The song of summer floated across the valley where I live last month, even though there was snow on Mt Wellington.
The song belonged to a fan-tailed cuckoo and I awoke with a shock. The avid birdwatcher is very attuned to bird song and it is not the first time that I have been woken from my slumbers at first light when, subconsciously in sleep, I have hard something strange and exotic.
But a cuckoo in the middle of winter – July 24 to be precise – had me scurrying into the yard, still in my pyjamas, trying to see the bird high on the northern side of the Waterworks Valley.
The song was strong and liquid, a descending melody that I usually first hear on crisp spring mornings, or as the sun sets on summer evenings.
My resident new holland honeyeaters, who nest in the bottlebrushes in my garden, heard it too. They were out on the telegraph wires, shouting a warning to other birds that the cuckoo was about, even though it was far too early for the breeding season.
The alarm call was the same one they issue when the brown goshawk comes to call in the bottlebrushes, or the peregrine flies overhead.
Cuckoos, with swept-back wings, can resemble birds of prey at a glance but over the eons the birds targeted by raptors read a different threat into that cuckoo shape.
Four species of cuckoo visit Tasmania from the mainland during the summer months – the fan-tailed and pallid cuckoos, and the smaller shining and Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos. They all use surrogate parents to rear their young, the pallid and fan-tailed going for birds with open nests built by such species as the honeyeaters, and the smaller cuckoos being able to exploit closed, domed nests of species like the fairy-wrens and the thornbills.
Usually I have to wait until about the last week or August or the first week of December to see the birds that play unwitting hosts to the cuckoos frantically trying to chase them from their breeding territories. In my experience it is the fan-tailed species that come first, then the shining bronze-cuckoo and then the pallid. The Horsfield’s bronze is a rarer bird, and I rarely see or hear it.
I was not alone in hearing the first cuckoo, an event that each spring in Britain inspires readers to send a letter to the Times. A reader in Taroona also heard a fan-tailed cuckoo on the same day and I speculated that perhaps waves of cuckoos had arrived on favourable and warm winds earlier in the week, although I couldn’t recall any especially mild days.
It’s not the first time I have heard cuckoos in winter and it could be that some of them choose to take their chances with the Tasmania winter, gambling that there might be sufficient insect food to sustain them during the cold months. I sometimes see another summer visitor, welcome swallows, hawking insects over lakes and rivers in the winter months, and each year I receive reports that swamp harriers – the only bird of prey to migrate across Bass Strait – have chosen to forego the long journey to the mainland.
The cuckoo song might be a false start to spring but at least it indicates that the worst of the winter is slipping behind us and things can only get better, and warmer, from now on.
And soon the garden will ring to the calls of all the summer visitors, like dusky woodswallows, black-faced cuckoo shrikes and satin flycatchers. The songs of the birds that inhabit my garden in winter – the raucous call of the yellow wattlebird, the high-pitched trilling of the eastern spinebill and the sharp metallic “egypt-egypt” of the crescent honeyeater – can become a little tiring.
The honeyeaters are a different story, however. Their nervous piping will always reward me with the sight of a dramatic bird of prey … or an early cuckoo.