About five years ago I added a new species to my bird sightings at the Waterworks Reserve in South Hobart – the humble coot.
Because the Eurasian coot was so familiar during my youth in Britain more than half a century ago I never paid them much attention when I first saw them in Australia. But to see them at my local reserve for the first time was notable, especially as one pair raised chicks that first year.
I now learn from the 2017 Tasmanian Bird Report – a marvellous journal recording what’s been happening in the avian world across Tasmania in the previous year – that what I had seen was indeed a rare event.
On top of that I have discovered coots are migratory, flying considerable distances by night.
The revelation about coot nesting comes from contributors to the bird report, William Davis and Peter Brown, and their article also contains much fascinating reading about these members of the rail family, not least a detailed history of their movements and breeding attempts in Tasmania over the years from when they were first discovered rearing young here, in 1909.
They were not recorded breeding again until the early 1970s and in twos and threes they have been sighted nesting sporadically ever since.
One of the early observations about coots came from my illustrious predecessor, Michael Sharland, who wrote about nature in the Mercury under the pseudonym of the “Peregrine” for 60 years before he retired in the 1980s.
In 1960 Sharland wrote that coot’s eggs were prized by avid egg collectors in the early 20th century because they were so rare. He also commented on the migratory habits of the coots, including an instance when thousands of birds synchronised their departure from Tasmania in 1956.
Despite these mass migrations at times, the travels of the coots is described as dispersive without regular seasonal patterns of moment. Their breeding is also irregular, although as the observers at the Waterworks Reserve noted, the breeding in Tasmania follows the mainland nesting period from late September to December or early January.
Coots can be seen on virtually any stretch of open freshwater in Tasmania and are easily identified from the closely related and similarly-sized dusky moorhen by their round black bodies and white face masks.
Although I now learn they are strong fliers, they usually appear reluctant to take to the wing, merely running across the surface of rivers and lakes, beating their wings rapidly and splashing the water with their large splayed feet.
As soon as I read the coot article I went down to the Waterworks Reserve to check on the coots. Two birds were in a courtship display so hopefully I will once again later this year or early next see their fluffy jet-black chicks pestering the parents for food.
And if I am a little less tardy about recording sightings on the BirdlIfe Tasmania data base we might be a little closer to solving what Sharland described 57 years ago as the “Tasmanian coot mystery”.