Saturday, 26th May 2018

Nature's Rubik

Tom Parkinson's monthly column, introducing the diverse range of flora and fauna on show at Sanctuary Lakes.

Our Favourite Native Garden Birds

There are three native birds that seem to visit almost every garden in Sanctuary Lakes. They appear fearless of humans and will flit happily from garden to garden feeding on the seasonal nectar, seeds and flies. Occasionally they will stop flitting, cock their head from your BBQ table, the balcony beam or a nearby branch and seemingly intelligently observe us humans in action. They are of course...


New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novahollandiae)


Willie Wagtail (Rhipidura leucophrys)


White Plumed Honeyeater (Lichenostomus penicillatus)

Although very similar in many ways, this trio of garden favourites do have fascinating differences. Starting with the very first Australian bird to be scientifically described by European ornithologists and using the original name for Australia the New Holland Honeyeater.


The New Holland Honeyeater is around eighteen centimetres in length, instantly recognisable, by its black and white patterns, distinctive large yellow wing patch and yellow sides on the tail. It has a small white streak around the ears and whiskers at the base of the bill with bright white eyes. One of the most remarkable feature of the Honeyeater is its efficient tongue which gathers fluids from flowers in less than a second. Resembling an artist’s brush at the tip, the tongue extends into the nectar about 10 times per second; the sweet nectar adheres to the licking tongue. Nectar and fruits provide a carbohydrate-rich diet for the honeyeater. In order to balance its meals, it eats insects, which provide protein and other nutrients.

Honeyeaters flit restlessly from flower to flower and chatters loudly if disrupted. Birds may feed alone, but normally gather in quite large groups. Often seen in our gardens is one of their unusual activities, when a dozen or so Honeyeaters will gather for group displays, called “corroborees” where they conduct solo dives, noisy calls and dramatically flutter their wings.

The New Holland Honeyeater may breed at any time of the year, pairs build a cup-shaped nest made of bark and grasses, bound together with spider web. It is lined with soft material and is placed in a bush or tree, anywhere from ground level up to 6 m. Both sexes feed the chicks. A pair of adults may raise two or three broods in a year.


The Willy Wagtail is one of Australia’s and Sanctuary Lakes most familiar, loveable and cheeky native birds. The name “wagtail” is confusing, because although it flicks and wags its tail from side to side, it is actually a member of the fantail family, and not one of the European wagtails. Its plumage is simply black above with a bold white belly.

The Willie Wagtail is an adaptable bird with an opportunistic diet. It flies from perch to perch catching insects on the wing but will also chase prey on the ground. Wagtails eat, among other things, butterflies, moths, flies, beetles, dragonflies, bugs, spiders, centipedes, and millipedes.

They are often seen on the Golf Course, hoping and chattering along the ground just behind Golfers, foraging and catching any creatures that has been flushed out by the golfer’s steps. 

Willie’s sociability with humans is in part responsible for the legends given to them by Aboriginal tribes. The mythology of many tribes regards the Willie Wagtail as a bearer of bad news. It was thought that the Willie could steal a person’s secrets while lingering around camps eavesdropping, so women and the old men would be tight-lipped in Willie’s presence. Others believed that Willie would inform the spirit of the recently departed, if living relatives spoke badly of them. Willie was also seen as an ill omen, and some tribes would abandon an expedition if a Willie was seen on the morning of departure. Yet some, also venerated Willie as the most intelligent of all animals. 

Willie Wagtails are also known for their nocturnal call which is most commonly heard during Sanctuary Lakes moonlit nights and especially during the breeding season (August to February). From my own experience, the presence of my bright balcony light can start my neighbourhood Willie Wagtail into this phenomenon.

Willie Wagtails usually pair for life. Anywhere up to four broods may be raised during the breeding season. The Willie Wagtail's nest is a neatly woven cup of grasses, covered with spider's web on the outside and lined internally with soft grasses, hair or fur. The Willie Wagtail’s nest is often re-used in successive years.


From a distance the White Plumed Honeyeater could be mistaken for a common house sparrow, but on focusing you immediately notice the yellowish olive head and slightly down-curved beak with the distinctive white neck plume. Its upper body is a yellowish-olive to grey with a pale brown-grey breast. Like our other two garden favourites, they are generally gregarious and seen energetically moving from tree to tree with rapid darting movements.

The White-plumed Honeyeater's diet consists mainly of nectar, insects, fruit and very occasionally seeds They may also peck at berries for their juice. They mainly feed by gleaning leaf surfaces. Their tongue is similar to the New Holland Honeyeater, containing brush-like filaments consisting of about 60 bristles which are capable of mopping up nectar. Insects are usually taken by gleaning, but some are taken on the wing.

The White-plumed are very social and in Sanctuary Lakes they are often seen in tiny flocks on the canopy of trees and bushes, singing, then diving steeply, and almost as quickly, darting back to the treetops.

Breeding is generally from late August to December. The females build a small cup-shaped nest in the crown of a tree from 1 m to 10 m off the ground. Similar to our other Garden Favourites, the nest is woven from grass and spider web and lined with wool, hair or feathers. Females incubate the eggs but both parents feed the young, sometimes with the assistance of helpers. Two to three clutches are laid each year.

These three Garden Favourites are a joy to watch and in turn they appear to enjoy watching us, they have steadily woven their way into becoming part of the Sanctuary Lakes Community’s tapestry.