Monday, 18 January 2016

Pardalote. Spots before the eyes

It should have been obvious as we flicked through the book on Australian birds for the first time in 17 years. But it wasn’t. ‘It’s back to the land of the pardalote and other animals with strange names’. Even when the group saw its first pardalote at the Waterworks Reserve in Hobart, we still did not catch on. ‘Why pardalote—is it a French word for something?’ was one question.

There is one excuse why we did not twig immediately the derivation of pardalote. On previous trips to Australia in the 1990s we had previously seen only the Striated Pardalote—the same species as the pair seen in Hobart. When we later saw two other species, it should have been obvious why pardalotes are called pardalotes.

The genus Pardalotus was erected by Louis Jean Pierre Vieillot (1748-1831) and just as in Panthera pardus, the leopard, Leopardus pardalis, the ocelot, Geochelone or Stigmochelys pardalis, the leopard tortoise and Furcifer pardalis, the panther chamaeleon, it simply means ‘spotted’ in Greek and the Latin derived from Greek. So to answer the question raised above; it is sort of French.

The names of two species, both of which we saw later in Tasmania, actually refer to the spots: the Spotted Pardalote and the Forty-spotted Pardalote, providing pedants with the opportunity to point out that we then have a tautology.

Pardalotes are small, hardly-ever-still birds that feed on small invertebrates, lerp (the sugary excretion of sap-sucking psyllids) and manna.

The pair of Striated Pardalotes (Pardalotus striatus) we saw in Hobart were nesting in a hole between rocks at the side of the road, carrying food gathered from the surrounding trees. Using my extremely long focal-length lens, one of them was still just long enough to get a photograph.

Striated Pardalote. Tasmania
The next species we saw was the Forty-spotted Pardalotus quadragintus. Classified by IUCN as endangered, it is confined to southern Tasmania and there are calculated to be only 1000-1500 living individuals. Bruny Island is a stronghold of the species and we saw them in South Bruny (not included, surely erroneously, in the range in the map shown on Birdlife International) where at Inala, a special viewing platform has been constructed to view the colony there. They live in White Gum trees (Eucalyptus viminalis) exclusively. We were told they were colonial but territorial, one pair holding a feeding territory in one direction, a second pair in another direction and the third pair covering a further sector. A number of factors have been suggested as contributing to the decline, especially it would seem, clearance of White Gum. Recently, I have seen reports that the parasitic maggots of a fly are killing 75% of nestlings (a similar situation to that obtaining in the Galapagos with an introduced fly) together with the suggestion that nest infestation might be the cause of the decline from around 4000 birds in the 1980s. If that were the case then one could, of course, make the testable prediction that existing tracts of White Gum are not carrying as many Forty-spotted Pardalotes as they could.

The Forty-spotted Pardalote is the dullest looking of the four species. I had great difficulty getting a photograph and had only fleeting side-on views. They were constantly on the move, gathering food and being chased off by Honeyeaters (who defend the sources of lerp).

Forty-spotted Pardalote. South Bruny, Tasmania
Much more clearly marked and colourful is the Spotted Pardalote (Pardalotus punctatus) from Eastern and Southern Australia. We also saw that species in Tasmania, and it is then easy to see why pardalotes came by their name.