Bird of the month

February's bird of the month: Australasian Darter

Thursday, 1 February 2024

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5 things about Australasian Darters

Introducing 2024’s first bird of the month…the Australasian Darter! Here are five things you may or may not know about these remarkable waterbirds.

1. They’re also known as snakebirds

With their long and slender necks, Australasian Darters are also known as ‘snakebirds’. They forage in water, often with only their head and neck exposed – where they’re sometimes mistaken for a swimming snake!

A male Australasian Darter with glossy black plumage and a bright yellow bill faces to the right of the frame, wings and neck outstretched against a dappled green background.
Male Australasian Darters have glossy black plumage. Photo by Danny McCreadie


To the right of the frame, a female Australasian Darter with pale plumage and a bright yellow bill and eye is perched on a fallen branch in water with her long neck outstretched
Females have grey-brown plumage and a pale front. Photo by Rebecca Daly

2. Their feathers aren’t waterproof

Unlike most waterbirds, Australasian Darters don’t have waterproof feathers – their feathers absorb water to reduce buoyancy and help them dive for prey. Like cormorants, darters must dry out their feathers after foraging and are often seen perched over water with wings and tail outstretched.

To the left of the frame, an Australasian Darter is perched on a rock in the water, facing towards the camera with wings outstretched, its full body reflected in the surface of the water.
An Australasian Darter drying its feathers. Photo by Bill O’Brien

3. They’re the javelins of the bird world 

A darter’s neck is built for catching fish. A unique hinge mechanism at the 8th and 9th vertebrae acts like a trigger, thrusting their head and neck forward with startling speed and precision.

Using their long, needle-sharp bill like a spear, darters will stalk and stab fish underwater. Then, they surface and fling the fish into the air before swallowing it head-first. Darters will also take smaller prey (such as insects and spiders) from the water’s surface.

To the right of the frame is a close-up of female Australasian Darter. Her bright yellow beak is slightly open and is impaling a large silver and orange-tipped fish against a watery background.
An Australasian Darter uses its sharp bill to spear a fish. Photo by Lachlan Graham

4. They’re high-fliers

With their small head and long wings, neck and tail, Australasian Darters have a distinctive cross-shaped silhouette in flight. While clumsy on land, they can soar gracefully to great heights on thermals, gliding between updrafts.

5. They’ve got moves!

To impress a potential mate, male Australasian Darters perform elaborate wing-waving and twig-grasping displays. He raises his wings up and down alternately, and will sometimes grasp a twig in his bill, shaking it vigorously.