Word spread through the birding community at the end of October that the beautiful satin flycatcher had arrived, the last piece of the summer migratory jigsaw.
Noted bird photographer Alan Fletcher tipped me off, sending me two pictures he had taken of male satin flycatchers in previous days.
I hadn’t seen the species myself, or even heard their unusual metallic call, and immediately I set off in pursuit, to a location at the Waterworks Reserve where I had seen the migrants during the previous summer.
This time, though, I would not merely seek out the flycatcher, I would try to find what I term the holy grail of bird nests.
The satin flycatcher’s nest is one of the most beautiful, rivalling the complex structures of another noted nest-builder, the cranky fan, or grey fantail, which builds a bulbous nest of flowing grass stems that can sometimes resembled a wine glass. Unlike the grey fantail’s structure, I had never found the equally beautiful nest of its cousin.
The satin flycatcher nest presents a different challenge to that of the cranky fan, which is often suspended from a low tree, sometimes in suburban gardens. The flycatcher is a canopy feeder, hunting insects in the tallest branches of eucalypts, and all the birding literature suggests the satin flycatchers’ nest is only found way off the ground. To observe it, climbing and abseiling skills are required, to say nothing of a head for heights.
In my nest hunt, however, I was lucky to hear satin flycatchers calling to each other in the low branches of a stringybark and then to see the male presenting the female with a “gift” of food, a butterfly he had speared on the wing.
Then to my amazement the female did not head to the highest branches but dropped down even lower in the tree, and settled into a nest attached to a bough.
The tree in which the flycatchers had chosen to nest was on a slight incline and I discovered that if I climbed up-slope I could get a good view of the branch.
I had seen pictures of satin flycatcher nests and they appeared to be merely planted on a thin tree branch but now I could see the structure was fastened to the bough. It appeared the round nest had been somehow “tied” to the branch, with thick strands of course dry grass wound around the bark.
Every summer I give myself a birding challenge – to find the most beautiful and artistically crafted bird nests.
Most nests of passerines, or perching birds, are wonders of engineering and construction, able to withstand not only the weight and movement of parent birds in a confined space, and then growing young, but the battering of rain and high winds, to say nothing of attack by predators.
I look, though, for artistic beauty in the sense that some nests are decorated with lichens and moss and grace the bush as the works of the old masters grace the art of museums of the world’s capitals.
In my opinion the finest nests belong to the pink robin, the grey fantail and the satin flycatcher.
Nest hunting or not, the male satin flycatcher is a truly magnificent bird and a day hunting for them in forests is well spent. The male carries an iridescent dark blue hood and back on a silver body. The head has a small crest and the bill is long and blunt for spearing insects, or prising them from bark and leaf.
The female is less showy but all the same carries subtle beauty about her. She has a greyish-brown hood and back, with a russet chin on white lower body.
The satin flycatcher visits Tasmania from a home range that includes the east coast of Australia to far northern Queensland. It is also found in south-eastern South Australia and Papua New Guinea.