Last Friday afternoon I was catching a bus back home to Clifton Hill from nearby Carlton. Sitting across the aisle from me was an elderly man reading what I assume was the latest issue of Wingspan, the magazine of Birds Australia. What caught my attention was the photo on the page the man was reading of two birds in particular, both honeyeaters: the Regent Honeyeater (Xanthomyza Phrygia), and the White-plumed Honeyeater.
In terms of population levels the two birds couldn’t be more distinct from one another: the rather spectacular Regent Honeyeater is one of Australia’s rarest, and most famously rare, birds, while the small and unassuming White-plumed Honeyeater is a bird which has thrived in the urban environment. Given the great richness of Australian birdlife the successful adaptation to city living is a rarity: only a handful of native birds have achieved it, and not surprisingly four of them are honeyeaters: the Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata), the Brush Wattlebird (Anthochaera chrysoptera), the Noisy Miner (Manorina melanocephala, a particularly invasive and aggressive species), and the White-plumed Honeyeater. Honeyeaters, as their name implies, feed largely on nectar from flowers, and happily for the birds those same flowers are valued by humans for their aesthetic appeal. The street I used to live in, in North Carlton, was lined with eucalypts, planted by the local council, which flowered all year round, and in winter in particular the trees were full of White-plumed Honeyeaters and another nectar-feeding bird, the Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus).
Honeyeaters are perhaps the archetypal bird: ask most people to sketch a bird and I think the chances are good that the animal they’ll depict will look a lot like a honeyeater. They’re slender birds, with gently downcurved beaks that are long but not too long; elegant tails that are long, but not too long. Australia in particular is rich with honeyeaters: there are dozens of species on the continent, living in every habitat that can support flowering trees (which, given the adaptation of Australian trees to even the harshest environment, is most of them).
On a more personal note, honeyeaters were the birds that were responsible for drawing me into the world of bird-watching, when I was a cild. The first bird I can ever remember feeling a drive to identify was an Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris). I can still remember the sensation of seeing this rather beautiful bird darting in and out of the Banksias in the garden of my parents’ holiday house near the far south coast of New South Wales, and instantly wanting to know what it was. As it happened I didn’t find out for quite some time: this was before the internet, well before Google, and the only bird identification book available to me was an outdated, two-volume edition of Slater’s classic field guide to the birds of Australia, a generally excellent book except for a bizarrely inaccurate depiction of that one bird I so wanted to identify, the Eastern Spinebill. As children do, I took my inability to identify the bird as a sign that I just may, somehow, have found a new species, and I dreamed of the glory and fame that must surely follow my extraordinary discovery. When I finally managed to identify the bird, my disappointment at having been beaten to it was more than made up for by the similar thrill of discovery, the delight of having seen something, and searched for it, and found it and identified it. The thrill of matching my observations to a small part of the sum of human knowledge.
After that I identified many more honeyeaters on my parents’ property: Lewin’s Honeyeaters (Meliphaga lewinii), White-eared Honeyeaters (Lichenostomus leucotis), White-naped Honeyeater (Melithreptus lunatus) New Holland Honeyeaters (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae). On one memorable occasion, after coming back from a walk through the forest on a wet day, I stood on the front veranda of the house delighting in the sight of a Crescent Honeyeater (Phylidonyris pyrrhopterus) in that same Banksia, while my father patiently pulled leeches of my legs.
My first sighting of the White-plumed Honeyeater was somewhere quite different, however: in the carpark of Sydney International Airport. I wasn’t flying out, I don’t think, but going to meet someone – probably my mother. If that was the case then I would have been with my family. Anyway, regardless of the circumstances I remember my great surprise at seeing a native bird in such an urban environment. At that stage I hadn’t lived anywhere other than Canberra, and anyone who’s visited Canberra will know that although it’s a city the phrase “urban environment” does not really properly describe it. It’s a mixture, really, of forest and city; remnant bushland and plantings of exotic trees separating and obscuring the houses, shops, museums and civic monuments. Canberra has an abundance of birdlife, but that’s because their habitat was never completely removed. Sydney, on the other hand: those White-plumed Honeyeaters at the airport, making do in the straggly eucalypt saplings in the carpark: they, or rather their ancestors, must have had to learn afresh how to live in their environment.
As I’ve noted, honeyeaters do well from the human preference for flowering plants – but I don’t know why of all the many species of honeyeater, the White-plumed Honeyeaters in particular have so readily adapted. In undisturbed environments they favour more open forests than some other honeyeaters which are otherwise found within the same geographic range, so perhaps that makes them more amenable to relatively sparsely treed cities. They’re not particularly common in Canberra, or perhaps it’s just that their presence is not so obvious amid the general avian hubbub of that city. In Melbourne they’re abundant, so much so that even now as I type this close to midnight I can hear their piercing, whistling song resonating in my mind. The honeyeaters as a group are quietly pretty rather than startlingly beautiful – and the White-plumed Honeyeater is near the drab end of that spectrum. Still, like most of its kin it has a precise elegance, and if it catches your eye when you’re in the right frame of mind, and you happen to notice it silhouetted on a power-line, or hanging upside-down to probe at a flower, or darting through foliage to chase off a potential rival, you’ll probably find yourself admiring its muted yellow and green and grey plumage, its dark and watchful eyes, and the two neat stripes of black and white at its cheeks which some generous soul, obviously bewitched by this dainty little bird, deemed grand enough to dub “plumes”.
Image sourced from http://en.wikipedia.org