The portents for my bird-watching in 2016 look good after what I term a remarkable discovery in the Waterworks Reserve near my home in Dynnyrne – the sighting of a flame robin.
My illustrious predecessor as the Mercury’s writer on nature, Michael Sharland, wrote in his Tasmanian Birds of 1948 that among members of the robin family, the flame robin was the one most likely to be seen in Tasmania. Well, 68 years on, I can write with authority that this is no longer the case.
I searched high and low for flame robins in the Hobart area from the time I arrived in Tasmania 16 years ago and invariably drew a blank. Instead I saw the robin Sharland relegated to second position, the scarlet robin, on most occasions.
So it was with some delight that I came across a flame robin unexpectedly in mid-December after hearing its unfamiliar song among the cacophony of birdsong at the Waterworks Reserve.
Since Sharland’s time the robin has certainly decreased in number across Tasmania and there has long been concern about its status. What’s worse, no reason has been established for this decline. Theories have ranged from land clearance to decreasing numbers of the insects that the robins feed on, possibly because of more intensive industrial agriculture.
In his book on Tasmanian birds, Sharland – who wrote under the Peregrine pen-name for 60 years – said that the flame robins migrated to the mainland but doubt has recently been thrown on the scale of this migration, with many, if not most, robins now believed to congregate in coastal and lowland areas of Tasmania during the winter months.
Flame robins in my experience generally frequent the higher elevations of Tasmania in the summer and I see then frequently along the Lenah Valley Track on kunanyi/Mt Wellington, and always find winter flocks along the coast of Bruny Island.
I count the flame robin as the most striking of the four family members found in Tasmania (the dusky and pink robins are the other two and these are also found in the reserve). It’s true the scarlet is brighter and more dramatic with black and white markings on the head and back to accentuate its red breast, but the flame robin is more subtle in colour: its breast and throat, as its name suggests, is more the colour of hot coals on a fire, and this is matched by a charcoal-coloured head and back.
The song is distinctive, too. Whereas the scarlet robin’s is a thin, descending twitter, the flame robin’s song is more strident, a high-pitched musical trill which has been interpreted as the bird singing “You may come if you wish to the sea”.
The robin singing its territorial song just inside the entrance to the reserve indicated that it was nesting in the area, and I’m now hoping the family will stay around for the entire year. That way I might be able to achieve one of the feats of Tasmanian birding – seeing all four robin species in a single day.