National Geographic : 1955 Jun
Lyrebird, Australia's Meistersinger 849 A Silver-voiced Bird with a Lyre-shaped Tail Sets the Forest Echoing as He Sings for His Mate-and Eavesdropping Humans BY L. H. SMITH With Illustrations from Photographs by the Author ST IMOTHY" stood on his earth mound deep in Sherbrooke Forest, spread his - tail feathers into a shimmering fan, and began to sing. In a clump of tall ferns a few feet away I crouched quietly to watch the dramatic display. He was in the midst of his song and dance when an aircraft passed, more than a mile overhead. He paused, cocked an eye upward, raised his topknot, and stalked away with ruffled dignity. Timothy hated planes. Yet for nearly 25 years this particular lyre bird tolerated human intrusion into his do main, the thick, damp woods in the hills 20 miles east of Melbourne, the best-known habitat of his species. Lyrebirds, so called because their tail feathers curve gracefully into a form suggesting a Greek lyre, live only in Australia's eastern and southeastern high lands.* They are about the size of domestic hens; ordinarily, they do not fly. Many American soldiers will remember with pleasure meeting His Majesty Timothy. For about 15 years I was one of his devoted admirers. During that time, I was fortunate also in finding many others of his kind and learning their fascinating ways. Female Who Wouldn't Pose Except in rare instances of straight-out luck, he who would see a lyrebird in the wild must search diligently, and he must usually expect disappointment. I remember well my excitement, more than 20 years ago, when I saw my first. I was walking down Sherbrooke gully, and I had my camera with me-just in case. Sud denly a dark brown form streaked over the ground ahead of me and up a slope. It van ished almost before I could realize it was a lyrebird. Then the chase began. The going was rough, the hill steep, and I breathless. Holding the carrying strap of my camera in my teeth, I crawled on hands and knees up the bank. Abruptly, I saw my quarry directly in front of me. My heart beat faster. It was a female, and only a dozen feet away. She scratched vigorously for worms, apparently oblivious of my presence. As quietly as possible, I edged closer-ten feet-eight feet. "Now," I thought. "This is the moment!" But she moved on a few paces. Cautiously I followed. I tried to dodge little twigs and bracken which might obscure the picture. It was going to be a perfect photograph. I was young then. At last I found myself on one end of a rotten log with the bird on the other, about eight feet away. Carefully I focused the camera, held my breath, and-Mrs. Lyrebird trotted off down the gully, leaving me literally out on a limb. Many Hunts, Few Pictures This was only one of a series of bitter dis appointments. Trying to photograph the fe male lyrebird is exasperating enough; to get the male in front of a lens is even harder. A few successes, however, have made the cam paign worth while. Furthermore, the sheer pleasure of rambling through Sherbrooke is reward in itself. Heav ily timbered slopes alternate with dells where streamlets gurgle after winter rains. Tall mountain ash trees rise majestically on flying buttress bases; there are musk trees, and in springtime acacias turn the forest gold with beautiful blossoms. Here one may find wallabies, bandicoots, wombats, possums, and wood mice, as well as innumerable birds. The black cockatoo, the kookaburra, the currawong, the harmoni ous thrush, the whipbird, the rosella, and the delightful yellow-breasted shrike robin are just a few. Nor would the list be complete without mention of the pink robin, with his deep-pink breast and sooty-blue body, making a pretty picture as he flits in and out of the green ferns. Sherbrooke Forest has many moods. Some times it is heavy with silence, sometimes vi * See "Beyond Australia's Cities," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1936.