Searching for Spotty- the lure of the legend of Sherbrooke Forest
In my family, ornithology meant lyrebirds. Not long before I started school we moved to the market town of Croydon, then just beyond the fringes of suburban Melbourne. The Dandenong Ranges were our back yard – too close when bushfires swept through in the summer of 1962 and my father joined the firefighters and came home late, blackened, with his eyebrows singed. In late autumn and early winter, however, the mountains were cool, friendly and at peace. Dad and I would rise at 5am, long before dawn, and creep around a chilly and dripping Sherbrooke Forest with sticky black soil clinging to our hands and knees.
Ornithology meant being quiet, listening, searching for ‘Spotty’. I could never quite work out how my father knew which of the birds we heard was Spotty, except that we seemed to follow the loudest and clearest calls. Usually we would find him in a clearing, foraging in deep leaf mould with his long feet. Sometimes, if we were really lucky, he would throw his long tail over his head and dance.
My father, like so many enthusiasts before and since, never tired of the antics of the lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae. He never noticed if the day was cold or wet. Much has been written about the beauty of the lyrebird’s tail, but the fascination of this bird for him was its almost-human personality. With large bright eyes adapted for dark forest life, and teasing calls, a master of mimicry and ventriloquism, Spotty lured us into thinking like a bird. If we could wriggle into a position where we could watch for a sustained period, we could observe the tricks of his trade. He would be here– but his call was over there. Whose call? My favourite was his eastern whipbird imitation, but it could equally be a bell miner or one of the many scratchy little calls of as-yet-unidentified ‘little brown jobs’. Spotty was an ornithological schoolmaster. As he worked through his mellow repertoire, Dad would whisper to me the names of the birds Spotty was imitating. The sounds were not all bird calls. He did a splendid breaking twig, too – possibly the noise he associated with us.
Learning to live with people
The lyrebird is secretive, but not always shy. It takes the trouble to bury its discarded feathers and drop the faecal sacs of its young in streams to be washed away. Yet its bold encounters with the human species have given it a special place in the popular imagination. A mutual fascination for lyrebirds and people emerges from many of the curious lyrebird anecdotes recorded in the ‘Stray Feathers’’ columns of early Emus. A gang of men building a road into Walhalla, east of Melbourne, in 1907 were favoured with a regular ‘building inspector’ – a male lyrebird who capitalised on the grubs and worms disturbed by the works.
Many early reports expressed concern about the lyrebird’s habit of nesting so close to the ground. ‘In Southern Gippsland foxes have become so numerous that all ground nesting birds are in a fair way to extinction,’ the Australian Naturalist reported in 1906. ‘It is to be hoped that before the last of [the lyrebirds] fall victims to Mr Reynard, they will learn to build out of reach.’ LC Cook at Poowong in South Gippsland recorded that indeed lyrebirds did learn- they built their nests higher and higher when fox numbers increased.
The idea that this bird could ‘learn’ where to place a nest was supported by its ability to learn sounds. It was well known traditionally for its double calls. Many of the Aboriginal words for lyrebird pick up on the double call, including golgol in the Newcastle area and buln buln in West Gippsland (after which a small town is named). The lyrebird was a quick learner of new sounds. There were anecdotal reports of it imitating knapping (chipping stone), chainsaws and even the three blasts of a timber-mill whistle. One bird caused havoc when it imitated the mill’s three-whistle sequence in its own ‘double’ format, inadvertently ringing out the six-blast signal that was reserved for reporting a fatality.
Lyrebirds provide an excellent motivation for ornithological excursions, at least in the eastern states, because they are active in late autumn and winter, a time of year when other birds tend to be at their least interesting. Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra all have lyrebirds within an easy drive of the city and the (introduced) superb lyrebird is an attraction of Mount Field national park, near Hobart.
Lyrebird habitat conservation has been a particular concern because of the birds’ proximity to large and sprawling cities. Isobel and Harold Bradley and other members of the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group are some of the many voluntary enthusiasts who have supported conservation work through banding and observing over the years. In 1998 the Sherbrooke group, with a dozen or so members, spent 1,000 hours surveying lyrebirds and their habitat in 377 visits to the forest; they produced 233 written reports of sightings, all located with compass bearings. This group continues to be ‘the eyes and ears of the forest’ for Parks Victoria.
After many years of decline, lyrebird numbers are at least stabilising through predator-control programs directed at foxes and feral cats. Indeed, when the Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group celebrated 60 years of action for lyrebirds in 2018, the signs were promising, with increasing chick-survival rates. But the severe storms of successive La Niña winters since then pose new threats.
Spotty was not just Spotty for my family– he was a Melbourne institution from the 1940s to the 1960s. He was part of the folklore, famous well beyond the local Sherbrooke Lyrebird Survey Group, and starred in a television documentary, Dancing Orpheus, in 1963. Spotty lured many into Sherbrooke Forest. He was the reason to visit Sherbrooke Forest for generations of parents and children. His dates are recorded- 1942-64, as are those of his predecessor, Timmy (1927-53). There is a lineage of ‘famous’ personally named lyrebirds in this forest.
The proximity of his haunts to a growing city made him famous, but also vulnerable. In 1964, Spotty disappeared. Although he was very old, there were suspicious circumstances- my father murmured about vandals and shots being heard in the area. Along with much of Melbourne, our family went into mourning on learning of his disappearance. I was seven years old when I heard of the tragedy. His death marked the end of an era.
(News Source -Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by Times Of Nation staff and is published from a www.theguardian.com feed.)
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