Photographing birds – White-cheeked Honeyeater

White-Cheeked Honeyeater on perchPhotography is so pervasive on the internet and it is of such high quality, that having your own photographs judged by others can be daunting. Bird photography is no exception, though with these posts I can take photographs that may fall short of the standard because I can reflect on and learn about the subject I am photographing. Then by creating some kind of cohesive thread of pictures and words, the individual components will be hopefully judged by their contribution to the whole.

The White-cheeked Honeyeater (Phylidonyris niger) has a peculiarly disjunct distribution. It inhabits much of the east coast of Australia but also south-western Australia and not between. It is often found in moist heathlands. This particular heath is at Wreck Beach, Tomaree National Park, Shoal Bay and it is where I have photographed the bed  a few times over the past few days.

Wreck Beach with a dramatic skyThe White-cheeked Honeyeater is flighty and erratic. It nests in dense shrubs and is often heard and while remaining hidden. Photographing it poses challenges. However, it uses perches and isn’t completely timid, so you can get lucky and without too much difficulty get a picture.

One of the challenges is using a Canon 5D Mark III. The Canon 300mm doesn’t get close enough for most birds on the 5D, so I have 2x extender. This arrangement doesn’t seem to be able to focus with the usual alert that sounds when your subject is in focus. I understand this is being rectified in the next firmware upgrade. I have to admit, after one year of ownership, I am still coming to terms with the camera and all its controls. I use it completely manually and I use a spot focus, so I am not the quickest with it. Sometimes, by the time I have the shot ready, the bird has flown away. I don’t always take a tripod. When I don’t, the sharpness at an effective focal length of 600mm, isn’t perfect. I have come to realise that taking a photograph of a bird is a very deliberate act. Bird photographers have to obsessive and single-minded.

But, the efforts have a pay off. I didn’t know this species before. In fact, I know little about most things and very little about birds. I thought it was a New Holland Honeyeater with which it sometimes shares habitat and whose distribution overlaps. I have seen it competing with Eastern Spinebills (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris) on the fringes of this habitat and I have seen Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) there also. It feeds on nectar eater and insects which it flies swiftly and acrobatically to capture. On the woodlands that fringe its heathland, Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, much more difficult to photograph, visit in large numbers. Little Wattlebirds (Anthochaera chrysoptera) are permanent neighbours.

White-Cheeked honeyeater begins flightIn the past few days, I have produced a picture (above) that I felt was not just a good picture, but a good bird photograph  I have joined a serious bird photography forum, Feathers and Photos and posted it. They like to encourage and critique. Members are interested, you get lots of views by people wo are excellent bird photographers. One comment was ‘Fantastic pose! would be great without the OOF [out of focus] foliage’. Now, I am actually not against out of focus foliage, but I can understand that for some this might be a distraction.

However, I have learnt from this exercise and their comments. In future, I need to concentrate enough photographic efforts on particular birds to get a result that is worthy of their comment and to be able to post.


I have posted previously on the plants of this part of Shoal Bay

A site which is invaluable for photographs and names of plants of Shoal Bay, Nelsons Bay and Tomaree National Park is, Philip Diemar’s, Nelson Bay Native Plants

Birds in Backyards –

For distribution of White-cheeked honeyeaters and other species, these two sites are particularly useful.

Atlas of Living Australia –

Eremaea Birds –

This is a link to distribution of White-Cheeked Honeyeaters at Eremaea Birds.

Jan Wegener is a typically dedicated and exceptional bird photographer on the Feathers and Photos website. His tips and tricks, provide valuable information about the post photographic process and the extent to which people go to deliver unbelievably good photographs.

White Cedar tree and the caterpillar attack

Tree trunk covered with hairy caterpillarsOur urban ecology provides a rich tapestry of interdependencies and sometimes these relationships aren’t immediatly apparent.

The tree Melia azedarach (White Cedar, Cape Lilac) is a lovely tree. In Australia, it has the distinction of being one of the few that are deciduous. This is important for our home. It provides very welcome summer shade but lets in light throughout winter. It looks wonderful in flower and growing right next to the house it is visually important.

However, it has a flaw. It is attacked by one caterpillar species Leptocneria reducta. The caterpillar assembles a population often in the hundreds and they eat the leaves of the tree until there are no more.

caterpillar species Leptocneria reducta

Counts of moths collected under ultra-violet light from a local study suggest that they have two generations a year. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s more. Often I find the trunk carpeted by the caterpillars, the ground beneath the tree is full of their droppings. Of course, this raises the question, what do you do?

Leaves of the tree showing caterpillar damageThere are no real predators. Apparently Tawny Frogmouths (I heard one a couple of nights ago) will eat them. We have watched the caterpillars completely denude our tree. At which point they crawl off in search another. It has to be a Melia azedarach, this caterpillar is a specialist species. When they devour our tree, they crawl into the house, behind curtains, everywhere.

Our solution is to fight them. Unfortunately, we have had a bottle of pyrethrum spray permanently parked next to the tree. I don’t like spraying, I don’t like pyrethrum and I worry about the food chain and the effect on other species. Our tree has Birds Nest ferns, Elk horns and orchid species growing in and on the tree, lots of habitat. We have lovely skinks and millipedes that also inhabit the tree and there is a chance that they will get sprayed. All in all, it’s a dilemma for us and a minus for a tree which is particularly nice.

However, there is a silver lining. In our urban setting, the birds that reside here are aggressive and dominate, new birds are a rarity. So when something new comes around, it sticks out. Last winter I had noticed a smallish shy bird come in to the garden. It would be gone before I could figure out what it was or what it was doing. After a while, I noticed it would take some food from around the ‘Cedar’ and noticed it was taking caterpillars. I finally managed to get one reasonable photograph of it. It is a Fan-tailed Cuckoo which ‘enjoys hairy-caterpillars in its diet’. Our urban ecology throws up fascinating examples of winners and losers and the caterpillar, a pest species, becomes an important bird attracting species.

Fan-tailed Cuckoo

So, now that it is late summer, I am going to leave the caterpillars that I photographed yesterday alone. Hopefully they’ll provide an abundance of food for the Fan-tailed Cuckoo and some more opportunities to observe this bird.

There is a great site for information on this and other Australian caterpillars

I am a big fan of Birds in Backyards website

Information about the tree can be found at which notes that Melia azedarach can be a weedy species. I would agree! I am constantly pulling young seedlings up.

Eastern Water Dragon

Eastern Water Dragon with is head the only part of its body not submerged in water

I bought a 2x’s extension lens so I could get a little closer to birds and other things that I am photographing.

One of the first ‘test’ photos with the 2x’s is the one above. I am not sure about the picture. I love the lizard, a five year old Eastern Water Dragon, Physignathus lesueurii, I call BillyI like the hyper real quality, but I am unsure about it. I used A 300mm lens with a Canon EF Extender 2.0X III which I am looking forward to using while I out in the desert in the next few weeks.

The picture below is a female Eastern Water Dragon about 18 months old which, like the male Billy, has grown up in the ponds around our place.


The Eastern Water Dragon are fantastic to photograph. They don’t run away if you approach them carefully. You can get very close. I love the dinosaur like quality they have.