THE grey fantail perched atop a silver birch was singing a joyful song to welcome the coming of spring. The rain clouds had just lifted over Hobart and now rays of late-winter sunshine rained down on the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens on the Domain.
The fantail was a beautiful male in the crisp, new spring plumage. He sang a song of mellow descending notes, the song carrying further than usual. The male was putting an extra effort into the tune, no doubt to attract a mate.
It may have been the last week of winter but the gardens were alive with birds and birdsong. The fantail sang from a vantage point on the gardens’ Rhododendron Terrace and the early blooms of azalea, camellia and rhododendron were attracting birds searching out pollen and nectar. The fantail and a scarlet robin were in turn feeding on a feast of insects lured by the flowering plants.
The gardens, or the plants from the northern hemisphere found in them, give shape to the seasons in Hobart and it’s appropriate that I visit them at this time of year.
My Australian wife always jokes that you can take the Pom out of England but not England out of the Pom, and my Englishness is betrayed in September with the arrival of spring in Australia.
It’s not to say I don’t love wattle and gum, and bottlebrush and banksia, but there is something magical about trees that drop their leaves, totally, at the end of summer and then are reborn in the spring. When the deciduous leaves are fully developed in mid-spring I then demonstrate my love of the Australian bush and go in search of the new growth of eucalypts, in subtle shades of reds and maroons, which have a magic of their own.
I don’t usually recommend a visit to the botanical gardens for visiting birdwatchers specifically looking for our endemic species but on my pre-spring visit it suddenly occurred to me that it should in fact be at the top of my list of locations, at least as an introduction to Tasmanian birds before longer forays are undertaken to the Waterworks Reserve near my home, the slopes of Mt Wellington or even the wonderful Inverawe [correct] Native Gardens at Margate, a site which brings native plants into their own.
In the Hobart gardens one of Tasmania’s most spectacular endemic birds, the yellow wattlebird, is easily seen, feeding on the terraces as various plants come into flower.
The yellow wattlebird is the largest of the honeyeater family and requires a vast amount of pollen and nectar to fuel its flight. Because of their large size they easily dominate the camellias and azaleas and it is fun to watch these bizarre birds with long yellow wattles hanging from each side of their cheeks – a feature which gives them their common name – jealously guarding their larders against the cheeky flying forays of the new Holland honeyeaters and the tiny eastern spinebills.
A couple of hours in the gardens revealed an interesting array of about 30 species, with a male fairy-wren which had just moulted out of its brown plumage for a sparkling, iridescent blue one, among them.
I concentrated on the flowering plants on this visit to the gardens but a longer walk took me through the pinetum and I was delighted to find a small flock of eastern rosellas, again in fresh spring plumage, feeding on cone seeds among the leaf litter below the pines.
Back on the Rhododendron Terrace, a flock of endemic green rosellas had discovered the blooms but I could not make out whether they were actually feeding amid petals or drinking sweet rainwater which had accumulated inside some of the bigger flowers. Either way, the yellow wattlebirds – looking like dowagers with pendulous earrings – were not happy and with an admonishing, raucous screech sent the rosellas on their way.