Birding Tasmania: Elusive Parrots and Endemics

Guest post by Stephan Lorenz

Australia is home to more than 50 species of parrots and cockatoos, almost all of them endemic. I could have been admiring Australian King-Parrots on the east coast, watching wheeling flocks of emerald Budgerigars in the Outback, or chasing down endemic cockatoos in western Australia, but instead I had travelled to Tasmania to see one of the world’s most unique and secretive parrots.

I found myself standing on the edge of a gravel road overlooking a flat expanse of heath abutting the western coastline of Tasmania near the small town of Strahan. Carefully scanning the dense grass and shrubs that stretched to the horizon, I could find nary a bird on the move. I had come to this particular and somewhat desolate spot in search of one of Australia’s most unique Psittacids, the “Eastern” Ground Parrot.

Coastal heathland in Tasmania ©Stephan Lorenz

Coastal heathland in Tasmania ©Stephan Lorenz

As the name suggests, this elusive parrot forages for seeds and fruits mainly on the ground where it remains hidden among dense sedges and low shrubs. It occurs along the southeast coast of Australia from Queensland to Victoria and into Tasmania but is not easy to find anywhere. The western population has now been split as a separate species and is critically endangered. I had searched for Ground Parrots twice before in the Great Sandy National Park of Queensland and the famous Barren Grounds Reserve in New South Wales. Both times I heard the haunting, rising whistles of several pairs at dusk and after sunset, but seeing the parrots proved difficult.

I hoped to fare better in the more open heathland of Tasmania and set forth, stepping carefully through the fragile vegetation, making slow progress towards a distant dune and flat area. I first stumbled upon four Southern Emuwrens, birds the size of cotton balls with ridiculously long tails and sky blue throats. It took another thirty minutes of weaving through the dense vegetation, each step getting more difficult, until a bright green bird flushed from nearly underfoot, zigzagging away with floppy wingbeats. I stood transfixed watching the Ground Parrot dive into cover and focused on what I had been able to see. The parrot flew snipe-like revealing a pointed tail, yellow flash in the wings, and shamrock body feather interspersed with black and yellow barring. The distinctive red forecrown was of course not visible with the fleeting glimpse. I was surprised by its size, definitely outweighing a Budgerigar. I managed flight views of two more before heading back to the track.

Ground Parrot in flight ©Stephan Lorenz

Ground Parrot in flight ©Stephan Lorenz

In Tasmania I had finally glimpsed the shy Ground Parrot, the closest thing a mortal birder can get to the mythical Night Parrot, but the world’s 25th largest island has much more to offer than the rare parrot. Due to its relative isolation from the Australian mainland, Tasmania harbors 12 resident endemic birds plus two breeding endemics and still supports populations of many marsupials that have disappeared from other parts of Australia, most notably the Tasmanian Devil.

We took an overnight ferry from Melbourne to Tasmania and once we drove out of Devonport soon found our first endemic, the Tasmanian Nativehen. This large rail is semi-flightless, but runs fast, and inhabits wetlands and pastures. It is one of the most ubiquitous Tasmanian endemics. Our first stop was Cradle Mountain National Park, which holds some of the most spectacular scenery in all of Tasmania and we also saw several endemics here, including the noisy Green Rosella, the hyperactive Yellow-throated Honeyeater, and the mischievous Black Currawong. Forest Ravens are not endemic to Tasmania, but much easier to see on the island than elsewhere and in Cradle Mountain National Park several patrolled the parking lot. Just outside the national park in Cradle Valley we easily found the sneaky Scrubtit and plain Tasmanian Scrubwren, both endemics creeping through the mossy, primordial forest.

Tasmanian Nativehen ©Stephan Lorenz

Tasmanian Nativehen ©Stephan Lorenz

Green Rosella ©Stephan Lorenz

Green Rosella ©Stephan Lorenz

Temperate rain forest in Tasmania ©Stephan Lorenz

Temperate rain forest in Tasmania ©Stephan Lorenz

In order to see the rest of the endemic species birders must leave the main island and head to the much smaller Bruny Island south of Hobart. Bruny Island is divided into a northern and southern part connected by Bruny Neck and this small island is one of the most important birding locations in Tasmania. The dry eucalyptus forest here is one of the final strongholds of the threatened Forty-spotted Pardalote. The actual number of spots are difficult to count as these tiny birds feed on lerps and manna in the canopy. Other endemic birds that are easy to see on Bruny Island are Black-headed Honeyeater, the large Yellow Wattlebirds, and the uncommon Dusky Robin.

Dusky Robin ©Stephan Lorenz

Dusky Robin ©Stephan Lorenz

Yellow Wattlebird ©Stephan Lorenz

Yellow Wattlebird ©Stephan Lorenz

Besides the dozen endemic bird species, mammals also thrive in Tasmania and offer a glimpse of what the Red Continent used to look like. Cradle Mountain National Park still protects the endangered Tasmanian Devils, but visitors are more likely to see the Tasmanian Pademelon, a small macropod. Brush-tailed Possums are also very common throughout.

Freycinet National Park on the east coast is another excellent birding spot with good chances for the uncommon Spotted Quail-Thrush and great mammals at night. We saw the cute and carnivorous Eastern Quoll patrolling the roads at night here. With great luck visitors may spot the larger Spotted Quoll. The coast here holds the massive Pacific Gull and the rare Hooded Plover. Wombats can be seen in large numbers in Mt. William National Park where the species even grazes out in the open during the middle of the day alongside kangaroos and wallabies. Platypus can be seen in streams and ponds throughout Tasmania, but one of the better places is the Warrawee Forest Reserve beside the Mersey River near the town of Latrobe.

Pacific Gulls ©Stephan Lorenz

Pacific Gulls ©Stephan Lorenz

Tasmania coastal sunset ©Stephan Lorenz

Tasmania coastal sunset ©Stephan Lorenz

Tasmania can be easily visited during a longer trip to Australia either via ferry from Melbourne or regular flights to Hobart. Except for the remote southwest corner of the island the main birding hotspots are accessible by road. The various national parks provide affordable camping grounds and camping is one of the best ways to step right into birding each morning. We often saw endemics in the campgrounds we stayed at.