Have you noticed birds singing in the past couple of weeks? 21st June was the solstice — the shortest day of the year if you’re south of the Tropic of Capricorn, and a significant time in nature. The shift from days getting shorter to days getting longer triggers certain changes in animals and plants. For some Australian birds, nesting behaviour begins soon after the winter solstice. Birds that didn’t migrate may already be re-establishing their territory and this means an increase in birdsong (territorial singing as opposed to the generally shorter calls). Some birds start building their first nest of the season, heralding the frenzy of breeding activity that lies ahead. Others are still in their wintering grounds.
Many birds have a change of scene in winter and move away from their breeding territory. Some, like the Australian red robins, move into open habitats or migrate to lower altitudes. Other species, like flycatchers, fantails and cuckoos, migrate longer distances toward the tropics, or inland, while some, such as swifts and many shorebirds, travel epic distances, crossing the Equator to a northern hemisphere summer. It’s not that they’re specifically avoiding the cold; it’s more likely the food available and the longer hours of daylight for foraging that make the journey worthwhile.
One of the loveliest sights in winter is an overgrown grassy paddock dotted with Flame Robins, the radiant red breasts of the males conspicuous. Well, conspicuous until they face the other way. Flame Robins come down from their high altitude breeding grounds in autumn, gather into loose groups in open country and change their foraging habits to spend more time on the ground. In winter, that’s where the insect action is. In the same paddock you might see Jacky Winters flashing the bright white in their tails as they land on every fence post and thistle, and winter parties of Australian Pipits and Willie Wagtails. Incidentally, pipits are related to true wagtails, but not Willie Wagtails which aren’t wagtails at all — they’re actually fantails. But Willie Fantail doesn’t quite have the same ring.
Willie Wagtail and Jacky Winter are surely two of the most delightful of all bird names. The Jacky Winter is probably so called because it’s a familiar sight in open country in winter, and perhaps because it sings at that time of year. In spring-summer they’re less visible within the woodlands where they nest. As for the ‘Jacky’ part: it might depict the call, though that’s more usually described as ‘peter peter…’. Maybe it’s related to the old expression ‘sitting up like Jackie’, which means to sit bolt upright, cheekily, an apt description of the bird’s demeanour. Or perhaps it was just an endearing name that sounded good.
The reason for the Willie Wagtail’s name is obvious. Its habit of swinging its fanned tail from side to side creates a moving shadow which disturbs insects, making them easier to find and catch. And what more appealing alliteration for a familiar little tail-wagging bird could there be than ‘Willie Wagtail’! Taxonomists who point out it’s not a true wagtail have met little support in Australia when suggesting a name change. ‘Willie Wagtail’ is so entrenched in the Aussie vernacular that changing it isn’t a realistic option. (The widely-used Clements Checklist of Birds of the World gets around this problem by hyphenating the name: Willie-wagtail, though most other official lists leave it as two words.)
Unlike the roaming robins, migrating flycatchers and long-distance travellers, the birds that stayed in their breeding territory can start nesting earlier. On 17th June at Mount Tomah, an Australian Raven was carefully selecting bunches of long pine needles and carrying them to another tree. Then it would simply drop them to the ground. What was the point of this strange behaviour? Deciding on a nest site? Impressing a mate? Perhaps it’s one of last year’s young learning the ropes. Ravens build nests of sticks; pine needles would be far too flimsy…but they could be used for lining the inside. Aha! Was the bird lining an already-built nest but dropped the material when it realised it was being watched? Whatever the case, Australian Ravens are one of the earliest nesting species and can lay eggs as early as June or July, so nest-building in June isn’t unexpected.
Other Australian birds which can start nesting in June or July include the Bassian Thrush, Noisy Miner, Chestnut-rumped Heathwren, Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, Eastern Yellow Robin, Brown Thornbill, all the babblers and the Australian Magpie (although magpie ‘divebombing’ season is usually most obvious around August to October). Actual timing for all these can vary from place to place and between individuals. Superb Lyrebirds nest even earlier, usually mating around May to July. By July most females are incubating an egg but it’s not until three months later — September or October — that the lyrebird chick is ready to leave the nest.
Climatically, July and August are very much winter in this part of Australia. The frosty mornings and cold winds keep reminding me of that. However, if you consider nature’s cycles: peaks of flowering, birds nesting, migration starting, quolls and antechinus mating…there’s a lot happening that feels like early spring in these months. The European concept of four equal seasons — spring, summer, autumn and winter — doesn’t fit Australian phenology very well. The reality is of much more complex and varying patterns, as recognised by Indigenous cultures.
In a good season, some Australian birds may nest two, three or even four times, the effort extending over half a year and well into the summer months. This can help compensate for poor years and the naturally high mortality of eggs and chicks due to predation, misadventure or scarcity of food. So although it’s only July, don’t be surprised if you see birds nesting before you can say Jack Frost…or Jacky Winter.
The Sun and the Seasons (a good explanation of the seasons, the solstices and equinoxes)