Birding Tasmania

by Grant Gussie

Getting There
Basic Geography
Dry Agricultural Land
Dry Schlerophyl Forests
Wet Schlerophyl Forests
Rain Forest
Fruit-growing areas
Hobart City
Bruny Island
South West Wilderness
South West Islands
Bass Strait Islands
East Coast Islands
Tasman Peninsula
East Coast Mainland

Getting There

Tasmania is a large island (about the same size as Eire or Sri Lanka) south of the Australian mainland. It is a state of the Australian nation, with its capital, Hobart, on the south side of the island.

Hobart International Airport is about three hours by air from Sydney and less than one hour by air from Melbourne. Smaller airports (mostly on the north side of the island) connect to Melbourne with commuter aircraft as well.

Melbourne is also accessible from the north of the island via an overnight passenger/car ferry service.

Basic Geography

Tasmania is geographically ancient, with most of its bulk being an extremely hard basaltic rock called dolerite.

Moderately sized doleritic mountains cover the western half of the island, with the tallest of these about 1400 meters in elevation. The west and south west is extremely wet and largely uninhabited.

A broad central agricutural valley runs northwest to southeast over most of the length of the island, and the climate there is much drier. This is the only part of Tasmania which resembles stereotypical Australian farmland, with sheep paddocks and gum trees.

Another densely forested highland is in the north-east.

Along the north coast is a fertile red-soil plain, reminiscent or Eire or Prince Edward Island.

The east coast is rolling and covered with dry eucalypt forests and cleared sheep pasture.

In the south east corner is the Tasman pennisula, an area of rolling eucalypt coverred hills, some agriculture, and dramatic coastal cliffs.

To its west is the Derwent river valley and its estuary, where Hobart is located. Hobart is overlooked by 1200m high Mount Wellington, the easternmost of the western dolerite mountains.

South of Hobart lies the farmland (mostly fruit growing) areas of the Huon River valley.

All Tasmanian soils except the red soils of the northern plain are extremely poor, especially in phosphate.


Vegetation in the central valley, east coast, and Tasman Pennisula is called "dry schlerophyl", dominated by drought-tolerant eucaplyts such as the blue gum tree.

The eastern highlands and eastern sections of the western highlands are "wet schlerophyl", with larger eucalpyt species and an admixture of "southern pine" gymnosperm species such as the celery-top pine, as well as myrtle and sasafras trees. The lowest valleys of the wet schlerophyl forests are home to Eucalyptus regnans, the worlds tallest flowering plant, with historical records of trees (now felled) exceeding 130 meters in height. Wet scherophyl forest can also have amazingly thick and rather primitive looking undergrowth, with large spikey plants that would not look out of place in the mouth of a Stegasaurus.

As one gains in altitude, the eucalupts give way to myrtles, which in turn gives way to subalpine heath forests of "pandanis". Above the pandanis, and almost reaching the mountain tops, are the alpine heaths dominated by Richia species, all of which are famous for their razor-sharp leaf edges.

In patches in the central west and in the extreme northwest is found the Tasmanian rain forest, where eucalpyts give way completely to southern pines and sassafras. These very dark forests have practically no undergrowth, but lots of fungus species, some with spectacular colors.

In the extreme west and south of the island there are large areas where forests give way to button-grass, where the soils are so leached of nutrients and water-logged that trees can not survive.

Coastal vegetation may consist of forests right down to the water's edge, but heath land can are also found in exposed and rocky coastal habitats.

All Tasmanian native plants make for extremely poor browse, with leaves high in toxins and low in nutrition.

Dry Agricultural Land

The clearing of land for pasture in the central valley has promoted the population of sulphur crested cockatoos and pink cockatoos (galahs). The huge flocks that scourge the wheat growing areas of New South Wales are absent, however.

The most conspicuous bird of the sheep paddocks is the Australian magpie (not related to the North American or Eurasian magpies). These black-and-white birds greet the spring morning with a lengthy and melodious carol that rolls across the countryside...a sound that means Australia to all her natives, and one that is guarenteed to bring an immediate bout of homesickness to those living abroad. On the other hand, magpies are extremely feisty birds and will dive bomb anyone who approaches their nests. A baseball cap with eyes painted on the back of the head will however confuse the birds and protect you from a rear attack.

Black-faced cuckoo shrikes are also to be seen near the sheep paddocks.

Dry Schlerophyl Forests

The most obvious bird of the dry schlerophyl forests was actually introduced to Tasmania, but it is nontheless an Australian icon, the laughing kookaburra. Just go out any dawn and you can't miss hearing them. These gargantuan kingfishers aren't exactly difficult to spot either.

The bulk of birds in this habitat are the honey eaters, which feed on the nectar of eucalyptus flowers and small insects. Most common is the yellow-throated honey eater, a Tasmanian endemic. .

The true jewel of this habitat is the suberb fairy wren, a truly beautiful tiny bird with irridenscent royal blue feathers. They are common and friendly.

The "diamond birds" or pardalotes, are also found in this habitat. These are tiny insectivorous birds that pick bugs off of trees, inmuch the same way oxpeckers pick them off of mammals. The greatest birding prize is the forty spotted pardalote, an endangered species endemic to a few locations on Tasmania and the islands to its east.

The rare Tasmanian subspecies of the wedge-tailed eagle is another prize of this habitat, but one that is much more widespread than the forty-spotted pardalote, and even though it is even fewer in number, the eagles (about 450 of them) are quite a bit more consipicuous.

Wet Schlerophyl Forests

In the highland valleys one can find the Tasmanian forest raven, a bird about midsize between a common raven and a common crow, but one with long wings and tails, and the adults have distinctive gleaming white eyes...quite startling in a jet black bird.

The forest robins abound in this habitat as well. They are ecological equivalents to the North American wood warblers, and these diminutive birds include some brighly coloured species, including the shockingly bright pink robin.

Several honey eaters, including largest of them (the yellow wattlebird) are also found here.

Rain Forests

The rain forests of the central west and northwest are surprisingly devoid of birds and mammals. This is due to a lack of food, because (as mentioned) there is no undergrowth and Tasmanian tree leaves are laced with toxins. Invertebrate life abounds however, and larger animals that can survive on grubs (such as insectivorous marsupials) can can also be found.

Bird life is secretive.

Tawny frog mouths are present, but because they pretend to be tree stumps all day (a ruse they pull off extremely well), they are very hard to find.

Suberb lyre birds have also been introduced to Tasmania and have a patchy distribution in the rainforests. They are also secretive but announce their presence with a variety of calls that would put a mockingbird to shame (if you hear a train whistle in the forest it is probably a lyre bird).

All and all, you will enjoy a walk in the rain forest much more if you put away your bird guide and bring out a fungus guide, as some spectacular bracket funguses can be found there.

Fruit Growing Areas

The Huon Valley south of Hobart is the primary apple and pear growing areas. There is also some "stone fruit" (peaches, plums, etc) and vinticulture in this area. Green rosellas can be easily found quietly feeding among the tree tops. Fairy wrens can be found in almost any patch of native growth. European black birds are in abundance, as are house sparrows.

Vinticulture is most prevalent in the red soil area of the north-east. However, vinyard owners so jealously guard their grapes with netting, that few birds can make a living there.

Hobart City

The most common back-yard native bird in Hobart is the silvereye...a small grey-green vireo-like bird with a distinctive eye-ring. Various honey eaters can also be found in abundance, and in the spring the largest of these, the yellow wattle bird, is an extremely noisy presence. Hooded plovers frequently prowl cricket ovals after a rain. Rock doves inhabit the downtown, and the starling, European black bird, and house sparrow are also common introduced species. Kookaburras are also in town. Silver gulls abound along the shoreline and fly over West Hobart in vast numbers at dawn and dusk on their way to and from the garbage dump for their daily feed.

In and immediately around the City of Hobart, there are representatives of each of the previously mentioned habitats except rain forests. So dry pasture, dry schlerophyl, wet schelorphl, and fruit growing habitats are all within an hour's drive of downtown... making Hobart an ideal base from which to operate.

The dry pasture land is to be found just east of town, to the north of the airport. And just west of the "heritage" village of Richmond (about 20 minutes north of the airport) one can find sulphur-crested cockatoos and galahs. And of course magpies carol throughout the district.

The dry schlerophyl forest spreads east from the airport to the Tasman pennisula, and north of Richmond as well. It can also be found by driving north from Hobart along the west side of the Derwent river toward the town of Cambridge. This route is especially wonderful, as it follows the Derwent estuary to the village of Bridgeport, where there is a broad expanse of marsh supporting abundant water fowl, including hundreds of black swans.

South of the airport lies the expanse of Frederick Henry Bay. This sand-bottom bay supports a rich fishery, and numerous sea birds. In the winter raffs of tens of thousands of mutton birds sit in the bay. Gannets and gulls are also in abundance. Betsy island, at the mouth of the bay, is a nesting island for gannets and others.

A drive up Mount Wellington (about 1/2 hour to the top from downtown Hobart) will take you through wet schlerophyl forests and alpine heath. A stop around the village of Ferntree is a great idea for wattle birds and wrens. Many walking trails are to be found on the north side of the mountain around Ferntree. And just west of Ferntree (on the road that continues west, not the one that turns up to the top of Mount Wellington) you can find the trail head of "the pipeline track", which contours around the west side of Mount Wellington to Wellington falls. As this is a perfectly flat walk it gets you a lot of birding territory for little effort.

Driving south from downtown Hobart through the suburbs of Sandy Bay and Taroona quickly gets you into the fruit trees that can be found in the yards of these affluent suburbs. And especially noteworthy is Nutgrove Beach Park, in south Sandy Bay, where a large resident flock of eastern rosellas can be found among the cyprus trees. Continuing south will get you to the village of Kingston and then to the Huon valley in short order.

Bruny Island

A quick 5km long ferry ride takes you from the village of Kettering south of Kingston gets you to Bruny Island. Its vegetation is primarily dry schlerophyl, with many pastures, but its still a bit too cold and wet there in the winter for the sulphur crested cockatoo. Yellow-tailed black cockatoos are however in relative abundance. The extreme south end of the island has coastal heaths where honey eaters abound. A colony of little penquins lies near the central narrow "waist" of the island, where one can also see the almost unique and much photographed "Penquin Crossing" road sign. The immediate area surrounding the ferry terminal, in the north of the island, and the forested region of the southwest of the island, are also home to the forty-spotted pardalote.

SouthWest Wilderness

Like the rainforests, the wet schlerophyl forests and button grass plains of the southwest are poor in bird life. But for the truly adventurous birder looking for that very special prize, the orange bellied parrot awaits. This critically endangered bird (with a population of some 200 adults) nests only on a narrow strip in southwest Tasmania. One would think that its nesting area would be off limits, but there are two "visitor accessible" nesting boxes at which a human being can (and is allowed to) peer at a nesting wild bird from a darkened bird hide. The major problem is accessibility...the southwest wilderness is not exactly cheap or easy to get to. A walking track skirts the south coast, but this only makes for a long and very muddy three day hike (each way). Light planes will drop hikers off at Melaleuca (an abandoned mine) at the far end of trail. Most visitors then walk back to civilization, but the pilot can also fly you back, allowing you to see the orange bellied parrot without a multi-day hike, but even without the walking it is still a significant journey to the birds. But the good news is that visitors to Meleleuca have a very good chance of actually seeing the birds once there and few are dissapointed. The nesting season runs from mid-October to March.

An even more difficult prize is the ground parrot, a denizen of the button grass plains. These nocturnal and secretive birds are an extreme challenge to all. Unless you are extremely devoted and willing to sit out in the button grass several evenings in the hope that a bird will finally arise out of the grass, you can pretty much forget about seeing one. Their whistled notes are however a lot easier to hear than the bird is to see, and you will likely have to be content with that.

SouthWest Islands

The rocky islands off the southest wilderness are home to the only truly large seabird rookeries around Tasmania. However, these islands are extremely remote and lie in one of the roughest stretches of ocean in the world, so they are almost totally inaccessible. But a visitor to the south-west wilderness can at least see the Matsuyker Islands from the air on the way to Meleleuca. Wave at the gannets as you go by.

Bass Strait Islands

Just north of the main island of Tasmania are the Bass Strait islands. These are mostly sandy and grass covered, and are simply the hill tops of a land bridge that connected Tasmania with Australia during the last ice age. The largest of these islands are King Island and Cape Barren Island, both of which are inhabited and agricultural. Smaller islands around Cape Barren Island (the Furneaux Group) have among them culturally significant mutton bird islands, which are literally honey-combed with the nesting burrows of mutton birds (aka short tailed shearwaters). The mutton bird is the only Australian native bird commercially harvested. And this harvest has a long tradition, with the annual hunt for mutton bird chicks being tens of thousands of years old.

These islands are also home to the large and distinctive Cape Barren goose, one of the largest and rarest wild goose species in the world. About the size of a barnyard goose, but with a much smaller bill, these fully protected birds are almost never seen except on their nesting islands. They will fly to remote corners of Tasmania and the Australian mainland outside of the nesting season, but they are still a rare birders' prize.

Unfortunately, a trip to the Bass Strait islands is not an easy they are no where near the tourist mainways. Their birds will likely remain the domain of only the most devoted birder for some time to come.

East Coast Islands

Maria Island is pronouced mar-I-ah locally, even though it is more properly pronounced mar-EE-ah. It is a much more accessible alternative to the Bass Strait islands, as it is only a one hour drive and a two hour ferry trip from Hobart International Airport.

Located off the east coast of Tasmania, it is home to the southernmost colony of Cape Barren geese. There is also an introduced population of the flightless Tasmanian native hens. Forty-spotted pardalots live in her forests as well as the usual assortment of dry schlerophyl birds. Sea birds are also to be found on the island's eastern shore.

Being a national park, the animal life (especially the Bennets wallabies) are very approachable. The Cape Barren geese strut about looking for all the world like so many domestic geese, and treat humans that venture too close to their nests in the same manner as any barnyard gander would. Which is to say, keep your distamce unless you are a very fast sprinter.

A full-day trip to Maria Island is definitely a great experience...take the first ferry from the town of Triabunna over and get the last ferry back for a great day, but make sure you bring a lunch and LOTS of water as there are no facilities of any kind on the island.

Sea bird rookeries can also be found on rockier islands off the east coast, but these are much less accessible than Maria Island and will require a boat charter. A trip to the fur seal rookery and nests of Isle de Foques, to the south of Maria Island, may be suitable for the keen. The Hippolytes to the east of the Tasman Pennisula is another site of note.

Tasman Pennisula

The Tasman pennisula is split by the inlet of Port Arthur, which gained infamy in 1996 as a result of the tragic shooting at the historic ruins of the penal colony there. Despite the areas long and very sad history, it remains an area of wonderful birding habitat. The upper reaches of the inlet abound with shore and wading birds, such as the white-faced heron, pied oyster catcher, sandpipers, and on the grassy shores forages the flightless Tasmanian native hen. White breasted sea eagles sit in the eucalypts above the water. A few black swans are also present, as are the ubiquitous silver gulls. Going out further into the bay will net you pelagic birds in a relatively sheltered water.

East Coast Mainland

No trip to Tasmania is complete without a visit to a little penguin colony, and the most accessible is just north of the town of Bicheno, on the east coast. The beach is however closed, and it is necessary to sign up for a "penguin tour", where you are taken by van to the beach and shown the birds via flashlight as they return to their nests just after dark. The tours run from November through January and can be signed up for at the tourist center in town. They are not expensive.