The sound of spring echoed through the Waterworks Valley in mid-August, even though winter was refusing to loosen its grip and there was snow on Mt Wellington.
On a rare sunny day amid frost and snow, I heard the call of the striated pardalote, the first of the summer migrants to arrive in the suburbs.
The swallow might herald spring in other parts of the world, but traditionally in Hobart the pardalote announces the end of winter with its resonant three-note call.
Out in the country there is an earlier arrival, that of the swamp harrier which times its crossing of Brass Strait to coincide with the first chicks produced by an early nester, the masked lapwing.
A few weeks before I see or hear my first migratory pardalotes, I always receive excited calls from people witnessing the arrival of the harriers in country districts on the fringe of the city. Then the calls about the first welcome swallows come in, but each year the pardalotes fly under the radar, even though they are in fact one of the commonest birds to arrive from the mainland, at least in my experience. The pardalotes, though, are tiny and not as obvious as the dramatic harriers sweeping across the paddocks on upturned wings, or the soaring, gliding swallows.
The pardalotes tend to keep to the treetops and, if you don’t recognise their song, you’d never know they were there spring and summer-long.
This year the pardalotes arrived early. August 14 in my diary. Last year they were only a week ahead of the swallows, the pardalotes arriving on August 25. I don’t even have to jot down the date of the swallows’ arrival, without fail they always seem to arrive on the first or second day of September.
I always thought that my noting of spring arrivals was a strangely British eccentricity, along the lines of the traditional letter to The Times announcing the first cuckoo of the northern spring.
I’ve since learned that I’m not alone in my seasonal obsession (I also note when the birds depart). I may not be a scientist, preferring the power of words to describe the wonders of wildlife around me, but all the same I have discovered this year that I have been a participant in the study of what is termed phenology.
The literature of natural history, indeed the study of natural history itself, is littered with references to not only the first bird songs of spring, but to the flowering of plants and trees. The first snowdrops and daffodils are as potent a symbol of the new season as the “cuck-oo, cuck-oo” call which floats across the fields and paddocks after members of this bird species arrive from Africa.
The noting of seasonal events might have fuelled much literature in the past but it has taken on a new dimension with increasing concern about the affects of the burning of fossil fuels on the environment.
This is not the time and place to get into the debate about global warming, but it is a fact that the temperatures year-round are increasing and this is having an effect on the seasons, and the timing and incidence of migrations of not just birds, but of fish.
I can’t be specific about how this is affecting Tasmanian birds at the moment (I only have anecdotal evidence at hand), but certainly fish usually found in the warmer waters of the south-eastern Australian coast are being caught in Tasmania in increasing numbers.
This may be well cyclical in nature as climate-change sceptics insist, but all the same it is worth noting these changes in migration patterns, and this is where the citizen scientists like myself can play their part.
Meantime, I am actually going to miss the great spring migration this year because I am taking a holiday in South Africa. The column will continue, however, and I have articles on gardening for birds planned to coincide with spring.
No early welcome swallows, or pallid cuckoos for me. But I will seek consolation in the first call of the diederik [ok] cuckoo, a migrant which follows the rains in Africa after the winter dry season.