The strident, piercing one-note call came from within the vines sweeping away from the Frogmore Creek winery to the Coal River estuary in the distance.
It was a song I had not heard for a number of years and I went in search of its source, standing at the edge of the lawns surrounding the winery’s restaurant to gaze deep into the rows of vines, lush and green after good spring rains.
“Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo” I said to myself, and then cursed the fact that I had not brought binoculars with me.
Each Tuesday morning I meet former colleagues from the Mercury for coffee and cake at the winery-restaurant and each Tuesday I try to make it an outing that does not concern birds. I can get very boring on the subject over cake and coffee when my friends, most now retired, are eager to talk journalism. But each Tuesday I kick myself for ignoring this birding opportunity. That’s the problem with Tasmania, and its tourist spots: you just can’t get away from wildlife and I suppose that’s the reason most visitors find it so appealing.
Flame robin, brown falcon, swamp harrier, wedge-tailed and sea eagles, swift parrot, endemic yellow wattlebirds and native-hens, my unofficial Frogmore Creek checklist of birds is impressive. But the Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo proved a bonus, along with a black-faced cuckoo shrike, or summerbird, sailing by on lazy, undulating flight.
I stood listening to the bronze-cuckoo for five minutes or so, ignoring the call of staff up at the restaurant informing me that my coffee and cake had been placed on an outside table.
As I turned to head back to the restaurant, the bronze-cuckoo suddenly popped out of the vines and perched on one of the poles supporting them. I had heard these secretive cuckoos sporadically over the years but never seen one. And now one was in view and didn’t have my binoculars, but by its small size and call I knew it was the Horsfield’s variety all right.
The four cuckoos visiting Tasmaniain summer can easily by divided by size. The pallid cuckoo, about the size of a summerbird, is the largest, with the fan-tailed cuckoo slightly smaller. Then come the Horsfield’s and shining bronze-cuckoos, considerably smaller, about the size of a new holland honeyeater. As their name suggests, the bronze-cuckoos have shimmering bronze-green plumage on the wings and back and green stripes across a white breast. The Horsfield’s is identified, apart from its song, by having an incomplete striped pattern.
All the cuckoos have far-carrying songs and are the birds most likely to be heard during the summer months, along with three other very vocal species, the grey-shrike thrush, the yellow-throated honeyeater and the yellow wattlebird.
I wrote recently that I am not a fan of cuckoos, because of their parasitic behaviour, relying on others to rear their young. After that column appeared I received an admonishment from several cuckoo lovers, saying the cuckoos were only doing what evolution had taught them to do.
The discussion among by friends at Frogmore Creek inevitably turned to cuckoos and, instead of gossip about journalists and journalism, we considered the subject of anthropomorphism in birds and animals, or giving them human characteristics. Scientists and many nature writers shun anthropomorphism, saying that you cannot be human-centric when it comes to wildlife, and they have a point. But people like myself without a background in science can’t resist seeing the human character in our furry and feathered friends. I have, however, listened to the scientists on the score of cuckoos, and don’t now revile them. The cuckoos are merely doing what comes naturally, what they have been brought into the world to do, and ensuring their own survival.
You can’t blame them for that.