Restoring landscapes across the Mount Alexander Region

Bird of the Month: Varied Sitella

Posted on 26 March, 2024 by Ivan

Welcome to Bird of the month, a partnership between Connecting Country and BirdLife Castlemaine District. Each month we’re taking a close look at one special local bird species. We’re excited to join forces to deliver you a different bird each month, seasonally adjusted, and welcome suggestions from the community. We are blessed to have the brilliant Damian Kelly from BirdLife Castlemaine District writing about our next bird of the month.

Varied Sitella (Daphoenositta chrysoptera)

The Varied Sitella is a small grey bird that is often hard to see, although it is widespread in our region. One distinguishable behaviour is that it often runs down a tree trunk or branch or hangs upside down as it searches for food. A gregarious species, it can usually can be seen in groups of 2 up to 20 when foraging in its preferred woodland haunts.

As the name implies, plumage can be quite variable within the species and there is extensive and complex variation in different geographical areas. DNA evidence supports a few distinct subspecies, and there is widespread hybridisation between these different subspecies – all in all a bit confusing!

The Varied Sittella is a small songbird native to Australia. Photo: Damian Kelly

It can be found across Australia (but not Tasmania) in a variety of habitats from southern Victoria all the way up to Cape York, in Western Australia and is also lightly spread throughout the inland.

At times it can be found foraging in mixed species flocks which include Buff-rumped and Striated Thornbills and occasionally Scarlet Robins. It is rarely seen on the ground, preferring to move along tree trunks and in the foliage. It tends to favour higher spots on trees compared to other bark-feeding species such as Treecreepers and Crested Shriketits and can be seen 8-14m above ground level, which of course makes observation that much more tricky.

So, if you haven’t seen them around much, this preference for high branches is probably why – coupled with an overall grey appearance that helps them blend in with their surroundings.

Diet consists mainly of insects gathered from foliage and gleaned from the cracks in rough-barked trees. Flocks keep in contact as they move through the foliage by constant calling as well as flicking their wings to reveal their distinctive coloured wing-bar (see above photo). Sitellas also roost as a group, usually along a horizontal branch, all facing the same direction.

(The Varied Sittella is usually heard before it is seen in the upper branches. Photos: Damian Kelly)

Studies have shown that this species is largely sedentary with few movements more than 10 km from local areas.

Like some other Australian species, Sitellas engage in cooperative breeding. A breeding group generally consists of a primary breeding pair and a varying number of helpers, ranging from 1-7 individuals. Helpers may be adult birds along with some juveniles from previous clutches. Nests are an open cup-shaped structure, often with a long tail making them somewhat cone-shaped. Nests are constructed of bark and spider webs, sometimes incorporating hair or fur.

Find more information on the Varied Sittella, including their calls, here.

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