My first memory of Western Port was driving down Stony Point Road to the jetty and there on the mudflats was a small group of Yellow–billed Spoonbills. This was sometime around 1978 or 79 and as a newcomer to Australia the sight of spoonbills just milling around near the shore was terribly exotic and etched itself into my memory. I had no idea at the time of course that I would return to live and work within cooee of this endlessly fascinating bay.
I was on my way to French Island with a friend and this was also my first introduction –albeit brief – to that amazing island. Years later, I was to take part in catching koalas on French Island for relocation to the mainland and this took me to parts of the island seldom seen except by residents and rangers. The beautiful heathland in flower in spring time and wildflowers and orchids springing up on the fire breaks were memorable moments.
Visiting with the Peninsula Birdwatchers in the 1980s we were led by the indefatigable Des Quinn, striding over the countryside, on his long legs, dragging a weary group of birdwatchers in his wake. He showed us some wonderful birdlife – Cape Barren Geese in the paddocks, Swamp Harriers drifting low over the mashes and Sea Eagles soaring high overhead. It was all a wonderful introduction to the very special wildness of Western Port.
My interest in birds has drawn me into several surveys – some one-offs and others with a bit more longevity. One of my first was a banding trip with the Victorian Wader study Group. This group has done incredibly valuable work in the study of migratory and resident shore birds by fitting identification bands on the legs of birds to track their movements and in recent years with advanced technology, by fitting geo-locators to birds to do the same. Some of the results have been mind boggling with birds flying up to 10,000 km non-stop on their migratory journey! On this occasion, though the gods were against us and we were unable to catch any birds, however what sticks in my mind was the bay itself as we walked back along the shoreline. The sea was perfectly still – like the proverbial millpond – and in the setting sun, the reflections of the mangroves and the lines of colour on the water and in the sky was a sight that Turner could have painted.
Another banding expedition I took part in was catching Pied Oystercatchers. The Oystercatchers are one of the few shorebirds whose population is doing OK. French Island is important for these ground-nesting birds because of its remote beaches (with few people) and the absence of foxes. What I remember best about this outing was laying behind the scrub covered fore-dune and watching the sandpipers, stints and godwits slowly making their way towards us as the tide rose and covered their feeding grounds and drove them quietly towards us.
I also took part in a bird survey which was related to a port development proposal of some sort (I forget exactly which one, but there always seems to be someone who wants to “develop” Western Port and we always seem to have to repeatedly supply information as to why they shouldn’t). Anyway, this was Western Port in a different mood. Part of the survey was done from a boat (the part that I was participating in) and the weather was wet and windy but we managed to complete the survey (one of several) despite the conditions.
I also had the opportunity through my work learn a bit about a habitat that although I was familiar with on a superficial level I soon discovered that I knew little about the actual plants and animal that lived there. For a couple of years I coordinated an intertidal survey called Reef Watch at Mushroom Reef, Flinders. This involved surveying and recording the sea life within quadrants (metre squares) placed on the reef. To do this the surveys had to be timed for low tide and it was always a worry that I’d get the times wrong and the team would turn up to a submerged reef. Fortunately this never happened but there was one occasion when we had to beat a hasty retreat as the tide started to fill up the neck of the reef (our way back to shore) and we had to splash through the rising tide.
What I did get from this work though – thanks to the very knowledgeable volunteers who had been doing this for years – was an appreciation of just how varied the life is in this inhospitable zone and of course one couldn’t help notice the birds that use this zone too; the Sooty Oystercatchers and Turnstones on the rocks (one of these Turnstones wearing the aforementioned geolocator was tracked flying 4000 km non-stop on its migration), Red-necked Stints following the tide in and out on the sandy beach and Double-banded Dotterel amongst the sea weed, this New Zealand shore bird breeds in NZ and is the only east-west migrating shorebird in the world.
At present apart from enjoying the bay on a casual basis I take part in two bird surveys: the Orange –bellied Parrot Survey – a search for what is probably our rarest parrot (to date we haven’t seen one but we live in hope and there are always other interesting birds about) and the Western Port Bird Survey – possibly the longest running bird survey in Australia. The Western Port Survey is always interesting, especially if you have the luck to survey some of the more remote corners of the bay. The birdlife is astounding; Red-necked Avocets with their impossibly thin, delicate, upturned bills, yapping Black winged Stilts on their ridiculously long pink legs, flocking migratory birds in their hundreds, flotillas of hundreds of ducks, Caspian Terns with their long red bills, Gull-billed Terns with their neat black caps and so much more.
It’s an avian wonderland worthy of a David Attenborough documentary here on our door step, or if not exactly our door step at least a short walk down the garden path.