Chiltern and the Western Treatment Plant

A Whiskered_Tern snatches an insect from the surface of the lakeCould a trip to Chiltern and the Western Treatment Plant (both in Victoria), two of Australia’s top ten birding hotspots, get my (Little) Big Year back on track? Well, they are fantastic places to visit and November is my birthday month, so maybe that would bring me some extra luck.

As the year progresses I am realising just how hard a goal I had set myself and, as of the end of October, I am up to just 233 species! I am quite happy with this figure, but it is a long way short of my goal of 400 species. Many missed opportunities, some big work projects, and some bad weather have hampered my efforts, but I am not a quitter. I set myself a back up goal of trying to add 50 new Australian bird species to my life list in the 2015 year, which stood at 429 species as of the end of 2014. This was not fairing much better, with just 24 added at the end of October.

Late in October it was discussed that I should go to Melbourne, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth for work. These trips would not be long ones, but might give me the chance to see some interstate species, that I would, otherwise, not have the opportunity to see. My first trip was to cover Melbourne and Canberra. I have a friend, that I had met at a photography course that I attended back in May, who lives in Melbourne and had previously offered to take me to a few birding spots in and around Melbourne. So I had contacted him and he was keen to take me to the Western Treatment Plant. Also, one of the top ten Australian birding hotspots, Chiltern, was on my route, just 3.5 hours north of Melbourne. Perfect!

Chiltern

I hate flying so, on the 6th of November, I set off in my car to drive to Melbourne. I left on the Friday, as I had to be back in Sydney for the following Friday, and needed to spend 2 days working in Melbourne and one day in Canberra on the way back. Given that it is a days drive each way, that would mean that I would have the weekend to myself, and could visit one or two birding hotspots along the way. I had booked myself into the Lake Anderson Caravan Park in the township of Chiltern for the Friday night and looked forward to a fruitful afternoon of birding. I had a meeting that morning, so was not able to get going until 10.00am, but Chiltern was only 5.5 hrs drive away, so I still managed to get there with around 4 hrs of light. Chiltern is a great town, with loads of historic attractions, as well as being a birder’s paradise. The Box-Ironbark forests are famed for being home to many different species of honeyeaters, as well as being home to numerous other bird species.

My first destination in Chiltern was Bartley’s Paddock, located a short drive from the town centre. Bartley’s Paddock is, as the name suggests, a large open grassy paddock which is surrounded by trees. Walking around the paddock was quite easy, and there was quite a lot of bird activity. Unfortunately, the trees had mostly finished flowering so there were only about a dozen species of birds to be seen, but I could imagine that this place would be a hive of activity at the beginning of Spring. I did add White-browed Babbler, Western Gerygone and Lttle Raven to my 2015 list though, so quite a good start.

As I was packing up, I got talking to a couple of other birders, and we exchanged the usual information on what we had seen and where. One of them (Paul) was heading to another popular spot called the Honeyeater Picnic Area, located in the Mt Pilot National Park on the other side of Chiltern and, as he knew where he was going, I decided to follow him.

I saw this Australasian_Grebe and her young at Chiltern
An Australasian Grebe and it’s Chicks

The Honeyeater Picnic Area has a series of small walking tracks that skirt a small dam and, you guessed is, a picnic area (well a wood fireplace and a picnic table). As we started our walk, we bumped into another birder who had just completed one of the walks. As we chatted, we saw a White-winged Triller sitting on a branch above the carpark (another one for the list). The birder also pointed out that there was a pair of Australian Grebes nesting on the dam, and they had 5 or 6 young. I managed a few pictures of these in the dimming light, before heading off on one of the trails. This spot was also quite good, and I managed to add Brown Treecreeper, Black-chinned Honeyeater, Brown-headed Honeyeater and White-naped Honeyeater to my 2015 list. Time to head back to the caravan park and just enough light to take a walk around the lake. Although I did not manage to add any new species from my walk around Lake Anderson, it was very pleasant and quite busy with bird life.

The next morning, I headed back to Bartley’s Paddock to try for some more new species, but was not successful. I did see Paul there again and we decided to team up for the morning and tray a few different spots. We decided to head to some of the dams located near Chiltern, due to the lack of flowering trees and the low bird activity in the forest areas. The main dams on our list were Green Hill Dam (not much water and no new birds), Frog’s Hollow (Turquoise Parrot [a new species for Paul] and a Varied Sittella), No.1 Dam (Australasian Shoveller, Pink-eared Duck and Striated Pardalote) and No.2 Dam (Fuscous Honeyeater and Diamond Firetail). We also headed to the Barnawatha Treatment Plant where I managed to add Speckled Warbler and Striated Thornbill to my 2015 list. No new species for my life list, but a very productive and enjoyable day.

Western Treatment Plant

Sunset over the pond at the Western Treatment Plant
Sunset over the pond at the Western Treatment Plant

I left Chiltern around midday and headed off to Melbourne and a few hours at the Western Treatment Plant with my friend, Chris. Chris has his own photography business, Fazshot Photography, and specialises in aerial photos of coastlines and towns/cities near Melbourne, and Whales & Dolphins, but he also enjoys bird photography, particularly birds of prey. Chris runs a stall at most of the weekend craft markets and was at one of them today, but was still kind enough to take me to the Western Treatment Plant on his way back through to his home in Melbourne’s east.

The Western Treatment Plant is the main site for sewerage treatment and water recycling in Melbourne. It is located in Werribee, and was originally called Werribee Ponds, and has been in operation since 1897. It is a huge network of lagoons and smaller ponds, separated by grassy embankments that form the road system that permit holders use to drive throughout the 110 km2 site. The site is on the shore of Port Phillip Bay, and is literally teaming with birds (one site I read stated that 285 species had been recorded there!). Due to the fading light, Chris gave me a quick tour of the main lagoons and the bird hide on the edge of the bay. There were literally hundreds (if not thousands) of birds, but only the Australian Shelduck, White-fronted Chat, Hoary-headed Grebe and Whiskered Tern were new ones for my 2015 list. One spectacular sight was to see what must have been a thousand ducks taking off from their feeding ponds at sunset, heading off to wherever they were planning on spending the night.

The next morning, I decided to head down to Port Fairy. Chris had a market stall there on the day, which I wanted to check out, but I also wanted to try and see some more birds along the coastline. Chris’s stall is great and I recommend checking it out if you ever get the chance, but you can also see his works on his website. I managed to get some pictures of a few birds during the morning, and saw a Singing Honeyeater near one of the beaches in Port Fairy. After an awful burger for lunch, I decided to head back to the Western Treatment Plant and walk along the beaches, looking for pair of Ruff that had recently been spotted there, until Chris was able to take me back inside. I did not see the Ruff, but had an enjoyable time taking pictures of the waders on the shore of the bay and a pair of Red-rumped Parrots that were checking out a potential nest hollow in a tree. When Chris arrived, we went back inside the Treatment Plant and spent a very enjoyable few hours taking pictures, and also got a fleeting glimpse of a Spotless Crake, which was a new species for my life list and a Singing Bushlark, which was a new addition to the 2015 list. Chris kindly offered to take me back there again on the Tuesday afternoon, after we both finished work, as he was keen to try and find a pair of Brolgas for me that had been sighted there quite regularly for the past month.

On Tuesday it started pouring with rain at about 12.00pm and it looked as if it had settled in for the rest of the day. Chris was working a bit further away to the west and was quite confident that the rain will have stopped by the time we get there, so we decided to go ahead with the original plan, and I am glad we did. Not only did we get to see the Brolgas, but I also got to see a group (gaggle) of Cape Barren Geese – another new species for me, and a Brown Falcon and three Common Greenshank, which were new ones for the 2015 list. A celebratory meal was in order, accompanied by a nice glass of red wine and a somewhat eccentric waitress.

Off to Canberra

Wednesday morning and off to Canberra (the long way). I decided to head north through the countryside and join the motorway away for the busy inner Melbourne. Well that was the plan at least. I did travel about 50km north, but then got completely lost and my gps took me back into Melbourne to the start of the motorway – I was not happy! I was hoping to stop in at Chiltern again on the way back, but lost so much time with the back-tracking that I had to head straight to Canberra.

Thursday was spent working in Queanbeyan, until around 4.00pm. I then went out to Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, which was place I had been to in February 2014, and was a great place for all sorts of wildlife (including Platypus). It was about an hour’s drive to get there, but I would have a couple hours before the reserve closes, so I was hopefully of getting some new birds and one or two good pictures of Platypus. Unfortunately, again it started to rain and a big storm blew in. I got drenched and did not get any new birds, but I did get a couple of okay pictures of a Platypus in the very low light.

Back to Sydney on Friday (my birthday).

The rest of the month was very busy, and the trips to Brisbane and Perth were postponed until January 2016, so the 400 species target looks well out of reach, but I was booked on a pelagic boat trip on the 28th of the month, so I was still hopeful of getting some more new species for my life list and my secondary goal of adding 50 species to it. Hopefully, the weather will be kind to me.

Thankfully it was a bit blowy on the day of the pelagic trip, but no rain and no cancellation. This time there was only one boat, which had about 12 people on board. One of them, Lindsay, was our guide for the day and a very knowledgeable one at that. While the density of birds was nothing like what I had experienced back in July, the species diversity was fantastic. We saw 22 species of bird, some Dolphins and a Mako Shark – a very good day and, to my delight, 13 new species for the 2015 list, with ten of these being new ones for my life list. (Note: I also discovered that I had not included a species of Albatross in my July report, when I was recording my sightings on this trip, so that was a pleasant surprise as well).

November (and the missed record from July) added 42 species to my 2015 list, taking that to a respectable 275, albeit a long way short of my 400 species goal, and a very pleasing 13 species for my life list, which now gives me 37 for the year, 13 short of my goal, which is now at 466 in total – nice! December is normally a very busy month for me at work and, socially, is quite hectic, so not much hope of getting 125 new species sightings, but it is wader time, so perhaps there might be a few rare vagrants turn up that might get me close to 50 new species for my life list.  🙂

November’s New Hatchlings for my (Little) Big Year List:

Australian Shelduck
Pink-eared Duck
Australasian Shoveler
Hoary-headed Grebe
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
White-capped Albatross (New)
Campbell Albatross (New)
Antipodean Albatross (New) [From July]
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater (New)
Sooty Shearwater (New)
Short-tailed Shearwater (New)
Fluttering Shearwater (New)
Great-winged Petrel (New)
Little Penguin
Brown Falcon
Brolga
Spotless Crake (New)
Common Greenshank
Pomarine Jaegar (New)
Arctic Jaegar (New)
Long-tailed Jaegar (New)
Whiskered Tern
Turquoise Parrot
Brown Treecreeper
Speckled Warbler
Western Gerygone
Striated Thornbill
Striated Pardalote
Singing Honeyeater
Fuscous Honeyeater
White-fronted Chat
Black-chinned Honeyeater
Brown-headed Honeyeater
White-naped Honeyeater
White-browed Babbler
Varied Sitella
White-winged Triller
Little Raven
Singing Bushlark
Diamond Firetail