Urban birdwatching guide to Melbourne

By Ellen Rykers | February 13, 2018

Melbourne might be best known for its artsy culture and coffee, but this sprawling city also offers a variety of birdwatching niches to explore.

LOCAL BIRDER Rohan Long explains: “The combination of green spaces and waterways snaking through the city mean that there’s a diversity of habitats, with freshwater, coastal, woodland and forest habitats all within relatively easy reach of the city.”

For Victorian woodland species, you can’t go past Yarra Bend Park. “Species like red-rumped parrots, brown thornbills, black-faced cuckoo shrike and grey fantails are all likely to be encountered here. Tawny frogmouths are often roosting not far away from the boathouse car park,” Rohan says. As the seasons change, the birds at Yarra Bend change too: in winter, look for yellow-tailed black cockatoos and yellow-faced honeyeaters.

Royal Park is another of Rohan’s picks. With its combination of parkland, woodland and wetland, there are plenty of species to spot. “It’s a good site for observing the common woodland natives of south-eastern Australia,” says Rohan. “Species such as superb fairy-wrens, New Holland honeyeaters, eastern rosellas and also wetland species like Australasian grebes, grey teals and great egrets.” If the gums are flowering, look for little and purple-crowned lorikeets, as well as the endangered swift parrot.

The Royal Botanic Gardens are also a birding hotspot, with over 100 species recorded. The Gardens are a reliable place to observe bell miners, silvereyes and nankeen night herons. Aside from the usual urban suspects, Rohan says the site “is perhaps most notable for records of surprisingly uncommon species – you just never know what’s going to turn up.”

Peruse our list of 20 avian Melbournites you might encounter on your birding adventures around the city. For more suggestions of birdwatching places to explore, visit Birdlife Melbourne.

1. Swift Parrot

Lathamus discolor

swift parrot

(Image Credit: Dave Curtis/Flickr)

It’s pretty special to see a critically endangered species in the city, and in Melbourne you can do just that when swift parrots arrive in March and April. ‘Swiftys’ are migratory parrots that spend the winter on the mainland in Victoria and NSW, then fly to eastern Tasmania to breed.

These small parrots are predominantly green, with red on their face and throat, and blue cheeks. They have red shoulders and splashes of blue on the wing. They are most easily identified by the striking red plumage under their wings, visible in flight.

Royal Park is a fairly reliable site for observing swift parrots, according to Rohan, “they like to feed on the flowering gums that grow alongside the tramline that runs through the park.”

Size: 25cm

Call: Sharp, clear whistle ‘kik-kik-kik-kik’; some chattering

Where to spot them: Forests, woodlands

2. White-plumed honeyeater

Ptilotula penicillata

white plumed honeyeater

(Image Credit: Jim Bendon/Flickr)

These “champions of the urban habitat” are found all over the city. “Even in the urban density of the CBD you can still hear their cheery ‘chick-o-wee!’ calls cut through the traffic,” says Rohan. They are one of the first birds to call in the morning, and the last to call at dusk. Named for the white plumes adorning their necks, these honeyeaters are yellow-olive on their wings and face, and shades of grey-brown everywhere else. They feed in the canopy, imbibing nectar with their brush-tipped tongues. During breeding season (usually beginning in August), the male will perform a song-flight display, swooping in undulating movements while crooning a special melody, before dramatically diving into the canopy.

Size: 16cm

Call: ‘chip-chip’ contact call, ‘chick-o-wee’, musical chattering

Where to spot them: parks and gardens, open forest and woodland near water, near river red gums

3. Black swan

Cygnus atratus

black swan

(Image Credit: Aston Clulow/Flickr)

Huge black birds with long necks, red bills and red eyes, black swans cast a distinctive silhouette across Australia’s lagoons, lakes and wetlands. Rohan describes them as “majestic, iconic and a little bit terrifying”. Black swans eat by dipping their long neck into the water to reach the algae and weeds on the bottom.

Black swans have a somewhat iconic status in Australian culture since their discovery surprised Europeans in 1697. As Tim Low said on his Wild Journey blog, “Swans were never meant to be black; in medieval Europe unicorns had more credibility.”

In Melbourne, you might spot a swan sporting a plastic collar on its neck. This is because the populations here have been part of a long-running research project.

Size: 142cm

Call: soft yet far-reaching bugle-like ‘bonk’

Where to spot them: wetlands, lagoons, lakes

4. Little penguin

Eudyptula minor

little penguin

(Image Credit: Darren Puttock/Flickr)

Measuring around 40cm tall, little penguins (sometimes called fairy penguins) are the smallest penguin species in the world. A colony of little penguins has lived at the St Kilda breakwater since the 1970s. Here, they are “easily viewed amongst the rocks of the breakwater,” according to Rohan.

These petite penguins have blue upperparts and white underparts. Each morning, little penguins will leave their burrow to spend the day fishing at sea. Over the day, they’ll travel up to 20km in search of fish, cephalopods and crustaceans. After dusk, they return home in “rafts” and scurry across the beach home in a “penguin parade”. On land, little penguins are susceptible to predation by cats and foxes, as well as human disturbance – make sure you don’t trample over their burrows!

Size: 33cm

Call: a loud bray with intermittent squeaking inhalations

Where to spot them: St Kilda breakwater

5. Australian magpie

Gymnorhina tibicen

australian magpie

(Image Credit: Lisa Hunt/Flickr)

Australia’s 2017 Bird of the Year, magpies are one of the most conspicuous birds you’re likely to spot in Melbourne. A medium-sized bird, they have black and white plumage with a sharp beak.

However, the exact colouring pattern varies across their range. Birds in Melbourne have a white back and less black than their non-Victorian counterparts. Males have pure white feathers and females’ feathers are white-grey ombré. Juveniles have fluffy down feathers, greyer colouring, and can usually be seen begging for food.

Magpies hang out in groups of up to 24, and they will collectively defend their territory against other ‘pies. Although they are pretty tame for most of the year, spring (breeding season) is accompanied by a fierce aggressiveness. Some birds will defend their nesting territory in a swoop of feathered black and white fury, bringing terror to unsuspecting walkers and cyclists.

Size: 40cm

Call: Loud, flute-like song. The ‘quardle-oodle-ardle-wardle-doodle’ call is one of the most complex vocalisations in the bird world.

Where to spot them: Suburban gardens, parks, sports fields and farm paddocks

6. Rainbow lorikeet

Trichoglossus moluccanus

rainbow lorikeet

(Image Credit: David Midgley/Flickr)

Rainbow lorikeets are hard to miss with their brightly-coloured garb and noisy chattering. They fly super-fast in tight squadrons and prefer the leafy surrounds of tree-filled suburbs, especially if plenty of tasty nectar or fruit is available. Rainbow lorikeets roost communally, so you can often hear them squabbling and telling cacophonous bedtime stories around sunset. These clowns have a blue head and tum, green back and wings, bright orange breast and red beak.

Rainbow lorikeets haven’t always been abundant in Melbourne, according to Rohan, “Apparently, they were not seen all that often back in the old days until the eucalypts that people planted around the 70s became mature and started producing large quantities of nectar. The lorikeets exploited this food source and have multiplied in the urban environment ever since.”

Size: 30cm.

Call: Screeching, chattering.

Where to spot them: Suburbs and parks with tall trees, forests, around flowering or fruiting plants.

7. Bell miner

Manorina melanophrys

bell miner

(Image Credit: Dave Curtis/Flickr)

You’re more likely to hear the “tink” call of these birds rather than see them, as they forage high in the canopy of eucalypts and blend into the foliage with their olive-green plumage. Up there, they feed on the sugary, dome-shaped coating of psyllid bugs. However, in the Royal Botanic Gardens of Melbourne, they do come low enough to be easily seen.

Also known as bellbirds, these feisty honeyeaters live in complex social groups consisting of anywhere from eight to more than 200 individuals. Within the larger colony, subgroups form, comprising a few breeding pairs and a number of non-breeding “nest helpers”. Bell miners will aggressively defend their home turf from other birds.

Size: 18.5cm

Call: “ping” or “tink” contact call

Where to spot them: in canopy of eucalypts, Royal Botanic Gardens

8. Peregrine falcon

Falco peregrinus

peregrine falcon

(Image Credit: Small/Flickr)

The peregrine falcon is a bird of superlatives: it is the most widespread bird of prey in the world, and also the fastest animal in the world. During its impressive hunting high-speed dives, it can reach speeds of 320km/h. The highest recorded speed is 389km/h.

These medium-sized birds have a black head, slate-grey back and wings, creamy chest and buff underparts barred with black. Peregrine falcons sport a long, narrow tail rounded at the end, and can be identified in flight by their curved trailing wing edge.

Peregrine falcons have adapted remarkably well to the urban environment, nesting on tall buildings and preying on the abundant rock pigeons. In Melbourne, a pair have nested on the top of the building at 367 Collins Street.

Size: 43cm

Call: loud, shrill ‘kek-kek-kek’

Where to spot them: Paiwalla Wetland

9. Brown thornbill

Acanthiza pusilla

brown thornbill

(Image Credit: Patrick Kavanagh/Flickr)

They may be a plain-looking bird, but these thornbills have some fascinating habits. Brown thornbills are able to mimic the alarm calls of other birds, such as New Holland honeyeaters. By pretending to warn of approaching raptors, the thornbills thereby deter potential predators (such as pied currawongs) from raiding their own nests. Clever!

Brown thornbills have brown upperparts, a greyish underside flecked with black and a tawny rump extending into a grey tail with a black band. They feed mainly on insects amongst the dense, shrubby understorey. You can spot them in parks, gardens and nature strips in the suburbs.

Size: 10cm

Call: rich warbling

Where to spot them: Yarra Bend Park, dense shrubs, parks and gardens – particularly near remnant patches of thick vegetation

10. Little lorikeet

Glossopsitta pusilla

little lorikeet

(Image Credit: David Cook/Flickr)

As their name suggests, these emerald-hued parrots are the smallest lorikeet species in Australia. Little lorikeets are garbed in green, with bronzed mantles and shoulders, and a crimson face. They forage for nectar and pollen high in the canopy, constantly chattering in small flocks. They are quite the acrobats in their quest for a feed, often hanging upside down to reach a tasty bloom. In flight, they appear compact and swift, with a characteristic shrill ‘zit’ screech.

Size: 15cm

Call: rolling, high-pitched screech ‘zit-zit’

Where to spot them: Royal Park, woodlands dominated by tall eucalypts, often in vicinity of flowering vegetation

11. Purple-crowned lorikeet

Glossopsitta porphyrocephala

Purple-crowned lorikeet

(Image Credit: Dave Curtis/Flickr)

If you’re near flowering eucalypts and you hear noisy chattering, crane your head to the canopy and you may spot a purple-crowned lorikeet amongst a noisy flock of honeyeaters and other lorikeets. These small green parrots are named for the patch of royal purple adorning their head. Their colourful garb also features an orange-red patch above the beak, orange cheek patches, crimson underwings, a powder-blue tum and yellow undertail.

These tiny parrot-jewels are most easily recognised by their high-pitched screeching (which gives them their alternative name, the zit parrot).

Size: 15cm

Call: Short, sharp ‘zit-zit-zit’; chattering when feeding

Where to spot them: Woodlands, mallee, parks and gardens of suburbs

12. Tawny frogmouth

Podargus strigoides

tawny frogmouth

(Image Credit: Duncan McCaskill/Flickr)

When they’re not mistaken for an owl, tawny frogmouths are usually overlooked as a tree branch thanks to their impressive camouflage. Like owls, tawny frogmouths are night hunters, pouncing from perches to snatch prey under the cover of darkness. Unlike owls, frogmouths don’t have strong talons for snatching prey. Instead, they use their beak to catch a wide variety of invertebrates and small mammals.

With a stocky figure and wide mouth, tawny frogmouths are weird and wonderful creatures. Most frogmouths are grey in colour, with dark streaks adorning their back, and pale underparts barred with white and mottled with red-brown. This colouring mimics bark, allowing them to hide in plain sight during the day.

Size: 34–53cm

Call: a low ‘oom-oom’ at night; when disturbed, they will buzz like bees, hiss or clack their beaks.

Where to spot them: inhabits most habitats, including urban parks and gardens. Look for a smattering of bird poo on the ground – it could indicate that a tawny frogmouth is roosting overhead

13. Nankeen night heron

Nycticorax caledonicus

nankeen night heron

(Image Credit: Geoff Whalan/Flickr)

During the day, these enigmatic waterbirds roost in densely-vegetated wetlands. As twilight falls, they emerge to hunt for small fish, reptiles and insects. (They’ve even been known to forage for goldfish in backyard ponds.) Reaching 60cm tall, these herons have a distinctly hunched appearance.

Adults are outfitted in cinnamon-coloured backs, buff-white underparts and a black cap. When breeding, adults grow three long white plumes that extend from the back of their head. Juveniles get their black cap first, but their plumage remains mottled brown, white and rufous for some time. Young herons can be mistaken for the Australasian bittern, but bitterns are larger and lack the black cap.

Size: 60cm

Call: croak

Where to spot them: Royal Botanic Gardens, wetlands, estuaries, rivers and lakes

14. Eastern rosella

Platycercus eximius

eastern rosella

(Image Credit: David Cook/Flickr)

With their vivid plumage, eastern rosellas are surely one of Melbourne’s most beautiful parrots. These technicolour birds have a red head and upper chest, white cheeks and bill, a yellow lower breast that fades into pale green, a dark green tail and blue wings. Their back and shoulders feature a scalloped pattern of black edged with yellow-green.

Eastern rosellas inhabit woodlands, gardens and parks, where they flock on the ground to eat grass seeds. While they may not be as raucous as some of their cockatoo cousins, eastern rosellas are a chatty lot, with about 25 different calls in their repertoire.

Size: 30cm

Call: sharp repeated ‘chit-chit-chit’ in flight; high-pitched ‘pee-ping’ or ‘kwink-kwink’ when perched

Where to spot them: woodland, parks, garden

15. Australasian grebe

Tachybaptus novaehollandiae

australasian grebe

(Image Credit: Geoff Whalan/Flickr)

The Australasian grebe is at home both on and under the water, with a reputation as a superb swimmer and diver. When disturbed, this grebe will escape by diving underwater and resurfacing some 10–15m away. If they have young, however, they won’t flee underwater, because their babies ride on the parents’ back. Instead, protective grebe parents fend off intruders with splashy wingbeats.

When it’s time to breed, Australasian grebes will appear mostly dark brown, with a glossy black head and a conspicuous chestnut stripe on their face. Their eye is striking yellow, matched by a pale yellow spot just below. At other times, these grebes don plainer apparel, with a greyish front, no chestnut stripe decoration and a whiter face spot.

Size: 26cm

Call: chittering

Where to spot them: Royal Park, freshwater lakes, rivers and wetlands

16. Superb fairy-wren

Malurus cyaneus

Superb fairy-wren

(Image Credit: Patrick Kavanagh/Flickr)

These tiny feather-spheres make up for their small size with bright colours – or at least, the males do. Male superb fairy-wrens don iridescent blue and black breeding plumage, while their tum is white-grey. Females and young birds are brown-grey all over. 

Superb fairy-wrens are common in urban gardens and parks, as long as there is sufficiently dense, low shrubbery for shelter. They can be seen flitting in and out of bushes low to the ground, catching insects. They feed in small social groups, usually consisting of one male plus several females and young birds. 

The mating habits of superb fairy-wrens are more scandalous than celebrity tabloid news: One female may be courted by up to 13 males in the space of half an hour, and three quarters of a female’s offspring will be fathered by males outside her social group.

Size: Small – 14 cm

Call: High-pitched trills.

Where to spot them: Darting in and out of low bushes in parks, gardens and forest.

17. Black-faced cuckoo shrike

Coracina novaehollandiae

Black-faced cuckoo shrike

(Image Credit: Julie Burgher/Flickr)

Black-faced cuckoo shrikes are a common slender silhouette, seen perched on overhead powerlines. Their flight is described as “lazy”, with minimal flaps interspersed by long glides, creating a distinctive undulating path. Their unusual habits continue upon landing: black-faced cuckoo shrikes shuffle their wings as they touch down (hence the alternative name, “shufflewing”). 

As their name suggests, these birds don a black mask that extends over their face and throat. Their back, wings and tail are blue-grey and their underside is white.

Size: 33cm

Call: soft churring, ‘kreeeark’

Where to spot them: Yarra Bend Park, any wooded habitat including urban gardens and parks

18. Little pied cormorant

Microcarbo melanoleucos

little pied cormorant

(Image Credit: Patrick Kavanagh/Flickr)

One of Australia’s most common waterbirds, little pied cormorants can be seen congregating along the coast where abundant fish can be found. They’re also found along freshwater waterways, diving for their favourite food: yabbies. They also eat insects and fish.

Little pied cormorants have black upperparts and white underparts. They are similar in appearance to the pied cormorant, but are smaller and lack the yellow face patch. Like other cormorants, little pied cormorants don’t have waterproof feathers, and so can often be seen perched with wings outstretched to dry.

Size: 58cm

Call: Usually silent; croaking.

Where to spot them: Both freshwater and saltwater habitats; sitting on piers, rocks and in trees drying wings.

19. Silvereye

Zosterops lateralis

silvereye

(Image Credit: Patrick Kavanagh/Flickr)

These tiny tweeters are named after their striking white eyering – also giving them the alternative moniker “waxeye”. Despite their small stature, silvereyes make epic seasonal migrations. Birds that breed in Melbourne in summer will head north for the winter, while their Tasmanian counterparts fly across Bass Strait to the mainland, dispersing across Victoria and NSW all the way up to southeast Queensland for winter.

The seasonal populations have slightly different appearances. Summer silvereyes in Melbourne sport olive wings and head, a grey back, white undertail, yellow throat and buff flanks. The winter-dwellers have the same majority olive colouring, but accented with grey throats, a yellow undertail and chestnut flanks.

Size: 12cm

Call: thin ‘psit’

Where to spot them: Royal Botanic Gardens, woodland, parks, urban gardens

20. Australian white ibis

Threskiornis Molucca

Australian white ibis

(Image Credit: Max Arens/Flickr)

Sometimes referred to as ‘bin chickens’ or ‘trash turkeys’, these birds have found a new niche scavenging urban waste, along with a bad rep as pests. They have long legs, white feathers, and bald black heads with a long, curved beak. Adults have a fancy feathered ruff around the base of their neck.

Even though ibises are found in increasing numbers in our parks and gardens, populations across natural habitats (grasslands, wetlands, lagoons) are declining.

Size: 72cm (over knee-height).

Call: Croaks.

Where to spot them: Bins, urban parks, rubbish tips, lagoons.

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