Image for Mother Mountain: The Symphony of Birdsong (26)

*Pic: Wikipedia’s picture of a pardalote from here:

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

It’s described in the bird books as a triple-note “witchi-chew”, and the song I heard near the Springs into the second half of August was unmistakably the sound of summer. The first of the striated pardalotes had arrived.

I searched for the tiny birds – a tad longer and stouter than the spotted pardalotes – high in the yellow gums, whose gnarled and knotted bark provides perfect homes for these cavity–nesting birds in the nesting season.

Just one bird, teasing me, tormenting me and after I searched for half an hour the bird suddenly stopped singing, and I speculated it might have moved on to another location, or moved further south after an initial exploration of the mountain.

In spring, one sure place to find striated pardalotes is off the mountain, in the Waterworks Reserve in its shadow where the visiting pardalotes for once eschew holes in trees for the cracks in the sandstone walls of an historic hydro-infrastructure built in Hobart’s infancy.

It didn’t take me long to find a pardalote, busy scouting a nesting site which I knew to have been used in the previous summer. The bird – a fine male already in fresh spring plumage – flew down from an overhanging blue gum to vanish between the cracks without perching first on a ledge below the opening. Perhaps this male was returning to last year’s nest, and he knew it intimately without at first having to check it from outside.

The resident spotted pardalotes might be dubbed diamond birds, but the striated pardalotes display a more refined, less showy beauty. They have a white eye-stripe lined with black, and a spot of yellow sitting just behind their blunt beak. Their breasts are washed with a pastel shade of yellow.

Watching the pardalotes, the mountain towering over me to the north-west, I disturbed a pair of masked lapwings clearly in the process of incubating eggs. The male of the pair took to the wing and buzzed me a couple of times, until I backed off. 

The Waterworks Reserve offers perhaps the best vista of the mountain’s eastern face, especially the Organ Pipes during the morning when the rising sun etches the dolerite feature in light and shade.

The reserve and the Waterworks Valley in which it is contained forms the foothills of the mountain. Although the Waterworks Valley has been central to my bird-watching for many years I decided when I started my diary project I would not include the species I saw at the reserve. Many of these are waterbirds, anyway, which would not fit into the mountain environment under normal circumstances, an environment that does not have reservoirs and lakes constructed by man.

And the cape barren goose that was to make the reserve its home during the summer of 2012 would hardly qualify as a bird of alpine fastness, and snow.

Across southern Tasmania the swooping, ragged flight of swamp harriers was now commonplace, as was the cry of nesting lapwings sensing danger real or imagined.
Spring had firmly taken flight but there were pockets of snow on the higher mountain slopes.

I searched in vain for migrants, although I heard the start of a song that sounded like the first bars of the fan-tailed cuckoos’ descending melodic refrain. I cocked my ears to the eucalypts swaying in the breeze at the Springs; all I could hear was the rustle of wind on leaf, and the call of the spotted pardalote.

I drove down to the Waterworks Reserve again to check for migrants there. No visitors but the promise of spring was confirmed by a party of eager and busy hoary-headed grebes who had switched from their dull brown winter plumage into their spring fashion. They now sported the finely-barred black and white heads that reminded the pioneers of the hoar-frosts of Europe, and so they were given this name. Soon the grebes would leave the reservoirs for breeding grounds amid reeds on the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon rivers.

As if spring isn’t busy enough for the keen bird-watcher, the build-up is even more hectic.  There is a tradition in Britain of noting the first arrivals of spring, and I think it is something planted in my DNA. It is such an obsession with the British that The Times of London no less always each runs a competition on its letters page to receive word of the first song of the cuckoo.

Because of work commitments in the past, I had always come late to the first sightings of migrants like swallows – hearing of them secondhand and usually catching up when work allowed – and now I could wander the mountain, and the Waterworks Reserve, any day to be first with the news.

It became an obsession in the last two weeks of winter, and I had to get a grip. Amid the snow, I lingered on the summit one afternoon looking north and north-west and imaged all the migrants winding their way along the valleys between the snowy peaks. Ancient pathways, I could see avenues of green between the rugged hills and mountains, the migrants’ route south. 

At night I looked to the heavens, and my thoughts were with the birds that travel guided by the stars. On August 24, Saturn, Mars and a star named Spica formed a triangle with a crescent moon. Next night clouds carrying snow from the south-west blotted out the sky. Again the great passage of birds from the north had been halted and I’d have to wait a little longer for the song of spring in the forests and woods.