A flock of silvereyes passed through the Waterworks Valley on dainty, jerky flight, heading north.
Even without seeing them, I could hear their muted melody, a soft twitter which enables small flocks to keep in contact with each other while they are on the move.
The song at this time of the year carries a melancholy air, but perhaps that was just me, lamenting the passing of summer and the passing of the silvereyes through my garden on the first stage of a migratory journey which will take them as far north as southern Queensland.
The contact call is a far cry from the beautiful, if soft, warble which the male silvereyes use to proclaim territories in mine and neighbouring gardens at the start of spring, when the silvereyes and other birds arriving from the mainland make their presence felt.
The silvereyes are with us all summer – and a smaller number also stay in Tasmania for the winter months – but they are generally shy and unobtrusive. Tragically, often the only time they become apparent is when they fly into windows, or a car, and are killed.
On these occasions a closer inspection of limp, lifeless bodies will reveal a staggering subtly of colour, white eye-ring which gives the silvereyes their name, moss-green plumage on the head, chin and wings, grey on the back and neck with streaks of russet feathers running down the bird’s sides.
There are eight sub-species of silvereye found across the southern half of Australia, from Western Australia to Queensland, and marked differences in plumage allow these varieties to be easily identified on their travels.
Although it is not known where many Tasmanian migrants spent the winter on the mainland, there is no doubt about the silvereyes. Our russet-flanked birds are a common sight in New South Wales and Queensland, and Tasmanians escaping the winter on the Gold Coast are more than likely to come across Tasmanian-born silvereyes doing just the same.
The silvereyes are tiny – only 12 centimetres in length – and each autumn I marvel at how they make such a long and perilous journey, especially the crossing of Bass Strait. Many do not make it, of course, falling victim to storm and tempest, or birds of prey.
At the height of the northern migration in late March I heard a thud against my bedroom window and, peering through the panes, saw a silvereye fluttering on the footpath beyond it. I hurried outside and scooped the warm little body in my hands, planning to place it in a cool, dark place so it might recover and, ultimately, take it to a vet I know who specialises in wildlife care.
The bird died, however, from shock. I could see he was a juvenile male and for days later, when I looked at the silvereyes heading north, I thought of one of their clan who would never know the great adventure which takes these fragile birds each year to exciting unknown lands, and brings them home again.