Melaleuca Magic (Long)

To: ausbird <>
Subject: Melaleuca Magic (Long)
From: "Hicks, Roger" <>
Date: Tue, 25 Mar 1997 06:55:00 +1000
Melaleuca Magic

With a population of less than 200,  the Orange-bellied Parrot ranks
alongside Whooping Crane and Takahe as one of the rarest birds in the
world. Like these species, it is the focus of an intensive conservation
plan, but unlike the majority of rare birds the Orange-bellied Parrot is
also migratory. It  winters on the coastal marshes of Victoria and South
Australia but breeds in woodland and isolated trees on the edge of the
button grass plains of south-west Tasmania, where it is concentrated in
the Melaleuca area, south of Bathurst Harbour.

The Orange-bellied Parrot+s rarity, isolated breeding range and
migratory habits confer on it an almost mythical status. It is one of
those species that most bird-watchers would like to see but have to
content themselves with reading accounts of efforts to conserve the
species and gazing longingly at published photographs. So it was for me
when I took up a one-year contract in Melbourne in March 1996. I wasted
no time in contacting the RAOU and was soon taking part in several of
their surveys, including the winter Orange-bellied Parrot survey on the
coasts of Port Phillip Bay. Unfortunately, my arrival coincided with a
period when the Orange-bellied Parrots have been forsaking their
traditional winter haunts for as yet undiscovered sites. Despite
visiting likely habitat, Swan Bay, Swan Island and Werribee Spit, at the
right season I failed to make the acquaintance of a single
Orange-bellied Parrot.

In October 1996 I received an Email requesting volunteer wardens for the
Orange-bellied Parrot recovery programme. A family conference was
unanimous that we should volunteer, Jenny, Andrew (aged 8) and Matthew
(aged 7) being as eager as I was to see  these enigmatic birds. Mark
Holdsworth, the recovery programme coordinator, raised no objections to
the boys accompanying us, in fact quite the reverse (which made a very
refreshing change to the attitudes of some organisations when we had
offered our services elsewhere in the past). So plans were made.

We flew down to Tasmania on 10 January 1997 and spent the weekend round
and about Hobart. A dawn visit to Mount Wellington brought the first
birds of the trip including the Tasmanian endemics, Yellow-throated
Honeyeater, Tasmanian Thornbill, Green Rosella and Tasmanian Scrubwren;
search as I might I could not find a Scrubtit. The remainder of the
morning was spent enjoying the sights and sounds of Hobart+s Salamanca
market before we had brunch at a pavement cafe. The Port Arthur
settlement was our destination that afternoon; we dutifully completed a
Bird of Prey Watch sheet (recording a Brown Falcon and a Swamp Harrier)
as we covered the 100 km from Hobart. The boys were more interested in
the cricket pitch, where Shane Warne & Co had recently played a charity
game, than the historic buildings, but these held some interest. Up to
five pairs of Tree Martins were feeding young in nests above the
windows. We returned via the tessellated pavement at Eaglehawk Neck
which allowed us to add Strong-billed and Black-headed Honeyeaters to
our list. The following day we headed south, seeing a Yellow Wattlebird
in suburban Hobart, to take the ferry from Kettering across to Bruny
Island. Roadside birds here included Dusky Robin and Tasmanian Native
Hen but our main quarry was Forty-spotted Pardalote. We had seen this
species on a previous visit to Bruny, seven years ago, and headed back
to the same site. We took the first left off the ferry road and followed
the coast north towards Barnes Bay. Forty-spotted Pardalotes are
supposed to occur in the wooded valley of MacCrackens Creek but we had
no luck this time.  A little further on we came across a flock of birds
moving through the roadside bushes. These proved to be predominantly
Spotted and Striated Pardalotes. Jenny managed to pick out several
Forty-spots with their paler faces but I struggled until I saw them
flying away across open water when their uniform greenish back and rump
was conspicuous. Later, we watched a very confiding individual from less
than two metres. Nearby a flock of 13 Swift Parrots allowed a similar
close approach as they fed in a flowering gum tree. We had a picnic
lunch on the sand dunes of Bruny Neck, the narrow isthmus that links the
north and south +islands+ and the boys even braved the cold waters of
the southern ocean. I chose to remain dry. Our weekend ended with a
delicious meal on the Hobart waterfront.

Monday morning was spent stocking up on provisions for our two-week stay
in Melaleuca - it seemed we would need more than a cessna to transport
our mountain of gear into the remote south-west. The weather was perfect
for our flight with clear blue skies affording spectacular views over
the rugged landscape of this corner of Tasmania. From Cambridge we
headed south-west, crossing the Derwent just south of the Tasman Bridge
and flying over Hobart city centre, leaving Mount Wellington to the
north. At Huonville we left the populated south-east behind although the
marks of man were still evident with large areas of clear-felled forest
on the slopes above the Picton River. Our pilot pointed out Mount Bob to
the south but passed closer to Federation Peak with its curious Hanging
Lake. The rugged ridge of the Arthur Range was stark against the
northern horizon as we dropped down to Bathurst Harbour before following
Melaleuca Inlet up to the airstrip. We circled once, having views over
Melaleuca Lagoon and the nearby walkers accommodation and ranger+s hut;
the latter to be our home for the next fortnight. Before long we were on
the ground, stretching our legs after an exhilarating flight.

As we trundled our pile of gear the 500 m from the airstrip to the huts
we enjoyed the surrounding scenery; the button grass plain stretching to
the south, Melaleuca Lagoon and its fringe of woodland with rugged Mount
Rugby as a backdrop to the north, and lower more rounded, moorland
covered hills to the east and west. It was much more open than both
Jenny and I had expected with the woodland restricted to the waters edge
and in some of the steeper valleys. As expected we could not load
everything on a single flight, and while waiting for the remainder of
our stores to arrive, we saw our first birds as some Tree Martins
swooped over the trees alongside Moth Creek. We also paid a brief visit
to the public bird hide, erected in memory of local tin-miner and
naturalist Deny King, and there on the bird table were our first
Orange-bellied Parrots. MAGIC.

The ranger+s hut at Melaleuca is situated in the forest, predominantly
Woolly Teatree and Smithton Peppermint Gum, close to the southern shore
of Melaleuca Lagoon. It proved to be a comfortable home-from-home being
well provided with  a cooker and oven running off bottled gas and
electric light powered by solar panels. We occupied one of the bedrooms
with boys taking the bunk beds. From the hut+s windows were views into
the canopy of the surrounding forest where we saw  Strong-billed
Honeyeater, Black Currawong and Green Rosella. Olive Whistler and
Tasmanian Scrubwren would take cheese from the kitchen windowsill, while
a Grey Shrike Thrush would take food from your hand. Andrew and Matthew,
after a chat with Albert the ranger,  decided that perhaps these birds
should have a more natural diet and collected all the dead flies from
the ranger+s and walker+s huts. The birds seemed to appreciate these
offerings as much as the cheese.

Our duties as volunteer Orange-bellied Parrot wardens were not too
onerous. The very comfortable Deny King hide acts as a focal point for
visiting tourists. When the weather was fine nearly 20 planes a day
landed. We were responsible for keeping the hide neat and tidy and, if
present, explaining the conservation programme. A bird-table/feeding
station has been established in front of a the  hide. We had to put seed
out for the parrots early in the morning (usually between 0630 and 0700)
and evening (1630 - 1700) and then record which birds came to the table.
A large proportion of the parrots are colour banded so individuals can
be recognised. During our stay we saw 39 different banded birds and had
a maximum of 14 unbanded birds in view at one time so recorded a minimum
of 53 individuals. Our highest count at the bird table, at any one time,
was 44 birds, probably over 30% of the breeding population, a staggering
proportion that makes you realise this species+ vulnerability. Several
other species also fed at the bird-table including Beautiful Firetails,
the males, especially, living up to their name, Olive Whistler and Dusky
Robin. Green Rosellas also fed on the supplied seed, apparently only a
recently acquired habit. When there were more than three Green Rosellas
at the table, and on occasions there were as many as seven, they
intimidated the Orange-bellied Parrots and other smaller species with
their bulk, keeping them away from the seed. Numerous nest-boxes have
been put up to enable easier monitoring of the Orange-bellied Parrot+s
breeding success. We kept watch at several in an attempt to identify the
parent birds but more than half were unbanded. Orange-bellied Parrots
were not the only species to utilise the nest boxes; Tree Martins
especially found them to their liking occupying 7 of the 17 we observed
while a pair of Starlings bred in another.

Our nearest resident neighbours were Peter and Barbara Willson who
operate the tin mining lease south of the airstrip. They have been
recording the Orange-bellied Parrots they see at their garden feeding
station for many years, We paid them a visit on our first day and they
were kind enough to tell us something of the area and its birds,
including possible pitfalls when recording the coloured bands. When we
returned a few days later, we were pleased to see that the colour
combinations we had noted closely matched those Peter and Barbara had
recorded in their garden. It gave us confidence in our observations.
Towards the end of our stay in Melaleuca we were treated to a tour of
their tin mine and shown how they extract the tin ore from the rock. We
had never considered mining on such a small scale before and it seemed a
hard way to make a living. Andrew and Matthew were especially thrilled
to learn that very small amounts of gold are found with the tin and were
already to stake their own claim there and then.

If we had expected Melaleuca to be a quiet haven we were surprised.
Visitors to the ranger+s hut during our fortnight included Parks &
Wildlife scientists, journalists writing a book for Australian
Geographic, a BBC film crew  getting footage for the latest David
Attenborough wildlife spectacular and last, but by no means least,
Albert the ranger. At times it felt like all these people were
trespassing on our turf when really, of course, it was the other way
round. All added, rather than detracted, from our stay in Melaleuca. We
watched the film crew in action, helped locate small mammal traps in the
button grass plain and watched Mark Holdsworth colour band nestling
Orange-bellied Parrots. We were even fortunate enough to hold some of
these priceless youngsters - and now fully expect these birds to visit
our local patch in Altona!

Although we spent most of our time in the vicinity of Melaleuca
airstrip, we did have a memorable ride aboard the Parks and Wildlife
patrol boat, Maatsuyker. From the mooring on Melaleuca Creek we headed
down Melaleuca Inlet to a very calm Bathurst Harbour, where Mount Rugby
and the clouds were reflected in its still waters. Then it was through
the narrows which separate Bathurst Harbour from Port Davey before
circling the Breaksea Islands which as their name implies, lie across
the mouth of the Narrows protecting them from the ocean beyond. A
White-bellied Sea-Eagle soared on the updraughts from the islands+
cliffs while Swamp Harrier quartered the grassland. We made a brief
landing at the idyllic Bramble Cove where temperate rain-forest comes
down to the shore. While I bird-watched, seeing very little, the boys
swam and fossicked in the rock-pools. Then it was back to Melaleuca
ahead of the freshening sea-breeze.

Weatherwise, we experienced the rough and the smooth. The fine, sunny
weather of the first few days gave way to a grey, drizzly period. This
was followed by a period of northerly winds, blowing out of  central
Australia and raising the temperature to a sweltering  38 oC - even I
braved the waters of Melaleuca Creek that day. The good, as ever was
followed by the bad and the BBC film crew  had their departure delayed
by 36 hours when the clouds and rain rolled in. Eventually, the clouds
cleared and the weather slowly improved over our second week.

Throughout it all we were logging the activities of the Orange-bellied
Parrots and other birds, recording 34 species of which eight were only
seen on the boat trip.  Among the highlights were the five Ground
Parrots which Jenny and I flushed from the side of the tracks .
Unfortunately, the boys always missed them and had to content themselves
with hearing their bell-like calls coming from the button-grass plains
at dusk on still evenings. By way of compensation, Andrew managed to see
a Lewin+s Rail running across a trail south of the airstrip, a species
which still eludes me. We all saw  the Southern Emu-Wrens in the taller
shrubs alongside the airstrip. A fair selection of animals were also
seen including a couple of close (but not too close) encounters with
Tiger Snakes. More pleasurable were the several sightings of
Spotted-tailed Quoll; seen a few times on the boardwalk leading to the
hut and several times around the bird-table, causing all the avian
diners to scatter in panic.

It seemed as though our stay in Melaleuca would be brought to a
triumphant climax when we saw our first Orange-bellied Parrot fledgling
at the bird table on our last morning. We returned to the ranger+s hut
in buoyant mood to complete our packing.  By the time of our anticipated
departure the clouds had once again rolled in, and like the BBC crew
before us, we were weathered in for 36 hours.  With plenty of food to
see us through,  it was not really a hardship to spend an extra couple
of nights in Melaleuca.  We continued with the observations at the bird
table but did not see any more  fledgling Orange-bellied Parrots.  Too
soon the weather cleared and we were whisked back to Hobart and thence
to Melbourne.  It had been a  magic fortnight for us all.

There are several people we would like to thank for making this trip
possible and enjoyable. Chief amongst these is Mark Holdsworth who gave
us the chance to visit south-west Tasmania and become part of the
Orange-bellied Parrot recovery programme. Peter and Barbara Willson were
extremely friendly, and, dare we say it, a +mine+ of information
concerning the local area.  We are especially grateful to Albert
Thompson, the ranger, who could not have been more helpful , organising
our boat trip to Port Davey and the replenishing of our dwindling
supplies.  To all these people a big THANK YOU.

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Roger Hicks                     Tel :   03-9315-0353 (home)
3 Seaview Crescent,                     03-9865-8613 (work)
Victoria 3018                   E-mail: 
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