A family of “turbo chooks” scurried across the tree-lined drive leading to Government House confirming what I had come to see – Tasmanian native-hens had taken up residence there.
I had written in recent months of native-hens and wood ducks invading the city and here was another example. The hens and ducks were keeping each other company, happily foraging on the manicured grass verge skirting the drive.
I had been alerted to the birds’ presence by the Official Secretary to the Governor, David Owen, and within days I was being given a tour of the mansion’s extensive grounds by Mr Owen and the Garden Supervisor, Steve Percival.
What’s more, Mr Percival had drawn up a checklist of the birds he had spotted in the grounds over the years, the native-hens and wood ducks new additions.
In all there were about 40 species on the list and as we strolled the grounds on a beautiful spring day we saw many of them, including a grey fantail snatching at insects disturbed by our footsteps.
The 15-hectare of gardens proved to be a bird haven and it was easy to see why. The grounds mix not only a formal parkland in the style of the English landscape garden designer Capability Brown, but open pasture and a smaller garden devoted to Tasmanian native plants. And at the garden’s centre is an ornamental, water lily-dotted lake which occupies the quarry that provided the sandstone to build the Governor’s residence. Hidden to the side of this, reached by a narrow flight of sandstone steps, is a Japanese garden.
The lakes and the fringing riparian vegetation provide an additional lure for birds favouring such habitat. White-faced herons can sometimes be seen hunting fish and frogs in the main lake’s shallows and little black cormorants – which favour sheltered fresh water rivers and lakes over their marine counterparts – sometimes pay a call.
It’s not all rosy for the gardeners, however. Mr Percival and his staff charged with keeping the grounds, and the house, in tip-top condition are on constant watch for birds not giving the Governor’s historic home the respect it deserves. In the orchard, apple trees have been netted for the first time after raids by musk lorikeets and sulphur-crested cockatoos have at times damaged the fabric of the actual 1855 building, including pecking at the face of the majestic clock.
The grounds of Government House are far from a static exhibit and a recent innovation has been the establishment of an imagined replica of the garden planted by the French during the d’Entrecasteaux expedition to Tasmania in 1792. Although the vegetables of that garden are long lost, Government House managed to source the seed varieties planted at Recherche Bay from a heritage nursery in Paris.
The garden will be a new point of interest to the public visiting Government House but it is strictly off-limits to the seed and grub-eating native-hens. The flightless birds may have made friends in high places but access to the French vegetable patch would be extending the welcome mat too far.