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24th April, 2006

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At last: our Eastern Spinebill has arrived

I was beginning to get worried. The month of April has only a few days left, yet “our” Eastern Spinebill hadn't made a showing. Usually it arrives by the middle of April to sup on the nectar from the flowers of some of our autumn-flowering native plants, particularly our three Correa lawrienciana bushes. It visits our yard regularly until about the middle of August before vanishing to find greener pastures. Some years it brings a friend. (Of course, I'm not sure if “it” is the same bird year after year — since birds don't generally live many years, the original bird has no doubt been supplanted by younger versions.) While walking out to my office a few minutes ago pondering what to write about for this week's blog I heard a familiar distinctive sound — the high-pitched, cheery call of the spinebill. I still haven't seen it; give me a chance, it's only been a few minutes — but there's no mistaking its characteristic “tink”.

Don't you just stand in awe of the regular, seasonal movements of migratory and nomadic of birds? Let's reword that: don't you feel inspired to prostrate yourself before Jesus Christ, without whom none of these miracles was called into being.

So far as I'm aware, our spinebill is a nomad, moving around the same general area in tandem with the ever-changing flow of nectar. Just a couple of weeks ago I saw the first of this winter's cattle egrets. Unlike nomadic spinebills, the egrets migrate into Tasmania from mainland Australia for the winter months. (Actually, they only started migrating to Tasmania about ten years ago.) I'm not sure why they come here as you would think they would head north into warmer territory than south into colder Tasmania! (Here in the southern hemisphere it's the opposite way around from what most readers are accustomed to — we are heading into winter, and north is warmer.) One day I'll to some research to find out what's going on.

Almost everywhere in the world has its species of migratory and nomadic birds, some of which perform feats to make Marco Polo blush. Some migratory waders laugh at the eight thousand miles separating Australia from Siberia, while the “mutton bird” performs an annual figure of eight flight across the Pacific Ocean between Alaska and southern Australia. Curlew sandpipers will fly 2000 miles from Melbourne in southern Australia to Broome in

northern Australia in two-and-a-half days then, following a brief respite, three thousand miles to southern China in three days, followed by another thousand plus miles to northern China in a couple more days. Unbelievable.

Probably hundreds of species of birds move between Africa and Europe on an annual basis. Many of them fly straight over the Mediterranean while those species, such as storks, that must catch a free ride by soaring on thermals follow land all the way, going round the eastern end of the Mediterranean.

North America is blessed with special flyways along which many different species travel in their annual north-south migration. We once lived in Huntington, WV, which is situated smack dab on one flyway. Twice a year the traffic of warblers, orioles and I can't remember what other types of birds gave our family endless hours of joy while sitting on the deck with binoculars. Oh yes, then we had the Evening Grosbeaks that spent the winter gorging on the seeds we provided only to vanish again in springtime. In Texas we used to marvel at the sight and buzzing sound of flocks of common nighthawks wheeling around high overhead in the gloaming just before dark while en route to and from South America. And then you have the tiny motes of feathers called hummingbirds which head out to sea along the eastern seaboard of the USA to travel to Central and South America.

How do they do it? I mean, not only do they have to find their way, but they also have to ensure they have enough energy reserves to fuel the trip. Ornithologists continue to puzzle over the navigation abilities of birds. How do Adelie penguins, for example, find their way across hundreds of miles of featureless land and water to return to their nests? And how do birds know when to go? Who says to them, “Come on, guys, let's get out of here”? The phenomenon should blow the cobwebs out of the minds of those who imagine that these staggering feats are natural spin-offs of a primordial explosion.

Of course, birds aren't the only migrators. Polar bears do it, and so do sea turtles. Caribou do, too. Some tuna swim around the world on a regular basis. Salmon and eels migrate between open ocean fattening fields and spawning grounds in small streams miles inland, adapting their physiology in the process to cope with changes from fresh to salt water. And, and…

Ah, I hear the spinebill again. Music to my ears.

Now you can see why I love to see "our" spinebill every year

And here's what it dines on


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