Before the migration: introducing the Yellow-faced Honeyeater

Yellow-faced Honeyeater in Leptospermum

A spectacular annual migration will begin in late March as Yellow-faced Honeyeaters start streaming northward up the coast and tablelands of south-eastern Australia. The waves of travelling birds will continue for 6-8 weeks on suitable fine-weather mornings. Already, observant birders might have noticed small restless groups moving about.

Last autumn (2016) was the biggest migration we’ve had in many years, if not in living memory. Volunteers from Blue Mountains Bird Observers have the challenging but exciting task of counting them each year as they pass through the mountains along traditional routes. On some days in April 2016, birds flew over one site on Shipley Road at rates of up to 12,000 birds per hour, the vast majority of which were Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. Further north, even larger numbers were counted at a previously unknown migration pathway in the Hunter Valley.

So let’s get familiar with this amazing little bird, the Yellow-faced Honeyeater, Lichenostomus chrysops. It’s about the size of a sparrow but more slender, with a longer tail. Its overall plumage is modestly coloured grey-brown and like most honeyeaters, its distinguishing feature is on its face. A yellow stripe bordered in black runs back from the bill and below the eye. It has a typical honeyeater’s bill, slender and slightly down-curved, with a long brush-like tongue for gathering nectar from flowers. Like most honeyeaters, its diet is a combination of nectar, insects and insect secretions like lerps.

Yellow-faced Honeyeater head shot

Its usual calls include a brisk chickup…chickup…, but during migration you’re more likely to hear its flight call: a short, simple dep used by each bird to keep in contact with the others. The combined sound of dozens calling as they fly is a distinctive feature of autumn along the regular routes.

Yellow-faced Honeyeaters are partial migrants, which means some of them migrate and some don’t. For those that do, the autumn journey takes them from their breeding areas (especially the high country of Victoria and southern NSW), to winter feeding grounds within Victoria, NSW and south-east Queensland. To complicate things, the areas with the best winter nectar tend to change from year to year. I’ll explore this phenomenon more in future posts.

Australian bird migration is complex and there are many unanswered questions. Is a big honeyeater migration like the one in 2016 the result of a good breeding season, poor conditions at the breeding areas, the amount (or lack) of flowering along the route, weather, some other factor or a combination of these things? How much do the migration routes change from year to year? How do birds find the areas with the best flowering? And what will 2017 bring? Stay tuned.

9 thoughts on “Before the migration: introducing the Yellow-faced Honeyeater

  1. Tara Lilburne 13 March 2017 / 2:45 pm

    Thanks Carol,you seem to answer my questions before I even ask them!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kerry Vickers 5 April 2017 / 3:07 pm

      Very interesting article Carol, thanks. Spotted a few YF Honeyeaters in the garden today here in SW Victoria (near Terang), first ones seen here for the year. Usually plenty of them in the bush around Timboon to the south, and in the Otways. Do you know of a source which mentions the migration patterns down this way?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Carol Probets 5 April 2017 / 3:30 pm

        Hi Kerry, thanks for your observation. For such a common bird, there’s still so little known about their movements. From the First Atlas of Australian Birds (1984): “Flocks moving north in autumn have been reported as far south as Rotamah Is Bird Observatory and the number of YFHEs is significantly reduced in Melbourne in winter.” Also, “near Adelaide counts recorded more in winter than in summer.” There would be more in HANZAB but unfortunately I don’t have the relevant volume. I’ll let you know if I find any more detailed or recent refs.


  2. Kerry Vickers 5 April 2017 / 4:15 pm

    Thanks Carol, much appreciated. Just saw another small group (only 4 or 5) having a brief stop over in the garden… got me interested now…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Geoff Henning 23 April 2020 / 2:54 pm

    Hi Carol I am worried about the honeyeaters as I haven’t seen any this year, thousands of them usually fly over our house property every autumn. Did the recent bush fires wipe them out?
    I live in Lincoln Cres, Bonnet Bay NSW


    • Carol Probets 23 April 2020 / 9:05 pm

      Hi Geoff, there are currently very large numbers moving through some of our Blue Mountains sites and they’ve also been seeing big numbers in the Hunter Valley, so fortunately they haven’t been wiped out. However, their routes have changed in some places; in particular they seem to be avoiding moving through the burnt areas.

      Another thing that might be affecting the migration is that there is currently very good flowering of Spotted Gum in some areas. Good flowering can divert them and the result is less migration further north. Ironically, it’s often the toughest years when we see the biggest migrations.

      So if there’s significant flowering on the south coast it could be reducing their need to travel further, and for those that do, any burnt areas to your south may have diverted them to a different route. Does that make sense?


      • Geoff Henning 24 April 2020 / 10:51 am

        Thanks so much Carol and this is the great news that I was hoping to hear from you. Do please keep up the great work that you do.
        Kind regards
        Geoff Henning

        Liked by 1 person

    • Geoff Henning 24 April 2020 / 10:55 am

      Thanks so much for your prompt reply carol, much appreciated and I am thrilled with the fact that the birds are still strong in numbers

      Kind regards
      Geoff Henning

      Liked by 1 person

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