The man in the bottlestore in Werribee on the outskirts of Melbourne had a shock when I told him what I was doing in town.
Making small talk on a sunny Sunday afternoon, he assumed I was a tourist visiting the Werribee Open Plains Zoo or a former stately home in the town which now operates as an upmarket resort hotel.
“No, just visiting the local sewage farm,” I replied matter-of-factly.
The hobby of bird-watching can take the birder to all sorts of off-the-beaten-track places but there are none more bizarre than sewage works and farms.
It just so happens that birds – particularly waders – like sewage farms where waters are rich in nutrients and therefore rich in aquatic life.
When birders gather like swallows on telegraph lines to talk birds and notable sightings, the conversation invariably turns to sewage farms.
“Sewage farms I have known,” is one opening gambit guaranteed to send my non-birding friends rushing to the door, as sure as when I get out my holiday snaps of an out-of-focus London, or wherever.
I learned the delights of birding at sewage farms growing up in rural Surrey, where the local “water treatment plant”, as they are now known, was always good for the British equivalent of the plover in Tasmania, the peewit or northern lapwing, and common sandpipers and grey herons.
As my interest in bird-watching grew, I widened my sewage farm horizons, discovering the Perry Oaks plant that once stood on what is now one of the main runways of London’s HeathrowAirport. The long-gone Perry Oaks farm still holds important records of London sightings of myriad rare and unusual species, the European bee-eater and another southern European species, the hoopoe, among them.
One of my great bird-watching moments came about when a hunting short-eared owl swooped at me late one afternoon, as a jumbo jet screamed down a runway in the background. Later my European holidays would always involve a visit to the local sewage farm, the one in Faro, Portugal, revealing the hoopoe I had missed at Perry Oaks.
When my work as a foreign correspondent took me to southern Africa, I included a sewage farm near Johannesburg for a routine visit, along with visits to the vast Soweto township on the outskirts of the city to monitor the liberation struggle brewing in the apartheid-era South Africa.
I saw white-fronted bee-eaters at the sewage farm serving the capital of Botswana, Gaborone, and then pratincoles at the one in the old Rhodesian capital of Salisbury – the latter sighting from a country that has now vanished from the map.
But back to Werribee. As I told the man at the bottlestore, Melbourne’s Western Treatment plant is considered Australia’s best bird-watching spot. More modern and efficient sewage treatment methods have freed up vast areas of settling ponds and wet pasture for wildlife conservation, some of them still fed with nutrient-rich waters from the now hi-tech plant which can be seen on the horizon.
You can take the birder out of the sewage farm but you can’t take the sewage farm out of the birder, as one of my birding expressions goes, and for these reasons I always cast a glance when I travel the Midland Highway towards the old-style sewage ponds at Oatlands. The ponds are close to the Oatlands bypass and I’ve spotted grey and chestnut teals there, along with mountain ducks. I’m always forbidden to stop, however, when my wife is travelling with me. As far as she’s concerned, sewage farms are on the nose.