6. A Critically Endangered Species

Our second morning on Bruny Island, we all loaded onto two small bush planes for a scenic flight to the home of one of the rarest birds we would encounter, the Orange-bellied Parrot. Fifty miles down the south coast of Tasmania our plane descended onto the gravel airstrip at Melaleuca, an abandoned mining settlement that can only be reached by air, sea, or a week’s walk on a rugged trail from Hobart.

Remote doesn’t describe how far removed Melaleuca is from a town of any kind. In the early1800s, pine cutters working around Melaleuca shipped logs through Port Davey, an oceanic inlet on the west side of Tasmania, until more accessible sources became available in the early 1900s. Later, supplies had to be brought in by sea from Hobart through Port Davey and then the eleven water miles inland to Melaleuca.

The settlement of Melaleuca was established in the 1930s by alluvial tin miners, who mined tin the same manner as early gold miners who worked old stream beds with pans and sluices. Miners named the settlement after the abundant growth of melaleuca shrubs and trees in the area. This genus of nearly 300 plants is native to Australia. Species range from bush size to evergreen trees in thick forests and are close relatives to eucalypts. One species, the melaleuca alternifolia, is the source of tree tea oil, used for centuries by indigenous people for dermatological problems and still popular today among natural healers. The attractive grey-green melaleuca shrubs have been planted in other countries and have become invasive in warm areas. Unfortunately, in the United States these vigorous trees are overgrowing riparian areas and choking out native plants. On river rafting trips in Oregon and Idaho, I witnessed how melaleuca can devastate native riverside plant life.

What remains of Melaleucha settlement consists of a bird blind and a couple of buildings used by Parks and Wildlife caretakers, bushwalkers, and volunteers who come to collect data on our target bird.

We birders we were drawn to Melaleuca because it is known as the only breeding site for the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrots. When I visited in November 2007, fewer than fifty of these parrots remained in the wild. They migrate from Australia’s mainland to Tasmania for summer breeding at Melaleuca, located in an area called the “Roaring Forties” where the fierce winds roar around the southern latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south. Fortunately, a cape to the west of Melaleuca juts out enough to protect the birds’ habitat from the relentless winds.

On my way to Antarctica from South America in November 2001, our small but sturdy ship encountered that band of turbulence twice while crossing Drake Passage. We were lucky to miss the wild winds on the first pass, but on the way back the ship and passengers weathered a storm for two days that whipped the seas into massive roller coaster waves and stinging spray. During that crossing, I imagined myself sailing in a creaky square-rigger, the massive sails tight with the raging winds, trying to round Tierra del Fuego. I had read explorers’ accounts of this passage; some succeeded while others failed. In some cases, the winds blew ships back to their starting point—and sometimes more than once during the same trip! Sailors who fought the wind and waves at that latitude have my greatest admiration for their daring.

 

Parrots in the Wild

After our landing at Melaleuca, we headed directly for the nearby bird blind, a tiny hut off the airstrip. Ornithologists who visit the site on a regular basis constructed the blind, a bedroom-sized structure with large glass windows on the side opposite the door. I followed the first arrivals inside and stepped past the baffle and into the quiet observation room. Six grassy-green parrots with violet-blue edges to their wings, picked at seeds on a small feeding platform atop a post fifteen feet from the glass.

“The orange bellied parrots!” Steve whispered breathlessly, his eyes glittering.

We crowded into the small room and positioned ourselves for a good view. The shuffling stopped and we all stood in awe of these little miracles, grateful they had come to feed at that moment. Occasionally, one of the birds stopped to pull itself upright and scan the bushes. And for a brief moment, we could see the yellow-hued underbelly and just in front of the legs, a disk of bright orange that gives the orange-bellied parrot its name. I was in awe as I watched the busy birds, knowing those six were a large percentage of the surviving wild population. My head spun as I observed firsthand these critically endangered birds. There I was, watching these rare parrots, one of very few people in the world who will ever see them.

We learned that the ever-present wind called for creative measures to attract the birds to that feeding platform. Although Melaleuca is somewhat protected from the strongest of storms by the curve of land to the west, a stiff breeze usually blows across that strip of coastal land where the parrots forage for seeds and fruits of endemic plants, grasses, sedges, and herbs. The parrots’ favorite foods are seeds of the Beaded Glasswort and Shrubby Glasswort along with those of fescues, saltbush, and seablight. To attract the birds for study, the scientists put these favorite seeds on the observation platform. The seeds are small and light like millet and would quickly blow away if it weren’t for the rubber doormat, the kind with dime-sized holes in it, that prevent the seeds from scattering. I thought it was a simple and creative solution.

 

Orange-bellied Parrots

Orange-bellied parrots normally nest in holes in Melaleuca trees that grow abundantly on the dunes and beaches around the bird study area. As a tree matures and branches break off, the tree rots at the break and eventually forms a cozy nest hole, the perfect size for the small parrots. We noticed several wooden boxes placed in trees, presumably to enhance the number of nesting sites.

Between 1979 and 1990, the population of these parrots stayed steady at 67 to 122 birds while conservationists attempted to breed more in captivity. In spite of that work, in 2007 the parrots’ status had been changed from endangered to critically endangered. Conservationists believe the primary reason for the decline is the fragmentation of their wintering territory around Melbourne, Victoria, located in southern Australia. Fortunately, international organizations are working to protect that area and the breeding grounds at Melaleuca. These conservation programs have returned the orange-bellied parrots’ total population to 350 birds, most of them in captivity, and not quite plentiful enough to assure their survival. Sadly, by 2017 only fourteen birds remained in the wild.

 

A Legend Among Birders

After observing the orange-breasted parrots, all of us were brimming with gratitude for such a rare sighting. Finally, we pulled ourselves away from the bird blind to explore a homestead that once belonged to Australia’s famous and beloved Deny King. The bulletin board we had rushed past on our way to the blind had a photo of Deny King (Charles Denison King), who is legendary today among birders as well as conservationists. Birders admire King because he was the first to observe and document the decline of the orange-bellied parrots.

King first moved to Melaleuca in 1936 to join his father, a miner in this remote corner of Tasmania. He enlisted in the Australian army during World War II, and while recovering from war injuries in a hosptial, he met Margaret Cadell King, who would become his wife. They had two daughters, Janet and Mary, and they all lived in this isolated part of the world. In 1955, King built an airstrip for emergencies after the birth of his two girls. Unexpectedly, this airstrip opened up a remote area of Southwest Tasmania to others wanting to explore the state’s rugged and isolated terrain, including tourists, anthropologists, journalists, mining company executives, and others. Known as a gregarious and welcoming soul, King also constructed two overnight huts for visitors. Those additions opened the area for tourism, primarily attracting birders and bushwalkers.

During his time at Melaleuca, King kept a daily journal that included bird sightings as well as notes on plants and other wildlife. He identified the dwindling numbers among the orange-bellied parrots, as well as observations of marsupials and invertebrates. Today, King’s journals filled with years’ of observations and his illustrations of wildlife and plants are an important resource for ornithologists and naturalists.

As a child, King lived another remote area in southern Tasmania where his father had moved the family in order to learn to be self-sufficient. Deny learned the skills well there and others during a stint in the army. After a horrific fire burned down the family home in 1934, King’s father moved to Melaleuca to mine tin and Deny King joined him there in 1936. He had the confidence to tackle anything. Nothing was wasted and every problem was eventually solved with materials on hand. While it is easy for me to imagine myself in Deny’s situation, I tend to ignore the life-threatening difficulties that can arise in such isolation.

Deny King met his wife-to-be while he recuperated in army hospital during World War II. In 1946, ten years later, she joined him at Melaleuca. King’s family all lived in this isolated part of the world almost until the time of King’s death in 1991.

Deny King’s small house, used since his early years at Melaleuca, has been preserved for visitors. A wood stove heats the sturdy hand-built house. The wide windows provide good views of the birds in the bushes and of the rugged Hartz Mountain Range to the north. King had filled his home with items from a rich life of work, reading, journaling, painting, music, tinkering, gardening, and befriending the wildlife as a conservationist. There is even a note next to the front door reminding visitors to be careful not to trap his pet house sparrow inside when they left.

 

I was grateful for this curious man who loved the company of his birds and played such a crucial role as the first to call attention to the declining population of the orange-bellied parrots. His reputation in Australia compares with how we revere John Muir, an early advocate for preservation of wilderness areas in the United States. Deny King is listed as one of the top ten Tasmanians for his amazing life and the work he did on behalf of preserving Southwest Tasmania. King of the Wilderness, The Life of Deny King by Christobel Mattingley details his inspiring life story. For a review, see https://www.latrobe.edu.au/childlit/Reviews/KingWilderness.htm

 

Update on Melaleuca

Today, Deny King’s daughter Janet Fenton dedicates her life to preserving the history and environment of Melaleuca. The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Plan (TWWHA) registered Melaleucha in 2009, and shortly after that Fenton helped organize the volunteer group Friends of Melaleuca to preserve her parents’ homestead and gardens, as well as the natural and cultural heritage of the area.

The area around Melaleuca is part of the Southwest National Park and hailed for its pristine wilderness and remote location and Steve mentioned that there were two tracks for hiking in the area. I hike a lot in Oregon and discovered that both challenging treks begin or end with a flight into or out of Melaleuca. They can be traversed with or without guides.

The South Coast Track, one of several Great Walks in Tasmania, is a nine-day trek along the path first built for shipwrecked sailors trying to make their way back to Hobart. Hikers access this trail by driving two hours south from Hobart on a road that terminates at Cockle Creek. Interestingly, the end of the road is the most southern point of any graded but unpaved road in the world. Strong and intrepid backpackers traverse the forty-six mile track, which is steep and rugged most of the way between Melaleuca and Cockle Creek to the east. With typical Aussie understatement, they call this type of trail a “bushwalk” but hikers are warned to prepare for this trek in advance, year round, for every kind of weather, including high winds, rain, mud, and snow as well as warm and sunny days. They are also advised, “Expect to carry up to 66 pounds of ‘supplies and gear’ which includes tents and stoves. ‘Pack it in, pack it out’ is the rule. Parks and Wildlife Service maintain the campsites on the track, which are basic with only pit latrines.

The trailhead for the northerly track is a three hour drive from Hobart. Port Davey track offers similar breathtaking views, wilderness silence and isolation, along with steep climbs, river crossings, and possible snow any time of year. Both bushwalks sounded fabulous to me, but at my age I admitted to myself that younger people could more easily tackle these tracks.

 

Postscript

I was curious about Deny King’s middle name, “Denison,” which is the source of King’s nickname and my father’s nickname in school, Deny. Denison is a name we share with Deny King. I have a thick book of the descendants of George Denison who came to America around 1640, date uncertain. I am number 7258 of the tenth generation in the line of Denison. I did not find Charles Denison King in my list of descendants, so Deny’s ancestors must have descended from another Denison who left England for a different destination, most likely Australia.