The world of birds can lead you to all sorts of strange and wondrous places but I never thought I would be sneaking off from a drinking session with my journalist mates to go in search of orchids.
I made my excuses down the Salamanca strip, turning my back on a rather fine ale, Itchy Green Pants at Jack Greene’s bar, to rediscover the parson in the pulpit in the Waterworks Reserve.
Parson in the pulpit is the common name for a stunningly beautiful orchid, Glassodia major, which had caught my attention a few days previously when I had joined my local landcare group’s annual orchid walk. Joining the walk was part of a plan to extend my knowledge of nature beyond mere birds.
The plant was one of about 10 orchid species we had found but the Glassodia major, the largest and most spectacular of Tasmania’s orchids, made such an impression that I felt compelled to leave my drinking buddies and go in search of it again.
It was a matter of urgency because orchids have a very brief flowering period, sometimes days, and I was worried that this specimen would vanish before I could see it again. There was also the possibly it could be picked, or collected illegally as a complete plant, because it was at the side of a track and was pretty easy to spot.
I correct the “easy to spot” line. Ferreting around in the leaf litter, I realised that I had approached the site where it had been seen from the opposite direction, and the single flower was possibly facing the other way and hard to see. Then again, it might have been the effects of Itchy Green Pants playing havoc with my senses and making the “parson” difficult to spot a second time round.
As I had discovered during the previous weekend, a keen and sober eye is needed to spot orchids. There is not much to these fragile plants except for the flower, atop a single, thin stem. In the parson’s case, they only have one green leaf perfectly camouflaged against the forest floor.
Luckily I had a keener eye than my own on this occasion. My wife is not an over-keen birdwatcher but my enthusiastic descriptions of beautiful orchids, right here on our doorstep in the WaterworksValley, had aroused her curiosity and she was eager to join me in the search.
With birds calling all around us, it was inevitable I would become distracted on the orchid hunt and I soon found myself increasingly looking upwards at the trees.
I could hear the musical notes of black-faced cuckoo shrikes, or summerbirds as they are known in Tasmania, in the canopy of black peppermint gums and I searched for them with my binoculars. They were the first summerbirds of the spring to arrive at the Waterworks Reserve, and initial sightings are always something of a celebration. I had seen the first of the dusky woodswallows just a few days earlier.
The sight of a purple beard orchid soon brought me back to orchid mode. Stunning, mysterious and diverse, Australia’s 1700 orchids are the jewels of our flowering plants. I now regret overlooking them in the past. I’ve been too busy looking up at birds, and not looking down, a realisation that came to me when I joined a fungi foray in the autumn, which I wrote about in a previous column.
The trails of the Waterworks Reserve, which I have walked at least three times a week for the past 12 years, are dotted with orchids and I am staggered that I have not noticed them before during the flowering period of late spring. The orchids are giving my birdwatching forays an added dimension, especially the latest I have discovered – the large bird orchid.