Something lost, something found. Australia Day always engenders mixed feelings and emotions. I am glad to celebrate as a new Australian but at the same time I lament all that has been lost to my adopted country since my English countrymen first set foot on the continent.
I spent Australia Day on January 26 at the Sandy Bay regatta, munching Aussie lamb burgers and drinking a little too much Tasmanian-brewed ale.
All the while welcome swallows flew among the revellers on the great lawns just behind the waterfront at Sandown Park and in the blue gums musk lorikeets called their high-pitched, screeching call.
At such locations, and on such days, I always imagine what the scene would have looked like when Van Dieman’s Land was first established, and what birds beyond the ubiquitous swallows, lorikeets and noisy miners would have been seen.
A clue to the diversity of wildlife at this very spot is given in an information panel headed “horse, hound and top hat”, describing early hunting parties.
“If you had been standing here 200 year ago, the blast of shotguns would have been heard in the bush. Sandy Bay was a favourite hunting ground of the Reverend Charles Knopwood. Wattlebirds, pigeons, ducks, rosellas, wallabies, kangaroos and even the now extinct Tasmanian emu, they all went into pots, pans and pies in Bobby Knopwood’s kitchen – and were all washed down by the rum and ales the sociable and harsh-drinking cleric enjoyed so much.”
It is not only the endemic emus – another species was found on King Island – that have been lost. The Tasmanian tiger or thylacine – which no doubt inhabited the shores of Sandy Bay – was also been consigned to extinction by a colonial power which had little regard for native flora and fauna, to say nothing of the indigenous people.
Australia Day in one sense represents a shameful past, but it can also become an instrument of righting wrongs. It could become a platform for extolling the country’s natural values. The regatta venue can almost be seen as a microcosm of the environmental dilemma. It’s still home to the rare swift parrot, even though birds are counted in their tens these days where once they flew through Sandy Bay in spring in their thousands. A program is underway to encourage swift parrots to use nesting boxes which might help halt their dramatic decline. The same goes for another bird once common in Sandy Bay, the forty-spotted pardalote. The endemic pardalote is still one of the rarest birds in the world but it is making comeback with efforts to preserve its white gum habitat, and to give it nest-box homes along the lines of the program designed for the swift parrots.
My favourite bellwether bird of conservation along the shores of the Derwent is the fairy penguin, a species once common in the sand dunes of Sandy Bay. The penguin is still hanging in as a breeding species at a secret location in Sandy Bay, or at least it was the last time I looked, and with a little consideration, particularly by dog-owners, it will remain a vital part of the Derwent environment.