BIRCHES INLET IN WILDERNESS SOUTH-WEST TASMANIA
Chris Coleborn

Earlier this month my adult daughter Anna and I spent a fortnight in the spectacular and awesome vastness of the World Heritage listed South West wilderness area of Tasmania. We lived and worked from a shack near the Birches River, which flows into Birches Inlet and then into Macquarie Harbour. The shack is the base for a release and monitoring site of the ORANGE-BELLIED PARROT (OBP). The fortnight we were there we did not see another soul, and apart from a nightly safety radio report-in, hardly spoke to another soul. The opportunity to spend over 30 hours of close observation of OBPs, and making some notes for the records of this worthwhile project, was very satisfying. Details on this project can be found on various websites including: www.abc.net.au/rural/tas/features/gallery_orange_bellied_parrot.htm

The setting was certainly world class. There were towering mountains, misty gorges and mist and tree shrouded creeks, towering bluffs and abrupt escarpments, rugged plateaus bisected by wooded gullies and spreading and vast plains and swampland of Button Grass and a multitude of other herbage forming a wonderful tapestry of flowering plants. All this spread out with a marvellous sense of space and ever changing character with the passing of the day and the weather changes. It is the home of some very special animals too – including the OBP. It was great to walk through all this variety of landscape, and we particularly enjoyed one fine day an eight hour 35 km hike along the Low Rocky Point Track.

There were also impenetrable thickets of Tea Tree and associated plants, and in places one could penetrate into the understory of Beech Forests, hoary with age and fallen mammoths moss and lichen covered, and ferns and associated plants like a wonderful garden. It was great to see such wonderful trees as the Beech/Myrtles, Black-hearted Sassafras, Huon Pine and various species of giant eucalypts. The OBP’s however, made their home in the Button-grass plains and flats, and nested in the copses and little islands of eucalypts to be found scattered over the plains and in some of the gorges that broke away from the plateaus.

While the area does not have a large number of bird species, there are some very special birds to be found here. The many sightings of OBPs, of which there are only about 200 – 250 in the wild now, were the most significant. However, it was always riveting to freeze and get a view of a flushed GROUND PARROTS, with their silent, quick flight and sudden disappearance into the low, dense herbage. There were some good sights of them though. One memorable one was when a GROUND PARROT landed in a bush with the morning sun on its back – the mottled black and yellow/green of its head and back was breathtaking.

We enjoyed some other special birds here too, all of them endemic sub-species or species of Tasmania. One of the more memorable, were several encounters with the most delightful, at times so shy and at times so confiding, little SOUTHERN EMU-WREN. With their blush of pastel blue to the male’s throat and to their striated brown backs and rufous underside and trailing ‘Emu feather’ tails they would pop up onto Button-grass or stunted tree stems, or in some giant rushes. In the depths of the towering forest, we enjoyed a male PINK ROBIN, so startlingly pink and black in the subdued lighting, softly calling as it accompanied us for a time in our wander in his world. I thought we also saw a BASSIAN THRUSH here, but could not get a second sighting in the twilight of the forest to verify it. ForWe did get to see a reclusive OLIVE WHISTLER though, silently looking at us and then flittering away into the enclosing forest. Skulking in thickets we saw TASMANIAN SCRUBWREN, and in the isolated islands of trees at the heads of gullies and on island rises in the plains, we saw TASMANIAN THORNBILL. There were some wonderful sights of YELLOW-TAILED BLACK COCKATOO. One unforgettable one was seeing close up this startling large black parrot feeding in the top of a profusely flowering and strikingly crimson, Tasmanian Waratah – what a contrast! We encountered, on one of our dinghy trips down the creek, a flock of endemic noisy and foraging STRONG-BILLED HONEYEATER. The YELLOW-THROATED HONEYEATER was common and they with the CRESCENT HONEYEATER were the most common birds around. Their cheerful calls made up the bulk of the delightful dawn chorus.

There were a range of other more common birds to be seen too, such as nesting TREE MARTINS & WELCOME SWALLOWS. On the waterways there were BLACK SWAN, AUSTRALIAN WOOD DUCK & LITTLE PIED CORMORANT. Raptors included SWAMP HARRIER & BROWN FALCON. We flushed several LATHAM SNIPES from some small, grassy ponds on the plains and flats. More ordinary bush birds included BRUSH BRONZEWING, FAN-TAILED AND HORSFIELD’S BRONZE-CUCKOO, GOLDEN WHISTLER, GREY SHRIKE-THRUSH, GREY FANTAIL, BLACK-FACED CUCKOO-SHRIKE, CRESCENT & NEW HOLLAND HONEYEATERS, & FOREST RAVEN. We also came across several pairs of the endemic GREEN ROSELLA. There were also good numbers of BLUE-WINGED PARROTS, of which we had good sightings as they fed with the OBPs. A SOUTHERN BOOBOOK was heard calling one night.

I had hoped to see some BEAUTIFUL FIRETAIL here too, but they did not conveniently appear for us to see them. We had heard that the rather rare Tasmanian subspecies of the AZURE KINGFISHER nested in this area, and I was also hopeful of seeing it, but we missed it too.

We enjoyed wonderful views early one morning of an EASTERN QUOLL, and had several clear views of BROAD-TOOTHED RATS, and some passing sightings of TASMANIAN DEVIL & COMMON WOMBAT. The SWAMP ANTECHINUS is found in this area, and I searched with spotlight several nights looking for one, but was not successful - the same for SWAMP RAT. With all the insects to be found here, I thought we would encounter some bats, but I did not see one.

Invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians were also of much interest, and it was satisfying to use the guides and reference books seeking to identify them. I particularly enjoyed observing the many breeding frogs here, including the COMMON FROGLET, TASMANIAN FROGLET & SMOOTH FROGLET. The small ponds on the plains and higher plateau areas abounded with many breeding frogs and tadpoles of varying degrees of development.

Large, dark TIGER SNAKES put in several skulking appearances, and I was pleased to see several striking METALLIC SKINKS basking in the open when the sun warmly shone.

There were several striking fly-bys in the morning sun of MACLEAY’S SWALLOWTAIL BUTTERFLIES, with their wonderful lime-green and black filigree markings. These beautiful butterflies occur from way up in the tropics of North Queensland and then down in patches to a race in Tasmania. Though I had searched for them previously, I had not had the privilege of seeing one before. Other butterflies seen and identified were TASMANIAN BROWN, MONTANE HEATH-BLUE & COMMON GRASS-BLUE adding their movement and colour to the life of this amazing area. There were also myriad numbers of moths of varying sizes and tones of buff, white and fawn, with grey and black markings. One appeared to be PYRALIDAE HELLULA hydralis. I was able to identify at least 7 species - most seemed to be of the Family PYRALIDAE.

Other invertebrates I noted included 4 species of SPIDER, 1 species of MAYFLY, 4 species of FLY, 4 species of ANT, 1 species of COCKROACH, 1 species of MIDGE, 4 species of GRASSHOPPER, 2 species of WATER STRIDERS, 1 species of BOATMAN, 3 species of BEETLE (including a species of Longicorn and a Jewel), 5 species of WASP, including several very vividly marked in yellow and black and orange and black. What appeared to be a species of NATIVE BEE (or was it a wasp?) with colonies of them in small holes in bare ground areas. There was also at least one species of MOSQUETOES. I was also surprised to see a few HONEY BEE in the area too. All creatures, both great and small, added to the web and wonder of life here.

It was a great time, not only for contributing to the conservation of OBP, but a real privilege to enjoy this wonderful part of God’s world and for me, to enjoy a dad and daughter time together as pals and fellow explorers! There were many blessings for which to be thankful.

On a later trip with some other friends to Birches' Inlet, apart from the birds mentioned above, we had 'crippling views' of a BASSIAN THRUSH in the damp Myrtle Forest area, as well as TASMANIAN SCRUB TIT. We also on several occasions had good and close views of the AZURE KINGFISHER along the inlet area.