants arriving and courtship rituals of both resident and travellers are in full flight, and I thought I had missed seeing the lapwing chicks, bundles of pied feathers on long, spindly legs.

A raucous cry, and then a swooping lapwing, let me know this was not the case one afternoon when I had stopped on a reservoir embankment to view hoary-headed grebes in their spring mating plumage of white-streaked dark grey heads, replacing their drab brown of winter.

Although I knew from experience the lapwings meant no real harm, I have to confess that it was still an unnerving experience to have them thrashing about just above my head.

The name spur-winged plover indicates they really do have spurs on joints of their wings but suggestions these might be poisonous, like those of the platypus, are unfounded.  He spurs are more likely used in combat and defence in territorial battles.

I might make light of lapwing attack but that other bird notorious for its brazen and bold behaviour – the magpie – must be treated with caution. That dagger bill can really cause damage and so any alarm cry from a magpie should be heeded.

Like the lapwing, the magpie is merely trying to protect its young – usually in a nest a little way off the ground and not on the ground itself –  and is warning people to stay away.

It’s best to avoid known territories but if this is not possible – the magpies, say, are nesting along a busy street as they do in Clarence St in Howrah during some years – carry a stick to wave, or wear a wide-brimmed hat to shield the eyes.

I’ve known some people who have worn a crash helmet and read once of a resident in Queensland painting a face on his headgear, with an angry expression. This appeared to work a treat and all summer the pair of belligerent magpies terrorising a suburban street In Townsville gave this particular resident a wide berth.

 

 

 

 

The lottery of bird life

Birds do not gamble in the lottery of life. Although their movements and behaviour might appear random, they do not live on a wing and a prayer.

Every move is deliberate and calculated to ensure survival for such seemingly frail and vulnerable creatures in an often hostile world.

The certainties of bird behaviour have certainly been put to the test, however, by a family of Tasmanian native-hens who have made their home in an area that would appear unconducive to their existence – the grounds of the Wrest Point Casino on Sandy Bay Rd.

Native hens are usually to be found in open country, more often than not in field and paddock. The closest they come to central Hobart is along the  watercourses penetrating the city, the banks of the Sandy Bay and Hobart Rivulets.

Native hens – found nowhere else in the world apart from Tasmania –  are flightless and so the rivulets and their grassy margins provide suitable avenues for their movements. But the grounds of the Wrest Point Casino? It poses the question of how they got there, and why this location should be so attractive to them? How could these insect and seed eaters find sustenance in the casino grounds?

I was alerted to the presence of the native hens by Chris Pearce, the owner of the Hobart Bookshop in Salamanca Square. Chris over the years has been one of my many “eyes and ears”, readers who give me interesting bird sightings as gist for my bird-writing mill. He had seen the native-hens on his walk to work, along with more commonly seen pied oystercatchers on the narrow beach to the south of the casino, and black-faced and pied cormorants drying their wings on the jetties that reach into the Derwent from there.

I saw three native-hens when I visited the site, a female being courted by two males, although there could be more birds in this group. Native-hens are remarkable in the bird world in forming a matriarchal society, in which eager young males often pay attention to a lone female.

This behaviour, in fact, proves one of the rare instances in the entire animal kingdom when females enlist males, who might  not be the fathers of their offspring, to help rear their young, and the males are willing participants to being surrogate parents.

To reach the casino grounds the native-hens would have had to cross the Sandy Bay Rd or possibly could have “migrated “ along the coast from more open ground  at upper Sandy Bay. All the same they would have had to cross a busy road, perhaps not such a big problem for fast-running birds which also go by the affectionate term of “turbo-chooks”.

Certainly the native-hens in the search for new hunting grounds, and a new experience, were prepared to throw caution to the wind. Gamblers after all, the chance of a flutter for a flightless bird to temping to resist?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wood ducks fly into a garden checklist

Birdwatchers are known for the checklists they keep of birds spotted during their lifetimes, but the only one that really matters to me is the tally I have from my garden.

With a remarkable 52 species (not including introduced ones) I thought I had reached the limit with the sighting of a male pink robin last winter. A surprise awaited me this winter, however, returning home from a birding foray to the Waterworks Reserve.

A pair of wood ducks were perched in a white peppermint gum on the backs of the stream that forms a boundary at the end of my garden.

By coincidence I had been in correspondence with a reader who lives in Strickland Ave in South Hobart, who had reported a pair of wood ducks attempting to build a nest in a eucalyptus on her property.

Wood ducks are unusual among the duck fraternity. Not only do they leave the safety of open water to graze on grass, they also nest in hollows in trees, sometimes at a considerable height. It appeared the Strickland Ave pair had built a nest in the fork of a tree and I told my correspondent to keep me posted throughout the spring and early summer to see how the wood ducks fared. It raises the question of how the ducklings leave the nest, and I am keen to find out.

The wood ducks perched above my garden did not appear to be scouting a nest site and within a half hour or so they had moved on. Nonetheless, it was wonderful to add them to my garden checklist to complement the only other duck I have seen in my stream, pacific black ducks. These I might add have successfully reared ducklings from time to time.

Both wood ducks and black ducks are common at the Waterworks Reserve a short distance from my home. It is special, however, to be able to observe them close at hand, in fact without leaving the comfort, beer on hand, of my living room. That’s how I like to do my birding and birds seen from my windows have included such rarities – at least for a suburban area – as olive whistlers and beautiful firetails.

My garden list also includes eight of the 12 bird species found nowhere else on earth but Tasmania.

I always regard the endemic species as my exotics, although the wood duck have attained a status of their own.

They are beautiful birds but because they are so common in park and paddock they tend to get overlooked. The males have long russet feathers on their heads and neck, which can look like a mane. Another name for woods ducks is in fact maned ducks.

Matching the russet feathers is a silvery grey livery on the back and breast, with white in the wings. Females are scalloped brown in colour.

Wood ducks, along with their preference for grass and tree hollows, are also notable for their unusual song, which to my ears can sound like a cat meowing.

It can make for an eerie sound on a dark and dismal late-winter afternoon, after the sun has set behind kunanyi/Mt Wellington.

 

Bird garden secret of success

The Inverawe Native Gardens at Margate hosted a gardening-for-birds workshop at the start of spring to reveal the secrets of success in luring birds to the backyard.

Over the years I have kept a close watch on both the garden’s growth and development and its growing checklist of birds spotted, which has now reached a remarkable 102 species for what used to be a patch of wasteland not more than a 20-minute drive from Hobart.

I once added a species myself –  a grey teal out on the North West Bay fronting the gardens – but on my visit to attend the workshop on September 16 it was less a case of finding new birds but learning how they can be attracted to a suburban setting.

The nine-hectare gardens, which lie on land behind the Margate Train shopping and tourist attraction, were started in 2001 by Bill and Margaret Chestnut on what had been a neglected area of farmland overrun by weeds, and they have since been developed into a popular tourist attraction.

The Chestnuts have now planted more than 8500 Australian native shrubs and trees, 80 per cent of them found in Tasmania.

And the bird list includes all Tasmania’s 12 endemic species along with endangered ones like the swift parrot, grey goshawk and wedge-tailed eagle.

As Bill explained to the 20 or so keen gardeners attending the workshop, at Inverawe they wanted to encourage people to create gardens “that sit softly on our fragile landscapes”.

“The number and variety of birds that visit our garden are a measure of our success in doing that. It’s their home too; as peak species we need to make decisions that are in the best interests of all.”

Bill said In creating a bird-friendly garden the first question to be asked was: what do birds need? Food and shelter were the main requirements.

Honeyeaters like the New Holland honeyeater needed nectar for energy and insects for protein and insectivores like superb blue-wrens required a supply of small insects. But, in trying to attract nectar feeders, there were dangers in planting too many nectar-rich plants like grevilleas, banksias and hakeas because these also attracted what Bill termed “bully birds” – like noisy miners – which would turn up and dominate the garden, scaring other species away.

“If you have bully birds it’s because the environment suits them,” he said. “Change that and the bully birds subside.”

A range of tree and shrub heights was also vitally important, creating levels of foliage to suit birds that had different foraging requirements, like feeding at ground level or in the canopy. At Inverawe Bill and Margaret were lucky to inherit eucalypts forming an intermittent canopy of up to 20 metres. Below this an under-storey was planted containing melaleucas, acacias, callistemon, leptospermum and others. There was also a lower cover of such plants as westringias, philothecas, grevilleas and correas.  These gave shelter to ground-feeding birds like the fairy-wrens and robins.

Bill also advocated connectivity of gardens in a given area, a group of neighbours getting together to plant natives.

“If everyone did it, all the birds would come back to Hobart,” he said.

Swallows a certainty of spring

In fast-paced, troubled times I increasingly look for certainties, the rituals and rhythms of life that tell you all is well with the world.

Being a nature lover, my certainties are generally geared to the seasons and there is nothing as certain, or reassuring, as the arrival of the welcome swallows on my patch in spring.

Over the years – 17 in fact – I have always timed them for the first weekend of September. The first sight of their erratic, joyous flight brings with it the vision of summer, even if more often than not snow lingers on the summit of kunanyi/Mt Wellington.

I had high hopes of a bumper swallow spring when one of my correspondents David Kernke, the owner of the Shene historic home at Pontville, phoned to say that swallows had arrived there in mid-August. I counted down the days from that moment expecting at any time to see the swallows further south at the Waterworks Reserve. I waited in vain, and the swallows were still not in my neighbourhood past their normal arrival date.

Migratory birds of many species usually arrive on friendly, warm winds blowing in from the north and this year I noted that the normal swallow arrival time had coincided with a cold snap with snow-laden westerly and south-westerly winds.

In the past I might have simply put down the swallows’ late arrival to unfavourable weather but in these uncertain times of declining bird populations the arrival of spring and its certainly has been marked by a growing anxiety about how Tasmanian birds are faring during the winter months on the mainland.

Numbers of the migratory birds are showing marked declines across the world. Among them are the world’s swallow species. The barn swallows which breed in the United States and Canada are arriving in lesser number from their wintering grounds in South America, and there is also a marked fall in the number of European swallows whose trans-continental flights link northern Europe with the far tip of the African continent. The European swallows’ cousins, the house martin and the sand martin, are also falling to arrive in the numbers of old.

Ornithologists are still seeking the reasons for the decline but two factors are thought to be in play regarding the European species at least: land clearance which results in less flying-insect prey and increasing global temperatures, which are leading to desertification and drought in Africa.

So far I haven’t seen evidence of dramatic declines in Australian swallow and martin species but  our swallows and other migratory birds cannot be divorced from the factors that are affecting their number in other parts of the world.

On a more positive note, my anxious wait for the swallows ended within the first week of September. A merry twitter across the twin lakes of the Waterworks Reserves put my mind at rest, at least until next year.

My book on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, The Shy Mountain, is being launched by Charles Wooley at the Hobart Bookshop on Wednesday, September 20th. All welcome.

Street-wise sparrows and miners

Like their cousins in Melbourne, sparrows resident in Salamanca Square have learned a crafty tick to get them a meal.

Some years back a friend said that he had observed sparrows hanging about outside the McDonald’s restaurant in Swanson Street, waiting for patrons to trigger the electronic sliding doors. As soon as the doors opened, the sparrows flew into the restaurant, had a quick feed of fast-food crumbs and then waited for the doors to open again.

On a trip to Melbourne I observed the smart behaviour myself, but thought then it was merely a one-off perhaps, the Melbourne sparrows were more street-wise than those from further afield.

Well, I’ve been proven wrong. Sitting in Banjo’s in Salamanca Square a few weeks back I saw the cheeky sparrows doing the same thing there. Only difference, the main door at Banjo’s is not a sliding one but still the sparrows, both in and out, waited patiently for the door to be opened by patrons.

All this proved interesting food for thought as I killed time before I waited for  my destination on the day, the Hobart Bookshop in the square, to open. A little later I learned of another interesting snippet of information concerning birds making themselves at home in mankind’s environment.

Apparently, a flock of noisy miners in New South Wales have learned that the pickings at restaurants do not just include crumbs and scraps.

The miners frequenting a restaurant in Woolongong have really set out to embrace the café culture by stealing packets of sugar from the al fresco tables.

The miners fly to the tables of unsuspecting patrons and in a flash lift a packet of sugar from the sugar bowl and then fly to a convenient spot beyond the restaurant to tear open the sachets, and eat the sugar.

We might be used to sparrows, pigeons and gulls raiding outside, and sometimes inside, tables at eating establishments but the noisy miners must be the first among a family not known to associate closely with humans, the honeyeaters, to exhibit such bold behaviour.

With their stocky appearance and pugnacious behaviour, noisy miners might not look like honeyeaters but they are firmly placed among the 66 honeyeaters found in Australia, the country’s most prolific bird.

Many people confuse the miner with a similarly named bird, the introduced hill myna found in many mainland cities, but thankfully this pest species is not present in Tasmania.

The noisy miner – appearing grey in appearance instead of the myna’s black – is generally found in the more drier areas of Tasmania, particularly near the coast.

I’m not a big fan of noisy miners, mainly because they bully other birds, but I was so intrigued when I learned of their sugar stealing antics I did a little more research into the Wollongong gang.

It appears these noisy miners are very fussy about what they steal. They deliberately choose the packets of sugar – both white and brown – to eat, but leave sachets of artificial sweetener untouched.