Image for Mother Mountain: The Symphony of Birdsong (12)

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

I’m sitting on the rocks at Dennes Point, on Bruny Island, looking across the sparkling waters of the D’Entrecasteaux Channel to the scattered forest and patchwork fields and vineyards on the other side of the strait on the Tasmanian mainland.

The mountain forms a backdrop, its summit and the adjacent Cathedral Rock sitting on a low layer of mist. For once I’m not seduced by a mountain floating on a white cloud, even if it looks surreal. I’m scanning the green and dark forests and watching a little bird fluttering towards me, in an undulating flight that sometimes goes so low I think this little bird is going to hit the water.

Rising and falling, it comes closer and I can see a splash of orange-red about it. As it comes in to land, on a rock close to where I am sitting, I can see it is a flame robin.

The bird has swooped in from the direction of the mountain and now I am speculating that this is one of the robins I have been watching all summer. The robin has now deserted the mountain to escape the ice and snow of winter and instead of heading north, and crossing Bass Strait like some of his kin, this one has headed south-west for the safely and refuge of Bruny Island.  A smart little bird.

To say this bird is one of the flame robins I have been watching all spring and summer might be a stretch of the imagination, using a little journalistic licence (to use the lexicon of my trade) but I am pretty certain it has been on the mountain somewhere and has had all the adventure, drama and turmoil of those of the flame robin species who have been my companions for six months or so. Did this flame robin stake out its territory amid the yellow gums, broadcast with its liquid song its domain, and broadcast for a mate in those early months? And after all the hard work of courtship and mating, choosing a secure site for a nest and gathering the material to build it, and incubating eggs and raising young, was this robin’s home the one chosen, cruelly, by a visiting fan-tailed cuckoo? Either way, the robin alighting on a rock on North Bruny Island would have a story to tell.

With birds leaving the mountain for new lands either in Tasmania or across Bass Strait, a daily checklist I made of species spotted was looking thinner and thinner into autumn.

Even birds regarded as resident tend to move around in autumn and winter when they do not have definite breeding territories. At this time, they can be difficult to find.

The pink robin is a good example of this. It’s a common if shy species year-round but if it is not singing and calling this stunningly beautiful bird with magenta breast and charcoal-black back can be hard to find. I found that out of the breeding season it was also more likely to be seen off the mountain, in creeks winding through suburbia, as far north as South Hobart.

One bird sure to turn up, though, at any time and in all weathers, is perhaps the most famous, or infamous, skulker and lurking of the forests – the Tasmanian scrubwren.

It might appear an unobtrusive, nervous little bird – quick to flee from approaching footsteps on a mountain trail – but its sweet twittering and more grating alarm call echoes back to a time when it aided and abetted those most feared in the fledgling colony. The scrubwren made its home among the bushrangers, the murders and thieves who terrorised Tasmania’s citizens.

The little bird was dubbed the “alarm bird” by the early settlers because it warned with a scolding, rasping chatter of unwelcome visitors.

This applied of course to the bushrangers and to this day visiting the lair of one of the most fearsome murderers of the Victorian period, Rocky Whelan, you can still find scrubwrens at the entrance to the cave on the south-east slopes of Mt Wellington.

Golden whistlers called from the peppermint gums and the yellow sandstone outcrop that hides the cave was dappled with the soft rays of late autumn sunshine as I played out the role of bushranger for the day, on the trail of Hobart’s bushranger history. In that quest Rocky Whelan’s Cave is a vital piece of Tasmania’s heritage..

Heritage might sound a curious term to describe a slab of eroded sandstone on the eastern slopes of the mountain but the outcrop and its cave remains a potent symbol of Tasmania’s cruel and brutal bush ranger past. What’s more, the cave and its scenic location is a potent symbol of the present – an “artefact” where man’s and nature’s worlds collide in both human and natural history.

Such an idyll seemed at odds with the harsh brutality of Rocky Whelan’s life. He had come to the mountain by way of convict settlements in Sydney and Norfolk Island to gain the reputation as Tasmania’s most ruthless bush ranger, confessing to several murders once arrested.

The mountain was Whelan’s last hiding place before he was finally caught when he was spotted in Hobart buying a pair of boots. He was sentenced to death on June 26 1855 and caused a sensation by making a last-minute confession to the attending clergymen, in which he admitted murdering an elderly man near Kingston, another old man at Bagdad, a hawker at Cleveland, and a young man on the Huon Track, whom he had shot and struck on the head, and robbed.

A fellow convict said that Whelan had told him be would “kill a man for four pence”. His modus operandi was to shoot or club victims first before robbing them.  At his trial he said of a man giving evidence against him – whom he had spared – that he now wished he had shot him, because “dead men don’t tell tales”.

Whelan had two caves in the general Hobart area – the other being above the road to Kingston to the south –  but it is the mountain one that, in estate agent’s parlance, would have been the “des. res.” of convicts.

A lip above the shallow cave still protects it from wind, rain and snow coming off the higher elevations of the mountain and, as I discovered late afternoon, it would have caught the sun all day. It offered a view of not only the south towards Fern Tree, but the Organ Pipes to the north. Alongside the main cave was another, smaller one open at its far end, which would have provided an escape hatch if troops appeared from the south. No doubt Whelan would have listened for the alarm calls of not only scrubwrens but Bassian thrushes to determine if human foes were approaching.

Sitting in the cave, I pictured the lonely, fraught life of “Rocky’’ Whelan. He knew that death could arrive any day, or be around any corner if he left the safety of his refuge. 

All the while birds flittered around and I wondered if he saw in them a metaphor for his own life. Was he one of the smaller, vulnerable species, hunted and harassed by the goshawk? Or was he a falcon or hawk, a bird of prey that preyed on others? More likely his lonely, persecuted fate would have been that of the raven. Opportunistic; a mugger, robber and occasional killer.

• Eva Ruzicka, in Comments: Dear Don, Please, please, publish your writing in another book - webpages are so ephemeral and saving off to a hard disk just doesn’t compare to the pleasure of reading and re-reading, and re-reading, and reading out aloud to another, and especially the young. Kindest regards, Eva