Issue 5, Semester 2, 2019
We law students know as well as anyone how stressful and busy the life of the modern human can be. Between study, work, a social life, extracurriculars and maybe a hobby, we are inevitably spread thin.
This is why the way we choose to spend our precious few hours of free time really matters. It’s those few hours of spare time that are our own – they are the time in which we get to express our individuality. I choose to spend a fair chunk of mine birdwatching, and I want to tell you why.
Usually, a mention of my birdwatching to someone approximately my age is a cue for a poorly concealed smirk, glazed eyes or a politely disinterested “Huh”, if not outright laughter. Maybe, occasionally, someone will spurt out “Oh! So you’re a twitcher”, after which I then proceed to explain that, actually no, I’m not a ‘twitcher’. I am a birdwatcher.
Birdwatchers who travel long distances to see rarities are known as ‘twitchers’. The origin of the term is supposedly two brothers who, in the mid-20th Century, would ride long distances on their motorcycles through cold nights across the UK to see interesting birds when they showed up, so that when they arrived they were shivering. Hence ‘twitching’.
This all tells me that birdwatching is misunderstood. And fair enough, I get it. You can’t expect people to know or care about your niche hobby. I mean, I couldn’t tell you the first thing about curling. I don’t even know if that is how it is spelled.
However, here’s some of what birdwatching in Victoria could offer you.
You could spend hours at poo farms, like me. Take The Western Treatment Plant, for example (or ‘Werribee’, as it is affectionately known). It is a sewage treatment plant near Avalon Airport. It’s owned and run by Melbourne Water who allow us ornithophiles in to see the birds—God bless ‘em. It is one of the premiere birdwatching sites in the country, with almost three hundred species of bird recorded there to date. It’s possible to see more than one hundred species in a day at this one site alone.
Each summer when the migratory waders arrive from their breeding grounds, usually in Siberia, you stand a chance of seeing such delicious irregulars such as the grey-tailed tattler, the long-toed stint, or the wood sandpiper. And you’re pretty much guaranteed to see species such as the bar-tailed godwit, which flies 10,000km across the Pacific Ocean in one stretch to get here— the longest known migratory flight of any bird. Last summer there was even a pair of brolga out at Werribee. An up-close sighting of brolga is unforgettable.
You get the picture, anything could show up. Earlier this year a tufted duck, a diving species which normally inhabits freshwater lakes in Europe, appeared there. Hundreds of birders descended upon Werribee to get a look at what would be a junk-bird for just about any European.
That’s summer, but if you’re down at Werribee in winter and you’re extremely lucky, you may see an orange-bellied parrot—one of the rarest birds on earth and one of Australia’s few migratory parrots. During the winter, they inhabit the coastal heath of southern Australia, before migrating across Bass Strait to their breeding ground on the fringes of the buttongrass plains of southwest Tasmania. They have a wild population of something like fifty birds, so to see one is a real hoot. I have heard stories about flocks seventy-strong flying around the Avalon Saltworks in the 1970s, but they now teeter on the brink of extinction and nobody really knows why. They’re the subject of a breeding program run by the State Government, the Werribee Zoo, and a few others, so there is some hope for them yet.
You don’t have to be anywhere particularly special to birdwatch, either. On any given day if you’re looking closely enough at a flowering eucalypt, or a tree with a psyllid infection, you could see a swift parrot, another of Australia’s migratory parrots and one of Australia’s critically endangered species. They, too, breed in Tasmania, and rely on eucalypt hollows which only mature trees can provide. They spend the winter on the Mainland fattening up on nectar and ‘lerp’—the sugary, white excretion of psyllids bugs which parasitize many eucalypt species, and in the process, carry pollen far and wide. They have been reported in Melbourne frequently this winter, including down at Altona.
Or maybe, if you take the time to stop and look up while you’re in the city, you will see one of the peregrine falcons which nested in the 360 Collins building last year. They usually inhabit steep rocky terrain where they can dive bomb unsuspecting prey at speeds reaching over 300km/h. I saw one above Elizabeth Street just a few days ago.
Even closer still to home, there are rainbow lorikeets looking for nesting hollows in the European trees on Barry Street outside MLS. They’re beautiful birds, but are real tough customers. They have done very well out of urbanisation and their range is expanding south into Tasmania so that they now compete with other, smaller birds, such as swift parrots, for nesting hollows.
It’s not all poo farms and cities however. If you’re up for the drive, there are oodles of spectacular places to bird in Victoria. There’s the Great Otways, Grampians, Little Desert, Wyperfeld,, Terrick-Terrick, Chiltern-Mt Pilot, Croajingolong and Greater Bendigo National Parks, to name a few. My favourite (so far) is the Mallee, and Hattah-Kulkyne park in particular.
The Mallee is Victoria’s vast, semi-arid interior to the northwest. Its namesake is a group of eucalyptus species that grow multiple stems from one root system. Much of it has been cleared, initially for grazing, but these days for growing grain.
Hattah-Kulkyne, though it was part of a pastoral lease until the 1980s, remains largely uncleared and has some terrific birding. It’s about 40km south of Mildura, sandwiched between the Calder Highway to the west and the Murray River to the north and east. It has huge ephemeral lakes, which when full support an enormous number of species usually absent from the area. It also contains stands of river red gums, one of my favourite trees, which provide nesting hollows for many species of parrot. The most impressive of these parrots is the Major Mitchell cockatoo. River red gums rely on floods to disperse their seeds, and since large-scale irrigation from the Wimmera and Murray rivers has begun; in certain areas such as Wyperfeld, they are slowly dying out.
Mallee often has an understorey of spinifex. Think of a 50-100cm high ball of sewing needles. You definitely don’t want to fall on spinifex when you’re toileting, friends tell me. Mallee emu-wren love spinifex. They’re not quite Australia’s smallest bird (that would be the weebill), but they only weigh between five and seven grams!. Sadly, they are critically endangered, and restricted to a few tiny patches of habitat in the far-northwest of Victoria.
Malleefowl also inhabit the forests of the Mallee, but only in areas that have been unburnt for fifteen years or so. They are large ground birds that use mounds of decomposing litter to incubate their eggs. They add and remove material to regulate the temperature of the mound, keeping it just right for incubation. I haven’t been lucky enough to see one yet, but, regrettably, I have seen two foxes in the vicinity of a disused mound. Dipping on a species isn’t such a bad thing – it just gives me a reason to go back.
(To ‘dip’ is to go looking for a species and miss it).
If nothing else, birdwatching is immersive. To do it properly you have to give your surroundings your full attention; if you allow yourself to be distracted, you’ll miss a call, which might be your only means of locating a cryptic bird, like the Lewin’s Rail. The details are what matter. Once you have a bird in your bins, you have to be able to pick out the diagnostic features quickly before it moves on or becomes obscured. Birdwatching blends being outdoors and mindfulness. You have to be mindful to be a good birdwatcher. It’s almost meditative.
That’s why I love it.
If you’d like to catch up and have a chat about birdwatching or even come out to Werribee, let me know! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
DISCLAIMER: yes, you will look like a nerd with binoculars on and you will end up with many middle-aged friends. Pros and cons.