The ascending, tinkling song of the grey fantail had been missing all winter. And now I could hear it all around me, as though it was dripping from the wattles and eucalypts like an early-morning mist.
Not one but a whole party of fantails had arrived overnight on favourable, north-westerly winds and in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington I revelled in their sublime beauty.
The song of the fantail – which also incorporates whistles and squeaks – is one of the most familiar sounds of both garden and reserve during summer but it is muted in the colder months, when most of the fantail population heads to the mainland.
Now they were back in the last week of winter ready for the breeding mayhem which will last all spring. As I tramped the Finger Post Track I soon realised that I was witnessing what bird-watchers call a “wave day”, in which migratory birds arrive suddenly.
Usually a wave day brings a range of species which started their migratory journeys on the mainland but today I only saw fantails, mainly males in their sparkling spring plumage which mixes shades of grey on their bodies, and thin streaks of darker feathers on white faces. At times it looks as though someone has taken a thin pencil, or eye-liner, and given them eyebrows.
In tumbling, aerobatic flight, the fantails also display black and white striped tails. Fanned and flicked, these resemble shuttlecocks and the fantail’s erratic, nervous flight gives them their own Tasmanian name – that of the cranky fan.
In certain light the male fantails have a blue sheen to their feathers, something lacking in the females which are similar in plumage in a less dramatic way. I believe the males arrive earlier than females to stake out and then defend breeding territories.
I didn’t have to scout the woods for the fantails, to train binoculars for a closer look. A few stamps of my feet were enough to attract the fantails’ attention, and they soon arrived to see what insects my hiking boots would disturb, so they could snap them up with thin, sharp bills.
When it comes to an easy meal any mammal disturbing the undergrowth will do. The fantails also following flocks of birds like honeyeaters and silvereyes through the tree canopy. The black-headed honeyeaters and silvereyes not only glean insects from leaves but their noisy movement through the canopy puts other insects to flight, and the fantails hover at the fringe of flocks to snap up these.
I felt privileged to be making life just that bit little easier for the fantails but was aware at the same time that this “friendship” and association with them was purely one way. They might be giving me an emotional, spiritual boost at the start of spring but I in turn was simply being “used” by the fantails for their own ends.
Summer or winter, the life of the fantail is straight-forward, functional. It’s in black-and-white like a swish of their geisha fans.