The sparkling, golden eye of the shoveler caught my attention. It sparkled on the sparkling waters of the Goulds Lagoon on a sunny autumnal day.
It had been a disappointing day for birds and now the shoveller, and the sun after clouds and rain, uplifted my spirits.
Shovelers are one of my favourite birds and occasionally when I grow tired of the woodland birds nearer home I take a trip along the Brooker Highway to hunt out waterfowl, and particularly the shovelers.
I don’t now why I love shovelers so. It might go back to my childhood in Britain where occasionally I’d come across the European version of the shoveler on the fringes of lakes in the Thames Valley.
The shoveler cuts a comical figure to some wildfowl enthusiasts with its long shovel-like bill that looks too heavy for its head when the birds are at rest. I was also staggered to see that it also carries the name of “stinker” in some of my bird literature. To me, however, it is a bird of beauty, to rival the classic ducks that take pride of place in zoos across the world, the mandarin and the Carolina wood duck among them.
I was an art student when I first spied the northern shoveler and revelled in a beauty that combines a green head with a chestnut body. When I came to Australia – and spied my first Australasian or southern shovelers on the marshlands of Queensland – I found a duck to leave the northern version in the shade.
And the shoveler I viewed at Goulds Lagoon was a perfect specimen, although it was late in the breeding year when birds tend to be duller, losing the sheen and splendour of the breeding plumage that emerges in spring.
The southern shoveler is more blue than green, reflecting the brilliant southern sky. It has a deep grey-blue head with a vertical white crescent between the bright-yellow eye and the bill. The back and rump are black, and the shoulder and wing coverts are blue-grey with several white bars. The underparts are chestnut, with white patches to the rear of the flanks. Females are dark-brown.
Because if its bill, which is blunt at the end, the species is also known as the spoonbill duck, shovelbill, blue-winged shoveler and, as I have said to my horror, the stinker.
Goulds Lagoon is billed as the Derwent’s premier wetland reserve below the Bridgewater Bridge. I always find it a disappointment, not because of its lack of species but its position so close to suburbia which sees it often littered with rubbish.
I don’t blame the local residents who no doubt view it as an asset in their neighbourhood but, as an open space with a viewing platform, it can attract all sorts of unwelcome visitors at night. The refuge once had a covered viewing hut which was burned down, and on the day I visited the main lagoon was littered with empty beer cans.
For once there was a shortage of birds when I visited and I wandered the track that skirts the reserve to the pre-Brooker old highway to the north which cuts the sanctuary in two. First, though, I had to step over a dead black swan which had come to grief on the road, crossing from one lagoon to another. Signs along the old highway warn motorists to look out for wildlife but this warning appears often to be ignored.
I wasn’t feeling happy, the only bird of note, a dead black swan, and then the shoveler came into view. The second lagoon, being further from the road, is not subject to the flotsam and jetsam of human rubbish and the water is clear and clean.
Shovelers are always in sight at Goulds Lagoon and was surprised this day to have to seek them out. Just a month previously I had seen big numbers and I speculated that, at the end of summer, they had migrated from the reserve to other areas, possibly across Bass Strait.
And so I was pleased to find the lone male. Some people might call it a “stinker”, but it made my day.