The caffeine from the first potent mouthful of coffee was beginning to fight back against my heavy eyelids. After 17 hours of flying, I had finally arrived in Australia. Now, within an hour of landing, I was photographing a small group of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.
My flight touched down at 6 am. It was the first flight to land in Sydney that morning, so I cleared customs quickly and went straight to the hotel. My room wouldn’t be ready for a few hours, so I dropped my bags and pulled out my camera. The sun had just risen, so it was a great time to find Sydney’s abundant wildlife. The Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens were a short walk from the hotel and, from my years of living in Sydney, I knew I would find birds galore. The Gardens didn’t disappoint!
If you’re not Australian I don’t think you can ever get used to seeing large white parrots in the city center. I wasn’t a blogger when I lived in Australia, so I hadn’t taken the time to photograph them properly. Now I was here for work and had a few hours free to take as many photos as I could. The Sulphur-crested cockatoo was my prime target.
My heart quickened when I spotted a small group of cockatoos pacing around the trunk of a tree. I slowly made my way towards them and crouched to set my coffee down and lifted my camera up. A cockatoo tilted it’s head and studied me with one beady eye. One, two, three camera clicks, but the light was poor and the bird had started to move. It was moving in my direction. It strutted towards me and in doing so rendered my long-range 500 mm lens useless. I shuffled back and snapped in time to catch the friendly parrot picking up a seed in its left hand and nibbling the nutty treat with that iron beak. It is usual for cockatoos to be left-handed. Perhaps another reason for me to identify with them.
The cockatoos took flight in search of their next meal. I decided to leave the Gardens and make the short walk to the headland where, Mrs. Macquarie’s Chair looks over the mind-mindbogglingly beautiful harbour. I had seen cockatoos nesting here in the past, but I wasn’t sure that it would be the right time of year. It wasn’t long before a cockatoo landed in a Eucalyptus tree and shuffled along the branch towards a large hole in the trunk. It’s mate landed just above, and dragged herself up the trunk using her beak, to explore another hole. This bird was Lily (057), a participant in the citizen science Wingtags project.
It isn’t uncommon to see cockatoos around Sydney wearing plastic yellow tags on the shoulder. Wingtags was started to assess the movement and behaviours of urban cockatoo populations. Some of the data provided by the citizen sightings is fascinating. Lily (057) has been reported 229 times in the 7 years between July 2012 and July 2019. Over half of these sighting occurred on the same plot of land where I took these photographs, and almost all the sightings occurred within a mile radius of this point. I had imagined long journeys into the Australian bush, but these birds are too beautiful not to be showing themselves off around town .
I made my way back into the Botanic Gardens. The Australian sun was pounding down and wilting all beneath her. As I followed the winding path towards the Opera House I heard a familiar squawk. A flock of cockatoos had landed in a group of pine trees. Barracuda (051) and Watermelon (011) stayed in the trees, feasting on young pine cones, while acting as lookout.
The other half of the flock swooped down to the ground and started plucking at grass, nibbling down to the root. I crouched down beside them. They were not in the least bit concerned by my presence, and indeed came to within a few inches of my camera.
Most of the time the magnificent sulphur-coloured crest from which this species gets its name remains concealed as nothing more than a yellow feather swirl. The best time to see the crest in full fan position is in the seconds after the bird lands. For a few fleeting moments the crest is erected, as a flag to announce the cockatoos arrival, as they stoop drunkenly in to a wobbling stagger before regaining composure.
I left the cockatoos to their breakfast and walked out of the Botanic Gardens. I should have been going back to the hotel to sleep, but when you have little time and a lot of wildlife there is no time for sleeping. My next targets would involve a short taxi ride to Centennial Parklands.
I lived in Sydney for 3 fantastic years. In that time I must have seen hundreds of cockatoos. It wasn’t uncommon to be woken up by a raucous bunch on the roof at first light. But each time I see them it is the same excitement as the first time. Why, because they make me happy. Australia is old and the climate is fierce. European settlers brought underground water to the surface and provided an abundance of grain and fruit to this arid land. This abundance has seen the parrots of Australia thrive, and none more so than this beautiful, comical urban marauder; the Sulphur Crested Cockatoo.
If you are in or are visiting Australia you can get involved with Wingtags by following the link
Join the conversation below. Have you seen cockatoos in Sydney? Have you taken part in the Wingtags project? 👇👇👇
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