One of the greatest attractions of bird-watching is the surprise factor. Surprises may include sighting unusual or rare species, aberrant behaviour or plumage, out-of-habitat appearances, or unusual calls. Sometimes the surprises are spectacular – e.g. when a rare species is seen, but more often the surprises are more subtle but just as satisfying!! Whilst rare or unusual sightings are obviously incredible highlights, it is our observations of the behaviour of “core” or “marker” species that allows us to monitor the health of a location/vegetation association, and these observations are the “bread and butter’ of our environmental birding on Moorunde.
Amongst the core species on Moorunde are a number of honeyeater species, including Singing and Spiny-cheeked, which are present throughout the reserve in practically every habitat type. The occurrence frequency for both species is well over 90%. If the occurrence of either species dropped to 80%, for example, we would want to investigate!!
Other honeyeater species are fussier and will be normally limited to a habitat type or types.
Yellow-plumed honeyeaters are a good example of a species generally very much limited to a preferred habitat. Yellow-plumed honeyeaters were previously known as Mallee Honeyeaters, and were well-named, for the species is almost inevitably confined to Mallee woodland. This is, in all probability, due to the fact that, at almost any time of the year, one or more of the 4 or so Mallee eucalypt species in the reserve is flowering! Usually no need to move out of the Mallee!!
Now we can move on!
Our first summer survey was in early January 2014 and for an hour we surveyed an area in the North-east of the Twelve Mile Plain area of Moorunde that we have unofficially labelled the “Badlands”. Similar “badlands” are, in fact, common throughout the Twelve Mile Plain. Originally tall open shrubland with scattered Myoporum trees, native grasses in these areas were depleted by the late 19th century rabbit plague. This left most of the scattered Myoporum, but almost totally removed native grasses and shrubs. Sheep also grazed the native grasses, but for many decades it seems that some of these grasses were left for the wombats. After the sheep and rabbits were removed in the 2000s, a significant influx of kangaroos occurred, and the grasses came under further grazing pressure. Two further events then added to the changing nature of the landscape. Onion weed arrived due to lack of competition from the native grasses, and blanketed the ground. Desperate wombats scraped away the ground surface in their search for other food sources, mainly Thread Iris bulbs.
Nowadays, these areas are “rough” plains (you can’t drive faster than about 5 or so KPH over the wombat diggings without being shaken to pieces!!). Onion weed abounds and very occasional aged and dying Myoporum trees are evident. Very scattered shrubs have grown, the lucky ones, as most shrub seedlings are destroyed by the wombat scraping. These areas, it appears, will never spontaneously recover, but human intervention (re-seeding of grass, shrub and tree species) may be of value, and is an option to be seriously considered.
Back to the survey!!
We were pleased to find 29 species in the allotted hour (full list at end of article). The surprise was two-pronged!! One element was the number of honeyeaters to be seen and heard, and the other was the presence of Yellow-plumed Honeyeaters, well away from their beloved Mallee!! We heard their calls first and looked at each other quizzically! Why were they here, in this foreign environment, where only a few sad-looking Myoporum trees and shrubs were evident??!!
Spiny-cheeked, Singing, and White-fronted Honeyeaters were also present in very good numbers.
The answer proved to be mistletoe, which heavily festooned nearly every Myoporum in sight. The mistletoe was in full flower, and had attracted the honeyeaters, even drawing the Yellow-plumed from the Mallee! Well, we all like to try something new now and then don’t we!!
Paradoxically, the overburden of mistletoe, which brought about this pleasant surprise, is probably indicative of the declining health of the old Myoporum trees, and they may not last for long!
We will keep a sharp eye on the abundant mistletoe, waiting for berries and then Mistletoe birds to appear!!
Mistletoe birds are fascinating – buts that’s another story!!
Graham Nye and Whistling Jack (John) Endersby
P.S. – Its late January 2014, and Whistling Jack, on a visit to the area on other business, does see a male mistletoe bird!
Brown Goshawk, Crested Pigeon, Galah, Red-rumped Parrot, Mulga Parrot, Brown Treecreeper, Singing Honeyeater, Yellow-plumed Honeyeater, White-fronted Honeyeater, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Striated Pardalote, Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Weebill, Southern Whiteface, Chestnut-crowned Babbler, Masked Woodswallow, White-browed Woodswallow, Magpie, Varied Sitella, Grey Shrike-thrush, Crested Bellbird, Willie-wagtail, Australian Raven, White-winged Chough, Red-capped Robin, Hooded Robin, Tree Martin, Richard’s Pipit.