With less than 300 birds left in the wild, the Regent Honeyeater is a bird in dire need of help.
These stunning birds will travel vast distances in search of food sources that provide high yields of nectar. Spotted Gum, Broad-leaved Ironbark, and Swamp Mahogany are all examples of the rich nectar producing trees that they favour.
But aside from flowering gums, there is another woodland plant that is helping to keep Regent Honeyeaters from the brink of extinction….
Mistletoe: Superheroes of the plant world!
There are almost 100 species of mistletoe that are native to Australia. They are semi-parasitic plants that grow on a host tree or shrub. The mistletoe gets its water and nutrients from the host plant but produces its own energy through photosynthesis. They form dense, hanging clumps in the tops of trees.
In the Upper Hunter, Grey mistletoe (Amyema quandang) can be found growing abundantly on Stringybark wattle (Acacia linearifolia). It attracts woodland birds from west of the Great Dividing Range into the Hunter Valley, such as Singing Honeyeaters, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters and Painted Honeyeaters. The Painted Honeyeater is a nationally threatened species whose diet is composed mainly of mistletoe fruit – relying on it for survival.
A mural was recently painted at Merriwa as part of Hunter Local Land Services Threatened Woodland Bird Mural Trail, depicting a Painted Honeyeater perched in Grey Mistletoe, with the nearby feature site of Mount Dangar in the background. Artist: Jenny McCracken
A Regent Honeyeater feeding on Long-flowered mistletoe. Photo: Mick Roderick.
Mistletoe is also incredibly important for successful breeding of Regent Honeyeaters as its dense clumps provide safe places for them to build and conceal their nests. Monitoring of the birds has shown that they have been relying on mistletoe for the last 4 breeding seasons in the Hunter.
And it is not only Regent Honeyeaters that depend on mistletoe. It truly is a superhero of the plant world, with its dangling clumps providing an extremely important resource for all manner of wildlife.
Unfortunately, mistletoe is very susceptible to drought. And unlike other native woodland vegetation, it cannot regenerate after fire. Propagation of new plants require seed dispersing birds like the (appropriately named) Mistletoebird to spread seed that they have taken from adjoining unburnt areas and disperse it throughout the fire damaged areas. In the Lower Hunter, there were 4 successive years of intense bushfires that had profound impacts with approximately 90% of mistletoe killed in key Regent Honeyeater habitat.
Thankfully, in the aftermath of this devastating destruction, some clever minds came up with an idea on how they could fast-track mistletoe restoration in badly burnt areas, thus providing a critical lifeline for the Regent Honeyeater…
A Mistletoe Mission: Supercharging Tomalpin Woodlands after bushfire
Located outside Kurri Kurri on Wonnarua Country, Tomalpin forms part of the largest remnant of valley floor woodland in the Hunter. The area is remarkable – a biodiversity hotspot like nowhere else in the world. It supports numerous endangered plants and is absolutely teeming with wildlife.
After the bushfires, Birdlife Australia and its project team began collaborating with the Tomalpin landowners, Mindaribba Local Aboriginal Land Council, on a world-first habitat restoration project to restore Long-flowered mistletoe in the bushfire damaged parts of Tomalpin.
In early 2021 they teamed up with arborists to pick and plant mistletoe seeds on the upper branches of Spotted Gums. The arborists were mimicking what a Mistletoe bird would do in nature – taking the ripe mistletoe fruit, squeezing out the seed, and wiping it on to the underside of a branch high up in the tree’s canopy.
Since the project started, the team has picked and planted over 2000 seeds. It is hoped that this innovative restoration project will help supercharge the native woodland ecosystem and once again attract Regent Honeyeaters to the area for breeding. Their work is not only vital in helping save the Regent Honeyeater from extinction but it will also provide a lifeline for other woodland birds in this key biodiversity area.
A young Long-flowered mistletoe plant. Photo: Mick Roderick