Birds & birding in the Blue Mountains & Capertee Valley, Australia
The Capertee Valley: page 2


1. Introduction and birds of the valley
» 2. Vegetation and habitats
3. Advice for visitors: facilities, accommodation, weather, etc.
4. Directions to the valley (print-friendly format)

Crested Shrike-tit. Photo Nevil Lazarus.

Vegetation and habitat

It's ironic that the prime bird habitat is on the richer soils of the valley floor where farming is the major land-use. Most of the special Capertee Valley birds are not in national parks or reserves but on private properties and along roadsides. On a national scale, this is the great misfortune for woodland birds. Fortunately the Capertee Valley has hung onto some of its best woodland and, with the co-operation of landowners, an ongoing programme of tree planting is helping to regain some of what has inevitably been lost.

In order to look for birds effectively you need some basic botanical knowledge. In particular, the occurrence of nectar-feeding species is linked to the flowering of suitable plants. The following is not meant to be a complete classification of all the bird habitats in the valley, but a description of some of the most important things to look for and understand in order to find birds.

Box-ironbark woodland is so named because it's dominated by eucalyptus trees of the "box" and "ironbark" groups. Trees are well spaced and the understorey often consists of native grasses, hence there is some overlap with the term "grassy woodland".

Striped Honeyeater. Photo Nevil Lazarus.
Generally, ground-feeding birds are well represented in this habitat (especially where there is a lack of shrubby understorey), e.g. Jacky Winter, White-winged Choughs, Speckled Warbler, Rufous Songlark, Hooded Robin, Common Bronzewing and the babblers. Even the Brown Treecreeper, unlike its relatives the White-throated and Red-browed of the denser forests closer to the coast, spends much of its time on the ground.

When conditions are right, the box-ironbark is transformed into a feast of nectar with the flowering of the eucalypts. At times like this it becomes one of the most lively and dynamic birding experiences in Australia with sometimes a dozen or more species of honeyeaters and lorikeets constantly flying to and fro, chasing one another and jostling for position amongst the blossom.

The problem is, the particular eucalypts which are the best providers of nectar can be irregular in their flowering and don't necessarily bloom every year. For example, White Box might flower really well only once in 4 or 5 years. It's no wonder some Australian nectar-feeding birds are nomadic, without an easily predictable pattern of movements. It's what can make birding so exciting and challenging here — and this irregularity of flowering is probably part of the reason that habitat loss has affected the Regent Honeyeater even more severely than many other birds.

The most important nectar trees in the Capertee Valley are:
  • White Box (Eucalyptus albens) can be identified by its pale grey, rough bark (rough over the entire trunk and large branches), often with large whitish bleached patches, and broad grey or bluish-grey leaves. The buds are glaucous (covered with a white wax which makes them appear whitish or bluish). The similar-looking Grey Box has greener leaves which aren't as broad. White Box is often a low-branching, spreading tree; it grows best on the more fertile soils on gentle slopes. The flowering period is stated variously in books as being March to May or Jan to June, but in this area it seems to flower more in winter from about May through to July–August, and sometimes even later.

  • Yellow Box (Eucalyptus melliodora) is a large spreading tree which grows on the fertile river flats and nearby footslopes. Its bark is extremely variable, ranging from very coarse to fibrous and flaky and may cover the whole trunk or may decorticate above a short stocking to reveal smooth white or yellowish bark beneath. Its adult leaves are light green to grey, fairly narrow and pendulous. The flowering period is spring–summer and in the Capertee may start as early as August.

  • Mugga Ironbark (Eucalyptus sideroxylon), like all the ironbarks, has hard, dark, deeply furrowed bark. In the Mugga Ironbark this bark is black and persistent to the small branches. The leaves are dull greyish green, while the buds, flowers and fruit hang on long slender stalks. The flowers may be white/cream or pink to red — this is the only local eucalypt which can have pink or red flowers. It tends to grow on clayey or gravelly ridges. According to most books, flowering time is April or May to October, but in the Capertee Valley its peak flowering is often around November to January.

  • Blakely's Red Gum (Eucalyptus blakelyi) can also be an important nectar tree. Its bark is smooth and is shed in large irregular plates or flakes, leaving white, grey, yellow or pink patches. The distinctive fruit (nuts) are small with 3-4 sharp projecting valves. The flowering period is generally August to December.
Note that apart from some Mugga, all local eucalypts have white to cream coloured flowers. Photos will be added here at a later date. The brief descriptions above are meant as a general guide only — for definite identification please consult an appropriate book (e.g. Brooker & Kleinig, A Field Guide to Eucalypts Volume 1: South-eastern Australia, 2nd ed. 1999). A sample of the buds, flowers or fruit (i.e. gumnuts) is usually needed for accurate identification of eucalypts.

Immature Eastern Spinebill feeding in flowering Box Mistletoe. Photo Nevil Lazarus.
Mistletoe is a fascinating and important feature of the habitat. It's a parasitic plant forming distinctive clumps hanging from the branches of its host trees. Australian mistletoes in the family Loranthaceae are a rich source of nectar when in flower, and subsequently produce sweet sticky fruit in abundance, a resource highly prized by the Mistletoebird and Painted Honeyeater, among others. (The relationship between mistletoe and the Mistletoebird is a good example of symbiosis, the bird both relying on the mistletoe fruit for its survival and acting as the plant's dispersal agent.)

Its abundance is highest in disturbed habitats and isolated trees, which makes it especially valuable when habitat has been lost or degraded. The Box Mistletoe (Amyema miquelii) is associated with many of the eucalypts in the valley and in this area flowers mainly around March–April. From September onwards it becomes laden with fruit.

The tiny Mistletoebird feeds predominantly on mistletoe fruit.
Photo Nevil Lazarus.
Along the rivers and major creeks grow large trees with wispy pine-like foliage. These are not pines at all but Casuarina cunninghamiana or River Oak (also called she-oak). Look closer and you might see the Needle-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema cambagei), whose leaves mimic the foliage of its host tree. Flowering in spring, this mistletoe is an important nectar source for Regent Honeyeaters during their breeding season so it's no wonder that many of their most important breeding sites today are along the river. (Before the impact of land clearing, Yellow Box would have been a much more abundant source of food for Regents and other nectarivores during their breeding season.) In summer the fruit of this mistletoe attracts Painted Honeyeaters to the riverside areas.

A different type of she-oak which grows away from the river, higher on the ridges and slopes, is Allocasuarina verticillata, or Drooping She-oak. This small tree constitutes the main habitat in the area for the highly specialised Glossy Black-Cockatoo, which feeds on the seeds. There's a good stand of these small trees along the roadside between the Coco Creek and Crown Creek bridges.

In rocky areas the native cypress or Callitris grows, small upright conifers sometimes forming almost pure stands. There are no birds which are uniquely associated with these areas, however birds you might find here sometimes include White-browed Babblers, Eastern Yellow Robins, Red-capped Robins and occasionally Gilbert's Whistler, among others. Amongst the cypress woodland along Port Macquarie Road grows a rare Grevillea, a low shrub which attracts various small honeyeaters to its red flowers in spring.

Around the edges of the valley are the scree slopes, steep rocky but vegetated hillsides leading up to the towering sandstone cliffs. Characteristic trees here include the Scribbly Gum, Grey Gum, Slaty Box and Capertee Stringybark, to name a few. These areas are difficult for the average birder to access without going through private property, however there are a few spots near Glen Davis where access is possible for energetic birders (for example, the Newnes Track).

Bird species characteristic of the rocky scree slopes include the Spotted Quail-thrush, Rockwarbler, Yellow-tufted Honeyeater and in summer, the White-throated Nightjar. Turquoise Parrots are quite often found in the extensive woodland at the foot of these slopes.

Also around the valley's edges, and along the river downstream from Glen Davis in the Wollemi National Park, are pockets of wetter forest with a more closed canopy and/or a denser shrubby undergrowth, where you may find birds normally associated with more coastal areas, for example, Bell Miner, Wonga Pigeon, Brush Bronzewing and Superb Lyrebird.

Exotic fruit trees around homesteads, roadsides and settled areas (e.g. Coco Creek bridge and Glen Davis) attract fruit-eating birds such as King-Parrots, Satin Bowerbirds and occasionally Gang-gang Cockatoos.

Hooded Robins. Drawing Fiona Lumsden.
Finally, it's impossible to ignore the extensive cleared areas. In its original state, virtually all of the valley floor would have been covered in woodland and forest. The clear grassy stretches are a result of land clearing, used either for grazing or for fodder crops such as lucerne. These areas now provide feeding habitat for Australian Pipit, Rufous Songlark, Singing Bushlark, Southern Whiteface, finches such as the Zebra, Double-barred and Plum-headed, and hunting grounds for raptors. Superb Fairy-wrens and the abovementioned finches abound where brambles or shrubby growth provides cover.

In winter, Jacky Winters, White-winged Choughs and the red robins can be seen in the open paddocks. The endless fences have become the new, convenient perches and easy places for a birder to spot birds on.

Remnant box-eucalypt trees typical of the partly-cleared grazing land on the valley floor. A large mistletoe can be seen near the centre of the photo. Photo CP.

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Top of page Capertee Valley banner: Mt Gundangaroo cliffs, detail from a photo by CP.


© 2006 C. Probets,