I’m sure that New Holland Honeyeaters are the most abundant species of bird in Sydney. They may even be the most numerous of our native animals, although Garden Skinks and Eastern Brown Toadlets would probably give them a run for their money.
New Holland Honeyeaters are especially common in coastal heath and woodland. One of the features of the species is that they spend at least as much time hawking for insects as they do probing flowering scrubs for nectar. New Holland Honeyeaters have short rounded wings that give them remarkable agility and the ability to snatch flying insects from mid air. They take large prey such as damselflies (see Wildlife in the sandpit, 30/03/2105) but most of the insects they catch are only a few millimetres in length. I’ve seen them with a dozen tiny midges plastered onto the edge of their bills. I suspect they store them this way before feeding their chicks.
They are one of my absolute favourite photographic subjects with their striking black, white and yellow plumage and predictable behaviour. New Holland Honeyeaters set up on a perch overlooking an open area where they can swoop after insects, often above a creek, gully or along the edge of a rock shelf. I’ve spent hours exploiting that predictability in an attempt to get sharp images of the birds in flight.
Having spent lots of time observing the species it has been a bit of a surprise to realise that there are a couple of major aspects of their behaviour to which I’ve been completely oblivious until the last few weeks.
The first of those unexpected behaviours is the ‘rumble’. The honeyeaters tend to spread out when hunting for insects. Several times this winter I’ve seen a wave of honeyeaters flying over the heath to converge on a single bush. Sometimes they simply spend a minute or so screaming at one another, but other times it gets more physical and they fall to the ground in a tumbling, brawling mass. The entire commotion only lasts a minute or so before they bolt back to their favourite perches.
During these social rumbles some birds are exerting dominance over others, but I have no idea whether it is a way of confirming a pecking order, selecting breeding partners or an entirely different function in honeyeater society. What it clear is that the honeyeaters do interact as a flock, even if it is one that only coalesces for a handful of moments each day.
My second surprising revelation about the New Holland Honeyeaters involved the end of the day. I generally prefer watching wildlife in the early morning when the light is at its best, but over the last couple of weeks have I ended up on the coast at sunset on a few occasions. Most wildlife activity quietens at sunset as the diurnal species settle down for the night. What I discovered was that New Holland Honeyeaters continue to hawk after insects long after sunset until the very last of the light fades away. This last burst of hunting allows them to take advantage of the intensification of insect activity at dusk.
Along the Kurnell coast dead branches for fires more than a decade ago poke above the heath to provide perfect perches for hunting honeyeaters. I found a patch where several were darting after high flying insects. The light was far too low for a proper exposure, but what it did offer was the chance to face west and silhouette the birds in outline against the glowing sunset.
The first time I saw the (almost) nocturnal honeyeaters was one of those sunsets where the sky turns to gold. The experience had me hooked. It was technically challenging photography, made all the more enjoyable by the unexpected circumstance. There’s always something to learn about even the most familiar species of Sydney wildlife.