Ian’s Bird of the Week – Tomtit

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala) by IanIan’s Bird of the Week – Tomtit ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter – 10/30/15

Last week we had the Snares Penguin and I made a passing reference to the locally endemic race of the Tomtit, so here is it and two of the other four New Zealand races of the Tomtit as this week’s choice. It’s called a Tit after the European Tits family Paridae which includes the North American Chicadees) but it’s not one of these but an Australasian Robin (Petroicidae), which in turn were named after the European Robin but don’t belong to its family either (Muscicapidae). The Tomtit’s closest relative is the Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) which in turn is very close related the Scarlet Robin of Australia.

A friend of mine who is a member of the bird of the week club but not a birdwatcher as such expressed confusion over subspecies (or races) and species, so I Googled a couple of references which might be useful: 1. a simple explanation2. Wikipedia and 3. a more scholarly one. I talk about them a lot as I’m interested in the classification of birds (taxonomy) and their evolution and biogeography (how they got to where they are) so here is a brief description.

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala) by Ian

A (biological) species is the fundamental unit (‘taxon’) of the classification of organisms, both plants and animals. It’s fundamental in the sense that it is considered reproductively isolated (genetic differences are supposed to be such that interbreeding across species boundaries isn’t possible or at least doesn’t produce fertile offspring). From a bird-watching point of view, a species is what you add to lists, whether your life list, your national list, your annual list, your yard list, or your annual bird list… The possibilities are endless but in the competitive world of ‘twitching’, a species is as important as a referees decision about a goal or score in football or tennis.

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala marrineri) by IanNothing in biology is ever quite so simple, so the differences between various taxonomic levels (species, genus, family, order … going up and species, subspecies going down) are really part of a continuum. At the lower levels – genus, species and sub-species – the degree of genetic separation and therefore reproductive isolation varies a lot. Some groups are particularly troublesome as apparently quite different ‘species’ have a taxonomically irritating tendency to hybridise. Among birds, the diving ducks of the genus Aythya come to mind and among plants the orchids are notorious for spreading their genes around. Subspecies or races (using the terms interchangeably) are usually geographically isolated so they don’t get the chance to interbreed and are usually sufficiently different to be identifiable in the field. That means if you’re a birdwatcher, you can make lists of them too…

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala marrineri) by Ian

The eighteen century Swedish scientist and physician Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the father of modern taxonomy as he invented the binomial – double-name – system that is still in use today. This was a century before Darwin, so Linnaeus was concerned, lucky man, with only degree of similarity. He classified types of organisms as belonging to a genus (‘family’ in Latin) represented by the first name, e.g. Anas (Latin for ‘duck’) and a species, e.g. platyrhychos (Greek for ‘broad-billed’) to name the Mallard and distinguish it from say the similar Gadwall, Anas strepera, where ‘strepera’ is derived from the Latin for ‘noisy’. There is no linguistic rule to prevent mixing of languages but adjectival species names usually agree in gender with the genus, something of a challenge when one name comes from Greek and the other from Latin.

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala dannefaerdi) by IanNeedless to say, taxonomists have added many levels since, but orders, families, genera and species are the most important. To accommodate races or subspecies a third name was added the binomial system making it trinomial. The first race of a species to be named is called the nominate race, and the name of the race, if any, must be the same as the name of the species. So the nominate race of the Tomtit Petroica macrocephala is Petroica macrocephala macrocephala(Petroica is Greek for ‘rock-dwelling’ and macrocephala is Greek for ‘big-headed’). Any additional subspecies described later will be called Petroica macrocephala somethingelse.

Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala dannefaerdi) by Ian

Sorry, that was supposed to be a brief description so let’s get back to Tomtits. The first two photos show the nominate race which occurs on the South Island of New Zealand. The male is black and white with a yellow breast; the female is grey-brown with a white belly. This pair was in an Antarctic Beech forest – quite Lord of the Rings – near Cascade Creek in Fiordland and both birds were busy feeding nestlings. The male has a juicy green caterpillar and a large mosquito in his bill.

The third and fourth photos are male and female examples of the Auckland Islands race marrineri on Enderby Island one of the Auckland Islands group. Both males are females are mainly black and white, the male being glossier with only a trace of yellow on the breast. The race is named after New Zealand biologist George Marriner who took part in the 1907 Sub-Antarctic Islands Scientific Expedition.

The Snares race dannefaerdi is the most distinctive, photos 5 and 6, with both sexes being completely black, the male again being glossier than the female. It is named after Sigvard Dannefaerd who was a Danish collector and photographer based in New Zealand and the original specimen was from his collection but ended up with the second Baron Rothschild who described it.

Back at the Birdway website, I’m continuing to redevelop it for mobile devices and the latest changes include the Bird of the Week page and I am gradually working my way through the various families in taxonomic sequence (that word again!): MegapodesChachalacas and GuansGuineafowlNew World Quails and, in progress, the Ducks, Geese and Swans.


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
Bird Photos http://www.birdway.com.au/

Recorder Society http://www.nqrs.org.au

Lee’s Addition:

The little birds (sparrows) have places for themselves, where they may put their young, even your altars, O Lord of armies, my King and my God. (Psalms 84:3 BBE)

What cute little birds. I am glad the Lord saw fit to create birds in so many different sizes. Looks like Ian has been busy working on his website. I am sure he would appreciate you looking around again for his improvements.

Ian’s Bird of the Week

Ian’s Petroicidae Family

Petroicidae – Australasian Robins Family



Ian’s Bird of the Week – Pacific Robin

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 1

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 1

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Pacific Robin ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter – 3/25/12

The Pacific Robin was another bird that I was keen to photograph on Norfolk Island. It has only recently been split from the mainland Scarlet Robin and, until that happened, it attracted little attention. As a consequence, I had trouble sourcing photos, particularly of adult males, and getting reliable material for the description of the species for the digital version of the Australian field guide by Pizzey and Knight.

It’s not common on Norfolk Island with an estimated population of 400-500 species and its distribution is restricted to areas of native forest. Happily, there was a resident family at the place, Palm Glen, where we did regular evening vigils for the Norfolk Island Parakeet and, being more confiding than Scarlet Robins, the members of the family proved to be good subjects for photography. The first photo shows the adult male. At first glance, it looks like a small Scarlet Robin, but closer examination reveals the diagnostic lack of white on the flight feathers of the wing and the outer tail feathers: the only white on the wing is the secondary wing coverts. Another supposed difference is a smaller area of white on the forehead, but this bird at least seemed to me to show much more white, extending back to a point above  the rear of the eyes. If you’re interested, compare with http://www.birdway.com.au/petroicidae/scarlet_robin/index.htm .
Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 2

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 2 Fem L-Juv R

The second photo shows the adult female, left, and the juvenile, right, posing obligingly for comparison. Both lack the obvious white forehead spot characteristic of, in fact diagnostic of, their Scarlet Robin counterparts and also lack white in the outer tail feathers. The colours are also richer and the wing stripes are a deeper buff, almost blending with the buffish-brown of the rest of the wings and back. The third photos shows the same female face-on, and the lack of the white spot is more obvious: there is only slight white scalloping.

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 3 Fem

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 3 Fem

The fourth photo is another shot of the same juvenile, showing the lack of white on the outer tail feathers.
Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 4 Juv

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 4 Juv

Having noticed the large amount of white on the forehead of the male, I kept an eye out for another individual and eventually photographed this one, fifth photo, on nearby Mount Pitt. This too had a large white spot.

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 5

Pacific Robin (Petroica multicolor) by Ian 5

The Pacific Robin, as now described, is quite widely distributed on islands in the South Pacific from the Solomons in the north via Vanuata and Fiji to Norfolk Island in the south. It is quite variable in plumage and 14 races have been described. It is closely related to the Tomtit of New Zealand, the males of which vary in colour from the white-breasted (North Island), through yellow-breasted (South Island) to the complete black race on the Snares: http://www.birdway.com.au/petroicidae/tomtit/index.htm. There is clearly enough material here to keep a South-sea-island-loving taxonomist busy for at least a lifetime and I won’t say anything further except to note an interesting historical twist in the story of the splitting of the Pacific and Scarlet Robins.

Norfolk Island was settled in the same year as Sydney, 1788, and one result of that was that the Scarlet Robin was described using a Norfolk Island specimen (the type specimen) by German Naturalist Johann Gmelin in 1789 and given the specific name multicolor. When the species was split 210 years later, the rules governing taxonomy insist that this name remains with the Norfolk Island bird, so the mainland species becomes the new one and was named boodang after the SE Australian race (up till thenPetroica multicolour boodang). To avoid confusion in Australia (at the risk maybe of increasing it in the Pacific Islands) the common name Scarlet was transferred to the new species and the new name Pacific was given to the old species.

I’m sure this family of birds at Palm Glen would be astounded to learn that their kind is the subject of such intense scrutiny!

Best wishes


Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Tel 0411 602 737 ian@birdway.com.au
>Check the latest website updates:

Lee’s Addition:

He answered and said to them, “When it is evening you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red’; (Matthew 16:2 NKJV)

Those changes aught to keep the Bird Guide writers busy keeping up with the divisions and name changing. What a gorgeous bird and fantastic photography. Thanks again, Ian, for sharing all these great birds.

It seems small in the photos, so I checked to see its size. “The Pacific Robin is a small passerine, 4.5-5.3 in (11.5–13.5 cm) long and weighing .31-.38 oz (9–11 g.) Over much of its range it is the smallest species of bird. Pretty small.

The Pacific Robin is in the Petroicidae – Australasian Robins Family. Also see Ian’s Petroicidae  Family.

“The Pacific Robin is a seasonal breeder, although the timing of the breeding season varies across its range. Information on the timing of the season is patchy or absent in many islands. On Norfolk Island the breeding season is from September to December, and in Vanuatu the season is from October to January. Parents with young have been seen in mid August in the Solomon Islands and in June through to September in Samoa. The species builds a compact nest which is a cup of plant fibres and spider webs. The outside of the nest is decorated with moss and lichen, and is therefore easily overlooked. The nest is usually set into a fork or stump on a tree branch, or on a horizontal branch.

Around two to four eggs are laid in each clutch, with two being the typical clutch size in Norfolk Island, and two to three being typical in Fiji. The eggs are dull grey or greenish, and are incubated by the female. The nests of Pacific Robins are parastised by Fan-tailed Cuckoos where the two species co-occur.” (Wikipedia)

See – Pacific Robin (Wikipedia)


Ian’s Bird of the Week – Scarlet Robin

Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang) by Ian

Scarlet Robin (Petroica boodang) by Ian

Ian’s Bird of the Week – Scarlet Robin ~ by Ian Montgomery

Newsletter and holiday wish – 12-24-10

Christmas and New Year is a time for tradition not (egregious) originality so here, without apology, is a Scarlet Robin to wish you season’s greeting. Okay, it’s not the classical European Robin – which featured as Bird of the Week on Christmas 2005 – but perhaps the closest we can get to in Australia. In fact, as a member of the Australo-Papuan Robins – the Petroicidae – rather than the Old World Flycatchers – the Muscicapidae – it’s not even closely related, but I don’t think science is very important when it comes to symbolism.

Anyway, whatever your creed or beliefs, I wish you a safe and peaceful holiday season and a fulfilling and happy 2011.

I also offer you an apology. I’ve just noticed that I sent an email, intended for the committee members of Birds Australia North Queenland, to the bird of the week list on the 14 December. I’m sorry if I mystified you but fortunately the email contained nothing controversial!

Australo-Papuan Robins
Old World Flycatchers
Eurasian Robin

Best wishes,

Ian Montgomery, Birdway Pty Ltd,
454 Forestry Road, Bluewater, Qld 4818
Phone: +61-7 4751 3115
Preferred Email: ian@birdway.com.au
Website: http://birdway.com.au

Lee’s Addition:

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you also, Ian. Trust you enjoy the holidays and that in 2011 you find lots of more neat birds to introduce us to in your Bird of the Week articles. Always enjoy reading about your birdwatching adventures where ever you roam. You do seem to get around quite a bit.

My son, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments, for length of days and years of life and peace they will add to you. (Proverbs 3:1-2 ESV)

What a neat little bird. The Scarlet Robin is in the Petroicidae Family as Ian said and that family is in the Passeriformes Order.

See all of Ian’s Birds of the Week.