Wellington Point, Jan/Mar/Oct 2021

Summary: Great variety of migratory shorebirds and others, with a sand bar walk to a little island

Dates of visits: Jan 13, Mar 21, Oct 7 2021

Wellington Point is 25km east of Brisbane and is great for a picnic, for fishing, boating and windsurfing, and generally just for enjoying the picturesque waters of Moreton Bay. When low tide comes, however, it transforms into a shorebird’s paradise, with extensive mudflats for wading birds, as well as making a small island (King Island) reachable by foot for the enthusiastic birder.

To get there basically you follow Main Road north until it runs out, then you’re at the point. Check the tides and aim for low tide, and if you want to see migratory shorebirds you should aim to visit over the summer months. And don’t forget to slap some sunscreen on!

Jan 13: A first look

My first birding visit here was Jan 13 2021. It was a mostly sunny though quite windy afternoon. There are plenty of car parks but even on a Wednesday there weren’t too many empty. It’s worth noting there’s a cafĂ© (Oxley’s on the Bay) here and – as you might expect from a popular family-friendly spot like this – plenty of picnic tables, barbeques, and toilet and shower facilities.

This first visit didn’t feature a long excursion… but it was enough to pick up a few choice birds. Lesser Sand-Plover and Red-Necked Stints were prime examples. Both are quite small birds and hurry along quickly; it takes much time and patience to get close enough for decent shots. One tries to show that one is unthreatening to the bird both for gaining proximity for observation, and to avoid causing anxiety to the bird. These shorebirds are, after all, totally exposed here out in their feeding grounds, with no trees or bushes for cover. Another reason not to unduly disturb them from their foraging is that most of them are madly trying to bulk up for their northerly migration, many thousands of kilometres.

Grey-Tailed Tattler and Bar-Tailed Godwit foraged in the messy weed and mud exposed from the retreated tide, while I also counted four of the larger Eastern Curlews with their imposing long bill.

A Great Egret was glimpsed further out, while a Pelican huddled up against the afternoon wind near the boat ramp.

Of course, anywhere near the ocean you’re pretty much going to find Silver Gulls. I actually find them rather photogenic; they have plenty of personality for a common-as-muck bird.

One unexpected sight was seeing several Welcome Swallows flying around over the exposed beach, sometimes landing on exposed driftwood. Then, on a sand bar further out (inaccessible to all but the most determined), were half a dozen Pied Oystercatchers and some more gulls and other hard-to-identify birds.

Mar 21: Searching for Ruddy Turnstone

My next visit fell on Mar 21, not too long before the migratory shorebirds (which is most of the shorebirds found on Australian coastlines) were due to head back to the northern hemisphere. I had a specific target bird this time: the Ruddy Turnstone, which I hadn’t seen anywhere yet.

I had longer to spend this time and consequently explored much further, eventually walking all the way to King Island (just over a kilometre from the car park). But, there was plenty to see on the way out there.

The main sand bar is easy enough to walk along to get to the island, and you’ll get a little sandy but not muddy or wet. However, it’s unlikely you would be able to take anything but long-distance photos of the shorebirds from that dry section… for that, you need to be willing to get wet and walk on wet/muddy/crunchy surface. I was wearing regular beach thongs for this but a pair of Crocs or more robust waterproof plastic sandals would definitely be better.

Anyway, Lesser Sand-Plovers were in good numbers this time (I counted 15 all up), though because they are such small birds, you can easily overlook them until you draw closer and see them scurrying along out of the corner of your eye. Some were in breeding colours with their rust-coloured collar area.

Grey-Tailed Tattlers (4), Whimbrels (10) and Bar-Tailed Godwits (5) were all present again, though these numbers are much lower than you might find in one of the more populous shorebird areas, like Toorbul Roost near Bribie Island. Of course there is also some fluctuation; in some eBird checklists the numbers of Godwits (for example) can be fifty or more here.

A couple of Crested Terns accompanied the usual Silver Gulls, though I was lucky to also see Little Tern and Caspian Tern this time too.

Some (most, once you get further away from the mainland) of the exposed beach features hard stones and shells, a perfect environment for Ruddy Turnstone, and sure enough I soon spotted one. True to its name, it was industriously flipping over these items with its bill.

There turned out to be seven distinct Ruddy Turnstones (when it rains, it pours), but this first one had a leg tag – green apparently means Moreton Bay; these colour codes and an area for reporting tagged birds can be found on the Australasian Wader Studies Group website.

A further treat was in store (on the east side of the main sand bar) with a Striated Heron, crouched in classic hunting mode. I hadn’t seen one so out in the open before, and I love watching their intent, sneak-up-on-the-prey behaviour.

The island itself has a little information panel about its history and there are sandy trails that take a mere minute or two to traverse (the island is about 150 metres from top to bottom). On the other side is plenty more exposed mudflat, and here were good closer encounters with Pied Oystercatcher (a resident shorebird) and Bar-Tailed Godwit (which looked like it was transitioning in to or out of breeding colours).

At the extreme north end of the intertidal zone I found an Osprey sitting serenely with a few more shorebirds. It made for an interesting tableau.

King Island held another treasure which was news to me on this visit too: it is a great place for Mangrove Honeyeater. On first blush these birds look like Yellow-Faced Honeyeaters (or, if thinking outside the South-East Queensland region, Singing Honeyeater or Varied Honeyeater), and indeed they have lots of the typical honeyeater traits. Watching them in the mangroves and trees was quite fun, and because the island is quite small, you don’t have to worry about these birds flying off and disappearing completely; just wait around long enough and another should turn up.

All in all this was a really satisfying birding experience.

Oct 7: Cloudy, windy, still some nice birds

On Oct 7 I returned again, knowing there wouldn’t be many (any?) migratory shorebirds. It was a cloudy and cold Thursday afternoon. I did see a Lesser Sand-Plover and a lone Whimbrel, perhaps early migrators or birds that stayed over winter, who knows.

On the island a Black-Faced Cuckooshrike nabbed a wormy grub in the casuarina trees, and on the far side a Pied Oystercatcher wandered around on the sand, at one point walking straight towards me, so I was happy to crouch down and try for some eye-level pictures. Their striking colours make them very photogenic birds, and the cloudy sky (often challenging when shooting upwards into trees) worked well at ground level to flatten out the light; a full sunlight situation would no doubt have caused glare issues on the white feathers.

A couple of Mangrove Honeyeaters were on the island too, and the cloudy conditions made for a “high key” photo (bright white background caused by having to pump up the Exposure Compensation to bring the bird’s detail out in a silhouette-style situation). The purity of a totally white background isn’t such a bad style if you’re forced into it.

I noted a Gull-Billed Tern out past the island, while again an Osprey was also in attendance. On the way back to the car park, a Striated Heron (with quite pinkish legs) skulked to the south-west of the main sand bar, right on the edge of the deeper water. I crept closer and found my thongs sinking into some pretty thick slimy mud, and I came very close to losing my footwear for good. Still, the slogging through gloop was worth it for getting close to this wonderful bird, and again I was probably lucky with the cloud cover as I was facing west and had the sun been out would have been shooting straight into it.

Summary

It would probably be a bit misguided to compare the various shorelines around Moreton Bay to say which are best for migratory shorebirds, but if you did, Wellington Point would be near the top of the list. It offers some very good birding. There are a good variety of shorebirds to see plus the bonus of Mangrove Honeyeater and other bush birds if you make the sand bar walk out to King Island. You’ll want to go in summer at low tide for the best experience. There are plenty of facilities and the general vibe is pleasant (if a little exposed and windy); you also have to accept that if you want to get close to some of the birds you’ll end up with very muddy feet!

eBird:
Hotspot: Wellington Point (139 species), King Island (101 species)
Nearby: Geoff Skinner Reserve (177 species)
Checklists for these visits: Jan 13 (12 species), Mar 21 (18 species), Oct 7 – Wellington Point (12 species), Oct 7 – King Island (8 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Great spot for a variety of migratory shorebirds
+ Excellent location for good encounters with Mangrove Honeyeater and Pied Oystercatcher
+ Pleasant bay-side vibe, with a low-tide walk out to an island
– Intertidal zone very muddy and wet
– Birds sometimes quite far away and difficult to approach
– Can get very busy especially on weekends

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