Friday, October 11, 2013

The mystery of the Balerot bird

The Phillip Island Historical Society has recently had a display featuring extracts from the Nature Notes of Mary Potter (nee Anderson) of Bass, San Remo and Phillip Island, 1915. The display board focussed on her bird notes and showed copies of Mary's actual text accompanied by a modern photograph of the bird as we know it. It is alway fascinating (and somewhat depressing) to read about the bird species that used to be in the region but are now locally extinct.

Now when the society member came across Mary's "Balerot" bird no picture was forthcoming ....

I have since developed a theory about the mysterious "Balerot"!

After trying all the obvious bird guide and Internet searches that perhaps ought have revealed me a balerot I thought it was time to question a few assumptions. Amongst other questions arose "Was it not a bird?" Other creatures do nest.

But I think the real clue came in examining the hand writing (exposure to doctor's handwriting and some time spent doing genealogical research may have helped). My theory goes that the heading which apparently reads "Balerot" is either another person's handwriting or another word altogether. Examination of Mary's handwriting in the text below the heading reveals that the "er" in the words "numerous" and "where" are written quite differently to the so called "er" in "Balerot".

The next part of my theory is that what initially appears to be "er" is actually "co". Instead of "erot" we have "coot". This leaves us with "Balcoot" and if I stretch my theory a little further this is not too far removed from "Bald coot".

Bald coot was another name for the Purple swamphen as depicted in this plate which I take to be from the late 1800s in a University of Tasmania collection - Bird paintings of the 'Bald Coot' (porphyria melanotus) by Alfred May (1862-1948) Tasmania

Porphyhyrio porphyrio melanotus would also "tick the boxes" for Mary Potter's statement (their nests are pretty obvious):
 "very numerous about the Bass River and at Newhaven where they used to nest"
Purple swamphen, Porphyrio porphyio melanotus (Fishers Wetland, Newhaven, Phillip Island)
In a twist that makes my theory a little less neat, another bird warrants consideration. The Eurasian coot is another waterbird that is very common locally and also is globally very well-known as the Bald coot.

Eurasian coot (Swan lake, Phillip Island)
So we have two contenders for the identity of Mary Potter's "Balerot" (or "Bald Coot") - Purple swamphen or Eurasian coot. What do you think?

I am certainly sending off my little theorem to the Society for consideration!

Bird on!


  1. Nice bit of detective work there Sherlock! I'd be leaning towards the swamphen as the mystery bird.
    I'd heard it been called Bald Coot in the late sixties, as a young lad living in Victoria.

  2. Great investigation! reminds me of my family history work. Re wood ducks, the first time I saw the group there were 11 babies. Not sure where the other 10 came from.

  3. Yep! We are now going to call you Sherlock, John is right!
    Great job and quite an interesting search!
    We do have Purple swamphens here in France, but they are few and very elusive.
    To many hunters around to aggravate the situation...
    The only pics I shot of this gorgeous bird were in Australia...
    Cheers, keep well!