January 20, 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.

Ghosts of Christmas past

Evoking Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol, the ghosts of Christmas past paid a visit over the holiday period.

Not that I saw myself as Scrooge, with ghosts out to haunt me in a malign way as they do to the central character in Dickens’ story. The “ghosts” were friendly and benign, bringing a sackful of pleasant memories.

Christmas is a time for reflection and in my case recounting festive birding experiences shared with friends over more than 40 years or so.

Across the world there is a long-established practice of conducting a Christmas bird count, an event I have joined wherever I have lived at the time. I think the ritual started among birders in New York’s Central Park in the late 1970s and when I lived in the city myself in the early 1980s I joined the Manhattan birders for the festive-season count over a three-year period.

So when December 25 comes around each year I think of those days especially, and my old friends from that time.

Sometimes, with family commitments, it has been impossible to actually conduct the count on Christmas Day, either alone or with others, but this year I arose ultra-early with the intention of doing the count at my local birding spot, the Waterworks Reserve. Established practice is that the count has to be conducted in your home area, as part of an annual census of local birds in both summer and winter. These records compiled over many years by citizen-scientists are proving increasingly important for researchers plotting bird population trends, particularly at a time of deceasing numbers and species of birds.

I did not have time to linger at the Waterworks to conduct a full survey of birds seen, which usually takes a few hours, so I largely relied on birdsong to record numbers.

Luckily, I found many species were in fine song and on entering the reserve I immediately heard several very vocal grey shrike-thrushes, with their distinctive “joe whitty” song. Among 30 familiar species seen and heard were superb fairywrens, brown thornbills, silvereyes, pink robins, striated and spotted pardalotes and two endemic species, green rosellas and black-headed honeyeaters.

The New York bird count is conducted in winter, of course, often with a coating of snow on the ground, and the birders there concentrate on birds that migrate from the north in autumn to take advantage of weather in New York that is not so hostile. Sometimes they also find rarities which usually migrate further south, choosing to over-winter in the park.

In contrast, at the Waterworks Reserve at Christmas the focus is on summer migrants. On Christmas day I was pleased to find two familiar summer birds, the fan-failed and shining bronze-cuckoos, and what I consider the stand-out bird of the season, the satin flycatcher. On this occasion a lone male resplendent in shimmering midnight-blue plumage was joined by grey fantails in a merry hunt for flying insects in the canopy of the reserve’s blue gums.


A little help from a friend

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beauty treatment for first-class travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flycatchers come rain or shine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Strongbill in the sun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Shy Mountain


Silent and brooding, the Shy Mountain does not have to speak her name. We know she’s there, watching us, even when she chooses to hide beneath a blanket of low cloud. Although she’s not a mountain of legend like Everest, Kilimanjaro or even Kosciuszko, she has her own claim to fame. Kunanyi / Mount Wellington brings wilderness to the very doorstep of a significant centre of population, and how many mountains can claim to do that?

Some see menace, anger there; others a benign face bathed in early-morning sunshine.

As Donald Knowler discovers on a mission to record a year in the life of the 1,271-metre peak, she provides an escape from the human pressures of the city, blunting concrete and glass with leaf and bark. Kunanyi / Mount Wellington is also a vital refuge for wildlife with strands of the tallest flowering plants known to nature, and birds and animals found nowhere outside Tasmania.

These, and more, are the Shy Mountain’s gift to Hobart.

The Shy Mountain is available for $29.95 from Hobart bookshops and Forty South Publishing.

A letter to the editor

For more than 100 years, The Times newspaper in Britain has heralded the approach of summer by publishing a letter from the reader who hears the first call of the migratory European cuckoo.

I’ve now learned that for many years there was a similar tradition in Tasmania, recording not the arrival of one of our cuckoo species from the mainland but that of the welcome swallow.

The swallow clarion call came from a single reader, Charles Burbury. He wrote to the Mercury about the migrating swallows and other interesting matters over a number of years until his death in 1946.

His letter writing was recounted to me by his granddaughter, Doris Kouw, when I was invited to speak about birds to the Ladies Probus Club of Lindisfarne in September. Mrs Kouw promised to dig out one of his letters about the swallows but instead I received an equally fascinating one about Mr Burbury’s apparent discovery of where another fast-flying, insect-eating visitor to Tasmania breeds.

On a visit to Japan just before the outbreak of World War II, Mr Burbury thought he had found the nesting site of the swifts which grace Tasmanian skies in spring and summer.

In 1937, the Mercury reported at length on Mr Burbury’s visit.

“Interested in ornithology since boyhood, Mr Burbury made an interesting discovery concerning the swift, a bird similar in appearance to the swallow. It has been said that only on rare occasions has the swift settled while passing over Tasmania in the autumn.’’

The newspaper does not specify which of the two swift species to visit Tasmania it might have been, the white-throated needletail or the less common fork-tailed swift. The needletail breeds right across central Asia as far east as Japan and is far more likely to be the bird.

The article described Mr Burbury visiting the 300-metre-high Kegan waterfalls near the town of Nikko north of Tokyo  and descending in a cage to view it more closely. There he saw thousands of swifts coming and going to the ledges on the cliff-face.

Just four years before Japan entered World War II with its bombing of Pearl Harbour, it is not surprising that Mr Burbury described to the newspaper seeing “much military activity in the cities where men and youths were being conscripted”.

Growing up at the historic Inglewood estate in the Midlands, founded by his pioneering forebears, Mr Burbury also noted how overcrowded Japan was, and how little of its land was suitable for cultivation.

His thoughts clearly drifted from his desire to see Japan’s bird species when he viewed how intensively the 20 per cent of land under cultivation was being farmed.

With remarkable prescience for the time, Mr Burbury sensed during his visit that Japan had plans to expand its borders across the Pacific.

As the newspaper report of his trip stated: “The idea among Australians that Japan had covetous desires on Australia could be scouted, he considered.”

Coincidentally, the week I received the cutting marked the 75th anniversary of a crucial event in  Australia’s campaign against the Japanese in Papua New Guinea.

On November 2, 1942, Australian troops captured the jungle settlement of Kokoda to further hamper Japan’s attempts to advance on the capital, Port Morsby.




Tiny parrot in peril

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.