Black-headed honeyeaters often go unnoticed but their song is the background music of the more leafier Hobart suburbs and on the lower slopes of kunanyi/Mt Wellington. It’s a gentle, incessant piping heard from dawn to dusk.
Out of Tasmania’s four endemic honeyeater species the black-headed honeyeater is generally considered the least interesting and dramatic. It is not showy and flashy like some of the others, and goes about its honeyeater business in industrious fashion. If it wasn’t for the song ringing through the treetops you would never know the bird was there.
The black-headed honeyeater, at 14 centimetres in size, is very closely related to the strong-billed honeyeater, both species falling into the Melithreptus, or “white-naped” honeyeater genus. For some reason, it is the similarly-sized strong-bill which tends to excite birders visiting from the mainland, and overseas. Perhaps it’s the strong-bill’s feeding behaviour of stripping bark from eucalypts to extract grubs buried in the trees which makes it fascinating to watch. And its relative rarity.
The black-headed honeyeater strips bark, too, but it is just as likely to be found in gardens, dipping its brush-tipped tongue into the flowers of grevilleas and bottlebrushes.
Black-headed honeyeater specialise in foraging among the canopy of trees, as opposed to probing the lower trunk and boughs for prey like the strong-bill. In this way the two species do not compete with each other for food in the same tree.
At a distance, both species look similar with moss-green backs and wings and grey underbodies. Out of the two, the black-headed honeyeater might be more difficult to spot in the tallest of trees but its song is incessant and draws the observer to it. Once seen they are a joy to watch. They behave more like parrots than honeyeaters, often hanging upside down from thin branches while foraging for insects, larvae and manna.
When spotted, the two species are easily separated by their markings – the strong-bill has a striped instead of a complete black head – and by their calls. The piping song of the black-headed honeyeater is in contrast to the series of loud cheeps uttered by the strong-bills.
Black-headed Honeyeaters form monogamous, long-term pairs and they nest communally in small loose colonies. The open, exposed nests, however, make them targets for the anti-social behaviour of cuckoos. I always feel a pang of sadness when I hear the honeyeaters’ territorial and mating songs, and then see pallid, fan-tailed and Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoos in the neighbourhood.
The best places to find black-headed honeyeaters close to Hobart are in the Waterworks Reserve in Dynnyrne and on Knocklofty above West Hobart. Both areas have strong-bills, too, so setting out to see black-headed honeyeaters, it might also be possible to see their close family members.
Habitat and distribution: Common in wet and dry sclerophyll forests, and occasionally found in subalpine and alpine forests to 1200m metres, open woodlands, coastal heaths and low shrub communities. The species is also sometimes seen in urban parks and gardens. Diet: Insects, lerps and manna high within the canopy. Black-headed honeyeaters also feed on nectar, often congregating at flowering trees in spring. Breeding: The deep, cup-shaped nest is hidden among the foliage and constructed from fibrous bark, grasses and moss. Both sexes build the nest and incubate the eggs. Adults from the previous year’s brood may assist. Two to three spotted, pinkish eggs are laid. Song: a piping, high-pitched “pssip”. Size: 14cm.