A pair of visiting birdwatchers I met at the Waterworks Reserve in early spring said they had two reasons to visit Tasmania – one was to see the biggest member of the honeyeater family, the yellow wattlebird, and the other to tour the Museum of Old and New Art.
The next day they managed to kill two birds with one stone at Berriedale.
By chance I saw them again at MONA where I had gone to see the British art house musical London Street, in the museum complex’s cinema. The birdwatchers from Sydney were spying a pair of noisy and active yellow wattlebirds in trees bordering the MONA café.
Honeyeaters come in all shapes and sizes but there are none as dramatic as Tasmania’s own yellow wattlebird, which is found nowhere else on earth.
There are 67 members of the honeyeater family in Australia but the yellow wattlebird is by far the largest – at up to 55 centimetres – and perhaps is the most interesting.
The bird gets its yellow wattlebird name from the long yellow and orange wattles that hang down from both sides of its beak.
The wattles were described by the early British explorers and zoologists who came to Tasmania as resembling the long pendulant earrings of dowagers back home in Victorian England.
Not only is the wattlebird noted from its curious appearance but it also has a raucous, rasping call, which is a familiar sound of the Hobart suburbs. Unlike most Tasmanian bird songs, it is not pleasant on the ear. It is described on the Parks and Wildlife website like “someone vomiting”, but the Sydney tourists were not complaining.
Although the yellow wattlebird can be found right across Hobart and its suburbs, I tend to see them most commonly in the Knocklofty Reserve just three kilometres from the city centre.
A slow walk from the car park and observation deck at the end of Forest Road in West Hobart, along the track to the frog ponds to the north-east, is virtually guaranteed a sighting.
The yellow wattlebird feeds more or less exclusively on the pollen and nectar from native trees and shrubs and there is always plenty of food contained in blooms for them at Knocklofty, either in spring for into autumn and winter when the silver banksias are in flower.
In fact in autumn the silver banksias along this track can provide a treat for both birders and wattlebirds, with yellow wattlebirds and the smaller brush wattlebird fighting over the precious food these late-flowering shrubs produce. There is a cluster of silver banksias close to the lookout from the spot where John Glover painted his famous view of Hobart Town in 1865.
Both wattlebird species are slim birds with short, strong bills. The yellow wattlebird has a white face and black-streaked crown and the wattles become brighter during the breeding season. They have dark wings and a yellow belly, whereas the upperparts are grey to dusky brown. The female yellow wattlebird is much smaller than the male.
The brush wattlebird – also called the little wattlebird – is generally smaller, with wattles hard to see. Its brown plumage is streaked with grey.
Yellow wattlebirds are active and acrobatic at all times with a strong flight. They are prolific feeders because they need vast supplies of pollen and nectar to feed their large bodies and active lifestyles. This is supplemented in autumn and winter by fruit and berries.
In the early days of settlement yellow wattlebirds were shot for the pot, and early records suggest they made good eating in a pie. They are now totally protected.
Other places to find them in Hobart are at the Waterworks Reserve and on the Domain.
I always tell visiting birdwatchers staying in the city centre that a wonderful start to a visit is a stroll to the Domain, which can also turn up Tasmania’s three other endemic honeyeaters, the black-headed, strong-billed and yellow-throated. That’s if a trip to MONA is not distracting the tourists from their birding.