Category Archives: Honeyeaters

Woodland musing

For a while now, decades in fact, I’ve been an interested observer of landscape change in the Newstead district and more generally across the box-ironbark country.

Three overarching observations:

  1. Significant areas of farmland, prime grazing land last century, are now largely de-stocked and actively regenerating – especially with eucalypts and native grasses.
  2. This farmland sits within a mosaic of  ‘bush’ – forest and woodland, much of which is public land in varying states of recovery. The legacy of repeated clearing (many areas were harvested for timber multiple times since the 1850s) is often reflected in regenerating eucalypt thickets where the stem density may be 10 to 100 times greater than it was pre-clearing.
  3. Bird populations know what’s going on … there are distinct patterns of species richness and abundance that reflect the past history of land use and management.

What is happening in central Victoria is not unique, in many parts of the world agriculture is retreating from areas where it was once pervasive, a phenomenon described as land abandonment. In my experience the greatest variety and numbers of birds tend to be found in areas where the original fabric of veteran trees has triggered natural regeneration of understorey plants and this is happening where farming practices are changing and land is recovering with or without direct intention.

The three habitat images below exemplify this:

#1 woodland bird habitat (private land) – large old trees, natural regeneration and patchiness – ideal for Jacky Winter, Hooded Robin, Diamond Firetail and Swift Parrot

#2 woodland bird habitat (public land) – woodland thicket with fair to middling understorey – not as bird rich as #1 but has potential … just wait 100 years or so to see this realised.

#3 woodland bird habitat (private land) – woodland thicket with minimal understorey – maybe a Brown Treecreeper or two and the odd Scarlet Robin … this too has potential but would most likely benefit from some active management (fire, thinning, planting etc) … and time!

There are layers of complexity too – while #1 woodland bird habitat is good it could be even better with replenishment of missing shrubs, grasses and forbs.

Jacky Winter, Green Gully, 5th September 2020. This species does best on the margins of intact bush and open country – especially abandoned farmland.

#1 – Woodland bird habitat ***

#2 – Woodland bird habitat **

#3 – Woodland bird habitat *

Eucalytpus regrowth is an important part of the story – it is ideal breeding habitat for a range of woodland birds, such as the Yellow Thornbill (pictured below), Mistletoebird and Weebill. Black-chinned Honeyeaters also enjoy this habitat.

Yellow Thornbill nest in eucalyptus regrowth

The tail end of a Yellow Thornbill

Peeking out from the beautifully woven nest of grass, moss and synthetics

Black-chinned Honeyeater

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To read more about land abandonment here is an interesting article from the Yale School of the Environment.

Why mornings are best

I wish I was more of an early riser … sadly I’m not.

On the rare occasions that I make the effort it is almost always richly rewarded. Yesterday was a foggy start in the Muckleford bush as bird calls rang out around me – Eastern Yellow Robin, Pallid Cuckoo, Black-chinned Honeyeater and Golden Whistler were stand-outs.

As the first rays of sun broke through the fog, a few birds … including the Fan-tailed Cuckoo pictured below, soaked up the warmth before beginning their morning foraging.

Birds are almost always easier to observe and photograph at this time of day, allowing a closer approach and often performing some interesting antics.

Tunnel Track, Muckleford State Forest, 5th September 2020

Dew-laden web

Galah and nest hollow

Fan-tailed Cuckoo

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Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Wattlebird factory

Our home garden is essentially a wattlebird production line.

The combination of Yellow Gums (offering a healthy supply of nectar and lerp) and denser shrubs (offering multiple safe nesting sites) are the reason we have numerous families of Red Wattlebirds in the home garden year round.

Nesting commences in early August and during spring the constant calls of begging Red Wattlebirds can be heard from dawn until dusk. The youngsters gather together on exposed perches while the parents convey bills full of insects at regular intervals to the eager mouths.

These two recently fledged nestlings were being fed every few minutes, right on dusk.

Red Wattlebird … almost fledglings, Wyndham Street Newstead, 4th September 2020

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Young and adult Red Wattlebirds

Each bout of feeding is somewhat chaotic

Tufties breeding

Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters are into the swing of breeding again.

This species typically nests at low levels in shrubs, or as in this case, a coppicing eucalypt. They make beautifully woven nests from grass and cobwebs, sometimes incorporating wool into the suspended basket.

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Muckleford State Forest, 5th August 2020

The nest was suspended amongst the foliage of a coppicing Red Box

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Two eggs … so far

Things are starting to move …

There is a definite hint of spring in the air with a run of sunny days this week.

In the Rise and Shine the birds are responding. Eastern Yellow Robins are keeping close company and I’m sure the first nests of the season will be underway. Likewise, Peaceful Doves are showing early signs of courtship activity.

Peaceful Doves, Rise and Shine Bushland Reserve, 15th July 2020

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Eastern Yellow Robin

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Also observed yesterday afternoon: Spotted and Striated Pardalote, White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike, Fan-tailed Cuckoo, Black-chinned Honeyeater, White-naped Honeyeater, Fuscous Honeyeater, Brown-headed Honeyeater, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, Little Eagle, Crimson Rosella, Eastern Rosella, Grey Shrike-thrush and Brown Treecreeper.

A winter bird

While they can be seen locally in all seasons, for me at least, the White-eared Honeyeater is a winter bird.

It is found throughout the box-ironbark country, but also further north in dry mallee environments as well as tall forests along the Great Divide and all the way to the coast. Often regarded as sedentary I certainly see it in greater numbers during the cooler months, perhaps birds from further south enjoying a winter break!

It is a curious species and will often join mixed-species feeding flocks of insectivores – the individual pictured here was one of a trio with a group of Brown and Buff-rumped Thornbills, a Grey Fantail and some Weebills that had congregated in a patch of Hedge Wattle.

White-eared Honeyeater, Clydesdale, 20th June 2020

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Brown Thornbill in Hedge Wattle

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Well, I’ll be blowed

After years of missing out on Grey Butcherbirds locally it was terrific to finally see one recently – courtesy of Darryl O’Bryan.

Lo and behold, on Sunday morning another one turned up … this time in our home garden!

I first spotted it sitting on a verandah table from whence it proceeded to feed on some ripening pomegranate fruits nearby. The resident garden birds – honeyeaters and wrens especially, became quite upset and it was ultimately driven off by a Red Wattlebird.

What is causing this ‘influx’ of Grey Butcherbirds? I suspect this is a prime example of how chance is a key factor in bird observations – they have been here all the time in low numbers and patchily distributed across the landscape. Occasionally we bump into each other!

Grey Butcherbird (immature), Wyndham Street Newstead, 14th June 2020

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The reaction of one of the resident New Holland Honeyeaters

Note the distinctive hooked bill

The grey-brown upper parts indicate an immature bird

Clearly a different individual to the one seen recently at Pengally Lane

On the cusp of winter

This pair of Scarlet Robins was part of a mixed feeding flock, observed yesterday afternoon in the Mia Mia.

They were in the company of Buff-rumped and Striated Thornbills, Weebills, Golden Whistlers, a Grey Shrike-thrush and a White-eared Honeyeater.

We are on the cusp of winter – here’s hoping it’s a wet one.

Male Scarlet Robin, Mia Mia Track, 30th May 2020

Female Scarlet Robin

Not in the same plane I’m afraid!

Handsome as …

Black-chinned Honeyeater and Yellow Gum

The Black-chinned Honeyeater Melithreptus gularis is one of my favourite woodland birds.

I hear their distinctive call on most outings but close encounters are not that common. A small party near Mia Mia Track earlier this week provided some nice views. The birds were actively foraging in Yellow Gum and while I observed one capture a moth, their main target appeared to be lerp. A number of images below show one of the birds patiently probing for prey between two ‘stitched up’ leaves, with lerp inside the cavity.

One of the benefits of going slowly in the bush is that birds will often become comfortable with your presence and resume ‘normal’ foraging at close quarters.

Black-chinned Honeyeater, Mia Mia Track, 22nd April 2020

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Short stories

Spreading Wattle Acacia genistifolia is a wonderful autumn flowering species – it’s peaking at present throughout the Muckleford bush. Most specimens are sparse, with few flowers – not this one.

Spreading Wattle, South German Track, 13th April 2020

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This Yellow-footed Antechinus emerged from a crack in the trunk of a Grey Box. It paused for a moment in the sunshine, revealing a nasty ‘growth’ on its side. It looks to me like a blood-engorged tick, or perhaps a skin tumour. It’s a bit early for this species to be in physiological die-off after its winter mating frenzy.

Yellow-footed Antechinus

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This White-browed Babbler was one of a party feeding in a clump of Box Mistletoe. The mistletoe was also of interest to an aggressive flock of Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters, the blossom is a key source of nectar at this time of year. The babblers were quickly ejected as the honeyeaters reclaimed the bounty.

White-browed Babbler

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater in Box Mistletoe

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater in Spreading Wattle