For 12 years I searched for tawny frogmouths in my local birding patch, the Waterworks Reserve in Dynnyrne.
It was a tantalising hunt for a decade. I had heard frogmouths calling over the years, at dawn and dusk and sometimes in the night when I had also searched for masked owls.
I had also seen frogmouths in other areas of Hobart but I had always been told about their location by readers. I had never been able to track down these amazing birds, with superb camouflage seemingly merging with bark and branch, on my own.
It was so different when I lived in Queensland and I learned the type of trees the frogmouths preferred to hide in – a local paperbark – and I could find them at will on my rounds.
One year a bushfire extensively burned a patch of bush where frogmouths were resident and a pair I had studied for some months decided to stay put, and throw caution and camouflage to the wind. For about a year the frogmouths stood out on a blackened branch, their beautiful plumage of ashy grey with tawny, shaggy layers designed to resemble branch, actually drawing attention to them. The pair went on to build a twiggy nest and rear two young.
No such luck in Hobart and I was at a loss to determine what were their favourite trees in Tasmania. The frogmouths pointed out to me were mainly hidden in a variety of introduced, exotic trees in the suburbs – a notable sighting being on a branch of a winter-bare oak overhanging the busy Macquarie St in South Hobart.
My obsession with frogmouths started from the first time I saw them as zoo specimens when I lived in the United States and when I see them now I cast my mind back to a morning in the Bronx Zoo in New York where a zoo official proudly pointed out his new acquisition from Australia. I had never known of the tawny frogmouth before then.
Frogmouths are members of the nightjar family and are not owls as many people believe. They hunt moths and flying insects at night, catching prey with large open mouths that indeed resemble those of a frog. They are also very large for nightjars – up to 46 centimetres in length – and for the observant birder with time to search the trees from which they have been heard calling they should be relatively easy to find.
It was not to be the case in the Waterworks Reserve, however. I studied suitable areas of open woodland – on dry sclerophyll side of the reserve that catches the sun all day – and settled on a spread of silver and white peppermints to scan over time.
For 12 years as I passed the spot I checked the trees but was never successful. Then one day in late summer this year with satin flycatchers in my sights I noticed an unusual shape in a silver peppermint and raised my binoculars to study it more closely. In the lower part of the tree, where the first extensive bough branched from the trunk, I noticed a curious shape, which looked like a round knot.
The rounded shape was exactly the same colour and texture of the bark and I genuinely believed that what I was looking at was just an usual growth in the tree. At that point the “knot” blinked and my tawny frogmouth hunt was at an end.