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”!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!