Airport stopovers are such a waste of time, aren’t they? Even if you’re feeling adventurous, you usually can’t leave the airport because you’re probably very far away from the city-centre and don’t want to risk missing your connecting flight. So instead, you usually find yourself wandering the terminal like a mindless, window-shopping zombie, or, you try to catnap in the most awkward position, on the most uncomfortable chair, while hoping that your precious bags of duty-free alcohol and perfumes don’t go walkabout. How often, while seated like a propped corpse at your departure gate, have you dreamed of a birding wonderland only walking distance from the airport? Such a place exists, intrepid birders, where you can see not one, not two, but up to 5 species of robins, just minutes from Melbourne’s Tullamarine International Airport!
Woodlands Historic Park is located to the east of the airport, across Tullamarine Freeway/Sunbury Road. Although you can (at much risk to life and limb!) probably walk from the airport, it’s much safer to drive there. At under 10 minutes drive from the airport, getting a cab there is cheap and easy.
The park, along with the vegetation and wildlife, reflects what the area looked like in the 1840s and it can be roughly divided into two parts: the homestead area, and the ‘back paddock’. It’s best to start birding in the picnic area just off Somerton Road, not in the least because there are toilets there. This section of the park is more arid, and the birds to be ticked here include thornbills, magpies, finches, and wrens, all in large numbers. Be prepared for the deafening roar of jet engines every two minutes as aircrafts depart.
In April 2014, the birding world was abuzz with the news that a small group of Black Honeyeaters was observed in the Black Wattles near the small dam – a species usually found much further north. When we visited a few weeks later, we could only muster Superb Fairy Wrens, Yellow Thornbills, Red-browed Finches, Spotted Pardalotes, Black-faced Cuckoo Shrikes, Golden Whistlers, Grey Fantails, Grey Shrike Thrushes and a distant Wedge-tailed Eagle, in addition to the ubiquitous Australian Magpies and Little Ravens. We were also pleasantly surprised to see a group of noisy Masked Lapwings in the paddock across the road.
To get to the ‘back paddock’, drive east along Somerton Road and take a right on to the unsealed Providence Road. We saw dozens of kangaroos in the paddocks along this road, as well as Laughing Kookaburras and large flocks of Red-browed Finches, but what really got etched into our memories was the large mounds of rubbish on the roadside. It was clear that Providence Road was an illegal dumping ground for anything from old wooden furniture to old mattresses to large pieces of scrap metal – drivers should proceed with caution to avoid tyre punctures.
After driving for about a kilometre along Providence Road, the unsealed surface transitions to tarmac, and the entrance to the ‘back paddock’ is on the right. There is parking for at least 10 cars, and like many other birding hot spots, the car park can produce some beauties, like the pair of Brown Goshawks observed a few days before our visit. From the car park, it’s a 250m walk along a flat, unsealed road to the entrance of the ‘back paddock’. There’s a cemetery to the left of the path, but according to the sign, permission from Aboriginal elders is required to enter. Birders with permission have reported that the cemetery is an excellent spot for ticking owls (like Southern Boobooks) at night. We’re not fans of cemeteries, much less visiting them at night, so we were quite contented with observing the kangaroos in the cemetery during the day.
We met a bazooka lens-toting birder along the path who told us that there were a few Scarlet and Flame Robins about, so we were very excited to bird in the ‘back paddock’. The ‘back paddock’ is a 400-ha ‘predator proof’, fenced, recovery site for the threatened Eastern Barred Bandicoot (EBB). However, when we got to the gate, it was locked, with a sign saying that it was closed for maintenance. It turns out that foxes breached the fence and were threatening to wipe out the entire Woodlands’ population of EBBs! As disappointed as we were with not gaining entry to the ‘back paddock’, we fully understood the plight of the EBB; indeed, despite their extremely short gestation period of just 12 days, they are ‘extinct in the wild’ on mainland Australia due to habitat destruction and predation by introduced species such as foxes and cats.
The EBB was thought to be extinct on the mainland until a small population was discovered in the 1980s among old cars at a rubbish dump in Hamilton (west Victoria)! Zoos Victoria quickly championed its conservation, and according to their press release, they have bred more than 600 EBBs since then. There are a handful of carefully managed sites where EBBs have been released, including Werribee Open Range Zoo, Mt Rothwell, Hamilton Community Parklands, French Island, and of course, Woodlands Historic Park. While I was an employee of Werribee Zoo, I was fortunate enough to interact with EBBs, so they still hold a special place in my conservation heart. (It should be noted that there is a low probability of seeing an EBB during the day in the ‘back paddock’ since they are actually nocturnal marsupials.)
As mentioned earlier, the gates to the ‘back paddock’ were locked. So, we decided to take the scenic, off-path route back to the carpark and were rewarded handsomely. It turns out that some epic birding could be had without even entering the ‘back paddock’! Woodlands Historic Park is famous for being the closest location to Melbourne where 5 species of robins can be observed: Flame Robin, Scarlet Robin, Red-capped Robin, Pink Robin, and Eastern Yellow Robin. Imka ticked a Pink Robin back in 2012, but on this occasion we didn’t get the ‘five-fecta’ – still, 4 brilliantly-plumed robins flitting about in large numbers is a wonderful experience.
We were also fortunate to see a White-plumed Honeyeater, Galahs, Crimson Rosellas, and the unmistakeable forked/square tails of Welcome Swallows and Tree Martins (respectively). Although our tally was ‘only’ 23 species, Woodlands Historic Reserve promises quality over quantity, and is worth a visit in every season to see what migrants might be out and about.