Ian’s Bird of the Week – Small Lifou White-eye (and random Sacred Kingfisher) ~ by Ian Montgomery
Newsletter – 8/27/15
I’m a night-owl, as you may know already, so here is a photo of a noteworthy event: boarding a flight to the Loyalty Islands in complete darkness at 6:00am at Magenta, the domestic airport in Noumea. The goal was to check out several endemic species of birds that occur on two of the Loyalty Islands, Lifou and Ouvéa. The Lifou endemics were supposed to be easy to find near the airport, so we spent a morning there looking for them on foot before flying on to Ouvéa where we had booked a rental car and accommodation for the night (more about Ouvéa next time).
The Loyalty Islands, part of the French Territory of New Caledonia, are supposedly named after an obscure whaling ship called Loyalty or Loyalist built in Nova Scotia in 1788 that is thought to have come across them in 1790. The first recorded Western contact was three years later when another whaler, the Britannia, found them on a voyage from Norfolk Island to Batavia. Melanesians settled the islands about 3000 years ago and the French annexed them in the mid-nineteenth century.
Lifou has two endemic White-eyes, cousins of the Silvereye which also occurs there. The endemic ones are called, accurately but unimaginatively, the Small and Large Lifou White-eyes. The small one we found without difficulty and it is indeed small with a length of 10-11cm/4-4-4.3in and weighting 7.5-9g/0.26-0.31g. Its diagnostic feature is the white flanks, most obvious in the third of its photos.
We search quite hard but unsuccessfully for the Large Lifou White-eye. It’s very large for a White-eye (15cm/6in) making it even larger than the Giant White-eye (Megazosterops palauensis) of Palau. Interestingly both of these large species lack the white eye-rings that gives them, and the Silvereye, their common names. The Small Lifou White-eye feeds mainly on insects while the large one shows a preference for fruit. This specialisation in diet and divergence in size is to expected in similar species occupying the same habitat, but these two seem to have taken it to extremes.
The Small Lifou White-eye is close related to the slightly larger Green-backed White-eye (fourth White-eye photo). It occurs on the main island of Grande Terre, the Isle of Pines (south of Grande Terre) and on Maré southwest of Lifou. Meanwhile there are three local races of the Silvereye, one on Grande Terre and the Isle of Pines, another on Maré and Ouvéa and the third on Lifou.
This complex pattern of colonisation and speciation is typical of members of the family, the Zosteropidae. This is a very successful Old World family with almost 100 species in Africa, Asia and Australasia. They seem to be experts at colonizing out of the way islands, occurring on many islands in the Indian and eastern Pacific Oceans, where they settle down and develop new races and species. White-eyes are very sociable, so it is easy to imagine flocks being blown around by storms or cyclones and making landfall in sufficient numbers to colonise new places.
For the random bird of the week, here’s another species that is good at island hopping, the Sacred Kingfisher. Well known throughout all but the driest parts of mainland Australia it also occurs on some southwest Pacific islands including those of New Zealand and New Caledonia. It has one race on Grande Terre and the Isle of Pines and, you guessed it, another one on the Loyalty Islands, below. This race has very buff underparts and a shorter, slightly flattened bill.
Finishing on a quite unrelated matter, you may have come across recent news, if you live in Australia, about the ultimate in elusive birds , the Night Parrot and the work that Steve Murphy has been doing since its rediscovery by John Young. Bush Heritage Australia is raising money to create a sanctuary to protect this population in southwest Queensland. I’ve already made my (modest) donation and I’d ask you to do so too using this link to make a very practical contribution (yours doesn’t need to be modest) to conserving a very special bird.
Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/
Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au
Do you not say, ‘There are still four months and then comes the harvest’? Behold, I say to you, lift up your eyes and look at the fields, for they are already white for harvest! (John 4:35 NKJV)
I love those EYES! Every since learning about the White-eyes, they have become one of my favorite species. Thanks, Ian for sharing these adorable birds with us. Kingfishers are also a favorite.
My problem is that when I use my “eyes” to view the Lord’s fantastic birds, how can I not have a problem figuring out which ones are my “most” favorites. I love all of the Lord’s Avian Wonders. I trust you do also.