Australia’s largest city has a population of around five million, but sometimes it can feel like you are surrounded by 50 million when you are in Sydney. Not the most conducive place for a variety of bird life, you’d think.
Well, you’d be wrong.
In fact, on my day in Sydney, I managed to see 57 species without going further than 12 kilometres from the CBD. That’s actually more than I saw in Brisbane. Though to be fair to Brisbane, it was teeming down for most of the time I was out birding and even the birds—unlike me—sensibly sought shelter from the rain. Also, due to the great media coverage in Brisbane, I was too busy yabbering on about birds to be able to get out to any of the fantastic wetlands around town, or visit the shores of Moreton Bay, an internationally recognised habitat for migratory shorebirds and one of our closest Key Biodiversity Areas to a capital city.
The quality of the birds in Sydney was a terrific surprise. From the Powerful Owl in the Botanic Gardens clutching the previous night’s prey—a half-eaten Brush Tail Possum—staring down at me from its daytime perch as hundreds of tourists happily walked unawares beneath it, or the Little Black Cormorants and Darters that were nesting at the ponds of Centennial Park. These waterbirds would normally be found breeding in the Red Gums swamps of the Murray-Darling Basin, but the conditions offered by Sydney’s parks, water all year round with plenty of fish, meant that a number of pairs have decided that this is a good place to raise a family.
All this is within metres of joggers, walkers, people just out for some fresh air. It is staggering to think that such wildlife experiences can be had in the middle of a city of five million, but many of Sydney’s inhabitants are completely unaware of the unfolding natural dramas being played out amongst them every day.
And the international tourists too. Though it is some international visitors of a feathered kind that I want to focus on here.
Sydney is justifiably famous for its beaches. So I thought I should check one out. At dawn’s first light I traveled to South Maroubra Beach, about 12 kilometres from the heart of the city. The surfers were already out in force. But I ignored all that and headed off the beach and up into the sandstone headlands above the beach, known as the Malabar Cliffs.
Birders know it as Magic Point. Well, so does everybody else as one of the bluffs jutting out into the Pacific is actually called Magic Point, but for those who love seabirds, it really is magic. This and the next point further south provide some of the best land-based viewing of pelagic (ocean-going) seabirds like Albatrosses in the world.
Not that there were any Albatross out there today. A couple of Australasian Gannets were flying just beyond the breakers with the surfers but further out to sea it was quiet with no birds I could detect at first. Often flat sea conditions are not conducive to seabirds. These long-winged ocean wanderers need a stiff sea breeze to help them launch into the air, and tend to sit quietly out on the water when the winds are not roaring.
I had seen several land birds like Rufous Whistlers and Golden-headed Cisticolas in the bush on the headlands, but it was looking a little light on for sea birds. Then, I saw some movement about a kilometre offshore and suddenly it was on for young and old. A large raft of shearwaters (medium sized seabirds that many people know as ‘muttonbirds’ were sitting on the water. There was a little movement in flight and though I really would have loved a telescope to see them better, I was still able to identify three species of shearwater, all from different parts of the world.
The bulk if the group were Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, one of the two species referred to as muttonbirds. These all dark birds have a distinctive flight style with their wings sort of hunched forward as they flap and glide just above the waves. They are locals, breeding along the east coast of Australia, but in the colder months they up stumps to the North Pacific Ocean.
There were also a smattering of smaller Fluttering Shearwaters. These birds are dark brown above and white below and breed in New Zealand. They are more common off Sydney in winter but you can usually see some at any time of year.
The third species was for me the truly outstanding one, quite possibly the bird of this entire Big Week. It is a Japanese visitor called a Streaked Shearwater. A real oddball among the shearwaters, it is much larger than the other two species and unlike most shearwaters that rapidly flap and glide, Streaked Shearwaters almost lazily beat their wings above the waves in unhurried, almost albatross-like movements. Their white underparts and pale head that showed almost white in the early morning sun further reinforce the impression that they are mini-albatrosses.
But what was most exciting about these Streaked Shearwaters was how rarely they are seen in Australian waters. They are probably there in numbers every summer, but usually in more tropical waters. The Malabar Cliffs are a known hotspot for them but I was not expecting them at all. In fact this was a bird that eluded me entirely when I was on my Big Twitch year and travelled around Australia birding every day!
And here it was, right on Sydney’s blue backyard.