Contrary to what many people believe, Sydney is not the capital of Australia, and even calling it the premier city in the country might elicit angry complaints from the inhabitants of Melbourne. But it is the first and oldest city in Australia, and arguably the most scenic, sprawling (and it certainly does sprawl) around a series of attractive bays and harbors. It is also a fantastic place to watch birds, and to get an introduction to birding in Australia.

Obligatory shot of the Sydney Opera House, with the Botanical gardens to the left, from the Manly Ferry.

The city is a very green one. Plenty of parks and forests have been protected even as the city grew. Right next to the world famous Opera House is the the Sydney Botanical Gardens, a good place to see Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Banded Rails and large roosting groups of Grey-headed Flying-foxes. Anywhere you’re on the coast, and Sydeny has a lot of coast, you can find Silver Gulls, several kinds of cormorant, Australian Darters and Australian Pelicans. Even in the most built up parts of the CBD the most commonly seen bird after the pigeon and myna is the native Australian White Ibis. Any of the many parks in the city will have numerous ibis picking around in the bins and around people having picnics.

A juvenile Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) on a park lawn.

In the suburbs the profusion of flowering plants planted in gardens provides food for Red and Little Wattlebirds, Noisy Miners (both ubiquitous and indeed noisy) and the spectacular Rainbow Lorikeet. On the subject of parrots, I have seen no less than ten species of parrot in the suburbs of Sydney, from the massive Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo to the beautiful Crimson Rosella. And it is certainly possible to see others with luck and a trip to the right spot. Other common suburban species include the Pacific Koel, the Pied Currawong, the Australian Magpie and the Laughing Kookaburra, all of which have loud distinctive calls that are very evocative of Australia. Lucky birders might come across Figbirds (a type of Old World oriole), Tawny Frogmouths or the massive toucan-like Channel-billed Cuckoo.

A Crested Pigeon (Ocyphaps lophotes) outside my grandparent’s house in North Sydney.

The native bush survives in places as well. This ranges from the eucalyptus forests that everyone associates with Australia, and are home to New South Wales’ only endemic species, the Rockwarbler. A more restricted habitat type which Sydeny has a great deal of are coastlal heathlands. In these habitats you’ll find White-browed Scrubwren, the distinctive New Holland Honeyeater, and the staggeringly beautiful and gregarious Variagated Fairy-wren. And you’ll hear, but maybe not see, the Eastern Whipbird. Where there are wetlands, lakes or ponds you’ll find a range of ducks, cormorants, rails and herons.

An Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicullatus)  in the lakes at Centenary Park

While the city certainly sprawls for some considerable distance, it is hemmed in, by the once forbiding Blue Mountains to the west, which prevented westward expansion or even passage for many years after settlement, and by national parks to the north and south The Blue Mountains are worth a visit for the scenery alone, but they are also the place to see the iconic Superb Lyrebirds. To the south is Royal National Park, one of the oldest national parks in the world. It protects a large area of heathland and woodland and is a good place to look for rarer species like Green Catbirds, Chestnuit-rumped Heathwrens and Powerful Owls. To the north are Ku-ring-gai Chase and Garigal National Parks, where the lucky can locate Australian Brush-turkeys,Noisy Pittas and Superb Lyrebirds.

The sea itself provides opportunities for seawatching as well. The north shore ferry terminal of Manly is the home of Little Penguins, which draw nightly admirers.  Monthly pelagic trips leave from the city, and the nearby town of Wollongong, out to the continental shelf. Along with Humpback Whales you have the chance of seeing Antipodean Albatrosses, Wilson’s Storm-petrels and Providence Petrels.

Antipodean Albatross (Diomedea antipodensis gibsoni) off the continental shelf.

So if you happen to be in Sydney you’re in for a treat! And if you aren’t, what are you waiting for?

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Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.