A quiet Sunday afternoon in the suburbs surrounding Prince of Wales Bay.
People walking dogs, a man fishing from a boat, children playing in a playground at the water’s edge. It could have been any suburb, any Sunday, until something remarkable happened, an event which could only occur in a city where the human and natural worlds come together and share common ground.
A fur seal made an appearance, drawing human onlookers to the foreshore and sending anxious black swans and grebes splashing on their way.
My reason to be at the bay was to count seagulls as part of the survey of their numbers conducted by Birdlife Tasmania each year. I lingered, though, because of the array of wildlife which presented itself both on the still sheltered waters and on the muddy shores.
I had arrived at low tide with expanses of mud attracting oystercatchers and hunting white-faced herons, both probing the mud for worms and other invertebrate life.
On the water small parties of hoary-headed grebes dived for fish, vanishing for what seemed like ages under the water. The grebes weaved their way between great and little pied cormorants and black swans.
Prince of Wales Bay is surrounded by heavy industry, the Incat catamaran works and assorted marine engineering businesses among the plants which see tugs and all manner of other craft anchored or tied to moorings.
Despite this, wildlife still finds a happy home there. In past years I have seen pelicans and I again scanned the bay and the wider waters of the Derwent for them. But at that moment something else caught my eye, a movement in the water, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. First a bow wave, then a flipper and a whiskered nose, a seal hunted fish right before my eyes, a large fur seal with broad, rounded back breaking the surface like a miniature whale.
Such was the intensity of the action – tidal waves in the context of the small, enclosed bay – that the grebes and swans were given a fright and paddled rapidly to shallower water nearer the shore. I watched the seal for half an hour, joined by excited schoolchildren from the park who ran to a jetty for a better view. At one point, the seal’s head emerged from the water, with a big silver fish in its teeth.
Up until that moment my day had developed into a bit of a chore. I was just thinking there must be better places to be, and better things to do, on a cold, winter’s Sunday morning. But birdwatching is not just about watching birds. It’s also about gathering information to aid scientific study and conservation.
Each year I join the annual gull count designed to determine the size of the populations of the three gull species found in the state, the silver, kelp and pacific gulls, and to see if there is any fluctuation in number. It is a vital census not only for the birds, but for the human inhabitants of Tasmanian coastal cities because gulls are a vital indicator of the health of environments. Any pollution and poisons in our waters would soon show up in reduced gull numbers.
Because of their scavenging at fast-food outlets, and on city tips, gulls are termed “rats with wings” in some quarters, but a day spent counting them reveals social and engaging creatures, to say nothing of the beautiful plumage displayed by adults once they have lost their dirty brown juvenile feathers.
Usually I only see silver and kelp gulls on the stretch of the Derwent I survey – both sides of the river from the Tasman to the Bridgewater bridges – but this year I found a pair of pacific gulls at Cornelian Bay, species I consider the most beautiful of our gulls.
I had started out on the survey under overcast skies and when I reached Prince of Wales Bay the sun was shining. It was to become a day to remember in the suburbs and it had nature’s seal of approval.