Like the dusky robin, another Tasmanian endemic species to fly back in time is the Tasmanian scrubwren. It might appear an unobtrusive, nervous little bird – quick to flee from approaching footsteps on a mountain trail – but its buzzing alarm call echoes back to a time when it aided and abetted those most feared in the fledgling colony.
The scrubwren made its home among the bushrangers, the murderers and thieves who terrorised Tasmania’s citizens in the Victorian era. The little bird was dubbed the “alarm bird” because it warned people in the mountains of unwelcome visitors. This applied of course to the bushrangers and to this day, visiting the surviving lair of one of the most notorious murderers, Rocky Whelan, you can find scrubwrens guarding the entrance to his cave on the south-east slopes of kunanyi/Mount Wellington.
In other locations on the mountains I can also envision the Aborigines listening for the alarm call, during inter-tribal wars before the European arrival and then in the period of colonial persecution following it.
Scrubwrens are shy, unobtrusive birds which generally go unnoticed in the forest. Warm brown in overall colour, they blend perfectly with their leafy surrounds The Tasmanian scrubwren is very similar in size and appearance to the white-browed scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis) of the mainland, with the same cryptic brown plumage on the wings and back, with a dirty beige wash on the underbelly and a lighter throat. The endemic scrubwren, however, is generally a little darker and has less white on the throat. It was formerly considered to be a subspecies of the mainland scrubwren but has now been claimed as Tasmania’s own, becoming the state’s 12th endemic species.
The scrubwrens, at only 12-15 centimetres in length, tend to feed in pairs or small groups and a whirling fluttering of wings, that seems too loud for their small wingspan, is the only clue to their whereabouts if they are not calling and if the path is a twisting one and they have moved off it on the walker’s approach.
The Tasmanian scrubwren has three distinctive calls and these are the main sounds walkers will hear from the wet forest floor. The song has been described as resembling the sound of a squeaky wheel and it can last for a considerable period of time. The scrubwrens also use a soft “peep” call to keep in contact with mates while foraging. The alarm call is a scolding, rasping chatter.
The easiest place to find scrubwrens in Tasmania is on kunanyi/Mount Wellington. They can be seen on any trail running through wet forest, particularly on the Fern Glade Track leading from Fern Tree to the Springs. They are also common along the Silver Falls Track linking the Pipeline Track with the Pinnacle Road and on the first part of the Lenah Valley Trail from the Springs to Sphinx Rock.
Birds are our living link with history and there is no greater symbol of Tasmania’s past and present than the scrubwren. It joined the Aborigines in their camps and bushrangers at the entrance to their caves, and today joins hikers on their mountain treks.
Habitat and distribution: Found across Tasmania, it prefers areas with dense vegetation, such as wet forests. It is usually seen on or close to the ground. Diet: Usually insects, but occasionally seeds. They often forage in pairs. Breeding: August-December. The nest is domed with a rounded side entrance. It is loosely built of bark, twigs, grasses and leaves and lined with feathers or fur and located on or close to the ground in grass tussocks or thick undergrowth. The female lays 2-3 eggs that are pale purple with brown spots. Song: A noisy, buzzing “zizz” followed by a repetitive “see-choo, see choo”. Size: 12-15cm.