Tongan Whistler

If only I could upload audio—this bird sings three dashing trills, followed by the whistling equivalent of a pole vault, a high peak then a plunging fade: tweet tweet tweet tweeeooop, the bird book might say.

The sound was an early-morning, or on-a-hike, or as-the-dusk-falls constant in Vava’u. While this whistling bird may be generous with his audio track, getting a glimpse is more of a gamble. This photo is the product of our braving below spider webs and between mosquito swarms to follow his shrill, watching him skitter between branches, finally igniting the shutter when he decided to pose his ebony hood purposefully above his sunshine breast.

We saw a female while hiking in Hunga. Her feathers were a muted brown, but she sang the same striking song.

Dominic taught me to whistle. Some years ago, long before sailing the seas entered our imagination, when I spent my working hours singing my fingers as I steamed the toole for toddler couture and infant layettes. It was often boring, selling children’s clothing, and I needed a hobby. Something that didn’t require gear, or hands, or brainpower, just something to whittle the hours.

And so I’ve practiced since—during tedious teaching moments or long car rides, when ski lifts broke and we stared at snow 20 feet below, while I varnished, anytime I’m sequestered in the galley for hours. I challenge Dominic to guess what tune I’m whistling now. He never can.

Pass the time, my whistling does, but an expert songbird I am not. I’m lucky to sustain a soprano squeak that irks ear drums far more than carries melody.

Staring into the Tongan bramble, searching for the four inch tall source of this whistler’s siren song, I think I found my tune. Their opening notes are built from my shrill, repetitive repertoire; their final plunge so desperate any novice could charge a final burst of air with enough desire to get there.