Birding and bonding at the Prosser River Reserve
By Freya McGregor
In March 2021, the purchase by Tasmanian Land Conservancy (TLC) of the Prosser River Reserve was made public. It was my Pa (my Dad’s Dad) who had left this wish in his will, and my Mum and Dad who were featured in that article, instrumental in this acquisition. My parents, sister, aunt, uncle and their spouses celebrated with TLC folks on the property in March, in between lockdowns while Tasmania was letting people visit.
I wasn’t there.
I live in the US (after marrying an American), and there were zero flights between America and Australia for most of the last 18 months. But in November, the Australian government opened the borders, and I hopped on a Qantas flight as soon as I could – I hadn’t seen my family for two years, and it was well overdue.
Then, as fortune would have it, Tassie opened its borders too, and the four of us got to visit the place my Pa protected.
I was Good Mates with my Pa. He and I had been penpals since I was a kid – I realized, at about the age of 12, that if I wrote him letters back, he’d keep sending them to me. We kept up a healthy correspondence, and I would always send him postcards from my travels. I’ve had the good fortune of living in a few cities, and in a few countries, and I had discovered that my new house wouldn’t feel like home until I had received a letter addressed to me in Pa’s cryptic handwriting. It was a sad realization when we moved from San Antonio, Texas to Boston after he passed in 2017 that I wouldn’t receive another reminder of home like a letter from Pa.
Pa loved living on his small farm near Mansfield, in Victoria. He had friendly cows, and a garden full of native plants and birds. He told me once, as I was washing dishes – and he was drying – looking out the kitchen window at Mt Timbertop, that my Nana (who passed away when I was a baby) had declared that she didn’t care where they lived, as long as it was by the beach or had a view of the mountains. They’d lived in western Victoria (looking out at the Grampians), by the beach in Melbourne, and retired to ‘Glenlochy’, with a great view of the Victorian High Country straight from the living room.
Pa had a poster from Land for Wildlife up on the side of the pantry cupboard; the big green sign was nailed to the front fence. He would occasionally remark that he could probably take better photos of wildlife than the ones on the poster… which prompted me, one year, to make my own poster with my own photos taken on his farm, and present it to him for his birthday. Perhaps it was his whispers which encouraged me to buy myself a fancy new camera just before this trip to Australia… and have fun testing it out at the Prosser River Reserve.
My parents, sister and I spent three nights staying in the Shearer’s Cottage, sleeping on the floor and gobbling at the farmyard turkeys each morning. (I’m told these are the perks of being the family who helped TLC buy the property.) We ate breakfast, went birding together, came back for a late lunch, napped, and went out again in the late afternoon. It was glorious.
Up along the Back River, we hopped over the stepping stones and sneaked among the Teatrees and Blackwoods, until two Tasmanian Scrubwrens finally showed themselves. We pushed through the bracken with Dusky Woodswallows and Tree Martins zooming overhead and Black-faced Cuckooshrikes calling, and huge White Gums standing tall over the flats. We hiked up a gully one night with a spotlight, trying to find owls. (Instead we found a Brush-tailed Possum.)
We drove ‘up the top’ to the ridgeline and wandered through the bush, trying to find the Scarlet Robin we’d heard calling from the car. Mum and I left my sister staring at the tree we were sure the female had disappeared into, and headed off for half an hour… only to discover the pair were active about 50m away. Dad spied the male, with his bright red breast, sitting on a branch, and Mum encouraged me to sneak up – my camera at the ready – using a big Blue Gum to hide behind. The female landed on a branch at shoulder height and looked right at me, her beak full of nesting material, posing long enough for my favourite photo of the trip before flying up to her nest.
We went out for a night drive, heading up an unsealed road back towards the Back River. A Tawny Frogmouth, another Brush-tailed Possum, a probably-Pademelon (not well seen), and then a Tassie Devil, galloping off down the road in the headlights, made for an exciting event. Another evening, we headed over to Triabunna for fish and chips (hard to find in the US), then stopped at Orford Bird Sanctuary near the Prosser River inlet to find cutie fluffball Hooded Plover chicks, and tiny Red-capped Plovers. Down the road a little further at Spring Beach, I was treated to my first gigantic, hacking Yellow Wattlebird, and a Southern Brown Bandicoot.
But our favourite place was back on the Reserve, along the Old Convict Road. It wasn’t far to walk from the cottage, and following the road a few hundred metres you end up tucked around the corner, out of the howling wind that blew the entire time we were there. Travelling higher up the slope than the Prosser River, you can look down through the trees at more Dusky Woodswallows and Maned Ducks, then – before you come to the swing bridge – the best thing to do is stop. Find a comfy piece of ground or stay standing, but there are birds everywhere.
My parents brought me up with binoculars in hand, but it wasn’t until I moved to the US that I embraced the idea of looking and listening to birds for fun. Because of this, I’m much more familiar with North American birds than Australian ones…! So there was plenty for me to discover in Tassie. The first evening along the Old Convict Road we found six of the twelve Tasmanian endemic bird species, without even trying.
The Dusky Robins were everywhere. Probably a few of them were young ones, but there were at least five. Green Rosellas flew past every so often, and there were so many other birds we just couldn’t possibly leave. Black Currawongs sounded rather odd to Victorian birders used to a different call from Pied Currawongs, and a Strong-billed Honeyeater showed up, reminding me of a White-breasted Nuthatch – often hanging upside down on a tree, picking through the bark for the goodies hiding in there. Then a Yellow-throated Honeyeater came past, doing the same kind of thing but in a more yellow and less black-and-white way.
“Now for a Black-headed Honeyeater!” I declared, mostly joking (but kind of hoping).
“Just hang around, and one’s bound to show up,” said my Mum.
It only took a couple of minutes for her prediction to come true.
In that same spot we enjoyed a Satin Flycatcher pair trading nest-sitting duties, and the excitement (and confusion… for us!) of both a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo (who’s stripy ‘underpants’ go right up under his chin) and a Horsfield’s Bronze-Cuckoo (who’s ‘underpants’ aren’t so high, and who has a thick, dark eyeline) keeping all the nesting birds alert (and alarmed!). There were New Holland Honeyeater fledglings squawking, and Superb Fairy-Wrens flitting about – which was only right, seeing as they were always jumping around the grass at Pa’s Place.
So. Many. Birds.
There were also Bennett’s Wallabies galore, two wombats (which Pa had on his farm), and a waddly echidna on our last day. Plus one of the state’s Wedge-tailed Eagles, unmistakable, soaring over the hills.
“How was it?” TLC’s Margie Jenkin asked me, when we met up with her before flying out of Hobart. “What did you think?”
“It was magic,” I said, thinking of the gigantically tall White Gums, the lovely river meandering quietly below the Old Convict Road, and all the birds everywhere we went. I thought of my Mum and Dad, super excited to find an enormous patch of Utricularia in a damp spot, which you normally only find a few together. I thought of my sister, who has a Masters of Science in Botany, trying (ever in vain) to teach me about the plants we were surrounded by. And I thought of the gentle peace of the place; how, for three whole days, we didn’t have anything much else to do except enjoy it, and to enjoy each others’ company – extra precious, when I spend most of my time on the other side of the planet.
“Pa would have loved it.”
Freya McGregor (she/her), OTR/L, CIG is the Birdability Coordinator and an occupational therapist. Birding since childhood, her ‘dodgy’ knee often creates an accessibility challenge for her. With a clinical background in blindness and low vision services, she works in her spare time for the radio show and podcast Talkin’ Birds, and is passionate about enabling all birders and potential future birders to enjoy birding and nature as much as she does.