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A Report from

Sydney, Australia, June 9-26, 2008,

Keith Heaven

A trip report for birders who don’t want to try too hard! Or who are enjoying a family holiday so fit their avian interests in with other activities.

My wife and I visited Sydney to see our daughter who was studying for a semester at McQuarie University. We stayed on the north shore at the Cremorne Point Manor hotel. This hotel  has small rooms but it is clean and friendly , has excellent breakfasts ,and is in a very good location for enjoying some of the more frequent bird species to be found in Sydney parks, suburbs and Harbour.

I took copies of The Slater Field Guide to Australian Birds  and  the Field Guide by Simpson and Day. In all, I saw 50 new species but never once set out on any expedition purely to look for birds, let alone sought out specific species or places.

The following areas proved most productive :----

1)    Cremorne Point/Mosman Bay.  An area on the north shore of Sydney harbour. The shoreline  is mostly rocky but with linear areas of parkland including Bushland  which is being managed by the local Council to benefit wildlife. These parks, often referred to as “Reserves”, merge into the large gardens of the surrounding suburbs.

I can see that there must be many similar areas all round Sydney Harbour as well as within the Greater Sydney suburbs.

2)    Sydney Harbour itself. One of the joys of staying on the north shore is the need to take one of the frequent ferries across the Harbour to the Circular Quay which lies between the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge. The Circular Quay is the hub of the ferry service all round the Harbour as well as up river to Paramatta or as far as Manly which has a beach on the Pacific Ocean.

Besides providing views of Sydney’s more iconic constructions, the ferry trips allow you to watch the birds on, and over, the water of the sheltered Harbour.

3)    The Sydney Botanic Gardens, on the south shore adjacent to the Opera House and the Central Business District, they provide a (relatively) less crowded and more peaceful escape from the busier tourist spots. There are ponds and trees and garden shrubs and hundreds of roosting Fruit Bats as well as some obliging birds.

4)    Darling Harbour and the Chinese Gardens. Again, this area is a busy shopping and sight-seeing spot but many species of birds are very familiar with human beings and can be seen at close quarters even around the feet of the indifferent passers-by. Many of the same passers-by fail to look upwards at the dozens of Australian Ibises, roosting (and nesting?) in the palm trees.

5)    Sydney Fish Market.  A popular place for locals and tourists alike, where the main attraction is the superb seafood available, not to mention the sushi, eaten outside under the watchful eye of a waiting Australian Pelican.

6)    The Hunter Valley. A popular area for coach trips from the city. The journey is about two hours and there are frequent visits to wineries for the “tastings”. We chose to visit the Hunter Valley Gardens where I saw several new species of bird on the ornamental ponds and in the garden shrubs. The  route passes through Eucalyptus forests and past wetland areas as well as fairly intensively- cultivated farmland.

7)    The Blue Mountains. About two hours by train from the city to Katoomba. A beautiful area to visit but with many birds to discover, even around the Three Sisters, a very crowded viewing-point. Just take the track from the viewing point towards the Three Sisters rocks, down through the woodland. En route, to the right, you may see a small rock pool on a promontory that, if filled with rainwater, draws in a whole range of birds to drink and bathe.

8)    Paramatta. A small town, now absorbed into the city. We took the ferry upriver, under the Harbour Bridge, past semi-industrial areas but also areas of encroaching Mangroves. From the ferry terminal in Paramatta, you can walk along the well-maintained river bank amongst more obliging birds, up to Governor McQuarie’s House, an Australian National Trust property, which, like the British National Trust equivalents, might be regarded as “an excellent cup of tea and cake with an interesting house attached.” The surrounding parkland and gardens are good for common species.

9)    Watsons Bay and “The Gap” park. One of a number of popular beaches within the harbour with an area of open parkland and bush behind it. In this case, the park runs up to the top of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific, allowing some sea watching.  This would be a very  good place for a dedicated seawatch with a decent telescope and some patience.

Like other, similar beaches, it is easily reached by using a ferry from the Circular Quay and the ferry landing stage is right on the beach.

The “Doyles-on-the-beach” seafood restaurant deserves its reputation and, if you sit outside, your birdwatching over the beach and Harbour can continue without hindrance.

10)  A whale-watching boat trip out of the Harbour and onto the Pacific Ocean. These are run several times per day during whale-migration times and set out from Darling Harbour or the Circular Quay. We couldn’t find a boat with a resident bird expert so some of my identifications became a bit “speculative” given the wave motion and the fact that we were all concentrating on the spectacular Humpbacks.

The birds

Listed according to the order in the Christidis and Boles (2008) checklist.

Musk Duck.  

Just one seen, in a large ornamental pond in the Hunter Valley gardens at Pokolbin.

Australian Wood Duck

Fairly numerous and approachable along the river in Paramatta town,and in the Botanical Gardens.

Australian Shoveler

One (or more) seen briefly beside a flood field between the Hunter valley and Kurri-kurri.

Pacific Black Duck

Numerous and tame around the ponds and parkland in the Botanical gardens and Darling Harbour. Some are hybrids with Mallards, especially a few that roost overnight on the landing stages on the Circular Quay.


Or “White-eyed Duck” for obvious reasons. Two seen in the Hunter Valley Gardens.

Australasian Grebe

At least five in ponds at the Hunter Valley Gardens.

White-headed Pigeon

Two seen perched on overhead wires in the middle of the small village of Wollombi, near the Hunter valley.

Spotted Dove

Sometimes regarded as numerous, but I only saw two who burst out of dense bankside vegetation as the ferry reached the terminus in Paramatta.

Crested Pigeon

Regularly seen in the Sydney suburbs, perched on wires, or feeding on the streets and pavements in small groups or pairs. My daughter, after several months in Sydney, regarded them as the typical local “pigeon in the park”.

Yellow-nosed Albatross

At least five seen from the whale-watching boat just off the coast out in the Pacific. But this is a fairly “speculative” ID as the boat was heaving and all eyes were watching for whales.  I could eliminate most other species and make an educated guess. There is a lot of fun to be had on these boats,trying to separate the Albatross species, long before the whales start breaching.

Australasian Gannet

Over twenty seen from the whale-watching boat, sitting on the surface or diving. I also saw one within the Harbour, patrolling close inshore around Watsons Bay, looking for seafood while mine was brought to me on a plate at Doyles. This point is only just inside the Harbour mouth at “The Heads” and I didn’t see any Gannets further up the Harbour nearer the city.

Australasian Darter

Fairly frequent in small numbers around the Harbour, extending up the Paramatta River, perching on the encroaching mangrove trees as the river narrowed. They are believed to have favourite perching spots and one was seen several times at the top of a set of steps leading from the Opera House down to the water. I could approach to within only a few yards while it preened itself. It was a male, identifiable by the russet patch on its throat. It was so approachable, and so pre-occupied with preening, that I thought it might be oiled or unwell, but it was in very good condition and flew off when it was good and ready, returning at will. I watched another while I was sat on a park bench beside Mosman Bay. It swam just below the surface, only diving deeper when there seemed something worth catching. The “snake-like” appearance was very clear as it weaved from side-to-side or slid its long neck out of the water. Again, it seemed to have favourite rocks on which to perch, holding out its wings like a Cormorant.

Little Pied Cormorant

Seen regularly as single individuals from the shore or the ferries crossing the Harbour, as well as further inland up the Paramatta River. They were still to be seen where the river narrowed though Little Black Cormorants  only seemed to prefer the more open waters of the Harbour. I saw several individual Little Pied Cormorants fly directly towards the landing stages at the Circular Quay, amongst all the ferries, but I could never then locate them. As compensation, two allowed very close approaches around the large fresh water ponds at the Hunter Valley gardens. I looked for Pied Cormorants as well but I was never able to identify any.

Great Cormorant

Two seen, flying together, straight off the Pacific, over the cliffs at “The Gap” park and over to the Harbour.

Little Black Cormorant

These seem more gregarious than Little Pied (at least in midwinter when I was there) and, as well as individuals over the Harbour, I saw a roost of eight together in a large tree overhanging Mosman Bay. Further up Mosman Bay, at the small marina, a pair perched together on the yachts or swam together fishing, not particularly bothered by the chaps messing about in boats or passing birders with cameras.

Australian Pelican

One seen over the Paramatta river, another three together flying high over Mosman Bay, but one spent ages just sat on a post at the Sydney Fish market, watching the picknickers. Fish and seafood play a large part in the diet of local humans and this Pelican was waiting its chance for anything on offer.

Cattle Egret

Up to twenty seen from the train in a damp, part –flooded field near Ryde in the outer suburbs.

White-faced Heron

One seen with the Cattle Egrets near Ryde but another was seen close-up in the parkland approaching the Governor’s House in Paramatta. It seemed to be used to the passing walkers and the traffic just beyond the park boundaries.

Australian White Ibis

These are large, impressive, and, to my eyes at first, very exotic birds. They are numerous around the Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and the Botanical gardens. Their romance quickly faded when I saw several join the noisy flocks of Silver Gulls to snatch crumbs tossed by picknickers, then noticed their habit of rummaging around the dustbins by cafes and restaurants.

Royal Spoonbill

Six round a large artificial lake in a golf course next to the Hunter Valley gardens.

Eastern Osprey

One flew over the Harbour while we waited for the ferry one morning.

White-bellied Sea eagle

I saw the first over Darling harbour right over the busiest part of town. It was being harassed by Ravens. I saw a second in more “natural” surroundings following the Pacific coast at “The Gap”, flying steadily north.

Brown Falcon

This was my last “tick” in Australia, seen from the plane as it began taxi-ing down the runway at Kingsford-Smith. It was hovering over rough grassland adjoining the airport. It seemed as large as a European Kestrel but holding its wings in a more inverted, “V” shape.

Purple Swamp Hen

Expected to be numerous, but I only saw two feeding on open ,mown grass with Dusky Moorhens near garden ponds in the Hunter Valley. A bit nervous and wary compared to other birds but they made no attempt to fly away when people or vehicles approached. They just scuttled towards the water or shrubs.

Buff-banded Rail

Often regarded as difficult and secretive, but these Rails were frequently seen in the Botanical gardens. They certainly have a silent, creeping sort of behaviour but they are so used to humans that they pop out of the shrubbery onto the paths quite readily and allow reasonably close approach.

Dusky Moorhen

Very similar to European moorhens, and similar in choice of habitat. Numerous in parks etc including the Botanical Gardens, the Hunter Valley Gardens, and along the river in Paramatta.

Masked Lapwing

This is a strange –looking bird, surely to be discovered only in the most out-of-the –way places after hours of searching. But, in fact, the first I saw was surrounded by tourists lounging on the neatly mown grass in the Botanical Gardens. The next  two were only yards away from me along the river in Paramatta, near the Tourist Information Office. They were also seen in more natural  habitat by ponds and floods in the Hunter Valley.

Crested Tern

Another “speculative” ID as they were out at sea, seen from the whale boat and , a bit more clearly, from the cliffs at “The Gap”. Numerous but scattered and there might have been several tern species around just to confuse matters. They were mostly moving around small bays in the cliffs, fishing.

I noticed other terns, which may have been this species, further up the Paramatta river, well away from the coast.

Silver Gull

Too numerous to count, these (actually very attractive ) gulls swarm around the visitors at the Opera House , the Circular Quay and Darling Harbour. Café owners actively discourage feeding as they would invade the premises and wreak Hitchcockian destruction. Noisy and persistent as they stalk the tourist hot spots, their numbers reduce drastically to just scattered individuals once out into the open waters of the Harbour.

Yellow-Tailed Black Cockatoo

Two seen flying together over eucalyptus forest on the old convict trail, The Great North Road, en route to the Hunter Valley. Noticeably large and noisy birds.


Surprisingly, I only saw two of these birds, even though they are supposed to be numerous. I saw them from the train to the Blue Mountains. They were on a fence beside a school sports field near Emu Plains. My daughter reassures me that she saw them regularly in small flocks in the parkland areas around her student accommodation on the McQuarie campus.

Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

This is a very obvious bird, large and loud and tending to gather in raucous flocks. I saw them around suburban houses in Mosman(where they were being fed?),in palm trees in the Cremorne reserve and in the Botanical Gardens. A large flock also frequented the grounds of the Governor’s house in Paramatta.

Rainbow Lorikeet

Probably the first Australian bird we saw (sat on wires outside the verandah of our hotel at dawn) and it was then seen every day. They frequent parks and gardens, and come readily to bird tables as well as chase around the trees before settling on flowering shrubs to extract nectar from the base of the blooms. They are often (in midwinter) in groups but always seemed to stick together in identifiable pairs. We rarely saw them singly.

Our hotel in Cremorne put out bird seed near the front entrance and, one morning when I was discussing some practical point with staff in the front office, a pair of Rainbow Lorikeets appeared outside on the window cill. They  shuffled along  until one reached the open window, peered curiously inside and even , briefly , stepped into the room, until deciding there was nothing of interest.

The hotel staff member hardly noticed this behaviour and told me that they are so numerous in her own garden that she barely registers their presence.

Australian King Parrot

Another very colourful species. I saw a pair flying through the trees beside Mosman Bay at a point where the large gardens merge with the reserve. But they were more numerous in the extensive forest around the Three Sisters in the Blue Mountains.

Laughing Kookaburra

We heard these birds long before we saw them. We heard them at dawn as we awoke, then through breakfast at the hotel, then around the Cremorne reserve. But it was only after a few days that we saw one, then two, then a third, sitting silently on branches at (human) head height beside Mosman Bay. They hardly move even if you approach to a few feet. Even cameras hardly disturb them. My daughter regarded them as common around the University campus and described how they would approach the windows of the student rooms without any concern. I wonder if, in the first few days, we had just failed to detect them because they would be so quiet and still while other birds were noisily drawing attention all around.

Superb Fairy Wren

I saw groups of these amazingly coloured birds (male plumage  anyway) flitting through the shrubs at the Hunter Valley Gardens, then in the remaining native bushland at “The Gap” park. As the books describe, there will be a large group of females with a single male moving with them. Though I also saw how the groups might get a bit entangled as more than one male might be around at the same time. Again, this was June. It might be different in the breeding season.

Having a camera was useful as I could then study my pictures afterwards to distinguish between the different Fairy Wren species. Passing humans did not worry them much and they would remain in their semi-hidden habitats in the low bushes, but photos were still difficult because they were always on the move.

White-browed scrubwren

The camera was also useful with this species. As we stood at the viewing point in the Blue Mountains, a small brown bird slipped quietly towards us, keeping low in the bushes until almost at our feet. I could only manage a quick, blurred shot but it was enough to identify a White-browed Scrubwren. As I only identified it when I was back home on the computer, it became my 50th and final “tick” of the trip. It also made me think again about a small brown bird, half concealed, low in a bush in the reserve on Cremorne Point…but it’s too late to go back and check now!

Eastern Spinebill

About twenty of these small and attractively coloured birds were seen near the Three Sisters in the forests in the Blue Mountains. Most were around a small rockpool which was full after rain. They would dash in to wash and drink but then fly off again once larger birds appeared. A few escaped towards our viewing platform but , again, did not panic on seeing us, just kept a reasonable distance.

Lewin’s Honeyeater

Just one seen by the Three Sisters in the eucalyptus forest. Easily identified from the “half-moon” patch behind the eye.

Noisy Miner

You don’t need to go looking for these birds around the parks and gardens of Sydney. They will find you! Not as noisy as the Cockatoos, perhaps, but they seem to check out any passing humans, especially if you stop at a bench and start opening picnic bags. So they are also found outside cafes like the café at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the Domain park next to the Botanical Gardens as well as in the gardens themselves. They also penetrate into the historic Rocks area of the city, near the Harbour Bridge, as that area also has a lot of open-air cafes etc. The large yellow eye –patch helps give them a demure or endearing look but, apparently, they are aggressive with smaller birds such as Fairy Wrens, so their presence in large numbers is a mixed blessing and may be a reason not to actively feed them.

Red Wattle Bird

The wattles are red, not the whole bird. The wattles were only just visible on a pair of them in trees next to the Three Sisters viewing point in the Blue Mountains. They were giving an excellent display of flycatching, assuming anyone could take their eyes from the fabulous scenery. Another was nearby, ousting the Eastern Spinebills from the rock pool, almost emptying the water completely by crashing in, getting completely soaked, then shaking itself like a dog! There were yet more in the eucalyptus trees and scrub.

New Holland Honeyeater

Another exotic-looking bird in yellow, white and black. Seen in the forest in the Blue Mountains and flying from bush to bush along the cliffs in “The Gap” park.

Eastern Whipbird

We only saw one in the Blue Mountain forest but worked out its distinctive call, a faint “eeeeeEEEEEE” then a sudden “WHIP”.

Australasian Figbird

A flock of up to thirty of these birds was watched flying from the leafy suburban gardens of Katoomba into the nearby denser forest at dusk.

Grey Butcherbird

A pair of Grey Butcherbirds frequented one particular part of the Cremorne reserve, perching on overhead wires just above the path which was always busy with joggers, power walkers, dog walkers and  even power/dog walkers . They also perched on the balcony of a nearby house.

Australian Magpie

These birds are familiar from all parts of Sydney and beyond, including the Blue Mountains. Their strange, fluting, sing/song  calls were a constant accompaniment to breakfast and then the walk through the Cremorne reserve to the ferry. They have little fear of humans in the parks and gardens though I noticed that they were reluctant to call to each other when we were around(so I couldn’t video them and capture the iconic sound at the same time.) They are only called “magpies” because they are black and white. They are quite different to European Magpies.

Pied Currawong

What a great, “Australian-sounding” name! Yet, we didn’t need to scour the outback or the tropical rainforest of Queensland to find them. They were some of the first birds seen, on wires outside the hotel on the first morning. I think they were seen everyday of the holiday, being residents of the suburbs as well as more natural habitats outside the city.

Willie Wagtail

Not as ubiquitous as might be thought but seen along the riverbank approaching Paramatta and on the clifftop at “The Gap”.

Australian Raven

These were more like a European Crow than a raven. They are usually in small flocks. I saw them mobbing a White-Bellied Sea Eagle over Sydney as well as gathering round a church tower in Manly as the evening fell. They have a strange call, starting off very raucous and “crow-like” and then becoming  a bit sad and plaintiff, like a cat that’s been locked out or a petulant child. I heard them in most places even if I didn’t see them.


Like a very big, black and white lark. I saw my first, and then a second, scuttling round the feet of the visitors near the Chinese Gardens in Darling Harbour. Afterwards, I saw them along the Paramatta River, in farmland in the Hunter Valley and beside the train to the Blue Mountains, and in the Botanical Gardens. They are fairly quiet and not particularly insistent about food, not, from what I could see, entering café areas etc.

Welcome Swallow

Widespread, particularly over the more open areas of parks and gardens. They perch and preen on overhead wires.

Common Myna

An introduced species called the “Indian Myna” by some. Very common in urban areas, especially around people and shops. They can be found in the Rocks area,the Circular Quay,the Botanic Gardens (especially at open-air café s) and even perch up on high-rise flat balconies. In fact, I don’t recall seeing any in actually natural, rural areas.

In addition to the above, I also saw a few House Sparrows and Starlings and lots of European Coots, all introduced.

As I have said, my birdwatching was fitted around other, admittedly relaxed and slow-paced,  activities and birders familiar with New South Wales would not be impressed by the range of species I saw. But it shows what can be seen even in Australia’s largest city.

Keith Heaven    8-8-08


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