ON THE WING

Mercury (Hobart) - Magazine - - VISUAL ARTS - WITH DON KNOWLER

About five years ago, I added a new species to my bird sight­ings at the Water­works Re­serve – the hum­ble coot (pic­tured).

Since the Eurasian coot was so fa­mil­iar in my youth in Bri­tain more than half a cen­tury ago, I never paid much at­ten­tion when I first saw them in Aus­tralia. But to see them at my lo­cal re­serve for the first time was no­table, es­pe­cially as one pair raised chicks that year.

I now learn from the 2017 Tas­ma­nian Bird Re­port that what I had seen was a rare event. On top of that I have dis­cov­ered coots are mi­gra­tory, fly­ing con­sid­er­able dis­tances by night.

The rev­e­la­tion about coot nest­ing comes from bird re­port con­trib­u­tors Wil­liam Davis and Peter Brown, and their ar­ti­cle also con­tains much about these mem­bers of the rail fam­ily, not least a de­tailed his­tory of their move­ments and breed­ing at­tempts in Tas­ma­nia from the first recorded men­tion of them rear­ing young here in 1909. They were not recorded breed­ing again un­til the early ’70s, and in twos and threes they have been sighted nest­ing spo­rad­i­cally ever since.

One of the early ob­ser­va­tions about coots came from my pre­de­ces­sor Michael Shar­land, who wrote about na­ture in the Mer­cury un­der the pseu­do­nym “Pere­grine” for 60 years be­fore he re­tired in the ‘80s.

In 1960, Shar­land wrote that coots’ eggs were prized by avid egg col­lec­tors in the early 20th cen­tury be­cause they were so rare. He also com­mented on the mi­gra­tory habits of the coots, in­clud­ing an in­stance when thou­sands of birds syn­chro­nised their de­par­ture from Tas­ma­nia in 1956.

De­spite these mass mi­gra­tions at times, the trav­els of the coots are de­scribed as dis­per­sive with­out reg­u­lar sea­sonal pat­terns of mo­ment. Their breed­ing is also ir­reg­u­lar, although – as ob­servers at the Water­works Re­serve noted – the breed­ing in Tas­ma­nia fol­lows the main­land nest­ing pe­riod (late Septem­ber to De­cem­ber or early Jan­uary).

Coots are iden­ti­fied from the closely re­lated and sim­i­larly sized dusky moorhen by their round black bod­ies and white face masks. Although they are strong fliers, they usu­ally ap­pear re­luc­tant to take to the wing, merely run­ning across the sur­face of rivers and lakes, beat­ing their wings rapidly and splash­ing with their large splayed feet.

As soon as I read the ar­ti­cle I went down to the Water­works Re­serve to check on the coots. Two birds were in a courtship dis­play, so hope­fully I will once again, later this year or early next, see their fluffy jet-black chicks pes­ter­ing the par­ents for food.

And hope­fully, we might be a lit­tle closer to solv­ing what Shar­land de­scribed 57 years ago as the “Tas­ma­nian coot mys­tery” if I am a lit­tle less tardy about record­ing my lo­cal sight­ings on the Birdlife Tas­ma­nia data­base.

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