A little bird darted by on chilly winds drifting down from kunanyi/Mount Wellington. It was gone in a flash, the blink of an eye, but I knew what it was immediately.
There were two clues. Black and white feathers in a long tail, and a yellow-throated honeyeater in hot pursuit.
The pick-pocket of the bird world, the eastern spinebill, was doing what it does best at the start of winter in the Waterworks Reserve bordering South Hobart – raiding the yellowthroat’s “honey pot” and making off with some of its food supply.
I do not have to look up and see snow on kunanyi/Mt Wellington on June 1 to know winter has officially arrived. And the date in the corner of my computer screen also signals the start of hostilities in the winter-flowering plants in the reserve, the battle of the bottlebrushes.
Although the reserve is mainly dominated by vegetation typically found in the foothills of the mountain, in some places exotic shrubs and trees have been planted, presumably to give popular areas of the refuge a formal park-like feel.
Nestling alongside blanket bush, prickly moses and satinwood, are varieties of winter-flowering bottlebrushes and grevilleas developed from mainland plant species. And these provide a honey pot for not just the yellowthroats but three other species of honeyeater.
The nectar and pollen from red bottlebrush and Ned Kelly grevillea, a variety with crimson coronet flowers which look remarkably like the endemic waratah, is in great demand and the honeyeaters engage in warfare to get at it.
Usually the larger wattlebirds dominate flowering plants in suburban gardens but the yellow and little wattlebirds are not common in the reserve, preferring to raid winter blooms in suburbia nearer Hobart. The smaller yellow-throated honeyeater is king of this domain and especially the exotic patch of vegetation bordering the children’s playground at the heart of the reserve.
The yellowthroats make their presence felt in the exotic garden – strutting and posturing – but this endemic honeyeater does not always get its own way. New Holland and crescent honeyeaters steal beakfuls of pollen and nectar on daring forays in which they directly challenge the bigger yellowthroats, a single bird often confronting the honeyeaters while others steal food.
The spinebills, however, are more agile on their raids. They rely on speed to dash into the exotic plants, dipping their long scimitar bills into the flowers to gain enough food to sustain them before a return raid a little later.
The spinebill is the smallest of the honeyeaters but you would not know this from his high-pitched, descending chatter which rings through the Waterworks Valley and suburbs nearer the city throughout the winter, when it comes down from its breeding territory on the mountain.
I regard them as the most beautiful of the honeyeaters, with a plumage which mixes a russet breast with black and white markings on the head and neck. Usually, though, it’s only the pied tail that tells you this little guerrilla of the grevilleas is waging, and winning, its own mini-war.