Ian’s Bird of the Week – Varied Sittella

Female Varied Sittella  (Daphoenositta chrysoptera) by Ian

Female Varied Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera) by Ian

Like the Australian Ringneck of last week, here is another variable species that occurs in easily recognizable races in different regions of mainland Australia: the Varied Sittella. I updated the Sittella gallery on the website on Saturday to include the southern ‘Black-capped Sittella’ and the nominate ‘Orange-winged Sittella’ that I’d recently photographed in South Australia and Victoria. Then, on Monday, when camping with friends in White Mountains National Park between Charters Towers and Hughendon, we came across the northeastern race, the ‘Striated Sittella’, so I’ve added 5 photos of this race to the gallery (http://www.birdway.com.au/neosittidae/varied_sittella/index.htm).
The first photo, the rather dapper-looking, left-facing bird with a dark head is a female Striated Sittella, while the drabber, right-facing bird is a male. Unlike other birds in which drabber males are characteristic of reproductive role reversals, that isn’t the case here, and, to add to the confusion, in some races of Sittellas the male is the smarter one and in one race (the White-headed) both genders are similarly smart.

Male Varied Sittella  (Daphoenositta chrysoptera) by Ian

Male Varied Sittella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera) by Ian

Sittellas are tiny (11 – 13 cm./4.3 – 5 in. long) and usually hang around (literally) in small groups in the upper branches of trees, so are easily overlooked. They are most easily detected when they fly chattering frantically from one tree to another, and when they do so their pale wing bars (white in some races, orange in others) and stubby appearance are distinctive. They search for insects and spiders in bark and timber and not only are they proficient at hanging upside down, but it is their preferred mode of locomotion and, unlike treecreepers, they work their way downwards from the crowns of trees.

If you are familiar with the Nuthatches () of Eurasia and North America, you’ll already have been struck by the resemblance, and the name Sittella is derived from Sitta, the name of the Nuthatch genus. The similarity is due to convergent evolution as the two groups are not closely related. The family name for Nuthatches is Sittidae, while the Sittellas have their own family, the Neosittidae, or new Sittidae. There are only two species, the Varied Sittella of Australia and the Black Sittella of New Guinea.

The five flavours of the Sittellas are, starting with the nominate race and working clock-wise around Australia:

  • The Orange-winged Sittella – Most of NSW and Victoria;
  • The Black-capped Sittella (pileata) – South Australia and Southern Western Australia;
  • The White-winged Sittella (leucoptera) – Northern Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Northwestern and Central Queensland;
  • The Striated Sittella (striata) – Northeastern Queensland;
  • The White-headed Sittella (leucocephala) – Central and Southeastern Queensland and Northeastern NSW.

There are now representatives of all these races except the White-headed on the website (http://www.birdway.com.au/neosittidae/varied_sittella/index.htm).
Best wishes,

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

Lee’s Additions:
These newsletters are not necessarily in the correct order as Ian wrote them. I am still catching up.
They are similar to our “nuthatches” but not in the same family or do they build their nest the same. “The feet of the Varied Sitella are small but with very long toes for clinging onto branches. They move in spirals down trees, searching for food, and even hang below branches.” from the first article listed below.
Birds in the Backyards – Varied Sittella from Australia has the best information.

SITTELLAS Neosittidae from the Bird Families of the World, has some information.

The Internet Bird Collection has several videos of the Varied Sittella. All taken by Geoffrey Dabb (Videos used with his permission)