Page 3 Bird

  Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys)

I love Willie Wagtails, who doesn’t love Willie Wagtails?  I mean, get serious, what’s not to love about them. You could show any person who lives in this country a photo of a Willie Wagtail and if it didn’t elicit a smile I’d be very surprised.

Always on the move, seldom stopping for more than a moment, their comical activities I find hilarious, and if you go near a Wagtail’s nest or get in his grille you’ll soon get short shift with a scolding rendition of his ‘rikka-tikkatikka-tik’ alarm call. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end you’ll know what I mean, he gets the point across he’s not happy with you very effectively. I’ve even seen them give Wedge-tailed Eagles a good dressing down, now there’s a David versus Goliath battle if I’ve ever seen one.

Before I was married and settled down I worked on a cattle station in central Australia, near Coober Pedy. On arrival there I was amazed to find that Willie Wagtails were common, especially right near the station homestead, there seemed to be one or two always hanging around.  Indeed they are found over the entire continent except for heavily forested areas.

To my surprise one day a Willie Wagtail appeared at the station who didn’t have a tail, figure that out. The only explanation I could give would be an encounter with a predator, possibly a bird of prey. Not surprisingly I thought he looked very strange, but seemed to cope ok, not having a tail to wave around to disturb insects would have made life difficult though I would imagine.

These little birds are diurnal, meaning they are active during the day. Active during the day normally means you sleep at night. Not these little guys, they can often be heard calling at night. Some research into this abnormal behaviour has found that it is mostly males creating this din, the presumption being it is territorial behaviour, with some of it being an attempt to impress a lady Willie Wagtail, favourite pastime of males of all species on this planet.

This research also uncovered the fact that while Wagtails normally have only one partner, some extramarital affairs occur, always in a clandestine manner (by both sexes). I can just picture Mrs Willie Wagtail waiting back at the nest with a rolling pin behind her back, waiting for the offending male to get his lumps when he finally returns.

My birdwatching guru cousin Martin O’Brien and I can both attest to the nocturnal singing of the Willie Wagtail. Each year we both spend at least 2-3 weekends up at a place called Lurg, east of Benalla. We camp on the grounds of the old Lurg primary school, long ago closed down. It is very rare to spend a night there and not have it broken by the pesky Wagtail, he literally goes on all night. At first light I drag my sorry backside out of bed and it won’t be long before my mate the Wagtail shows up, bright eyed and bushy tailed, like he just had the best most refreshing nights sleep in years. Through bleary eyes I look at him, a scowl on my face. ‘When do you bloody well sleep?” I yell at him.

A couple of years ago I worked with a Canadian guy, Alec, good boilermaker, they’re called ironworkers in Canada. He was a really nice guy, when he found out I liked birds he came up to me one day and said, in a thick Canadian accent, “Do you know those little Willie Wagtail birds? They’re my favourite birds in the world”.  He went on to explain that he had been working on a job somewhere and one of these characters would show up every day, just to make the day a bit brighter. As he went back to what he was doing I heard him say to himself, “Oh yeah they’re great little birds alright”.

Kim Wormald’s  photo of this Willie Wagtail is titled ‘Hitching a ride’ and is a common sight in rural Australia, they can often be seen on the backs of sheep and cattle, and in this case is a chestnut horse. The animal whose back is used as a perch never seems to mind and it is the perfect place to launch an attack on the insects stirred up by the grazing stock, an arrangement that suits both parties.

Willie Wagtails could be mistaken for the similar Satin or Restless Flycatcher, but they are normally found high up or in the canopy. At a pinch you could mistake Grey Fantail for a Willie, but they are mostly grey but can behave in a similar fashion, sallying after airborne insects. If you look at Kim’s photo you will see a pair of white eyebrows and this increases in size depending on the emotion he is feeling.  Check it out next time you’re copping an earful from one of these little characters, it will be very prominent.

I find myself in a constant dilemma on the issues surrounding me / my family / mankind yudder yudder! If climate change is not on the top of that list you’ve been living in another cosmos, probably with most of the politicians in Canberra, who still somehow believe money and coal will fix everything.  But you all know my feelings on that so I won’t bang on any more.

Recently I have been trying to get my head around the Lake Knox issue, complex issue within itself, just fast forward to give our bird-life the best option please. The Blue – billed Duck, endangered in this state, probably needs all the help he can get, so without weighing in yet (by next month I feel I will have more information), I would encourage everyone reading this to do the same.

The Knox environment society are backing the protest to the hilt, so I feel they would have a very credible point of view. To lose one more wetland does not seem a good option to me. Anyhow I will get back to you with my opinion next month, not that that means anything more than yours, but every contribution helps to determine the best outcome.

Des Palmer