Summary: Lovely manicured gardens with birds just waiting to be photographed
Dates of visit: Mar 26 2021, Oct 8 2021, Dec 12 2021
I’ve had some awesome birding experiences in botanic gardens around Australia, with George Brown Darwin Botanic Gardens (Darwin) and the Royal Tasmanian Botanic Gardens (Hobart) providing some very fond memories of bird encounters to name just two favourites. So how does one of Brisbane’s main botanic garden sites – at Mt Coot-tha – compare? Home ground, as it were!
The Mt Coot-tha Gardens are only about 7km west of the Brisbane CBD and are quite large at 56 hectares. There’s more things packed into those hectares than you can shake a palm frond at: a Planetarium, a cafe, library, fern house, bonsai house, Japanese garden, an arid zone, and plenty more. Entrance is off Mt Coot-tha Rd (the main drag leading up to the summit), and the car park has space for over 100 cars, but does actually tend to sometimes get full, so be warned. Do also check the opening hours if arriving early as it doesn’t usually open until 8am (entry is free).
The gardens have some very picturesque lagoons on the eastern side, with paths that give good access to the water.
Grebes are often found here and as the ponds aren’t too large, cannot escape the keen bird photographer…
Water bird standards such as Dusky Moorhens and Eurasian Coots can also be found, and on the March 26 visit I also saw a trio of Hardheads here. These birds were formerly known as White-Eyed Ducks, though only the males have the pale eyes, and the name “Hardhead” supposedly comes from early taxidermists who found that the head was the most difficult part of the duck to process. Go figure.
In the south-easternmost lagoon (also known as Ross McKinnon Lagoon) on the March 26 visit I managed to see a Striated Heron on the far shore, applying its usual super-patient ninja-style hunting technique.
In the pocket of bush at that south-easternmost extremity of the park (the highway being just over the back fence…) were a pair of Bush Stone-Curlew (also known as Bush Thick-knees). Now here’s a most obliging bird, whose defence mechanism appears to consist of walking a little bit then looking at you plaintively.
Welcome Swallows were flitting about the water here too and some of Mt Coot-tha’s many Sulphur-Crested Cockatoos flew that way overhead. After then failing to get magazine-cover-level shots of the Hardheads (something about that chocolate-y colour…), I moved on.
Even though it is roughly in the middle of the gardens, the Japanese Garden is surprisingly easy to miss but is very picturesque.
On the walk to the west side of the gardens some Scaly-Breasted Lorikeets were foraging in a grevillea, and a Pied Butcherbird sat quietly in the sun.
The lake that is right out on the west side (through and past the “Bunya Rainforest Trail”) is actually a bit of a walk to get to but can be a lot less busy than the eastern half of the botanic gardens. “Open country” specialists like Magpies and Magpie-Larks were active here, but I also spied a Channel-Billed Cuckoo high up on one of the gum trees bordering the water.
As with nearly all the paths, the ones in this area were paved and excellently maintained and it was hard to go very far without seeing a bench seat or two.
The sections marked “Subtropical Rainforest” and “Exotic Rainforest” are not large enough to contain any actual rainforest birds as far as I could tell; in fact there were some long stretches in these areas without any birds at all. Partly I think this is due to the highly manicured and maintained nature of the gardens; it is definitely highly cultivated rather than in a bushy messy state.
With birds relatively tame here, headshot-style portraits become a good photographic possibility. I went a bit berserk with these on my Oct 8, 2021 visit, nabbing mugshots of a Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo foraging on the ground as well as Brushturkeys and Crows.
The October 8 visit was also especially memorable for an encounter with a Wood Duck family. These birds were strolling along on the open grass keeping the young ones close by – cue more headshots…
The young Wood Duck chicks were mostly fearless (probably used to humans already) and their cuteness made me positively giddy! I sat down in the grass in the sunshine and had a great time watching them waddle about and taking the occasional photograph at quite close quarters.
On the eastern side of the gardens a White Ibis was shaking and drying itself off on a fence line and showing some bare skin beneath its wings, while a Noisy Miner gained my attention for a photo as well (this isn’t usually the case, I tend to mostly ignore the ubiquitous Noisy Miner, but for me the theme of these types of gardens is to seek photographic moments with common birds…)
Blue-Faced Honeyeaters are a key honeyeater species here (apart from the rather dominant Noisy Miners), and after having unsatisfactory photos of them from the first visit, I had a goal to capture a great shot of one this time. They seem to quite like moving through many of the different types of trees here so can be hard to predict, though they do seem especially fond of the protection afforded near the trunks of some of the large palm trees. Finally I attained a couple of okay shots away from the palm trees, one with a large insect it had grabbed.
On my rather brief Dec 12 visit I spied a Magpie-Lark returning several times to the same tree section and was able to get a shot of its almost hidden nest. (This shot was taken at long distance, so did not in any way disturb the bird, something I am conscious of from an ethical birding perspective).
There are plenty of Water Dragons around the lagoons and these also make very obliging photographic subjects.
On Dec 12 I also spotted a snake; it seemed like a Python that had just eaten, judging by the bulge. I saw an interesting spider too, and got to chatting with a fellow who liked to photograph spiders with a very specialised-looking camera rig.
The “here’s nature presented just for you” feel of these botanic gardens tend to make me take photos of everything interesting-looking, whether it’s birds or other animals, or flowering plants and cacti. That’s no bad thing; it’s good to be reminded that one can be inspired by subjects other than just birds! And with the amount of variety here, the Mt Coot-tha Botanic Gardens is certainly a good place for it. It’s a location where you can obtain quite good shots of lots of natural things, including birds which are quite used to human presence.
Pluses and minuses:
+ Many good photographic opportunities, particularly for water birds
+ Inspiring variety of trees, bushes and flowers
+ Excellently set up with networks of wide paved paths and tons of facilities
– Can get very busy especially on weekends
– Very cultivated feel
– Morning opening hours preclude very early birding