Flat Rock, Ballina, 2022-2023

Summary: Tidal outcrop offering terrific close encounters with terns and other birds

Dates of visit: Apr 26 2022, Apr 5 and 11 2023

Flat Rock is a tidal rocky outcrop just north-east of the town of Ballina on the northern NSW coast. It’s a great place to watch terns and a mixture of other seabirds and shorebirds at very close quarters.

Getting there is pretty easy, as long as you can get to Ballina or Lennox Heads, of course – from there you just follow The Coast Road until turning into the Flat Rock Road turn-off (the road names here aren’t very imaginative…) There is a right turn to a tent park, and the road continues left to a car park with space for about 23 cars. Here there is a toilet and access to the coastal path and the beach, barely a stone’s throw away. The coastal scrub is good for Little Wattlebirds and Lewin’s Honeyeaters and a handful of other birds, but at least around the car park area there isn’t anything special here from a bush birding perspective.

The huge sweep of beach is pretty standard stuff for this part of the world, but the presence of Flat Rock creates a surf break, so you’ll likely see some surfers around.

The rock itself is fairly flat (hence the name…) and is made largely of basalt, and becomes mostly covered at high tide, and very exposed at low tide. This creates a fascinating ecosystem of rock pools and seaweeds. It’s not necessary to visit at a particular time: near high tide concentrates the birds into a smaller area, while low tide allows for watching Oystercatchers and Turnstones being more active picking out food. Either is fine.

It’s not difficult to move between rock surfaces but it is advisable to wear footwear that you don’t mind getting wet – more than once I’ve forgotten about approaching waves while busy looking into my camera and had my feet drenched!

The terns here are by far the most numerous bird and depending on tide, they will rest on the rocks and the nearby sand. Crested Terns (technically speaking, Greater Crested Terns) are usually present in the hundreds, if not thousands, and dotted in various groups among them you’ll typically find Common Terns and Little Terns, as well as perhaps some Gull-Billed Terns and White-Winged Black Terns. Occasionally there will be Caspian, White-Fronted (winter months), Whiskered and perhaps even Roseate Terns.

It is common to see a Crested Tern fly around the outcrop with a fish in its bill, sometimes calling loudly, seeing if it can interest any females in it as part of a courting ritual. This can result in one or more than birds dropping their wings and puffing their black crests up in response as in the photo below.

The Common Tern is really only common in the northern hemisphere, and will usually be seen in non-breeding colours (black rather than red bill) in Australia. The numbers are lower in winter here as the birds migrate and breed elsewhere over that time. You might find a dozen Common Terns at Flat Rock, though on my Apr 5 2023 visit I counted around 35.

Little Terns are also found here and are best identified by comparing their small size to the surrounding Common and Crested Terns. Look also for a yellow bill with a black tip. They weigh only 50g! Their delicate appearance make them my favourite tern (if I had to pick!)

Flat Rock is definitely a site which is a wonderful place to plonk yourself on a rock and watch birds quite close – by being quiet and making no sudden movements, I have sat happily within two metres of Crested Terns. The Common and Little Terns are a tad more skittish, but proximity of four or five metres to these birds is quite possible. Of course, you have no control over other people and now and again if there are families exploring the rock pools they will scatter the birds – though they always settle back somewhere on the outcrop.

It’s likely you’ll see at least a few birds having a bath in the water, which can get quite splashy.

This is also a great location for those who like bird-in-flight photography. Terns are constantly leaving and arriving, often with fish in their bills, which makes for a good challenge and a rewarding feeling if you can nail the shot.

Osprey and Brahminy Kite are regulars and I witnessed a Brahminy doing a lazily menacing scan of the outcrop on my April 2022 visit, with the bird flying quite low.

There are usually a few shorebirds in amongst the terns (perhaps enjoying the relative safety of the bigger flock). Sharp-Tailed Sandpipers and Curlew Sandpipers are examples.

Other shorebirds include Sanderling, which at most places are usually seen in groups scurrying along the beach following the wave lines; at Flat Rock in 2023 a single Sanderling was regular for quite a while – I saw it on both my April 2023 visits. For the untrained eye it indistinguishable from the more common Red-Necked Stint – both are small greyish birds (you tend to see them in their drabber non-breeding plumage) with short bills, but the Sanderling is slightly larger and has a slightly longer, thicker bill.

The wonderful Ruddy Turnstone is ultra-reliable here and their brown mottled colours and orange legs are easy to spot amongst the other birds – though a juvenile Turnstone did perplex me for a bit, with the orange legs being the main give-away.

The Sooty Oystercatcher is another rotund, regular bird seen here and are quite the photogenic subject. Like the Turnstones, they walk around picking out crustaceans and other tiny critters from between the rocks.

It can be interesting to take “family portrait” style photos at Flat Rock. This is where you capture several different species in a single frame. This can emphasise the variations between birds as well as the size differences, especially between, say, Little Tern and Crested Tern. There aren’t too many sites where you can reliably get close enough to several different species in close proximity to attempt this!

A little variation on the family portrait is to emphasise the number of one species in comparison to another – the huge numbers of terns with just the scattering of other birds, for example; or to draw attention to a single bird by contrasting it with others.

Bigger birds include various cormorants, as well as the aforementioned raptors, and you may also see an Australasian Gannet here.

Like the Crested Terns, Gannets will dive down – sometimes from a height of 20 metres – aiming to snatch fish from the water. It can be spectacular to watch.

On my April 11 2023 visit a passing pod of dolphins had driven a school of baitfish into the shallow water along the beach right next to Flat Rock, and the Terns and Gulls were having a super time for at least the 90 minutes that I was there. A pair of Gannets joined in and were also diving, at an angle and from a low height of only a metre or two above the surface. This was all happening amongst the waves that surfers were riding in and out on!

As if the bounty of terns isn’t enough at Flat Rock, there are also good rarity records here: in 2016 a Red-Necked Phalarope was seen, while more exotic seabirds like Jaegers, Common Noddy, Grey Ternlet, and various species of Shearwaters are possible. Migratory shorebirds such as knots, sand-plovers (Greater and Lesser), Whimbrel, Eastern Curlew and Double-Banded Plover (in winter months, migratory from New Zealand) are also sporadic visitors. There is a chance of both Grey-Tailed and Wandering Tattlers year-round as well as Reef Egrets.


Flat Rock is that rare birding site where you’re almost guaranteed to have a good time at almost any time of day or tidal phase, even if you don’t spot a rarity or passing Shearwater. This is largely due to being able to observe the birds and their behaviours at quite close quarters. You can take your pick of several species to photograph as they sit placidly, squawk at each other, bathe or hunt for fish. The outcrop is large enough that the presence of non-birders is not usually a problem, and you can usually manoeuvre so that you get the light behind you for that special photo. You’ll need to watch for rogue waves and salt spray but that’s pretty much the worst you can expect.

: Flat Rock, Ballina (177 species)
Checklists for these visits: Apr 26 2022 (14 species), Apr 5 2023 (11 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Awesome spot to watch terns and other seabirds and shorebirds
+ Can get very close to the birds
+ Pretty good most times of day and tides
– Not much variety of birds (typically, low species count)
– Quite exposed so can get windy/squally


2 thoughts on “Flat Rock, Ballina, 2022-2023

  1. Thank you for all the effort you put into writing these blogs, Andy. Such a wonderful resource. Louise Lee (fellow birder)


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