Werribee Western Treatment Plant - Melbourne
Ever since moving to Australia, we’ve desperately wanted to visit the Werribee Western Treatment Plant located an hour outside of Melbourne. Known affectionately by birders as the ‘Poo Farm,’ the Werribee Western Treatment Plant is often thought of as the second best place to go birding in Australia just after Kakadu. That’s quite an honour for what most people would think of as the last place they’d like to go on earth.
Perhaps it would surprise you to learn that the Werribee Western Treatment Plant is gorgeous. It certainly surprised us. And I do mean GORGEOUS - the vistas alone at the site, looking all the way from the start of the Great Ocean Road to the Dandenong Mountain Range is positively drop-dead. So what can you expect?
To start with, you’ll need a car. The site is an hour outside of Melbourne, close to Geelong. The area is quite vast and a car is necessary to be able to drive through it. The roads inside the site are gravel or dirt, so plan ahead and get a car that’s happy with those roads.. Secondly, you’ll need a permit and keys to unlock the various gates at the site. The permit can be obtained online ahead of time. Since we were visiting on Sunday, we picked the keys up at the Werribee Zoo, a twenty minute drive from the Treatment Plant.
You will be advised to wear long sleeves, long pants and close-toed shoes. And while there are a lot of mosquitoes at the site (none biting us luckily), these precautions are for snakes there. Don’t worry, we went when it was hot and only saw one, which was on the road while we were safely in the car. You’ll also be advised that there are no toilets at the site (oh, the irony!), however, they’re building new toilet blocks which should be open very soon. We saw them under construction and they look quite nice. But just in case, make sure you use the bathroom before you head in and also make sure you’re prepared with water, snacks and sunscreen. It takes hours to properly get through and we recommend a full day here of 7-8 hours.
By this point you’re probably wondering how a sewage plant that currently processes 50% of Melbourne’s waste daily became Australia’s second best birding site. To answer that question, we need to go back all the way to the 1850’s, when Melbourne was the world’s richest city after discovering gold. An influx in population due to a gold rush grew the city, but without adequate waste disposal earned Melbourne the nickname ‘Smellbourne.’
Now, no city wants to be nicknamed ‘Smellbourne’ for long, so they set about fixing their problem through the creation of sewers and pipes and an enormous waste plant located in, you guessed it, Werribee. What’s so attractive to birds about Werribee and other sewage plants is that they have water in times of drought and are safe from hunters.
Made up of massive lagoon systems, which typically contain ten large ponds, sewage flows through each pond, gradually getting cleaner on its way out to the ocean via bacteria that break down the waste. The first set of ponds (which you don’t see) are covered and the gas they produce powers the entire plant! The ponds are a safe-haven for birds throughout the year and the vast size of the lagoons support thousands of them. To give you an idea of scale, the Werribee Western Treatment Plant is the same size as Disney World, although that’s where their similarities end.
Visiting Werribee is like being on a literal bird safari as you drive through in your car, surrounded on both sides by thousands of birds. We stopped at every pond to have a look and scan for birds. Occasionally, we just rolled down the windows and looked out with our binoculars, but typically something would wow us and we’d jump out of the car to take a photo or have a better look.
There are two bird hides at Werribee and sign posts throughout the site to guide you to them. If you are primarily birding from the window of your car, these are a great chance to get outside and stretch your legs.
Now. THE BIRDS. Oh, the birds. We had so many firsts among us and so many favorite bird sightings. In particular, we really enjoyed seeing so many Pink-Eared Ducks which flock to Werribee in the thousands during late Summer, which is when we visited. We also enjoyed watching the Musk Ducks dive and just a note for all you GOT fans, their tail feathers look like the throne.
Initially we went with a group of four on Sunday, but Amy and I had a serious pang to go back, so we drove back on Monday morning before our flight back to Sydney. And it’s good we did, because we saw two Brolgas in one of the ponds, beautiful and elegant, with long legs and beaks. We also saw Cape Barren Geese that morning and Zebra Finch, two more firsts for us.
In talking to a few people, we picked some tips up along the way, which are shared below along with our bird list. If you’re looking for a little adventure and to go somewhere as incredible as Kakadu for birding without the expense, head to Melbourne and get yourself to the Werribee Western Treatment Plant. You won’t regret it.
-Brolgas are around Gate 2 typically, keep an eye out for them there
-Yellow-billed Spoonbills are also around Gate 2
-Bird hides are near Gate 3 and past pond 9
-Orange-bellied Parrots are near the Coastal Road by Gate 2 from March-October, but you must stay in your vehicle this time of year there.
-Bring binoculars, don’t try to visit without them
-Bring sunscreen, a hat, water and snacks
-The new bathrooms are by Gate 4
-There are bugs aplenty throughout the site. Use your discretion when rolling down the windows.
-Follow all safety instructions that are given
Without further adieu, here is our bird list:
Australian Pelican, Little Black Cormorant, Hoary-headed Grebe, Black Swan, Cape Barren Goose, Australian Shelduck, Pacific Black Duck, Grey Teal, Chesnut Teal, Shoveler, Pink-eared Duck, Blue-billed Duck, Musk Duck, Dusky Moorhen, Purple Swamphen, Eurasian Coot, White-faced Heron, Intermediate Egret, Australian White Ibis, Straw-Necked Ibis, Royal spoonbill, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Brolga, Marsh Sandpiper, Masked Lapwing, Red-necked Stint, Red-capped Plover, Black-fronted Dotterel, Black-winged Stilt, Silver Gull, Swamp Harrier, Australian Hobby, Galah, Superb Fairy-wren, Noisy Miner, White-fronted Chat, Willie Wagtail, Magpie-lark, Australian Magpie, Australian Raven, Welcome Swallow, Golden-headed Cisticola, Zebra Finch, Common Myna
Note: The Western Treatment Plant is closed on Total Fire Ban days, so be sure to check online whether Victoria has a Total Fire Ban in place at Werribee. The information is updated every morning at 5:30AM.
If you go to Werribee we’d love to know what you see!