The strong-billed honeyeater is an uncommon species which can be particularly difficult to find and identify in thick, wet forest.
The strong-bill is especially interesting for both resident and visiting birders because it is a perfect example of what is termed convergent evolution in birds. Although the species belongs to the honeyeater family – and still retains the honeyeater brush-tipped tongue for extracting pollen and nectar from flowers – it has switched over time to a diet of insects hidden under the bark of trees. In this, it has evolved to fill the niche of Old World birds absent from Australia which traditionally prise bark and drill holes in trees – the woodpeckers, nuthatches and true treecreepers.
The strong-bill, at 14 centimetres, is closely related to the black-headed honeyeater but in appearance and behaviour is clearly separated. Beyond the strong-bill’s distinctive repeated “cheep” notes in its song, a clue to finding the species is to listen for the ripping and tearing of bark, and to also look for shards of bark falling to the ground in a steady stream, like drizzle,
The strong-bill is far less common than the black-headed honeyeater, preferring wetter forests. Both species look similar with moss-green and grey plumage, but the strong-bill does not have the complete black head of its cousin. If the black-headed honeyeater can be considered to be wearing a helmet, the strong-bill, with a white stripe running through its dark head, looks as though it is wearing a cap.
The strong-bills require for survival standing, ageing trees whose rotting limbs provide homes for burrowing insects. The species is decreasing in number and this is thought to be linked to the clearance of old-growth trees in forestry operations. Luckily, suitable habitat remains on kunanyi/Mount Wellington and with a little walking, and patience, strong-bills will reveal themselves. They are also found in the Waterworks Reserve, the Domain and Knocklofty.
Habitat and distribution: Resident in mature, wet forest, cool temperate rainforest, wet scrub and heath, and occasionally in parks and gardens throughout Tasmania. The strong-bills sometime moves to drier habitats during the winter months. Diet: Can be observed moving up and down the trunks of trees probing beneath bark and into crevices on branches to find insects. It will also eat nectar and fallen fruits on occasion. Breeding: From September, laying two to three spotted pinkish eggs. The nest is a deep cup built of bark strips, grasses and hairs, lined with fibre from tree ferns and animal hair. It is placed among branches in the sub-canopy. Both parents incubate and feed the young, with other adults sometimes helping with feeding and defence of the nest. Song: A loud single, or double or repeated “cheep”. Size: 15cm.