Black Cockatoos in Sydney

I first encountered Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos entirely by accident. Full disclosure; I didn’t even know these majestic birds lived in Sydney. In fact, I didn’t know much about them at all. I had never seen one in a pet store or in a bird park. I’d never even seen one in the thousands of hours of David Attenborough nature shows that I had watched on TV. But early one morning, in Centennial Parklands in Sydney, I spotted a couple of huge black parrots crunching on pine cones.

I took a few photographs before they flew up into the canopy. It wasn’t easy photography, as the parrots flapped between the dark of the canopy shade and the bleaching shards of the Australian sun. This was the first and only occasion, during my time living in Australia, that I got to see the birds close up. A few years later a business trip saw me heading back to Sydney from New York. I had 24 hours in which I was determined to find and photograph Sydney’s black cockatoos.

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The first Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo that I photographed while living in Australia

I had squeezed my camera, complete with 200 mm to 500 mm zoom lens into my hand luggage. I landed early on Saturday morning and dropped my bags at the hotel, setting off for Centennial Parklands. I arrived there at around 9.30 am and fueled on some of Australia’s fantastic coffee, I set off into the pine grove where I had seen the birds years earlier.

What a treat Centennial Parklands is for birders. With the possible exception of the Pipeline Road area around Panama City, it is difficult to think of another major city that has quite the chocolate box of birds.

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Centennial Parklands close to Sydney’s trendy Paddington district

I picked my way slowly over the spongy bed of fragrant needles, clicking the shutter at every flutter. There was no sign of the cockatoos. I walked under a screeching mob of Sulphur-crested cockatoos, as I headed to the next hotspot. Still no trace of the bird that I was here for. Finally, I stumbled on a couple of chewed pine cones on the forest floor. Was this the work of the black cockatoo?

The dappled light in the pine grove
A nibbled pine cone on the needle carpet

I picked up the cone, inspected it, sniffed it, dropped it and was none the wiser. I sat down and listened. The hands marched around the clock until finally, beaten by jet lag and the rising temperatures, I headed back to the hotel.

My alarm sounded early on Sunday morning. I needed to work the jet-lag out of my system and I intended to do so at the Parklands. I jumped in a taxi, arriving at Centennial Parklands at first light. I headed for my cockatoo hotspots.

First stop was the pine grove in the centre on the park where I had found the chewed cone the day before. No sign of cockatoos there, so I headed to the lake and the pines growing alongside Lachlan’s swamp. Here I found Kookaburras and Frogmouths, but no cockatoos. My last hope was to walk north to the pine grove at the sandstone rocks.

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My Centennial Parklands Black Cockatoo pine grove hotspots

I walked slowly, stopping periodically to listen. A Kookaburra flapped noisily above, as it plucked at grubs from a dead tree. I stopped to photograph it and then stood still for a while. A dog, out on its early morning walk, ran by and the grove fell silent again.

Some moments passed before I heard the sound; a high pitched whining squeal. Not the harsh growls and screeches of the Sulphur-crested cockatoo, but a prehistoric whinny. The sound came from close by; my heart started to thump. I recognised the unmistakable sound. I walked a few paces forward and stopped. The whinny came up again, but quieter this time, and to my right where the long grass was knitted in tangles. I took a few paces forward, when a small black head with lemon blusher periscoped up through the long grass. The deep pink rimmed eye of a male Yellow-tail looked back at me.

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Male Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo

We both froze for what seemed like eternity. The bird tightened its feathers and prepared to fly, and I took a pace backwards. The bird was holding a half chewed pine cone in his right hand and seemed reluctant to leave it, unless absolutely necessary. It wasn’t necessary, and being an intelligent sort, he quickly realised that we both just wanted to sit and do our thing.

With minimum movement, I took some photographs and we just sat together. A few moments later his mate, a female with charcoal mascara, reared her head before wandering casually into the long grass.  The male soon followed.

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The Yellow-tailed Black is a large parrot. It is the longest of the cockatoo family at up to 65 cm (26 in) in length. Although it moves in the shadows and is much quieter and more reserved than its noisy cousin with the sulphur crest, it is a noticeably bigger bird.

The Yellow-tailed black cockatoo is one 14 species of cockatoo in Australia, 6 of which are black. The Yellow-tail lives on the south east coastal areas, ranging from just north of Brisbane  round to Adelaide and on the southern island of Tasmania.

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Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo range

The Yellow-tailed black cockatoos come to Centennial Parklands outside of the breeding season to feed on the pine cones. During the summer breeding season, which runs from September to February, most of the cockatoos leave the city for the bushlands.

During the winter months the cockatoos return to the Parklands, sometimes in large numbers. Although flocks can occasionally be seen flying overhead, I have found them to be secretive birds that do require effort to find, even in the confines of a suburban park.

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My pair of cockatoos took to the air as a stocky, snuffling dog came shouldering through the grass. The birds were not panicked, but were smart enough to move out of the way. a couple of beats of the huge black wings, followed by a low glide.

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Male Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo with the dark beak and pink eye ring

I followed the cockatoos at a respectful distance. The pair perched in different trees within sight of each other as they surveyed the area. A Noisy miner bird swooped down to scold the female. She didn’t even give it a glance. A few moments passed when a large kookaburra dived from nowhere, to threaten her with its dagger beak. She stood her ground, before looping through the air to another low branch.

I wondered what the black cockatoos had done to deserve the unwelcome attention of the miner bird and kookaburra. I don’t know for sure, but when I see this behaviour it makes me suspect that this peaceful seed eater might have more sinister habits during the breeding season. Perhaps it develops a taste for eggs or fresh meat.

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Female Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo with the pale beak and grey eye ring

The pair of Yellow-tails flapped down to the ground and continued their breakfast foraging. It wasn’t long before they had a pine cone each, which they systematically worked every seed out of before tossing the pine cone core and moving on to the next one.

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I stayed with this pair of magnificent parrots for a while. I lowered the camera and just sat with them, enjoying their steady deliberate walk and their relentless pine cone demolition. Occasionally they would stop and eye me, but they had decided some time ago that I was not going to be a threat to them.

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Numbers of Yellow-tailed black cockatoos are in decline, like all of the black cockatoo species. Habitat loss seems to be a never-ending threat to their way of life. But somehow these majestic parrots have found a way to co-exist with us humans in suburbia.

Centennial Parklands is at the heart of this parrot/human co-existence, and with a little help from a lot of people, who care deeply about the future of these birds, it will remain an oasis in the city for the Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo.

 

 Join the conversation below. Have you seen the urban Yellow-tails? 👇👇👇

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Categories: AustraliaTags: , , , , , , ,

David

I am a wildlife blogger and world traveler, using images & stories to inspire wild connections.

18 Comments

  1. David – Once again an article about a species I knew nothing about. Thank you for continuing your impressive blogging during these crazy times we are experiencing. I will continue to read your blog as long as you keep publishing. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Enjoyed your black cockatoo adventure. Fascinating birds! My first encounter was my suburban backyard in Melbourne on a hot summer’s day. We have an avenue of 30 foot tall pencil pines . The sprinkler was on and I heard that strange sound…. then they – a pair- came swooping down for a drink. I felt treated to a special encounter! It hasn’t re-occurred but sometimes I hear them. They are amazing.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Another wonderful story, Dave. Every time I go to CP I always hope to hear the Yellow-tailed Blacks. It’s a real thrill when there’s a large group of them shrieking and diving around. But your photos show a much more serene and intimate experience…. Your story also brought back the memory of when we saw them in Rose Bay as they flew overhead and you let out a few fruity words lol.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Wow, congratulations on your successful fulfillment of a long-standing wish. Your shots of them in flight are just spectacular. You must have a photo angel too, who watches over you in circumstances like this. Mine is Frances, and she has come to my aid a number of times, to my delight.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I so admire your persistence, patience, determination and curiosity! It paid off with what sounds like a truly wonderful encounter and some fabulous photos.
    Your map of their range seems to include the ACT, but in many years of living in Canberra I never saw them. The only time I’ve seen black cockatoos was in the Blue Mountains many years ago. I remember being really excited to see them.
    I miss Aussie birds 😦
    Alison

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aussie birds are the best! A kaleidoscope of colours. I went to the Blue Mountains on several occasions, but I didn’t see the Yellow-tails there. I occasionally saw Gang-gang cockatoos there, which was thrilling. I only got to ACT a couple of times and didn’t see them there. Every time I saw a black cockatoo was as exciting as the first time.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Incredible story: I’d never heard of yellow-tailed cockatoos before. It seems like Australia is full of fantastic species, and hopefully I’ll get to visit someday.

    Thanks for continuing to tell stories and share pictures of your wildlife encounters!

    Like

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