January 20, 2018

Flycatchers come rain or shine

The common koel, a species of cuckoo, acted as my barometer when I lived in far-north Queensland two decade ago. 

The koel’s plaintive, far-carrying call coincides with the arrival of the rainy season in tropical Australia at the end of winter and so the bird is given the name “rain bird”.

My own barometer of the weather in Tasmania, however, is another bird usually associated with the tropics, the satin flycatcher. It’s got nothing to do with rain – we get that all year in Tasmania. The arrival of the flycatcher, and the first hearing of its repetitive song and scratchy contact call, indicates summer has finally arrived after much anticipation of the warmer months through the often cold, early period of spring.

It’s the final piece of the migrant jigsaw to fall into place, the last bird of summer to hit our shores.

When I hear its song at last – well into the latter part of October and sometimes as late as the first weeks of November –  I know we are on the way to the summer holidays.

In the past two years, however, the satin flycatcher has heralded not sun but snow. The arrival of the flycatcher has brought with it blizzards. At the time I heard the flycatcher song this year and last, snow lay thick on kunanyi/Mt Wellington and this year, on November 3, the road to the summit was closed.

The flycatcher’s arrival last month was particularly bizarre. No sooner had I heard the bird, I became worried how this insect-eater, a bird which travels to the insect-rich tropics come autumn, would fare in this unseasonal Tasmanian “winter”. But the satin flycatchers calling about me didn’t have to wait long for the weather to clear. The next few days brought a heat wave, with the temperature on one day topping 32 degrees.

I’m not going to explore the controversial subject of climate change here, and extreme weather patterns which seem to be increasingly afflicting the planet. But I will say that in the way the common koel is said to summon rain, the satin flycatcher certainly summons uncertainty in my mind. I never know whether to pack a winter coat, a raincoat or a sun hat on my travels at the end of spring.

The stain flycatcher is possibly the most beautiful of the birds to either be resident here or visit in summer. Its plumage is painted in the shimmering hue of midnight blue on the head and back, with a silver underside. The female has brown-grey head and back instead of the blue, and a slash of chestnut feathers on her upper breast. If the plumage cannot be determined in the treetops, the birds also have a distinctive habit of flicking their tails when calling and feeding.

Sometimes I don’t find flycatchers at all in the Waterworks Reserve in South Hobart where I monitor the seasons but I’m happy to report this year they are plentiful, come rain or shine, and even blizzard.

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