The island of Tasmania lies off the south coast of Australia, and is a destination well worth the visit of anyone visiting Australia. Not only is the island wetter and greener than most of Australia (and is reminiscent of New Zealand, or even Britain), but it holds many interesting bird species. There are twelve species endemic to the island, several species commonly found on the island which are more difficult to find on the mainland, and a number of species which have distinct subspecies from mainland forms.
One of things that Australian bird-watchers often try to do in Tasmania is to see all the endemics in one day. All the endemics bar one are reasonably common; however this one, the Forty-spot Pardalote, although endangered with a population of only some 2000 birds, is sedentary and has a number of well-known colonies. So the undertaking is not all that difficult, especially if you have a local guide.
I was fortunate in that a local birder had agreed to take me round and so early in the morning I drove through the streets of the Hobart suburbs to his house. At a little urban bushland reserve I stopped for a moment at the sight of a large greyish bird perched high up. Binoculars revealed a Yellow Wattlebird (endemic No.1) -- this is a rather repellent-looking bird, streaky grey with two long yellow wattles, one hanging down each side of its face. I discovered later that it has a call rather reminiscent of someone vomiting violently. Nevertheless it is Australia's largest honeyeater, and a very impressive bird. Arrived at my guide's house we soon set off again, heading for the Tinderbox Peninsular, south-west of Hobart. Here the road wound around following the inlets and coves of the coast, with dry eucalypt forest inland. Green Rosellas (No.2) were common here, big greenish yellow parrots, next cousins to the mainland Crimson Rosellas; they were flying about in groups of four or five, adults with their even more motley young.
We stopped at one spot where there was a little paddock with a small pond in it between the road and sea. Here we observed several Tasmanian Native-hens (No.3); these are bulky, flightless gallinules, with odd cocked-up tails. They used to live on the mainland until a few thousand years ago, but it is thought that the introduction of the dingo (domestic dog) wiped them out. Dingoes never got to Tasmania, and the more recently introduced fox was never introduced here either, and so Native-hens are abundant in Tasmania. "They're remarkably faithful to the one pond", remarked Murray. "I suppose you would be too if you had to walk to next one", I replied.
A little further on we parked and climbed over a gate and into some eucalypt woodland. Almost at once we saw the handsome Black-headed Honeyeater and the larger Yellow-throated Honeyeater (Nos 4 & 5). The former of these is a neat little bird with a velvet black head and delicate, pale blue eyelids. We climbed up the steep hill through the tangling underbrush, listening for pardalote calls, for here was a known site for the 40-Spot Pardalote. We heard and saw the familiar Spotted Pardalote (common here and on the mainland), but Murray was convinced he heard a slightly different, tinkling call. We climbed on, suddenly a Dusky Robin (No.6) hopped out from behind a tree and while I was feasting my eyes on this plain, but very handsome, Australian robin, Murray hissed: "Look 40-Spots". And above us in a huge Eucalyptus viminalis at least a dozen 40-Spots were feeding, and uttering their tinkling calls (No.7). These are plain yellowy green pardalotes -- small, leaf-gleaning passerines -- not as colourful as the gaudy Spotted Pardalote, but the subtlety of the numerous tiny white spots on their wings more than makes up for this.
We watched these, entranced, for 15 minutes or so, during which time more arrived in the tree. I noticed that whereas all the field guides I had consulted had depicted the birds as smaller, shyer and more feeble-looking than the two other common species (Spotted and Striated), to my eyes they look just as big and robust, perhaps it was a combination of the well-known tendency for the rarer or less common species in field guides not to be painted so well as the common ones (the artists not having a chance to see them in the flesh), coupled with an unconscious tendency to depict rare and vanishing birds as somehow feeble and weak. I turned to Murray and said:
"Is this a nature reserve?"
"No, it's private property." "You have permission to be here?"
"Well, we thought once we'd ask, but then the owner might say no, so we decided not to."
On the way back to the car we saw Beautiful Firetails, a lovely purplish-brown native finch, uncommon on the mainland, but reasonably common here, and Eastern Rosellas, the island subspecies of this well-known mainland parrot is larger, and has a marked yellow collar which its mainland cousins do not.
It was now time to turn towards wetter forests to track down the remaining endemics; and it was still early. We drove towards the slopes of Mt. Wellington, the tallish (by Australian standards) mountain that dominates Hobart. We found a patch of taller, wetter eucalypt woodland and began walking down a forestry track. Soon we found a company of Black-headed Honeyeaters, and with them some Strong-billed Honeyeaters (No.8) with some young ones. These are next cousin to the Black-chinned Honeyeater of the mainland, but unlike that nectar-feeding species the Strong-billed has taken up the niche of the Australian treecreepers (none of which is found on Tasmania), and finds its food in cracks and crevices, and under loose bark. In the tops of the tall ribbon-gums some small parrots were calling, and we identified them as Swift Parrots. This species is not an endemic: although it breeds only in Tasmania, it migrates to the mainland during the winter and disperses widely around the south-east. However, land-clearance, both on the mainland and in Tasmania, are having an effect and this brightly-coloured bird has declined to only 3000 pairs. As we headed back to the car we saw Black Currawongs (No.9). Currawongs are like elongated crows, and the Black Currawong is darker, with a larger beak, than the Grey Currawong of the mainland and Tasmania and the Pied Currawong of the mainland. In Tasmania the Black Currawong is found in wet forests, the Grey in drier forests. Also seen were several Tasmanian Scrubwrens (No.10), a plainer and browner version of the mainland White-browed Scrubwren.
A final call was to a rainforest gully at the village of Fern Tree. Behind the church and to the right we walked up into the rainforest and immediately found a pair of Forest Ravens -- these are only found in a limited range on the mainland, but are the common corvid in Tasmania, where they are even found in urban areas. They are the only Australian corvid that will feed under the forest canopy, as these were doing until we disturbed them, and have a deep and impressive "caw" as their call. This gully is a good place to see the second-most difficult of the endemics, the Scrub-tit. This is a close relative of the Scrubwren, which, however, has adopted the treecreeper niche in the rainforests of Tasmania. Whistling calls soon alerted us to a small party of this beautiful and subtly-coloured little bird (No.11) -- various browns with delicate, almost lilac, cheek-patches. There was only one more bird to see, the Tasmanian Thornbill, and soon we found three of them, sporting on a low shrub over the creek. This is a version of the common Brown Thornbill, but has distinct markings, and is found in rainforests in Tasmania, whereas the Brown inhabits drier forest, both on the mainland and in Tasmania. And so we'd seen all the endemics, and it was only 11.45!
I had another few days in Tasmania, and for the sake of completeness I'll just add the remaining species and subspecies of particular interest which I saw:
The most notable Tasmanian rare bird, however, I did not get to see on this trip. This is the Orange-bellied Parrot, the 3rd most endangered parrot in the world (there are thought to be 128 of them left in the wild). It breeds in heathland in far south-west Tasmania, and to see it you can take a plane-trip from Hobart down there in the summer (October-February) where you will see it, unless it's raining too heavily, at feeding stations established by the people trying to save it. In the winter they migrate to the coast of the mainland, mostly around Port Philip Bay (Melbourne); here they are found in small parties on salt-marshes from April to August, though, obviously you need to seek local guidance before going to find them.
Unless you can get local guidance, the site on private property on the Tinderbox Peninsular would be difficult to find, as well as illegal. Therefore, for those wanting to "do" all the endemics in a short time, the best place would be North & South Bruny Island. 40-Spots are not uncommon in patches of Eucalyptus viminalis by roads and lanes on North Bruny, which is reached by ferry, departing from a village called Kettering, 30 km or so south-west of Hobart. The other dry-forest birds can found on North Bruny, or in various parts of South Bruny Island (reached by a causeway). The rainforest birds are found in a patch of rainforest on the peak at the centre of South Bruny. Maria Island off the east coast of Tasmania is also a stronghold for the 40-spots, and here you can ask the resident wardens for directions -- only here there is no rainforest, and so you will only be able to see the dry forest birds.
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