The great Pied Honeyeater Twitch!
Victoria - September 2017
The Pied Honeyeater is a nomadic medium-sized honeyeater endemic to Australia. The males are a beautiful black-and-white, with a small pale-blue patch of bare skin underneath the eye and a black-tipped tail. The females are tawny brown with white underparts, a pale greyish throat, and a streaked breast. Both genders have a long curved bill which is perfectly adapted to fit the flower of the eremophila plant (emu-bush), which is one of their most favoured food sources. The ecology of the species is considered unclear, falling under the ambiguous category of nomadic in nature. The adults weigh approximately 27 grams, where its body length is typically between 15-19cm. They produce a rather slow melodic piping with an undulating rhythm, similar to that of swung quavers in jazz music. This particular call is often described as a "mournful whistle", similar to that of a Little Grassbird. They favour both arid and semi-arid environments, though will disperse and travel great lengths of distance in years of drought as well as flooding-rains. In Victoria, the Pied Honeyeater is considered a highly irregular rarity with many patchy records, usually from late October-January. When it does appear, this is usually following an irruption inland, a drought or an incredible flowering season for the eremophila bush. With all this knowledge, you think I would have seen this species dozens of times in my life. The truth is, despite many trips, hours of exploring the mallee, inland plains, granite outcrops and coastal sandhills of Western Australia, to this day, I have still never seen a Pied Honeyeater!
At the time of printing (1987), the Atlas of Victorian birds only included 3 records for this species in Victoria - basically labelling the bird as a rare vagrant (or as an equal rarity to species such as Black-necked Stork, Wilson's Phalarope and Chinstrap Penguin). In recent years, Pied Honeyeater have remained as nomadic and unpredictable as ever in Victoria. A quick glance at eBird and Birdline Victoria show that there is on average less than 3 sightings a year of this species in the state. The summers of 2002-2003 and 2010-2012 have been the exceptions, when this species covered most the mallee district, following an unprecedented season of flowering eremophila (the Victorian species being Long-leaf Emu-bush).
As mentioned above, I have spent countless trips in the mallee searching specifically for this species (and Crimson Chat, but that's another story), without success. Even when I travelled through the outback South Australia and the Northern Territory, I was still unable to find even a single bird to add to my life list. It appeared I was cursed.
Whilst leading a Bird Tour up towards Yea on Friday, I suddenly received a message stating simply that a single Pied Honeyeater had been photographed at Goschen Reserve, a historical and known spot for this species (when they're in Victoria). The birders from North America didn't quite share my enthusiasm, but I quickly planned a trip for the following day.
At 4.00am I departed Melbourne heading north-west up past Bendigo, Pyramid Hill, Kerang and finally arriving at Goschen Reserve at 7.30am. The trip was nice and easy, stopping on briefly to see an Eastern Barn Owl and listen to a few Southern Boobook in a woodland near Terrick Terrick National Park. It was an hour or so after dawn so the birds were still relatively active. Though the skies were a brilliant summer blue, I was concerned about the forecast, as the BOM predicted some rather aggressive winds to pick up around mid-morning. Anyone who has birded in the mallee before will be aware that wind just kills the birding.
Stepping into Goschen Bushland Reserve was exciting (for about the first time ever). I, unfortunately, had never been here during the superb years of summer birding in the mallee and never really seen anything overly notable at this site. But today, you could just feel that something special was in the air. There was activity everywhere and bird calls sung from all around. As I passed through the gate a gorgeous adult female (rufous morph) Pallid Cuckoo zoomed over my head being chased by a Willie Wagtail, one of their favourite brood species. Next to me, an accompaniment of White-browed Babbler (and a single Grey-crowned which has been present since 2014) scattered through the scrub. The trees bore Mistletoebird, Yellow-throated Miner, Brown Treecreeper, Red-rumped Parrot, Singing Honeyeater and stacks of Hooded Robin. This was only the beginning!
I followed the trail up towards to now dilapidated hall, which stands adjacent to a crumbling tennis court and fence line. A Common Bronzewing exploded from my feet and rocketed off towards the grasslands, disturbing an Australian Owlet-nightjar from its morning perch. A pair of Eastern Bluebonnet chirped softly to each other whilst a whole collection of Rufous Songlark trilled and sang from the tops of trees.
I knew that if there were in fact Pied Honeyeater here, they would need something to feed on. So I rounded the once proposed townsite and heading out into the fields of Mallee Blue Flower, Inland Pigface, Desert Cassia and most importantly, Long-leaf Emu-bush. I had barely walked out when a pair of tiny little honeyeaters caught my eye. I raised my binoculars and there were 2 Black Honeyeater, another inland nomadic honeyeater that is also irregularly seen in the state. They are often associated with Pied Honeyeater so I took this as a positive omen. They were ignoring the lower scrub and instead, feeding on the flowers of the White Mallee. This, I figured to be unusual. They are known eremophila specialities like the Pied Honeyeater, also possessing the long-curved bills. But then I realised, a quick glance revealed that there were in fact no flowering eremophila, the Long-leaf Emu-bush had no started flowering. This did not bode well at all for the Pied Honeyeater.
I continued walking into the scrub searching high and low for any sign of honeyeaters (trying to ignore the copious amongst of Singing Honeyeater as I went). My phone went off. It was Tim Nickholds, who had been at the site earlier this morning before I had arrived. Despite all his efforts, he had had no luck with the Pied Honeyeater. I was beginning to worry this was going to becoming yet another Pied Honeyeater dip. Then the wind started up. Things were not looking good at all.
I performed another wide lap through the whole reserve on the north side of Lake Boga-Ultima Rd. In this time, I found the resident Peregrine Falcon that lives on the communication tower. It lives almost exclusively on Budgerigar, White-browed Woodswallow, Masked Woodswallow and Rock Pigeon - sounds like a good life if you're a raptor! Then almost on cue a large mixed flock of 30 odd migrating woodswallows appeared overhead heading directly from the north. A White-winged Triller posed brilliantly for some photos toward the southern corner before they were chased off by a rather aggressive male Mistletoebird. In all this time, I didn't have a single sniff of a Pied Honeyeater. I did however, run into at least six more Black Honeyeater.
When I was about to give up, I bumped into the superbly skilled birder Peter Lansley. He was currently on tour with Derrick Wilby (visiting South African birder) and they were trying to clean up a few of the holes in his collection of Australian birds. We had barely shaken hands when suddenly I got a call from Philip Peel. He was back on the road with Adam Fry, the birder who had found the female Pied Honeyeater two days beforehand. They had just heard it call! The twitch was back on.
We crossed the road and met the pair at the southern end of the reserve. They hadn't found the bird but were certain of the call. That was good enough to me. Phil had also called Tim Nickholds who was on his way back. When our party was assembled we descended into the southern area of the reserve near (the currently dried up) dam. Overhead another mixed flock of wood swallows passed over. The bird activity was equally as fruitful here with a migrating flock of a Black-faced Cuckooshrike seen passing through, multiple White-winged Triller and a female Red-capped Robin. Slowly we worked our way through the reserve checking every tree and piece of scrub as we went.
Soon we split up into some smaller groups and Philip charged off to the eastern side. He'd only been gone for a few minutes when we suddenly heard this flurry of things, and to our astonishment, three spectacular male Pied Honeyeater flew into the tree directly above our heads. PIED HONEYEATER!!!
Pied Honeyeater, finally! This spectacular little bird took up the place as my #689th species for Australia and #425th species for Victoria. Not bad going at all! Well we were all beyond ecstatic, marvelling like those who had just won the lottery. We had all come seeking a single female bird and had been rewarded with three adult males! They were very flighty and hard to photograph but we enjoyed their presence for an extended period of time. Most interestingly was seeing that they (like the Black Honeyeater) were ignoring the Long-leaf Emu-bush and were instead seeking their food from another source. In this case, they selected the small red berries present on the lignum and some half-blooming flowers on the Inland Pigface and the Mallee Blue Flower.
I bloody love a good twitch! The chase, the thrill, the stress and the utter lunacy of the whole affair is something that has me (and many, many others) consistently returning for that glutton for punishment. This self-serving gratification is amplifying inordinately when it all, in fact, works out the way you intended, something that we can assuredly define today's venture as.
All in all, this whole discovery is enormously exciting. At least four Pied Honeyeater (including the female from the earlier day) were currently present at this site, not to mention a pair of birds that had also been seen at Pink Lakes in Murray-Sunset National Park the day before also. This species has almost no records for September in Victoria. What can we read from this? That this year's summer season in Victoria has potential to rival the rather exceptional summers of 2009, 2010 and 2011. Anyone considering a trip up to the mallee will surely not be disappointed this season.
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James Mustafa is a birder, wildlife enthusiast and self-confessed twitcher from Melbourne, Australia. A musician and composer by trade, he has been birding, exploring nature and appreciate wildlife for all his life. Since taking up a real fascination with birds, he has soared with tropicbirds in the Indian Ocean, chased owls in North America, danced with kiwi in New Zealand and twitched everything from gulls to leaf warblers across Australia.