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Regent Honeyeater

Xanthomyza phrygia

A striking bush nomad at home in the treetops

Conservation Status

Critically endangered species in NSW (TSC Act). It is also listed as an endangered and migratory species at a national level in the EPBC Act.

What does it look like?

Regent Honey EaterThis beautiful honeyeater has a vivid yellow and black scalloped pattern on its lower breast and back. During flight, you might see the brilliant yellow patches on its wings and tail feathers. The rest of its body is mainly black, with the exception of an unusual patch of featherless skin around the eyes.  This can be dark pink or cream-coloured. You can recognise a female bird by looking for a smaller patch of skin around the eye. Male birds are also usually larger, with a darker colouring.

The call of the Regent Honeyeater is soft and bell-like; you may hear them calling most frequently during non-breeding season, from February to June.
Adult Regent Honeyeaters weigh 35-50 grams and measure up to 24 cm long.  It wingspan is around 30cm.

 Where does it live?

The Regent Honeyeater was once common in eastern Australia, especially on the inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range.  The continuous clearing of eucalypt forests has seen 75% of its suitable habitat being removed.  Sadly, the Regent Honeyeater now has a severely reduced distribution.

Now, there are only three known key breeding areas left. The population of the Regent Honeyeater is less than 1,500 and it looks like this will continue to decline.

In general, the Regent Honeyeater lives in temperate woodlands and open forest that are usually also rich with other species of fauna, particularly birds. Its ideal habitat is woodland with a large number of mature trees (especially box ironbark) with dense foliage forming a forest canopy.  This ensures a high flow of nectar when the trees flower. In addition, it needs a shrubby under storey, which is the home to insects it can eat.  The Regent Honeyeater will also use the shrubby undergrowth to find its nesting material. Within its present distribution it has declined greatly in numbers and has become much more patchily distributed, disappearing from many areas where it was once regularly recorded.

You may also find the Regent Honeyeater in:

  • Forest edges
  • Wooded farmland
  • Urban areas with patches of eucalypts
  • Coastal heathland and scrub with flowering banksias

The Regent Honeyeater is nomadic and its movements are not completely predictable or fully understood. It can wander over hundreds of kilometres, searching out flowering eucalypts for their nectar. It is partly migratory, moving north in cooler months and returning south to breed in spring. In some districts, it will return each year when the same plants flower. 

In the Pittwater area, Regent Honeyeaters used to be much more common than they are now.  You will see the evident decline in numbers when you look at the history of sightings over the past seventy years:

1938

  • A prolific flowering of various eucalypt species took place over autumn and winter.
  • Large numbers of Regent Honeyeaters were seen at Avalon, Bayview and in other places between April and July, as they took advantage of the abundance of food sources.

1958

  • Flocks of 15-30 birds were reported at Church Point and Bayview.

1998

  • Four birds were observed feeding at the flowers of Swamp Mahogany trees in Irrawong Reserve.

2011

  • There have been no records of this species visiting Pittwater since 1998.

What does it eat?

The Regent Honeyeater will travel long distances to find the sweet nectar that makes up the majority of its diet.  Their movements can be irregular, but the birds appear to return to certain regions, sites and tree species that provide reliable nectar flows.

Once it finds eucalypts in flower, the Regent Honeyeater flies with great agility from tree to tree, quickly collecting nectar and insects with its strong, dark beak.  When nectar is scarce, the Regent Honeyeater will also eat:

  • Insects
  • Lerps (a small bug that lives on gum leaves)
  • Honeydew  (a sweet, sticky substance excreted by aphids)
  • Manna gum (a sweet edible gum obtained from a tree)
  • Fruit

In Pittwater the Swamp Mahogany is the one of the main trees that attracts the Regent Honeyeater.  It flowers in autumn and winter. Stands of these beautiful, tall trees may be important refuges for the Regent Honeyeater when flowering is poor in the box-ironbark woodlands.

For this reason, the Swamp Mahogany provides important habitat for the Regent Honeyeater. Even individual Swamp Mahoganies in gardens, parks and other urban areas can be an important food source for this striking bird, particularly if the trees are large, mature specimens.

Remnant stands of Swamp Mahogany are found in the following areas:

  • Warriewood/Irrawong wetlands
  • Around Bayview Golf Course
  • Toongari Reserve, Avalon

Other important eucalypt and banksia species in the Pittwater area that provide food for the Regent Honeyeater include:

  • Spotted Gum
  • Heath-leaved Banksia
  • Coast Banksia
  • Mistletoes

What is its life cycle?

In the past, the Regent Honeyeater congregated in flocks of 50-100 birds.  Today, numbers are so reduced that birds are found either singly, in pairs or in small groups. The Regent Honeyeater breeds between July and January. They are aboreal and spend most of their time in the upper canopy. Isolated pairs will build find a nest site in horizontal branches or a forks in a mature eucalypts or She-oak.  They may also build a nest in a mistletoe shrub.

Collecting bark, grass, twigs and wool, the female Regent Honeyeater builds an open, cup-shaped nest.  She may also use cobwebs and line her nest with dried grasses. Then she lays two or three reddish-buff coloured eggs. They may have speckled purple-red and violet-grey markings.  The female Regent Honeyeater incubates the eggs; but while she sits alone on the nest, the male bird stays close by in neighbouring trees.

After fourteen days, the nestlings hatch. These little birds are demanding feeders. They are brooded and fed by both parents, who may feed them 23 times an hour!  They grow quickly and fledge after 16 days. 

There are no records of the Regent Honeyeater breeding in Pittwater, even when the species was more common in this area.

What are the threats?

Loss of habitat is the main threat facing the Regent Honeyeater. The main causes of habitat loss include:

  • land clearing
  • agricultural developments
  • overgrazing
  • inappropriate forestry practices – especially the removal of mature “over storey” trees that provide an important source of nectar
  • Firewood harvesting, especially in Box-Ironbark woodlands
  • residential developments

In Pittwater, the loss of stands of Swamp Mahogany and the removal of winter-flowering eucalypts and banksias are particular threats to the Regent Honeyeater.
Other threats include:

  • Competition from other aggressive birds such as the Noisy Miner, Noisy Friarbird and Red Wattlebird
  • Predation on eggs and nests by other native birds
  • Bushfires

What can we do to protect it?

There are many things we can do to protect this unique bird, such as:

  • Conserve remnant bushland especially stands of Swamp Mahoganies, but also other winter-flowering eucalypts and banksias
  • Preserve suitable trees in urban areas
  • Enhance habitat by planting food trees for the Regent Honeyeater
  • Create wildlife corridors
  • Rehabilitate injured, sick or orphaned birds
  • Increase our knowledge of the behaviour and habitat requirements of the Regent Honeyeater in Pittwater

Updated: 18 Jul 2016