The drought had finally broken and a pair of dusky robins told me so along the upper reaches of the Sandy Bay Rivulet just below Fern Tree.
The robins flitted through the branches of stringybark and dogwood, as a raging torrent of water rushed down the rivulet, heading towards the sea.
It had been a bleak summer and autumn for birds where I usually find them in the foothills of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. The drought had driven just about every ground-feeding, insect-eating species away and I had finally given up the search for them. Presumably, they had moved to wetter, higher ground.
With the rains which flooded much of Tasmania in the second week of June, the dusky robins and a host of other species returned and it was good to see them.
Scarlet robins and common bronze-wing pigeons were also back, along with masked lapwings strutting through grasslands still scarred and burned by the searing summer sun. And on the banks of the snaking rivulet, superb fairy-wrens scurried over debris carried from further upstream. The fairy-wrens were snapping at insects in piles of leaf and bark litter.
Dusky robins are special because they are only found in Tasmania, and also have the distinction of being purely brown in colour. Unlike the other Tasmanian robins, they do not carry striking red or pink plumage which at times can border on the luminous.
Some people find the dusky robin unattractive and boring, but close up they reveal a hidden beauty. On chocolate-brown feathers they have faint white bars on the wings, and a curious patch of dark coloration over the bill and between the eyes which gives them the appearance of a bird wearing sunglasses.
The dusky robins I watched this day were not perching on tree stumps and flying to the ground to spear insects, as they usually do. These birds were actually flying from tree to tree, gripping the trunks like woodpeckers and old world treecreepers. Here they prised open the bark to find burrowing insect grubs.
It might be an unpretentious, overlooked bird but the dusky robin has an important place in Tasmanian folklore. Although unspectacular in colour, it was one of the first birds to be noticed in the fledgling colony, becoming a friendly and familiar companion to the early settlers. As the forests were cleared to create farmland, the robin would arrive to sit on the stumps of fallen trees.
The pioneers called it the stump robin but in more modern times it has assumed another name. The dusky’s song is a quiet and mournful one and so it has been dubbed the “sad robin”.
I know the song well – a repeated, long drawn-out “choowee-choower” – and it’s usually how I find the robins during the breeding season. But I was glad the robin was not singing its sad song on this day. The drought had broken and it was not a time for sadness, but joy.