“Such is (bird)life” at the ‘Poo Farm’

The Western Treatment Plant is perhaps the premier birding site in Victoria, Australia, with more than 280 species being recorded, and it’s definitely one of our favourites. We try to visit it at least four times per year (once per season), usually prompted by reports of relatively rare birds. (Here is a blog post about the ‘poo farm’ that’s worth reading prior to your first visit.)

In January 2016, we read regular and consistent reports of a Red-necked Phalarope – a relatively rare bird this far south – being reliably spotted in one of the ponds at T-Section, and were determined to visit. With the birding gods smiling on us, we visited the site on a mild and sunny day during a long weekend, and weren’t disappointed. On driving through the gate, we were greeted by no less than 20 birders lining the road, cameras and spotting scopes pointed towards the far side of a large pond with choppy water. Not surprisingly, the birders were quite helpful and they were all too happy to point out the bird to us. I was taken aback at how tiny it was and how quickly it moved, bobbing up and down between the waves, always towards the centre of the pond. We didn’t get any decent photos with our long lens and had to be contented with an iPhone-over-scope record photo. Still, a lifer is a lifer!

Red-necked Phalarope in front of the Shoveller

Red-necked Phalarope in front of the Shoveller

Then we were off to the ‘crake pond’ a few hundreds metres further along T-Section, and along with a dozen other birders, we scored the ‘crake-fecta’ (Spotted, Spotless, and Baillon’s) within minutes. Crakes are tiny birds, easily fitting in the palm of your hand, and though preferring the safety of the thick reeds, these crakes were remarkably adventurous. The three species were often exposed all at once, and it was difficult for the excited birders to decide on which bird to photograph, and for this reason, we missed a shot of the Spotless Crake. Still, the Baillon’s Crake was our second lifer for the morning, so we were quite pleased with how the day was unfolding.

Spotted Crake spotted

Spotted Crake spotted

Baillon's Crake

Baillon’s Crake

Pacific Golden Plovers were also on our target list, and we felt that a sighting was owed to us after navigating the muddy road down to Kirk’s Point. Alas, they were nowhere to be found so we had to settle for our first sighting of Pied Cormorants for the year. Never to be disheartened by a visit to the ‘plant’, we cruised through the rest of the sprawling site, and by the end of the day, we had ticked 60 species, plus another six ‘birds’ from the nearby Avalon airport.

The road to Kirk's Point three days after the last rainfall

The road to Kirk’s Point three days after the last rainfall

How many species can you identify?

How many species can you identify?

Marsh Sandpiper

Marsh Sandpiper

Pink-eared Duck

Pink-eared Duck

Six birds

Six birds

In June 2016, Orange-bellied Parrots were reported at the Western Treatment Plant and hundreds of birders flocked (no pun intended) to the ‘plant’. One of two long-range migratory parrots (the other being another Aussie bird, the Swift Parrot), Orange-bellied Parrots are also one of the world’s rarest parrots, with less than 30 believed to be left in the wild. Consequently, we were most pleased when a birder was kind enough to give us an approximate location for them.

Try as we might, we just can’t seem to get to the ‘poo farm’ before 8am, and as soon as we drive past Avalon Airport, the ‘distracting’ birding action begins. For example, we saw a small raptor land on a dead tree near the airport and stopped to photograph it, thinking that it was a Nankeen Kestrel. To our surprise, it was an Australian Hobby: our first lifer for the day that wasn’t even a target species! The light was spectacular, and the bird was obliging, so after half an hour, we left it perching high up on its vantage point, and made our way towards Gate 8 (the ‘special access’ area). However, our progress was ‘hindered’ by the multitude of bird life that was active in the morning sun, including Brolgas, waterfowl, waders, and raptors, so it was almost 10am before we entered the far side of the ‘plant’.

Australian Hobby

Australian Hobby

As we approached the secret spot, we saw a convoy of vehicles driving towards us, which is never a good sign. I flagged down a driver who told me that three birds were seen earlier, but they had all dropped down into the bushes out of sight. To say that we were disappointed was an understatement! We had missed the birds by 5mins: a good reminder to maintain focus and keep our eyes on the prize. Along with a dozen other eager birders, we waiting for almost two hours, but the birds never emerged from the low, thick vegetation. Still, I was quite pleased that no birders ventured out into the bushes to flush them for the perfect shot, and although their future seems grim, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see many more of them next year.

We took a leisurely drive around the ‘plant’ to many areas that we had never visited before, and as per usual, we ticked about 60 species. In addition to the Australian Hobby, the standout bird for us was a Striated Fieldwren that bid us farewell as we exited Gate 4 after a wonderful day out, albeit with a touch of disappointment. If Ned Kelly were a birdwatcher, I am sure he would concur that “such is (bird)life”.

Is it worth the risk?

Is it worth the risk?

Black Kite

Black Kite

Hundreds of birds

Hundreds of birds

Striated Fieldwren

Striated Fieldwren

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