Image for Mother Mountain: The Symphony of Birdsong (36)

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

The female pink robin incubating eggs along the Fern Glade Track appeared restless and fidgety. The male seemed to be making increasingly frequent visits to the nest, but before feeding the female immediately, he would pause on the nest rim, and gaze down. What he was seeing was the wriggling, writhing bare bodies of tiny birds, all yellow beak and bulbous bluish skin over closed black eyes. The first of the mountain’s young had hatched.

A routine had emerged. The male would fly back and forth to the nest with food, feeding first the young before the female. On the return from each of his feeding forays, where he snatched at tiny insects between ferns at the side of the Dunns Creek stream bed, or speared worms in the leaf litter, the male would not fly directly to the nest. He was smart and wanted to keep below the radar of the currawong, or any other avian predator lingering in the woods.

With zig-zag flight he landed in the tight branches of a dogwood near the nest, but far enough away not to betray its presence. With beak bulging with worms, insects or both, he would gaze about him, and if the coast was clear fly rapidly to the nest, spend a split second there to feed the female or the young. In a flash he would be gone again.

Mother Mountain was clearly under pressure ...

The consultation period on the Mount Wellington Management Trust’s draft plan outlining a development strategy for the mountain closed on October 28, 2012. The submission would be considered by the trust in drawing up a final report to go to the Tasmanian Planning Commission later in the year.

Mother Mountain was clearly under pressure from those wanting to see development there, especially on the summit. Taking the Ice House Track out of the Springs the next day I reflected on what already had occurred on the peak during the history of European colonisation of Tasmania. In the early days trees had been cleared to such an extent that a massive landslide thought to be the direct result of land clearance occurred on the slopes above Glenorchy to the north. The scar caused by the slip could still be seen to this day.

Tracks to cart off the timber, and to cart off ice from the ice houses, also scarred the mountain from the earliest days. Then came the Pinnacle Road built in the 1930s as a project to create work for the jobless and hungry during the Great Depression.

Another severe cut, perhaps more noticeable in places than the Pinnacle Road, allows a power line to reach the summit and there are, of course, the two communications towers, the biggest of which can be seen for up to 50 kilometres.

The Springs ...

We must also consider the extensive hotel complex built at the Springs in the early days and destroyed in the bushfires of 1967. The remains of the hotel, and the alpine garden that was also located at the site, remains a scar to this day, inviting plans to re-develop this site alone, leaving the pinnacle as it is.

We should be grateful, though, that Mount Wellington has survived largely intact, beyond supplying timber. Its slopes have not been used for agriculture and no minerals have been found there, at least to be mined.

I remember sitting next to a man from Western Australia on the long flight from Europe one year, with him telling me how he went out at weekends prospecting for precious minerals and stones.

“Wealth, it’s everywhere in the west,” said the amateur prospector. “There’s whole mountains made of iron ore and they simply cut them down and cart them away to Japan and China.”

I didn’t know Mother Mountain then, and when I view her from near and far I think of the man on the long haul from Europe, and I’m glad iron ore has not been found on her slopes.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan wrote of mountains washed to the sea, but in coming weeks I come across another reference to mountains in “Beyond here lies nothin’ ”,  a Dylan song in the blues idiom.

Beyond here lies nothin’,
But the mountains of the past

And I’m thinking mountains removed not by the forces of nature, but my man’s hand.

The birds of the Springs were in fine voice, and displaying the behaviour that makes each of them unique in the wild world. A shining bronze-cuckoo sang out, although I couldn’t find it. A gang of black currawongs were up to no good, yellow-throated and crescent honeyeaters, olive and golden whistlers called. A striated pardalote visited a nesting hole in a yellow gum and then I heard alarm calls uttered by a party of Tasmanian scrubwrens. I looked to see what was worrying them in the undergrowth. No cuckoos in sight, and the currawongs had moved on. It could have been a tiger snake, and I trod warily.

Looking at the ground in fear of tiger snakes, I found another orchid to add to my newly started list. A pink sun orchid fighting for sunlight, the rays essential for it to unfurl its bloom. I was in luck, the sun piercing the forest canopy and during the three weeks of the flower’s blooming period I hoped to find it again.

At month’s end I checked out the pink robins nest along Dunns Creek again and was pleased to find not one nest but two nests in the same location. In the second nest, the female was still incubating eggs.

I hate to admit that when I was a boy I used to collect birds eggs, a practice frowned upon these days. To this day the eggs hold a fascination and I always try to view them in nests, being careful not to worry the birds and not to disturb the nests and eggs themselves.

I’ve never seen pink robin eggs

Like the first pink robin pair, there would be no chance of spying the eggs in the second nest. I’ve never seen pink robin eggs, although I have found quite a few nests. The nest was too high and too distant and even climbing up a tree to draw slightly above it, the sides of the nests were too high to reveal even the female. The eggs are greenish, or bluish-white and are marked with dark brown and lavender splotches and spots, usually concentrated around the large end, as with the flame robins.

The cuckoo would know them, both the fan-tailed and bronze-cuckoo, and again I feared that the pink robins might meet the cuckoo fate, because cuckoos were calling all around me.

While cuckoos might pose a threat to nesting robins, both black and grey currawongs present a more direct danger. They are relentless predators and always have the eggs and young of not just robins in their sights but all smaller birds unable to defence themselves and their nests.

Grey currawongs making their presence known along Dunns Creek had started construction of a nest in mid-October and now it formed a huge bulk in the upper branches of a stringybark. I had found a currawong nest during the winter, after it was blown from a tall tree higher up the mountain during a storm. From afar, usually gazing up at a eucalypt, I had always thought the currawong’s nest similar to that of the forest raven, which also appears as a bulky pile of sticks in the treetops. Close-up though, the currawong’s nest was a more compact and complex affair. Neatly arranged sticks formed the base. Wrenched from a tree in a storm, the nest still had thick strands of cutting grass attached to it. These had anchored the nest to a branch.

The robust stick structure surrounded a deep bowl, a design closer to a Bassian thrush’s nest than to that of a raven. Inside the bowl, course grasses and what looked like fern throngs were laid in a circular pattern around the nest wall.

A little later at the Fern Tree Tavern I took out my diary to write “check currawong nest” , scribbling the words 16 days hence, the incubation period for grey currawong eggs.