Birds & birding in the Blue Mountains & Capertee Valley, Australia

An autumn phenomenon

All about the Yellow-faced and White-naped Honeyeater migration through the Blue Mountains


White-naped Honeyeater. Photo Nevil Lazarus.


What species are they?

Mostly Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, mixed with smaller numbers of White-naped Honeyeaters (the proportion of White-naped starts out very small and increases during the season with the greatest numbers in May).

There are also varying numbers of Silvereyes, as well as flocks of Spotted and Striated Pardalotes, Red Wattlebirds, Noisy Friarbirds, and occasionally Fuscous Honeyeaters, Mistletoebirds, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikes, and Scarlet and Crescent Honeyeaters.

Other species are sometimes seen moving through with the migrating flocks — even species that aren't normally considered migratory. It almost seems as if they get caught up in the excitement and can't resist joining in!

When do they migrate?

The migrating flocks normally come through from about the last week of March until around mid-May. They fly on most (but not all) fine-weather mornings but generally not when the weather is overcast, windy or raining. Numbers are usually greatest around mid to late morning (e.g. between 9 and 11am) if the weather is suitable.

There is a return (southward) migration in spring (August—November) but this is usually less spectacular than the autumn migration.

Where are they coming from/going to?

The short answer is that they are going north. A more specific answer is not so easy. They are coming from their breeding territories throughout the southern parts of their range, perhaps Victoria, perhaps the high country of NSW, and heading to their winter feeding areas. These winter feeding areas might vary from one year to the next according to conditions.

One important wintering area is in the banksia heathlands on the NSW north coast or Queensland. In some years, however, many of them head inland to the box-ironbark woodlands west of the Great Dividing Range, but in dry years when there is no flowering inland, most would go to the coast or mountains to feed in banksias or the coastal Swamp Mahogany (Eucalyptus robusta).

In some years the Blue Mountains itself is a big wintering area for these birds. 2000 was such a year. From May to August of that year the banksia-rich forests and heathlands from Woodford to Lithgow were alive with unbelievable numbers of White-naped and Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, Red Wattlebirds and a sprinkling of Noisy Friarbirds, Crescent, Brown-headed, Yellow-tufted and Fuscous Honeyeaters, not to mention the usual large numbers of the resident New Hollands. Narrow Neck, Shipley Plateau and Hassan's Walls were some of the best sites.

In the spring migration of course, they are returning to their breeding areas.

How far does each bird fly?

Very little data has been gathered but from banding studies the longest recorded movements have been:
  • Yellow-faced Honeyeater — 770 km
  • White-naped Honeyeater — 252 km
Remember that these are just the longest recorded movements and actual distances flown by some birds could be much further.

More of this type of data can be found on the Australian Bird Study Association website [check out the banding recoveries page].

Both these species are actually partial migrants, which means that some of the population doesn't migrate at all.

Silvereyes sometimes migrate at night. This bird is race lateralis which breeds in Tasmania, with buff-chestnut flanks and a whitish throat. Photo Nevil Lazarus.
How do they navigate?

I don't really know the answer to this but I suspect it's a combination of the sun's position (judged according to time of day), memory of familiar features (a memorised map), and possibly detection of the earth's magnetic field.

Do they migrate at night?

Silvereyes can often be heard flying over in the dark early hours of the morning during early autumn. As far as I'm aware, the honeyeaters don't migrate at night.

How high do they fly?

They fly in short hops at treetop level, resting frequently and regrouping in the most prominent trees. This and their daytime-flying habit makes them easy birds to observe on migration.

Where can they be seen?

Through the Blue Mountains they follow particular pathways which are determined by topography and vegetation. As they come up the deep valleys such as the Jamison, they reach the cliffline and are funnelled into the major gullies where there's a break in the cliff and it's a bit easier to move up onto the plateau. You can see the flocks working their way up from ledge to ledge at Wentworth Falls, Valley of the Waters and Katoomba Falls for example.

Once on the plateau, they follow creeklines, clifftops or corridors of vegetation through the towns. Narrow Neck is a particularly good place to see them flying along the top of the escarpments. Large numbers also cross Shipley Road at a point where they emerge from Blackheath Glen after flying up from the Megalong Valley.

Outside the Blue Mountains, the Canberra region is a well-known area for seeing large numbers of them. For example in the ACT (Australian Capital Territory), many are observed each year crossing the Murrumbidgee River corridor at specific points.

Press Release, April 2006

An edited version of the following article was published in the Blue Mountains Gazette, 3rd May 2006 (page 21), as "The hidden delight in our Mountains skies".

Yellow-faced Honeyeater. Photo Nevil Lazarus.

Every autumn the Blue Mountains is the setting of one the the most spectacular and amazing bird phenomena in Australia — the annual honeyeater migration — and this season has been the best in many years according to local birding guide Carol Probets. Observant residents who happen to live along the migration pathways might have noticed many thousands of these sparrow-sized birds streaming past in recent weeks. As they fly northwards they funnel up the gullies following cliffs and creeklines, streaming through the mountain townships at treetop level in their never-ending push towards their winter feeding areas. Their journeys are punctuated by frequent rests in the tops of trees and it is then that you might be able to see the distinguishing features of these incredible little travellers.

They are predominantly two species: Yellow-faced and White-naped Honeyeaters. The Yellow-faced is a fairly non-descript greyish-brown bird with a yellow stripe throught the face as the name suggests, while the White-naped is slightly smaller with a clean white breast, green back and black cap. Its name refers to a small white crescent-shaped line at the back of the neck, and if you get a really close look at one you'll notice it also has a little patch of bright red bare skin above the eye.

Their flight calls are a characteristic sound of autumn - a brisk "chip chip..." from the Yellow-faced and more liquid "mew mew mew..." from the White-naped, continuously filling the air as they fly. A sound that, for Carol, really conjures up the feeling of autumn.

Carol regularly counts these birds as they stream up from the top of The Gully at Katoomba. "I count for a period of 15 minutes and then multiply that figure by four to get an hourly rate and this way I can compare the numbers that are travelling through from one day to the next and from one year to the next. On a good migration day I would see something in the order of 4000 birds per hour passing over at a single location. This year, the numbers have been phenomenal. On 22nd April there were 7200 per hour going over my house and a couple of days later 6000 per hour. Considering that they were flying for 3-4 hours during those mornings I estimated around 20,000 honeyeaters passed over my street on each of those days. Multiply that by each day they migrate (most fine-weather mornings from late March to mid May) and by each of the various pathways that they follow through the area, and you end up with mind-boggling numbers.

"The last few years have been especially poor migration years, the drought obviously being a factor, so it's really heartening to see such fabulous numbers this year.

"There's so much we don't know about these birds. We don't know exactly where they're going to and coming from, apart from the fact that they're moving from their various breeding locations to their winter feeding grounds, which might be banksia heathlands on the north coast or it might be the box-ironbark woodlands west of the divide. This no doubt changes from year to year. Banding studies have shown individual honeyeaters can fly more than 700km. Why are we seeing so many this year? Is it because they've had a particularly good breeding season, or is it because they're not travelling by other routes that they might usually follow?"

Good places to see them include Narrow Neck at Katoomba, Darwin's Walk at Wentworth Falls, and Shipley Road near the top of Megalong Valley Road, Blackheath.

If you live along a migration route or have noticed particularly large numbers of these birds in your area, Carol would love to hear from you.


© 2006 C. Probets,