New Holland honeyeaters squabbling with brush wattlebirds over the nectar and pollen of a winter-flowering grevillea, forest ravens crossing the sky and the distant “clink, clink” of the clinking currawong.
Not much had changed in 177 years, from the time that Captain Andrew Haig built an elegant home, Narryna, on Hampden Rd in Battery Point.
I must have passed the house built in the Greek Revival style a hundred times over the years and never ventured in but that opportunity came a few weeks ago when a reader asked me to identify the birds she had seen in a Victorian showcase decorating one of the rooms.
The house is a treasure trove of fashion, artefacts and furniture from the Victorian period and I was not surprised to find not one but two showcases of exotic birds.
One, in an upstairs bedroom, contained stuffed American birds but the one I had been asked to view in the downstairs lounge was far more interesting. Many of these cases were imported from Europe or America but this one was obviously of local origin. It contained birds only found in Tasmania, like a strong-billed honeyeater and a yellow-throated honeyeater, along with a Tasmanian-breeding bird, the migratory swift parrot.
Also in the case were new holland honeyeaters, the species seen in the garden outside, along with a few other brightly coloured species found in Tasmania and on the mainland, among them a pink and scarlet robin, an eastern rosella and a beautiful grey fantail.
There was no indication on the display who had built it, but it seemed the maker might have run out of birds, because he or she included some species not found in Australia, like a hummingbird from the Americas that I failed to identify.
Cabinets of stuffed birds were all the rage in Georgian and Victorian times but they now seem strangely out of place, if not grotesque.
In this period it was common practice for people interested in birds to actually shoot species to study them more carefully. Reading accounts of the early naturalists, the toll was sometimes incredible and I will never forget a personal account of a naturalist shooting a male paradise parrot – a species now extinct – and then shooting its grieving mate “to end her sorrow”.
Today the birdwatcher is more likely to be armed with a camera than a gun and this is an aspect of the hobby that is increasingly being catered for by tourism operators.
The founder of a birdwatching tourism business run from on Bruny Island, Tonia Cochran, tells me that photographers are now a large part of her international business and it is not enough to actually see a bird and record it in their life-list of birds spotted – they have to have a picture as well.
Viewing the glass case holding the Tasmanian endemic birds, it occurred to me that the owner had perhaps shot the birds himself and that was the reason they were in the case along with exotic species.
The case proudly shown to visitors in past times was possibly the Victorian equivalent of the iPad photo display in which the fruits of a new form of shooting can be displayed.
Either way, it’s clear that the birds of Tasmania held the same sense of magic and wonder to the early settlers as they do to Tasmanians today.
Despite the ravages of the gun, we are lucky to still be able to see most of the species in Hobart as first viewed by the Victorians when they settled these lands.
The Tasmanian emu might have vanished, but the other 12 endemic species still fly high.
Fears remain, though, for our two migratory parrots, the swift and orange-bellied parrot, and we must be on our guard in case our beautiful species merely become extinct curiosities to be viewed on iPads or in showcases in museums like Narryna.