A tiny scrubtit, so small it could dance in the palm of your hand, had found its place in the sun.
In the dim and dank world of the fern glade the scrubtit had emerged from the shadows and found a warm rock on which to perform a merry dance. This was the male’s territory of fern frond and tumbling stream and he wanted the world to know it.
The scrubtit, barely 10cm long, is one of Tasmania’s forgotten birds, easily overlooked as nature lovers go in search of more spectacular species of birds and mammals. In Tasmania tourists also search for the symbolic, the iconic; the dramatic creatures like the devil and wedge-tailed eagle that speak of Tasmania and the wild.
The scrubtit speaks of pristine places, too, but less loudly in colour and song. Because of its shyness and love of out-of-the-way wet and mossy places, it is rarely seen and its beautiful, melodic warble is often ascribed to the other birds of the forest.
I ticked the scrubtit off on my bird list long ago, and from that moment had barely gone in search of it. It had always proved too hard, requiring hours of patient and all-too-often frustrating hunting in forest glades, sometimes made miserable by mosquito bites and, on occasion, the attention of leeches.
I didn’t have the species in mind when I ventured into scrubtit territory one spring morning, climbing the Fern Glade Track to the Springs on kunanyi/Mount Wellington, from the settlement of Fern Tree lower down the mountain. The endemic birds of the forest were in full voice, however; green rosellas, Tasmanian thornbills and scrubwrens, and Tasmanian currawongs.
A pallid cuckoo, insistent with loud penetrating call, provided the forest symphony with a constant rhythm, like a drummer or a bassist, and amid the cacophony I caught the sound of a soloist in the orchestra, a pink robin.
I moved slowly to the area from where the robin’s song appeared to be coming and as I scanned the understorey supporting wattle and gum I caught sight of a scrubtit, standing on a sun-lit chunk of dolerite in a rock pool. I’d only had fleeting glances of scrubtits in the past, birds obscured, partly-hidden in thick forest, and this time I had a good view of this elusive species. In the sunlight that had now cut through the forest in yellow diagonal rays, spotlighting the scrubtit’s stage, I could see that the species was not the dull, mainly brown bird depicted in bird books. Warm brown on the back, it had a white throat and chest, and white and black spots of feathers on its shoulder. What surprised me was the length of its bill, thick and curved; an ideal tool to prise insects from moss and bark. It looked more like an old-world wren than a bird of Australian wet forest.
The “little brown birds”, as they are derisively called by birders, are so often ignored by ornithologists in a hurry, but deserve our attention. I began to look for the scrubtit with a renewed interest, having seen it in a new light.
Habitat and distribution: The scrubtit occurs within the dense undergrowth in rainforest and wet eucalypt forest, particularly dense gullies. Diet: Scrubtits forage individually, in pairs or in small family groups near the ground, taking insects and other invertebrates among bark, litter and foliage. The species will associate with mixed-species feeding flocks. Breeding: From September to December, laying three white lightly spotted eggs in a woven, domed nest with a side entrance, usually placed one to three metres above the ground. Song: The species is often silent but the call is a quiet, double chirp or warble. Size: 11cm.