I’m a light sleeper, an affliction that puts me at odds with both the human and natural worlds.
Strangely, I can handle man-made sounds in the night – even hoons doing donuts on my suburban street – but it is natural sounds that tend to break my sleep patterns and eventually result in a restless night.
When you suffer “nature-related insomnia syndrome”, to give it my own medical term, a trip to the country, supposedly to search of some peace and quiet, can be a traumatic affair.
So it happened one recent weekend when my wife and I decided to spend time in the town of murals, Sheffield, in the north.
As we settled down in our historic B&B, a beautiful home built for a local doctor in 1910, the sounds of the human activity were fading into the night – last orders in the pub, the drone of cars making off into the local hamlets with such names as Paradise, Nook and Nowhere Else.
Then suddenly the squawking, raucous sound of masked lapwings shattered the stillness.
We might have been in the bucolic wilds of the Kentish municipality, but I knew from my experience back home in the suburbs of Hobart we were going to be in for a long night.
I shouldn’t be too harsh on the lapwings – or plovers as they are known in Tasmania – because both the species and I share the same affliction, being light sleepers. There’s an affinity there; we are both a little neurotic and easily woken. Perhaps that’s why I am strangely drawn to plovers by day and can spend hours watching them in city parks and on sports grounds.
The sound of shrieking plovers is one of the familiar sounds of night-time Tasmania and it is easily explained. The plovers are light sleepers because they roost on the ground and so have to be alert to danger at all times. Being alert at night also applies to tree-roosting birds, of course, but the dangers in the branches are not as prolific as on the ground, and birds and mammals hunting bough and bark are more easily heard and detected.
The plovers taking to the wing on hearing a threat are not merely calling out in alarm, but are warning all the other in their clan roosting nearby that danger lurks around them.
At home in the Hobart suburbs it is usually a neighbourhood moggy on the prowl but as I lay awake on a Sheffield backstreet I liked to imagine it was something a little more exotic on the hunt – a Tasmanian devil maybe or a spotted-tailed quoll.
The usual bird calls of the night tend to be mellow and soothing, more likely to ease you into sleep. These include the gentle rhythm of the onomatopoeic boobook owl – or morepork as it is known in New Zealand, perhaps more close to the sound it actually makes – and the soft, far-carrying “booming” of the tawny frogmouth.
Birds sing for a variety of reasons, the more beautiful and persistent calls usually to declare territory over rivals, and to attract mates. Then there are calls, as opposed to songs, which are designed to maintain contact, and to summon young for a feed.
The loudest and most strident calls are those that warn of danger, and interestingly all birds can recognise these, no matter what bird is actually calling. Some alarm calls can even indicate the level of danger.
When I hear the alarm call of the New Holland honeyeaters, I know immediately if the feared brown goshawk is in the neighbourhood, or whether my resident birds are merely teasing a local cat. The sighting of a goshawk will elicit sheer terror, and after the alarm call goes up from the honeyeaters all the birds in the garden dive for cover and fall silent. All except the lapwings that is, who prefer to take to the wing, noisily.