Honeyeaters are a group of bird species that are unique to the region. They are thought to have originated in the Australo-Papua region and have diversified into 197 species. Only one of these species has crossed the Wallace Line, a theoretical line in Indonesia that represents a barrier to the free movement of families of species in the region. The Brown (Indonesian) Honeyeater occurs from New South Wales westwards, through Timor-Leste and Tenggara and has crossed the Wallace Line into Bali, with even a report from Java. No other species stretch that far west, although eastwards they can be found in Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Western Samoa.
As their name suggest honeyeaters are very fond of feeding on sweet liquid, particularly the nectar produced in flowers. A feature of the family is that they have a distinctive tongue, designed to funnel liquid from the tip, where the tongue splits into a series of brush-like extensions to most effectively extract liquid, to the stomach. I have watched Dark Brown Honeyeaters follow a rough circuit around the flowers in a garden, using their tongue to pierce the gap between the petals and sepals of the flower and so directly access the nectar without getting covered in pollen. There are three species of honeyeater present in Vanuatu: the Cardinal Myzomela, the Dark Brown Honeyeater and the Vanuatu Honeyeater.
Males of the Cardinal Myzomela are black with a bright red head and throat and a down-curved bill. Females are a rather duller olive green, with patches of reddish brown on the head and rump. They tend to be associated with forested areas, in particular areas where there are a number of flowering plants. Cardinal Myzomelas are also found in some of the southern islands of the Solomons, New Caledonia and also in Samoa and American Samoa. I find them to be quite scarce on Efate, where they are more common in the upland interior than around the lowland areas. They appear to be more widespread in the north of Vanuatu, Santo, Malekula and the Banks Islands, and to the south on Tanna.
The Dark Brown Honeyeater, sometimes known as the Grey-eared Honeyeater, is probably the most common and obvious species of native bird. Just as likely to be seen and heard in the centre of Port Vila as in the forests of some of the outer islands, this is a medium-sized olivey brown honeyeater, subtle rather than flashy, but with a whole range of feather colours that the term ‘olivey brown’ encompasses. When seen well, and in full sunlight, they are a glorious sight. More impressive is their song, full of a rich variety of calls reminiscent at times of the ‘chok chok chok’ of Nightingales in Europe. These are often the first birds to start singing pre-dawn with a distinctive song that changes subtly as the day progresses. Dark Brown Honeyeaters are found from Santo in the north to Tanna in the south, where they are scarce, and also on New Caledonia.
The Vanuatu Honeyeater is the largest of the three species in Vanuatu, found from Epi in the south, through Ambrym, Malekula and north to Vanua Lava and Ureparapara. It is primarily an upland bird, although it does occasionally venture down to lowland areas and mangroves. The loud, ringing, flute-like song of this species at dawn is one of the most distinctive features of early morning in upland areas of Vanuatu, as it is often the first bird to start singing pre-dawn. My first experience of its song was when camping on the edge of the caldera at Mount Marum. It was one of those unforgettable experiences that so often happen in Vanuatu. From then till now, it is always a pleasure to hear the song of these beautiful birds.
Our new regular column by bird expert Dr Mark O’Brien, Regional Program Coordinator for BirdLife International.