A great white egret gave me a menacing stare on the boardwalk which runs through the Tamar Wetlands Reserve in Launceston. The egret, standing more than a metre tall, had flown with slow, lazy flaps of his giant wings from his feeding ground in shallow water to roost on the boardwalk at mid-day.
The late autumn wind blowing in from the south had eased, and the beautiful egret with lacy, pure-white plumage wanted to soak up the sun which had just broken through the clouds.
Only I was invading its patch. There was only one thing for it. Although I knew the egret would not do me any harm with its long dagger beak, merely recognise a human was not to be played with and move aside, I gave the egret a moral victory and turned back. He was probably more in need of a little warmth from the sunshine than I was at the time.
There was a sub-plot to egret wars on the boardwalk. My mission to Launceston was more about the great north-south rivalry that exists in the state. I won’t say the north has the best birds – the egret can be found close to Hobart – but Launceston certainly has the best facilities for viewing them, particularly the water birds.
I had gone to Launceston on family business but when I am in the northern capital I always try to call in at the information centre at the heart of reserve, which is situated about 10 kilometres from the city centre, on the West Tamar Highway.
And every time I visit – if roosting egrets will allow it – I walk the 1.5km boardwalk to Tamar Island. And each time I ask myself: why can’t Hobart have such a wonderful amenity to open a window on the hidden corners of the River Derwent and its wider estuary?
The nearest local nature-lovers have to a Tamar-style wetlands centre is the Gould’s Lagoon at Austins Ferry but in recent years this has become a shadow of the reserve it once was when it was first established by nature lover Arthur Gould in 1938.
Suburbia has encroached on the land surrounding the reserve and at night its mini-boardwalk and viewing hide are often taken over by young people who use it as a meeting, and drinking, spot. An enclosed wooden hide that once overlooked the lagoon was burned to the ground a few years back and empty beer bottles and cans, and plastic bottles, often float in the waters.
No such mess at the Tamar Wetlands Reserve, whose spacious information centre is permanently manned by Parks and Wildlife staff and volunteers.
The centre has a wonderful view over ponds hemmed by phragmites reeds, with a backdrop of swamp paperbarks.
At just over 70km, the Tamar is one of the longest estuaries in Australia. The estuary contains extensive wetlands which, unlike many other parts of the country, have not been drained and converted to agriculture, the most important being those around Tamar Island.
The Tamar has not entirely escaped man’s attempts to tame the river. Close to Tamar Island are the hulks of ships deliberately sunk to control tidal flow and the reserve itself retains evidence, in the shape of lines of tyres which can be seen when water levels are low, of its past role as a go-cart track. There are also the remnants of duck-hunting hides.
But nature is resilient if given a chance and quickly reclaimed the area making up the reserve when it was set aside as a wildlife refuge in the 1980s.
I found myself having difficulty pulling myself away to head south again, and on the Midland Highway a stream of cars passed emblazoned with the colours of the Hawthorn footy side, playing the Gold Coast Suns at Aurora Stadium that afternoon.
With the egret encounter and the sighting of a hunting swamp harrier still in my thoughts, I was also thinking that the north-south wars in Tasmania did not stop at which AFL team to support when they played in the state. The north can claim the Hawks over the Kangaroos of the south, and the Tamar bird-watching spectacle over the Derwent any time.