Hunt for the Lyrebird

Last week I was up in the Toolangi State Forest to go hiking with a group from the Melbourne Mountaineering Club. The trail head was more difficult to find than we expected and we ended up taking the wrong road.  It’s a bit emberrassing as members of the mountaineering club to admit our apparent lack of on-road navigation skills. Ironically enough we are better of with a topographic map and a compass than with the google navigation that seems to be hopelessly failing up in the mountains (I’ll just blame it on google to save face ;)).

As we are trying to turn the car in the shoulder of the rocky dirt road a white jeep passes us. Through the dust clouds that it leaves behind I can barely make out a flyer of tiger painting on the inside of the window. I know that painting! The last time I saw it was in South Africa. This is where I first met Steve, who was there to get inspiration for his wildlife artwork. Could this be him? What are the odds?! But before I get a chance to wave, the vehicle is already out of sight. So we continue on our way and eventually manage to find the start of our track. The trail is not that well maintained and before long we find ourselves lost again. As we struggle through the leech- infested mud streams we hear some voices in the distance. Following the sound we reach a clearing where a big group of people have gathered. What sort of party is this? And why are some guests dressed up as giant sugar gliders? It turns out this is a group of nature activists and they are protesting against the logging industry.

Then I hear a familiar voice. Could it be? I just have to make sure. “Are you Steve?” He looks surprised. “We met in South Africa” I remind him.  A smile of recognition appears on his face. “Ah that’s right, you are the poo girl! ” I’m glad that name stuck with me over the years :S Steve tells me he is living in the Dandenongs, still happily painting away and also organizing trips to Africa for aspiring wild life artists. He shows me one of his more recent paintings of a very flamboyant bird. He explains that it is a lyrebird: which I just discovered is not spelled liarbird, although considering its behavior that might be a more appropriate name.

Superb Lyrebird Oil Painting by Stephen Powell-Wildlife Artist

Superb Lyrebird Oil Painting by Stephen Powell-Wildlife Artist

On a fun note: Lyrebirds get their musical inspiration from sounds in their environment and from other lyrebirds. In 1969 a park ranger in New England National Park recorded a lyrebird song that resembled the sounds of a flute. It turned out that in the 1930 there was a flute player living on a farm adjoining the park and he used to play around his pet lyrebird. The bird had adopted some of the tunes into its repetoire and retained them after it was released to the wild teaching the song to the next generation or lyrebirds. 50 years later this population of lyrebirds used this sound that didn’t come from any other bird in the area. After analysis it turned out the songs represented two popular tunes in the 1930’s songs “The Keel Row” and “Mosquito’s Dance”. “It’s like they have a culture of song. Not everybody thinks it’s true, but quite a few scientist believe it” says David Rothenberg in and interview with New Music USA.
You see, the male lyrebird can mimic the calls of over 20 other birds. As if that’s not impressive enough, he can also perfectly imitate the sound of a camera, chainsaw and car alarm! That, I have to see for myself. Lucky for me Steve is quite the bird-nerd and he invites me to come visit him in the Dandenongs and join him on a  hunt for this illusive bird.  

Wandering through the forest I hear the calls of many different birds or is that just one lyrebird? It’s hard to tell the difference if you’ve never heard one before. Steve explains that lyrebirds mostly sing at dusk and dawn, the rest of the time they are busy digging up worms and stuffing themselves; all that singing apperantly makes them quite peckish. Next to the trail we see a lot of scratchmarks, a clear sign that the birds are definitely around. Then we hear a distinct call which Steve assures me is produced by a lyrebird. As we are bashing, as silently as possible, through the bush towards the sound I feel like I’m back in Africa trying to track down some elephant. Although this time there is no clear poo trail… Then we suddenly spot a male bird digging around. It doesn’t really seem that inspired at the moment so we cheat a bit and provoke it by playing a previous recording of a lyrebird. This seems to work and the bird starts singing 🙂 It’s not so easy to put a bird’s song into words so I have included a recording of one that Steve has made with his far superior camera 😉

I was so thrilled to have seen and heard this bird in action. Sometimes getting lost seems to pay off: two chance encounters in one week what are the odds?!

Lyrebird in action:

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One thought on “Hunt for the Lyrebird

  1. Stephen Powell

    Elephants, Africa, poo, Dutch girl, Aussie bloke, Toolangi State Forest and Lyrebirds. All pulled together in one story. Truth stranger than fiction. Thanks Tess, looking forward to our next encounter somewhere on the planet.

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