MY birthday this year coincided with the two-monthly meeting of BirdLife Tasmania and I was faced with a dilemma: enjoy a celebratory evening with my family or hear a talk on endangered species. I chose the latter.
As I explained to my wife and son, I’ve reached the age when birthdays are not a time for celebration and, anyway, BirdLife Tasmania meetings always turn up something interesting, a sort of celebration in themselves.
This year it looked like the meeting might even produce a birthday present.
Before the business end of proceedings, members as usual were asked to report unusual sightings of birds. It was revealed a rare masked owl had been spotted roosting in a red-flowering gum outside the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery just that very afternoon. Someone at the meeting even had a picture of it, taken on their mobile phone. Early next morning, I headed straight into town, to see the owl for myself.
Well, as often happens with these sightings, the owl had moved on, and I was left to mope on the pavement outside the museum on Macquarie St. But all was not lost. Another birder who had been searching for the owl, Els Wakefield, told me that she had seen an even rarer Lewin’s rail in a creek near Kettering and she promised to show me the spot in coming days.
I must say, after the masked owl experience and others in recent months, I travelled to Kettering with little hope of seeing the elusive rail, a small waterbird that lurks amid reeds at the water’s edge. Members of the rail and crake family are generally hard to spot, except the much bigger relative, the Tasmanian native-hen, which in recent weeks had kept me awake at night with mating rituals at the end of my garden.
I digress. The Lewin’s rail was in residence in a marsh at Oyster Cove on the d’Entrecasteaux Channel. Els Wakefield had timed our arrival for low tide so the mudflats fringing the marsh would be exposed and this would make the rail easier to find.
She said there were in fact several rails present, although I still didn’t hold out much hope of finding them.
It proved, however, to be a wonderful place to watch birds, one I had not visited before. As soon as we had left the car parked in a woodland a short way from the water’s edge we spotted usually hard to find strong-billed honeyeaters in the treetops and a shining bronze-cuckoo called, the first of the spring. At the shore, a white-bellied sea eagle cruised by and then the search for the rails began in earnest.
We checked two or three areas of marshland before retiring to a spot where Els had seen the rails in recent days. And there they were, two of them probing for red marine worms in the soft mud of the bay.
The sub-species of Lewin’s rail found in Tasmania is a threatened species, largely because of the drainage and degradation of its habitat. They are not common on the mainland either and Els told me that a handful of mainland birders had made the trip to Tasmania to see the ones she had found.
The rails are only 21 centimetres in length – a little larger than a yellow-throated honeyeater – and are clothed in a beautiful plumage; finally barred black and white on grey bodies, with russet feathers on the back of the neck and head. A long, slightly down-curved bill for prising out worms and crabs from mud helps to identify them.
We watched the two rails going about their business for an hour so before we travelled south to find beautiful firetail finches at Tinderbox. The rails, though, were the highlight of the day and I received my 68th birthday present after all.