The pre-dawn air was cold and still as I made my way through the wrought-iron gates into Centennial Park in southeast Sydney.
This was my rendezvous point with Neil Hayward, my “Big Year” birding buddy. We met in Nome, Alaska during our North American Big Years in 2013. Then we birded Costa Rica in July of 2015 (Big Year Birders II) and South Africa (BYB III) in July of 2017. Now we were embarking on BYB IV: Australia. It was early July, mid-winter in the Southern Hemisphere, and we had planned a two and half week trip spanning New South Wales, Queensland, and the Northern Territory. My family had joined me for a warmup trip in June, and I had just packed them on a plane back to Seattle the night before. Now I was ready to spend a few weeks with Neil sampling a whole continent’s worth of avifauna.
Black Swans were already browsing the vast lawns, and Rainbow Lorikeets munched on the flowering trees and shrubs.
The flying foxes were making a tremendous racket as they returned to their day roosts high in the paperbarks. I picked out Long-billed and Little Corellas as the sun crept higher and began to take the chill out of my fingers. Soon I saw Neil, his lovely wife Gerri, and half-pint mini-me son, Henry. We spent a few minutes catching up, and then were off to see the other specialties of Centennial Park. In short order, we picked up a resident Powerful Owl roosting high in a tree and an out-of-range Freckled Duck loafing on one of the islands in a small lake. The Tawny Frogmouths were playing hard to get until Gerri expertly spotted a sleepy one nestled next to a tree trunk in Lachlan Swamp. After a couple hours at Centennial Park, we drove west to Bicentennial Park.
Bicentennial Park is located on the shores of Homebush Bay, and is part of Sydney’s Olympic Park (developed in preparation for the 2000 Olympic Games). Highlights here were Red-necked Avocets, Chestnut Teal, and Brown Quail. We put together a decent list in less than 90 minutes, and then headed off for pizza dinner. Gerri and Henry were flying home that night, and after dropping them off at SYD, we made our way south to Miranda where we would be spending the next few nights.
The next morning before dawn we set out for Royal National Park, one of the best birding spots in New South Wales. We began our day at the Mt. Bass fire trail, which was advertised as being good for birds of the open country heath.
While there were no Chestnut-rumped Heathwrens or Southern Emuwrens in evidence, we did pick up some very handsome singing Tawny Honeyeaters. After a quick stop at the Ironbark Flat visitor’s center to pay our entrance fees and say hi to some Sulfur-crested Cockatoos, we were off to one of my favorite places on earth.
Lady Carrington Drive, named for the wife of a former governor of NSW, is a 10 km trail running through the heart of Royal NP. Originally designated as a “carriageway,” it was officially opened by Lady Carrington herself in 1886. Nowadays it is a scenic trail for hikers, cyclists, and birders who want to explore the prime eucalypt forest and riparian habitat.
We walked south from the trail’s northern terminus for several hours, constantly serenaded by the ubiquitous Yellow-faced Honeyeaters.
Highlights included our first Scarlet Myzomelas of the trip, terrific views of perched Topknot Pigeons, scads of Eastern Spinebills, and two obliging Rockwarblers.
Despite diligently searching, we did not pick up the Superb Lyrebird, as expected. After a spot of lunch back at Ironbark Flat, we headed south. The southern terminus of Lady Carrington was largely birdless in the listless heat of the day, with the noted exception of a spectacular Bassian Thrush.
We ended the day at Curra Moors in a final attempt to pick up some heathland species. On the way down the path, I noted the characteristic song of an Eastern Whipbird coming from deep inside a nearby bush. Despite being one of my favorite sounds of the Australian forest, I continued down the trail thinking about my tired feet and the general lack of Heathwrens. The Whipbird sang again, but it didn’t sound quite right. An instant later, a Yellow-faced Honeyeater sang from inside the same bush. Then a bird I didn’t recognize. Then a Laughing Kookaburra. Then the drunk Whipbird again. I stopped in my tracks. Something was not right. What was wrong with that Whipbird? And was it hosting a bird party inside that bush? And why is a Kookaburra lurking deep inside the undergrowth? Unless…
“Neil!” I hissed. He was, as usual, already quite a ways down the trail, but he heard me and turned around. I pointed furiously at the bush in the mid-distance. The Kookaburra was laughing again, but stopped abruptly only to be replaced by a honeyeater, then something else I didn’t recognize, then the drunk Whipbird again. Unless I was very much mistaken, we were actually listening to one of the best avian mimics in the world, the Superb Lyrebird. (Perhaps you have seen this one singing for Sir David Attenborough?) We crept closer to the bush, but couldn’t get a clear view of the bird. When we were within five meters, the singing suddenly stopped. Silence descended. We walked over to the bush, but it was deserted. Then, down the trail, we heard it again: drunken Whipbird, honeyeater, Kookaburra. The Lyrebird was singing again. We retraced our steps, and listened to this incredible mimic go through its entire repertoire, which included at least six or seven different species. The concert went on and on but the star performer stayed just out of sight. Finally, at the end of a particularly magnificent passage, there was an explosion of feathers as the Lyrebird bounded down the hill, leaping fallen branches and other debris like an Olympic hurdler. In less than 20 seconds it had disappeared completely into the late afternoon heath. Neil and I grinned as we made our way back up the hill to the car. It was a concert we would not soon forget.