5. Tasmania’s Rare Outback Birds

After an exhilarating two weeks in Queensland, our birding group flew south to Sydney for a connecting flight 650 miles across the Bass Straight to Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. Several American researchers on our connecting flight were on their way to Antarctica via Hobart, which claims to be the gateway to Antarctica. In November, summer researchers flock to McMurdo Station, Antarctica, the American research base located on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, another 1600 miles south of Hobart. On our flight, I overheard brief conversations that reminded me of my visit to Antarctica, which also was in November.

   During my trip to that frozen continent, I got a taste of the conditions in that desolate land and I knew these researchers faced harsh challenges, but they would reap rewards beyond measure. Explorers and researchers who have tackled the mysteries of that intriguing and challenging continent do so with respect and curiosity, realizing the importance of their findings to expand our understanding of our planet. They all have my deep appreciation.

 

Apples & Captain Bligh

Tasmania is the island that hangs off the southern tip of Australia, about 150 miles from the continent’s mainland, surrounded by the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is Australia’s smallest state and the most mountainous. The maximum breadth of this heart-shaped island is about 200 miles across. For eons, Tasmania’s isolation has provided an environment that allows for the evolution of unique creatures, resulting in a rich variety of birding opportunities. The Australian government protects about 45% of this state as designated reserves, national parks, and natural World Heritage Sites.

About a half-million people live in Tasmania and of those, 40% live in Hobart, the state’s largest city. Hobart also has the second deepest natural port in the world. Located on the southeastern coast of the island, Hobart is 43 degrees south latitude, comparable to Medford, Oregon in my home state, so I expected to feel right at home in a familiar climate—and I was.

The infamous Captain William Bligh of the ship HMS Bounty had a reputation for being a bully but he did do some long-lasting good that survives today. Previous to becoming Captain of the Bounty, Bligh served as sailing master and skilled botanist on Captain James Cook’s ship HMS Resolution. Cook’s ship visited Adventure Bay on Tasmania’s Bruny Island in 1778, which was also our destination on our first day in Tasmania. Bligh planted seven apple trees, which became the first apple trees in Australia. On his next trip to the area, the men on Bligh’s ship the Bounty mutinied due to Bligh’s his poor treatment of the crew. The mutineers forced Bligh and fourteen loyal crewmen into a sturdy dinghy and set them adrift. They managed to sail west for 47 days, traveling more than 4,000 miles to reach safety in Timor, the closest European settlement.

On a later trip to Tasmania, Bligh discovered one apple tree still alive and flourishing, so he planted more apple trees along with celery, cress, and acorns. Today, apples are a major export from Tasmania. Interestingly, an Ohio nurseryman named Henderson Lewelling brought 700, one-year-old fruit trees to Oregon in 1847. Tasmania and southern Oregon share similar climates, so the apples thrived in Oregon as well, and today, apples are a major export from both Tasmania and Oregon.

During the Napoleonic Wars in 1803, Britain established a penal colony where Hobart is now situated in order to prevent the First French Empire from claiming as their own what is now Tasmania. While white colonizers declared ownership of this island, they ignored the aboriginal people known as Palawa who had populated the land for possibly 35,000 years prior to the arrival of the first white explorer, Abel Tasman in 1642. As had happened on mainland Australia, the British settlers brought their diseases along with their prisoners. Influenza, tuberculosis, and syphilis devastated the Palawan people. In addition, thousands of Palawans died in conflicts with escaped convicts and European settlers. Early populations of Palawans were not enumerated, but today about 20,000 Tasmanians identify as Palawan.

 

My Father’s Connection to Hobart

My father, Thomas T. Denison, whom we called Pop, served in the United States Merchant Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. Pop told me he had stopped in Hobart several times during the war and he spoke with great enthusiasm about Tasmania. More than sixty years later, I couldn’t remember any specifics, but I was curious to see if the island was as magical for me as it was for my father.

Pop was especially intrigued with the Tasmanian Devil, a carnivorous marsupial about the size of a small dog now found in the wild today only in Tasmania and on the small island Maria just off Tasmania’s east coast, which is a wild life sanctuary. My hope was to see a Tasmanian Devil while there, but not too close.

Although Hobart receives more than a million visitors in a year, we did not spend any significant time there, much to my disappointment. My father died before my trip to Hobart and I had never asked him why he liked it so much. However, as we drove through the quiet city, I felt his presence. I pictured Pop as a junior officer on leave from his ship, strolling along Hobart’s quaint streets with some of his buddies, curious about differences between Hobart and his home in Portland, Oregon. When Pop visited Hobart, the city’s population was just under 30,000 residents, but by the time I visited it had grown to about 200,000. Still, Hobart had a small town feel as we drove along the streets. Traffic moved at a leisurely pace, no tie-ups, and few traffic lights. People moved slower than in big cities and I could see pedestrians stopped, chatting with one another, and no sense of urgency as they carried on their business.

We drove twenty-three miles from Hobart to the ferry dock at Kettering on the southeast coast where we boarded the Bruny Island Ferry. This little ferry reminded me of the small ferries I had taken in the Canadian Gulf Islands where I lived in the early 1980s. As in Canada, the locals who walked on board the Bruny Island ferry made the rounds of the twenty or so cars and trucks asking the drivers for a ride down the main island road after we docked in Bruny. Others got out of their well-used vehicles filled with the day’s purchases and gathered for a quick visit to catch up on the local news and gossip. While neighbors chatted, we tourists leaned on the rail and gazed at the passing sea, lost in thought, our hair blowing wildly in the warm wind.

 

Educating Youth & Protecting Birds

The Aboriginal name for Bruny Island is lunawanna-allonha, but Europeans named Bruny Island after a French explorer, Bruni d’Entrecasteaux. It is about 140 square miles and home to about 600 people. Bruny Island consists of two landmasses, North Bruny and South Bruny, connected by a narrow sandy isthmus. The seaward side of the island features two sandy beaches, but for the most part it is edged with rugged dolerite cliffs. Originally, eucalyptus forests covered the landscape but today outside the settlements, large open fields for grazing cattle have replaced the native eucalypts. There is still some limited logging, mostly on the island’s inner forests.

Once an active port for whaling and logging, today Bruny’s primary attraction is its natural beauty. Tourism is an important industry and visitors interested in fishing and recreational boating are drawn to the protected channel side of the island.

Our guide on Bruny Island, Tonia Cochran, Ph.D., had been a long-time resident at the time we met her. She owns a large piece of land that is now held in trust in order to protect the wildlife. Dr. Cochran was born in Melbourne, but after a visit to Bruny in 1986, she fell in love with the abundant wildlife. She wanted to help protect the island’s threatened flora and fauna so she decided to make this her lifework. Cochran named her Bruny residence Inala, which is the Australian Indigenous Aboriginal name for “peaceful place.” Her private, 500-acre nature refuge is part of the Land for Wildlife program sponsored by the Australian Department of Parks and Wildlife. The refuge is home to a variety of threatened species and all twelve Tasmanian endemic birds, including the largest known colony of the endangered Forty-spotted Pardalote, a bird found only in Tasmania. The total population of pardalotes in the world is fewer than 1,500 birds and half of them live on Bruny Island.

In addition to being a wildlife preserve and a high priority destination for birders, Inala is a center for conservation research and education. Cochran is a strong advocate for educating Bruny’s youth about protecting the birds, especially the forty-spotted pardalote because it is one of Australia’s rarest birds. For many years, Dr. Cochran has taught schoolchildren visiting Inala about the importance of the eucalyptus forests, especially the white gum eucalyptus because it is the forage that the rare pardalotes favor.

Once the children learn about the white gum eucalyptus, they are eager to plant eucalyptus seeds in little pots and leave them to grow. Often, the children return the following year and help replant the sprouts in the wildlife preserve or in other locations on the island. This way, the children have an investment in their island’s ecology and the survival of the forty-spotted pardalote. Cochran seemed to glow as she shared with us how the local kids proudly tell friends and family what they learned about the birds and why the island and its birds need the eucalyptus trees for survival. After spending time with Dr. Cochran, we understood her passion and commitment to her conservation programs. We also felt very fortunate to have her as our guide.

 

The Hunt for the Pardalote

The afternoon we arrived in Bruny, we walked a dirt road lined with towering, white gum eucalyptus, the result of ongoing tree planting. We were listening for the call of the forty-spotted pardalotes. Luck was not with us that day. These wild birds are not always around, not even for the most eager birder. However, on our stop the next morning, we walked the same road and this time we could hear them. They were high up in the trees and difficult to see, but Cochran alerted us to their squeaky chirps. A glimpse of the pardalote is special for anyone, even for the people who live on Bruny Island, so we knew we would be lucky to even glimpse one.

While we walked, we spread out, quietly checking high and low, but we were unable to focus our binoculars on several possible pardalotes before they flew. This was a reminder that so much of birding is just about being patient. Birders can spend hours waiting for some rare bird to show itself, but in the meantime other birds appear and unusual plants or amphibians might draw our interest. These unexpected surprises are always fun to study and never disappointing. On a slow day, some guides will resort to comments on wildflowers or other space fillers— but always, the birds are paramount.

Finally, someone spotted a pardalote nearby and low enough for good viewing. We hurried carefully and quietly—something birders must learn to do— to get close enough before the bird flew again. It flitted around a lovely little bridge over a tiny stream near a stand of bamboo where the sunlight was excellent for observing the bird. A couple people kept their binoculars focused on the pardalote and tried to help the rest of us find it, but the evasive bird moved quickly, making the search frustrating.

Then suddenly, the bird flew close to the ground and landed in a small brush pile. We all locked our binoculars on the movement as the pardalote hopped in and out of the debris. Finally, it stood on a twig and paused long enough for us to enjoy the prominent spots and yellow rump on this glorious male. In spite of previous jokes about how many spots can really be counted on this tiny foliage forager, the birders watched in awe and excitement, knowing that glorious bird is struggling to survive.

I did not count the twenty spots per side, but I am quite willing to take the word of anyone who claims to have done so. Besides, I was too mesmerized by this bird to do much more than simply admire its striking beauty. In the midst of that rare sighting, I was grateful to Dr. Cochran for dedicating her life’s work to protecting Bruny Island’s environment and in particular, the magnificent pardalotes.