As I write this we are in Sydney visiting our son and his family. We enjoy visiting him because it is a precious time of blessing as we spend time with our two grandchildren, ages eight and five. It is always great to see them growing and developing. During our times here in Sydney we have limited opportunities to go birding, so any free time we have is really appreciated. On this particular trip, we have visited Lane Cove National Park on several occasions, both times for lunch. This national park is only about ten minutes away by car, depending on the volume of traffic and time of day.
On a recent visit, we set up our folding chairs in a shady spot with a good view of the river. We placed our picnic lunch on the side table of our chairs. Before we could take a bite I observed two Long-necked Turtles sunning themselves on a log protruding from the water. I handed my binoculars to my wife so that she could have a closer look at them.
That was when we were robbed!
A cheeky Laughing Kookaburra swooped down from a nearby branch. It snatched a part of my wife’s sandwich and flew off with it. As it dropped the sandwich makings on the grass nearby, another kookaburra flew down to share in this ill-gotten booty. Not long after this, as they were squabbling over their prize, a Noisy Miner joined in the fun. Noisy Miners are one of our native honeyeater species; they can be quite aggressive towards smaller birds and they are obviously quite at home matching it with the much larger kookaburras.
My wife was incensed. She had lost a portion of her lunch to a thieving bird. Later, she read a small plaque on one of the park picnic tables. In fact, all tables have copies of the same message: “Visitors are asked not to feed the birds and animals” or words to that effect. Perhaps the rangers should also put up signs instructing the local wildlife not to snatch human food.
Naturally, we guarded the rest of our lunch very carefully. No sense in losing any more of it. A few minutes later, two Brush-turkeys came mooching around. They looked as if they also wanted a handout. In fact, I held out my empty palm towards one of them and it approached to within a few centimetres of my hand. It left disappointed.
Please do not feed the birds
I think it would be prudent of me to make mention of the fact that it is strongly recommended that people in parks, gardens and even their own gardens refrain from feeding our native birds. Most human food – especially bread – is actually quite dangerous – even deadly – for our birds. By all means, provide fresh drinking water in a birdbath, but resist the desire to feed them. It’s for their welfare.
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On the last day of our holidays in January we travelled from Gisborne just north of Melbourne to home in Murray Bridge. It was a long day of driving and I had few opportunities for birding along the way. we left our friends’ place a little later than I had hoped so we didn’t stop for morning tea. We pushed through to Ararat for lunch.
In Ararat we found a reasonable spot in the Alexandra Gardens. Here I was able to do a few minutes of birding during and after our picnic lunch. On the lake were the usual types of birds one expects in lakes in parks and gardens: Eurasian Coots, Dusky Moorhens, Pacific Black Ducks and Silver Gulls.
While we were eating a flock of about 40 Long-billed Corellas came noisily wheeling overhead and settled in the tree above us. In the distance I saw a smaller flock of Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos winging their way slowly across town. A Laughing Kookaburra called somewhere near and Masked Lapwings could be heard calling on the adjacent sports grounds.
In the shrubbery near us several Common Blackbirds gave their warning call as I came down the path, New Holland Honeyeaters were busy feeding in the well maintained Australian native plant section of the gardens and several Striated Pardalotes called from the canopy of the trees overhead.
Our short stay overnight in Mallacoota was far too brief. Early the next morning we headed back to the main highway on our way to Gisborne north of Melbourne. It was one of the longest days on the road for the entire holiday. On the road leading out of the lovely seaside town of Mallacoota I took the above photo of the type of beautiful country we had to drive through.
Along the coast road from Sydney to Melbourne there are few places where you are very far from forests. Part way through the morning I asked my daughter if she’d seen enough trees. She was almost at the point where some open country would have been a pleasant change.
I didn’t see any birds of note on the way out to the highway, except near the locality called Genoa. Near a creek and its associated wetlands I saw the only Swamp Harrier of the trip. I also heard some Bell Miners in the trees there.
By morning tea time we had reached Orbost on the Snowy River. While having my cup of tea I wandered down to the bank of the river but there was little of interest to be seen. I saw several Purple Swamphens and Little Pied Cormorants. I heard a Clamorous Reedwarbler in the reed beds along the river, and a Laughing Kookaburra was calling nearby. I was surprised to hear some Bell Miners because I always associate them with heavily forested areas which is not correct. Their habitat preferences are much broader than that. It’s a species I’m still learning about.
I saw several Grey Fantails, Australian Magpies, various common honeyeaters and some Silvereyes. The only other species of note was a small flock of European Goldfinches, the only time I recorded this species on the trip.
When I wrote the title of this post I thought I’d seen very little on that day. In actual fact I had quite a nice little list even before lunch time. Birding is like that.
2007 New South Wales trip report #25
While we were staying with our son in Sydney he decided to take an afternoon off from work (he works at home) and take us on a walk from Artarmon along Flat Rock Creek to Middle Harbour. This harbour is a small part of the greater Sydney Harbour.
The walking track took us through nearby suburbs and we enjoyed looking over people’s back fences into their gardens. The track also took us under several major roads and a freeway. Most of the first part was a sealed or concrete walking path shared with cyclists. This first part didn’t yield many interesting birds but it was a very enjoyable walk anyway.
The track then changes to a narrow dirt track and plunges quickly 50 or 60 metres down into Flat Rock Creek. When we reached the creek bed the path then follows the creek along to the harbour. I was not surprised to see Laughing Kookaburras along this part, and observed on flying in a hollow. This could indicate nesting but the hollow was too far away over the creek to investigate further. Pied Currawongs were seen and heard frequently as were Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Superb Fairy-wrens flitted in and out of the bushes along the path, but never stopping long enough for a photo.
At one stage I saw several Red-whiskered Bulbuls but couldn’t get a clear shot of one. I did manage to get a nice shot on the return walk. This was a new bird for the trip list and a nice one to see despite it being an introduced species. I’ve only ever seen it about three times in total.
I was also delighted to see two Chestnut Teal, a male and a female, swimming in the creek which at that point seemed rather polluted. Nearby several Red-browed Finches caught our attention and White-browed Scrubwrens called from nearby bushes. Noisy Miners were everywhere and we heard several Striated Pardalotes, a Grey Butcherbird, several Australian Magpies and the occasional Australian Raven flew overhead.
I haven’t seen too many pigeons and doves in this part of Sydney, but on our walk I saw Crested Pigeons, Rock Doves and Spotted Turtledoves. Thankfully not too many Indian Mynas were seen in this part of the city. I saw no House Sparrows; they seem to be absent from around here. At the harbour we saw Welcome Swallows and Silver Gulls.
On the return walk I only added Common Koel to the list. As this was another “lifer” for the trip I was pleased. This species has just arrived from its spring migration south. The whole walk took just a few minutes short of four hours, the return part being largely uphill with some very steep parts. We were pleased that we achieved this as both of us are not as fit as we should be. Our son thought it was just a pleasant stroll, but then he walks the area nearly every day.
Do Blackbirds Swoop?
This intriguing question was posted by Jill on one my earlier articles. I assured her in my reply that I have never heard of this species swooping humans.
You have nothing to fear where Common Blackbirds are concerned. I have never experienced swooping with this species. In fact, they are usually rather timid and will readily fly away from humans. I have checked on the internet and found no recorded instances of Common Blackbirds swooping humans.
I also read through the article on Common Blackbirds in HANZAB (Handbook of Australian New Zealand and Antarctic Birds Vol.7) and there is no mention of this behaviour. HANZAB is THE authority on Australian birds and is a compilation of all research done on birds in this region, including a comprehensive overview of all the relevant published literature on birds.
UPDATE: Since writing this article I have had many comments about Blackbirds swooping. Many have claimed that they do swoop. These comments have always come from American readers. I was writing about the Common Blackbird, an introduced species in Australia. They come from Europe and are not related to several species found in America which do swoop. The Red-winged Blackbird of north and central America is very aggressive I believe. Some readers may also have been confused by my comments, thinking I was talking about the Grackle.
Magpies and Lapwings
Most Australians know about the problem with Australian Magpies and swooping. They need to be given a wide berth when nesting. What many people do not know is that Masked Lapwings (also called Spur Winged Plovers) can inflict a nasty wound. Keep away from their nests or young is the message they are giving. On most occasions their attack is 95% bluff and injuries are rare. Last spring there was a very unusual news report on television showing footage of Magpie Larks attacking humans near the Festival Centre in the CBD of Adelaide. This is the only occasion I have known of this species swooping like their bigger cousins.
Kookaburras and Butcherbirds
Other species that may occasionally swoop include Kookaburras (one individual once took a sausage from a barbecue I was cooking). I once had an opportunistic Grey Butcherbird snatch a sandwich from my hand while on a picnic. In both these cases they were swooping for food – not attacking me. Gave me a fright though.
Geese, Ducks and Swans
In parks and gardens as well as zoos and wildlife parks, any of the species of geese can get a little aggressive. This is often as a result of too many people feeding them. Many species of ducks can also get this way. I’ve even known Black Swans to act aggressively. In most cases they are after food; they are not intending to harm people.
I have heard of an instance of an Australian Pelican eating a small dog on the riverfront at Renmark in South Australia. I’m not sure if this is a true story or an urban myth, but pelicans would be quite capable of this. What I have witnessed was rather scary. We had visited the bakery at Mannum and were sitting on a seat near the riverfront eating our lunch. A pelican came up to us and almost snatched a sausage roll from the hand of my daughter-in-law. Having a pelican a metre away staring you directly in the eye is very unnerving.
Emus and Cassowaries
Many years ago while visiting a zoo in the SW of Western Australia I had another unnerving encounter, this time with an Emu. I was in a walk through enclosure containing ducks, geese, emus and kangaroos. One Emu took a liking to my camera lens and my glasses. Being followed by an Emu – no – harassed is a better word – was distressing, especially as the said Emu constantly tried to peck either my glasses or the camera lens. I was so constantly under attack that I had to quickly leave the enclosure, much to the amusement of my family!
The Southern Cassowary of northern Queensland has a reputation for being aggressive towards humans. I don’t have personal experience of this species, but I know that when I do visit that region, I’m going to be wary of the cassowary!
Ibises and Gulls
Gulls and picnics seem to go together. Especially when you produce some fish and chips. It is as if you’ve put up a huge neon sign saying “Come to the feast.” Again, this is as a result of feeding by humans and not a direct attack to harm. Having said that, it is intimidating and annoying to have a Silver Gull standing on your picnic table 30cm away from your lovely chips. In some parts of Australia, Ibises are a major problem too, snatching food from children in particular. Our larger Ibis species are almost as large as a toddler learning to walk. Scary stuff for a youngster.
Willie Wagtails are generally loved by all Australians and is one of our most recognisable birds. What most people do not realise is that these endearing little creatures can be very bold and aggressive when there are babies in a nest nearby. Our resident Willie Wagtails have given us a little tweak on the head if we venture too close to the nest. And they are not too slow to attack birds much bigger than themselves; even our largest eagle, the Wedge Tail, is not immune from harassment.
Honeyeaters are not known for their aggression towards humans. If you get too close to their nest they will let you know, scalding you incessantly from a nearby branch. However, they can be very bold. Many years ago a friend in Port Augusta related to me an occasion when a honeyeater landed on his shoulder and tried to pluck a hair from his rather ample beard. While this incident is not a display of aggression, it does show how courageous they can be.
There have been a few recorded instances of people being attacked by eagles, hawks and other raptors. Only last year I was aggressively swooped by what I think was a Brown Falcon. I can’t be sure because I didn’t hang around too long. I was invading his territory so I beat a hasty retreat. He didn’t contact any part of me but it was a little unnerving.
How to Deal With Aggressive Bird Behaviour
- Give the birds space – keep away from their nest or their young. Think about how you would react if a large monster invaded your home. They are protecting their offspring so respect their space. If there is a magpie nesting on your usual walking route, try to take an alternative route until the nesting has finished.
- Wear protective clothing – this is particularly so with swooping magpies. Wear a hat or helmet to avoid injury. Some people say that painting large eyes on the back of a helmet, hat or cap helps to deter magpies from swooping.
- Don’t feed native birds – if everyone followed this rule there wouldn’t be a problem but it is probably too late for that. If you are having a picnic, don’t be tempted to throw food scraps to the gulls of ducks or whatever is nearby. Just one chip or bread crumb thrown at one bird will often result in dozens of birds flocking to your picnic ready for a handout. In the case of Gulls, it could result in hundreds surrounding your picnic spot.
- Carry a stick – I’ve proved this to be effective with magpies swooping. Carry a stick above one’s head as you walk through a magpie nesting zone. This deters them from attacking your head. Decorating the stick with ribbons can add to the distraction level.
- Carry a flag – this one is mainly for cyclists. Mount a pole on your bike with a flag at the top. It will help motorists see you too!
I invite readers to leave their comments about their experiences with aggressive birds.
- Which birds have swooped you?
- How have you been harmed by birds?
- What about birds in other countries? Do they swoop or attack?
- What solutions to aggressive bird behaviour can you share with readers of this blog?
- Readers on this blog have contributed many interesting comments – click on the comments section below this post.
- I have written a followup article called A Bit on the Nose. This post quotes in full an amusing email sent to the the Birding-Aus forum today. Special thanks to Bill for permission to quote the email in full.
Related articles and links:
- Common Blackbirds – my article that started me on this post.
- ProBlogger – this article has been submitted to the Group Writing Project “How to…” being run by Darren Rowse on ProBlogger.