We journeyed to Dangar Island, a small (31 hectare) forested island in the Hawkesbury River in Sydney’s north, to try to find the rare Yellow-morph of the Australian King Parrot. After a lovely breakfast at the island’s only cafe, we took a circuit of the island – a walk of 3.2 kilometres. We obviously chose the wrong direction, as we had all but arrived back at our starting point before we found our target.
The male Australian King Parrot’s wings are normally a rich dark green:
Bird experts believe that a genetic condition called Leucism is what makes the feathers of some birds more pale (or even white). The population on Dangar Island has this genetic condition – locals tell us there are a number of yellow-morphs on the island. One local told us she has seen four, another reckons about half the males have the morph. We have seen photos of other yellow-morphs where the condition even affects the bright red of the head, but on the guy we found that is clearly not the case.
Here is a comparison of the yellow-morph male and a “normal” male:
Another male was feeding in the same area. (The two had a brief altercation, but nothing serious).
The females that we saw did not seem to exhibit any abnormal colouration:
We were very pleased to get so many shots of a Yellow-morph.
Dangar Island is listed on a number of sites as a “birding hotspot”. On this visit, however, apart from the excitement of the Yellow-morph, we found it to be a bit of a birding NOT spot. Very few other species appeared – and none that were not common all over Sydney.
Dangar Island itself is an interesting place. It has a population of approximately 300 (which swells in Summer holidays), and is Sydney’s only private-car-free suburb (there is a fire-truck and a Council ute). Judging solely by the residents’ houses and gardens, there seems to be a bit of a bohemian vibe on Dangar:
With the imminent lifting of the Sydney COVID Lockdown, we take a look back at some visitors to the backyard over the last few months. I would set up my home office each day on the back deck, and around the middle of the day I would take a short break to eat lunch, and to photograph the birds that occasionally shared mealtime with me.
The Rainbow Lorikeets were always happy to share my apple:
A Currawong once tried the apple too, but wanted it takeaway:
Of course, regular visitor Lefty the Magpie (see “Lefty” – Sep 1 2021) often came around on the scrounge food – bread or chicken or cheese.
Sulphur-crested Cockatoos would also come around if we put a seed-block out:
The pair of Butcher-birds (see “Backyard Butchers” Aug 31 2021) would also take the opportunity if there was ever any dropped food.
Two cats are having a temporary stay with us, and one of them flatly refuses to eat indoors. Because of that, there is often beef, kangaroo, chicken or salmon in the cat bowls on the back deck, as well as special biscuits. We realise it is bad for birdlife to be fed too much processed meat – it can lead to calcium and other mineral deficiencies, which can compromise eggshell strength and bone density of chicks. We would not ever deliberately feed birds the food we feed the cats, but as we use raw meats that contain ground bone and offal, and biscuits that enhanced “science diet” – we hope that as long as they are stealing it in small enough quantities, it’s OK for them.
I filled a meat-encrusted cat bowl with water in order to soak: Lefty found this meat-flavoured water an interesting drop.
But it wasn’t always dropped cheese and cat meat. Sometimes they lunched on their natural diet.
And finally, in a tree in our neighbour’s yard overlooking ours, a King Parrot had a big lunch of fruit. (Apologies – I do not know what sort of tree this is).
Only about 4.5% of Sydney’s once-extensive Blue Gum High Forest still remains – some estimates say that’s only about 200 hectares. Of the scattered remnants (the largest is only about 20 hectares), our local patch at Darvall Park, Denistone is a vital environment for birdlife: in particular, King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis).
Part of Darvall’s attraction For the King Parrots is the variety and density of fruiting plants. Native quince, blueberry ash, lilly pilly and cheese tree all grow here, giving the Kings fruit all year round.
More importantly though, it’s the average age and height of the trees that appeals to the Kings. A characteristic of Blue Gum High Forest is the tallness of the trees (the Bush Walk through Darvall is called the “Tall Timbers Walk”). The bluegum, white mahogany, turpentine, rough-barked apple, grey ironbark and blackbutt that form the canopies of the pockets of High Forest can all reach towering heights.
Like a lot of parrots, Kings nest in hollows. They are a relatively large parrot to begin with (approximately 35 – 40cm in length). Add to that fact that they prefer a deep hollow, and trees old enough and tall enough to develop suitable hollows are becoming very rare. (We have read in various sources that King Parrots like a entrance as high as 10 metres while the eggs may be laid as little as a metre off the ground – 9 metre deep hollows in trees cannot be that common!)
On a recent visit, this male watched on as the female inspected a potential nesting hollow:
She seemed initially happy with it:
Then the male had a look:
They both flew off, but a little while later were back. We took this to mean they were intending to move in and settle down!
There is a healthy population of Kings in Darvall Park. A little further along we spotted this male. We could not see whether he was defending a hollow in the crook of this tall gum, or whether perhaps water had pooled there and he was drinking. But Kings are relatively un-spookable, so he was happy enough for us to approach and let us get some nice close-ups.
The Ryde Bushcare group are doing a truly fabulous job in this small but ecologically important pocket of land – fighting, and making significant headway towards clearing it of lantana and privet, to the very real benefit of local birds, and especially the Kings.
Of course, there are many more bird species that utilize this enclave as well: Laughing Kookaburras, Corellas, Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Ravens, Magpies, Currawongs, Rainbow Lorikeets, and even Satin Bowerbirds and Eastern Whipbirds. Thanks to the efforts of the Bushcare volunteers, it’s a bit of a birding hotspot.
When it comes to bird photography, a visit to Taronga Zoo feels very much like cheating. On a stroll through any of their aviaries, so many birds are so close and so conspicuous that it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. That said, the environments that Taronga provides are so close to natural that all the photographic challenges of lush foliage and deep shade still remain.
In the Palm Aviary we spotted Australia’s tiniest parrot, the Double-eyed Fig Parrot (Cyclopsitta diophthalma). These little guys have a stumpy tail and a disproportionately large head, giving them a cute, cartoonish look. An interesting fact about these birds is that unlike other Australian parrots that use existing tree-hollows to nest, the Double-eyed Fig Parrot will excavate its own hollow. They eat figs, berries, seeds and nectar, and also go for wood boring grubs (which we assume the guy below is doing):
An Eastern Whipbird (Psophodes olivaceus) scored a little grub or maggot:
In the Australian Rainforest Aviary, we saw Eclectus Parrots (Eclectus roratus). In Australia, they are only found in the extreme north, and their numbers are decreasing as their habitat is eroded by development. The male is the bright green one, the female crimson and blue.
A male King Parrot (Alisterus scapularis):
The Musk Lorikeet (Glossopsitta concinna):
The Noisy Pitta (Pitta versicolor) is a ground-feeding rainforest bird of the east coast of Australia, from about Newcastle all they way north to Cape Melville.
The Luzon Bleeding-heart (Gallicolumba luzonica) – sometimes called the Bleeding-Heart Pigeon, sometimes Bleeding-heart Dove – is native to the island of Luzon in the Philippines. These photos don’t do it justice: the subtle graduation of the red patch on the chest as it fades lower down the belly really does look like a spreading bloodstain. In full sun, the slate-grey upper-parts iridesce with purple and green highlights. A beautiful bird.
Another exotic pigeon: the Nicobar Pigeon (Caloenas nicobarica), mostly found in the Nicobar and Andaman Islands. It is thought to be the closest living relative to the Dodo!
Staying with the pigeons and doves, some of Australia’s beautiful rainforest doves… Firstly the Pacific Emerald Dove (Chalcophaps longirostris):
Next, the Rose-crowned Fruit Dove (Ptilinoptus regina):
And the similar Superb Fruit Dove (Ptilinoptus superbus):
An interesting fact about these Australian pigeons – and also the White-headed Pigeon (Columba leucomela) below – is that their meat was reportedly very tasty, and they were hunted to near extinction by early European settlers for food. However, all these fruit-loving birds quickly developed a taste for the Camphor Laurel (imported to Australia as an ornamental tree in 1822), which makes their meat taste terrible, thereby saving these species. A rare case of an imported plant doing some good.
Nothing to do with the old British Prog-Rock band… rather a glorious, crisp, cold autumn day in Blackheath Memorial Park, where a gratifying abundance of both King Parrots and Crimson Rosellas were obligingly allowing themselves to be photographed. We have never seen so many of either bird in one location – seeing this many of both made this a real red-letter day! So no apologies for the number of pics in these posts. Part One: the King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis).
This breeding male stayed in the southern part of the park. We didn’t see much of him later.
We had visited Blackheath in the hope of getting some photos of Autumn colour, as Blackheath famously provides. We either left our run too late (some trees were bare) or too early (some had not even begun to turn) – so it may be that a La Nina year messes with the timings(?) In any case, we visited just when the acorns were ripe enough to eat (there are a number of grand old oaks in the park), and it seems that King Parrots love them.
A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) flew in:
There were many juveniles and females, which seems to indicate a better than normal breeding year for these birds. King Parrots require rather precise hollows to nest in – they prefer hollows that have a high entrance but are very deep. The one pictured below is possibly the youngest of the juveniles…?
We had lunch on a picnic table by the Duckpond near Centenary Gate. Here there were so many acorns on the ground that the birds were picking them up and flying to trees just over our heads to eat them:
This juvenile had her own picnic table right by ours:
A great encounter with such a large group of these lovely parrots…
A look back at our top 20 “bird moments” of 2020. Not necessarily our best photos, or the rarest birds – just 20 moments that we found unexpectedly surprising or rewarding, or where the Bird Luck was unaccountably with us, and un-looked for birds made our day. It was hard to limit the list to 20, but here they are:
Where it all started. Testing out the new camera we bought to take some decent snaps at Brad’s Mum’s 90th birthday bash (sadly cancelled due to COVID), we took it to the local park and shot some test pics of the small local population of Red-rumped Parrots. Be warned – this is all it took to turn us into “birders”!
2. In the early days, it was all about Parrots. They were big, colourful, easier to spot, and tended to not be spooked too much by humans. After looking in a lot of places for a close-up opportunity with the King Parrot (or else encountering them when we didn’t have a camera!), we eventually happened upon a small family group feeding on berries in the compact stand of Blue Gum High Forest at Darvall Park, Denistone. As is often the way, Brad was ready to walk straight past them until Amanda pointed them out.
3. Why do Sulphur-crested Cockatoos love to hang around busy intersections playing silly buggers on the wires? We don’t know either, but on a windy day in April, a flock of twenty or so was having a great time in the early-autumn sun, at the intersection of Ryedale Rd and Marlow Ave, West Ryde. This is just one of many, many fun photos we got of the Cockatoo Circus that lovely afternoon.
4. Usually, when we set out with a bird in mind, we don’t find it – but find something else instead. But on this occasion we went in search of the YTBC, and thanks to an eagle-eyed Amanda, we found four in a tree just off Sir Bertram Stevens Drive, Royal National Park. As they moved off, we found a fire-trail to follow them, getting some close-up shots (this one included). But the real magic happened next. From a long way off we heard the faint sounds of more. The cries gradually got louder and louder and louder still, until a flock of between 30 and 40 burst into view above the trees and wheeled and shrieked over our heads, with their characteristic slow flapping flight, and lots of doubling back to help the slow-pokes catch up. It was like a YTBC Convention! Later still, we followed them east to the Gundamaian Fire-trail where they had congregated en masse to feast on wood-boring grubs. We felt very privileged to have had such a large flock find us, rather than us finding them!
5. Warriewood Wetlands is a great location for a large variety of birds, and well worth a visit. But just across the road to the west is a walk along Mullet Creek to the Irrawong Falls, and it was along this walk in July that we came upon the Eastern Yellow Robin. This guy was quite brave and flitted around among the rocks and bracken close to the path edge, even though he was quite aware we were watching. They tend to perch laterally on the trunks of trees as seen here – so much so that they have lent their name to this style of perching.
6. In August we visited the Hunter Wetlands Centre at Shortlands. In a shadowy corner of the Melaleuca Swamp, a Black Swan family came very close to shore. We weren’t sure that the weedy swamp and very low light would make good photos, but we were pleasantly surprised by the results. The cygnets, especially, provided great shots as they learnt to forage for weed.
7. Whilst in the Hunter in August, we stayed at East Maitland in the hope of spotting the endangered Swift Parrot (some pairs had been recently released in the area). Sadly that was not to be, so we assuaged our disappointment by visiting a winery, and checking out the historic Luskintyre Bridge. It was here that Amanda spotted a pair of Nankeen Kestrels hunting from the bridge, and we were treated to some up close photos as they perched on the old timbers. The bird pictured here was very accommodating, posing for many pictures. Nankeens are one of only three Australian birds of prey that “straight-wing hover” to search for prey. Sadly, none of my attempts to capture that behaviour turned out. Next time!
8. On our visit to the Illawarra Grevillia Garden in September, we mainly photographed the spectacular flowers and the bees they attracted. But this Eastern Spinebill sat on this exposed branch long enough for us to get some nice shots. We like the shallow depth of field in this one, as well as how the upward curved twig complements his downward curved bill.
9. The Pied Stilt is also known as the White-headed Stilt, and the signage at Badu Wetlands in Sydney Olympic Park – where we spotted this little fella – refers to Black-winged Stilts – even though the Pied Stilt is far more common there. This little chick was the closest of many Pied Stilt chicks (and of course adults) in the wetlands – it seems it was a good year for these birds. He was so small that we can only imagine that these were among his fist ever steps. A parent was always fairly close by keeping an eye on us, but by and large the chick was allowed to wander where he wanted. His cuteness is borne out by the fact that he garnered more Facebook “likes” than any other bird we had posted at the time.
10. The Golden-headed Cisticola sums up the reason we find chasing birds so addictive. Before we took this photo, neither of us had ever seen a Cisticola, and we certainly had never heard of them either. To us it was a just a bird we had never seen before. But back at home, it was rewarding to track him down in the birds books, and have all the behaviours we had just witnessed corroborated: his preferred habitat of long, dense grass near to salty estuaries, his whistle-whistle-whistle-buzz call, his high-spiralling, jerky, bouncy display flights before dropping almost vertically to the ground, his little golden hair-do which is crested when calling. This pic was taken very late afternoon in weird fading light on Woo-la-ra Hill, in the Wentworth Point precinct of Sydney Olympic Park. Our nickname for this hill used to be Quail Hill, as Amanda had once spotted some Button Quails there. But since first noticing the Cisticola we’ve realised that the hill is home to so many of them, we now refer to it as Cisticola Hill.
11. Our trip to Malabar Head was another occasion when we went specifically searching for a bird and found it! To be more precise, we shadowed the much more experienced bird-finder (and FAR more talented photographer than we can ever hope to be) Dave Noble who was also on the lookout for Peregrines. He was generous enough to point out from afar that this guy was on the cliff directly below where I was standing. A little bit of manoeuvring meant that I had lovely clear, close shots at him. This bird later moved to an overhang close by, so we waited an hour or more for some further action. Peregrines can sit still for a long time! Luckily, we were also treated to a number of whales close into shore to break the monotony. All in all, the sunburned ankles were worth it!
12. In late October, we stayed among the disused vines at Back Creek Vineyard, 7kms out of Cowra. Here we were treated to great birdwatching, primarily by a large family of White-winged Choughs. But there were also many Superb Fairy-wrens, Willy Wagtails, Sacred Kingfishers and a nest of Yellow Thornbills with three chicks right outside our door. On top of that, we had Wallabies and Fallow Deer roaming the rows of vines each morning. Although the Choughs and Thornbills were of most interest, perhaps the best bird photo from our stay was this female Superb Fairy-wren.
13. On the same trip out west, we visited Conimbla National Park, as we had heard that Glossy Black Cockatoos are sometimes spotted here. We did not hold out much hope, as these guys are becoming harder to find. They feed almost exclusively on Casuarinas within damp forests, and are listed as Vulnerable in NSW, and on top of that, are very shy and elusive. One of the things that surprised us was how much better our hearing was becoming with all this bird-searching. The moment we heard the Glossies’ voices we looked at each other – both of us instantly recognising that the sound was somewhere between a Sulphur-crested and a YTBC, but definitely not either of them. And sure enough, we soon spotted a small group feeding. They were not with us long before disappearing again, but to go in search of these endangered birds and find them was a real 2020 highlight.
14. In late October we walked from Crommelin Arboretum at Pearl Beach, over the headland to Patonga. On reaching Patonga Beach we were surprised by the loud calls of many Whistling Kites. We had read that they may be found in the area, but had not realised how conspicuous they and their calls would be. We were also pleasantly surprised by the gentrified pub at Patonga, and their lunch menu. We were actually able to sit in the beer garden, eating and drinking, and photographing Kites flying overhead from the comfort of our seats – an agreeable first for us! We were so impressed with these medium-sized raptors and their lovely voices, we returned a few weeks later to celebrate Brad’s sister’s and niece’s birthdays at the pub, and of course to get more shots of Kites. The Kites nest in the many tall Norfolk Island Pines around the beachfront, and the one pictured here is carrying nesting material.
15. In November, on a return visit to Irrawong Falls at Warriewood, we were on the lookout for more Eastern Yellow Robins, but saw a different flash of yellow – this male Golden Whistler. Famously, his song is loud and carries quite a way, and we heard him before we spotted him. He was busy with nest building, and fortunately for us the nest site was just off the track edge. The female was also around – she is a drab buff/grey colour with slight olive highlights, but is nonetheless very pretty. The male and the female share nest building. Our pictures of the female show her with spider webs all over her face, and we later read that the Golden Whistler’s nest is bound together with spider webs.
16. After walking the Turimetta headland Reserve tracks with very few bird pics to show for it, we sat on a bench at Warriewood Park to regroup. That was when Amanda spotted a pair of breeding Male Variegated Fairy-wrens not 20 metres away in the coastal scrub. The pair were quite bold for their usually shy and elusive species. As is often the case, the best pics can fall in your lap after hours of searching for them.
17. The Eastern Osprey couple were the opposite of hard-to-find – their nest is on top of a floodlight tower right in the middle of an open park, and can be seen from half a kilometre way. Thanks to the fading light on an overcast day however, the photos we got were not great. But these birds at Rat Park, Warriewood were as stately and impressive as everyone said they would be. The bird pictured here was dismantling a fish for most of the time that we watched. Then, after a huge evacuation (which we also got a picture of!) took off for more fishing.
18. Not a rare or even unusual bird: in fact, probably one of the five most common birds in Sydney. Not an interesting or seldom seen behaviour either. Not even an exotic location – the backstreets of suburban Meadowbank. But on this sunny day, the colours of the Rainbow Lorikeet, and especially of the Flowering Gum (Corymbia ficifolia) gave us a dozen or so fantastically vibrant photos. There is no in-camera or post-camera colour-tweaking here – just nature’s actual colour at its best.
19. On a hot and otherwise unrewarding December day, we traipsed around the Landing Lights Wetlands with our cameras, until Amanda spotted this Striated Heron in plain sight (Brad was concentrating on photographing a totally unremarkable spider not 5 metres away!) The fingerlings were running in this section of canal, and as luck would have it we were there to capture a successful strike. A handsome bird, displaying its natural prowess in the urban wilderness – what’s not to love?
20. A lesson in always having a camera with you. Having eaten too much at a post-Xmas lunch, we took a walk around the streets of suburban Blaxland with Amanda’s Mum. Deep within a shadowy tree in a front garden we thought we spotted a flash of red, so I aimed and fired off a burst, not holding out much hope. But when we got the shots into the computer and de-shadowed a bit, we saw that we had captured the Scarlet Honeyeater, Australia’s smallest – and arguably prettiest – Honeyeater. We never expected to find this bird – literally – on the side of the road. Serendipitous!