The sleeping beauty had gone to bed, darkness had fallen and I was standing on the main drag in Franklin hoping that the rare bittern would let me know it was about.
The bittern lives in the shadow of the “beauty’’ – the stunning mountain feature to the north of the old port nestling on the banks of the Huon – and each year in spring I make a trip there in the hope of seeing this elusive member of the heron family, perhaps the hardest bird to spot in the entire avian kingdom.
I know of only two or three places in the state to observe this bird of reedbeds and, remarkably, one happens to be from the centre of Franklin.
The great thing about having an interest in birds is this takes you to interesting places which combine human culture and history with the natural world and on my list of great birdwatching spots few come higher than Franklin.
With luck, a bittern can be seen from the centre of the port flying slow and low over the reeds of Egg Island in the Huon. Failing an actual sighting, the booming of the bittern is reputed to be heard from the galleried Franklin Tavern on the main road, or the old court house, now a restaurant, a little closer to the Huon shore.
I’m in neither of these places, however, on the night of my latest visit, contemplating my next move in the search for the bittern as the sun vanishes with a faint yellow trace, highlighting in sharp outline the resting shape of the Sleeping Beauty. I’m standing in the doorway of the old lock-up which for a hundred years provided overnight accommodation for drunks and other miscreants.
A two-cell lock-up might appear a long way from birdwatching but at this moment in time it serves to fuel the imagination, and the connection I always make between the bird world and that of people.
Birds take us on a flight to the past and standing at the lock-up, which only closed in 1980, I’m thinking of all those overnight detainees who in their misery would have heard the booming of the bittern, and no doubt thought that this eerie sound was taking them to some other place far worse than that contained by wooden prison walls.
At about 75 centimetres, the bittern might be a big bird but it is rarely seen, even on its short flights from one stretch of reedbed to another. Its plumage mixes yellows and browns in streaks to resemble standing reeds and if disturbed it will freeze on the spot, rising its neck and beak parallel with the reeds
Many believe the cryptic bittern is the origin of the legend of the bunyip – a spirit creature living in swamps, making loud, terrifying noises at night. During the breeding season, at dawn and dusk, the bittern’s distinctive call certainly booms across the Egg Island landscape and beyond.
I waited in anticipation, standing solitary like a prisoner of old, but the “bunyip” was to escape me yet again.