The end of summer, the dimming of the light, does not approach imperceptibly, slowly as might be imaged. It also comes with a chilly blast of wind at the start or end of a sunny day.
Usually it also arrives in silence. The birds stop singing, reading the signals that summer is on the wane. This year, however, the autumn announced its arrival in a different form – hardhead ducks turned up earlier than usual on the two reservoirs of the Waterworks Reserve.
The changing of the seasons is not only manifested by a slight change in weather or an absence of birdsong. It is also represented by a changing of the guard in the Waterworks Valley embracing my home turf. The woodland and forest birds visiting from the mainland make way for domestic migrants moving down from higher ground.
This movement of birds, however, is not confined to leaf and canopy. Out on the lakes of the reserve the resident coots and pacific black and wood ducks are joined by arrivals who have bred in the fresh water, sheltered bays of the upper Derwent and Huon rivers, or high country billabongs and lakes.
These include the hardheads, also called white-eyed ducks. It was a surprise to find them on February 25, three days before the end of summer.
On my calendar, signified by the portents of nature and not the pages of a diary, it was official: summer was over, and it was time to prepare for the slow and inevitable slide into winter.
It was nice to see the hardheads all the same. They are one of the most elegant of Tasmania’s duck species but they carry their beauty in a subtle way. None of the striking russet and bronze plumage found in the chestnut teal, or the steel-blue shimmering hue of the male shoveller.
The hardheads are clothed in brown overall, slightly mottled on the wings and underbody, with a head of chocolate brown. In fact, they could almost be described as an assorted mix in a tray of chocolate: dark mocca on the head, milk on the breast. This is all set of by a sparkling white eye, and a flash of white feathers under the tail.
We classify ducks simply as being grazers, dabblers or divers. The wood ducks are grazers, the black dabblers and the hardheads fall into the third category – not diving for fish but for vegetation on the lake or sea floor out of reach of other ducks.
While I watched three hardheads at the reserve, they leaped forward from the water and dived smoothly under its surface without hardly a ripple. Along with aquatic plants they also feed on crustaceans and other water life.
The hardhead is wholly protected in Tasmania and so is not included in the five species that can be hunted during the duck-hunting season, which opened earlier this month. Away from the guns, the black and wood ducks form a happy community at the reserve and each year, awaiting the return of the hardheads, I always look for the other wildfowl so prized by hunters but I’ve never been able to add grey and chestnut teals and the mountain duck to my Waterworks checklist.