COASTAL BIRD-WATCHING CAN BE FUN, EVEN WITHOUT A RED-NECK STINT

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By Peter Dewar

At the point fascination turns into obsession, look around, you’re likely to find a birder. Well, twitcher to be precise… but more of that later. Curious what all the fuss is about, I jump at the chance to tag along on a Birdlife Australia field trip.

Suburbia races to the coast coming to a screeching halt at Jawbone Reserve, Williamstown. A green strip of parkland and man-made lakes are all that hold back multi-storey dream homes from toppling over one another into the sea.

This Rifle Range precinct was once actually a rifle range, originally used for training soldiers. In the 1956 Olympic Games, competitions were held here. The land was sold in the 90s for residential development with an open, natural space secured as a conservation site.

Locals know it for a bike path that weaves its way along water’s edge, behind factories and through Altona Coastal Park to Altona pier for a serve of local fish n’ chips, reward for twenty minutes of pedaling.

What most don’t realise is the same coastline, all the way to Geelong, is ‘the bomb’ for migratory shorebirds.

Today, the Bayview Street entrance is where I park and meet up with a ballooning group of budding bird enthusiasts. Is this a birding trip or a party? A Birdlife Australia research officer is our guide. Hobsons Bay Mayor, Sandra Wilson, a keen birder herself, has decided to join a class of migrant adult learners from Williamstown Community Education Centre. Joan Radcliffe, whose late husband helped establish the nature reserve, has come for a walk.

The only one missing is the guest of honour.

Earlier in April, with bellies full of sea worms and warmed by 
a Melbourne summer, flocks of migratory shorebirds leave Hobsons Bay for Siberia and Alaska. They’ll stopover in Japan, South Korea, or China before flying the remainder of the 13,000 km journey. Don’t feel sorry for them: they’ve months of breeding in the sun to look forward to. Around August, it’s a return trip to our shoreline to do it all over again.

A missing celebrity isn’t going to spoil our fun. With not the slightest breath of wind, it’s a glorious day for a walk. Besides, in the main lake there are resident water birds to list or geek at.

That means sharing binoculars. Two friends in a belly fit of laughter take it literally; heads together, they must reckon one eye is all you need. Guide sheets are shuffled trying to identify the birds swimming a few metres in front of the hide we crowd into.

Ouch. A mosquito bites me on the hand, a reminder that, yes, this is outdoors. But the next sting is more troubling. I see a bird
 in the water. One glance at the guide and I notice it’s a Pink-eared Duck, not to be confused with the Blue-billed Duck. Tick. In a heartbeat, I’m stricken with birding fever.

Bird lovers tend to be sorted into two camps: observers and tickers. The list-tickers are called twitchers after a famous but nervy British birdwatcher, Howard Medhurst, early riser that he was. To a fanatical twitcher, birding is as competitive as any sport. Hear of a rare sighting, and as the song goes – ‘there ain’t no mountain high enough…’

Others simply enjoy an encounter with wildlife, imbibing the natural beauty of birds or listening to their calls. Some find fulfilment recording their finds in sites like Birdlife Australia’s new Birdata web portal. This information helps scientists monitor endangered species or track changes in the natural environment. Of course, photographers, with lenses like protruding beaks, see art.

Sounds delightful. There is, however, a serious side to humans’ encounter with birdlife that bird lovers want us to be aware of. And it has nothing to do with lists. Our burgeoning cities encroach on wildlife habitats.

Critically, migratory shorebirds are dying as wetland and mudflat stopovers in Asia make way for industry and housing. Hobsons Bay is a signatory to the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty adopted to conserve and sustain important wetlands.

If only nothing else, the tiny adventure taught me I should get out more. It was fun; the sea air a tonic. On the coast, and in neighbourhood parklands for that matter, we have amazing birdlife right on our doorstep. No zoo fees necessary.

To birders, I salute you. The world of birds is amazing. I ticked off one, and doubt I’ll ever see all the other 9,700 species
 in the world, but I get why some of you go a little, how do I say this politely… nuts. More importantly, thanks for keeping an eye on the natural environment, home to our feathered neighbours.

For newbies heading off to the coast on a birding expedition, scrounge a pair of binoculars and consult a guide to see what birds to expect. It helps to do a bit of homework: shorebirds like the tide out. Oh, and one more thing. If it’s migrators you’re after – make sure they’re not honeymooning in the Northern Hemisphere.

For the birds…

For everything you need to get started: Birdlife Australia (www. birdlife.org.au)

Locations in Hobsons Bay for coastal birdwatching:

Sandy Point in Newport; Rifle Range and Jawbone Reserve
 in Williamstown; Paisley Challis Wetlands in Williamstown; Truganina Parklands in Altona; Altona Coastal Park; Cheetham Wetlands (permit required).

Blue-billed duck (Oxyura australis) photo via Birdlife Australia.

 

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