Thursday, 6 September 2007

Eau de toilette

... or odour toilet. Take your pick. Our visit to the Werribee Sewage Farm (correctly called the Western Treatment Plant) was more Channel than Chanel, but we had a great time.

In his book The Big Twitch, Sean Dooley praised the site:
... a trip to Werribee is one of the most spectacular wildlife experiences this country has to offer. Almost three hundred species of birds have been recorded on the Farm itself, but even more impressive is their sheer abundance. Especially during a drought year, tens of thousands of waterfowl are drawn to the permanent waters of the farm. As they wheel about the lagoons in fluid yet cohesive flocks one is reminded of the accounts of early explorers who wrote of birds in such numbers that they darkened the skies.

We didn't get fluid and cohesive flocks. Not of birds, anyway. The waders are still in Siberia, planning their austral vacation, and the locals are spoiled for choice when it comes to ponds and water races so are distributed over a large area. It was also late afternoon. Put those factors together and I think we were lucky to see as much as we did.

My highlights were three species, all of which are plentiful on the lagoons. But abundance doesn't make them any less fascinating. (Familiarity does not breed contempt when it comes to bird-watching.)

Male musk ducks were displaying to females, other males, passing teal, the odd floating leaf ... Dozens of these big, dark, odd-looking fellows were flaunting their pennants and splashing around like kids at the beach. The females sailed passed, apparently unimpressed.

The ducks did draw the attention of my second highlight — the hoary-headed grebes. Werribee is the centre of the universe for this species. Ornithologist AndrĂ© Konter wrote of his visit to the site in November 1997 in Grebes of our world:
So far I had never seen such big flocks of grebes as at the lagoons of the Werribee Sewage Farm ... Thousands of Hoary-headed Grebes must be wintering there every year and even then, when the breeding season should have started, hundreds of them were still present, partially in breeding, partially in non-breeding plumage.

We didn't see thousands but we saw as many grebes as we did musk ducks. And they're just as tricky to photograph as the Australasian grebes ...

The final highlight was a bird heard more than seen. The vegetation at the edge of the ponds was stuffed with clamorous reed warblers, all belting out their gorgeous melodies.

There were other memorable scenes, including ten or more great cormorants sunning themselves at the water's edge and a pair of black swans with their impossibly cute grey cygnets hitching a lift on their backs. As the swans glided past, one of the cygnets came over shy and buried its face among the black feathers. We saw a little dark eye peep out at us from the safety of mum (or dad's) plumage.

That was our first visit to the Western Treatment Plant. I think we'll have to do this on a regular basis. If only we could shift it closer ...


Tracey said...

I took my mum and dad on a magical mystery tour once (of my own design), and guess where we went! The smell wasn't nearly as bad as the smell of a beached whale that they'd shipped off and deposited there -- oh, my God, it was the worst thing I've ever smelt in my life, and having worked as a microbiologist for a while, I've smelt some pretty rank things. But I loved the farm. My husband used to go there regularly, because he was trying to develop a vaccine against beef tapeworms, particularly for the cattle that run there.

Snail said...

Oddly enough, I went to Werribee with a microbiologist, who was able to regale me with information about the activated sludge.

Apart from the aroma, it's a top spot, isn't it?