There I was out on the flat surface of Sphinx Rock half-way up Mt Wellington, looking down on the city spread out before me, contemplating life, and my place in it, as I often do from such a lofty position.
Usually I prefer to be alone on my rambles in and out of the clouds tumbling from the mountain top but this time I felt another presence, not in a sinister or malign way, just another being out there seeking solace and perhaps a little silence away from the hubbub, the hurly burly of life.
I was not mistaken in my suspicion I was not alone. As I looked to my right, looked in the direction of the azure Southern Ocean, a native-hen casually strolled in my direction from a cluster of bushes hugging the precipice of the scenic outlook.
The young male walked slowly, and purposefully, straight towards me, then paused for a moment and gave me a curious stare. Starting on his travels again, he moved around me, crossing the rock before vanishing in the direction of the Organ Pipes and the summit above me.
I see native-hens all the time, in small family groups, at lake or stream-side, sometimes with fluffy, jet-black chicks at the Waterworks Reserve, but I could never, ever recall seeing one on Mt Wellington. What’s more, I could never recall seeing a lone native-hen.
I immediately dubbed the bird “Triabunna” (the name the Aborigines on Bruny Island gave to the species) and sat down on a tree stamp a little way back from the Sphinx Rock precipice to contemplate his fate, amid the circling of mountain currawongs and forest ravens.
At 720 metres, Triabunna had come a long way for a flightless bird. As a young male, was he the prodigal son, exploring pastures new, making a new life for himself away from the flock?
Perhaps the stresses and strains of native-hen life had proven too much for him. The endemic native-hen is unusual in the bird world because it belongs to a matriarchal society in which females take a harem of attentive males. The males, many of them in their first flush of youth, vie for attention, forever trying to catch the female’s eye. Much pushing and shoving, and pecking, goes on for sexual favours.
Sitting on my log, I was thinking not of life in the city below me now, but life as a young, male native-hen. Was the lone male who had nonchalantly sauntered by me genuinely trying to make his own way in the world, or was he merely lost; losing his sense of direction, and heading for a harsh, rocky environment totally unsuited to a flightless bird of paddock, water and marsh.
I’ll never know. I looked for Triabunna on subsequent walks from the Springs to Sphinx Rock. I didn’t see him again but now when I hear the native-hen mating cry, sometimes at night from the end of my garden, I always think of him.
A flightless bird, spreading his wings away from the flock.
The native-hen is endemic to Tasmania and is one of the species that has benefitted from European settlement. The native-hens in past times would have been confined too marshland and the wet margins of forest but clearance of native vegetation for farmland has created an ideal environment for them.
There are potential dangers ahead though. The constant threat of foxes taking hold in Tasmania – as they have done on the mainland – would prove a disaster for a flightless bird.