THE Southern Whiteface (Aphelocephala leucopsis) is one of a group of three Australian acanthizine warblers that have taken to feeding much on seeds. For this, they have stout finch-like bills and thickly muscled stomachs part-filled with grit to help grind the seeds. Insects and plant shoots are taken as well, all picked up from the ground, where the birds use their bills to turn over pieces of dung and debris, prising underneath, and then pushing up as do turnstones and starlings to expose food.
Of the three species, the Southern Whiteface is much the most copious, occurring usually in better-watered open, sparsely shrubbed woodland right across southern inland Australia, from the east coast to the west. The bird almost completely overlaps the range of the other two species. However, where this happens, one of the others at least-the Banded-tends to replace it, notably in the Gibson Desert, Western Australia, and central Lake Eyre basin-Simpson Desert, South Australia.
This bird at once suggests that the two species compete and that the Banded is at advantage in the driest desert habitats. Even though feeding mainly on bare ground, the Southern Whiteface also occasionally works up onto the trunks of dead trees, probing into cracks and knotholes. It is a gregarious bird, banding together in small foraging parties of 10-20, infrequently 50 or more, and mixing with other feeding species such as Yellow-rumped Thornbills.
The whitefaces forage over the ground in short half-hops, one foot in front of the other, picking up food as they go. If flushed, they either fly further on then drop to continue feeding or perch up on dead trees, twittering constantly in alarm and to keep contact.
Even when perched they are rarely still, hopping forward and back and from side to side along bare limbs. The Southern Whiteface flight is a swift, undulating dash, low over the ground. The Southern Whitefaces are sedentary, and groups most likely forage in much the same area year-round.
During the breeding season, the groups do not seem to break up much into obviously territorial nesting pairs; breeding could be communal. They choose nest sites different from those of the other whitefaces: holes in stumps, trees, and posts, wherever they are available.
The juvenile bird after fledging, goes through a cryptic phase for more than a few days, huddling in a bush, before beginning to follow their parents and learning to feed. There are two distinct races of the Southern Whiteface, one eastern, the other western. They have not always been appreciated because the eastern ranges well into Western Australia.
The western race, with a broad sash of rufous down its flanks, is limited to the southern Pilbara and northern Goldfields district, WA, east to the western fringes of the Gibson and Great Victoria Deserts.
The eastern race, with brown on white flecking on its flanks, ranges west across most of southern Australia, to the eastern fringes of the Gibson and Great Victoria Deserts, and right through the Null arbor Plain to about 24°E. There are two races that meet and are intergraded through a bottleneck.
This bird is also known as Eastern Whiteface, Western Whiteface, Chestnut-bellied Whiteface, White aced Titmouse and White-faced Squeaker. The length of the Southern Whiteface is about 115-120 mm. Both sexes are similar. However the upper parts are deep gray-brown, crown flecked dusky. Wings plain deep grey-brown, secondaries edged duller. The tail is dusky, with a white tip on all but the central pair of feathers.
The Southern Whiteface forehead and face are white, separated from the crown and ears by a dusky line in front of the eyes. Underparts all cream washed olive-grey on the breast to pure white. Flanks either flecked mid-brown on white (eastern race) or sashed plain rich rufous. The eyes are white with a black bill and the feet are dusky. The immature bird is similar to adults.
The call of Southern Whiteface is twittering notes, tweet-tweeter, in erratic bursts in contact when feeding, sharpened to more staccato wit-wit-wit-wit, rapidly repeated in bursts, in alarm and flight. The song of Southern Whiteface is soft, tuneful bell-like notes; probably modified contact call.
The nesting and breeding season is June-November; influenced by rain in the interior range. Nest a large, untidy dome of bark strips and grasses; lined with feathers, fur, wool, and sometimes plant down; secreted in tree hollows, mortise-holes in fence posts, low foliage of shrubs or trees, and even large stick nests of birds-of-prey.
The clutch contains 2 to 5 eggs, that are dull white to buff, lightly marked with brown to red freckling-at times spotting is indistinct; oblong-oval, about 18 x 14 mm. The distribution range is open woodland, savanna, and shrub-steppe across southern Australia, throughout inland north to 23°S.