Sunday, 12 August 2012

Earning Its Stripes


This week we felt the faint yet unmistakable signs of spring. Bird calls we hadn’t heard over winter, a strengthening of the light and a lengthening of the days, the scent of pollen in the air, and a strange desire to get things tidy.


A New Holland Honeyeater in a grevillea bush 
I’m sure we’re not the only animals to feel it. The bushes nearest our front door, always attended by birds, are now bursting with them, particularly honeyeaters. The birds come in waves to feed and perch and ready themselves for nesting. They range from our two biggest honeyeater species, the yellow and little wattlebirds, through the New Holland and crescent honeyeaters, down to the tiny eastern spinebills.

Size doesn’t seem to determine success here, and nor does the pecking order remain fixed. Over many years we’ve watched shifts in the seeming dominance of species. But when it comes to frequency of visits, it’s the three small species that dominate around here.

At times crescent honeyeaters, with their v-necked markings and ee-gypt ee-gypt calls, have been the most frequently seen and heard. Eastern spinebills, with their striking red eyes and sibilant tseep tseep-tseeep call, have flashed in and out of view quite often. I’ve often hoped for an unhurried look at their stunning livery and gracefully curved bill, but they always seem the flightiest and shyest of the trio.

New Holland honeyeaters, they of the black and white stripes and loud chip-chip-chipper-chip calls, have been the reigning premiers here over the last few years. They have always seemed the cockiest, busiest and noisiest, using their slight size and weight advantage to harry other birds, including some considerably bigger.

From my casual watching, I have gradually built up a kind of character profile of Phylidonyris novaehollandiae. Words like “bully”, “pushy” and “aggressive” may have snuck in there alongside less pejorative terms like “determined”, “adaptable” and “successful”.

After today I wonder whether, in true Aussie fashion, I’ve been treating this honeyeater as an avian “tall poppy”. And have I been “barracking for the underdog” (ie the other birds) as a result? It gets worse. I should also admit that I’m not a huge Collingwood Football Club fan, and that the New Holland’s markings are very reminiscent of the Collingwood jersey. Prejudices have been based on flimsier matters.

But this morning, while trying to photograph honeyeaters, I had the opportunity to observe some New Hollands up close over thirty minutes or so. Initially my prejudices seem confirmed: their stripey jerseys were everywhere, and the other birds seemed to be pushed to the margins. Certainly they were harder to capture on film.



Some acrobatic nectar sipping from a New Holland Honeyeater 

After about ten minutes the birds grew used to my presence, and seemed to become quieter and more settled. And then I noticed one large New Holland perched inside a grevillea bush. I quickly snapped a few photos, thinking it would flit off quickly, as all honeyeaters seem to do. It sat there. I snapped a few more – none of them good, as the bird was deep within the bush. And then I realised that was the point. This was a New Holland at rest. All that flitting around, all that feeding acrobatically on nectar, plucking insects out of the air, impressing mates, seeing off rivals, protecting the bush from “invaders”, must take its toll.

At first I expected it would fly away after a few minutes. A few became ten, and still it sat there. It took a foraging crescent honeyeater to disturb its extraordinary stillness. Some things cannot be tolerated! Our New Holland clapped its wings and chased the interloper off to a nearby kunzia bush. And given the amount of nectar there – and everywhere else in our nearby bush – I didn’t feel the need to barrack for the crescent.



Kunzia baxteri in bloom

Come to think of it, none of these birds asks to be cheered on. Short of making sure they have plants for food and shelter, and protection from our pets, there’s not much they require of us. Of course on our side, how immeasurably wonderful is it to have birds sharing these places with us?
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