LOOKING FOR LYREBIRDS
David Waterhouse has been fascinated by wildlife since he was a boy. He first heard about WWF in 1961 in England. He became a supporter all those years ago and remains a supporter to this day. He intends his support to continue well into the future and has included a in his Will. Forever in awe of lyrebirds, David wrote to us about his insatiable search for one of Australia’s most iconic birds.
No matter how slowly and quietly I stepped through the leaf litter I could never get close enough to witness the fantastic display of a male lyrebird. The nearest I ever got to a performance was to be granted a glimpse of quivering grey tail plumes before the elusive bird fled off.
On some of my attempts, I knew I had trodden on a stick, made a rustle or scuffed a boot against a rock, causing the bird to vanish. However, at other times, I had no idea how the performer had sensed my presence before merging abruptly into the shadows. If I continued to creep forward, all I saw before me was a deserted mound of soft earth among the ferns.
Unlike most birds, lyrebirds mate and nest only in winter. That’s when their voices ring out most strongly beneath the trees. To stand above the Illawarra scarp on a June morning at the Robertson Lookout above the Mount Keira Scout Camp, or at the lookout points in the Blue Mountains is to hear them at their best. In that month, the hills of the Great Dividing Range from the south of Brisbane all the way to the Dandenongs near Melbourne resound with lyrebird calls.
I had listened to those striking calls many a time over the years and tried to see them displaying, all to no avail. Then, one cold, misty morning, I happened to be making my way slowly through a deep, rocky gully that cut through a large stand of coachwood trees, quite close to the Mount Keira Scout Camp. The tops of the gully’s banks were well above my head. All was quiet except for the occasional call of a currawong or a whipbird, when suddenly, the unmistakable notes of a lyrebird could be heard close at hand, not far from the edge of the bank.
I froze, perched precariously on a rock in the streambed to listen. The calls became even louder in quick succession. There were impressive imitations of rainforest denizens such as whipbirds, crimson rosellas, green cartbirds and satin bowerbirds interwoven as part of the repertoire. The display mound must have been close at hand. With luck, if I stepped from rock to rock without making a sound, I could haul myself up by some exposed tree roots, to draw level with the top of the bank. Then I could cautiously peer over in the hope of seeing the bird perform. I did this within a minute and slowly raised my head. It worked perfectly. The mound was only two or three metres away from the edge of the bank. My eyes met a dome of grey, filamentous plumes which hid the bird’s head and body (as depicted on the 10-cent coin when it was designed for St Valentine’s Day back in 1966, to replace the old shilling).
The male lyrebird continued to emit a rising torrent of sound and was oblivious to my presence. There were no large ferns to impede the view and I was close enough to see the head of the bird periodically. The gossamer-like dome rose and fell with the movement of the body, as the display reached its climax. I could actually see the bird’s breath as it hung on the cold air, as well as the pulsating throat muscles beneath the open bill as the notes poured forth. As if to emphasize the louder sounds, he sometimes seemed to stamp his feet on the soft soil of the mound.
Without warning, the performance ceased abruptly. I could clearly see the two thicker plumes which form the ‘lyre shape’ of the tail as the much thinner, silver grey ones rose above the bird’s body, before folding backwards to form a train once more.
Hardly daring to move, with only my head sticking above the gully bank, I clung to the tree roots, hoping to see a hen lyrebird, but none appeared. It seemed an anticlimax. The male bird abruptly stalked away and only a couple of minutes later, began another performance, presumably on another mound he had created not far away. Perhaps he would ‘score’ with a female after his second attempt, but he would have vanished among the coachwoods if I attempted to stalk him.
I knew I had been lucky to see a displaying male, while I remained undetected and never expected to catch sight of one again.
David hopes that by sharing his experiences in nature he can inspire others to protect it. You can help too. Please consider including a just as David has.
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