Lawrence Rocks …

The view from outer space (courtesy of Google Earth) shows the guano on Lawrence Rocks. You can also just make out a tiny spot more on Point Danger, the nearest point on the mainland. The cloacas at work belong to these …

Australasian Gannet

The colony on the rocks spilled over onto Point Danger, the only mainland breeding colony of Australasian Gannets. It’s survival has been greatly assisted by fencing that keeps out foxes and other terrestrial predators.

The rocks also provide a resting place for Black-faced Cormorants and Australian Fur Seals. In winter the White-fronted Terns can usually be seen here. Crested Terns are common all year.

All At Sea …

… again, from Portland this time.

Portland is close to the western extremity of the Victorian coast. It was settled illegally by the Henty brothers back in 1834. It provides a reasonable harbour which has been important in whaling and fishing and these days live meat and woodchip exports.

The attraction for the sea bird enthusiast is its proximity to the edge of the continental shelf, where the lighter blue meets the darker blue in the image above. Most of Victoria’s coast is deep water deprived. Upwelling water at the shelf edge brings in the long distance wanderers of the sea, the true pelagics.

So eight birdos assembled on the dock in the early morning looking like they had been dressed by a Salvation Army Op shop and carrying about 80,000 dollars worth of optics. Tragics in search of pelagics.

The sea was initially a metre plus slop on top of almost no swell whatever, reasonably comfortable for the 50 km ride out to the shelf. Once there the dispensing of handfuls of shark liver soon attracts the birds which are then continuously and thoroughly depixellated to the machine gun like sound of overheating motor drives … for about four hours.

It was not a day of great variety. White-chinned Petrels dominated the scene with Shy Albatrosses running second, two flavours of Shearwater showed themselves at various times along with the odd Fairy Prion and a few also rans.

Shy Albatross
Fairy Prion

The wind and sea picked up as the day wore on heading towards a forecast 30 knots. We had a less comfortable and fairly wet ride home.

On the way we stopped for a look at Lawrence Rocks just off Point Danger at the entrance to Portland Bay. It is home to a massive breeding colony of Australasian Gannets and a good place to rest for a variety of terns, cormorants and fur seals.

Lawrence Rocks
Australasian Gannet

Low Tide …

There’s about 25 km of beach running from Gantheaume Point north to Willie Creek. This is Cable Beach, sun, surf, camels, tourists, very popular. But the further north you get the fewer people you encounter. The numbers would drop off faster if driving on the beach was forbidden, sadly it is permitted. There is some debate as to whether a full-time or part-time four-wheel drive is better on the beach. Personally, I think the best car for the purpose is somebody else’s car.

About 13 km up the beach from the Cable Beach Resort, or 25 km by road, is the suburb I know as Coconut Well, officially Waterbank. If you have a spare three or four million you can buy a nice home here. It won’t have mains electricity or town water but it will have a nice view.

At low tide there are some rocks exposed that are interesting to poke around in. Fish dart around in the tidal pools. There will be some migratory shorebirds about and perhaps a Frigatebird will fly over and if you’re really lucky you may see a Beach Stone-curlew …

Silver Gull
Beach Stone-curlew

The photo at the top is of an Eastern Reef Egret hunting through the pools. They often stand motionless, sometimes with their wings out to create some enticing shade. When a morsel presents itself the neck uncoils like a spring.

Roebuck Bay …

William Dampier made his first visit to New Holland in 1688. He explored this part of the coast on his second visit in 1699. Roebuck Bay is named after his ship. The sea is rich in invertebrate life some of which made a meal of HMS Roebuck’s planking. On the voyage home the worm-eaten ship was run ashore on Ascension Island before it could sink in open water. Dampier and his crew were marooned there for five weeks before being picked up and taken back to England.

There are two tides a day in the bay of about equal height (semidiurnal tides). The tidal range is massive exposing about 160 km2 of mudflat. The mud is rich in invertebrate life which provides food for the more than 100,000 migratory shorebirds that use the bay each year … HMS Roebuck’s revenge.

You can read just how incredibly rich <HERE>.

The north shore of the bay from close to Broome to Crab Creek is readily accessible. The Broome Bird Observatory is located close to the east end. The eastern and southern shore is a world of mangrove swamp and tidal creek more easily accessed from the water.

Tropical mudflats are a very different habitat than the tundra and steppes where the visiting birds breed. In summer the breeding grounds are so rich in mosquito larvae and other invertebrates that young shorebirds can feed themselves from the moment they hatch. On the other hand there’s no food available when the puddles are frozen or covered in snow so migration it is.

The migrants arrive in our southern spring and leave in autumn. They don’t all stay in the bay all summer, for some it’s just a staging post. Towards the end of their stay it is a great spot to quickly gain the weight that will be the fuel for the long flights ahead. Some birds do stay a year or two before making their first flight to the breeding grounds so there are some to be found all year.

The bay is Australia’s most important site for migratory shorebirds. The bay regularly supports more than 1% of the population of at least 22 different species. On any day during the wet season there are about 120,000 shorebirds out on the mud. The smallest is the Red-necked Stint. Much of the time it weighs about 25 to 30 grams (my little Fox Terrier weighs 10 kg, equivalent to 400 Stints). They will increase their weight by as much as 50% prior to departure on their 15,000 km journey to Siberia. The largest visitor is the Eastern Curlew at about 1 kg fuelled up and ready to leave.

Migration may seem like a very risky strategy but if a bird manages to make  the return trip once it is likely to do it many more times. Red-necked Stints have been known to live more than 20 years by which time they will have flown further than a return trip to the moon.

The bay is also home to the rare Australian Snubfin Dolphin.

At approximately 140 animals, the snubfin dolphin population occurring in the 100 km2 study area within Roebuck Bay is one of the largest reported in Australia to date and should be considered of regional and, indeed, national significance. Despite this relative magnitude, the population is small by conservation standards. We also provide preliminary evidence of fidelity to the study area for a majority of individuals …          <Murdoch University report>

Roebuck Bay is a unique place. It’s also a place under increasing pressure as Broome grows in size. Careful management is required if the natural values  are going to be preserved.

This post has been updated following discussion with my good friend Chris Hassell, a Birdlife International researcher involved in full time study of shorebirds in the bay.

Broome – the Bird Watcher’s Guide …

Every serious Australian bird watcher will find their way to Broome. The reason above all else is Roebuck Bay and the thousands of migratory shorebirds that visit every austral summer. Whilst the Bay is the main game it’s not the only game in town. There are a few hotspots around Broome itself that are easily accessible for the visitor and you won’t need to hire a guide to reach them.

Broome is situated on a peninsula and if we start at the southern end there is …

The Port

It’s well signposted. There are two spots to check out. As you approach the end of Port Drive turn right past Toll Mermaid Logistics along Kabbarli Road and follow it to the end. The beach here is good for waders and terns. Check the navigation structures offshore for Brown Boobies. Lesser Frigatebirds are regular. The scrub behind the beach has hosted some interesting species on occasion. All manner of goodies can turn up after a cyclone. Remember Indonesia is a mere 775 km away (485 mi).

The second spot is the cafe at the base of the pier. The garden looks out over Roebuck Bay, there are some scattered mangroves fairly close. Across the road you can look out on some rocks for Reef Egrets. There is a walkway along side the pier which may be open and it is worth walking a short way. Ospreys nest on the pier.

Sewage Ponds

Taking Port Drive back towards the town centre Clementson Street is on the right. Look out for a large water tower. The Sewage Treatment Plant is tucked away behind commercial properties on the south side of Clementson St. Access is via a dirt track very close to the corner with Port Drive, or a dirt track immediately east of the commercial properties. The latter is the better option after rain. The splendid new hide is on the west side of the main ponds and works best in the afternoon. There is also a small pond on the west side of a usually dry creek that is used to provide water to the golf course that is also worth checking out. Caution is required in the wet.

Mangroves – Town Beach to Streeter’s Jetty

If you continue east on Clementson to the end it takes a right angle bend onto Dora St. 2nd on the right is Hopton Street. Right again at the end of that takes you to town beach. Next to the carpark is a groin that runs out into the sea. Looking north from here there are mangroves stretching as far as the eye can see. Access is pretty good from Town Beach to Matso’s Brewery, opposite Bedford Park for example.

Streeter’s Jetty is behind Chinatown at the end of Short Street. If you stand at the base of the jetty and look to the right you will see some pipes protruding from the wall. Birds congregate here for fresh water, an excellent spot for photography.

Red-headed Honeyeater

Various Ovals

providing they are not in use are worth checking out for Yellow Wagtail, Golden Plover and Little Curlew, including …

Father McMahon Sports Field
Behind the Aquatic Centre, 2nd on the right heading NW on Cable Beach Rd from Frederick St.

Oval on corner of Frederick & Lyons Streets near the shopping centre.
There is a gate on Lyons St opposite Miller Way.