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Love at first sight – Honeyeater meets Bromeliad

Normally separated by the Pacific Ocean, Australian honeyeaters do not regularly encounter bromeliads. At the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden on Mount Tomah, west of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, a New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae), has discovered a mountain bromeliad, or Blue Puya (Puya alpestris subsp. zoellneri); a member of the Pineapple family, Bromeliaceae.

The Blue Puya is named for its magical blue-green flowers but has only recently been recognised as distinct from the cultivated Puya x berteroniana. It was described as a new subspecies by Georg Zizka and co-authors in the journal Brittonia in 2013. Widely grown in cool-climate botanic gardens, it is native to north and central Chile.

Visiting the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden on a stormy afternoon, we found the gardens shrouded in mist, with thunder rumbling in the distance. It was an enchanting experience for our guests Tom & Jill Woodhouse who were visiting from the UK. Together we dodged showers while enjoying the spring blooms and many birds that seems oblivious to the rain.

While most bromeliads live in trees or grow on rocks, a number of species do grow on the ground. Among the best known are the giant mountain bromeliads, in the genus Puya, found throughout the South American Andes. Many bromeliads produce nectar to attract pollinators, especially hummingbirds which hover while feeding, and the Puya produces an abundant amount. Natural nectars are important for birds as artificial sugars sometimes offered in feeding stations lack thiamine, a vital vitamin (Handbook of Australian, New Zealand & Antarctic Birds Vol. 5: 2001).

Australia, described as 'the land of the honeyeater' by author Tim Low, has 73 species of honeyeaters (including the chats); most of which feed primarily on nectar but also eat insects. New Holland Honeyeaters can be very protective of feeding territory and this friendly chap has claimed the Puya as its own. While some populations of New Holland Honeyeaters seasonally migrate, this little chap is a firm resident of this region of New South Wales, and is regularly seen feeding on the Puya. It has become quite used to human visitors as its quest for honey takes precedence over any concerns for personal safety.

Such a rich source of nectar is highly prized, with its main natural sources of nectar, species of Lambertia and Banksia (Proteaceae), providing much smaller quantities, require greater feeding effort, and mean a larger territory to defend. Weighing around 20 grams, a New Holland Honeyeater will expend 70–90 kj of energy just on feeding; so an abundant supply means less work.

Not possessing a hummingbird's ability to hover while feeding, the emerging flower spikes provide a perfect spot to perch. It is quick to move when disturbed however, leaving in a flurry of wing-beats.

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