A pied oystercatcher probing the neatly manicured lawn on the Queens Domain at the entrance to Hobart was a fitting symbol for the city’s wildlife wonders on a glorious winter’s day.
Untroubled by the passing traffic, the beautiful bird dressed in black and white plumage, and carrying an impossibly long red beak, went about its business against the snowy backdrop of Mt Wellington.
As I watched the bird from across the road, standing in the car park of the Hobart Aquatic Centre, I had to ask myself where else in the world would you find a wader, and one of the most elegant and beautiful at that, feeding within virtually the central business district of a major city.
Throw in a peregrine falcon streaking across the sky, and the chatter of eastern rosellas and musk lorikeets feeding on silver birch seeds in the swimming pool grounds and the picture of the Hobart idyll was complete.
It just so happened I had been counting pied oystercatchers, hundreds of them, the previous week as part of Birdlife Tasmania’s annual winter wader count, to accompany one carried out during the summer months.
I should have been tired of the oystercatchers, and their close relative, the sooty oystercatcher, but I must say I can never ignore them, especially when they turn up so close to the city centre.
When bird-watchers set out to study waders, they usually have the migratory birds in mind, the ones like the curlews and godwits which migrate to the northern hemisphere to breed, some nesting within the Arctic Circle.
The local, resident waders tend to be overlooked and this is why the winter wader count is important because it mainly involves the birds which do not leave our shores.
A count of numbers is important because it gives an indication of how local birds are faring under increasing pressure on their nesting sites.
South-east Tasmania, in fact, holds about six per cent of the global population of pied oystercatchers and so maintaining this population is vitally important. It might appear small compared with the rest of the country, but wader numbers are known to fluctuate locally under adverse conditions and so it is vital to maintain healthy and strong populations in as many places as possible.
Birdlife Tasmania has been monitoring wader numbers for half a century and looking at past figures, the pied oystercatchers appear to be holding their own, along with their sooty relatives.
But threats to their numbers increase each year, threats that would have been unheard of when Birdlife Tasmania started monitoring numbers all those years ago in what are some of the oldest surveys of shorebirds in the country.
The pied and sooty oystercatchers, along with two other beach and shoreline nesting birds, the hooded and red-capped plover, are under severe pressure from disturbance at nesting sites.
As Tasmania’s human population increases, and demand grows for homes close to the shore, the oystercatchers are often forced to move out, usually because their nests are trampled and disturbed by beachgoers, their vehicles and their dogs and horses.
Another serious threat to the beach-nesting birds is rising sea levels.
There might be much debate about whether global warming – which would result in higher sea levels – is man-made or merely a cyclical event in nature, but it is a fact that breaches and wetlands are being invaded by ever higher tides.
In recent years I have seen increasing numbers of oystercatchers forced to roost on roads on the South Arm at high tide, simply because there is no place for them on the shore. They often become roadkill.
And on much of the entire Eastern Shore in spring, particularly around Lauderdale, there is evidence of oystercatchers nesting closer and closer to roads, utilising the only space available.
Taking a break from bird-watching at a cafe on the Lauderdale foreshore last summer, I saw a pied oystercatcher incubating eggs right at the roadside. She had laid her eggs on stretch of sand not a metre wide, just below the South Arm Highway.
Like so many of her kin in south-east Tasmania, the oystercatcher was stuck between a rock and a hard place.