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Birding Down Under with honeyeaters

The scarlet honeyeater is a native of Australia. [Photo by nyerimilang.com.au]

Some say Australia is the land of koalas.

I disagree. I say it’s the land of honeyeaters.

Koalas, as cute as they are, only occur in a narrow zone in the temperate forests along the eastern coast from Brisbane to Adelaide, and there is only a single species.

Honeyeaters are an incredibly diverse group of nectar-feeding birds found in almost every habitat. They occur from the tropical rainforests of Queensland to the snow-covered forests of Tasmania to the arid shrublands around Alice Springs. There are even a few species that are terrestrial, inhabiting treeless plains.

They range in size from sparrows to magpies, with colors from reds to blues. Most present at least some yellow. You can hardly step outside anywhere without hearing one or more species discussing the merits of the latest crop of flowers.

Having recently returned from a long-delayed trip Down Under, I wondered: Does the United States have any group of passerine birds to compare with the diversity of honeyeaters?

We have 45 species of sparrows and 35 flycatchers. It seems like there are many more when trying to distinguish the many frustrating lookalike species. The richest are the warblers with 50 species. Yet even they fall short of the 77 species of honeyeaters.

Why so many nectar-feeding birds in Australia? Much of the answer lies in their partnership with the incredible diversity of eucalyptus species both large and small. Eucalyptus produce nectar-rich flowers and depend largely upon honeyeaters for pollination.

Most honeyeaters, in turn, depend upon eucalyptus for food. When eucalyptus bloom, it’s often profusely, and trees simply drip with honeyeaters.

In contrast, our conifer forests can produce an abundant cone crop but no nectar. Even the forests in eastern North America yield few nectar-producing flowers. The dominant oaks, hickory, birches and maples produce almost none. Most depend on wind for pollination.

We do have flowering shrubs and herbaceous plants that provide for a handful of hummingbird species, including five in Oregon. In the entire eastern half of the country, there is only one.

And then there is the difference in migration patterns between the two continents. Migration is a dominant pattern in a great many North American birds. Waterfowl, vultures and songbirds hold tight to predictable schedules spring and fall.

It’s very different in Australia. Few species show regular movements over large distances.

Again, one can attribute this to eucalyptus. Many bloom only when growing conditions are favorable, and precipitation is notoriously unpredictable in much of Australia. Birds follow the flowers.

How they know where the flowers will bloom next is something of a mystery, but they suddenly show up in numbers for the floral bonanza and vanish just as quickly as the blossoms fade. Biologists and birders in Australia refer to honeyeaters and nectar-feeding parrots as “blossom nomads.”

The closest we have in North America are the species that follow the unpredictable conifer cone crop. Crossbills, pine siskins and nuthatches could be considered “cone nomads.”

Similarly, robins and waxwings could be considered “fruit nomads” in winter as they seek out the heaviest-laden madrones. However, I doubt either term will catch on.

Stewart Janes is a retired biology professor at Southern Oregon University. He can be reached at janes@sou.edu.