After my first trip to Royal National Park, I really wanted to see more. In that first visit, we had just barely scratched the surface of the bird life in the park, mostly focusing on common birds in nice settings.
I didn’t have a car to reach the park, and I figured a guide would be helpful for going beyond the basic species. A quick search found me a local guide, Steve Anyon-Smith. Steve is a very experienced guide, having written the birding guidebook for the park and having recently found a previously unknown colony of koalas in the park. As luck would have it, he had an opening on a few days’ notice that matched up with my last full day in Sydney.
Meeting Steve was simple. I took an early train to Sutherland station, arriving just after dawn. He quickly tracked down the lost-looking photographer on the platform and we headed to his car.
We started our day at the north end of Lady Carrington Drive, like in my previous trip. As before, the regular species were there to greet us, including this Laughing Kookaburra. We quickly headed into the forest to try to find some of my target species that can’t be found in more urban areas.
The first hour or was slow going. We heard plenty of birds, most of which I couldn’t identify. Steve had an exceptionally good ear for birds, reeling off species names extracted through some minor sorcery from the constant twitter of overhead birds. Most of the birds didn’t come down where we could photograph them. Given we were in deep forest early in the morning, those that did come down were a challenge to shoot.
After about an hour, our luck started to change. I managed some okay shots of a Brown Gerygone (ger-ig-uh-nee), a New Holland Honeyeater, a Golden Whistler, and a Rufous Fantail.
Late October is of course spring in Australia, so we saw a number of occupied nests, including an Olive-Backed Oriole and an Eastern Yellow Robin.
I really liked this photo of a Black-Faced Monarch. It would have been better if I hadn’t accidentally bumped my aperture to f/8, but this was still a great photo. The crossing palms leaves created a pleasing background even without being completely blurred out.
After two hours, things started to really pick up. This Eastern Yellow Robin was one of my favorite photos of the whole trip to Australia. It’s pretty funny that Europe, North America, and Australia all have completely unrelated birds named robins. The American Robin isn’t nearly as pretty as its European and Australian namesakes.
At the same time, I spotted my first Eastern Whipbird. These birds have a great call. It’s very distinctive, with a high whistle then “whip-crack” from the male, followed by a series of descending “pew pew” notes from the female. While you constantly hear the whipbirds calling to each other, you rarely see them. True to form, the Whipbird I spotted gave its call and then disappeared back into the understory.
Simultaneously with the Whipbird and the Yellow Robin, Steve discovered a Supreme Lyrebird. Steve prides himself on finding every one of his guests a Lyrebird, and we’d been searching all morning. I had a conundrum because I really wanted some Whipbird photos as well. I knew from watching other birds with “look-at-me” calls that they often return to a favored perch to blast out their announcements to the whole forest. So if I was patient, I could probably get better shots of the Whipbird. But the Lyrebird wouldn’t stick around.
I stayed with the Whipbird. As I had hoped, it kept returning to the same couple of branches to give its calls. It only did this every 3-5 minutes, so it took a lot of patience to get the right shot.
After about a 30 minute wait, I got a good shot of the Whipbird perched on a branch. If I’d just been a little further left, this would have been a really clean photo. Still, not bad at all for my first try!
The Lyrebird, for the record, did not stick around. I saw the tail of a Lyrebird disappearing into the forest, so I was not responsible for breaking Steve’s streak. I didn’t get a photo, however.
After all the excitement, we took a lunch break and then headed to the river to look for Sacred Kingfishers. They weren’t too hard to find, but they were much harder to approach.
This Australian Water Dragon was basking in the sun, paying no mind to the curious photographer poking his lens in its direction.
At this point, it was time to start heading to the car so that we could drive to the coast and explore some heathlands before the day wrapped up.
As we headed back, we passed another Olive-Backed Oriole, this one feeding on a caterpillar. We also spent a bit of time with an Eastern Spinebill. This was a very active honeyeater, doing an acrobatic act as it fed on nectar.
We also came upon a Horsfield’s Bronze Cuckoo. This bird was quite relaxed in our presence, moving between branches but never going far. I got multiple shots interspersed with photographing other birds. I didn’t quite manage a clean shot with a pleasing background, however.
Having wrapped up on Lady Carrington Drive, we headed to the Coast Track to look for Rock Warblers, Beautiful Firetails, and other heathland birds.
Unfortunately, our time on the coast was a bit of a bust. It was hot and sunny. We saw few birds, and got even fewer good photographs. I liked this shot of a White-Browed Scrubwren (I’m partially to all wren-like birds at this point) and got a decent shot of a Little Wattlebird. The scenery was striking, and the birds are usually more obliging, so I’d like to return earlier in the day on a future visit.
We quickly cut our losses and drove outside the park to make one final stop.
The final stop was an undisclosed location outside the park where Steve knew we could find Powerful Owls. There was a whole family, with two adults and two juveniles. Getting good photographs of owls is always tough, but we managed some reasonable ones before the owls started to express their displeasure at our presence. We left them alone and Steve drove me back to the train station.
Royal National Park was a real treat. It has something for everyone. Beginning photographers can take advantage of the open meadows to get good setups with common birds. Photographers wanting to fill out their portfolio can press into the forest and struggle through the dim lighting and web of twigs to photograph the dozens of species found under the canopy. I came away with shareable photographs of 19 species, and at least five other species spotted but not photographed. I’m very jealous of the folks in Sydney who can drop down to the park whenever they have some free time.