The wood duck family looked content and happy enough on the banks of the Huon River in Franklin. And secure and safe from the attention of a swamp harrier quartering the marshland a little distance away.
Every year I hunt for the first chicks of the breeding season, and here I had found them. A remarkable number – 14 in all – chewing the fresh new shoots of grass at the water’s edge.
It was a pleasant surprise to see the wood duck family because the first chicks I usually find in spring are those of masked lapwings, sometimes in bizarre settings in the urban world, including grass verges along city streets.
The lapwings are traditionally the first birds to nest – sometimes in the last weeks of winter – and this spurs the arrival of the first of the migrants, the swamp harrier which in early spring targets lapwing young.
At this time of the year I compile a checklist of “events” in the natural world, like the first visitors to arrive, and first nests and young, as assiduously as some birdwatchers compile lifelists of birds spotted during their birding careers.
The monitoring of spring – and the seasons generally – was once considered an eccentric pastime of gentlemen and gentlewoman of the Victorian era when observations of nature recorded in country dairies became popular in Britain and its colonies. The science of phenology now has more serious applications because it is being used to monitor the effects of global warming on not just avian migration and breeding but on other fauna and flora.
Although some might be sceptical about global warming, there is no doubt that migrants throughout the world are arriving earlier and in places they have not been seen before and birds – migratory or not – are breeding earlier.
In Britain, the effects are quite startling with Mediterranean species like scops owls now arriving. In Tasmania, however, there is still much monitoring to be done before patterns emerge, although at sea warmer waters appear to be bringing more and more exotic fish.
The wood ducks in Franklin represent one species that no doubt will be oblivious to any dramatic warming of summer temperatures. As long as there are wood hollows in which to build nests – the reason they are called wood ducks – and lush grass at riverbanks and in wet pastures on which to graze they will get by.
The chestnut teals I saw splashing in pools of rainwater on the Franklin footy oval will do likewise, but I wonder if other waterbirds, like waders, will be affected by rising water levels which will inundate already threatened habits of mudflat and saltmarsh.
Far from being a mere eccentricity, my monitoring of the birds throughout the year might have some scientific relevance, added to BirdLIfe Tasmania’s data sets which go back more than half a century.
Along with more exotic species like freckled and pink-eared ducks from the mainland, the wood ducks will be recorded for posterity, breeding in good numbers on the Huon.