*Pic: of a Tasmanian Thornbill by © Annie d. photography
The “Respect the Mountain” forum ( here, here, and here ) at the Hobart Town Hall earlier this year prompted Don Knowler to return to a diary he compiled after daily rambles on Mt Wellington during the previous year. In what promises to be a momentous year in the modern history of Kunanyi, the weekly diary gives the mountain and its wildlife its own voice. All Don’s Mother Mountain columns - and much more by this superb writer - can be found under the Category, Don Knowler, here
In the cold and inhospitable winter months the birds might not have been nesting, but there was evidence of their handywork everywhere.
Nests old and battered, trailing twig and straw, littered both the forest floor and the branches of tall trees.
For every bird seen in spring and summer, or at least for every pair, there must be a nest somewhere and these emerge once the nesting season is over. Most nests are camouflaged and as the nests age the newly plucked and placed foliage to both build and disguise these masterpieces of construction fades and loses its colour. Suddenly dried grass, or mud, or twig stands out. Old nests are incredibly easy to find, especially after storms when they are dislodged from trees.
Walking to Sphinx Rock in mid-September I found a grey currawong’s nest lying on the track. The black and grey currawong build a similar nest but I knew this one belonged to a pair of grey currawongs because I had seen it holding young in the late summer. It had been placed in a high yellow gum, partly out of sight, and now I could inspect it in detail. The nest had a foundation of carefully interwoven twigs, shaped in a shallow bowl and in this was a lining of course grass and hair. I presumed the hair could have come from a possum rubbing its back against a gum trunk, or perhaps from a wallaby shedding its thicker winter coat at the start of spring.
Stormy weather – after the initial promise of summer – brought down more nests. A mossy bundle that was once home to Tasmanian thornbills, and then what I consider the mother of all nests, that of the grey fantail. The fantail’s creation is shaped like a wine glass, trailing a stem of grass. The top of the nest is anchored to a thin bough, and its swaying shape is usually difficult to spot amid the foliage in spring and summer.
Nests, of course, come in all shapes and sizes but generally take two basic designs, open or closed, the latter with a roof or dome. Open nests are anchored to a branch or a fork of a tree, hidden in deep foliage or wedged in a tree stump or a cluster of rocks.
They might be bowl-shaped, as with the Bassian thrush, or a flat or flattish platform of sticks, as with those built by ravens or currawongs.
The closed nests are usually found on the ground, or close it. Sometimes they are of a domed construction, perhaps with a tunnel entrance to one side.
Many Tasmanian species forego nest building in the traditional sense, and merely find cavities in which to raise young. But these still require rudimentary nests inside the tree or bank or rock hollow, usually a lining of grass or moss.
The day after finding the currawong’s nest, I came across that of a Bassian thrush on the Radford Track leading to the Springs on the southern side of the mountain.
The nest resembled the more familiar blackbirds’ nests I find in my garden – and known from my childhood in Britain. My first blackbird nest, discovered in the woods of Surry in the late 1950s, was my introduction to the wonders of the family life of birds and to this day I am still awe-struck when I see sky-blue blackbird eggs, so perfectly shaped, nestled in the finely crafted mud-cup nest, a creation that could be the work of a potter.
Eggs and the chicks, they are an ancient symbol of rebirth, a guarantee that a species will survive into the future and so nests and eggs and nestlings and fledglings carry a special significance for me as spring blossoms in mid-September.
The Organ Pipes were lost in cloud, and the weather had turned bleak and cold.
The birds still sung the song of spring, however, and the flowers, too, knew the season of rebirth had arrived. The tiny white flowers of stinkwood emerged, matching on higher slopes the flush of flower on prickly moses in the mountain’s drier foothills to the north-east.
As stinkwood, prickly mosses and then dogwood – with fragile paper-thin pastel yellow flowers, the colour of a black cockatoos’ tail feathers – began to show themselves, the bright yellow blossoms of silver wattles were beginning to fade.
Rebirth, a new dawn, nature in her new cloak, the clichés I learned as a journalist were rolling off my tongue and my pen.
There might be continuing rain and mist, a chill in the air but the march of spring was unstoppable. The birds and the flowers announced it. And swallows once more hawked insects across the expanse of water and grass in the Waterworks Reserve, these ones to stay and not merely pass through.
I was looking to the future, but tramping to the Springs I was forced to look back.
The Radford Track is so named because it commemorates George Radford who died while taking part in the Go as You Please race from the Post Office in Hobart, up Mount Wellington and back in 1903.
So many times I have passed a monument dedicated to Radford on the Radford Track, shaped like a tombstone in design with scrolls and gothic lettering befitting the late-Victorian and Edwardian erea, but this time the date of September 19 caught my attention.
It was three days short of the 109th anniversary of his death and I couldn’t help reflect on all the seasons Radford – who was only 19 years old when he collapsed and died – had missed in the span of a lifetime; days he would not live to see, and feel. The call of the first cuckoos to herald the warm days of spring. The flowers of satinwood, and wattle and gum rustled by the wind. The scarlet, spiked blooms of waratah in summer, the yellow banksias blooming at the start of autumn, as if reluctant to let summer go, the snow gums shaking off snowflakes from their leaves after a blizzard at the start of winter.
The life of a human might be measured in three score and ten as the Bible says but Mother Mountain has a different concept of time. Her adventure started out in another age, where a year was not defined in human or even modern nature’s terms. We are talking here of a period before the ancient super-continent of Gondwana broke apart, to form the continents of Africa, South America and, of course, Australia. All the time, though, the movement of the sun, the blink of the stars, the blink of day and night, would have called the tune.
A masked lapwing moved slowly and deliberately through long grass on one of the fire trails bordering the lower Fingerpost Track. The lapwing wanted to be seen, and I suspected it was luring me away from a sitting female, with eggs, or young hidden somewhere in the grass. I couldn’t see the female and soon saw the youngsters, tiny balls of pied feathers on lanky legs.
The male uttered a warning cry and the youngsters froze on the spot. I ventured a little closer for a better look and felt a whoosh of air, and feathers, above my head. The female had arrived, buzzing me from behind. Tasmanian myth suggests that lapwings are dangerous, using the spurs on the elbows of their wings to inflict serious damage. There is also a suggestion the spurs might be poisonous, like those of the platypus on their hind webbed feet. The lapwings might have a second name of spur-winged plover, but they are harmless, the spurs are non-poisonous, and the lapwings are merely intent on bluster and bluff more than actual physical attack.
After few passes, both I and the female lapwing backed off. I wanted to give the female her victory, but knew that the currawongs and ravens would not be so gullible when they came to call.