Echoing the title of the Coen brothers’ film, No Country for Old Men, Tasmania can be no country for the lazy birdwatcher. At least as far as the Tasmanian thornbill is concerned.
The thornbill not only falls into the category of difficult to identify, LBBs (little brown birds), but its identification is compounded by a remarkably similar mainland species also found in Tasmania, the brown thornbill.
To separate them requires time and patience, although if the birder heads for wet forest – especially to the west and south-west of the island – this is a head start.
As a simple rule of thumb, the Tasmanian endemic species prefers rainforest and wet sclerophyll, usually on higher ground, and the brown thornbill the dry woodlands of the Midlands and east.
The two species can be found together, however, and this is where the confusion, and frustration, begins.
Although birds in the hand show clear differences, their fast, nervous and erratic movements in the bush present problems. Tasmanian birders have a simple way of separating them. They immediately look for what they term the Tasmanian thornbill’s white “trousers’’, an area of white, fluffy feathers under the tail. In my experience, though, this is not always a reliable guide, especially in younger birds. The same can also be said for the difference in the two species’ songs. The Tasmanian thornbills is said to be more melodic, with a distinctive “wop wop wop” at the end of phrases. The brown thornbill’s song, however, is extremely variable, containing many warbling notes.
The longer length of the endemic thornbill’s tail is a good guide, especially if the two species are seen together. The local species also has less streaking on the breast and weaker cream scalloping on the rufous-brown forehead found in both species. The Tasmanian thornbill also has rufous-brown edges to its primaries whereas in the mainland species these are off-white. The bill is also shorter in the endemic bird but this is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pick in the field.
When I first arrived in Tasmania I quickly identified brown thornbills as the only LBBs that at that time inhabited my garden and, looking further afield, I was never confident to call a Tasmanian one. One day in the Cradle Mountain national park, though, a thornbill attracted my attention, primarily by its “jizz”, its behavioural quirks and characteristics. It seemed to be more acrobatic as it went in search of insects on the foliage of a king billy pine, hanging upside down, letting go and righting itself in mid-air before flying on to another tree.
Perhaps this was the behaviour of just one individual but I now term the Tasmanian birds the circus performers of the forest, throwing in their “wop, wop, wop” as they go.
Habitat and distribution: Common, occurring in rainforests, wet sclerophyll forests and wet scrub. Diet: Small insects, often hunted close to the ground. Breeding: The nest is dome-shaped and made of shredded bark, grass and moss. The female thornbill lays 3-4 pinkish-white freckled eggs. Song: A rich melody which penetrates vegetation, often ending in “wop, wop, wop” or, as someone else describes it, a “wit, wit, wit”. Size: 10cm.