The internationally acclaimed Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart was declared “wild and wacky” when it first opened and the same description can be applied to Tasmania’s birds.
Where else would you find the “turbo chook” and the “chuck bird”?
Most if not all of Tasmania’s endemic species would sit well as exhibits at Mona, if not just for their curiosity, for their sublime beauty. David Attenborough might have found his birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea, but Tasmanians boast of one of their own – the shy and gentle green rosella, a parrot mixing greens of various shades, yellows and blues, plus a splash of red in its plumage. In the high country of Tasmania, it’s called the mountain parrot.
Tasmania is a popular destination for both international and Australian mainland birdwatchers because it has 12 species found nowhere else on earth – the largest number for any comparable area of Australia – and what is remarkable is that 11 of them can be found within the Hobart municipality, and the twelfth, the forty-spotted pardalote, a short distance away on Bruny Island.
Each of these species is enmeshed in Tasmanian folklore, born of their exclusivity to the island, of time and place. They perch along the long and winding road to not only Tasmania’s settler history – just 200 years of it – but to the Aboriginal past spanning the millennia.
The 12 endemic species are: Tasmanian native-hen, green rosella, dusky robin, Tasmanian thornbill, scrubtit, Tasmanian scrubwren, yellow wattlebird, yellow-throated honeyeater, black-headed honeyeater, strong-billed honeyeater, black currawong, and forty-spotted pardalote.
An ideal itinerary for a Tasmanian bird tour can start within walking distance of Hobart’s central business district, at the Queens Domain. Its extensive areas of dry woodland blend with the grounds of the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens at its eastern end.
My own favourite birding area within the city limits, however, is the Waterworks Reserve in the Waterworks Valley, just four kilometres to the south of the city. The reserve is centred on the historic structures – including two reservoirs – which to this day captures a water supply coming of kunanyi/Mount Wellington towering above it for use by the citizens of Hobart.
This guide, of the Waterworks and beyond in Hobart, merely serves to introduce Tasmania’s endemic birds and the two migratory breeding species, the orange-belled and swift parrots, and fuller descriptions will be found under the headings of individual species.
Entering the Waterworks, I have often seen the first of Tasmania’s endemic species I describe, the dusky robin, perched on the Victorian sandstone posts holding the reserve’s wrought-iron gates.
The dusky robin, in fact, is not hard to find at the Waterworks Reserve. Any of the dry woodland areas on its southern side should reveal the robin or, failing this, a trip to the Ridgeway Reserve a little closer to Mount Wellington.
The elusive dusky robin was known as the “stump bird” in pioneering times because of its habit of perching on the remains of trees felled as the woodlands were cleared both for wood and to create farmland. It endeared itself to the early settlers with its sweet melodic song and its trusting nature.
The entrance to the reserve also proves popular with two of the four honeyeaters only found in Tasmania, the yellow-throated and black-headed honeyeater. Both species are largely canopy feeders and they delight in hunting insects in the upper reaches of the mature blue gums within the first 50 metres or so of the reserve.
Birds can often to be difficult to see and identify in the canopy but the far-carrying calls of these honeyeaters draw attention to them. The yellowthroat has a musical, chattering call and the black-headed honeyeater an insistent “piping”. The black-headed honeyeater travels in loose flocks and within these it is worth checking on individual birds because strong-billed honeyeaters are often found among these parties.
The strong-bill is more likely to be found prising bark from the trunks and thicker branches of eucalypts and wattles, in the search for burrowing insects.
The fourth honeyeater found only in Tasmania, the yellow wattlebird, at up to 50cm, is the biggest and perhaps most dramatic of members of the extensive honeyeater family.
The wattlebird has a guttural, raucous call which in some bird books is described as sounding like someone retching or throwing up. Hence the name of “chuck bird”.
Among colloquial names, “turbo chook” applies to the Tasmanian native hen. It is flightless and makes up for its lack of air power with a surprising turn of speed.
This member of the rail family is very common in Tasmania, and can be seen in paddocks and on the grass verges along the main highway linking Hobart airport to the city. In the Waterworks Reserve it can be found in the wetter grassy areas.
The reserve is divided into wet and dry areas on its northern and southern slopes, stringybark gums dominating in the south and white, black and silver peppermints, and blue gums, on the slopes that catch the sun to the south.
The endemic species, however, are not exclusive to wet or dry forest and can be seen in both. The “cossick, cossick’’ call of the green rosella rings from above the two reservoirs as the parrots move from wet and dry areas of the reserve. They travel in small family parties and are a delight to watch when they alight in trees, and move about under the canopy, holding sprigs of twigs with seeds or flowers in their claws as they feed. Although the green rosellas are also known as mountain parrots, there are in fact no species exclusive to the alpine environment in Tasmania, unlike New Zealand with its kea.
The black currawong comes closest to being a mountain species. Its trumpeting song is the signature tune of the alpine environment, particularly the slopes of kunanyi/Mount Wellington. But it often comes down to lower altitudes and can sometimes be seen in the Waterworks Reserve.
The same goes for three other Tasmanian species more associated with the mountain, the Tasmanian thornbill, the Tasmanian scrubwren and the scrubtit, three of the LBBs, or “little brown birds”, that so often defy identification.
The trails in the wetter parts of the Waterworks Reserve, especially the one following the Sandy Bay Rivulet through wet woodland at the south-western tip of the reserve, reveal scrubwrens scurrying like mice out of the way of walkers, and it is possible to find the Tasmanian thornbill in wetter areas of the reserve.
Although recorded and photographed in the reserve, the scrubtit is elusive and I have never seen it there. The best place to find it is on the mountain itself.
Historic records suggest one of the world’s rarest birds, the forty-spotted pardalote, was once found in its favoured white gums within the Waterworks Reserve but it no longer occurs there. The closest it is found to Hobart is on Bruny Island. With a little patience it can be found in the white gum forests of the northern of the two islands.
The green rosella might be noted for its sheer beauty, but there are two other parrots capable of drawing attention to the eye, the endemic breeders.
The swift parrot, in shimmering iridescent green livery with crimson flashes in its wings and flashes of red on its face, can be seen in the Hobart suburbs when it first arrives from its wintering grounds on the mainland in spring. After feeding on flowering exotic vegetation it then moves into the blue gum forests of the east coast to breed. It can be elusive in summer after it has set out in search of blue gums in flower, but most years it is a common breeder on Bruny Island.
The orange-bellied parrot, the rarest wild bird in the world, can only be seen consistently on its limited breeding ground at Melaleuca in the Tasmanian south-west wilderness area. Access to Melaleuca, where the orange-bellied parrots can be viewed at two hides overlooking breeding stations, is only possible by a tourist flight from Hobart, or a hike talking a week along the South Coast Track from the Tasmanian south-east coast.
The walk, or the flight, is worth it. This tiny, delicate parrot with the splash of orange on its belly is far from wacky like some of the other Tasmanian species. And let’s hope it can remains wild.
A fuller guide to Tasmania’s endemic species can be found in the column on the right of this page.