Time and place, birds are a living link with history. The Tasmanian birdsong that lifts our spirits each day is the very refrain heard by the first people to inhabit these lands 40,000 years ago, the first European explorers (Charles Darwin among them) and the others who have shaped our history.
When I refer to time and place I mean that no two places in the world have the same birds. It’s always been that way. The birds of Hobart, Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide or Brisbane are all unique to those places and spaces.
On this score what sets Hobart apart is the large number of birds unique to the city and to the wider state. There are 12 endemic species and scores of sub-species that are markedly different to their kin on the mainland. The Tasmanian wedge-tailed eagle is the biggest in the country, as is the masked owl found here.
Many Tasmanians tend to take our unique, endemic birds for granted but not illustrator Jennifer Skelly, who has published An Illustrated Handbook of the Endemic Birds of Tasmania. She has set out to draw attention to Tasmanian birds, literally, in a unique style that gives them a character of their own.
Photography is becoming the medium to portray birds but the problem with photography is that it does not capture the character of a bird, what birders call “the jizz”. Skelly ventures to places photographers can’t reach and, looking at her pictures, these beautiful birds appear to leap from the page, and sing.
There is a wonderful story behind the production of her book, as exciting at the drawings themselves.
As the writer of the “On the Wing” column in the Mercury I always thought that the father of Tasmanian birding was my illustrious predecessor, Michael Sharland, the Peregrine, who had picked up where the Victorian bird experts like John Gould had left off.
Michael Sharland wrote Tasmanian Birds in 1948, but 30 years prior to this another birdwatcher, Frank Littler, had written A Handbook of the Birds of Tasmania and its Dependencies.
Frank Mervyn Littler (1880-1922) was born in Launceston and by profession was an accountant but in his spare time to pursued interests in ornithology and entomology.
His book on birds became a popular publication and it was well-advanced for its time. In fact, ornithologists still refer to his work, especially when making historical comparisons with present-day birdlife and agricultural and forestry activity in Tasmania.
Jennifer Skelly came across the book in what she describes as a quirky, second-hand bookshop in Hobart and made a wonderul discovery – Frank Littler was actually an ancestor of hers and the discovery of the rare 100-year-old book became the inspiration behind her own book on Tasmanian birds. Littler was Skelly’s great great grandfather’s cousin.
It appears Littler was modest man, and preferred to let the birds do the talking.
The first sentence in his book reads: “No apology is offered for the appearance of the present modest little volume dealing with the avifauna of our island home. The sins of omission are both manifold and manifest, and for these kind indulgence is craved.”
It appears Frank Litter was more interested in starting a conversation on birds, something Jennifer Skelly is more than happy to continue.