Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Monday, May 04, 2009

Migrating Honeyeaters feeding in the Budawangs.

Last weekend I went in search of the migrating Honeyeaters from the tall wet Eucalypt forests of Canberra's ranges, and the High Country to the south.

As a kid (in the 1960s) I assisted my father, Steve Wilson, and many other volunteers to band migrating Honeyeaters at Pine Island. That is a point on the Murrumbidgee River, south from Canberra where a line of trees follows the River. There are many Grevillea plants which flower at this time of year, along the sandy river banks. So, the Honeyeaters could follow the line of trees, for cover and for resting points, and top up with their favourite high-energy food source along the route. For several years (in autumn and winter), we also banded many Honeyeaters at Tianjara Falls, on the road from Braidwood to Nowra. That stopped after the a huge fire in the mid 1960s burnt out the entire area from behind Marulan, right through the lower reaches of the Shoalhaven to Tomerong, near Jervis Bay.

The odd thing about the migratory route of these birds (Yellow-faced Honeyeaters and White-naped Honeyeaters, and some Silvereyes and stray birds of other species) is that nobody really knew where they were going.

We had assumed (from northern hemisphere models inverted) that southern birds migrate north in winter, but that is a simplistic generalisation. Around Canberra, Max Murn demonstrated that the Honeyeaters went south-east, at least as far along the Murrumbidgee as Angle Crossing. From there they could follow through timbered country to cross to the east behind Captains Flat, and then to Braidwood. But beyond that, where were they going?

Having moved to Robertson, about 6 years ago, I became aware that I was living on a migration route for the same species of birds. And I knew from talking to the late Mrs Crowe, that many of the Honeyeaters migrated past her area at Berrima. Of course, where she was is just on the edge of Sydney Sandstone country, the home of many sweet-nectar producing plants such as the various Banksias and the Lambertia formosa ("Mountain Devil"). So, I knew that there is a wide band of migration tracks for these birds through the Southern Highlands.

Last year I went into the Budawangs for the first time, and ended up at Tianjara Falls. Immediately it was apparent that the Banksias were fully restored, and that the Honeyeaters were there.

So, after Mrs Crowe's death last week, Elizabeth Compston, of the Canberra Ornithologists Group, and I went out to the edge of the Upper Kangaroo Valley, at Mannings Lookout. It is a place where I knew that the Banksia ericifolia would be in flower. Sure enough it was, and there were a few Honeyeaters present, despite the late afternoon timing of our visit.

We decided to plan a trip to Tianjara Falls and the Budawangs, so I could attempt to show Elizabeth that there is a huge area of heath and Banksia country, which is a magnet for the migratory Honeyeaters.

This is very definitely 4WD territory only, as the road had many deep ruts and also long pools of water which needed good clearance and 4WD traction to get through
(Deep Sand + Water = Mud).

I can now confess that it was all a bit hair-raising, really. Two 4WD vehicles with long tow-ropes or winches would have been better preparation for this trip, but we made it successfully. I was quite pleased to know that there were a number of motor cyclists out there, who at least could have helped raise an alarm if we had needed it. But we didn't. My little Daihatsu Feroza short-wheel base 4WD proved it self as trustworthy, and adequate for the task.
Heathland on the Budawang Plateau

And so, on Sunday, Elizabeth and Bill Compston and I met at Tianjara Falls.We went south into the Budawangs, along the Twelve Mile Road. This area is the north-eastern section of the Budawangs. Click to enlarge the map.Technically, the Tianjara Creek is part of the Shoalhaven Valley system, but there is no marked divide between the Clyde Valley to the south and the Shoalhaven system to the north.

Looking South from Mt Tianjara to Pigeonhouse Mtn.
Low heath shrubbery, with Banksias and Hakeas, and some Mallee Eucalypts.
A vast Honeyeater habitat - seldom disturbed by people.
There must be a boundary, obviously, in terms of which way the creeks flow. But in terms of the habitat, it is pretty much of a continuum - low, open heath country interspersed with Stringbark forest on the sides of small hills, where the soil is deep enough to support tree cover.

In patches, there are exposed rock shelves which support nothing more than low heath plants, a mere 30 cm high. This is especially obvious at a point just south of Kangaroo Hill, where two roads meet, from where one can make a round trip, returning to Tianjara Falls via the Tianjara Fire Trail (on the left). Watch out for deeply rutted gutters in the road. The point of this long-winded explanation is that as soon as we left the Nowra-Braidwood Road, not far from Tianjara Falls, we found ourselves in Banksia shrubbery, and there were lots of Honeyeaters seen, flitting across the road, and on occasions, flying down and bathing in puddles in the road. It immediately became obvious that it would be impossible to attempt a census of these birds, as we drove along some 30 Kms of roads and tracks. In some places there were no Honeyeaters, or few. But frequently we would see and hear birds, lots of them, around us.

Where there were isolated trees in the heathland shrubbery, it was common to see small migratory flocks moving along, "leapfrogging" from tree to tree. Mostly these birds were Yellow-faced Honeyeaters. But we did see many Red Wattlebirds as well - sometimes calling from deep cover, obviously in feeding mode. Other times, we saw them flying in their silent groups, typical of migrating Wattlebirds.

In some wet gullies, especially, we saw and heard New Holland Honeyeaters. And in one area of exposed heathland, we heard (and Elizabeth and Bill saw) Tawny-crowned Honeyeaters. Their soft, melodic liquid sounding call was quite distinctive. I had not seen that species for over 30 years, so I was tickled pink to find them (even if I didn't see them clearly).

We also saw several large groups of Silvereyes, in patches of Eucalypt foreast, with Banksia understorey. A few Brush Wattlebirds were seen, but not nearly as many as the Red Wattlebirds. We also saw a solitary Nankeen Kestrel, out over the heathland. Several parties of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos. Grey Shrike Thrushes were seen several times. Spinebills were abundant.

In a period of over 3 hours I estimate we saw between five and seven hundred Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, but with such a vast habitat available to these birds, I confidently estimate that there must have been several thousand Honeyeaters in this corner of the Budawangs.

From the Tianjara area, the birds could move east towards the Jervis Bay area, where there is a huge amount of suitable autumn habitat available to them. Alternatively, they can move north, around the rim of the huge Shoalhaven Valley and Kangaroo Valley, all the way to Carrington Falls, while staying within easy reach of suitable habitat. If they do move north to Robertson (and I see them regularly here, passing through), they only have to cross an 8 Km line of unsuitable habitat of Cool Temperate Rainforest, before they find the huge area of suitable habitat in the Woronora Plateau.


Gouldiae said...

G'day Denis,
Some trip. Glad you got through. It's nice to know the migratory honeyeaters have all that habitat and are still in good number. Don't think I've ever seen a Tawny Crowned - good one.

Denis Wilson said...

Thanks Gouldiae
I was greatly relieved that we made it out safely (without any fuss).
It is a terrifically wild, remote area - and we were only in the plateau country. "Serious Bushwalkers" (note the Capital B) go out to those rugged mountains you can see in the distance. That a 3 or 4 day trip. I shall never manage that.
But I do love going through this country and seeing all these birds is just terrific.

mick said...

It sounds like a great day! The photos of the scenery look superb, and fantastic to see and hear those numbers of honeyeaters.

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Mick
Not as spectacular as your migratory Waders and Terns, but pretty satisfying anyway,
Scenery is fantastic, and very different from the local scenery around Robertson, which is more like the Blue Mountains.
You have to love the diversity we have available in our country, don't you think?