Birding in the Prom by James Robertson
Some holidays need a purpose. Not every vacation can be just relaxing by the beach or drinking the night away. The most fulfilling holidays are driven by a goal. Get to this location by now. See as much as you can in so little time. Or, in this case, spot as many birds as you possibly can.
Spending the summer in Wilson’s Promontory National Park has become a ritual for me and my family. We have been countless times to this beautiful wildlife haven. It is truly the best that Australia has to offer. But it just so happened that this time would be quite different to those in the past. When my Dad heard that the park rangers were hosting a bird-spotting competition that week at the Prom, we immediately jumped at the chance to attend the information session.
A bird expert from La Trobe University briefed us all on the rules of the competition. Whenever you spot a bird, tick it off on the fold-out guide which displayed almost all possible birds that can be seen in the park. Be truthful, as there is no way of verifying the authenticity of your spot. If you see a bird and can’t find it on the guide, remember where you saw it and ask the rangers what it may be. Most importantly, have fun. But Dad wasn’t planning on taking this easy going. This was serious. He formulated a plan to cover as many different terrains as possible in order to maximise the various types of birds that we could spot.
We began our search with Lilly Pilly Gully. This circuit walk was reborn out of the ashes of a devastating bushfire years ago, but now only the grey spires of skeletal trees protruding from the dense greenery could display this past destruction. We walked slowly through the bush, keeping our ears peeled for any sounds of birdlife. Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoos cawed in the highest treetops, circling around each other. These are some of the rarest birds you could see in Australia, but they’re as common as seagulls here at the Prom. Numerous times on this menial trek, my Mum and I lost Dad as he would be stuck trying to identify a bird through his binoculars. I managed to spot a few of my own here though. I was able to discern one small bird that was creeping up the side of a tree as a Rufous Whistler with its orange belly flashing as it crawled upwards.
We ticked off a couple more from the Forest Birds section, but only the sign of one bird in particular excited us the most. The bird expert from La Trobe University had told us that probably the rarest bird you can spot in the Prom is the Barking Owl, a rather large breed of owl, which had been spotted by students of his on this walk. That was the only time it had been seen in decades. And we had found, what we believed to be, a feather of this most elusive owl. We kept it for safe keeping, to be shown to the professor later.
Over the next four days we ventured to different corners of the national park. We attempted to tick off some birds on the Grassland/Wetland list by walking through one of the most northerly points of the Prom; a place called Miller’s Landing. A marshy locale with mangroves rising out of the swampy sand, it was a delight to find numerous sea-faring birds there. We saw Little Pied Cormorants and White-faced Herons sat atop ocean-bound nests in the distance, while Black Swans dotted the sun-soaked waters in packs. Most bizarrely of all, there was a family camped out on a shoreline boulder fishing. They managed to catch a fiddler ray, a type of shark with the resemblance of a stingray. That was my Dad identifying it. The family had no clue what they caught.
This just goes to show the incredible diversity at Wilson’s Prom. Because even though we were mainly keeping a look out for birds, that didn’t stop other animals gracing us with their presence. For instance, a wallaby approached us when we were driving slowly back from Miller’s Landing and calmly regarded us as we wound the window down to say hello. Wombats would regularly appear at our cabin, nuzzling the grass for food and coming within close proximity of our dining table. Some other local wildlife weren’t met quite as warmly as these cuddly marsupials. A tiger snake slithered across the road to us, slinking through our camping chairs and into a bush beside the cabin. Safe to say my Mum didn’t sit outside for a while after.
But the highest ambition on our bird hunt for Dad, and to a lesser extent myself, was to spot a Hooded Plover. These adorable little birds can be spotted all along the coastline of Victoria, but were the easiest to see in the Prom. Now I say adorable, but they are also the stupidest things evolution has ever concocted. They build their nests in the middle of the sand, fully exposed to predators, weather and even the human foot. The only way these birds can protect their eggs and chicks is by distracting predators like a decoy, leading them away in an opposite direction. As for humans and the elements, this was all left up to chance. So it’s no surprise that their numbers are dwindling and seeing them is becoming harder and harder.
We’d seen them in previous years though, at Squeaky Beach and along the Mornington Peninsula. But this time they didn’t appear in the usual places. Which made us worried. The thin stringed barricades which are put up by park rangers to dissuade anyone from walking in possible Plover territory were vacant of feathery occupants. We all had a soft spot for these birds. Not being able to tick them off our lists was a real shame.
But I suppose things like this come at you when you least expect them. We went to a secluded beach we’d never actually been to before in the promontory’s north called Cotters Beach. With the exception of a couple of gulls and Sooty Oystercatchers, the beach was windy and deserted. We walked down its length at the edge of the shoreline, taking in the rays of sunshine and salty breeze, when we suddenly realised we were being followed. Behind us, a Hooded Plover was skirting the edge of the sand, making the smallest of chirps. Its little legs carried it in sporadic darts across the sand, stopping to regard us and then moving on. A nest must have been nearby, and this cautious parent was warning us of it. We made sure we kept well away from the sand dunes where little chicks must be nested.
Leaving the beach, we saw a family walking towards us along the sand dunes. Dad and I sought to quickly inform them of the presence of the Plover and to steer clear of the dunes. These people probably thought we were crazy, but how are you supposed to admire the wildlife of Wilson’s Prom if you don’t know when you’re putting it in danger?
On the last day of the bird spotting competition we tallied up our finds and brought them to the professor. No surprise; Dad won. Fifty-three birds spotted. Me? I came in with only thirty-five on my list. But I still came second. Dad won a year’s subscription to Birdlife magazine. But I think he was just happy to have seen the most birds in one of the most beautiful environments in Australia.
Oh. And that feather? It was a Barking Owl. Who knows? Maybe next time we’ll see the elusive owl in the flesh.