A flash of red caught my eye. Perched on the top wire of the fence between the bush reserve and the lightly grazed paddock was a small bird, its scarlet breast contrasting with the white below and the black of its head and back. A white stripe down the side of its wings and an obvious white spot above its beak completed its showy costume. Further along the fence another bird perched. Its size and white markings were similar, but its back and head were grey, and its red chest less vibrant. The birds stared down. The duller bird dropped to the ground, caught a small flying insect in the grass, and returned to the fence to devour its prey.
The birds reminded me that it was winter. They were a pair of Scarlet Robins, the brighter plumage belonging to the male. They breed in forests during spring and summer and move to more open areas at lower altitude in autumn, remaining there for winter. When nesting, they prefer larger patches of forest with shrubs, fallen branches and leaf litter. In the cooler months they are more likely to be found in areas with ungrazed native grasses. They catch insects and spiders from the ground in colder months, and from bark and leaves when living in forests.
The male and female bond for life and defend their territory during the breeding season. They usually choose the fork of a tree as a place for the female to build a cup-shaped nest of bark. She covers the outside in sticky cobwebs. Inside, on a lining of animal fur, feathers and sometimes soft plant fibres, she lays about three pale green, blue or grey eggs with brown splotches and one pointed end. The female sits on the eggs and the young chicks, while the male feeds her and the babies. As the babies grow, the female leaves the nest and assists with the hunting. Many chicks don’t survive to fledging. Threats include snakes and predatory birds such as currawongs. Cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, including robins’ nests, with the young cuckoo being the only survivor of the brood. The robins will lay two or three batches of eggs in one breeding season, then leave for their winter residence. I notice the Scarlet Robins’ arrival, usually in April, but I never notice their departure as the weather warms. One day I realise that I haven’t seen them for a few weeks, and I know they are gone until next autumn.
Occasionally another robin visits us in autumn. It is the Flame Robin. The male has a brilliant orange-red front, and dark grey back. His posture is more upright than the Scarlet Robin and he is slightly larger, but otherwise they look similar. The female is brown. She has white stripes on her wings, but no red on her chest. These robins are sometimes seen in small flocks in winter. In his springtime breeding habitat, the male sings and displays his feathers, puffing up his flame-coloured breast, or his white markings, to defend his territory from other Flame Robins, and from Scarlet Robins, which sometimes breed in the same area. He may also fly at intruders to scare them away. The populations of both species of robins are declining, possibly due to loss of habitat and more predators, as birds such as currawongs thrive in landscapes created by people.
Another robin that is becoming scarcer is the Jacky Winter. With a grey back and white underneath, it is harder to identify than the other robins. It also sits on fences looking for food. As it dives to the ground or swoops through the air chasing flying insects, it spreads its tail, showing the black central feathers and white edge feathers that are its most obvious distinguishing feature.
Another colourful, but less seen visitor to our area, is the Eastern Yellow Robin. The male and female both have a grey head, olive-green lower back and are bright yellow underneath. They live near the coast and further inland and are found in many different habitats. Their habits are similar to the other robins.
Most of these birds are eye-catching with their bright colours. They are often seen perched on a fence or in a tree. They seem undisturbed by people, so it is possible to walk slowly and quietly closer to them, and watch them as they feed. Some are curious enough that they may even come closer to look at you.
Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.
Photographer Bernie McRitchie’s love of nature was born of visits to the Bannockburn bush as a teen. Trained as a horticulturalist and now working as an arborist for Wyndham City Council, many readers would be familiar with Bernie’s iconic photos which grace the pages of several nature groups on Facebook. Bernie’s most recent contribution to the photographic literature is via Dr Stephen Debus’s 2017 book Australasian Eagles and Eagle-like Birds, published by CSIRO Publishing. Along with his good friend David Whelan, he provided the first confirmed, successful breeding record for the Black Falcon in Southern Victoria.
Banner image of a Scarlet Robin courtesy of Rowan Mott.