Constitution Dock, at the very heart of the Hobart waterfront, might seem an unlikely location to watch birds but over the years it has provided me with some magical birding moments.
It seems fitting, therefore, that BirdLife Tasmania volunteers seize the opportunity when the biennial Wooden Boat Festival comes around to take exhibition space to promote the conservation work they do.
The emphasis at the information stand this festival earlier in the month was threatened wetland habitat and the marsh and shorebirds they support but, considering the location, the conversation invariably swung the way of marine species.
A hot topic proved to be little penguins, and the heroic efforts about 100 pairs of these seabirds are making to maintain a presence in the Derwent Estuary. Low numbers now are a far cry from the time of European settlement when they were counted in their hundreds of thousands in Tasmania and even supported an industry in Hobart exploiting their meat, oil and pelts.
Volunteering to help man the BirdLife Tasmania stall for a couple of days, I was delighted to hear not only penguin stories, but accounts of other seabird sightings from the hundreds of visitors to the festival who stopped by.
And I had a few of my own anecdotes about penguins actually being sighted within the Constitutional Dock itself.
Once a staff member of the Mercury reported excitedly that, while canoeing in Constitution Dock, he had been shocked to see a penguin pop its head out of the water right in front of his craft. I’ve heard of other sightings, but the most remarkable was last year when a penguin somehow managed to waddle out of the harbour and cross the adjacent Morrison Street.
The penguin was found trying to mount the steps of the Custom House Hotel, before being rescued and eventually returned to the water.
Ensuring the survival of the little penguin in Hobart waters has been one of the many success stories of the Derwent Estuary Program. Penguin nesting sites have been identified and penguin nesting boxes placed where necessary.
Signage has also been erected to alert beach users to the presence of penguins but, unfortunately, this has not always deterred dog walkers. Dog attack remains the main direct cause of penguin mortality.
Recent dogs attacks have trimmed the penguin population from a modern-day high of about 200 pairs a few years back to half that number now.
At the Wooden Boat Festival the conversation was not just about penguins. The estuary remains a rich hunting ground for the nature lover with, together with birds, seals, whales, dolphins and even the occasional killer whale to be seen.
During the festival I took a time out to see what was going on in the immediate bird world. But the black-faced cormorants and crested terns I often watch in Constitution Dock were standing aloof from all the human nautical activity. They stationed themselves off-shore, waiting patiently for the event to end so they could reclaim the docks as their own.