Snow clouds gathering, and a flock of black currawongs is deserting kunanyi/Mt Wellington for lower ground.
A big flock of them – 20 or 30 birds – is flying through the Waterworks Valley where I live, issuing the currawong trumpet call as they go by, heading east.
Tasmanian folklore suggests that it is the sight of yellow-tailed black cockatoos in Hobart which foretells of extreme winter weather. In my experience, it is the black currawong – or mountain jay as they are also known – which heralds blizzards on the mountain and in its foothills, and a chill in the air.
Tasmanians who extol currawongs as weather forecasters point out that after the severe winter of 1994 a clan of black currawongs left the mountain all together and stayed in the Hobart suburbs to breed for what was believed to be the first time.
Although Tasmania is mountainous with an extensive alpine zone there are no species of bird here that can be described as purely birds of the high country. The alps of Europe have the alpine chough and the mountains of New Zealand, the mountain parrot or kea. In Tasmania we have to settle for the black currawong, an endemic species which can also be found in some lowland areas, Bruny Island among them.
The currawong, though, has an important relationship with the mountain environment, being responsible for the spread of seeds of alpine shrubs and trees. Among these are the mountain pink berry. The currawongs strip the shrubs of berries and then regurgitate the berry seeds, after devouring the flesh of the fruit.
On mountain trails, including those of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, a cloying mass of berry peel and seeds – which resemble pink scats – can be seen towards the end of summer. In time, rain dissolves the pellets and the seeds lodge in holes in the soil.
There are two species of currawong found in Tasmania. The second, the grey currawong, is also found on the mainland.
To confuse nature lovers trying to separate the two species, the sub-species of grey currawong found here is black in colour, like the black currawong. But it can be easily identified because it has more extensive white in the wings and has white feathers under the tail.
The two species can be found together on kunanyi/Mt Wellington but the bolder Tasmanian one is more likely to be found around visitors to the summit and other look-outs from which it will beg lollies and chips.
The songs and calls of the two species are also markedly different. The grey currawong makes a “clinking” sound – giving it its Tasmanian name of clinking currawong – while the black jay has a song which sounds more like a trumpet, not in the hands of miles davis but a musician in a street band
The black currawong’s song is the signature tune of the mountains but it is not pleasing to all ears. The explorer and naturalist John Gould once described the black jay’s song as sounding like “an organ grinder out of tune”.