Triumph and Disappointment in NSW

Although it was cold and dark the next morning when we left the hotel, a rosy glow was already gracing the eastern sky.  I was anxious to get going, but first Neil needed to finish fighting the barista at the local coffee shop.  “No, a LARGE cup,” Neil insisted.  The barista put back the 8 oz cup and picked up a 12 oz one.  “Don’t you have anything bigger?” Neil asked as he craned his neck to see around the side of the espresso machine.  “Ah, mate, you want a JUMBO cup,” replied the tired looking man behind the counter.  “Yes, that’s exactly what I want!” Neil exclaimed.  “Yeah, we don’t carry Jumbo cups,” the man responded.  “They do make ’em, though: 16 ounces – it’s like half a liter!”  Neil gave me an exasperated glance as he handed over his bank card.  I chuckled under my breath as he grabbed his flat white and we headed for the car.  Soon we were hurtling west on the M5 motorway towards my second-favorite birding spot in New South Wales, the Australian Botanic Gardens at Mount Annan.

The ABG is a naturalist’s delight.  It has more than a dozen specialty gardens spread out over 1000 acres.  Between the visual beauty and the rich diversity of bird life present, I totally forgot to snap photos of the place!  We ended up spending over five hours there, and racked up 54 species including 9 species of honeyeaters.  One of my favorites were the Bell Miners, which live in dense colonies and give a loud and persistent “BLINK” call, not unlike a bell.  There are some interesting theories explaining why Bell Miners live in colonies.  One is that they “farm” psyllids, a group of insects which feed on eucalyptus.  The young psyllids, called nymphs, form a sweet, sugary shell called a lerp to protect themselves.  The miners sometimes eat the lerps but not the nymphs themselves, and chase away other forest birds which might eat the psyllid nymphs and adults.  There is even some evidence that colonies of Bell Miners can cause whole stands of eucalypts to die when the psyllids that eat them multiply relatively unchecked.  This phenomena is called Bell Miner Associated Dieback.

While I did not get any photos of the Bell Miners, their nosy cousins, the Noisy Miners, visited me at the cafe and tried to steal my scones.

Noisy Miner

Noisy Miner wants my scones

After some fortifying scones and a flat white, we returned to the Banksia Garden in search of the Swift Parrots.  Swift Parrots are critically endangered, with perhaps only 2000 individuals remaining in the wild.  They breed in Tasmania and migrate to mainland Australia in the winter.  Uncommon anywhere, they are especially rare in this area of New South Wales.  However, a small flock of them had been seen intermittently for the last week or so feeding on the Banksia flowers in the southwest corner of the park.  After half an hour amongst the Banksia, we caught a glimpse of a parrot flock blasting through the trees.  These green streaks were indeed quite swift as they wheeled and twisted in a tight group through the canopy, and it was hard to get a good look at them.  They finally settled in the treetops, and we got brilliant scope views of some 25 Swift Parrots (more than 1% of the global population!).  They were the ninth parrot species for the day, joining such other beauties as Australian King Parrot, Crimson & Eastern Rosellas, Galahs, and Red-rumped Parrots.

Soon enough, the Swift Parrots zipped away to check out another corner of the gardens, and our attention was drawn to a brightly colored songbird across the trail.  I re-directed my scope just in time to see a magnificent male Variegated Fairywren in full alternate plumage.

Variegated Fairywren

Variegated Fairywren – photo by Neil Hayward

“Bird of the trip,” I whispered to Neil as he snapped away with his birding camera.  People often ask me what my favorite bird is, and I never had a good answer before.  Now I do: it’s that particular male Variegated Fairywren in the Banksia Garden of the ABG.

After we had our fill of parrots, honeyeaters, and fairywrens, we started working our way towards the exit.  At the north end of the gardens, we stopped by the lakes and picked up a group of Buff-rumped Thornbills and a very handsome male Rose Robin.  Driving home on the M5, we were feeling quite satisfied with our day.  We wanted to turn in early because we were scheduled to get up hours before dawn the next morning for a pelagic birding trip out to the deep ocean off the coast of Sydney.  Near our hotel however, we were graced with an unsettling omen: a white car with a “no birds” logo emblazoned upon both doors.

No birds

But why not?

The car turned out to be a prescient warning.  When Neil checked his messages back at the hotel, we received some unpleasant news.  The weather offshore was quite rough, with high winds and deep swells.  Our pelagic trip had been canceled.  I was devastated.  We had adjusted the timing of our whole trip to coincide with the July pelagic trip out of Sydney.  I was hoping to spend the next day seeing albatrosses, petrels, prions, and shearwaters.  Now we were left with an extra, unscheduled day in NSW.  What to do?  We spent a little time searching the internet for a backup plan, and decided to spend the day at Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park, about 45 minutes north of Sydney.

Ku-ring-gai Chase is a huge protected area, almost 60 square miles.  We started at the Chiltern Trail, where we ran into a delightful local birder named Robert Griffin, with whom we spent the next two hours.  Highlights of the Chiltern Trail included White-cheeked, White-eared, and Yellow-tufted Honeyeaters.  Later on we stopped at West Head, which was spectacularly beautiful but not tremendously birdy.

Neil at West Head

Neil at West Head in Ku-ring-gai Chase NP

We made a stop at Warriewood Wetlands on the way back to town, and ended the day at Long Reef Aquatic Reserve, a finger of land that extends into the Pacific Ocean just northeast of Sydney.  At the ocean watch near the tip, we watched a dozen Black-browed Albatrosses bank and soar over the waves, circling over the cormorants, gulls, and shorebirds roosting on the offshore islets.  It was not nearly as good as a pelagic trip, but I didn’t leave Australia without seeing at least a few seabirds.

Long Reef Aquatic Reserve
Long Reef Aquatic Reserve (those specks are albatrosses)

We returned to Miranda and packed up our things.  We had an early flight out to Cairns the next morning, our first taste of tropical Queensland.  Four days in NSW had netted us 125 species; not as many as we would have seen had our pelagic trip run, but not too bad for mid-winter in the Sydney metro area.

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