Just behind the tiny Uniting Church at Glen Alice in the Capertee valley is a patch of trees, mostly eucalypts. Here, a Little Friarbird (Philomen citreogularis), with its distinctive blue patches below its eyes, flies in to check for insects. It quickly spots something and pounces.
It appears to have caught an adult lacewing or antlion.
The bird manoeuvres its prey around its beak, preparing for the final swallow.
Tit-bit despatched, the friarbird starts to search for the next one.
With its head in the leaves, it’s unable to see what else might be going on.
A group of smaller birds – White-plumed Honeyeaters (Ptilotula penicillata) – is on a branch not far away. Like many honeyeaters, the White-plumed are strongly territorial, and it looks to me as if the Honeyeater on the left is exhorting its troops to evict the friarbird.
A few seconds later one flies off on the mission.
The unsuspecting friarbird is ambushed as it drops back out of the leaves.
The 60-gram friarbird is much larger than the 20-gram honeyeater, and initially the latter is forced to yield airspace.
However a second honeyeater (off camera) joins in and the friarbird is rapidly driven away.
The friarbird attempts to return a few minutes later, but is quickly spotted and chased off once more. It gives up, leaving the honeyeaters to their territory.
This is not a religious tale of Uniting Church honeyeaters chasing off a catholic friar. Rather it’s a type of dispute common in the honeyeater family, which incidentally includes the friarbirds.
Most honeyeaters are pugnaciously territorial, not just with their own species (which is common enough in animals), but more unusually, with any other bird that might want a share of their food resources. Biologist Tim Low notes that it is not unusual to find prime food trees dominated by small honeyeaters like the white-plumed, with other small birds like weebills, silvereyes, robins and whistlers being pushed back to trees on less fertile ridges. In this case our much larger friarbird suffered a similar experience.
The Little Friarbird is the smallest member of the friarbird genus, and the only one that doesn’t have a casque or bump on the top of its beak. Like most other honeyeaters, its diet consists of insects, nectar, pollen, manna and lerp.
If “manna and lerp” need explanation, see my post on bellbirds here.