Contact Call | Volume 11 Number 1 | March 2022
When “the red red robin does not go bobbin’ along”
The robin of Al Jolson’s popular song was the American Robin; not really a robin – actually a thrush. Although itself named after the European Robin, the two are only distantly related to each other, as the latter is an old-world flycatcher, not a thrush. Our Australian robins were so-called because of a perceived similarity between them and the European Robin, something few would even imagine today!
To begin with, the “red” in both the northern hemisphere examples (of non-robins) would only be perceived as such after a particularly bleak, grim and grey winter; unlike the brilliant red colours of some of our species. In addition, most of our robins do not even have a red breast, but include a range of plumage from yellow to brown and grey, black and white. Our “robins” are not necessarily called robins either – the group might be better described as “fly-robins” as they consist of robins, flycatchers (Australian), scrub-robins and fly-robins. However, the taxonomists have helpfully bundled them all in the family Petroicidae: sometimes called Australasian Robins because they are restricted to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand and some south Pacific islands. Split into many sub-families there are 54 species across this region, of which Australia has 23 if we include the Norfolk Island Robin.
In the BLNQ Region we are well-blessed with distinctive species across the range, but only one with that red breast, the Red-capped Robin, and even that is confined to the drier western margins – the nearest credible sighting to the Wet Tropics is probably Talaroo and Georgetown, and further south at Blackbraes National Park. The majority of our robins come in different coloured plumage, but are even so, very appealing. In our region there are 13 species to be found, from Iron Range through the peninsula to the Wet Tropics and west to Boodjamulla NP in the gulf and the Mt Isa region. I wonder how many of our members have seen all our species?
Many members enjoy birding in the western inland areas and further afield where the male Red-capped Robin provides a stunning and dramatic encounter, often in the dull-coloured mulga scrub. The distinctive trilling call stands out. In similar habitat, the Hooded Robin captures attention with its smartly contrasting black and white plumage. As is often the case with robins, they make their presence known by flying into view, sometimes perching quite close as they observe the intruder.
Our most widespread robin is the Jacky Winter, accessible across our region and an excellent perch and sally hunter. One of the flycatcher group of robins, this species’ confiding manners make it a charmer, providing memorable encounters, despite its dull plumage.
No trip to Iron Range is complete without encounters with the much-loved White-faced Robin, a sister species to the more widespread Pale-yellow Robin. In my many field trips to Iron Range, I always had them around our camp, usually at least two and sometimes more. They would simply turn up for a look and visit through the day. They would be breeding nearby if it was late in the year, a treat to see their beautifully decorated nest.
Somewhat more challenging to find is the Northern Scrub-robin, despite being one of our two largest robins (the Southern Scrub-robin is a fraction larger). Their distinctive call is often heard but they are well camouflaged as they hop along the ground on the forest floor. Once a pair is located it takes a bit of patience to wait until they show themselves, sometimes along tracks or open areas in the forest.
The biggest robin challenge at Iron Range however, is to find the Yellow-legged Flycatcher, a bird of the canopy confined to the far tip of Cape York Peninsula (from Iron Range northwards). Past records from the Atherton Tablelands have been shown to be cases of mistaken identity (see the recent article in North Queensland Naturalist by BLNQ member Elinor Scambler). This species spends a lot of time in the canopy (often on the edges of the rainforest) where it pursues flying insects. It sometimes cocks its tail when perched and it may be confused with a Grey Whistler but the distinctive yellow legs are definitive.
On the edge of the wetter coastal forests, especially along seasonal stream lines, White-browed Robins are quite common and may be easily observed. An attractive species, they have distinctive calls, appealing eyebrows and a handsome cocked tail.
Their sister species is only known in our region from the far northwest where it is common in the gorges of Boodjamulla National Park. The Buff-sided Robin is a very attractive species with rufous-buff flanks and its range extends well west to the Kimberleys.
One sister species of the Jacky Winter occurs across the tropics from Queensland to the Top End and prefers the slightly drier environments of pandanus, monsoon forests, riparian vegetation and mangroves. This is the appealing Lemon-bellied Flycatcher. Surprisingly, this species makes the smallest Australian nest, a tiny shallow cup that just takes the single egg and which the chick over-fills from hatching onward.
The very widespread Eastern Yellow Robin occurs along the coastal areas in the eastern states, from the southeast corner of SA through Victoria and NSW and up the eastern coast of Queensland. It only just reaches our region, where it is mainly coastal as far as Cooktown. This species has a substantial and well-decorated nest, sometimes even in urban areas. It can be very confiding and loves perching on the trunks of trees. I am always stunned by the vividness of the yellow when I raise my binoculars to look at one.
A quite distinctive robin can be found in mangroves across the tropics and is aptly named the Mangrove Robin. A reliable place for this species is the northern end of the Cairns Esplanade where its distinctive calls are easily heard.
Two robins that are largely confined to rainforest occur in the Wet Tropics. The Pale Yellow Robin is a small species often quite cryptic, but frequently seen on the edge of rainforests or in wait-a-while thickets. Some of what we know about the population in northern Queensland is due to the fine work of BirdLife Northern Queensland Branch Secretary, Renee Cassels who devoted her Honours thesis to this species.
The final species, a Wet Tropics endemic, is the distinctive, Grey-headed Robin. This large and attractive species is a bird one might associate with early mornings. It is typically the first bird to call in the rainforest dawn chorus (in the pre-dawn dark) and it continues to call well after sunset. If you want to enjoy this species you might listen to more from Al Jolson’s song: “wake up, wake up, you sleepy head; get up, get up, get out of bed”… the Grey-headed Robin is already waiting.
Article and images by Peter Valentine.
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