8. The Feathered Thief at Cradle Mountain

In 1982, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) recognized the Tasmanian Wilderness as one of the first Wilderness World Heritage Areas, a designation intended to preserve the world’s cultural and natural heritage. The Tasmanian Wilderness protects one of the most extensive and last intact temperate wilderness regions on earth.

This treasured wild land located in the center of Tasmania is about 6,000 square miles and covers twenty percent of the island. The wilderness area is comprised of a continuous network of national parks and reserves from the Southwest National Park where Melaleuca is located, north to Cradle Mountain – St Clair National Park. Within the heritage area are rocks from every geological period, Australia’s largest and deepest limestone caves at Mole Creek, and an incredibly diverse range of plant and animal species. Culturally, researchers believe this area has the densest concentration of prehistoric human occupation sites, dating back more than 20,000 years.

 

At Home in the Wild

From my comfortable room at the Cradle Mountain Lodge, I could see a rocky ridge that hovered over a deep blue lake. This alpine lodge is perched on the edge of Tasmania’s beloved Cradle Mt – Lake St. Clair National Park, an environmental gem in northern Tasmania. The park includes about 623 square miles of stunning glacier-sculpted mountain peaks, including Cradle Mountain and Mt. Ossa, Tasmania’s highest peak. There are numerous lakes, tarns, alpine moorlands, and river gorges, as well an abundance of wildlife.

This was our last stop on the birding tour and I relished the opportunity to experience at least a slice of this world-renowned park, trying not to despair at what I knew I would miss. When I lived in Port Townsend, Washington, I could enter Olympic National Park from several trailheads, but never even scratched the surface of that park, which is about one-fifth the size of Tasmania’s national park that lay before me. I only had a free afternoon to explore so I decided to take a solo hike in the park, determined not to completely miss this rare opportunity.

Trails in the park are well signed and visibility that day was good for navigation, so I chose to tackle a trail up the ridge. The steep hike challenged my muscles, cleared my head, and got my heart pumping. I am a strong and savvy hiker, so I felt in my element. The first part of the trail wound through thick stands of trees similar to trails in Oregon, except the trees in this Tasmanian wilderness are eucalypts, not the firs I am used to in the Pacific Northwest. The clean air, blue sky, the rhythm of my walking, and comforting mountain views filled me with joy. However, when I broke out of the trees onto the exposed ridge, the wind was so fierce I feared being blown off the narrow trail. Not wanting to be another ignorant tourist who refused to acknowledge a dangerous situation, I retraced my steps to the peaceful lake where I had begun the hike. As I crossed the parking lot there, I spotted a trail sign for Wombat Pond and thought, How perfect after my snuggle with the baby wombat at the wildlife refuge the previous day.

 

An Encounter at Wombat Pond

The gentle path to Wombat Pond descended through head-high eucalypt shrubs. After a half-hour’s walk, the trail approached Wombat Pond, resting in a bowl framed by a steep slope up the other side of the valley. There is a wooden boardwalk built to protect vulnerable vegetation from the thousands of tourists like me who come to enjoy this national park. Rounding the end of the little lake, I sat down on the edge of the walkway to relax and breathe in the shear beauty of the moment. In the distance, I saw two hikers pick their way down the winding trail carved into in an open meadow, one I planned to soon tackle after my break.

In spite of people on the trail, a calm enveloped me, the kind that accompanies a pause in vigorous exercise, surrounded by beauty. As I dangled my feet over the drying mud I noticed a nearby sign that warned, “Hikers are not to leave the raised walkway. Do not risk damaging fragile plants and tussock grass.”

Good information, I thought, especially since many visitors do not come with the understanding of how easy it is to destroy the very thing we have come to experience. Yet, I know that people who experience wilderness areas leave with a greater appreciation of nature’s importance in our lives. So if putting signs up will save them, so be it.

Noting the warning, I dug into my daypack for an energy bar. While surveying the landscape, I savored the pleasant lemony taste of the energy bar, lost in the bliss of the moment. My hand was halfway to my mouth for my second bite when, whump, the bar flew out of my fist. In the same moment, the thief whacked me in the face with his wing. A Black Currawong had stolen my energy bar and flew off about ten feet to land near a clump of tussock grass. He dropped his prize and the loosened wrapper on the damp soil and turned in my direction to assess my reaction.

My lunch! I thought, considering how to respond. If I chase him I’ll have to leave the boardwalk. Forbidden!

Our bird group had first encountered the raven-like black currawong as soon as we had arrived at the Cradle Mountain Lodge. Currawongs hang around picnic areas in search of meals just as crows and jays do in the United States. All those scavenger birds become quite adept at getting what they want, even when the rewards warrant persistent attempts.

I watched in disbelief as the currawong pecked at my energy bar, keeping an eye on me to see if I might jump after him. I wondered, Am I reinforcing the bad habits of a certain naughty black bird if I let him have the bar? I certainly did not want it back after he had worked it over, though I begrudged him my tasty morsel.

Before I could settle on what to do, the bird picked up the bar and flew off, leaving the wrapper to blow into the grass. Glancing again at the stern sign warning us to not feed wildlife, I looked around for witnesses. The two hikers coming down the hill were concentrating on the steep steps and had missed this embarrassing attack, but I felt guilty anyway. I wasn’t feeding wildlife, not on purpose, but someone else must have done so or the currawong would not have known to target an innocent hiker and snatch whatever was in her unsuspecting hand.

I stepped off the boardwalk, carefully walking only on the bare soil to spare any plants, snatched the wrapper out of the bunch of tussock grass, tucked it in my pack, and got back on the walkway. I found another bar in my pack and this time I held my snack tight and watched the trees for a sneaky currawong while I enjoyed every bite.

This seemed a fitting final encounter with an Australian bird—intimate, entertaining, and initiated by the bird.

 

End of a Great Visit

Each special bird and event we encountered in Australia framed a wonderful experience and broadened my appreciation for this sprawling and densely rich country. The gentle cassowary, the delightful brolga and sarus cranes, the sweet frogmouth, the fanciful and creative bowerbirds, the elusive forty-spotted pardalote, the rare orange-bellied parrots, and the clever currawong all intrigued and delighted my experiences as a birder. Even the barbie, the leeches, the Tasmanian devil, and the wombat added to my overall enjoyment. I left Australia feeling richly rewarded.