The songs of lyrebirds sung to glaciers
A post-human understanding of anthropogenic landscapes- bookending the 2020 summer fires between the sonic memories of the lyrebirds and the reflective properties of ice.
Considering these two landscapes, connected now by the ash from the fires, embedded in glacial ice. To reflect one within the other; the birds narration of its bush, echoed to the treeless NZ alpine ridges.
The Balangara / Dyagula/ Menura novaehollandiae/ superb lyrebird sings the song of many birds. Across the areas where superb lyrebirds are found, each valley is home to a lek, group of up to a dozen male lyrebirds that come together to compete in the breeding season with song and display. Each lek has a colloquial song, a team song or a dialect they practice solo in the off-season and compete with, when breeding.
Lyrebirds are excellent mimics, performing a sonic recollection of the birdlife in the forest around them; the ‘unreliable’ narrators of the bush. Like all good storytellers their sounds create worlds. Their mimicry skills are profound, and research indicates that other bird species can’t tell the difference between lyrebird mimicry and their own species’ calls.
We are contaminated by our encounters…’ writes Anthropologist Anna Tsing
In Autumn 2020 I mapped the post-fire lands of the Blue Mountains, on Gundungurra and Darug country, and the growth of the new anthropogenic, post-fire forest.
The Black Summer fires of eastern Australia had burned over 512,000 hectares of trees, killed or displaced 3 million animals and took 3 months to fully contain.
Each month I returned to the same site, documenting the changes. In the first months after the fires the bush was silent. (More about that project:HERE)
Ants were the first to return, then reptiles, then months later, the songbirds. I met a lyrebird one winter morning, practicing its song while foraging alone amongst the once burned and yet now reshooting trees, turning over the deep leaf-litter under the bushes for insects and grubs.
The Song Historians: working hypothesis. With thanks to Kevin Searle, Tamara Brooks Venables, BIL, Sonja Ross for footage. Footage collected on Dharug + Gundungurra custodial lands.
Long-lived, mating annually, the female lays one egg; a cryptic avian calculation for species survival. Lyrebirds live in temperate rainforest lands and 50% of lyrebirds along the east coast NSW were lost in the 2020 fires; either burned or subsequently starved. There is insufficient data to know how this impacted the lost leks and the sonic memories of the valleys that they held in their songs.
At some point I had read that in the 2020 bushfires peak, ash from east-coast fires was blown across the Tasman Sea and covered the Southern Alps of New Zealand/ Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. The mountains were covered a dusky pinkish colour. Like some sort of kids cartoon.
The forests of the lyrebirds, brought unasked to the glaciers of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana.
Before the fires I had undertaken a line of research, a transcontinental story about glaciers as atmospheric historians (See here: Think Like a Mountain Project)
So this new ice-bound connection between the burned forest of the lyrebirds across the ocean to New Zealand called for a new thread in the storytelling.
Sonic hypothesis 2: Found footage
They speak in terms of whiteness; of ‘albedo’, describing the reflective quality of snow and ice. Like a colourimetric indicator of entropy, it quantifies the decay in the pristine reflective new-snow appearance over subsequent days and weeks as atmospheric dust falls on it over time.
Dust from near, and far, from other continents carried on upper atmospheric rivers of air.
There is an image that haunts; a satellite image of the entire NSW coastline shedding smoke in a brownish jetstream over the Tasman. The smoke obliterates the view of the New Zealand South Island.
Researchers calculated the ash of the black summer Australian fires (2020) covered 90% of the total glaciated area of the NZ South Island. They projected the impact of the ash on snow melt across 2020 exceeded that of climate warming since preindustrial periods. An ashfall in place of a snowfall, to darken the snow.
Glaciers sit on the edge of mountains, entirely at the grace of atmospheric temperatures. Glaciologists talk about firn lines and ablation zones, to demark with almost-poetic terms the tipping point where melting losses exceed snowfall accumulation from higher up the glacier. These glaciers are like aquatic ghosts of the Pleistocene, as they follow deep-time ice-carved memories down the mountain. A frozen river formed from the weight of ice descending slowly; in fact at a glacial pace- which is surely faster now than it used to be- to an end point closer to its start than ever before. Modelling indicates most glaciers in the world will be gone within 60 years, and the histories of past atmospheres contained within their days, seasons and years of ice.
I searched, nagged contacts and scoured for clips or recordings of lyrebirds from Blue Mountains areas from before 2020. It felt necessary to archive those songs. The lyrebird experts didn’t have anything; limited funding precluded this as an area of high input research (if only lyrebirds dug for minerals instead of grubs, someone said).
I eventually found a few clips and sent them to the New Zealand researchers, along with a gopro; New Zealand was locked off pandemic-wise to everything apart from post.
Finally, in February 2022 the researchers from Victoria University, Wellington and Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Lincoln, struck camp on the saddle at the top of the Tasman Glacier/ Haupapa, along with my sound files and gopro. They were there to undertake the first measurement of the impact of Australian bushfire ash on the snow albedo: like a form of post-carbon magic; the ability of burned forest to melt snow from a distance. They had collect the fallen ash from the glacial snow two years earlier, in February 2020, worried at the time that the ash would wash away, but felt strongly that it required further study. At the heart of every good scientist is a speculative artist.
Glacial snow isn’t just frozen water. It contains extremely hardy micro-organisms, living in, under and on the ice. Snow algae are one of these classes of extremophiles, existing in a sporulated senescence in the ice until they sense a slight increase in temperature from seasonal change, or even from dust or ash increasing the surface temperature of the icepack.
As they wake and replicate, they express a red pigment, astaxanthin, which absorbs light across a wide spectrum and heats the snow around the algae, providing a tiny amount of meltwater for further algal replication; a colour-led micro-terraforming. Sometimes called watermelon snow, or pink snow, one of the researchers says it means that the last glacial ice is predicted to be pink.
In their study, the researchers sprinkled titrated amounts of Australian bushfire ash onto demarked circular patches on the glacier and measured the resultant albedo and temperature changes through the snow pack.
They took snow and icecore samples over time to further model the impact of the albedo change on snow algal growth, to identify whether the colorimetric effects are additive; brown and pink, on melting snow. The data analysis is due late 2023.
At the end of the study and before they packed up their equipment and tents, the researchers played the songs I had sent on their phone; the songs of lyrebirds were indirectly sung to the glacier.
Their mimicry of Australian bush birds rolling from the mountain’s peak, down the snow and rock valleys, followed by the unique lasergun-like sound that lyrebirds make and nobody can pinpoint. I wonder if lyrebirds make this peculiar sound as a shortcut to identifying each other in the bush, when every lyrebird sounds not like a lyrebird, but like any possible range of birds. To be continually sonically camouflaging can be a problem that requires an innovative avian acoustic solution.
Being New Zealanders, the researchers also cheekily added something else; the song of a Kia they had recorded, and they played that also, down the rocky valleys; the Kia calling back to the lyrebirds.
Leks: More accurately described by animal behaviouralists as ‘lek-like’.
Unreliable narrators: Term coined by Dr Anastasia Dalziel
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, 2015. Princeton
Anastasia H. Dalziell*, Robert D. Magrath, 2012. Fooling the experts: accurate vocal mimicry in the song of the superb lyrebird, Menura novaehollandiae. Animal Behaviour 83 (2012) pp. 1401-1410
Anastasia H Dalziell, The ecology of vocal mimicry in the superb lyrebird, Menura novahollandiae PHD Thesis, 2012. fig 3.1 p 75.
Penelope Cain, Saturn’s Breath (2019-ongoing) is a molecular level mapping of the outcome of mining silver for Australia’s first local colonial coin, through to the Quelccaya glaciated icecap, Peru. As part of this a 3D render of the lifespan of Quelccaya through to 2080, with Dr Christian Yarlequé Instituto Nacional de Investigación en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña INAIGEM, Peru
Nicolas J. Cullen et al, 2017. An 11-year record of mass balance of Brewster Glacier, New Zealand, determined using a geostatistical approach. Journal of Glaciology (2017), 63(238) 199–217
Wei Pu et al, 2021. Unprecedented snow darkening and melting in New Zealand due to 2019-20220 Australian wildfires. m5GeSdc; May 4, 2021;15:15
Dr Christian Yarlequé, personal dataset, Instituto Nacional de Investigación en Glaciares y Ecosistemas de Montaña INAIGEM, Peru
With thanks for support from Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute
With thanks to the staff and organisation of Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Lincoln