Image for Mother Mountain: The Symphony of Birdsong (5)

The summit from Sphinx Rock: Mark Hanna, Tasmanian Geographic, here

The “Respect the Mountain” forum ( here, here, and here ) at the Hobart Town Hall last month 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.

The song of a scarlet robin stopped me in my tracks as I tramped the lower slopes of Mount Wellington on the first day of April.

A cold south-westerly wind threatened snow and birds had seemed reluctant to sing.  It’s often like that in autumn and into winter; the chorus of spring and summer slowly dying as birds that have reared young do not have to be so protective of their territories, and broadcast the fact.

Sometimes, though, when birds move out of breeding territories they establish new ones for winter, and they begin to sing again. I could tell by the sweet, descending, thin melody the tune came from a male scarlet robin. I searched for it in the lower layered branches of a native cherry but instead of the male robin I found his female, posing on the bare branch of a slender gum.

I’d hate to be regarded as a misogynist – a word much bandied around in political circles as Prime Minister Tony Abbott came to power in the year of 2013 – but I do not usually pay much attention to the female robins of any of the four species found in Tasmania. It is the beautiful males that attract my attention, even the male of the endemic dusky robin which shows no red or pink found on the breasts of the other robins, instead displaying a subtle grey-brown with a mark on the forehead that looks remarkably like designer sunglasses.

But I digress. It’s the male robins that catch my eye. This female scarlet robin, however, showed an extent of fiery red, far more than the muted and washed-out red usually associated with the female of the species.

The red was set against the warm brown feathers on her back and wings, in contrast to the blacks and whites of the male, and she carried a subtle beauty of her own. I soon forgot about the male robin and concentrated on the female, exposed now in a woodland glade and catching the rays of a soft winter sunshine in the late afternoon.
I watched her for a few minutes and then I suddenly heard an anguished cry followed by a kind of rapid peeping, a sound I had never heard before. Without looking around the female leapt from her exposed perch and started to fly, fast and straight like an arrow.

At that moment I felt a whoosh and rushing air just above my head and a large bird dropped on outstretched wings right in front of me. It was grey and black, wings swept wide and razor-sharp claws outstretched.

It was descending rapidly on the female robin, but she had a head start and the predator – which I could now identify as a butcherbird – lunged at her in vain, taking its eye of the course ahead, and crashing into a blanket-bush in the process.  The alarm cry of the male robin, the peeping I had heard, was still ringing out as the butcherbird righted itself in the blanket-bush and swept away down a steep incline below the glade, vanishing out of sight.

I could see the male robin now, looking anxiously in the direction of the butcherbird, then switching his focus to where his female had flown. A silence had descended below the canopy but the scarlet robin soon started up again with his song. Peace had returned to the forest, and I was so glad on such a lovely autumnal day I had not witnessed a brutal kill.


Silence in the woods, beyond the occasional song of a scarlet robin or the “cossick, cossick” of travelling green rosellas, was not the only indication in coming days that winter was in the air.

Wisps of smoke could be seen rising from distant chimneys and as I descended the Lower Sawmills Track towards O’Grady’s Falls one morning I caught the whiff of woodsmoke drifting up from homes near Fern Tree.

Southerly and south-westerly winds swirled round the mountain’s summit again and for the first time I felt the need for a thick jumper, tucked beneath a light shower-proof coat I wear when the clouds threaten rain.

I had been searching for flame robins again, one of the last birds to leave higher ground when summer ends, and was disappointed not to see them. Flame robins are my barometer, their arrival each year tells me spring has arrived, and I didn’t need thick grey clouds clearly carrying sleet in the sub-zero temperatures on the mountain to inform me that winter was now on the way.

Rain or shine, I went to the mountain in all weathers but I must admit that sunny days always quickened my step. It was not only because birds always looked far more splendid in sunshine, and were more likely to sing. The mountain was friendlier and in sunshine it was possible to select a spot and take in the scenery across the Derwent, to the far south-east beyond Port Arthur near the tip of the Tasman Peninsular.

On such a sunny day at the start of April I took a picnic lunch and sat atop Sphinx Rock. As I looked out across the city, and then the upper Derwent, I could see the new ferry linking Hobart with the Museum of Old and New Art. The ferry, the Mona-Roma, cut through the still waters of the wide river, leaving a thin trace, a line that weaved around buoys and through one of the spans of the Bowen Bridge a short distance from the MONA Jetty.

My obsession with the mountain leads me from it some days, so I can view it from a different perspective, from different distant places. Watching the ferry I realized this could provide another angle. So next day I bought a ticket at the quay in Hobart docks from where the ferry departs and settled in for the view. My wife was happy to travel with me, to see the latest exhibit at the museum and be free of the mountain, and talk of birds, at least after the 20-minute ferry journey.

As often happens on a mission to achieve another mountain view, Mother Mountain had pulled down her veil of mist and the entire summit was hidden. Every cloud has a silver lining, however.  On the eastern river bank of the river I spotted a white-bellied sea eagle perched in a dead tree, hoping the Derwent would provide a meal. The eagle was on a stretch of the river given over to industry, and was facing the giant zinc works that dominates the Derwent at the point where it widens to became a bay. I’ve viewed the smoking, steaming chimneys of the Zinc works a hundred times from the mountain summit and Sphinx Rock, part of an industrial landscape to the north-east that is the city’s economic heart. And from now when I view the Zinc works, I think not of heavy industry – but of a sea eagle looking for a meal.

• Rob Walls, in Comments: If this government must hand out Imperial honours, I believe Don Knowler deserves a peerage: Baron Knowler of Kunanyi.