It’s still dark, the early morning light trying to find the crack in the bedroom curtains where they have not been pulled tight together the night before.
I should be fast sleep, but I’m wide awake. The loud, piercing call of a grey shrike-thrush is penetrating the bedroom ahead of the yellow rays of a rising sun. It’s like an alarm clock that can’t be turned off.
Although the “joe witty” song of the shrike-thrush is one of the most familiar sounds of suburbia and the bush, it is far less welcome when it rings out from the garden, at 6am or thereabouts. It is indeed exceedingly loud, more like the bird song you hear from a tropical rainforest, where songs and calls are designed to penetrate dense foliage, and I pull the bedclothes over my head. It sounds as though the bird is actually in the room, not perched in one of my exotic wattles outside.
I’m attuned to bird song and sometimes lie in bed identifying six or seven species calling from the garden. These do not actually wake me, though, if I am asleep. That “pleasure” is reserved for the shrike-thrush. I must confess I’m not a fan of shrike-thrushes and might be a little less antagonistic if it was a scarlet robin that woke me, a bird which I believe has the most beautiful, and calming voice of all those that bring song to my garden.
The shrike-thrush – a largish bird about the size of a starling – is not particularly beautiful and striking compared with the others in my garden.It is generally grey in colour as its name suggests, with the feathers of its back and wings tinged with brown.
What marks it out is its ferocious dagger-like bill, with a sharp hook at the end. Although it was named a “shrike-thrush” by the ornithologists who originally identified it, it is related to neither thrush or shrike.
It’s sleek body merely resembled that of the Old World thrushes and the hooked bill also reminded the pioneers of the shrikes familiar to them in Britain.
It may not be related to the shrikes but the shrike-thrush of Australia displays the same merciless, ruthless behaviour of its namesake when it comes to preying on smaller, more vulnerable birds.
The shrike-thrushes visiting my garden year-round spend the winter prising hibernating grubs from under the dark of gum and wattle and when spring arrives they turn their attention to nesting birds, anticipating a feast of eggs and young.
By mid-spring when the other inhabitants of my garden – including new holland honeyeaters, blue wrens and silvereyes – have marked out territories and are getting down to nest building and raising young, the shrike-thrushes go on the hunt.
They have been listening, and watching and learning and as spring moves into summer they scout the grevilleas, bottlebrushes and banksias for prey.
And now the “joe witty” call, not only wakes me in the morning, but announces there is menace in the air.