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.

Getting to know plant families, Myrtaceae

Eucalyptus smithiiI have a theory. The reason a plant such as Agapanthus is so popular is that people are familiar with it and they know its name. Though I would love to see it in its native South African setting, I dislike the pervasiveness of the plant.

But, to explain the theory, at one point in time, I would visit a nursery and be bewildered by all the plants for sale and not know where to begin. The position of ignorance when faced with so much choice was daunting. Knowing the name of something even if it was Agapanthus can be reassuring.

So, I made a conscious decision about fifteen years ago to learn more about plants and their names. Although I am more interested in native plants, I like all plants. Where they are from? What other ones are they related to? Knowing what they are and what plant family they belong to helps.

Family → genus → species

I grow chilli and capiscum plants for example, they are part of an often poisonous plant family Solonaceae. I think of the heat of the chile as a form of plant defense like the poisons in other species such as Datura from that family. Within the family is an important genus, Solanum, which contains such species Solanum tuberosum – the potato, Solanum lycopersicum – tomato and Solanum melongena – eggplant all from the Americas and apparently quite closely related.

For me, this relationship is based on recognition and memory. I am not sure yet how to recognise any of the Solanum species except on remembering what the plant is, what the flower looks like and what family it is from. Fortunately, other plant families have distinctive attributes and are quite recognisable.

Leptosermum squarrosum
Leptospermum squarrosum

I learnt early on that plants in the Sydney Region are often dominated by a small a number of families including Myrtaceae. Myrtaceae contains our iconic gums or eucalypts.

An Angophora capsule

They are quite clearly recognisable by their leaf shape and also have a capsule, which is also a distinctive feature of many plants in the Myrtaceae family and which usually persists on the plant long after it has dropped the seeds contained inside it. So, Leptospermum – Tea-trees, Melaleuca – Paperbark, Callistemon – Bottle-brush all have this dry capsule containing the seeds. Some that we are familiar with such as Kunzea Ambigua – Tick Bush, don’t have a capsule that persists. However, Myrtaceae has another great identifying feature; the flowers have lots of stamens. It is the stamens that are giving Eucalypts their distinctive look. So, even Kunzea can be recognised, no capsule that lasts, but lots of stamens.

Myrtaceae-7804_1A species which I saw on the weekend at West Head in  Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, I wasn’t sure of was Darwinia fascicularis. It is a species in another genus, Darwinia, of the family Myrtaceae. However, the spikes aren’t stamens at all, the anthers are hidden and the protruding bits are the style, but they are very beautiful plants.

Which brings me back to Agapanthus. Why when we have so many great plants, over 20000 in Australia, do we have to have garden’s full of the South African species, Agapanthus? I have my theory and if people learn the name of a few plants they might not just not order the ones that know.


If you want to pursue an interest in plant identification, these are some excellent resources,

Robinson, L.  Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney, 3rd Ed, (2003). Kangaroo Press.

I have a large colour reference  from Fairley and Moore which I use to complement Robinson’s book and they have more recently bought out a field guide sized, reference in colour.

Fairley, A and Moore, P (2010) Native Plants of the Sydney Region.CSIRO Publishing.

PlantNet, an online reference to Plants of News South Wales

Clarke, I and Lee, H (2003) Name That Flower: The Identification of Flowering Plants,  Melbourne Univ. Publishing, 2003 is fantastic for its descriptions of flowers and flower parts.



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.