Travel Story WA's best birding spots

Osprey, Swan River, with mullet.
Picture: Chris Tate

Western Australia is blessed with a fantastic range of bird species. We get on the trail of some of our State's feathered friends.

On a small reserve north of Mingenew, a camera-wielding group of eagle-eyed tourists sets a walking course for a remote pocket of wilderness.

Exploring 100km east of Geraldton, they are far away from your mainstream pack of tourists, just the way they like it.

For this motivated mob, the quieter and more isolated the better and here in Coalseam Conservation Park they quickly come upon their quarry.

Colourful flocks of birds.

We are witnessing a growing trend in WA, travellers from overseas, interstate and all points here in the West who reckon tourism photography is strictly for the birds.

They’re flocking to shoot our birds with their cameras. They aren’t bird experts, just people who like the adventure and challenges of capturing images of nature.

Western Australia is blessed with feathered flocks and it’s not essential to dive deep into forests or pursue elusive quarry over tough terrain to get results.

Plenty of us took some interest in birds and animals at school but it’s on a new high level, partly due to cameras (including smartphones) becoming easier to master and within reach for most of us. 

Social media also offers a broad platform for showing off your shots to a wide audience.

To find out more about the appeal of snapping birdlife in its natural environment, I turn to award-winning bird photographer and my brother Chris Tate.

Chris says digital cameras allow snappers to shoot as many shots as they want without using film or photographic paper. 

And “shooting” active birds may require a lot of shutter action.

“Of course it’s a challenging hobby, especially with birds that never sit still for a minute.

“But not everyone needs to master it to be happy. It’s always an enjoyable and challenging outdoors adventure. Mind you, there are big rewards for those who seek them, including prizes of money and cameras for photo competition winners,” he says.

As well as die-hard snappers, there’s also a strong band of “twitchers” worldwide — people who are happy just to tag along and watch birdlife for hours.

“It’s amazing how quickly kids also get interested in birds and photography and they don’t need expensive cameras or gear. Grey nomads make up a lot of groups now, too,” Chris says. 

Stalking birds through the scrub, crouching under trees in pouring rain, waiting for those special photographers’ moments that never come can take some fortitude.

For a change of scene we head south, kneeling under branches in scrub 60km east of Albany with only slight expectation. After all, we are stalking the rare noisy scrub bird.

Four times over the years Chris has ventured from his Australind base to Albany to film the scrub bird but without luck.

An ear-piercing bird call which Chris confirms is the elusive scrub bird is suddenly close to us and we are poised, with cameras at the ready, fingers cocked on shutters. The high-pitched call comes from very dense undergrowth and grows louder.

But there’s no sign of the dull-coloured bird.

Tougher souls and professionals might linger most of the day but, in Albany’s drizzle and with other birds to track down, we pack up and move on.

Chris normally carries a Pentax K5, DSLR camera and a Sigma 50-500 mm lens and monopod to bear most of the weight.

At home he keeps files on WA birds, with their technical names and birdsong recordings. But he says happy snappers don’t have to be particularly knowledgeable or equipped with state-of-the-art gear.

“You can be lucky. A bird might appear at the side of the road or while you’re walking in your yard or while kids are playing on an oval.

“We get in the habit of being camera-ready,” says Chris, whose photography wins include a shot of a western spinebill that landed momentarily on a kangaroo paw in his own backyard and became a calendar cover-shot.

The South West of our State has 15 species found nowhere else.

Almost 550 species of birds have been recorded in WA.

Endemic to the South West are Carnaby's black cockatoo, Baudin's black cockatoo, western corella, western rosella, red-capped parrot, noisy scrub bird, red-winged fairy wren, western bristlebird, western thornbill, western wattlebird, western spinebill, white-breasted robin, western ground parrot and red-eared firetail. 

Bird photography is massive in Europe and America, Chris says, and the trend is rapidly spreading in WA with its vast spaces and unique birdlife. It’s an activity catching on with wandering grey nomads.

A page on Facebook called Bird Photography Australia has more than 12,000 members and Western Australian Birds has nearly 7000.

Peter Taylor who operates Manjimup-based Birding Tours South West says 90 per cent of his clients are from Britain and the US with the other 10 per cent divided between interstate and intrastate birders.

“We have birds in deserts, woods, along rivers and beaches and in many suburban and regional parks and backyards,” Chris says.

“I find the best way to observe birds is to find a likely location and to sit and listen. Birds are inherently afraid of humans and changing your body shape from standing to sitting can make them less afraid.

“Even though TV legend David Attenborough always whispers when he is near wildlife, generally you can talk without disturbing them. Movement is what really scares them — unless it is a loud or sharp noise. 

“If you have to move to get comfortable, move very slowly. It is amazing how close some species will allow you to get.”

Most small bush birds feed on insects and tend to move in small flocks through the leaves of trees and bushes, Chris says.

“Often as many as five different species will travel together, almost as one flock. This is most likely for security.

“They will also tend to travel around their territory in one general direction so if you can anticipate their movement, position yourself in front of them and let them approach you. Most birds are curious and will approach you even if fleetingly or they may observe you from a distance.

“Most are preoccupied in their search for food and if you are not a threat, they will ignore you.”

Larger insect-eaters such as magpies and mudlarks and seed-eaters like bronzewing and crested pigeons, doves and parrots will feed on the ground.

Honeyeaters including wattlebirds and spinebills will feed on insects and nectar and are often found in flowering trees and bushes.

Competent snappers might capture insect hunters on the wing: such as rainbow bee-eaters, wood-swallows, tree martins and swallows. 

Photographers might be keen to woo birds closer but bird feeding is not recommended as often they are attracted to the wrong foods. 

It can cause artificially high levels of breeding and attract cats.

Planting flowering shrubs and installing birdbaths are the best ways to attract birds to your garden.

Captive birds can be seen at:

Birding hot spots: where to get those snaps

Albany

More than 200 species of birds can be found in the region. Several rare and endangered species survive in the coastal heathlands east of Albany, including western ground parrots, threatened birds such as the hooded plover, and Carnaby’s and Baudin’s black cockatoos breed in the area. Endemic birds include the western rosella, red-capped parrot, western spinebill, red-eared firetail, red-winged fairy wren and white-breasted robin.

Two People’s Bay and Cheynes Beach are home to the endangered western whipbird, noisy scrub bird and western bristlebird (often heard near Cheynes Beach Caravan Park but difficult to see and photograph).

You might also see the southern emu wren, red-eared firetail finch, white-breasted robins and western spinebills.

Lake Seppings, close to town, is located off Golf Links Road. This wetland contains waterbirds such as blue-billed duck, musk duck, hoary-headed grebe and cormorants, Australian reed-warbler, red-winged fairy wren, western golden whistler and white-breasted robin. Red-eared firetails breed here. 

Esperance

Check around the lakes near Esperance, the offshore islands and Cape Le Grande National Park.

Bunbury

Big Swamp in the centre of town has many waterbirds and some bush birds and is surrounded by a flat walk path. Bunbury Wildlife Park has many species of birds, mammals and reptiles with large walk-in aviaries, a cafe, children’s playground and toilet facilities.

Leschenault Estuary 

Leschenault Estuary has migratory waders between October and March plus resident raptors including a number of nesting osprey and bush birds.

Near Mandurah: Samphire Cove Nature Reserve and Creery Wetlands Nature Reserve

Creery Island is a nesting place for the threatened fairy tern. The bay inshore of Creery Island supports large numbers of bar-tailed godwit, great knot, eastern curlew, banded stilt and pacific golden plover. Australian white ibis and yellow-billed spoonbill feed in the shallows as do grey teal and black ducks. Lake McLarty is also worth checking although it can dry out in summer.

Perth

Herdsman Lake has many species of water birds and bush birds and is easily accessible from the CBD. Lake Monger, Tomato Lake, Star Swamp, Lake Claremont and Bibra Lake are all good locations.

Midwest

Coalseam Reserve has many interesting species. The Station Stays in the Midwest offer camping and cheap accommodation for keen birders looking for parrots, cockatoos and chats and many semi-desert birds. Also check out Carnarvon, Chinamans Pool, One Tree Point, Small Boat Harbour, Bibbawarra Bore and Rocky Pool.

Pilbara

Try Karratha’s back beach around the mangroves, Harding Dam near Roebourne, Millstream-Chichester National Park and Karijini National Park.

Kimberley

Look at Broome Golf Course, the sewerage works and Streeter’s Jetty. Broome Bird Observatory (BirdLife WA) and Roebuck Bay have thousands of seasonal waders and shorebirds. Kununurra is a birder’s delight. See many species on an Ord River boat cruise from Lake Argyle to Lake Kununurra as well as at caravan parks, sewerage ponds and Hidden Valley.

Top picture: An osprey clutches a mullet above the Swan River. Picture: Chris Tate

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