Dodging traffic on the Midway Point Causeway, I witnessed one of the great sights of nature in early spring, a ballet between the tides.
The causeway along the Tasman Highway might seem an odd place to be bird-watching but below its raised parapets is some of the best habitat a travelling birder can hope to find.
Glistening ocean, sandy shore and mudflat.
I had gone out in search of migratory shorebirds. Bar-tailed godwits had just arrived from their breeding grounds within the Arctic Circle on the other side of the world but before I could get a good look at these, something equally special sailed into view with all the grace and poise of a ballerina.
This, however was not a scene from Swan Lake. I had entered the theatre of another ballerina of the waterworld, the great crested grebe.
Holding centre stage just off the causeway at the Pitt Water Lagoon near Sorell was a fine specimen of the species, fluffed and pumped up for the spring mating season.
It is swans who usually steal the limelight when it comes to the human concept of romance and love, and fidelity, when transferred to the delicate beauty of birds.
It’s always been that way in folklore and, later, the great romantic period in literature and music. We all know of the tale of the Ugly Duckling, and unrequited love in Swan Lake.
Perhaps the mute swan of Europe caught the attention of poets and composers because it lived in close proximity to humans, on country rivers and also made its home in the first great gardens and parks. The grebe, however, goes about its life in not so much a less showy fashion, but out of sight, preferring to perform on wide expanses of fresh and brackish water far from the human eye.
The grebes have an elaborate courtship display in which they rise out of the water and shake their heads. Very young grebes often ride on their parents’ backs.
The grebe is a stunningly beautiful bird in summer breeding plumage. Its neck is serpent-like and the bird stands tall in the water – just a little smaller than a black swan. It is generally russet in colour, the top of the head adorned by two sets of long, pointed chocolate feathers which resemble ears. In winter it moults to an unremarkable brown-grey colour.
The great-created grebe is listed as rare in Tasmania and it was certainly not on my radar when I headed out to the wetlands surrounding Sorrell at the opening of the migration season. I have, however, looked for it at the place where it was first recorded breeding in Tasmania in the early 1970s, on Lake Dulverton at Oatlands, but I have always been disappointed searching for it there.
My mind, as I have said, was firmly on bar-tailed godwits when I ventured to Sorrell at the start of spring.
Spotting a flock of about 60 godwits on the edge of the causeway I cursed as I tried to find a place to stop amid the busy traffic. I had to drive about 100 metres, nervously looking back because the godwits were on a tiny stretch of mud that was about to be submerged by a rising tide. I was eager to get a look at them before they flew away.
However, jumping out of the car something else caught my attention on my side of the causeway. I could make out the unmistakable shape of a great created grebe, in full breeding plumage, about 50 metres offshore.
The godwits I quickly decided would have to wait for another day.