Tasmania’s endemic birds are a living link to the state’s history and there is no greater example of this connection than the dusky robin. The robin made itself known to the first settlers as they set about clearing the land of native forest.
It was, in fact, known as the “stump robin” for its habit of using the stumps of felled trees as a convenient perch to pounce on insects on the ground. No doubt it also hung around the encampments of the Aborigines during their own history that pre-dated the European one for thousands of years.
Although there is no surviving record of the Aboriginal-robin connection I’m sure that the robins would have been attracted to the burning regimes of native grasses. In the act of promoting new grass growth to attract animals like wallaby and pademelon that could be hunted, the Aborigines would no doubt have been providing a feast for the dusky and the other woodland robins not exclusive to Tasmania, the scarlet and flame, allowing the robins to catch insects fleeing the flames.
In more modern times, the dusky is called the “sad robin” by Tasmanian birdwatchers on account of its melancholic song. Perhaps it has reason to feel as depressed as its drab, uninspiring plumage. Although it is classed as a robin you’d never know it. The mere name robin evokes an image of shimmering, flaming red breasts and a jaunty song. The sad robin, however, comes clothed in brown-grey with no hint of colour as such. It’s also bigger and less dainty, spritely, than the other robins, which include a fourth found in Tasmania, the pink robin of wet forest gullies.
The sad robin really has nothing to sing about. The song consists of plaintive notes, uttered in a slow delivery. It’s not loud and struggles to escape the dry woodland from where it is often delivered.
Those who choose to ignore its dusky, unspectacular plumage and looks for other qualities will note it stands motionless for long periods, in an upright posture. It stands tall in fact, and there appears to be a hint of the pride found in military personnel standing to attention. It prefers open spaces where it likes to be noticed, flitting across glades to swoop on insects after launching itself from a low perch. It sometimes clings to the bark of upright trees, tree-creeper fashion.
With its underrated livery, the dusky robin superficially resembles the females of the other robin species. It’s larger and bulkier size, and that upright stance sets it apart. It might appear brown-grey overall, but it carries two faint, bluff wings bars. There’s also a dark stripe above the eye, which when viewed head on can make the bird look like it’s wearing sunglasses.
Although the dusky robin can be found in any dry woodland in Tasmania, it is not exclusive to dry areas. It also appears in wet forest, where the heavy, clinging leaf of stringybark and other eucalypts in moist areas further subdue its sad song. The song reveals territory, of course, and with patience and searching the robin will soon appear.
Although the other robins might draw attention with bright features and bright songs that seem to shout of spring and summer, the dusky robin puts its faith in subtlety. And the song – even with its melancholy refrain – rings with mystique. It speaks or squeaks of the dry woods, the rustle of course leaf and flaking bark. Beauty after all is in the eye of the beholder and, although it is a bird to seek out on quiet days when more showy resident and migratory birds are proving elusive, the dusky robin holds an understated beauty, and interest, of its own.
Habitat and distribution: The dusky robin occurs in open eucalypt forest, woodland and coastal heath throughout Tasmania. Diet: It drops silently from its perch to the ground to catch insects. Breeding: Early spring, laying 3-4 spotted, pale green eggs. The nest is cup-shaped, lined with bark and grass. The female incubates the eggs. Song: An undulating, understated “pre-pree”. Size: 16.5.