Tasmania – Well Worth the Trip

The author of a book on the natural history of Tasmania, Ted Davis, is a friend ours and lives on Cape Cod here in Massachusetts – go figure. We picked Ted’s brain and got some ideas about how to visit this island-state. We first allowed two days and then upped it to three full days and two half days — and that was no where near enough. Actually the author of Where to See Birds in Victoria, who lives in Victoria, Australia, was equally helpful as he corresponded by email and answered questions (equally silly to those questions we asked Ted) without snickering. All in all we were very lucky in planning the trip and found everyone we corresponded with to be gracious and helpful.

But back to Tasmania. This is a beautiful island. It reminds me, at least along the east coast, of areas like Maine and Nova Scotia near Peggy’s Cove. A lovely shore with trees, rocks, and pocket beaches of white sand. Our plane touched down a bit late, we located our rental car after declining the mini that was offered we ended in a brand new Renault for $8 a day more. I pulled over to the left-hand side of the road and we headed off to the north; our destination was, what turned out to be the very small town of, Triabunna. (That is pronounced like as pastry clerk might; “why don’t you “try a bunna” today?”)

The ride was great fun. We headed rather quickly uphill into our first eucalyptus forest and saw our first wallaby (dead on the road). We stopped and took the view here and there and birded and enjoyed the countryside – and Tasmania has lots of countryside. Like most of Australia there are lovely places and few people. Thus coastal communities that would be bursting with tourists and clogged with traffic here are much more low key and enjoyable down there. There were dozens of places where we said, “I could live here”. Most Australians who fish or vacation along the shore have a caravan (a small pull-behind trailer) or rent in the community they vacation in. Thus we saw very few second homes or condos anywhere in the country. All in all it seemed comfortable and unhurried.

We went to Tasmania for several reasons; there are twelve endemic birds, everyone says it is nice, and, of course, the off-chance of seeing a Tasmanian Devil. We did see the endemics and Tasmania is really very nice, but the devil takes a lot of work and driving to see – and we didn’t. As we headed north from the airport we came across a road-killed Bennett’s Wallaby. There was a Forest Raven picking away at the animal’s soft parts. This rather grotesque activity was recorded when we stopped to walk the edges of the roadside forest enjoying the vistas. When we reached the towns of Orford and Triabunna we spoke to people about the wallaby and the raven. They mentioned that in the olden days (less than 20 years ago!) it would be Tasmanian Devils that came in the night to help clean the road edges of carcasses. But the devils have all but died off on the eastern portion of the island due to a cancer (DFTD – devil facial tumor disease, a non-viral transmissible disease) that causes tumors on the face and eventually causes difficulty eating and eventual starvation. The tumors mostly occur on the face and this makes the transmission of the disease rather easy via shared food items or fighting/biting.

Most of the trails in the parks are wide and pretty well maintained. Here Fran stands among shaggy-barked eucalypts, scanning up 100′ and more for passing birds and maybe a koala. There is a concerted effort to remove feral plants and animals (dogs, cats, rats, and a range of plants) from the parks. As many of the creatures evolved with minimal predation they lack many of the evasive characters we see in creatures from other continents. 

We came to Triabunna because we wanted to get to a National Park called Maria Island and Triabunna (I like saying Triabunna) was the place to catch the boat. We stopped in at the Visitor’s Center (a usual and well-staffed Australian feature) down at the boat ramp and learned about the town. We also learned about Maria Island, the ferry, accommodations, where to have dinner (and where not to have dinner), and enjoyed the vivacious ladies (Marian & Elizabeth) at the information place. We got our room and went for a drive through the countryside looking at the terrain and its birds before dining on calamari and rump steak. We were rewarded on both counts; that is with the terrain and the birds, not so much with the dinner. As I mentioned, Tasmania is lovely; even the Aussies come here for vacation. It is quite southerly and is thus the cooler part of the continent and its forests and lands are more lush than the continental portion of the country and the birds are rather tame and abundant. Much as Texans and Floridians head north in June, Jul, and August, the Australians head for Tasmania in the summer.

We caught the boat for Maria Island the next morning. It was a one-hour ride to the island’s pier. During the ride we had a few Pacific Common Dolphins and a non-stop commentary by Michael Cook the captain. He is a young man who is running for Town Council and cuts a rather dashing (local, a bit eccentric, bright-eyed, and concerned for the area) figure both on shore and at the helm. It was cool and a bit gloomy with a sporadic heavy mist and he was lightly clad and barefoot. Not unlike many coastal folks along the south shore and here on Cape Cod.

The Black Currawong is a Tasmanian endemic. We saw several on Maria Island. They are in the same family as Butcherbirds and Woodswallows. The most common member of this group is the very common Australian Magpie.
Maria Island has been occupied by modern colonists since 1880 or so and has been home to a silk-making  industry, vineyards, farming until 1972 when it became a National Park. The old buildings stand as a reminder of these earlier times. There are miles of trails and wildlife is abundant on Maria Island. Of course coastal Aboriginal peoples used this area for tens of thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. The coastal Aboriginal group (Tyreddeme) were quite flush with food and were much more sedentary that those peoples of the outback (this name for the remote, arid portion of the country applies to about 80% of the land). Like many of Australia’s early settlements the island housed convicts for about fifty years. It was an active detention area from 1825 to 1832 and again from 1842 to 1851. Three of the old stone buildings remain.
We never knew quite what to expect in Tasmania, actually throughout Australia. In the USA we are familiar with habitats and seasonal uses by wildlife. Things change all the time but there are generalities that remain useful in planning, thinking, and in identifying. In Australia we were way out of synch. Did things migrate? If so, is it to or from where we are? What time of day or year do they sing, display, call, feed, wander, or hide? On Maria Island we were lucky to see many of the native animals. The above Wombat was with its mother and just hunkered down to wait for us to pass. They were just snuffling around in the mid-day gloom. We also saw single adult animals.
There are several hopping animals on Maria; both kangaroos and wallabies can be found. We had lots of Eastern Gray Kangaroos on the open grassy areas and a couple (probable) Red-necked Wallabies in the forest. If you look closely at the female Eastern Gray in the photo above you can see the feet of the joey that has clambered headfirst into the female’s pouch. The family to which kangaroos belong also contains wallabies, wallaroos, pademelons, and tree kangaroos. In general the kangaroos are the largest and the pademelons are the smallest. The Tree Kangaroos are now largely found only on the islands to the north (like New Guinea) and are tropical forest animals. The kangaroos are the large grazers much like antelope, bison, and deer and the wallabies and pademelons are more equivalent to rabbits and dik-diks, the smallish grazing animals found on other continents. 
The Cape Barren Goose is a strange goose-like bird that may be a shelduck or a swan or a goose or a member of the now-extinct New Zealand goose group. Perhaps DNA-work will provide this bird with a taxonomic home in the near future. It is a rare goose of southeastern Australia’s islands. It can drink salt and brackish water and thus can remain on the offshore islands year-round. It is named for Cape Barren Island where it was first sighted by Europeans; however many small islands along the SE Australian coast were named Goose Island by early explorers.
Call me crazy but I like this mega-beaked gull. It may look like a Great Black-backed (eastern North America) or a Kelp Gull (southern South America) but the Pacific Gull is especially cool having this huge red-tipped beak. It may be rather common and easy to see in appropriate habitats – all you have to do is travel the south coast of Australia or the east coast of Tasmania and you will find them. The Pacific Gull reaches adult plumage after 8-10 molts taking five years.
The Tasmanian Native Hen (TNH) is a flightless gallinule of impressive size. Like the birds of New Zealand the Australian birds, mammals, and reptiles had only a few rapacious predators. There are many carnivorous animals to be sure but flight was not always necessary for escape and survival. New Zealand leads the way way with both ancient and modern flightless birds as there were no mammal predators in New Zealand at all until dogs and cats were introduced. But, in fact, many preadtor-free Pacific Ocean islands have evolved flightless birds (usually water birds like rails and gallinules). The TNHen is found in grassy areas and thus can be seen around agricultural areas. It is certain that modern land use has allowed the TNHen population to grow. There is certainly more grass now that 200 years ago and almost certainly more native hens. We found them in remote parkland and developed farm land as well as in urban areas at (street runoff) retention basins in the middle of Hobart.
The birds shown above and below are pardalotes (par-dah-lote {as in float}). There are three species of pardalote in Australia and we saw two of them in Tasmania. The Striated Pardalote is seen above and the Forty-spotted Pardalote is below. The other species is simply called the Spotted Pardalote as it has way too many spots to count. 
They are all tiny birds that nest in burrows or holes in trees and spend time foraging throughout the forest, often in the canopy. We were lucky to get images of them. 
The striated (above) happened to be building a nest in a hole in a branch in a eucalypt that was right above us as we waited for the 40-spotted to return to an area where it was said to be building a nest. We hunkered down for well over an hour and were rewarded by visits from both species. We never would have found the 40-spotted without help from a local photographer (also hunkered down and covered with ferns) as they were no longer singing (as with many species of animal, once mating starts and house-building begins the romance ends). 
The Striated Pardalote is quite common throughout most of Australia and we saw it in many places. There are six named races or populations of this “stripe-crowned” pardalote. Geographic isolation and adaptation drives evolution.
The, very rare, Forty-spotted Pardalote can be reliably seen only in southeastern Tasmania and then is restricted (largely) to two islands (Maria and Bruny).

 As I said we had a great visit to Tasmania. It is a lovely place for naturalists to hang out and we now understand why Ted Davis chose it as a place to visit again and again. Frans says it all!!

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