Friday, 05 December 2014 11:00

Arron's Birding Hotspots

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This list of Bird Photography Spots around Sydney was compiled by my good friend Arron.  See his Flickr site. 

This is my list of top spots for bird photographers around Sydney. I have tried to distinguish between spots which are good for birders and those which are good for bird photographers and concentrate on the latter. Naturally, when anyone prepares a list like this it carries their own preferences and biases. My biases are that I am attracted to the exotic and don’t have much interest in photographing common species no matter how artistic it can be, and that I shoot with a 300mm lens so I need to get close. I should also point out that I have been wandering around these places for about 20 years, but only with a camera in the last 18 months. The usual caveat applies, if you go to a place I mention and have a dud visit, well you are dealing with wild animals so expect unpredictability.The first 6 are my top 6. The remaining 10 are my second level preferences, in no particular order.

Audley Weir. Many experienced birders regard Royal National Park as our premier location, and it is the one most overseas birders coming here seem to know about. When birders say RNP it is most often the Audley area they are talking about. There are four basic areas here. The weir itself is quite good habitat and has good birdlife on it and in the streamside vegetation. A specialty here is azure kingfisher, and it is the only place I know of where they are reliable and in multiples. The picnic grounds have large trees and a surprising variety of birdlife, especially if you can get there before the hordes of picnicers and daytrippers. Naturally, they are inclined to allow a close approach. Lady Carrington Drive leads away from the picnic area through forest on the true right, and is justly famous for birds. Its specialty is the many lyrebirds that are familiar with people and quite confiding. The last area is Wattle Flat, which is on the true left. It is another picnic ground but a bit different because, being a little more remote it is much less popular with the daytrippers. It is mostly surrounded by dry sclerophyll, but there are patches of degraded rainforest along the waterway. All up, it’s a wonderfully diverse environment that is hard to beat for variety and numbers of birds. Photography is easy, you can get away from the picnicers quite easily, and being able to choose either bank of the weir makes it work through all parts of the day.

Mitchell Park. MP is a wonderful spot for reasons I can never fully explain. I have been coming here for 10 or so years and on only a couple of occasions have had a dull trip or left without seeing something exciting. Perhaps its bird numbers and variety come about because it packs a wide variety of habitats into a small area, and as we know birds are most numerous in the boundary between two habitats. Nonetheless, plenty of other parks provide the same without approaching MPs reliability. I have seen powerful owls here on several occasions, black bitterns are regularly reported, and there is a long standing nankeen night heron colony which is widely believed to have failed but has simply moved up the Cattai Creek to a less accessible area. Otherwise, its mostly a bush bird spot. I prefer to photograph it stalking, though I venture that to do really well you need to be good at recognising birds from their calls.

Ash Island. A place of relentlessly ugly scenery but outstanding birdlife. The hotspot is the large shallow enpondment at the southeastern end (centred at 32 51 49.56s 151 43 24.09e , just copy and paste into the Flyto bar of Google Earth), immediately below the rail line. This is justly famous for waders, waterbirds and raptors. On the west, this is bounded by a power line service road called ‘wagtail way’. Each year, for the past ten or so years, one or more yellow wagtails have migrated from somewhere in the northern hemisphere to spend our summer at this point. Go figure? At the end of this road, effectively at the northern tip of the empondment, is ‘crake corner’. It used to be a hotspot for crakes, though recent drought events have knocked it around a bit. On one visit there were no crakes but a very confiding Lewins rail was good consolation. Be aware that wader number here can vary greatly, depending upon tides elsewhere and the condition of the water. On my last visit in January 2009, green algae was extensive and bird numbers were very low. My best sightings here to date are banded stilts, black necked stork and a lesser yellowlegs. Photography should be good, especially from a car on wagtail way, though in recent visits the birds have tended to hug the opposite boundary, a characteristic that can change at any time as the water conditions change. It is possible to drive right around the enpondment, though the vegetation is close and duco-scratches will occur. Elsewhere on Ash Island there are numerous ponds, wet patches and rank areas, each of which has its own characteristics. There is even a so-called rainforest patch. If you are a lister desperate for a tick, stop at 32 50 24.47s 151 42 29.87e – the wild chooks there must surely have passed the 10 generation boundary.

The dykes. You will need a boat or canoe for this one. On the true right hand bank of the Hunter, just upstream from the boat ramp under the Stockton Bridge, is a series of low rock berms. These can be seen in Google Earth at 32 52 42.98s 151 46 56.43e . At high tide they become a magnet for waders, and I have seen them here in the thousands. This is significant because, appealing though our bird fauna may be, what we don’t have here in the south east is large-number events – by which I mean places where we can see birds in really large numbers. There is quiet a good variety on the dykes too and this remains the only place in the south east where I have seen terek sandpipers or black tailed godwits. I always look out for rarities like broad-billed sandpipers, though with such large numbers doing so does get old quickly. Photography is easy, though of birds in large numbers not birds alone. There are passages through the berms that allow you to travel up either side – allowing shooting in morning or evening sun. Remember though, waders lead a hard life and they need good rest, so make sure you never get close enough to put a flock into flight. Paddling quietly around the pools created by the dykes can yield surprises like whiskered terns. There is also a waterbird refuge beneath the Stockton Bridge on the true left, though it is rather far from the bank and I doubt you could get a decent photo there without becoming a menace by walking out into the habitat.

Strickland State Forest. Most of SSF is dry sclerophyll production forest, although there is a rainforest reserve that can be reached off Mangrove Road. This is one of the ‘Gosford Rainforests’, and I think the best one when access is factored in. None of the Gosford rainforests are particularly large, and probably never were very big as rainforest hereabouts is limited to the deepest and wettest gullies. Nonetheless the Strickland rainforest is a wonderful spot with great diversity and bird numbers. The species mix here is more reminiscent of rainforests further north, and in fact it marks the (arguable) southern limit of many species. The carpark at the road terminus is right inside the rainforest, and it creates a wonderful sense of anticipation to be driving into the car park in the early morning, hearing the rainforest sounds overhead, scaring the wongas out of your parking place and hearing catbirds call as you open the car door. Like any dense forest though, and especially one that has been cutover so that the biggest forest trees are missing, photography is difficult because of the low light and dense vegetation. Using a hide and recorded calls can even the odds, though one should consider the ethical side of using recordings against iconic species such as catbirds or bowerbirds in a well-frequented place such as this.

McGraths Hill Treatment Works. Public access to this location was terminated about 5 years ago. I include this spot simply so we don’t forget what we have lost, in the hope that if pressure continues reason will prevail and we will once again be allowed access. You used to be able to push through a small gap in the fence and wander freely among the various settling ponds. At the time it was a premier locale, and certainly in anyone’s list of the top 5. The first pond you came to was a small one called crake pond, and I remember sitting quietly here watching five crake/rails of three different species within easily photographic distance – before I owned a camera. Walking further it was not unusual to put up a bittern. The vivid greenness of the vegetation would make for good backgrounds and all the ponds could be approached from any angle. Raptors were common too, especially swamp harriers. A single square-tailed kite used to be a regular here, and on several occasions I saw peregrines and hobies harassing the large flocks of pigeons that are inadvertently supported by a local farm feed merchant. As small compensation to birders, a viewing area has been set up beside Windsor Road, which is all but useless for photography.

The Continental Slope. I have heard it said that the migration of sub-Antarctic seabirds to our waters that occurs every winter is one of the great animal migrations of the world. The species concerned are largely albatross, petrels, skuas and shearwaters. The best way to see these species is to take a day trip on one of the boats which specialise in following pelagic seabirds. The fast and (relatively) stable catamaran Halicat runs out of Sydney once per month, look here for the details The usual strategy is to proceed to a seamount such as The Peak or Browns Mountain and investigate fishing boats or set up a chum line. The Halicat is a reasonably stable photography platform, and if the birds respond to the chum they will come close. Be aware of one problem, however, if the weather is rough the birding will be at its best but sea-sickness is the order of the day. If its calm, you will have a pleasant trip but bird numbers will be less. I think September or October is the best time to go as there are still migrants around but the chance of settled weather is greater.

Lake Wallace (Lake Wallerawang) The thing that is special about this lake is that it is the only sizeable inland lake near Sydney (that I know of) that has a stable water level and shallow edges. This makes it ideal for the growth of riparian vegetation and therefore birds. Other lakes like Lyell or Windamere have wildly erratic water levels which prohibits the growth of life-promoting vegetation, so you get extensive muddy wildlife-unfriendly banks. Extensive public parklands on the western side of Wallace allow you to park up close to the water and use your car as a hide. Generally you’ll get a nice background in the frame as well. Musk ducks and great crested grebes are common here. Like any of our waterways though, waterbird numbers are dependant upon rain elsewhere as the birds will disperse when more ephemeral catchments fill.

Penryhn Road Inlet. A small inlet on Botany Bay’s northern shore, there is some redevelopment going on here that might put this spot out of action for a while. Waders are the specialty, and there isn’t a great number of them here, but two things make it stand out. Firstly, the waders are very used to human disturbance, in fact it is occurring almost constantly due to the walkers, dogs and fisherman. Therefore they are relatively approachable. Secondly, they roost on clean white sand with blue water behind, so you have a good chance of getting a pretty background. If you want that picture of a godwit on something other then dismal mangrove mud then this is the place to get it.

Magic Point. The southern headland at Maroubra Beach. If you won’t or can’t do a pelagic boat trip, you can see many of the same sub-antarctic migrant species from various headlands around Sydney. Go to the headland on a winter’s day when a strong southerly or (even better) easterly is blowing, to see albatross, shearwaters and petrels. These birds come in close when a big inshore swell creates ocean turnover, forcing food to the surface. Even with a long lens you will be lucky to get anything other then a record shot, however. The reason I prefer Magic Point to other land-based pelagic spots is because the walk out to the point is through a rich heathland with good birdlife. Rarities are reported here regularly, including a ground parrot and even an orange chat in recent years.

Bushells Lagoon. One of the Hawkesbury Lagoons. If you have an interest in raptors, try this place. In recent visits here I have seen sea eagles, whistling kite, wedgetailed eagles, Pacific bazza, swamp harrier, spotted harrier, peregrine falcon, Australian hoby, black winged kite, nankeen kestrel, grey goshawk, brown goshawk and/or collared sparrowhawk. As is usually the case with flying raptors, it will be record shots in the main, but you will get lucky from time to time. On my last visit a peregrine took a tilt at a cormorant right above the causeway. It only managed to snip off a few wingfeathers so I guess its heart wasn’t really in it. My camera isn’t good for BIF shots so I didn’t even try but it would have been an easy shot for a more competent photographer as the cormorant was lumbering upwards when the pf flew into view so it was possible to predict where and when the action was to take place. There is always plenty of waterbirds on the lagoon and the odd crake or kingfisher.
For other species, the area around the lagoon is remarkably birdy. Before you walk down to the lagoon, check out the area around the intersection of Blacktown Road and Brewers Lane, there are always surprises here and you can shoot from your car. The walk down to the lagoon always produces a few surprises too.

Long Neck Lagoon. This is part of Scheyville NP. The lagoon itself has been mismanaged for years and has very little birdlife. This is a shame, as I have seen old records that suggested a rich waterbird fauna that even included jacana. The bushland around the lagoon, however, has a wonderful variety of birdlife. I usually walk around the eastern side of the lagoon, setting up a hide or just stalking. Painted button quail and speckled warblers are resident here. The other part of Scheyville, near the park headquarters, is hopeless.

Castlereagh State Forest. This is one of the better-preserved bits of grey box woodland. I think it is unredeemingly dreary country, but there is a rich variety of birds here that are less then common over the rest of the Sydney area. Bird densities here can be remarkably low, and the birds tend to come in ‘bird waves’ that can be short-lived and difficult to get onto. The light is harsh and patchy because the canopy is usually sparse, and the backgrounds are rarely attractive. Despite the negatives, it has produced some wonderful sessions with painted button quail, weebill, scarlet robin, speckled warbler, buff rumped thornbill and fuscous honeyeater – scarcely sounds like you are in Sydney, does it? Its probably best approached using a hide and recorded calls.

Mason Park. A small reserve in Homebush with a wetland area that is great for waders. The stand-out features of this reserve are the variety (rather then numbers) of waders and how close you will get to them - though please be careful not to trample the waterside vegetation as it took way too long to get it established. A negative feature of this place that has arisen in recent years is the number of noisy black-winged stilts which will harass a photographer when breeding. If you park in the carpark and head due east down the track stop immediately you enter the treed area. This small and undistinguished area has regularly and inexplicably been a bushbird hotspot – I have seen pallid cuckoos, goshawks and even an owl here. On one visit, it had become white winged triller heaven, no idea why. Nearby Bicenetennial Park has a very much larger wader refuge which is good for birders but not much good for photographers because of the distances from shore to bird.

Mount Bass Fire Trail. This is in Royal National Park not far from Audley Weir. My choice of this as a heathland location is probably made because I go there a lot and always get good results, but in truth there are probably many other walks just as good. All the heathland specialties are here in good numbers, such as beautiful firetail, chestnut rumped heathwren, emu wren and tawny crowned honeyeaters. Like any heathland area, results are probably best early in the season when there is plenty of nectar on the heath. Results will also be better early in the day, as you would expect of an area with limited shade. Mount Bass FT is sufficiently far from the coast to have patches of mallee, so technically its not pure heathland, but this probably adds to the birdiness. As you walk down the track from the road gate, keep a lookout for a sharp left hand turn, a permanent creek flowing under the track, and then a sharp right hand turn. You can hear the creek even if you don’t see it. Look on your left back towards the road and you will see a small hanging swamp following the creek – marked by very well developed old-man banksias. This is a noted biodiversity hotspot that is used by the Sydney Universities for study of various native animals. Please keep out of this rich but fragile area. If you walk far enough down the track you start to descend off the heathland plateau into forest dominated by scribblygum wherein the species composition will change again. Meadow flat is another heathland firetrail even closer to Audley and probably just as good.

Cattai National Park. CNP technically also includes Mitchell Park but here I am talking about the remainder, that part that includes the park headquarters. Cattai is a wonderful birding and photography location that over the last 10 or 15 years that I have been visiting it has seldom failed to produce a good variety of birds, and always several in the ‘you don’t see that every day’ class. I have made a previous post on this park so wont repeat myself here.

Mount Kembla Ring Trail. The rainforest areas around Bulli and Wollongong are all good but this one I have found to be the best. Like any rainforest area, photography can be difficult with the light low and the birds almost always partially obscured by vegetation. One thing I like about this location is the steep start to the track which allows you to sit and watch (and perhaps photograph) rainforest birds as they break out above the canopy. The various species of pigeons are prone to doing this. The steep start also means you are eye-level with the canopy for much of the walk. This is good because I think most people never realise how densely populated the rainforest canopy is with species like rose robin and satin flycatchers, which seldom reveal their presence to ground based observers. Again, the density of vegetation in the canopy mitigates against photography. There was a good variety of birdlife there including logrunners and pilotbirds and plenty of leeches. I found the logrunners quite approachable in my pre-camera days.That concludes my list.


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