The tawny frogmouth stared at me intently, cocking its head to one side as I moved closer to it at the Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary.
How many hours had I spent searching for “tawnies” on summer nights under the summit of Mount Wellington without success, only to find one now right in front of me, perched metres above my head, flying free in a wildlife sanctuary and floodlit at that?
Birds are like that, as I often write. They turn up in the most unlikely of places.
On this occasion I had been preoccupied not with birds, but with animals, entering the nocturnal world of bettongs, wombats, Tasmanian devils and spotted-tailed quolls. The owner and operator of Bonorong, Greg Irons, had opened the doors of the sanctuary one autumn night for members of BirdLife Tasmania to see first-hand the work he and his staff were doing.
Irons is always looking for recruits for his Friends of Critters (FOC) program and he was clearly looking to sign up the BirdLife Tasmania community, to add to his 800 volunteers dedicating of their time for the care of injured wildlife state-wide.
At the start of his guided tour, Irons climbed into the enclosure housing two female devils to demonstrate that they were not the ferocious animals often depicted in wildlife films, an image that Irons said caused some farmers to feel that they were a threat to livestock, justifying their persecution.
The two females are part of a breeding program to eventually return devils to the wild to restore populations decimated by the devastating Devil Facial Tumour Disease.
As Irons pointed out, Bonorong was not a zoo but a sanctuary dedicated to the care and rehabilitation of birds and animals. Unfortunately some cannot be returned to the wild, and these included two yellow-tailed black cockatoos grounded by gunshot wounds, which called to the night-time visitors from their aviary.
Not surprisingly, the presence of birds in the sanctuary and their wider care was foremost in the minds of the visitors who make birds their passion. As if scripted, while giving a talk on his FOC project, Irons received word that an injured wedge-tailed eagle had been discovered at Ouse and a plan was put in place for its rescue.
The Bonorong rescue service operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week and links all the volunteers with a mobile phone messaging system that allows volunteers to make their own decisions about the level of their involvement at a given time.
In the past year Bonorong has received more than 5000 calls for help from the public and strives to meet demand for its services often under difficult circumstances. Funds come from donations and visitor entry to Bonorong.
Regarding birds, there are peak times for certain species. Irons was relieved that Bonorong’s “muttonbird season” had ended with the last of the juvenile short-tailed shearwaters leaving these shores for wintering grounds in the northern pacific. During the summer there is also a tawny frogmouth season when young tawnies come to grief, falling out of nests in suburban gardens or being hit by cars on roads where they learn to hunt months attracted to street lights.
But two frogmouths making use of a flood-lit area of Boronong had not been released there and were wild resident birds. Irons says rehabilitated frogmouths are generally released in the area where they have been found.
As I toured Bonorong, I looked to the distant Mt Wellington silhouetted against a star-lit southern sky. And I remembered one recent night abandoning a tawny hunt on the Pinnacle Rd there because of a heavy snowfall. I was cold and wet. I could have been enjoying a BBQ at Boronong, with both snags and wild tawny frogmouths to order.