October 19, 2018

Strongbill in the sun

A strong-billed honeyeater sat on a thin twig above a stream, ruffling and shuffling its feathers. The bird had just had a bath and looked slightly bedraggled as wet birds do, the water making its plumage spiky and stiff.

A quick shake of the head and wings, so quick the bird was momentarily a blur as if in an animated cartoon strip, Woody Woodpecker or Roadrunner of Looney Tunes fame.

The honeyeater had caught my attention dunking and splashing in the sheltered, rocky reaches of the stream just below Fern Tree.  Flying from the shadows he or she now sat in full sunlight. As the strongbill – a bird only found in Tasmania – twirled and fluffed up feathers, droplets of water were thrown about, sparkling like gems as they caught the light, diamonds suspended in the air for a nanosecond before falling to the ground, treasures lost in the swirl of the rivulet.

Drinking and bathing, and then drying wings in sunlight, is a dangerous time for the smaller birds. Dunking is necessary to produce unmatted and clean, efficient feathers and these must be dried quickly so heavy waterlogged plumage does not impede flight. That’s why birds choose sheltered, hidden places so their splashing will not fall into the gaze of a passing brown goshawk or collared sparrowhawk, raptors which largely have ambush in their hunting repertoire.

The strongbill, though, sitting exposed on a sunlit branch, appeared to be throwing caution to the wind. Did it know I was there, to offer protection? I like to think so but in all probably it was rejoicing in the first really hot days of spring, with temperatures hitting the 28 degree mark.

Warming up tired feather, flesh and bone after the rigours of winter on the slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington, the strongbill was symbolic of spring and the optimism that hung in the air for the coming summer.

It was an optimism scented by the blooms of flowering plants. Above the honeyeater’s bathing pool, the dogwoods providing shelter were adorned with  clusters of tiny beige flowers contrasting with the plant’s think, dark green veined leaves, and stinkwood threw up spikes of delicate white flowers from long and lanky three-pronged leaves.

A little higher up a slope leading from the rivulet, yellow puff-ball flowers of prickly moses and vanished wattle maintained the fragmented golden glow which in late winter and early spring had been introduced to the woods by the blooms of silver wattle. On slopes that caught full sun prickly beauty, or golden shaggy pea, mixed yellows and reds in its pea flowers, and in a final flourish from nature’s palette, a contrasting, more striking colour. Draped through the undergrowth were the creeping purple tentacles of blue love creeper.

But amid the fecundity and floral profusion, my gaze remained fixed on a beautiful strongbill in spring mating plumage, the sun giving a sheen to the black stipes of its black-and-white capped head, the mossy green plumage on its back and wings matching the richness of dogwood leaf.

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