Royal National Park is one of the jewels of Sydney, a massive park that protects a huge swathe of coastal bush (bush in the Australian sense meaning anything from rainforest to coastal scrub) to the south of the city. As one flies into Sydney’s airport it is clearly visible as a very definite boundary marking the edge of the city, but having seen it many times from the air it was one of those places that I just never managed to get to. Part of this was the relative difficulty in reaching the place, I usually stay on the other side of the city and Sydney is not a small place. There are plenty o other places to go as well. But Royal was a place that I really wanted to reach.

And reach it I did earlier this year, after I got back from my jaunt up north to Cairns but before I returned to New Zealand. I had a day, one, and I rose very early for the multi stage journey to reach the park. First off an early morning commute across the northern suburbs and across the famous Harbour Bridge, then a train ride through the city. The train line skirts the edge of the park at a number of stations, and I got off at one of the stops, Engadine. My reasoning was thus, from this station I could hike through some apparently excellent Sydney Heathland before dropping down into some forest and the excellent birding in the centre of the park. The map made it look fairly simple, a three or four km hike through bush from a station to the park headquarters, how hard could it be?

The birding started straight away, a pair of Yellow-faced Honeyeaters, some Variagated Fairy-wrens and some Rainbow Lorikeets. A few paces into the forest there as a small pond that was home to a family of Australian Grebes. I had a quick listen in the reeds for Clamorous Reed-warblers or cisticolas, but no luck. I kept along the paths, which were muddy from the previous night’s rain. The open eucaltyp woodland soon opened up to the promised heathland, with such typical species as Grey Fantails, Spotted Pardalotes , some Eastern Spinebills (an unique lineage of honeyeaters) and the ubiquitous New Holland Honeyeater. The site is supposed to be good for heathland specialities that aren’t found in the smaller parks, like the Tawny-crowned Honeyeater or the Chestnut-rumped Heathwren. Heathland specialities are tricky, as coastal heath is dense and the the species that are found in it retiring skulkers. The Tawny-crowned Honeyeater, for example, is best found for about one month of the year that the males perform their territorial singing. It wasn’t this month, and I didn’t see one, but a short way down the path I heard a call I was unfamiliar with, then a few more. I had an inkling of what it may have been as it was a small flock of skulking birds, and I waited as they moved through the dense vegetation towards a slightly more open area in expectation. After a brief wait a small brown blob flitted out into a branch. It was a female Southern Emu-wren, a species that looks more wren-like than the related fairy-wrens, only with long emu feather like tails. All in all a pretty special bird, not just a lifer but the first emu-wren I had ever seen (the other two species are desert specialists). I watched the group flitting around, getting one good look at a female (I never saw the male).

Male (which I didn’t see) Southern Emu-wren (Stipiturus malachurus). Note the tail. Image by David Cook (CC)

The eucalypt forest soon overtook the heathland, and with it came slightly different birds, including Brown Thornbills, Eastern Yellow Robins and a rather nice White-eared Honeyeater. But here the morning took a turn for the worst. The path narrowed and had clearly not been maintained for a long time, as many of the shrubs on the side had grown into the path, meaning you had to brush through them to progress. At first it was a mere annoyance, but in places the path was very blocked. As I had mentioned it had rained the night before, and it was drizzling now, so each of these branches I had to push past dumped their collected water on me. Soon I was wet, by the time I got to the bottom of the hill, some two hours later, I was utterly soaked to the bone, as was everything I was wearing. I didn’t see much on that section of the walk, as my glasses were both fogged and splattered and I eventually had to take them off in order to see where I was going. I did see some Red Wattlebirds and some Noisy Friarbirds, but that was about it.

At the bottom of the hill was a fast moving river with a lot of boulders, one of which I sat on for a while to dry off a bit in the recently returned sun. Here II was presented with another problem, I wasn’t sure where to go next. It was possible to move a distance up and down the river, but I couldn’t find a path onwards to the park centre. Faced with the undesirable prospect of heading back the damp way I had come I crossed the river (I’m glad I didn’t slip on the damp stones) and eventually found the overgrown (how surprising) path onwards. It wasn’t long before I was finally at the centre, which was next to a large lake. I had planned to get here sooner and walk further south into the park, but I had taken much longer to reach here than I had expected and I wasn’t sure how long taking the southern route out would do. I decided to bird around the centre for a while before heading out the northern route.

Can you see the hidden path? Because it took me half an hour to find it.

The area around the centre is pretty good for some species, including common stuff like the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, the Eurasian Coot, Dusky Moorhen and Australian Raven. Pacific Black Duck and Sacred Kingfishers are other common birds, and one particular prize was a Lewin’s Honeyeater. But my heart wasn’t realy in it, and I soon hiked out through a rather uninspiring walk.

Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii). Image by Tom Tarrant (CC).

Conclusions? Royal national Park has a great reputation, and with more preparation I think it would deserve that reputation. I’m not sure if you can really do it justice on foot though. It was a shame to have to miss some areas because I didn’t have time to reach them on foot (or the inclination after getting soaked). But a handful of great species seen under trying circumstances show that there is a lot to find there. I’m as determined to go back as I was to get there in the first place, and I will do it one day.


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.