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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Lichen-mouth Honeyeaters; Lichenostomus

In my last posting I featured, in passing, a Grey-headed Honeyeater that I only half-facetiously described as a small dinosaur. 

Perhaps by way of making amends, I thought I’d showcase today the genus that this species belongs to. Honeyeaters comprise the largest family of Australian birds (74 species, or over 10% of all Australian species); Lichenostomus is the largest honeyeater genus, whose 18 species represent nearly a quarter of our honeyeaters, including some of the most familiar ones. The name, meaning ‘lichen mouth’ comes from the Purple-headed Honeyeater L. cratitius of the southern mallee woodlands, which has a curious little mauve wattle at the gape. I can’t you offer a picture of it, but I do have snaps of many of the others (of varying quality!) and I’d like to introduce them to you. 

[Since writing this posting, taxonomists have done dramatic things to this genus, such that its 18 species have been reduced to just two (Purple-gaped and Yellow-tufted), and the genus split into 7! Without at presuming to criticise the work - it was based on molecular studies, and I have no expertise there - I always marvel at the very different approaches taken by bird and plant taxonomists. The bird people are very thorough in sorting out subtle groupings within larger ones, while the botanists tend to use a very broad brush - or large barrel - indeed, creating huge taxa of related plants without, it sometimes seems, a lot of nuance. Anyway, that's just me. Rather than do away with this posting altogether, I've opted to retain it, noting that many of the species still form a natural grouping, even if not a genus. I have inserted the new genus names in brackets - that doesn't imply I'm rejecting the changes though.]

Let’s give the Grey-headed a chance for a reprise appearance. Although not very familiar to city bird-watchers, it occupies a huge swathe of the arid inland, in sparse woodlands and hummock spinifex grasslands. 
Grey-headed Honeyeater L. (Ptilotula) keartlandi, in Grevillea wickhamii, Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon), central Australia. The name commemorates George Keartland, a Melbourne Age photographer and typesetter who apparently held down the job mostly to finance his natural history interests, which included two collecting trips to northern Australia in the 1890s, where he collected the type specimen of this handsome bird.
(Several of the more familiar genus members are in the same new genus,
as the Grey-fronted.)

By contrast, one of the commonest honeyeaters in the south-east is the Yellow-faced, abundant in coastal and mountain forests alike. In late autumn in Canberra flocks ranging from a few to hundreds pass noisily overhead on still sunny mornings for a few weeks, funnelling along the river corridors to destinations along the warmer northern coasts. In spring they slip back much more discreetly.
Yellow-faced Honeyeater L. (Caligavis) chrysops, south coast New South Wales.
Another member is perhaps the most widely familiar honeyeater to any camper in Australia, especially along the inland stream lines dominated by River Red Gum Eucalyptus camaldulensis. The White-plumed honeyeater is gregarious, voluble and pugnacious. It’s something of a relief to get to the far north of Australia, where suddenly the White-plumeds give way to other, more sedate species along the creeks.

White-plumed Honeyeater L. (Ptilotula) penicillata, a name which compares the
white plumes to a paintbrush. Milang, South Australia.

One of those honeyeaters which replaces it in the tropics is the White-gaped honeyeater, whose cheery chewy calls in the pandanus thickets and streamside scrubs are a pleasant change from the White-plumed’s constant carping.

White-gaped Honeyeater L. (Stomiopera) unicolor, Darwin.
Another close relative which takes over from it across much of northern Australia is the similar Yellow-tinted Honeyeater.
Yellow-tinted Honeyeater L. (Ptilotula) flavescens, Edith Falls, Nitmiluk NP, Northern Territory.

Another tropical lichen-mouth is the lovely Yellow Honeyeater, sometimes known as Bush Canary for obvious reasons. It is found only in north-east tropical Queensland.
Yellow Honeyeater L. (Stomiopera) flavus, Ingham, north Queensland
a close relative of the White-gaped.

At the other end of the colourfulness scale (in this genus at least) is an often overlooked bird which is nonetheless not uncommon in Canberra woodlands and along the east and south-east coasts. Fuscous Honeyeaters are something of a favourite of mine, perhaps in part because they do seem often to be forgotten.
Fuscous Honeyeater L. (Ptilotula) fuscus, Jerrabomberra wetlands, Canberra. This one was busily eating lerps, the sugary coating of scale insects which suck the sap from leaves. The insect wants the scarce nitrogen compounds, and to get enough sap for its needs it must disposed of unwanted sugars in the form of a shelter; these in turn attract birds, who favour both roof and inmate.

A rarer visitor here is the lovely Yellow-tufted Honeyeater, which turns up sporadically where native trees or shrubs are flowering; it is commoner nearer to the coast. The critically endangered Helmeted Honeyeater, the Victorian state emblem, is a sub-species of Yellow-tufted.

Yellow-tufted Honeyeater L. melanops, Jerrabomberra wetlands, Canberra.

The White-eared honeyeater on the other hand has a remarkable habitat range in south-eastern and south-western Australia, from coastal heaths to subalpine Snow Gum woodlands to the dry inland mallee scrubs, where I first met it. One spent much of last winter in our garden, favouring the big Banksia tree that dominates; I eagerly await its 2013 return.

White-eared Honeyeater L. (Nesoptilotis) leucotis, Jindabyne, New South Wales. A feature of this very handsome bird is its ringing melodic ‘chock’ call, like a guitar chord.

Another lichen-mouth shares its inland woodland and mallee habitats, but doesn’t follow it to the east coast (or Canberra); it does however reach the arid coasts of western South Australia and southern Western Australia. Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters can be abundant where eucalypts are flowering.
Yellow-plumed Honeyeater L. (Ptilotula) ornatus, Nundroo, far western South Australia. Like the Fuscous Honeyeater above, this one too was collecting lerps from the leaves, this time of mallee eucalypts. As for its name – well it is certainly ornate (I love that show-off yellow plume) but favouring one in the family with such a name can only lead to arguments...

And, almost finally, one of the most head-scratching names ever applied to an Australian bird – the Singing Honeyeater. About the most I’ve ever heard it manage – and I’ve heard a lot of them – is a slightly peevish ‘prrrit’. Yet the great, and generally sober, John Gould, who named it, waxed lyrical about its singing prowess. Goodness knows what he was hearing (or imbibing). Don’t get me wrong – I love Singers, which I meet anywhere across the vast dry inland, as well as on the arid southern and western coasts, but it’s not for their melodies.

Singing Honeyeater L.(Gavicalis) virescens, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. Gould actually called it sonorus, not realising that French ornithologist Louis Vieillot had beaten him to it by some decades with a name that means ‘greenish’. Maybe slightly closer to the mark than ‘singing’.

Similar to the Singer and closely related (yes really, they are in the same new genus) is a pair of east coast tropical and sub-tropical species. The Varied Honeyeater Lichenostomus (Gavicalis) versicolor is found in tropical Queensland (and north into New Guinea) south to about Townsville, where it is replaced by Mangrove Honeyeater L. (Gavicalis) fasciogularis. It occurs south into northern New South Wales.
Varied Honeyeaters, Cairns Esplanade.
We’ll end where we started, with the obliging Grey-headed Honeyeater feeding in the Watarrka grevillea. How could I refuse a bird that looks this menacing?


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