The Western Treatment Plant for Beginners

With more than 280 recorded species of birds, no Victorian birding trip is complete without a visit to the Western Treatment Plant (WTP). When we started birding in earnest, there wasn’t much basic information online about the WTP (like where the toilets are located!). Hopefully this blog post will assist newbies in making the most of their WTP visits. If you think of any additional FAQs worth adding, then please send me an email.

What is the Western Treatment Plant (WTP)?

The WTP is fondly referred to by birders as “the poo farm” because that’s what it is: a sewage treatment facility owned by Melbourne Water. It’s also where tens of thousands of birds call “home”. Don’t worry – noxious odours aren’t an issue at all.

Where is the WTP?

The WTP is located about 55km to the west of Melbourne’s CBD. Since it is adjacent to Avalon Airport, just keep following the signs along the Princes Freeway to Geelong, take the Avalon Airport exit, and then take a left on to Beach Road. Although you can take the Point Wilson exit, you wouldn’t have the opportunity to use the washrooms at the service station closer to the Avalon Airport exit.

Avalon Airport exit

Avalon Airport exit

How do I get access to the WTP?

The WTP is not freely accessible to the general public: visitors must be granted a permit by Melbourne Water. Prospective visitors are required to submit a completed application form, along with a $50 deposit for a key and $20 for a two-year permit. You should be able to email Melbourne Water a scanned copy of the application form, and you can give them your credit card details over the phone. Within a couple days, you will receive your laminated permit and key in the post.

Map of WTP

Map of WTP

It’s worth noting that there are two types of permits: a “general access permit” and a “special access permit” (the green route and the purple route, respectively on the map); both permits cost $20. The “special access permit” gives you access to about a third more of the WTP than the other permit, but you must attend a 30 minute induction at a nearby office on a weekday. I suspect that if you apply for the “special access permit”, they wouldn’t post the key to you, but instead, you will be issued with it after the induction, especially since the restricted areas of the WTP can be more hazardous than the rest of the plant.

Which type of permit should I get?

At the time of writing this post, I have a “general access permit” simply because I can’t get to their office on a weekday for the induction (which, according to Melbourne Water, involves watching a 30 minute video). However, they did say that I can ‘upgrade’ to a “special access permit” at any time, as long as I came in and did the induction. The way I see it, since the birds have wings, they can fly to any part of the WTP whenever they want, so there’s a good chance that the birds just might be in the ‘general access’ area. Besides, that’s where the crakes, Orange-bellied Parrots, and Northern Shoveler are regularly seen.

My advice though is to get the “special access permit” if you are able to attend the induction since you will have access to more areas of the plant. Otherwise, don’t despair: there’s plenty of birding to be done in the ‘general access’ areas.

Why do I need keys?

Access to the plant is restricted to key-holders/permit-holders and their guests, and the key is used to open the various numbered gates. Just one key opens the padlocks on all the gates in the ‘general access’ areas. I am not sure if you are issued with a different (or additional) key for Gate 8 to enter the ‘special access’ areas.

A typical WTP gate

A typical WTP gate

The gates are heavy, but despite this, they swing quite a lot in strong wind, so be careful when driving through! In our case, Imka drives and I open (and shut) the gates – my job becomes quite unpleasant on very hot, very cold, very windy, or fly-infested days…

Do I need a vehicle, or can I get public transport and bushwalk/hike through the WTP?

At around 100 sq km, the WTP is massive: a vehicle is definitely mandatory, since you can drive more than 50km along dozens of tracks that criss-cross the plant. Unless you are in a hazardous area or in Orange-bellied Parrot habitat, you can exit your vehicle for a wander/better view.

"That's not a lens... THIS is a lens!"

I’m not sure if birders are allowed to be on the beach, but wow, what an impressive lens he/she has!

Using the spotting scope in the field

Using the spotting scope in the field

Although public transport is available to Avalon Airport for the vehicle-less, it’s probably better rent a car or to tag along with a fellow birder, tour guide, or friend with a car. If you are from out-of-state or from overseas, there are many birders (check a few birding forums) who will be happy for the company: just be sure to volunteer to pay for petrol. 🙂

Do I need a 4WD vehicle?

The roads range from sealed roads to dirt tracks to gravel roads, and they are just fine for 2WDs when there has been no rain for a few days. Lots of rain leads to boggy tracks, and a 4WD is probably more appropriate in some parts of the plant.

As when driving on any unsealed road, proceed with caution and just use common sense. Don’t forget to call Melbourne Water ahead of every trip to record the particulars of your visit (i.e. time of visit, description of vehicle etc.). In case of an emergency, there may not be another vehicle in a 10km radius for many hours, although surprisingly, mobile (cellular) signal strength is quite good in most areas of the plant.

29 Mile Road

29 Mile Road (you’re definitely authorised to drive here, so don’t be alarmed by the sign saying otherwise at the intersection)

Fine in all weather

All-weather road

Not so fine when wet

Dry-weather road

Brown Falcon on track

Brown Falcon on track after some showers

Where are the toilets located?

There are no toilets! This isn’t a problem if you’re a bloke, but it’s not quite as pleasant if you’re female or have more serious bodily functions to attend to. We always make a pitstop at the service station just off the freeway about 1km before the Avalon Airport exit, which this gives us about 3hrs at the WTP.

When is the best time of year to visit?

The WTP is a year-round haven for birds so unless you are after specific species (like birds that winter in Victoria/Australia) then it doesn’t matter what time of year you visit: you’ll easily tick more than 50 species. If you’re a local, then try to visit at least once per season because it’s such a dynamic habitat that you’re bound to find a rarity or even a regular that you missed last season.

Where can I find the birds?

The birds are everywhere! We have seen birds flying over the freeway on approaching the WTP, and we have even seen raptors perched on trees in the Avalon Airport compound. Many waders and waterfowls can be seen in the dozens of ponds, on the beach, in the river, in the paddocks, and just off-shore. Parrots, finches and many other passerines can be spotted in the trees along the roads, and raptors are seen everywhere. It’s worth noting that a couple species of crakes seem to be resident in the ‘reedy pond’ in the T-Section Lagoon (through Gate 1), and Orange-bellied Parrots are sometimes seen on ‘The Spit’ (through Gate 2).

Is there a bird hide?

There’s only one bird hide in the entire plant, and it is located in the ‘general access’ area. The hide offers great views of the beach (and the mouth of Little River) where hundreds of birds (and dozens of species) are often seen. The ponds and vegetation on either side of the hide can be very productive for small birds (such as wrens and finches) as well as a plethora of waders during high tide.

The bird hide

The bird hide

The bird hide up close

The bird hide up close

Scoping in the hide

Scoping in the hide (NB* Camo trousers are not mandatory for WTP entry :D)

View from the hide: how many species can you count?

View from the hide: how many different species can you identify?

What birds can I expect to see?

More than 280 species of birds have been recorded at the WTP, including rarities like Broad-billed Sandpiper, Long-toed Stint, and Orange-bellied Parrot, as well as vagrants such as Northern Shoveler and American Golden Plover. We aren’t very good at identifying waders and LBJs, so we identify ‘only’ 60 species per trip on average – more skilled birders regularly tick more than 100 species.

Here are some photos from our visits to the WTP in 2013:

Aerial battle near the bird hide between a Spotted Harrier and a Brown Falcon

Aerial battle near the bird hide between a Spotted Harrier and a Brown Falcon

Black-shouldered Kite at eye-level

Black-shouldered Kite at eye-level

Family of Brolgas in a paddock on 29 Mile Road

Family of Brolgas in a paddock on 29 Mile Road

Royal Spoonbills eyeballing a Eastern Great Egret (in breeding plumage) in a T-Section pond

Royal Spoonbills eyeballing an Eastern Great Egret (in breeding plumage) in a T-Section pond

Horsfield's Bushlark

Horsfield’s Bushlark

Golden-headed cisticola

Golden-headed Cisticola

Spotted Harrier hunting in T-Section grasslands

Spotted Harrier hunting in T-Section grasslands

Whiskered Terns aplenty

Whiskered Terns aplenty

Australian Pelicans and Black Swans in Little River

Australian Pelicans and Black Swans in Little River

Nankeen Kestrel

Nankeen Kestrel

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