ON THE WING
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.