We were at an outdoor café in Sydney that was completely hemmed in by tall buildings and tourists; it seemed impossible for a wild bird to be within five miles of this busy urban setting. And then a rainbow lorikeet swooped in and snatched up a sugar packet from our bistro table. We watched in comical disbelief as the bird flew up to an electrical wire overhead and skillfully emptied the sugar into his opportunistic mouth.
A medium-sized parrot, the rainbow lorikeet has typical parrot features: a thick, rounded beak and a full spectrum of neon colors. While most parrots have strong beaks for cracking open nuts, the rainbow lorikeet’s special apparatus is its tongue. Their scientific genus name of Trichoglossus means “hair-tongued.” The bird’s tongue has hair-like tufts called papillae that draw up nectar by capillary attraction. You see the bird in Australian flowering gum trees performing all kinds of aerial tricks to access food.
With a diet consisting primarily of pollen and nectar, it is reliant on blossoms (and fruit) for nourishment. Because flowering seasons and the production of nectar and pollen varies from year to year, the rainbow lorikeet nomadically moves around following the flowering plants and trees. They frequent backyard feeders and urban gardens, as well as rainforests and woodlands, and yes, even human cafés.
In 2010 we went to the northern coast of Australia to spend five days in Kakadu National Park, a place we had learned about from an Australian guide ten years earlier. To get to this remote park we had to fly into the city of Darwin and then drive three hours across barren land. Before and after the Kakadu adventure we stayed in Darwin.
So one night we got back to our downtown Darwin hotel after a sweltering day of exploring in 110 degrees (F.). It was 7:00 pm and dark as we walked beneath a leafy tree on our way to a restaurant. But this tree, whoa, it was so incredibly loud with screeching that we couldn’t even hear each other speaking! Being birders we had been wearing binoculars, scopes, cameras and every conceivable optic known to humankind all day long, but here we were under a tree loaded with raucous birds and all we had were our wallets.
We thought they were rainbow lorikeets but it was so dark we couldn’t see well, and of course it was so loud we could not even discuss it. We walked across the street to the souvenir store to consult the friendly talkative cashier with whom we were now familiar. Yes, he said, those were definitely rainbow lorikeets. Every night at 7pm, he said, flocks and flocks of the birds fly into that one tree to roost for the night.
The next day was more exploring, more heat, more fun, and more mosquitoes. And we had one last night in Darwin before it was time to depart. This night, however, dinner was crackers and cheese in the room, with no plans to go out. We had enjoyed a long, hot day out in the field and tomorrow we took off at 4 am, so reading and relaxing in the air-conditioned room sounded absolutely dreamy.
But, as it goes in travel, there was something really cool out there in the world that we knew we were missing. Reading and sleeping…well, we could do that when we got home. That tall sidewalk tree filled with screaming lorikeets, we would never see it again. We went down before 7 to watch them coming in, and sure enough, there they were, hundreds of rainbow lorikeets: vying for roosting positions, doing their acrobatics, and screeching away like there was no tomorrow.