in praise of Oz birds (long)

Subject: in praise of Oz birds (long)
From: "Wim Vader" <>
Date: Sat, 21 Mar 1998 11:27:26 +0100


After all the nice postings on "the 10 most attractive Australian birds"
and even "the least attractive bird", most of which brought back fond
memories of my (still all too few) birding days in Australia, I thought I`d
try to give an idea of the impression that the Australian avifauna made
upon me, a "Dutchman from Norway" without any prior experience of Oceania.
I first came to Sydney in winter 1980, for a Crustacea congress. I arrived
in the evening, booked in a hotel in King`s Cross, woke up early because of
jetlag, and heard the strangest noises and bird calls from outside. It
turned out that it was possible to come up on the roof, but it still was
dark, and only gradually one could make out the silhouettes of largish
birds flying into the town centre from some roost somewhere, calling all
the time. They were Pied Currawongs, and ever since they have remained
somehow the voice of the Australian avifauna for me. (Later I learned, of
course, that these common and conspicuous birds played very much the same
role as the Magpie Pica pica in Europe. With a recent large increase in
numbers in built-up areas, they are accused (rightly) of taking large
numbers of eggs and young of smaller birds and (with much less concrete
evidence) of depressing their populations. Also like our magpies, they are
most fascinating birds to watch, full of individuality)
                The Currawongs have come to stand as a symbol of Oz birds for 
me also in
another way: they are conspicuous, loud and unafraid, and this for me is
one of the characters of very many Australian birds (and come to think of
it, maybe also of its people!). As I said, my first visit was in winter,
and I was amazed at how "noisy" the forests were. Here in Norway the forest
is largely silent in winter, although of course not totally, but here the
wattlebirds, friarbirds, parrots, currawongs and kookaburras made their
presence felt in a totally unmistakable way. Large, colourful, noisy birds,
and not a bit afraid (Partly because Australia traditionally had fewer
large predators?).
                During this 2 week first visit, most of it spent listening to 
lectures, I
had 5 or 6 species of wild birds eat out of my hand! No bird eats of my
hand in Tromsø ever, except maybe a "snatch in passing" from a Common gull.
        During this first visit I had as literature only a few of the Gould 
of Victoria booklets, and they had clearly discovered the same
particularity, as many birds were described in its pages as "small friendly
bird", another characteristic that stuck during all my subsequent visits (I
spent 10 months in Sydney in 1993). There are of course shy birds in Oz
too, but they are relatively quite few.
        A third point I want to mention (But this is peculiar to somebody who
lives in a region where "very large trees" are maybe 4 or 5 m high) is that
your trees are often very high, very leafy and very confusing. Added to
that is the innate restlessness of many of the arboreal birds, who move
through the high canopies, in the immortal words of the late Salim Ali) "as
if they had a train to catch", and it often added up to a lot of
disappointments and "maybes".
        I did most of my birding of my own, although I owe much to the 
of some professional guides for a few days, and have the rare distinction
of being one of the very few that Phil Maher failed to show the Plains
Wanderer (He made up for it by showing me a lot of other birds).
        I have also lived in the USA during sabbaticals, and the birds there, in
my feeling, were generally much more colourful than their European
counterparts, but had usually disappointing voices: American Warblers
buzz,wheeze or cheep, but almost never warble. In Australia , on the other
hand, the bird fauna, although also there often very colourful, also
contains a lot of fabulous songsters: Butcherbirds, Shrike-thrushes,
Lyrebirds, and very pleasing to my ear, also many of the Gerygone warblers.
         In addition Oz has what surely must be some of the weirdest bird sounds
anywhere: the meowing of the Catbirds, the duets of the Whipbirds---I once
had the great good fortune to sit between a duetting pair of Whipbirds for
quite a while, the assorted dream-bells of the Bellbird and the Bell Miner,
and the amazing "foreign language frenzies" of flocks of Friarbirds. Even
the wailing baby sound of the Australian Raven beats our local Ravens by a
long stretch, although also those have a wide and beautiful repertoire. The
sounds I maybe miss least are those of the Tasmanian Yellow Wattlebird,
seemingly always in the throes of a hangover.
        I find it extremely difficult to write down a "top ten" of Australian
birds: it would probably change considerably every time I`d tried to think
of it. A top 50 could be somewhat more easy to do. It would contain some of
the most spectacular parrots: the  stately black cockatoos, the droll
Gang-Gang, the Superb and Regent Parrots, the subtle Bourke`s Parrot,...and
various woodswallows,..and robins,... and certainly Shrike tits,... and the
archetypical small friendly bird, the yellow Robin,... and......
                No, 50 species won`t do the trick either, I give up!! And then 
to think
that I have as yet seen only half of your birds (It is quite far from here
to there!).
        In the hope of chances to renew my acquaintance with your wonderful bird
fauna, and with best greetings from a still quite wintery Tromsø (69*50`N),

                                                        Wim Vader, Tromsø Museum
                                                        9037 Tromsø, Norway

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