One of the nicest things about staying with my grandparents in Sydney is the proximity of their house to part of the Sydney Harbour National Park. This park, which protects scattered headlands, bays and islands of natural bush, is located around the entrance to Sydney Harbour. Dobroyd Head, the section in Balgowlah near where my grandparents live, protects one of the larger parts of the park, and is a hidden gem of birdwatching in Sydney.

Sydney Harbour National Park, looking south west towards Sydeny’s CBD.

The head is dominated by heathland habitat, a common coastal habitat in the Sydney region, where bushfires, salt spray, sandstone and poor soils create a habitat of low shrubs and stunted trees. The small size of the parks and fire repression has led to much of the former heathland habitat being taken over by trees, but regular controlled burns have helped protect the heathland at Dobroyd. I’ve been going to the park for over a decade and have seen it change over that time, and a largish burn had been done in between my last visit three years ago and my visit this Christmas. Where there had been a fairly dense stand of Casuarina (Allocasuarina) about two metres high was now a waist high tangle of lots of different heathland plants. The recent rains, coming off the back of a long drought, also meant the bush was greener than I had ever seen it. And a blaze of wildlflowers too. In the more sheltered areas the heathland is given over to eucalyptus forests.

The bush on the left has been burned recently, the unburnt right is much taller and dominated by Casuarina.

The park has a range of birds that are very typical to coastal heathlands. The most common species are two types of honeyeater, the New Holland Honeyeater, a small black white and yellow species, and the larger Little Wattlebird. This noisy species is often heard throughout the park. Also present are the large Red Wattlebird. In the forest area the most common species is the Noisy Miner, another honeyeater that has done very well in suburbia and small relic patches of forest, sometimes to the detriment of other species.

New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae)

There are plenty of other small birds. I spoke about the two species of highly social fairy-wrens last week, the Variegated Fairy-wren and the Superb Fairy-wren. Also common is the White-browed Scrubwren, a member of the Australasian warbler family. All three of these can be very confiding, one White-browed Scrubwren came within a foot of my face as I stood watching it in the tangle of bushes. The other common small species is the Red-browed Firetail, a compact but very attractive finch. Also common are some of the species also seen commonly in suburban Sydney, such as the large predatory Pied Currawong and the Australian Magpie, and the massive Laughing Kookaburra. I’ve had a couple of great encounters with this species hunting lizards and frogs in the more open woodland areas, and of course it’s evocative call is a common sound anywhere there are enough trees. Another evocative sound is that of the Eastern Whipbird, a species that is far easier to hear than find skulking around in the shrubs.

White-browed Scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis)

This being Australia there are parrots too. Most common are the Rainbow Lorikeets, which fly around in tight flocks screeching away in their constant search for the next flowering plant. They can be surprisingly quite when feeding however, and have a much more subdued call when doing so. One fun discovery I made this trip was a tree hollow where a pair were nesting. One of the parents was feeding an unseen chick, again they were quite quiet. Nearby a pair of large Sulphur-crested Cockatoos were feeding their two chicks. This massive species is the most common cockatoo in the eastern suburbs, and often seen flying around, but it was still nice to get a more intimate look at their private lives.

Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) breaking up dead wood for grubs

Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus) above it’s nesting hole.

Along with the more commonly seen species it is possible to find rarities and oddities in the park too.The park is great for cuckoos, with the large Eastern Koel being the most commonly seen species. My favourite species of cuckoo, the Channel-billed Cuckoo is a rare but reasonably regular occurrence. This species, the world’s largest species of cuckoo, has a massive distinctive bill that has led to it being called a hornbill! It reaches the edge of its range at Sydney, but I have seen it in this park a few times, including youngsters being raised by currawongs. I’ve also stumbled across Horsfield’s Bronze-cuckoo, the only one I have ever seen anywhere, and had a fleeting glance of what might have been a Fan-tailed Cuckoo. I’ve also seen Tawny Frogmouths nesting in the more wooded areas, but these have been absent for a while now, although this is hard to prove. On my last trip I got a new lifer in the park, a Brown Goshawk patrolling the heathland. I was alerted to it by all the honeyeaters going mad! There are even reports that the Rockwarbler, New South Wales’ only endemic species, is in the park, but I’ve never seen one.

Young Channel-billed Cuckoos (Scythrops novahollandiae) lack the massive bills of adults.

The best thing about the park is, actually, the fact that it really isn’t very unique. Sydney has managed to preserve many patches of bush in parks and reserves, including some large national parks on the edge of the city. The composition of the species varies from park to park, but the fact is that it is never hard to find a great place to watch birds in the city.

Dobroyd Point, and across the harbour North Head, also part of the park.

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.