The air was thick with black coal smoke from a puffing, panting steam engine and a swirling mass of curlews.
I pictured the scene over the Sorell wetlands, my imagination running riot as I hunted for waterbirds one late winter’s afternoon earlier this month.
I always check the mudflats and wetlands surrounding Hobart in August, eagerly awaiting the first of the migrating waders arriving from breeding grounds in the northern hemisphere.
The marvellous eastern curlew, the biggest of the waders with a giant down-curved bill, are always in short supply and tracking them down can take hours of scanning the wetlands from Dodges Ferry, through to Sorell and Lauderdale.
What fired my imagination was a letter I had been shown recounting the great curlew hunts that used to take place at Pittwater on the approach to Sorell from Hobart 100 years ago.
As the long-abandoned steam train that linked the Bellerive quay with Sorrell chugged away in the distance, dozens of shooters would gather to hunt curlew for the pot.
Keen hunter Arthur Parker, who penned the letter in 1983, wrote that curlews could be counted in their thousands at many roosting and feeding points on the mudflats and saltmarshes.
“As a teenager for a few years I have shot and knew the habits of these birds. About 65 years aback – I am approaching 80 years – I was in organised shoots. There would be about 40 shooters. The curlew in those days would be from Dodges Ferry to Richmond in their countless thousands on all spits,’’ he wrote.
“Mid-afternoon they would fly over both the Sorell causeways [on theTasman Highway] as the tide rose. Shooters would try to shoot them so as they would drop on the causeways to save them wading in the water to collect them.
“The curlews were that fat in February that their breasts would often open up if they landed on the causeway.”
Another account from the same period, which appeared in a bulletin of the Tasmanian Shorebird Study Group in 1983, also described the sky being black with the birds. The large curlews – they are about 60 centimetres in length from beak tip to tail – made for a substantial meal, and the account noted “they taste much better than wild duck”.
Mr Parker, although a hunter in his youth, was by now a keen conservationist and he had definite ideas about what had caused the decline of the curlew which at the time of writing the letter were being counted in the tens as opposed to thousands in the Sorell area.
“I do not think for one moment shooting was the main cause of the non-arrival of the birds. I think that something has disturbed their habitat.”
Mr Parker was not talking about vanishing habitat along the curlew migration route, known as the East Asian-Australasian Flyway. Instead, he noted how the area between Hobart and Sorell, and beyond along the coast, had changed in his lifetime. Much of the bush, wet pasture and wetlands through which the Sorell train had run until the railway line closed in the 1920s, had now been consumed by suburbia, particularly in the areas of the Cambridge aerodrome.
A survey of eastern curlew in Tasmania, reported in the Emu ornithological journal in 2003, reported the species had declined by more than 65 per cent in Tasmania since the 1950s, when detailed, scientific accounts of their numbers were first recorded. The authors of the report said that vanishing habitat in both Tasmania, south-eastern Australia and along the Asian part of the flyway were to blame. Hunting for the pot also played a part in Asia.