Royal visitor

Down here in my skybowl I have had isolated visits from birds I don’t usually see – just dropping in for a peek at how we poor groundhuggers live.

But I have never had a Wedge-tailed Eagle come calling at the house.

Last week this one flew into my yard and landed in a very large and spreading stringybark tree, just up the hill. The photo was taken from my verandah steps.

It was only there for about five minutes. I don’t know why it came so low and why it landed; the magpies usually hunt them out of our air space quite promptly.

When it took off, I was in awe of its skill in managing those huge and deeply flapping wings between the branches before it could get up and away.

I count this as a royal visit because to me the Wedgies are the kings here, as I wrote in this chapter of Mountain Tails.

Sky lords

A pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles lord it over these mountains, often accompanied by a third, presumably their young one. They circle overhead on the air currents, barely moving a wing. At times so high as to be mere floating specks, at others low enough for me to see their pale hooked beaks and the colours on their plumage; at heights in between, dark silhouettes of the distinctive wedge-shaped tail and the up-curved swoop of wings.

They seem to be the natural kings of the upper sky, effortlessly surfing the invisible currents, crossing from ridge to ridge, watching the clearings in the valleys far below for a rabbit or other small mammal. Their main mode of flight is thus elegantly languid, appearing to be almost lazy, yet it is absolutely economical, perfectly poised, ready to bundle themselves into an aerodynamic lightning bolt to hurtle earthwards after the prey detected by their extraordinary eyesight.

That eyesight is equivalent to mine — if I was using binoculars with 20 times magnification power!

Elaborate aerobatics are also used as foreplay, to impress the female partner. She plays hard to get, feigns nonchalance, now and then surfing the air currents on her back to briefly hold ‘hands’, link claws, with her slightly smaller suitor. When she gives in, her mate helps repair whichever of their several nests they have decided to use that year. She often has two young hatch, but usually only one survives to adulthood — by killing its sibling. So we shouldn’t complain about pushy brothers or sisters; at least they didn’t push us right out of a (probably very high) nest.

For years I didn’t, or couldn’t, hear their plaintive calls, so didn’t know they spoke, but perhaps it took me a few years here to rid my ears and head of the ingrained city-noise and city-ness. Their call doesn’t fit the image of a fierce and mighty hunter. My bird book describes it as ‘pseet-you, pseet-you’; it’s a very thin piping. When I first connected it to them I thought one must have been hurt, somewhere in the trees below me, and the other was fretting. Perhaps when I hear it a lot it is actually a young one? Unbecoming as it is, toddler eagles might be whingers too.

Being so regal, you’d think they’d be removed from all the noise and squabble down here, but if they are the lords of the upper sky, the magpies have a clear opinion of where their dominion ends, and 6 metres above the treetops is far too close to the border.
The magpies harry them away noisily and fearlessly, like yapping fox terriers shooing a lumbering bull. Eagles aren’t good at quick evasive action and must manipulate their large wings with unaccustomed frequency to move up and out of this enemy airspace and back into their own thinner air.

Perhaps the magpies’ supremacy is not so surprising when you consider how fiercely those red-eyed black-and-white speedsters defend their nesting tribe against the perceived possible threat presented by humans entering their space: dive-bombing walkers and bike-riders in suburbs and rural towns, forcing councils to erect warning signs and people to put odd things on their heads, like ice-cream containers with eyes painted on the bases. Their swooping is mainly done as a warning and they don’t often persist if people leave the area, but, like humans, some are more aggressive than others.

Maybe the eagles are the born kings, and the magpies are the dictators who claim power and run the show on the ground. It always strikes me as odd that these same ‘bully birds’ are among our best songbirds. The last part of the Latin name of my species of magpie, properly called Black-backed Magpies, Gymnorhina tibicen, means ‘flute player’.

And I love their song as much as they seem to love warbling it.

My mother wasn’t the sort of person to go about singing much, but one song from her schooldays in the 1920s stuck in her head, found voice on her rare fine days when nothing had gone especially wrong, and thus became lodged in my own head:
 

Maggie, maggie magpie, high up in the tree,

Do you whistle early in the morning cool,

To wake us up for breakfast and in time for school?

 
Why does the magpie sing, and why so beautifully, and does he do it because he must, or because he wants to, or both?

This whole question of ‘why birds sing’ is freshly and fascinatingly discussed in the book of that name by an American Professor of Philosophy and Music, David Rothenberg. He came to Australia to play with lyrebirds — and I mean play as in musical instruments, for he’s a clarinettist who likes to jam with birds, to improvise around their songs. I met him at the 2008 Watermark Writers’ Muster in Kendall, New South Wales, where I heard him perform with birdsongs he had recorded. You can listen to some of his lyrebird sessions on the book’s website.

But not all birds have songs; many only have calls, with specific meanings and for practical purposes. I mean, we all talk but we don’t all sing. In my case, it’s out of consideration for my neighbours that I don’t.

Eagles don’t sing either, but then they seem to be serious creatures, and I’ve been fairly close, such as when I’ve surprised one on the road, busy with the mush of red flesh and grey fur of roadkill, once a wallaby. Or landed on my track, where something must have caught its eye to bring it down to earth, but had escaped.

Close up, the immense bulk of their feathered legs is a shock, bringing with it the reality of how much weight they can carry. Driving back one day, in sight of home, I saw an eagle fly low across the track in front of me, heading through the forest and down the gully, and carrying an obviously long-dead, partly disintegrating wallaby in its claws. It must have been difficult to manoeuvre between the trees and gain height at the same time, and it dropped the body. No doubt it came back later when I was safely out of the way.

I’ve never seen more than two together on the ground, but apparently if there are more around a carcass, they feed in twos and the others wait their turn! This isn’t manners, it’s being smart enough to know that sharing works better than wasting time and energy fighting amongst themselves or being greedy. I think we’d call that sustainability.

And they do mostly feed on carrion. Until the fairly recent past, farmers believed they preyed on sheep flocks, but it has now been realised that they only go for dead or dying lambs that are already down. Thousands of wedgies were killed annually by farmers, bounties offered in some states, and the mighty bodies strung on fences as warnings. Now they are protected all over Australia.

When they spread their wings to take off, which is hardly a quick getaway, I see they span more than a metre. What power they must exert to become airborne! Once one took off from the track in front of me, on a low trajectory that went right over my head. Needless to say, I ducked. And squealed.

When my daughter was small, her hair blonde like the tussocks and she about the same height, an eagle came so low to investigate that I worried it might think her a plump rabbit, swoop down and pick her up. It easily could have.

I think of that whenever they swoop low over me now: looking into an eagle’s eye is not a friendly experience. But then royalty never would be too familiar with flightless riff-raff like me, I suppose.

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