IT WAS late afternoon, one hot summer day, the first year I moved to Phillip Island. A loud, high-pitched, metallic whistling made me look out the window. A flash of yellow, black and white birds was flying back and forth through the showers of water from the sprinkler in the garden, making a hell of a racket, as if shrieking with delight. The honeyeaters reminded me of the joy of running through the sprinkler as a kid, rushing in, screaming and rushing out again.
The honeyeaters gave me an idea. They obviously loved the water. I would get them a birdbath. I poked around in the garden shed, found a terracotta pot-plant saucer, placed it on the terrace above the edge of the garden and filled it with water.
A blue wren landed on the terracotta bowl, hopped around the rim, plucked up the courage to jump in, dipped its tummy and jumped back onto the edge. As the wren readied for another dip, a honeyeater arrived. The wren retreated to a nearby branch and watched the honeyeater plunge in to drench itself, flapping its wings in a flurry of feathers. One after another, more and more honeyeaters arrived until they filled the birdbath with a commotion of noise and spray. They jumped in and out, taking turns, waiting on the edge before launching themselves in again. When a wattlebird flew in with a harsh squawk, they scattered in every direction.
Next day I went to the hardware store and bought a proper birdbath with a bowl and a pedestal and positioned it within view of the kitchen window. I now had all-round viewing entertainment. My house had become a bird hide.
The little birds that had been anonymously bopping along the ground feeding on insects or flitting through the banksias probing for nectar now appear with their distinctive sizes, shapes, colours and personalities.
Silvereyes arrive in numbers, jostling for position on the edge of the bowl, chattering and shouting at each other to get out of the way. They plunge in together, filling the bowl with a blur of citrus green and white circled eyes, then jump to the edge to fluff their feathers before plunging in, again and again. These perky fellows ignore the intrusion of another species unless it’s much larger than them.
The fantail comes to the birdbath alone, elegantly twisting and turning and fanning its tail like a geisha, moving with stylish confidence. When a larger bird interrupts its bath, the fantail flits off nonchalantly and resumes dancing around for insects.
Thornbills are shy little things. Arriving in twos or threes, they skip gingerly around the edge on their twiggy legs before delicately jumping in. They are tentative, ready for flight at a moment’s notice.
Firetails arrive in pairs of olive green and flickers of red from their crimson-painted eyebrows, matching beak and upper tail. They come often to drink and bathe. They will tolerate a small intruder but give way to a bigger bird, waiting in the wings for it to leave.
Nothing much fazes a willie wagtail. It’s the boldest bird on the block. In breeding season, willie will chase a magpie or bird of prey, clacking nosily to show it’s not welcome. Willie brings a sense of entitlement to the birdbath. Willie is a giant among birds. This little bird with big attitude rules the roost.
Magpies demonstrate the full meaning of bird-bath. They stand in the bowl, immerse themselves and dip their outstretched wings up and down while rocking their bodies back and forth until completely soaked. This action is followed by a vigorous flapping of wings to shake off the water before flying to a branch to preen.
A birdbath is a wondrous thing, enticing and revealing, giving endless pleasure. I have learnt which birds live here, which come seasonally and those that visit from time to time. A robin redbreast pops by in winter. A pair of singing honeyeaters visits for a few weeks in spring. Silvereyes come to breed then leave after summer. When young ravens leave their parents’ territory, one might come on its own for a drink. Just lately, a young currawong stole a drink when the magpies weren’t looking.
Birds are not the only creatures at the birdbath. In summer, when the grass is bleached blonde and dry as sticks, wallabies come every night to drink. And they drink and drink. Wallabies can drink for 15 minutes with only one or two short breaks. Every morning the birdbaths are dry. Sometimes I wake to find the saucer broken on the ground, a wallaby having pulled it over, trying to get that last drop at the bottom of the bowl. I’ve stopped buying new birdbaths. There always seems to be another terracotta saucer somewhere around.
February 24, 2014
Linda Cuttris's article puts into words my delight in watching birds going through their morning and evening bathing rituals. I insist on doing morning dishes as I get the front row seat from our kitchen window to watch these aquatic displays.
At first I thought the order of arrival of the different species was haphazard but now I am not so sure. Black birds are up earlier than most and take first dip, often requiring a refill of the bath water as they joyfully splash their way into the start of their day.
As Linda observes you get notification of the change in the seasons with the regular annual visits of the breeds that drop by, stay awhile and then move on.
They confirm what the the changing colours of the country side are telling us but in a more subtle way.
Bob Middleton, Jeetho West