Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Herdsman Lake: Urban wetland hotspot

Conveniently located within a 10-15 minute drive of the city centre, Herdsman Lake is one of the most popular birding sites in Perth. Over 150 species have been recorded at the lake, and at any time of the year, a couple of hours of birding at Herdsman should yield 50+ species, increasing to 60-70+ when at its best. The major attraction is usually the wide variety of waterbirds, but a reasonable variety of bushbirds and raptors occur in the area, and if the water level is low enough waders can also occur (unfortunately a rare occurrence in recent years).

Australian Reed Warblers are common throughout the extensive typha beds at Herdsman Lake


The open water areas around the edge of the lake host a variety of waterfowl. All the south-western duck species can occur, though Freckled Duck and Chestnut Teal in particular are erratic in occurrence. All three grebe species can usually be found also. As the lake holds water all year, waterbird numbers usually peak from late summer through to early winter, when most ephemeral wetlands have dried.

The extensive beds of Typha orientalis that dominate the lake hold large numbers of Australian Reed Warbler and Little Grassbird, along with crakes (Spotless is most common, but all three SW species have been recorded) and Buff-banded Rail. Little Bittern is also regularly recorded, though they are very difficult to sight and most records are a result of hearing their advertising calls in spring and early summer.

Shallow water, flooded grass, and mudflats on the fringes of the wetland can host a range of wading species, particularly if the water level falls sufficiently. White-faced Heron, Great Egret and Yellow-billed Spoonbill are fairly common, with Little Egret, White-necked Heron and Royal Spoonbill occasional visitors. Glossy Ibis also occur, particularly in late autumn and winter; numbers reduce in spring and summer as they appear to spread out to other wetlands. Black-winged Stilt, and occasionally Banded Stilt and Red-necked Avocet, can also be found. In recent years, water levels have rarely fallen low enough to allow much suitable habitat for migratory waders, but when they do, the lake can host a variety of freshwater waders, including Wood, Sharp-tailed and Pectoral Sandpipers, and Long-toed Stint, along with resident species including Red-capped Plover, and Black-fronted and Red-kneed Dotterel.


Glossy Ibis gather at the lake in autumn and winter, when many other wetlands are dry. A few usually remain throughout the year. Photo courtesy Trevor Heath

The open grassed areas around a large part of the lake are often host to feeding Purple Swamphen, Dusky Moorhen, and Eurasian Coot. During irruptions, these may also be joined by Black-tailed Native-hen. Both large ibis species, Australian White and Straw-necked, are also often present. The lawn areas also attract common urban species such as Australian Magpie, Magpie-lark, and Willie Wagtail, and both Little and (Eastern) Long-billed Corella can be often be found.

Bushland areas around the lake host a few of the more common Perth bushbirds. Western Gerygone is usually quite easy to find, along with Rufous Whistler, Striated Pardalote, Yellow-rumped Thornbill and Grey Fantail. Weebill can also be found on occasion, and in late autumn and winter Spotted Pardalotes turn up around the lake. Both Splendid and Variegated Fairy-wren also occur around the lake, most frequently along the eastern side of the lake.

A number of raptor species can also be found around the lake. The most common of these include Swamp Harrier (often seen soaring over the reed beds), Whistling Kite, Australian Hobby (particularly autumn-winter), and Brown Goshawk (which breeds around the lake). Black-shouldered Kite, Peregrine Falcon, Collared Sparrowhawk, and Little Eagle are also regular, though less common. White-bellied Sea-Eagle and Wedge-tailed Eagle are also occasionally recorded.

Herdsman Lake does not turn up as many rarities as might be expected given how regularly it is birded; nonetheless, there have been a number of unusual sightings over the years. Most famously, a Purple Heron (the first accepted record of the species in Australia) was photographed in February 2013 – unfortunately, it was not identified as such until a couple of months later! Other recent rarities reported have included Striated Heron, Australian Painted Snipe, Common Tern, and Eastern Yellow Wagtail.

Key Species
Great Crested Grebe: Great Crested Grebe are present throughout the year at Herdsman, though numbers drop significantly during June and July. The cause of this disappearance is unknown. Great Crested Grebes occur on open water areas around most of the lake, though the area between the wildlife centre and the north end of Maurice Hamer Park is often particularly reliable. Several pairs also breed at the lake.


Great Crested Grebes breed at Herdsman and can usually be found around the lake.

Freckled Duck: Herdsman Lake is one of the best chances close to Perth for Freckled Duck, though their presence is still erratic even here, and some years there are few (if any) sightings. When they are present numbers are usually low, but on some occasions including  February-March 2014, well over 100 have been present at the lake. They can turn-up in most areas around the lake, but areas with Melaleuca at the water’s edge or in the water are favoured; these include the wildlife centre, the southern end of Maurice Hamer Park, and the northern end just south of the Pony Club.


Herdsman Lake is one of the more regular locations for Freckled Ducks in the Perth area.

Blue-billed Duck: Blue-billed Ducks are present year-round at Herdsman, though numbers are usually at their highest through autumn and early winter, when several hundred may occur around the lake. The species can usually be found fairly easily in any of the deeper open water areas around the edge of the lake.


Blue-billed Ducks can always be found in the deeper open water areas of the lake, and several hundred can often be present around the lake in autumn and early winter

Nankeen Night Heron: Herdsman is an excellent place to see Nankeen Night Heron. These predominantly nocturnal herons can usually be seen roosting in the paperbarks around the wildlife centre, often in large numbers. Birds can also be seen flying over the wetland to feeding areas in the evening, and can sometimes be seen feeding around the lake margins during the day, particularly on overcast days.


Nankeen Night Heron can often be found roosting in trees around the lake, particularly near the wildlife centre

Glossy Ibis: Herdsman Lake is one of the best locations near Perth to see Glossy Ibis, particularly in autumn and winter when flocks of up to 60-70 individuals are recorded. During late spring and summer they appear to disperse to other wetlands, though the odd bird usually remains. Maurice Hamer Park is usually the most reliable area for them, though they are also seen in the north-west and occasionally elsewhere on the lake.

Rainbow Bee-eater: Rainbow Bee-eaters breed at Herdsman in summer, and are typically present from late September to mid-February. The best area to find them is usually the north-western area of the lake, just south of the southern end of The Foreshore, where a few pairs breed in the long sandhill. 


Rainbow Bee-eaters visit the lake to breed in spring-summer

The Walk
There is a path circumnavigating the lake – the complete circuit is approximately 8km in length, and typically takes around 3hrs to complete if birding, depending on the amount of bird activity. In several areas, there are detours that allow for more exploration of the area. For those short of time, or not keen to walk the full distance, there are numerous parking areas around the lake, so it’s easy to visit one (or more) areas of the lake without walking the full way round.


The walk around Herdsman Lake. White paths indicate potential detours, numbers indicate approximate location of correspondingly numbered photos below

One of the most popular starting points for birding at Herdsman is the Heron Place carpark (located at the south end of Lakeside Drive, opposite Heron Pl). The open water near the carpark often has many of the duck and grebe species found at the lake, and reed-warblers are common in the reedbeds nearby. The grassed areas usually have Purple Swamphen and Dusky Moorhen, and there can be a few of the commoner bushbirds around the carpark. 


The lake edge near the Heron Place carpark.

Walking anti-clockwise from the carpark quickly brings you to a view across the open water to an open grassed area in the lake. This is one of the first areas to show any mud, and so is one of the better areas to look for waders (mostly in late summer and early autumn). Australian Pelican and Yellow-billed Spoonbill frequently roost in this area too, and it can be a good area for herons, egrets and ibis. Many less common visitors have been seen in this area, particularly when the water level is lower, including Royal Spoonbill, Eastern Cattle Egret, Pectoral Sandpiper and Long-toed Stint.


Known locally as 'Kakadu', this area of the lake is often one of the best areas to check, particularly when water levels are lower

Continuing further along the path brings you to a drain running into the south end of the lake. The melaleucas on the east side of the drain are a reliable roost for Nankeen Night Heron. After crossing the drain, there is the option to continue straight ahead along the path, or detour to the Herdsman Lake Wildlife Centre. The wildlife centre is run by the WA Gould League. The grass in front of the centre sometimes has good numbers of ducks resting by the water’s edge, and the open water has many of the usual species. Freckled Duck is a chance, particularly roosting amongst the melaleucas on the shore. There’s a short loop walk starting just east of the wildlife centre, though unfortunately some of this is currently closed due to a damaged boardwalk. This loop walk runs through a small area of melaleuca forest, and an area of typha. If the water level is right, it can be a good site for crakes, and Little Bittern has been heard calling in this area. The Purple Heron recorded in 2013 was photographed on the southern edge of the patch of melaleucas.


The wildlife centre boardwalk

Returning to the main path and continuing anti-clockwise from the wildlife centre takes you along the border of the lake and a housing development. The vicinity of the dead end at the eastern end of Whistler Cove (street) here is one of the better areas for White-cheeked Honeyeater, which appear to be becoming quite uncommon at Herdsman. Further east, you come to a large grassed area abutting the lake to the north. The grassed area is often good for Straw-necked Ibis, and Australian Hobby overhead. The open water usually has a variety of the usual ducks and grebes. On the eastern edge of the grassed area is a small patch of bush which often has a few bushbirds, including Splendid Fairy-wren on occasion. There is a small lake, connected to the main lake by a drain, which can be good for Yellow-billed Spoonbill roosting on the wooded island in the small lake.


Lake edge near Moondine Drive

Small satellite lake, connected to the main lake by a drain, along Moondine Drive.

Further east is more grassy open space, bordered by a fringe of trees near the lake edge. This area is usually relatively quiet, though a few bushbirds, raptors and Straw-necked Ibis can be seen, and it is often a good area for Spotted Pardalote in winter. Further along, you reach a small wetland adjacent to a playground, near the corner of Herdsman Pde and Jon Sanders Dr. This area is one of the more reliable areas around the lake for Splendid Fairy-wren. Variegated Fairy-wren are also recorded occasionally. The small wetland is usually quiet, but does occasionally turn up something interesting, like a Black-tailed Native-hen in late 2009. Continuing anticlockwise along the path takes you to a cycle path up the east side of the lake. Fortunately, there are alternative tracks through the woodland for much of its length. The first of these starts by running through a patch of thick melaleucas, then more open woodland. There are often cormorants hauled out on low branches over the water’s edge, and the woodland here is one of the more regular locations for Weebill at the lake.


Another small satellite wetland at the corner of Herdsman Parade and Jon Sanders Drive. Splendid Fairy-wren can often be found in the general area.

The track briefly meets the cycle path again, before detouring back into the woodland. A few hundred metres along the track, a side track leads down to a bird hide overlooking an area of open water and a small patch of typha. A variety of the waterfowl can usually be seen from the hide, and this is often one of the better locations for Pink-eared Duck on the lake. Brown Goshawk nested above the track to the hide in the past, but the nest has been abandoned in the last couple of seasons. The track continues up the east side of the lake, crossing two large drains entering the lake from the east. Birding here is usually quiet, with the usual bushbirds in the woodland, and a few common waterbirds in the drains. Australasian Darter sometimes breed on low trees overhanging the lake in the area just after crossing the second drain. A little further north there is a track leading down to a second hide. There are usually a few ducks, particularly diving ducks (Musk, Blue-billed and Hardhead), out from the hide, and the thick vegetation along the short track to the hide is a favoured site for Variegated Fairy-wren.


Melaleuca woodland along the track on the south-eastern side of the lake

The track returns to the cycle path, then undertakes a short detour through woodland, before rejoining the cycle path for a longer stretch as far as the southern edge of the Pony Club paddock. Here the track breaks of from the cycle path and skirts the edge of the paddock. The open water in the area has a variety of the usual ducks, including Freckled Duck on occasion. When the water level is low enough, there can be mud along the lakeshore south of the paddock which occasionally has waders like Red-kneed Dotterel. The melaleucas and low shrubs along the edges of the paddock are another favoured site for Variegated Fairy-wren, and the most reliable area for Red-capped Robin (an uncommon autumn-winter visitor), particularly along the west and south sides of the paddock. The shrubs on the west side of the of the paddock are usually alive with New Holland Honeyeaters, and Buff-banded Rail are often seen (particularly in the vicinity of the Pony Club carpark). Both introduced doves, Laughing and Spotted, are common near the Pony Club building.


The northern-most section of the lake, looking ESE towards the Pony Club

From the Pony Club, the track skirts around the northern-most section of the lake until you reach a Y-junction. The two tracks splitting from the Y-junction skirt either side of a small lake with a large statue in it, separated from the main lake. This area is often good for raptors, and there is usually a good variety of waterbirds on the statue lake and associated canals. To the west of the statue lake there are some areas of cleared land awaiting development; these can harbour Red-capped Plover and were formerly reliable for Australian Pipit – unfortunately these appear to have disappeared from the area. Just south of the cleared areas is a horse paddock and small swamp, which flood in winter. These can be good for a few wading birds, and Cattle Egret has occasionally been seen in the horse paddock. To the south of the statue lake is a second lake with some dead trees and typha. The dead trees often have roosting cormorants, herons etc., and if there are any muddy fringes to the typha it can be a good site for crakes. The sandhill just to the west is a breeding area for Rainbow Bee-eater, and this area is the best location on the lake to see them when they are present in spring and summer.


Statue in the north-western section of the lake.

Sand hill in the north-western area, breeding location for Rainbow Bee-eaters in spring-summer

From the south end of the statue lake, the track runs along the base of the sandhill to a small patch of woodland and a drain. This area can have a few bushbirds, including Shining Bronze-cuckoo in late winter and spring. You can take a short detour west along the drain to Settlers Cottage, an artist’s studio. The trees around the cottage can have some bushbirds, including Weebill, and the drain sometimes has a few interesting waterbirds including Buff-banded Rail. A Striated Heron was caught and banded along the drain in 2013. After crossing the drain, the path loops through some parkland with a few trees – a good area for Grey Butcherbird, and Tawny Frogmouth at night.

The track then tracks through Maurice Hamer Park back to the Heron Place carpark. Maurice Hamer Park is usually one of the best birding areas at Herdsman. The open water has most of the duck and grebe species found on the lake, and the grassy or muddy margins often have a few herons, spoonbills, or the occasional waders like Wood Sandpiper. It is also one of the more reliable areas for Glossy Ibis on the lake. The extensive grassed areas have Purple Swamphen, Eurasian Coot and Dusky Moorhen, and are one of the best areas to see Black-tailed Native-hen if they are around. Both Little and (Eastern) Long-billed Corella are often common too. Raptors such as Swamp Harrier and Australian Hobby can also be seen over the lake.


Looking across the lake from Maurice Hamer Park

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