The lure of the bottlebrush

When I visited a farm in November to survey the birdlife, I expected a tranquil afternoon in nature. But nature had other ideas.

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Musk Lorikeet feeding in Callistemon citrinus

I walked onto the survey site to be greeted by clamour and movement everywhere. The cackling of dozens of Noisy Friarbirds filled the air with a chaotic din as they chased each other in and out of the bushes. Emerald green Musk Lorikeets scrambled through the foliage, randomly exploding into flight with breakneck speed and a sudden screech. Their young followed, calling wheezily, insistently. Wings fluttered and tails spread in an irresistible signal for their parents to feed them.

The reason for all this activity was clear. Two hundred Callistemon citrinus shrubs planted en masse 15 years ago were flowering. Actually, flowering seems too gentle a word: they had erupted simultaneously into masses of dazzling crimson spikes. The base of each flower glistened with sweet nectar.

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Musk Lorikeet feeding juvenile
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Noisy Friarbird

Crimson Bottlebrush (Callistemon citrinus) is one of the all-time great Australian bird-attracting shrubs. With two flowering seasons, in November-December and sometimes again in autumn, it becomes a magnet for nectar-feeding lorikeets and honeyeaters of all sizes.

scarlet-honeyeater-in-callistemon
The tiny Scarlet Honeyeater blends in perfectly with these Callistemon flowers.

Callistemon means “beautiful stamens” referring to the soft, colourful pollen-tipped filaments arranged in a cylindrical spike. Birds and other pollinators must brush past these to get to the nectar in the cup-like base of each flower. There’s a good fact sheet and detailed diagram of bottlebrush flowers here.

Some botanists argue all Callistemons should now be included in the genus Melaleuca (making this species Melaleuca citrina), but this is not universally accepted and many Australian botanic gardens, herbaria and native plant societies continue to use the name Callistemon until the controversial topic is resolved. Whether Callistemon or Melaleuca, they belong to the Myrtaceae family which also includes Eucalyptus.

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It’s not only birds that are attracted to Callistemon. Spotted Jezebel (Delias aganippe)

The 200 C. citrinus on the site I was surveying are among 126,000 trees and shrubs planted by volunteers in the Capertee Valley since 1994 to restore habitat for the Regent Honeyeater.* The plantings comprise only local native species, with an emphasis on eucalypts favoured by Regent Honeyeaters (especially E. albens, melliodora and sideroxylon). While this year has been generally poor for eucalypt flowering, it’s been a good year for Callistemon. The advantages of diverse plant communities are obvious.

Sadly I found no Regent Honeyeaters in that particular patch, although they are known to visit flowering Callistemons. The beautiful photo below was taken in October 2012 during a visit by members of the Illawarra Birders to my Capertee Valley cabin. It shows one of the critically endangered birds feeding in a bottlebrush I’d planted a few years earlier. What a thrill that was!

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Regent Honeyeater in Callistemon linearis. Photo © Martin Potter

* To find out more about the inspiring Capertee Valley tree planting project and how you can be involved, go to this page and click on Projects.

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