Australia’s Smallest Bird on the Move

And we stayed on its way by pure admiration

Male spotted pardalote / Credit: eBird

I was up this Narrow-leaved ash tree (Fraxinus angustifolia) in an earth bank only a few metres from the dwelling. Hidden within shrub leaves, here it was, a tiny little bird flying around us. We didn’t know what it was nor where it wanted to go. Surrounded by plants and dirt, this tree sat on a dead slope that no man ever dared to drag branches out of there easily.

But here we were doing what we didn’t want: removing the poor bastard. I know Ash trees in Adelaide Hills are noxious weeds, and they grow like pimples in oily skin. Or more even like weeds in a vegetable garden. Narrow-leaved ash trees quickly disperse their seeds, reaching distances that only the wind could tell exactly, let alone the root suckers popping up everywhere. Willows and Ash’s trees are common near a deforested creek and river margins, where natives were removed previously.

It is not necessarily bad having these exotic trees replacing the native ones, but we tend to preserve the local habitat as much as possible. In short, we only had to take this tree to knee level and leave the wood in manageable lengths. Nothing outrageous.

That’s when I saw the tiny bird flying in and out of the working area. We didn’t know why it was so close to us when it reached that small shrub near the Ash tree. I had to stop several times to let the boys on the ground appreciate the little maniac getting too close, almost hand feeding.

Pardalote perched / Credit: author

After hours without a clue why the bird was so tamed, we realised later that it was searching for its hollow, blocked by us during the tree removal process. It was a tiny entrance hole located on the upper side of the slope, facing northeast. It was protected by other small trees and a cheap wood retaining wall.

We couldn’t spot what kind of bird was it. Until out of the blue, it flew in between our mate’s arms, almost chasing a tiny mosquito or something. As soon as it perched in a close-by twig, we noticed it was a pardalote. A Spotted Pardalote, to be more precise. We hailed like kids, trying to control our breath at all costs. We could never imagine that this little beauty would be close to us.

For one moment, I thought it was indeed a pardalote by its characteristic two-note call “wit-chu”, sometimes linked by a middle note “do-a dit”. Pardalotes are spread around Mt Lofty ranges to the foothills in the winter months, but we didn’t expect them too close to us in plain spring.

Spotted pardalotes usually breed from July to December, building a spherical nest of soft, dry grasses and bark fibre. Using their short, chisel-shaped bill, spotted pardalotes lever off the sugary covering of leaves (lerps).

We could see the female and male transiting in and out of the hollow, carrying minor bugs, most likely sap-sucking insects called psyllids. These little birds are essential for the health of dominant Eucalyptus trees, cleaning their leaves of possible bugs that, over time, could compromise the tree’s vitality.

Male leaving nest / Credit: author

Just like little kids, we couldn’t avoid pulling our phones and waiting for either male or female to get in and out of the hollow. The male has more prominent features than the female. Looking carefully at the male for the seconds it is perched, you gaze a white strip from the lore to the occiput.

White dots cover most of its back, marginal coverts, secondary coverts, and a bit of the primary. A beautiful yellow-orange colour fills its chin, following down to the lower part of the chest. Even by its rapid body skill, I noticed its stunning flame-like red upper tail coverts, showing its presence for all the females.

Female colours are distinctive from males, with less toned details and a more subtle brownish-yellow appearance. Although the male seems more attractive, both birds don’t hesitate to work hard to bring tiny insects to their nest. It shows that they are busy now feeding the cheeks after a long season of building the nest in the pitch-black hole. Pardalotes never cease to stun me every time I encounter them.

Thank you for reading!

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Tiago Miranda

Tiago Miranda

Naturalist | Arborist | Lecturer | Climber