Twenty years ago to the day – 15 September 1993 – and I have left Africa for the first time (since arriving as a 13 year old British immigrant in 1969) and am walking – and birding – on another continent. With so much wildlife to see and explore in southern Africa, my mind has hitherto been occupied with all things African.
However, at the invitation of the Australian Tourist Commission I have found myself on an all-expenses-paid junket for journalists. The idea is to promote Australia as a travel destination for global ecotoursits, birders and naturalists – and my brief is to visit a range of prime localities, absorb the natural wonders, take photographs, then go home and have a minimum of four magazine articles published.
Australia, of course, is hardly a mystery to anyone with an interest in nature. Kangaroos, koalas and kookaburras are iconic creatures and the whole gigantic island is home to an astonishing variety of unique plants, mammals and birds, not to mention dramatically beautiful landscapes and the oceanic biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef. Nevertheless, and without a moment’s hesitation, “Count me in!” is what I said when approached. It was simply irresistible.
Over 14 days, I got around a bit. I visited the extreme south-western corner where the Mediterranean climate has given rise to a flora so strikingly similar to the ‘fynbos’ of South Africa. Here, among the flowering Banksia and Melaleuca, I encountered wondrous birds such as the New Holland Honeyeater, Southern Emu-Wren, Splendid Fairy-Wren and Tawny Frogmouth. Along the Goodradigbee River below the Snowy Mountains, I followed fresh spoor of Duck-billed Platypus (the egg-laying mammalian oddity eluded me although I did find a Wombat) and came face-to-face with Eastern Whipbird, Pied Currawong and Noisy Friarbird. In the Eucalyptus woodlands near Narooma (south of Sydney) I heard the remarkable calls of the Superb Lyrebird, watched a Satin Bowerbird gather blue berries to decorate his courtship bower, and came to understand why the Laughing Kookaburra got its name. Everything was all so completely new and exciting – it was like being a kid in a toyshop with money to spend.
But, everywhere I went, it was really the parrots that stole the show. With 53 species, Australia has been richly endowed with these colourful and voiciferous birds. From cockatoos and corellas, to lorikeets and rosellas, there is no terrestrial habitat without a variety of species exploiting the resource of nuts, kernels, seeds, figs and nectar. Most species of parrot are gregarious, so it is quite normal to see a flock of snow-white Sulphur-crested Cockatoos feeding on the ground like so many egrets, or a frenzied mob of Rainbow Lorikeets sucking up sweet nectar from a flowering gum like victorious football fans at their local pub. Some Aussie parrots are rare and endangered, others are embarrasingly common. Few are as unobtrusive as the gentle little Rock Parrot which I photographed near Albany, none as regal as the aptly named King Parrot which came to the bird feeders at Brindabella Station, and none so pastel-perfect as the homely Galah which lives happily around farm buildings and in the suburbs.
I’ve been back to Australia since this first trip (of which more in future blogs), and seen many other parrots in different places. Anyone with an interest in the natural world could never get enough of it. Somewhere in my future is a great road-trip from Adelaide to Darwin, taking in Uluru, the Olgas and Alice Springs through the vast Simpson Desert. It is here that I will hope to encounter that most familiar of all parrots – the Budgerigar – in wild swirling swarms that can contain 20,000 individuals or more.
Perth and Porongorup to Brindabella and Sydney, Australia, September 1993