Wednesday, 16 November 2011

L. m. gippslandicus, Gippsland Yellow-tufted Honeyeater

On a recent visit to Wirilda Environment Park (at the foot of Tyers State Forest), I was reminded of the first time we spotted the bright yellow plumage of a pretty yellow-tufted honeyeater, taking a drink from the shallows of the Tyers River a few years ago.
We had never before laid eyes on this beautiful species, and were very excited to be able to photograph them once we had observed and listened to them for some time. We quickly became familiar with their voice and calls, and flashes of bright yellow had us immediately enthralled.
At the time, we were unsure as to their exact species name, so  naturally we went straight to the books when we arrived home to identify these intriguing birds. We visited this spot regularly but usually went straight up the walking tracks along the steep embankments either side of the Tyers River into denser forest, and rarely bothered with the large lawn picnic and carpark area.  We had discovered a beautiful swimming area about an hour upstream and preferred to take the kids there for a swim instead of the deeper, popular swimming spot near the car park.  On the day we were there for just a short visit however, we limited our bird watching to the wetlands adjacent to the picnic and carpark area. It was then that we actually noticed the colony of Yellow-tufted honeyeaters that had been there all along!

 Another spot we go for swimming and birdwatching is Bluepools, just out of Briagalong. A walk further upstream away from the picnic area and main swimming hole is a delight for both scenery and birds. At one point the further side of the riverbank is a sheer cliff drop.  We were rapt to see the cliff ledges were home to a Peregrine Falcon family, yet nearly as exciting-for us anyway-were the colonies of both White-naped honeyeaters and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters. We observed and heard them in the flowering acacias along the streambank and in the tops of various Eucalypt trees in the upper riparian zone. 
Blue Pools

Blue pools 

Gippsland Water Dragon juvenile, also spotted at Blue Pools, Freestone Creek 

Blue Pools
Almost a year later, a return visit to Wirilda had me wondering about the sub-species of the Yellow-Tufted Honeyeater we were observing, having read more on the critically endagered sub-species L. m. cassidix since visiting the related recovery project displays at Healesville Sanctuary recently. Was it possible the Wirilda colony was of the sub-species cassidix?  I attempted to identify and differentiate the sub-species in the photos I had of both cassidix and  melanops from as much information as I could glean from my book collection and online resources, but it proved very difficult. Finally I got in touch with the 'Friends of The Helmeted-honeyeater' to report my observations and photos, and to seek their advice.
Friends of the Helmeted Honeyeater
Here's an excerpt from the lovely reply I received:
"...your observations come from areas that...are in the known gippslandicus subspecies range. Individuals of this subspecies can have a helmet; though, usually smaller than that of cassidix (Helmeted Honeyeaters). There is overlap in overall body size between small cassidix and large gippslandicus individuals. Other features that we look at while distinguishing between subspecies are more obscure and require a very good view of the bird. Adult HelmetedHoneyeaters have what we say is an distinct crown line - the gold colour of the head finishes abruptly and the olive-grey colour on the back 'takes over' - this occurs on the back of the head, near where the head joins the neck. However, in immatureHelmeted Honeyeaters and adult and immature individuals of the other 3 subspecies, the two colours merge gradually to produce an indistinct crown line. AdultHelmeted/Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters have red-brown eye colour, whereas, immatures of the various subspecies have chocolate brown eyes. We know that gippslandicus occur at Licola, near the junction of the Macalister and Wellington Rivers. So, the Blue pools/Briagolong birds are not far away from Licola (about 50km). The Tyers River/Wirilda birds are not far from known gippslandicus sites on the La Trobe River at Noojee and Willow Grove. Your photos generally show what appear to be gippslandicus, based on helmet size. The one bird that I thought looked more like cassidix than the other individuals was the photo showing the bird in the canopy of a eucalypt - possibly Manna Gum. The helmet did seem more pronounced and the colour of the bird richer yellow. But, I could not say for certain and in reality, it is more likely to be gippslandicus. Please send through some more photos if you take some more. I'd like to visit the sites one day. We have DNA-sampled many sites where there are gippslandicus individuals. But we have not visited the 2 sites you have been seeing the Yellow-tufted HoneyeatersThank you very  much again Cindy for informing us of the birds you have been watching and your photos too. I guess at this stage we are saying that the birds are most likely to be of gippslandicus subspecies. I am interested to know if you see any signs of breeding too. Happy birding! Regards, Bruce. Bruce Quin Senior Scientist - Ornithology Helmeted Honeyeater Recovery Program. "
 I was very pleased to receive such a detailed reply, particularly as it contained information on how to identify the sub-species. I went out that same day to observe what is most likely the gippslandicus sub-species of this honeyeater and attempt to capture some more photographs of them.
 I could hear and see the birds clearly high up in the eucalypt trees lining the river, but unfortunately they were too fast  and too far away to capture on camera this particular day. One bird however, kept flying over  to a Calistemon close to the wetlands area, watching me very closely indeed. Another watched me from the lower branches of a nearby tree, while the first bird gathered nectar from the blossoms of the Calistemon. I made a video of the birds in the gum trees, but I wasn't able to capture any of them on film. It did however, successfully record the sharp warning calls of the birds. Next time, I will return at a better time of day and with good light in which to try taking some better photographs of the beautiful L. m. gippslandicus species.
 video with audio of their warning call
feeding on nectar of Calistemon blossoms

such a shame the auto-focus in this photo captured the detail behind the bird, not the bird itself....

I'm watching you!

but I'll pretend to be part of the tree...

yes I'm looking right at you!

Various eucalypts and other vegetation in the riparian zone of the Tyers River, upstream of the Tyers Pumping Station. The birds are often in the top storey of these tall trees

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