The air was still and calm, typical of winter, and the silence in the forests was made complete by an absence of birdsong.
So the song of a robin came as a welcome surprise as I tramped a trail on the lower slopes of Mt Wellington.
It’s often like that in late autumn and into winter. The chorus of spring and summer slowly dying as birds that have reared young do not have to be so protective of their territories, and broadcast the fact.
Sometimes, though, when birds move out of breeding territories they establish new ones for winter, and they begin to sing again.
I could tell by the sweet, descending, thin melody the tune came from a scarlet robin. I searched for it in the lower layered branches of a native cherry but instead of the male robin I found his female, posing on the bare branch of a slender gum.
I’d hate to be regarded as a misogynist – a word much bandied around in political circles this year – but I do not usually pay much attention to the female robins of any of the four species found in Tasmania. It is the beautiful males that attract my attention, even the male of the endemic dusky robin which shows no red or pink found on the breasts of the other robins, instead displaying a subtle grey-brown with a mark on the forehead that looks remarkably like designer sunglasses.
But I digress. It’s the male robins that catch my eye. This female scarlet robin, however, showed an extent of fiery red, far more than the muted and washed-out red usually associated with the female scarlet robin.
The red was set against her warm brown feathers on her back and wings, in contrast to the blacks and whites of the male, and she carried a subtle beauty of her own. I soon forgot about the male robin and concentrated on the female, exposed now in a woodland glade and catching the rays of a soft winter sunshine in the late afternoon.
I watched her for a few minutes and then I suddenly heard an anguished cry followed by a kind of rapid peeping, a sound I had never heard before. Without looking around the female leapt from her exposed perch and started to fly, fast and straight like an arrow.
At that moment I felt a whoosh and rushing air just above my head and a large bird dropped on outstretched wings right in front of me. It was grey and black, wings swept wide and razor-sharp claws outstretched.
It was descending rapidly on the female robin, but she had a head start and the predator – which I could now identify as a butcherbird – lunged at her in vain, taking its eye of the course ahead, and crashing into a blanket-bush in the process.
The alarm cry of the male robin, the peeping I had heard, was still ringing out as the butcherbird righted itself in the blanket-bush and swept away down a steep incline below the glade, vanishing out of sight.
I could see the male robin now, looking anxiously in the direction of the butcherbird, then switching his focus to where his female had flown, to ensure she was okay.
A silence had descended below the canopy but the scarlet robin soon started up again with his winter song. Peace had returned to the forest, and I was so glad on such a lovely winter’s day I had not witnessed a brutal kill.