Throughout the warmer parts of the world there are always birds that have evolved to feed specifically on nectar. In Australasia, it is the honeyeaters. They are the biggest family of birds in Australia, including the northern tropical woodlands.
Despite the name, honeyeaters do not exclusively feed on nectar, for while it is high in energy giving carbohydrates (i.e.; sugar); it is low in nutrients. Thus, most honeyeaters probably couldn’t survive without including a few protein rich insects in their diet. Some ingest them as a consequence of feeding from flowers, but many ‘honeyeaters’ are actually more insectivorous than nectivorous.
Many of the physical features of honeyeaters are reflections of their nectar feeding lifestyle. Most have a bill that is curved to some extent, with the bill shape largely reflects the types of flowers they are visiting. Another adaptation is the long tongue; it is split into 4 tiny hair-like extensions at the end to give it the appearance of a brush, and this assists in soaking up the liquid nectar by capillary action. Some honeyeaters can move this tongue at more than 10 licks per second.
Generalizations of lifestyle and behaviour are hard to make with such a large and diverse family. Like many hummingbirds, honeyeaters can be territorial, often chasing others away from their nectar or insect source. Breeding seasons are extremely varied, reflecting the different times of nectar production in different plants. A mated pair will usually construct a cup shaped nest suspended in the horizontal fork of a tree. This may then be lined with softer material such as fur, feathers and plants. As with some other types of Australian birds, it is not unusual for assistant parenting from non-breeding pairs to occur.
This genus contains a dozen species, mostly found around and the surrounding islands of the south-west pacific and Indonesia.
Lichmera indistincta, 'Brown Honeyeater'. Adaptable and found in a variety of habitats across much of Australia, except for the drier inland and extreme south-east.
There are only two species in this genus, and they are both endemic to northern Australia.
Stomiopera unicolor, 'White-gaped Honeyeater'. Found in various habitats across northern Australia, including monsoon forest, the edge of woodlands, and urban areas around Darwin.
This is a monotypic genus.
Acanthagenys rufogularis, 'Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater'. Most common in the open habitats across arid central and southern Australia, but can also be found in the southern edge of the tropical woodlands of northern Australia.
This genus contains two species.
Conopophila rufogularis, 'Rufous-throated Honeyeater'. Found in various habitats across northern Australia.
Conopophila albogularis, 'Rufous-banded Honeyeater'. Found in monsoon forest, mangroves, edge of woodlands, and gardens in northern Australia and New Guinea.
This genus contains 6 species. They mostly have a crescent shape on their cheek or neck.
Ptilotula flavescens, 'Yellow-tinted Honeyeater'. Found in various habitats across northern Australia.
Ptilotula keartlandi, 'Grey-headed Honeyeater'. Found in open habitats across central Australia and into the southern parts of the northern tropical woodlands.
Ptilotula penicillata, 'White-plumed Honeyeater'. Found in various woodland habitats across central and southern Australia, extending into the southern parts of the tropical woodlands. It is believed that the range is expanding into urban areas. There are various subspecies; the nominate form Ptilotula penicillata leilavalensis in central Australia, and into western Queensland and NSW (higher image above), the Pilbara form Ptilotula penicillata carteri, in north-western West Australia (lower image above), and others.
There are two species in this genus.
Ramsayornis fasciatus, 'Bar-breasted Honeyeater'. The nests are found hanging along rivers in tropical woodlands, and just look like flood debris. Found in woodlands, especially along rivers and in paperbark wetlands, across northern Australia.
Cissomela pectoralis, 'Banded Honeyeater'. A 'blossom nomad' following the flowering.
There is only one species in this genus
Certhionyx variegatus, 'Pied Honeyeater'. Found in open dry habitats across inland Australia, where it appears very nomadic and irruptive, probably following rain and flowering events. Every now and then it turns up on the southern edge of tropical woodlands.
Tiny honeyeaters with very fine curved bills.
Myzomela obscura, 'Dusky Honeyeater/Myzomela'. Very small, delicate and plain. Found in various habitats, including edge of wetter woodlands, northern Australia and New Guinea.
Myzomela erythrocephala, 'Red-headed Honeyeater/Myzomela'. Tiny, fast and bright red. Found mostly in mangroves, but also appears on edge of tropical woodlands and wetlands, across coastal northern Australia and New Guinea.
Tiny honeyeaters, with whiter underbellies and light 'eyebrows'.
Melithreptus albogularis, 'White-throated Honeyeater'. Found across northern Australia and down along the east coast. Last century, this was known as the 'Gay Honeyeater'.
There is only one species in this genus.
Entomyzon cyanotis, 'Blue-faced Honeyeater'. Large and striking honeyeater. Lives in open habitats across northern Australia and along east coast, and has become common in subtropical urban areas. Subspecies albipennis is found across northern Australia and has blue face.
Large noisy honeyeaters.
Philemon citreogularis, 'Little Friarbird'. Found in woodlands across northern Australia north into New Guinea, and south along east coast into south-eastern Australia. 'Little Friarbird', juvenile on the right
Philemon argenticeps, 'Silver-crowned Friarbird'. Distinguished by 'bib' of silver feathers. Found in woodlands and mangroves across northern Australia.
Manorina flavigula, 'Yellow-throated Miner'. Found in open habitats across most of the Australian continent except the south-east.
(not pictured) Manorina melanocephala, 'Noisy Miner'. Found in Eucalyptus dominated habitats in eastern Australia. Despite its native status and the amount of introduced animals, it is now considered a pest in urban areas.