Diary of a Hills Backyard: Flycatcher (December 2020)

Early on Christmas Eve day I was in the driveway about to drop my son off at his grandmother’s and was vaguely aware of an anomaly in the soundscape that surrounded me. I was too preoccupied to stand around and search for who was making the sound, but around lunch time I arrived home and noticed the sound again. This time, with my mind no longer swimming with things I had to do, I stood with my son by the fence of the paddock across the road listening to the out of place sound. I could hear an occasional bzzrrrt from the large gum trees in the paddock, though after a little while I could no longer hear the call nor see the animal making it. We went back inside, and I did a few jobs around the house and put my son down for a sleep.

I suspected the orator of this new call might be a Restless Flycatcher, though I was more familiar with the scissor-grinder call they use while foraging. Flycatchers are fabled in my mind, a rare, beautiful bird gleaming with a dark blue-black iridescent sheen, and having slightly anomalous features like a wide-based bill and little crest which deviate from the norms of similar sized birds in the area. The flycatchers have suffered greatly from habitat clearance in the Adelaide Hills and are now Endangered in the region. In half a dozen years birding in the hills, I’ve only seen them a few times in one small reserve containing remnant native vegetation. To add to their intrigue, while doing my undergraduate degree, I remember one of the lectures suggesting the scissor-grinder call caused spiders and possibly other tasty morsels to flee from cover so the flycatcher could swoop down and collect them.

Jobs complete and attention undivided, I went back out into the driveway to search again for the mystery singer. To my surprise I could hear the bzzrrrting and the scissor-grinder call being emitted from a tree not 15 meters from me! I bobbed and ducked with my binoculars until I got a clear view of the luminous flycatcher. Having got a good view, I raced inside to get my camera. I couldn’t let a momentous event such as a flycatcher at home be left to my word and memories without conclusive proof. Camera in hand, back into the hallway, I flicked the camera on. Damn, no memory card. Back to the study for the card, then back outside. Mercifully, the flycatcher had not moved far. It was perching in young river red gums and hawking above the dry yellow grass projecting the scissor-grinder call down to the ground with an open beak. I snapped a few photos. Then, moments later, an indignant Willy Wagtail swooped in and chased the newcomer away. I was ecstatic at having seen the flycatcher and a warm glow sat within me, though a little resentful of the Willy Wagtail for chasing it away. However, what more could be expected from the original angry bird, one with the grit to assault a hawk much larger than themselves that would surely eat them if it got the chance.

The next morning, Christmas morning, I awoke to a burgeoning of bird song. Among the peeps of honeyeaters, the lonesome treecreeper and the chatter of parrots, was the incongruity of the bzzrrrting flycatcher. I went outside to find the sunlight as brilliant beams of soft lemon flowing lowly across the hills igniting the dry grass. Very nearby the flycatcher dipped and swooped between our yard and the paddock across the road, perching briefly and illuminated by the gentle sunlight, its satin shimmering. The moment was again shattered by the local residents, White-plumed Honeyeaters who vehemently chased the flycatcher away. Although I’ve seen the white-plumes chase other birds away, often New Holland Honeyeaters, these chases seem less sustained or primed with emotion. Why the flycatcher is so disliked by the other local birds I do not know. This matter will remain a mystery to me and a subject of my mere speculation, though, perhaps not to the honeyeaters and wagtail.

A gentle positive warmth from seeing this lovely creature lingered in my soul for more than a day, a feeling that I lapped up. I am so lucky to have had this encounter, and I hope that someday the flycatchers will return.

Illustration of a Restless Flycatcher perched in River Red Gums by Diana Koch.

This work was commissioned for this blog post in part to pay homage to A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold and illustrations within by Charles W. Schwartz which inspired Diary of a Hills Backyard.

If you would like to contact Diana about her artwork please email dianakoch@westnet.com.au

Diary of a Hills Backyard: Big Hawk, Little Hawk, Compassionate Hawk (January 2020)

During the time we’ve lived here I’ve got many short glimpses of hawks. They occasionally land in trees in the backyard, or drift and swirl through the air, wings unmoving, before disappearing as promptly as they came. I would scramble to get my camera or binoculars so I could confirm their exact identity, but never fast enough. There are two possible hawks in the area, the Collared Sparrowhawk and Brown Goshawk. They look remarkably similar especially when getting only distant views. Although female goshawks are much larger than either the males or sparrowhawks, the diagnostic differences between species come down to things like position of the first knuckle of the middle toe, the shape of the tail and where the powder blue is on the beak. There are people out there who can tell the different between the narrow silhouette of this or that raptor in the dwindling evening light from a mile off, but I’m not one of those people. However, this month was more fruitful for my hawk identification attempts.

In the evening of New Year’s Day, while sitting in the lounge room I heard the rising franticness of alarm calls which signals the arrival of a hawk. Often the hawks fly over before disappearing down the valley, while the chorus of alarm travels with it. Every bird valuing its continued existence and of a size that would make a delectable dinner dive into the depths of a bush or tree. Today though, the alarms remained, along with the occasional “kek” emitted by a hawk. I postponed my dinner to investigate. I found up in the branches of a stately old elder gum, a hawk pulling the feathers off a decapitated, bloodied bird carcass. I thought the ill-fated bird may have been a Crested Pigeon but couldn’t be sure as they were so high up in the tree. Even with some distant photos, the hawk’s identity could not be resolved. I consulted a friend who suggested that if the unfortunate bird was a Crested Pigeon then this was a female goshawk. The Crested Pigeons had nested in the backyard and had a bundle of sticks, which suffices as their nest, hidden in a bush not far away. The Willy Wagtails were none too happy and were complaining fiercely, ensuring the hawk was under no illusions about that fact. The wagtails were game enough to thrust their sharp claws into the hawks back, ruffling and removing some of the nicely manicured feathers. The wagtails were such a pestilence that the hawk moved to another perch in a lumbering flight hauling its meal. The New Holland Honeyeaters, not as game as the wagtails, sat carefully watching the lethal predator, keeping a safe distance.

A couple of weeks later, on a beautiful evening the hawk alarm calls began again. This time the identity of the perpetrator was more obvious, as the hawk landed on a low branch in the backyard with its prize. This was a Sparrowhawk and much smaller than the bird I’d seen previously, confirming that both hawk species stalk the skies above our house. This time a young White-plumbed Honeyeater was the hawk’s sustenance, feathers plucked before the meal began. The Willy Wagtails were again making their disdain felt. Even a Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike joined in the beratement of the hawk, swooping low above its head.

Collared Sparrowhawk with a young White-plumed Honeyeater

Though the scene of a hawk with dead bird in its talons maybe challenging to some, like seeing a pride of lions take down a wildebeest on the African plains. These animals are symbols of strength, agility, speed, cunning and determination in human culture. We should not forget why these animals have come to symbolise these attributes, and remember that the powerful predatory symbols we idolise are not the compassionate hawks who let their meals fly away.

Diary of a Hills Backyard: The weed patch, and always listen to what fairy-wrens have to say (because your life might depend on it) (December 2019)

This year has been a busy year, with our son arriving, and plenty of travel and work. This busyness resulted in the garden being somewhat neglected and weeds in some areas reaching lofty heights. Towards the end of the year we got onto most areas except one of the slopes by the back veranda. We noticed a couple of months ago the Superb Fairy-wrens collecting nesting material and taking it into the weed patch. The fairy-wrens did indeed build a nest and successfully fledged three chicks, resulting in the weed patch being conserved temporarily. In December, the fairy-wrens built another nest, and were again successful in fledging chicks.

As well as providing refuge for the fairy-wrens, the patch also acted as a fort in which a rabbit, dubbed the “Nibbler”, made its home. The Nibbler has damaged new plants we put in and, along with blackbirds, dug small holes in the garden. The Nibbler remains at large, but in the hot weather I have called a truce and I have ceased my attempts to catch it.

Grasses make up the greatest proportion of the weeds in the weed patch, and have matured and dried producing copious seeds. A few weeks ago I noticed the appearance of mouse holes nearby. Given most other areas in our yard and in the paddocks next door have been mown or grazed, the weed patch probably has a higher abundance of seeds than elsewhere. Good encouragement for mice to move in. The next logical resident to appear in the weed patch is one to keep the mice in check.

One day, in the throngs of a heatwave, I was outside trying to keep plants hydrated, and the fairy-wrens and New Holland Honeyeaters alerted me to the arrival of the new weed patch resident. I went to investigate the peeping alarm call, which is less frantic than the one used for a hawk. I peered under the bushes and over the weeds, looking at where the birds where looking. It wasn’t long before I found a meter-long brown snake sliding up against the fence, which promptly disappeared at my arrival. There have now been four occasions that fairy-wrens, mainly, and New Holland Honeyeaters, have alerted me to the presence of snakes.

Always listen to what fairy-wrens have to say, your life might depend on it.