The last of the summer migrants, the beautiful satin flycatchers, have arrived safely this year at the place I always find them in mid-spring, a stretch of white peppermint eucalypt woodland in the Waterworks Reserve.
These birds are the most eye-catching of the migrants, the males with a plumage of shimmering satin feathers on their head and backs, set against a silvery-grey on the breast. The females mix grey, ivory and a splash of russet on the throat.
The flycatchers inhabit the eucalypt canopy – where they hunt flying insects, as their name suggests – but even high up in the trees they are easily identified by their erratic behaviour. The birds when perched flick their tails, and then send their bodies into a kind of quiver before launching into the air. A rasping, unmelodic song also announces their presence.
The flycatchers are lucky to be able to return to an area of largely pristine, undisturbed bush year after year, unlike so many of our migrants.
By coincidence, the morning I saw the first flycatchers of spring I found a letter from Birdlife Australia in my letter box, drawing attention to vanishing habitat for migrant birds.
The birding organisation announced a “Welcome back the birds” appeal to raise funds to preserve vanishing habitat across the country.
“Spring is here and the birds are returning – it’s up to us to make sure their homes are always ready for them,” the letter said.
“Cockatoos, shorebirds, swift parrots and orange-belled parrots, among others, are returning from their travels. And thanks to our monitoring and advocacy efforts, we continually strive to ensure that areas important for their survival are ready and waiting.”
The issue has grabbed the headlines this spring with the Mercury reporting that a vital breeding site for short-tailed shearwaters has been bulldozed on KingIsland to make way for a new golf course.
Conservationists and the Aboriginal community said they were concerned the development would result in many shearwater deaths this breeding season.
The shearwaters, more commonly known as muttonbirds in Tasmania, travel to the northern hemisphere during the Tasmanian winter, reaching seas off Alaska and Japan. They then return to the same burrows each year, in the same way that swallows by and large return to the same nests.
Birds are very specialised feeders and individual species require a specific habitat in which to rear young or, in the case of migratory shorebirds, to feed during the northern winter when the areas in which they breed freeze over. The swift parrot, or example, largely feeds in blue gums and seeks out nesting cavities in these trees. The loss of blue gum habitat means a loss of swift parrots.
It is often argued by developers that birds forced out of one area by a project will merely move to another, but this can often ignore the fact that a diversity of habitats might not be available elsewhere.
This issue came to the fore during the controversy over a proposed marina development on RalphsBay at Lauderdale a few years back. The local affiliate of Birdlife Australia said that shorebirds with long bills designed to probe the sand and mud of mudflats would not find suitable habitat in other areas which mainly comprised saltmarsh and reeds. And other mudflats in a more wider area would already have their resident birds.
Perhaps the biggest threat to migratory birds in southern Tasmania remains development along the coast, but at the moment I’m not paying too much attention to that. I’m just content to be listening to the rasping call of a satin flycatcher, a male pleased to be back in its happy home.