Wikpedia’s picture (by J J Harrison) of a yellow-throated honeyeater. The honeyeater steals hair from animals (in this case a wallaby; and humans …)
The “Respect the Mountain” forum ( here, here, and here ) at the Hobart Town Hall earlier this year prompted Don Knowler to return to a diary he compiled after daily rambles on Mt Wellington during the previous year. In what promises to be a momentous year in the modern history of Kunanyi, the weekly diary gives the mountain and its wildlife its own voice. All Don’s Mother Mountain columns – and much more by this superb writer – can be found under the Category, Don Knowler, here
Fantails flitted about my head, hawking insects I disturbed in my heavy stride in the dry woodland at the start of the Breakneck Track. The fantails had collected me as I left Junction Cabin and followed me for about 100 metres, before being joined by a pair of yellow-throated honeyeaters. The honeyeaters seemed more intent on watching me personally, than my insect-disturbing strides, swooping down from the towering peppermints to flutter just above my head. I couldn’t work out what they were up to until one vanished from sight, flying behind me for a brief moment while the other fluttered in front of me, just before my eyes.
I stopped, startled, and then felt a sharp pain at the back of my head, as though someone, or something, had tugged at my hair.
I turned around as sharply as the pain, raising my hand to the back of my head and felt something brush against it. It was the female honeyeater, who now flew to join her partner on a low branch of stinkwood.
I had heard in the past of yellowthroats plucking hair from the heads if unsuspecting hikers in the bush and now I was watching, and feeling, this incredible behaviour first-hand.
Aware all too painfully the honeyeaters were about, I decided to linger at the same spot to give them a chance to gather material to line their nests. It seemed a little late in the season for the honeyeaters to be nest building, because I had seen others gathering nesting material – but not hair from human heads – at the start of spring.
It could have been these birds had lost a nest to predators, along with possibly eggs or young, or the nest had been swept from in anchorage in a tree by strong winds.
I was glad to be of help to the industrious birds, whatever pain.
Sure enough, after I had stood perfectly still for a few minutes, keeping my hands to my sides, the female honeyeater flew down towards me, fluttering to the back of my head again, and I felt her land, her claws digging into my scalp. Next a sharp tug, and the sensation of hair, just a few strands, being tugged up by the roots.
It was not painful really, more a tickle, and I struggled not to break out in laughter, and muffled a giggle. I could hear a fluttering of wings and turned gently to see the female flying away with tuffs of my hair.
Somewhere in the bush on the eastern side of the mountain, with possibly views of the distant city, would be a nest adorned with my grey hair. I felt strangely honoured. Some men and women have statues erected in their memory. My fate – at least for a season – would be to form part of a nest, not for decoration and display but with the aim of keeping a new brood of youngsters warm and safe.
The yellow-throated honeyeater builds a cup-shaped nest low to the ground. It’s a closely-woven structure incorporating grass, bark, spiders’ webs and, of course, animal hair. The stealing of human hair is relatively uncommon and because these nests are often lined with hair I can only speculate that bennett’s wallabies and pademelons are usually the source of supply.
I lingered on the track, hoping the honeyeater would return and I could follow her and the trailing hair to where she was building the nest – the female carries out this task – but the honeyeaters did not return.
What I did see, however, was a pair of pallid cuckoos being chased by black-headed honeyeaters and I hoped that the cuckoos had already settled on their prey and would not torment the female who stole my hair. The large cup-shaped, open nest would make an ideal target for the pallid cuckoos, who would look for three spotted, pinkish eggs among which to deposit their own.
My search for the honeyeater nests reminded me that I had neglected an important nest on my recent rounds – that of the grey fantails on the Silver Falls Track.
Because of the structure of the fantail nest, partly enclosed and attached to a thin branch, monitoring if the eggs had hatched proved difficult, although the two weeks which had elapsed since I last say it suggested they would have.
The seemingly fragile nest, swaying in the breeze, seemed bulkier than when I had last viewed it. And sure enough the male was making more frequent visits with food caught on the wing, feeding both female and their young.
Each time I viewed a nest on different parts of the mountain, I could hear cuckoos singing all about me. Fan-tailed cuckoos near the flame robin nest on the Lenah Valley Track, pallid near the yellowthroats and now the incessant, descending and haunting song of the shining bronze-cuckoo, just the right sized bird to be able to slip into a fantail’s nest.
The tourist season was now in full swing, with one of the world’s biggest cruise liners, the Voyager of the Seas, in the docks. The tourists might have been flocking to Tasmania – 3138 passengers and 1181 crew on the Voyager of the Seas – but the last of the summer birds, including the summerbirds themselves, appeared to be staying away.
I chased up reports of woodswallows at Fern Tree and on Nocklofty, the peak that stands to the north-east between the mountain and Hobart city, with no success.
The mountain teemed with other birds, however, visitors and residents alike. The woods and glades were full of birdsong, all day long, and everywhere I travelled on the mountain and in its foothills birds flew and walked ahead of me.
A typical checklist for a bird walk along the Lenah Valley Track would be yellowthroats, black-headed, strong-billed and crescent honeyeaters, eastern spinebills, flame and pink robins, and the little brown jobs (LBJs) – brown and Tasmanian thornbills tumbling through the lower branches of eucalypts like circus acrobats, scrubwrens scrurrying on tracks as though they are mice, and, a little rarer, scrubtits climbing the trunks of mature dogwood trees. I didn’t need to seek these birds out – their merry songs led me to them.
And another sign of approaching summer. Fire warnings had started to be broadcast on local radio.