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.
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.