A touch of light: Willy wagtail, the gardeners’ friend

Crow and willy wagtail in battle. © Mike Gillam

 

 

By MIKE GILLAM

 

Stories of willy wagtails abound in Centralia, told and re-told within our growing community of naturalists and ecologists so I’m making space for an encore.

 

Responding to last week’s essay, Alex Nelson raised the bullying behavior of white plumed honeyeaters driving away visiting wagtails. Put simply, certain species including yellow throated miners will aggressively mob all comers if they’re defending key resources.

 

Frequently this involves the presence of even a single heavy nectar producing plant. In my experience nursery favourites such as the hybrid Grevillea Robyn Gordon can drastically reduce species diversity in urban environments when one numerically superior species seeks to monopolize a rich source of nectar. They’re high on sugar!

 

In our gardens at Hele Crescent we use endemic species that produce modest amounts of nectar and these plants are widely distributed throughout the garden and nature strips to avoid thuggish behaviour. More on this later.

 

My favourite willy wagtail story comes from a family who witnessed an enchanting ritual between two birds, possibly a parent and fledgling. Camping just south of Alice Springs, my friends walked to a waterhole before sunrise, a time when the temperature drops as cold air flows down hill, mixing with currents of warm air before settling at the lowest point.

 

Quietly soaking up the sunrise they observed the arrival of two wagtails, one carrying a white feather. With the feather grasped firmly in its beak the adult wagtail encouraged a younger bird to follow, the two birds climbing to some 12-15 metres. Then the parent bird dropped the feather.

 

Both birds hovered at tree top height watching the feather’s gradual floating descent, arcing side to side, spinning, diving and even rising in response to unseen air currents. Suddenly the youngster swooped down and made a perfect catch, seconds from splash down. They’d played this game before.

 

Now the younger bird carried the feather aloft and reaching its parent, dropped the feather for the older bird to chase. And so they continued taking it in turns to catch the trophy. The falling feather took its time and those watching recall being spell bound for a good five minutes.

 

Speed and timing seemed to be the object of the exercise with perhaps more than a touch of exhibitionism; both birds delaying their intervention to make ever more dramatic saves close to the surface of the water. Finally, with muscles toned and bodies warmed against the autumn chill the wagtails were ready for breakfast – at a carcass not far away.

 

Back in town, catastrophe had befallen our resident wagtails. The sad news was telegraphed by the belated and frequent cries of magpie larks and the bowerbird’s sudden obsession with cat calls. The usual bower bird repertoire combined angle grinders and whistling kites but not this week, just endless wailing cats punctuated by trademark death rattles.

 

We’d seen the cats and now we understood why the birds were upset. Our especially tame wagtail, a male we called Bro on account of his flamboyant eyebrows, was everywhere, calling out, chasing crows and chattering at shadows.

 

The local birds had witnessed his distress for days. Bro was alone and no longer taking turns to sit at his nest.

 

We never did find out what happened to Bro’s wife but given a coincidental spike in feral cats and the amount of time willy wagtails spent on the ground we drew our conclusions.

 

The cats were ambush predators, secreting themselves in clumps of ruby saltbush and waiting patiently for a bird or lizard to wander past. Usually we found the tell tale sign of the victim’s feathers but not on this occasion.

 

The wagtail’s nest in the fork of a spindly whitewood was clearly abandoned. Using a ladder, I climbed up to check. Four metres above ground the perfect cup shaped nest held three outwardly perfect eggs, their contents cold and lifeless. Feeling a deep and slightly irrational sense of guilt we redoubled our efforts to trap cats.

 

A week or two later the bereft and love sick Bro began calling all night long, a pattern he maintained for months on end from early evening until 5am. Occasionally I’d get dressed and go outside in response to nocturnal disturbances of one sort or another – most frequently the stereos pumping on the highway as sly grog merchants did laps in party cars to attract their customers.

 

Through all of this the male wagtail called his heart out. On several occasions, I noticed him taking a brief spell at a nearby car-yard, pausing just long enough to snack on some energy rich moths trapped in the thrall of mercury vapor lights.

 

Wow, this bird was truly a metro-adapted being. I couldn’t imagine his tribe behaving like this beyond the bright lights of town. Indeed, this world wide phenomenon of normally diurnal species assuming nocturnal habits, presumably to avoid the crush of people in ever encroaching cities, is well known.

 

After months of failing to attract a mate Bro decided to raise the volume. The wagtail’s efforts did not compare with the offerings of human society but he was still ridiculously loud.

 

His plaintive song, repeated with equally spaced pauses, was strangely therapeutic against a backdrop of 2am fireworks celebrating some moron’s birthday. Still, I was intrigued by the outrageous volume so I went out into the street to search him out.

 

At my approach Bro chattered a greeting. He was perched high in the gable of a substantial shed, closed on three sides and open at the end facing our house; in effect a massive amplifier. We had a brief conversation about decibels and the EPA but he quickly turned his back and resumed calling out his love melody.

 

The shed amplifier did yield results with the arrival of a shy female a month later, an event heralded by delicious silence when Bro abruptly stopped his nocturnal monologue. The wagtails wasted no time in building a nest, curiously inside the belly of an impressive iron sculpture of a tall wading bird, by local artist, Dan Murphy.

 

Bro’s new wife obviously had style and I reasoned she must have been raised in the industrial area. This was no ordinary nest and seemed precariously low, a mere 1.5 metres from the ground but still covered by the watchful eyes of the magpie larks, their nest located at the very top of a river red gum with commanding views.

 

As nest building advanced Bro was seen with his head swathed in a bulky bandanna of spider’s web which was patiently collected on his forehead by pushing through webs. Once he had enough he’d fly to the cup-shaped nest and smear the bundle of gossamer onto the outside using his head as a trowel.

 

Soft materials such as grasses and fur were also needed for lining the inside of the nest. With the skill and spirit of sword-wielding dervishes granted the power of flight, the wagtails worked as a team driving the local guard dogs mad and eventually into hiding, emasculated and quivering in fear.

 

At first we thought their dog obsession was the usual territorial challenge to a predator and perhaps this was part of the story but they definitely pulled out small quantities of fur on multiple occasions.

 

By mid August the wagtails were sitting on eggs. It was unseasonably hot and their choice of nesting site was proving less than ideal. With all that metal the wagtails were exhibiting conspicuous heat distress; a sign of their vulnerability to high temperatures.

 

We layered shade cloth on three sides and bundled a mound on top to provide some insulation and the wagtails prevailed. The couple moved to a new nesting site as soon as their young were fledged.

 

Wagtail’s victory roll. © Mike Gillam

 

Both wagtails still visited our place daily to forage for insects and on occasion the proud couple paraded their latest babies but the location of their new nest remained a mystery. Clearly their nesting site was beyond the mantle of safety provided by the magpie larks and that seemed strange.

 

When I dropped my vehicle off for a service at Stuart Highway Autos I saw Bro sitting on a gate like he owned the place. As I watched he flew into the showroom and I quickly followed but he’d vanished.

 

I mentioned I’d seen a bird fly into the building and a staff member smiled broadly. “Oh yeah, the wagtails are nesting inside. They’ve been here more than a year and had three lots of babies so far.”

 

I followed the direction of her extended arm. Above the windows and just below the backlit LMVD number (see above right) were two compact nests perched on a narrow aluminium ledge. The wagtails came and went at their leisure.

 

Access after hours was provided by a narrow aperture between the roof and the top of the retracted roller door. No problems with crows and other aerial predators and the staff were clearly delighted. I wondered how many people would have chased them out and destroyed their nest? Very, very few I decided.

 

In the last year of Bro’s reign in Hele Crescent a couple of teachers approached me with a request to bring two classes to our site, at the time the Silver Bullet cafe and sculpture garden.

 

They were a fairly boisterous bunch of kids, between nine and eleven and I felt it necessary to spell out some ground rules. So I climbed on the bus and talked about the area and concluded with this: “Please don’t stand on a single ant while you’re visiting our place. All life forms are sacred to us so if I see anyone pick up a stone and throw it at a bird or lizard I hope you can run really fast because that rock might come rightbackatya.”

 

The teachers looked mortified but they needn’t have worried. Predictably we got on really well and I was so struck by the great promise of those kids I decided to give them a special treat.

 

I talked about growing up and understanding the power of trust, of rejecting fear and investing in friendship and casually swatted a fly on my shoulder. With that I held up my right hand and whistled. The willy wagtail appeared like magic, alighting on my hand and taking the fly I held between thumb and finger. Forty children gasped.

 

The first to recover asked with more than a hint of suspicion in his voice, “Did you grow that bird up as a baby?”  I smiled and shook my head. “No I did not. That bird learned to trust me when I was working in the garden. He was on the lookout for any insects I might disturb. It was a bad year for flies and pretty soon I was catching and throwing him some. Before long he was snatching them off the back of my shirt and by the second year he was riding round on my hat. Everybody needs a friend.”

 

Note: Climate modelling does not bode well for Centralian populations of the willie wagtail. It does seem possible however that the thoughtful actions of arid zone gardeners may help to support populations in our urban areas at least.

 

 

A recording of typical willy wagtail calls can be found here.

 

 

RECENTLY IN THIS SERIES:

 

A touch of light: Artityerrityerre, willy wagtail.

 

A touch of light: crows

 

 

 

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2 Comments (starting with the most recent)

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  1. Trevor Shiell
    Posted June 19, 2020 at 9:02 pm

    As a child growing up in the SA Riverland we had a very dear and good old Indigenous man named Fred who took me out frequently onto the river flats and showed me the ways of the Indigenous people of the area.
    He could communicate with what he called the messenger birds. They nested in my fathers workshop.
    History is repeating itself here and I have the same thing happening in my shed.
    They had a problem with the feral cats just as I had with my canaries in my youth. I solved that with my single shot Lithgow .22.
    The cats lived in the Berri Hotel wood heap. The birds here now build in my shed on a metal beam which is immune to cat attack, but to assist them I now have 23 notches on my rifle butt.
    They love sardines also I have some wonderful conversations with the black cockies that rest on the back fence after filling their guts with calthrop seeds – much more sensible than some of the politicians I hear.

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  2. Psuedo Guru
    Posted June 16, 2020 at 3:47 pm

    Another fantastic expose. Well done.

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