Autumn had arrived and I could feel it in my bones, in my soul, and the striated pardalotes could feel it, too.
All spring and summer their incessant “pick-me-up” triple-syllable song had bounced across the garden and through my home. Now the pardalotes had fallen silent and were on their way to wintering grounds on the other side of Bass Strait.
Autumn always arrives quietly, almost imperceptibly. There’s no fanfare as in spring, when the sun suddenly shines strong and hard, burning snow off kunanyi/Mount Wellington and enticing the eucalypts and wattles into maroon new leaf. And just in case we don’t notice the warming days, the birds announce the new season with strident, powerful song.
Suddenly there’s a near-silence at the end of February, and a chill in the air that has us, without really realising it, glancing towards the log pile, and looking at winter fashion in the shops in town.
Something deep and primeval might warn of the approach of winter, an emotion that cannot be readily defined, but the movement of the birds towards the north gives it definite shape, along with the leaves on exotic, deciduous trees turning into the colours of gold and copper. And that eerie silence, and stillness in the air.
All of a sudden the welcome swallows, the tree martins, the cuckoos and black-faced cuckoo strikes have vanished from our skies. And populations of grey fantails and silvereyes are diminished, as about half their number choose to make the crossing.
Although all these might be classed as “summerbirds” – to use the local Tasmanian name of the black-faced cuckoo strike – my own barometer of the seasons is always the beautiful, if pugnacious striated pardalote.
My records show it is always the first to arrive among the woodland birds, even beating the fan-tailed cuckoo, another of the first arrivals. Pardalotes turn up in the Waterworks Valley where I live in mid-August some years, beating the traditional harbinger of spring, the welcome swallow, by two weeks.
The striated pardalotes are one of three members of the pardalote family found in Tasmania, but the only one to migrate to the mainland in winter. The other two are the very common spotted pardalote and the rare and vanishing forty-spotted pardalote, mainly found on Bruny Island.
The spotted pardalote – called diamond birds because of the sparkling spots found on their multi-coloured plumage – are considered the most beautiful of the family, but my favourite remains the striated pardalote, which as its name implies has a bright white eye-stripe and a warm brown plumage infused with subtle shades of yellow.
All the pardalotes are small insect-eaters, prising invertebrates and their pupae from leaf. They nest in cavities in man-made structures or in trees. The pardalotes in my neighbourhood nest in the embankment of a neighbour’s drive, and choose my car port to broadcast their territorial song day-long.
It can be monotonous and grating some years. I complain about the pardalotes waking me at dawn, and then miss their friendly chatter when they have gone.