The magnificent male
 

To witness the magnificent, awe inspiring display of our beautiful male Superb Lyrebird as he performs on his mound is undoubtedly the most amazing and memorable sight to be seen in our Australian bush.

 

 

 

Sheltered by tree ferns and bracken, surrounded by scrub and trees with light filtering through the leaves and covering his dancing stage with dappled light the male Menura enters.  His long orange and silver tail trails behind.  A few delicate pirouettes and then up goes the magnificent tail to fan out in a mass of colour and shimmers.  With tail quivering and body rotating his beak opens and the glorious, clear notes pour forth.  As each bird from our bush is perfectly mimicked the body and tail move in actions to suit the “music”.  For half an hour the concert continues --- dancing and singing his way through his repertoire.  Time and again the program is repeated --- dance, sing, shimmer and twist.  Suddenly the tail drops, a few “tidy the mound” scratches and he leaves his stage.  The silence is profound.  But wait --- he returns as though in answer to his encore call and the performance is repeated.

 

The witnessing of this sight rarely happens by chance.  The male lyrebird is extremely shy and because of his natural habitat (leaves, twigs and ferns) it is almost impossible to approach remaining unheard and unseen.  If a person lives within a reasonable distance from an area holding lyrebirds it is possible, with dedication, perseverance and patience to be in a position to witness this amazing spectacle.  However, to increase the chances of success it is necessary to understand a little of the birds’ ( both male and female ) behaviour.

 

Each male lyrebird has a firmly established territory of up to a square kilometre and all his activities are carried out within these borders. These borders do not appear to be governed by man made structures such as fire trails, roads, fences or tracks but rather use those made by nature. These generally include creeks, water courses, gullies and ridges.

 

 

During June, July and early August the male will build several mounds within his territory. These vary in size with the average being about 1.5 metres square and up to 40 centimetres high and are made by the bird using his extremely powerful feet and claws to clear the patch of its grass and ferns and then scratch up a pile of soil. These mounds are used solely for display and the placement of these within the area makes an interesting, (and indeed beneficial), study for the lyrebird observer. Some are always in the lowest parts of the area in heavy fern and scrub because it is here that food is most plentiful as well as being the most popular haunts of the females. Others, and these include the male’s favourites, are always scattered around the highest points. These “higher up” mounds, generally in the more open forest, are favoured for two reasons…

because of their position they tend to dry out more quickly than those in the naturally damp gullies and lyrebirds do not like working in mud which is how their mounds finish up after heavy rains, and,

 more importantly,

the bird’s voice will travel further and so be heard by more females which is the whole aim of the exercise…attract , and mate with, as many females as possible.

 

 The hens drawn to the mounds have already built their nests and are now doing the rounds to find the best father for their offspring. It seems the most successful male will be the one which manages to out call, out mimic and out dance his rivals. This seeking of the best male can take up to 3 weeks before the one egg is laid.

So June and July are the most active for the male and the most profitable for the lyrebird observer.

 

 

The time spent in display on each mound varies and it is not uncommon for one concert to last up to 40 minutes. So, with the time spent on each mound plus the bird moving from one mound to the next, it is quite possible for the circuit of five to six mounds to take more than a full morning. Generally, there is a midday break, of a couple of hours, in activity until about 2.00 p.m.  Displays begin at dawn, (indeed earlier than that on moonlight nights), and continue until dusk. As the mating season gains in intensity so too does the regularity and intensity of the concerts.

 

The male protects his mounds fiercely and any interloper, (usually a young male without a yet established territory), is forcibly sent on his way. On the only occasion I witnessed this happening, when the aggressive male returned to his mound, he did not sing or dance but rather pranced around with his tail down and his neck feathers raised.

 

Last year’s mounds are rarely re-used the following year but the new mounds are always in close proximity to the old ones. In the one year in which I marked 13 old mounds only one was re-used the following year.

 

With knowledge of the mound’s placements, and observation of the males order of use, along with his favourite times of the day, the lyrebird observer should be able to determine when and where to erect the hide and which time of the day would be best to be behind the screen of greenery.

 

Then comes the dedication, perseverance and patience !

  The most practical and convenient type of hide is one which is simply made on site and is only a wall of greenery placed no closer to the mound than 10 metres. If two saplings are growing in a suitable position all that is needed are a couple of ropes tied tightly between them and greenery hung on the ropes. The taking of leafy prunings does not harm the native bushes…indeed in our gardens at home don’t we all prune our natives for them to retain their shape? A complete “blockout” is not needed…simply a need to break up the outline of the watcher. It is worth remembering that the lyrebird has a keen sense of smell so the use of strong insect deterrents is not advisable.

 

The selection of which mound to watch is important and is based on 3 criteria…..

 i) from which direction is the male likely to approach? It is essential to have your hide well outside the connecting paths the bird will take when going from mound to mound. He does not work the mounds in a set pattern so be prepared for him to come from left or right .

ii) from which direction will give the best view? It may be beneficial to trim a few branches or ferns to enhance the view. Minor clearings definitely do not upset the lyrebird unless the mound itself is disturbed.

iii) scent drifts upward so it is best to be higher up the ridge than the mound.

 

Because of the natural habitat the lyrebird frequents, time spent behind the hide is generally extremely enjoyable. In the waiting periods it is not unusual to be entertained by smaller birds .. particularly the eastern yellow robin and the white throated tree-creeper,  both of which are most inquisitive and cheeky. If there is a concert going on at a nearby mound the watcher also has the wonderful auditory entertainment plus the nerve racking anticipation that must be endured. Suddenly the concert at the other mounds stops. The whole bush is silent. You wait. The silence is deafening !  Is he coming your way?

Patience !    Perseverance !    Dedication !

 

The male lyrebird always walks into each mound, ( never flies),  and quite often he just seems to appear out of nowhere. His first activity is always a bit of scratching and then into the pirouette before finally starting the concert. The finish and departure is as sudden as the arrival.

 

 

Unfortunately the male lyrebird is not strictly regimented and has no true pattern in which he visits each mound so many hours may be spent in hope without reward but with observation and planning success should come and the concert curtain go up. It should be remembered that the male will not perform on the mound during high winds, (probably plays havoc with the tail display) nor during rain. Even the onset of a light shower will cause the immediate cessation of a display.

 

I have had the good fortune to hear dozens and dozens of the male menura’s concerts and have proven time and time again that each bird’s presentation is unique in some way to that particular bird. A good example of this came from the most recent bird I was studying,  (or more precisely  the bird I was trying to photograph ) . Many failed attempts to be at the right mound at the right time left me in the hide over and over again to listen to his performance from a neighbouring mound. By so doing I became accustomed to his repertoire. Indeed it was part of this repertoire that lead me to nickname him ‘Kookie “. Amongst his many near perfect renderings of over a dozen birds he always included only the first half of the kookaburra before it faded out in an unflattering croak. Each time ( and this was without exception ) this failure was immediately followed by the “par excellence” mimicking of the eastern whip-bird and then the currawong. This was as if to say,  “Oops, that’s not good but how about this for perfection?”

His recitals always carried this signature rendering…messed up kookie followed by perfect whip-bird and then currawong.

 

 

 

All performances by a male , whether on the mound or on logs, ( popular after rain when mounds are muddy ), are noted for their incredible clarity coupled with the ability to reproduce with amazing exactness the calls of so many other birds. I have noted the following calls mimicked by the lyrebirds in my area….eastern whipbird, currawong (2 voices) , kookaburra, crimson rosella (especially the male ), white-throated tree creeper ,grey shrike thrush,  lewin’s honeyeater, cuckoo, wonga pigeon, black and white fantail, glossy black cockatoo, yellow tailed black cockatoo , magpie, galah, raven, rainbow lorikeet, bell miner and sulphur crested cockatoo. I must add to this list his own “lyrebird” call plus the many small bird twitters that are unrecognisable. It is interesting to note that when mimicking these small birds the lyrebird actually lowers his volume to reproduce with perfection the soft twitters. An unusual part of my friend Kookie’s repertoire was the perfect rendition of the characteristic wing noise made by the wonga pigeon as it takes flight. This was not done in every concert.

 

 

As the mating season draws to a close there is a dramatic change in the male menura’s repertoire. He stops mimicking other birds and returns to his own “lyrebird” call. The activity on the mounds is not as lively and concerts are of a shorter duration. Of course, by now, the hen has established her nest and the one fertilised egg has been, or soon will be, laid.

 

The female lyrebird also has a set territory although not necessarily as regimented as that of the male’s. She spends most of her time in the lower, damper sections amongst the tree ferns and bracken. It is here that the food supply of grubs and worms is most plentiful and is easily scratched up from the moist soil.

 

Contrary to what I found in the Gippsland area where the hen usually builds in the lower, fern gullies it seems that the birds of this area prefer to nest in the more open sclerophyll forests. Further to that, they also have a tendency to use the open slopes which have a northerly facing aspect to take advantage of the morning sun.

 

The quite large, untidy stick nest is usually placed off the ground in such places as on tree ferns, in or on old stumps, in the fork of a tree, or even on a cliff or bank face. In my area I have found the most favoured place is in the first fork from the ground in  Eucalyptus maculata ( Spotty Gum ).The cosy lining is added to during the hatching with grey down feathers from the hen’s breast. If there is no egg in the nest the presence of these grey feathers indicates that the chick has fledged. The side entrance often faces down hill (especially down and over a creek), and there is always one direction from which the nest is almost impregnable. I have previously read that the same nest, if undisturbed by humans, may be used year after year. In the span of the current observations I have come across dozens and dozens of old nests and yet I have not had one instance in which an old one has been reused. However, old nests are often a good indication of a likely area in which to find a current nest.

 

Only one egg is laid and the hen is solely responsible for the hatching and rearing of her chick. Incubation takes up to six weeks and the hatched chick does not fledge for another six weeks after hatching.

 

If it is intended to erect a hide near the nest it is recommended that this not be done until the egg has hatched so as the hen will not have cause to desert the nest. She will never desert a chick .. indeed , when disturbed by human approach , she will often not move far from the nest where there is a chick and often remains in visual contact. Such knowledge assists with photography.

                         

Some interesting seasonal times are as follows—

June and July …………….. mating time.   

                                          display concerts on mounds are at their peak.

                                          hens construct their nests and begin to choose mates.

July, August, September ….. one egg laid by female.

July to October ………….... a chick could still be in nest.

September to October ……. chick may fledge. 

End of September onwards.. male goes into moult.

 

 Note: I always wondered what triggered the end of the mating season and the end of the males’ displays. In the year of this observation our district had three days and nights of quite heavy rain during the last week of July and when the skies cleared all the males ,( I had six under observation in various areas),  suddenly ceased their mimicking concerts and returned to just “lyrebird talk”. Because the termination was so widespread and universal in its timing it seemed the trigger was caused by this feat of nature. It will be interesting to watch this next season.

 

I have experienced the wonder that is the lyre bird ……..

             I have been audience to his artistry……..

             I have shared with him his piece of paradise ……..

             I have been honoured and yet I have been humbled ……..

             But above all I have been totally captivated by

                            “The lure of the lyrebird”

Endnote                            

These observations of the superb lyre bird were carried out within the Moruya State Forest on the far south coast of New South Wales during the period from May to September  2006 .