29 November 2011
DIARY 111129 - MY CLOSEST BIRD FAMILY
DISTURBED SUPERB FAIRY WREN'S NEST FOUND AND PHOTOGRAPHED BY MARIE LINKE AT KARRA YERTA WINES, FLAXMANS, HIGH BAROSSA ... IT'S NOT A HAT, IT'S A HOUSE ... YET NOT MUCH BROADER THAN A WATCH!
DIARY: AT THIS time of year, when the nights are still quite chill for this mild part of the world, I must be polite to my Watch Coot. There are many baby waterbirds on the dams, and the Urasian Coots have a permanent overnight sentry. There is horror out there for wee berrudies at night: I heard somebody being strangled by a fox or cat last evening. Not nice. My kitchen is 150 metres from the tussocky sedge. Whenever I set foot outside in the dark, there’s a single, shrill “inggk!” from the Watch Coot. The call sits flat on the black water like a rifle retort. If I call back immediately in a similar tone, all is calm and silent. Conversely, should I appear to be lurking in suspicious silence, the warnings increase, everybody wakes, and there’s much fuss. Even the field birds, like the Spur-winged Plovers get up and scrank. We don’t want everybody flapping about in the dark.
But all the other birds do seem to trust their Watch Coot, and heed its warnings. Like the Wood Ducks, one of whom solemnly paraded her nine ducklings all the way up to my door and all the way back again once the humans had gone the other afternoon. She looked like Queen Victoria. The Coots are a sort of night-time equivalent of the Australian Magpies, who don’t only dress like police, but in daylight are so regarded by all other birds who always heed their dead-reliable warnings of threat. The Magpie tongue is so precise, that at Kanmantoo the Magpies had a word specifically for Wedge-tailed Eagle. Their skwark for mere Falcons was a different one. All birds listened and appeared to understand the boss Magpie. Chop-chop. Either you got up there into some altitude to give the Wedgie some serious wokka wokka shit, or you sat very still in the depths of a safe tree with your friggin beak clamped.
No room for middlemen.
The Little Ravens are a constant here, quite big really, always sauntering around the edges of one’s vision. People call them Crows. There were Australian Ravens a few years back, in the drought, but I’ve not seen them again. Similar size but more furtive is the Grey Currawong, who I found slinking from my kitchen to the stern Magpie’s alarm last autumn; broad daylight. The same bird adopts a similar set of moves when stealing nest straw from the barn. It’s like “I’m not here. I wasn’t even here. Voom!” A bit like the Ravens, they have the same risky approach to bellyfuls of grapes. Guilty conscience.
Mr Magpie was not amused. I think he was embarrassed, and was warning me, not the law-breaker.
With another La Niña summer underway, and its unseasonal moisture, all bird behaviour has been quite ratty. After that last sopping summer, the Magpies thought the autumn must be spring and nested in the poplar tree. When the winter hit, and the leaves blew away, the poor buggers were forced to admit that things weren’t quite right, so they abandoned that nest til the leaves came back in September. I didn’t ask about the offspring. Now they're somewhere else.
Last summer’s record rains have left the ground full of water, and since we’ve had no constant fortnight or two of warm, breezy weather, there’s still some viable mildew and probably botrytis around the Hills and Vales, surviving from last vintage. This gives the viticulturers the irrits but there’s bountiful food for all critters: the roos are fat. Maybe seasonal migration is temporarily unnecessary. The cycles have changed. It’s the second year in which I have not heard a Tawny Frogmouth, and while there was a classic territorial scrap between male Boobook Owls one night at the end of summer, and the one preceding, I have not heard them again this spring. The Black-tailed Bush Fowl came in late, and in much reduced numbers. They look like ¾ scale domestic hens at a distance, but are easily freaked, panic en masse, and disappear magically into scrubbage. The vineyard doctors call them Run Shit Runs.
I have looked hard at the bigger dam a short march off and I have not spotted the little Black-fronted Dotterels. This doesn’t mean they’re not back there: they’re notoriously difficult to spot as they dart along the waterfront, camouflaged as pebbles. And I'm colourblind. Some birdos call them Black-fronted Plovers, which might be regarded as a sort of swap, since the Spur-winged Plovers which raise families out of eggs laid smack on the ground in the middle of the pony paddock with the horses and Wood Ducks have recently been told they are now officially Masked Lapwings.
We didn't have it wrong. The Officials up and changed their tribe without consulting them. It's like the Lemon-scented Gum suddenly being kicked out of the eucalypts to become Carymbia citriadora, or the Fisheries bloke who looked like John Mellion in the white coat who goes out into the gulf in a tinnie with a loudhailer, lines up all the Snook, and tells them they're now Southern Pike.
"Okay you er ... Pike. Any questions?"
Most dawns and evenings are graced with the prehistoric calls of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoos and the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos, who are so polarised in appearance, behaviour, attitude, voice and flight that they can’t possibly be the same genus. Which they are. The white Sulphur-crested ones are relentless larrikins and jerks, abrasive of voice and humorous to watch; the Yellow-tailed Blacks slink about the sky in a sort of dark prehistoric slouch, utterly graceful and mystifying, with a sinuous call that reminds me of the whales of the deep.
Closer to home, the Grey Shrike-thrush seems to be tired of its own pure and fluid tone, and is withdrawing, but the Blackbird Boys, perfectly monikered Turdus merula, are still in full Pavarotti, especially before sunset, when the Kookaburras laugh. Otherwise it’s all Superb Fairey-wrens, New Holland Honeyeaters, and the odd common Spoggie around the edges of the farmyard, leaving the open space to the pigeons, native and domestic, and the Goshawk, who regards the yard and its occupants as a Macca’s when he gets too tired to chase the proper wild food.
So I hear that constant extreme high-pitched chipping of the tiny birdies, as if somebody was rubbing poly foam on glass. The trippy, electrically violet Superb Fairey Wren cock is sufficiently jizzed to bounce into my kitchen for crumbs – I think he first came in after insects – and if the weather’s calm and warm and I leave my office casement doors open, and I’m extremely still, the hens will come and peck around my toes beneath my desk. My toes are bigger than their bodies.
Then there are the bloody Welcome Swallows. They love the big eaves here, and there are two pairs nesting with babies in my ceiling, and another family which built their homely mud nest on top of my rear porch light. It must be warm. The silly little buggers panic when I come through the back door, and will fly into the flat, where they become confused. If I sit here quietly working with the doors and windows open, they’ll whoosh straight on through, flat strap, but if the place is closed they get into fluttery circuits and bang against windows and mirrors. When I collect them they become very calm and featherweight in my hand, and I become heavy with concern and awe at their delicacy and finesse. They are such truly beautiful, ultra-lightweight birds that it is difficult to remember that they are brutal and efficient killers; they feed fast but constantly on the wing, assisted by their incredible aerobatic accuracy and fluidity, and the little ring of sail-like bristles they have around their bills, which spread in the wind to make a bigger funnel for insects to avoid.
I try to remember these aspects when I find their scats in my keyboard, on my bookshelves or the shower curtain, or speckled on my crisp pillow. If I didn’t have them scats, I’d be swatting the mosquitos and gnats that are inside the scats, and I’d be spraying that ol’ bug poison around.
Spray poison, you get sick insects. Get sick insects, you get sick birds. Sick birds means your country’s cactus.
FLYING LESSONS ... ADULTS AND JUVENILE, WEDGE-TAILED EAGLES ON THE WILLUNGA FAULT ... THESE ADULTS AROUND TWO METRE WINGSPAN photo LEON BIGNELL MP