NATURE

by VIC JAKES

Wow! An incident occurred recently that left me astounded by the behavior of a tiny bird which is, by almost any birdwatcher’s assessment, a very special sighting. The bird I am referring to is the white-eared monarch (Carterornis leucotis), which is endemic and restricted to a narrow coastal band from the tip of Cape York down the eastern coast of Queensland and just into northern New South Wales, where it is regarded as vulnerable. 

Although officially classed as uncommon, and the overall population size is unknown, the status of this bird, due to its significant range, is reassuringly of ‘least concern’. Nevertheless, for most Australians a sighting would result in a welcome ‘tick’ on their bird list. I have been in Australia for approaching 20 years and have gained fleeting glimpses of these delightful birds on, perhaps, a dozen occasions, with just a few opportunities to grab some second-rate photographs. 

A visit last month by a pair of these delightful birds revealed information that left me aghast. I have, over the years, been able to coax wild birds to venture close to me by offering food treats, but such close encounters demanded patience and a gradual building of their confidence. With this pair of white-eared monarchs, however, my attempt to photograph them was practically thwarted by the brazen approaches of one of the birds, without any food bribery, often to within a foot or so and therefore too near for the camera to focus. The little bird calmly repeated these close visits for at least 15 minutes and seemed to be totally without fear of contact with me. Is this normal? I really have no idea but I have never encountered any other truly wild bird that seemed so utterly oblivious to the potential threat from humans. 

While white-eared monarchs migrate from north to south and vice versa to avoid the coldest months, a study has further concluded that, here in Queensland’s south-east, they are also altitudinal migrants, moving from higher ground, such as the Blackall Range, down to the warmer lowland areas of the Sunshine Coast during the colder winter weather, resulting in birds potentially being seen here at any time of the year. Although male and female are superficially similar, these insect-eating birds can be distinguished by the more prominent white head markings of the male, and the slightly greyer back plumage of the female, although certain identification of the sexes in the field can be difficult.

This smallest of the monarch flycatchers builds a small, deep cup nest high in the upper canopy of a rainforest tree using grass, small bark strips and leaves, bound together with spider webs, then disguised with green moss and white spider egg cases. Due to its tiny size and location, the nests are extremely hard to see. Indeed, it is reported that it took 70 years from when the bird was first reported to the discovery, in 1923, of the first nest. Two small pale fawn eggs, blotched with brown, are laid, with both parents active in nest-building, incubation and feeding of the young. 

I reflect on my most memorable close encounter with this delightful little bird and wonder ‘was it unique?’ or have others also experienced the unusual ‘friendliness’ of a white-eared monarch?