Friday, May 3, 2013

South-west Endemics Part 3: Western Wattlebird

For visiting birders seeking the 15 bird species endemic to south-west Western Australia, Western Wattlebird Anthochaera lunulata may well be one of the first endemics you see after stepping off the plane. Or, as at least one recent experience has shown, it might be one of the last you see before you leave the state cursing it! This enigmatic species also has the annoying habit of suddenly disappearing from the Perth metropolitan area the week before the WA Twitchathon in early December. It seems that the patchy distribution and erratic local movements of Western Wattlebird are mysterious to say the least.

Western Wattlebird Anthochaera lunulata in favoured coastal plain habitat, with flowering Banksia and Woollybush. Note the long silvery cheek stripe, plain crown and relatively unstreaked back.

The range of Western Wattlebird stretches from Geraldton to Israelite Bay, though rarely inland of Great Southern Hwy north of the Stirling Ranges. But within this range, as noted by Serventy & Whittell [1], they are ‘rather local in distribution’. A recent straw poll on the local birdswa mailing list revealed they are unknown in some Perth gardens, despite being common nearby. In some areas, at some times of the year – one contributor suggested autumn - they can become noticeably common and vocal in suburban gardens, though any pattern of local movement seems hard to pin down. In the Perth hills (and elsewhere, eg. Yanchep) they seem associated with flowering Parrotbush Banksia (Dryandra) sessilis; in coastal plain Banksia woodland they are possibly (anecdotally) associated with the long-flowering Woollybush Adenanthos sericeus - both fairly common plants. Yet in the 1985 Perth Metropolitan Bird Project surveys [2] they were ‘often present’ at only 18 metro sites, and no seasonal fluctuation was detected. In other words, they are found where you find them!  

Western Wattlebirds can become common garden birds at certain times of the year, 
though their local movements can be unpredictable.

Until 2008 Western Wattlebird was lumped with Little Wattlebird, a name many of us are still trying to forget for our western bird. These species were separated by Schodde and Mason (1999) [3] and Johnstone (2001) [4], before supportive DNA work by Driskell and Christidis (2004) [5] allowed the species to be ‘officially’ split by Christidis and Boles (2008) [6]. Compared to the east-coast Little Wattlebird Anthochaera chrysoptera, Western Wattlebird has a: 
  • red (not grey) eye
  • darker, less streaked crown and nape
  • longer, more distinct (due to darker chin), and brighter silvery cheek stripe below the eye
  • more finely streaked breast
  • whiter undertail
  • longer bill
  • clutch of invariably 1, not 2 eggs

Comparison of Western Wattlebird (left) and Little Wattlebird

The Western Wattlebird has no wattles but is stuck with this apparent misnomer due to the prominent wattles of its cousins the Red Wattlebird and Yellow Wattlebird. The Red Wattlebird is larger, has a yellow belly, prominent wattles, white-edged wing feathers, and a smaller, more defined white ‘mask’ below the eye. In flight, Western Wattlebird are easily identified by their smaller size and prominent bright-copper wing patches.

Adult Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata have a 
yellow belly and distinctive red wattles.
Immature Red Wattlebirds lack wattles but have the same 
small dark-edged ‘mask’ below the eye as adults.

Western Wattlebird is a shyer species than the Red Wattlebird and is often heard before it is seen. So it is useful to know its distinctive ‘chuckling’ or ‘bubbling’ call: 

A Western Wattlebird throws its head back to make its strange garbled song.
Note contrast between the dark chin and silvery cheek stripe when seen from below.

Where to see Western Wattlebird: 
In the Perth metro area, some of the more reliable spots are: 

  • Wireless Hill Park, especially north of the picnic area 
  • Bill Brown Park in Leeming; though less than one hectare this park almost always holds Western Wattlebird 
  • Whiteman Park, especially when the Banksia are flowering
  • southwest corner of Lake Joondalup, around Picnic Cove
  • Thomson’s Lake, near the southern carpark
  • Bungendore Park and Admiral Rd, in areas with Parrotbush Banksia sessilis
  • King’s Park Botanic Gardens (best bet if stuck in the city without a car, but not always present) 

Further afield, Western Wattlebird are commonest in the coastal heathlands along the deep south coast from Albany to Cape Arid, especially around Esperance. However they can be missed on quick trips to popular birding sites such as Cheynes Beach – be warned!

Western Wattlebird at Wireless Hill, a (usually!) reliable site for them. Note the coppery tones 
on the wing feathers, revealed as bright copper-red patches during flight.

References cited:
[1] Serventy DL & Whittell HM (1976) Birds of Western Australia 5th ed. University of WA Press, Perth. 
[2] Van Delft R (1997) Birding Sites around Perth 2nd ed. University of WA Press, Perth.
[3] Schodde R and Mason IJ (1999). The Directory of Australian Birds. Passerines. CSIRO publishing, Melbourne. 
[4] Johnstone RE (2001). Checklist of the birds of Western Australia. Western Australian Museum Supplement 63, 75-90. 
[5] Driskell A and Christidis L (2004). Phylogeny and evolution of the Australo-Papuan honeyeaters (Passeriformes, Meliphagidae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 31, 943-960. 
[6] Christidis L and Boles WE (2008). Systematics and taxomony of Australian birds. CSIRO publishing, Collingwood.  

1 comment:

  1. hahahaha - that would have been useful a month ago ;) I love this blog, keep up the good work!!!