Who doesn’t love a Willie Wagtail? That ubiquitous chatterbox, that neighbourhood gossip, that social butterfly flicking his fail feathers from side-to-side in fantastic flirtation.
Unlike the elusive whipbird or the plain clothed thornbill, Willie is a man-about-town, thriving on attention. Anywhere there is a suitable perch you’ll find him, snapping at the air for insects or fluttering to the ground for bugs. An opportunist, one of his favourite possies is on the back of a cow, standing proud like a rodeo rider, taking advantage of the wave of grazing disturbance.
As a kid my dad would hoist me up every spring to peer inside their grass and spider web woven nests where the featherless necks of the chicks vied for the incoming worm with pitiful bleating.
The chirruping and chattering of Willie is a constant melody in our collectivebackyard bird orchestra, the soundtrack that accompanies our days and doings.
And sometimes our nights.
Known affectionately as both the morning bird and the nightingale, many a night when the moon is full and fat I have woken to the lone call of Willie’s ‘sweet little pretty creature.’
Ornithologists say that Willie makes use of the night to consolidate his territory, when there is less competition on the airwaves and no parental duties of feeding and nest protection.
While I’m sure that’s true, when I occasionally rise to see his head tipped towards the moon in full song I swear we are both in mutual appreciation; his white belly lit up beneath his shiny black cloak feathers like the moon against the night sky.
This summer though, Willie seemed to be everywhere in a new way.
A soggy afternoon on Jimmy’s Beach, Hawks Nest, I was the only one on the long curve of the bay, except for Willie. Diving into the seagrass shallows, Willie flew in to perch on my clothes, vigorously wagging his tail like a dog worried for its owner.
Breast-stroking down the river, Willie stalked in, flitting from seat to seat just ahead of me and chirping madly, leaving twig like tracks in the mud mere metres from where I swam.
But it was an encounter last week that made me double take. Rushing out the back door to the car, Willie swooped right in front of me. Fanning out his feathers, he hovered momentarily at eye level with a gaze that demanded me stop, look and listen.
I have heard Aboriginal folklore call the Willie Wagtail a messenger bird, a postal service of secrets delivered across time and space.
What could this old friend of a bird be telling me? Perhaps it’s just that - to stop, look and listen a little more. Not to take the familiar for granted, but to appreciate what is in front of me; this small spectacular bird, this anonymous person smiling at me in the street, this rice in my bowl, this moment.