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Home » 2009 - Issue 2, Conservation, Health & Welfare, In the Wild, Issue

The Superb Parrot

By John Cooper


John shares some of his experiences photographing this beautiful Australian bird

For over 10 years, the Superb Parrot (Polytelis swainsonii) was very high on my ‘must-have list’ to photograph in the wild at close quarters. I’m fortunate to live right in the middle of this parrot’s limited geographical range, a small area in central New South Wales, but their affinity for very high nest hollows - 50 feet plus - puts them well out of reach for my observation towers.

When a local farmer phoned me one day, a couple of years ago, to say he had seen a pair of Superbs hanging around a tree hollow, at approximately 25 feet, I was out there almost before he’d put the phone down!!

The hollow was in a large yellow box (Eucalyptus melliodora) and was just out of reach of my 20 foot ladder. Placing the base of the ladder in the back of my Ute to gain some extra height, I was just able to reach the entrance to the hollow. The noise of the ladder going up against the tree flushed out a female Superb parrot. As is often the case, the hollow was deep, and because of its dog-leg configuration, I was unable to see the nesting chamber at the bottom to confirm whether she was on eggs or had young chicks. I decided to erect the tower anyway, as the nest hollow was obviously active.

A few days later, I returned to have my first photographic session in the hide atop of the tower. I remember it was a very warm day and as I proceeded to open the double gate leading into the property, I felt something brush against my trouser leg. I quickly glanced down and what I saw was somewhat disturbing!

A large King brown-snake rearing up and swaying from side to side only inches from my legs. In moments like these you are supposed to freeze and remain calm (can you imagine!) but I am not sure who got the bigger fright, me or the snake, as I immediately jumped backward and the snake took off in the opposite direction. I guess it was curled up in the shade of the gate until I almost stepped on it.

My friend sitting in the car was most disappointed that he had missed all the drama, as he had been intently looking through binoculars at the nest tree!  King browns are one of Australia’s most venomous snakes, and bites are often fatal if antivenene is not administered within a reasonable time.

With my palpitations starting to subside, I climbed the tower and entered the hide through a trapdoor in the floor.  I soon had the two flashes set up either side of the hide, and my camera and lens supported on a sturdy tripod.  Not knowing whether this pair of Superbs had eggs or young chicks, I prepared myself for a long wait.

With no sign of the birds after three hours, my concentration was starting to wane, and I was beginning to wonder if perhaps the parrots had only been looking around for a suitable nesting site.  As my eye-lids started to grow heavy, I suddenly became aware of the thrashing of wings, as a parrot braked at the entrance to the tree hollow.  I quickly brought my eye to the view-finder, in time to see a male Superb parrot clinging to the rim of the hollow, head turned back over its shoulder, and tail gracefully fanned out against the tree trunk.  What a magnificent sight - no need to wonder about the origin of its name!!

When suddenly presented with such a splendid sight, it takes some moments to recollect one’s thoughts about the task at hand - to turn on the flash units, compose the image in the frame and to finally press the shutter button, all before that magic moment is lost.  This happens all too often, especially after such a long period of inactivity.  But I was fortunate on this occasion that the male bird seemed curious enough to look around for about 15 seconds before disappearing down the hole, enabling me to fire off a couple of shots.

These were the only shots that I fired that day.  The following day a friend spent four hours in the hide without seeing the birds, and the day after, I was fortunate to get a single visit by the female, in a similar pose to the male.  The visits were very spasmodic and uncharacteristic, and so it was decided that the pair were probably still looking and not yet nested. The tower was taken down and I considered myself very fortunate that I had two reasonable images, of both the male and female.

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