Paddling out in the middle of Lake Wollumboola the nearest shore is a kilometre away. Hearing the dull rumble of an approaching engine I looked up expecting to see a low flying aircraft from the nearby naval base.
No aircraft in sight, but something seemed to be going on among the swans at the southern end of the lake. It was only when I looked through the telephoto lens that I realised that more than a thousand Black Swans were taking to the air and flying in my direction. The distant roar was the sound of webbed feet and wing tips striking into the water as they launched into their take-off run. Black Swans don’t have an easy time getting airborne, and the noise of just one taking off can be heard a couple of hundred metres away. The sound of hundreds taking off simultaneously went beyond anything I’ve ever heard from wildlife.
Lake Wollumboola is a coastal lake near the southern boundary of the Sydney Basin. The 650-hectare lake is very shallow, barely 20 centimetres deep around most of the margins. The shallow waters produce an amazing quantity and diversity of aquatic vegetation, invertebrates and fish, which support huge numbers of migratory waders, seabirds, shorebirds and waterfowl. My kayak often feels very small when I’m paddling far from the shore, however when you’re sharing a lake with literally thousands of water birds it is hard to feel exposed.
When I arrived, several hundred Australian Pelicans were concentrated at the southern end of the lake. A steady stream of pelicans was leaving that flock and flying north to join a growing cluster at the opposite end of the lake. The flying birds skimmed low, their wings only centimetres above the lake’s mirrored surface. It looked a bit like an hourglass, with pelicans dripping in a steady stream from one end of the lake to the other.
The nearest group of Australian Pelicans was about a kilometre to the west of my launch point. The trip to the pelicans required dragging the kayak across sandbars and through clumps of floating algae as well as paddling. The Australian Pelicans were swimming in slightly deeper water in a tight flock of several hundred birds. They fed in unison, heads plunging below the surface then lifting as one. Crested Terns and Little Black Cormorants were picking up straggling baitfish at the edge of the melee. As the feeding intensified, loud splashes and high plumes of spray erupted from the flock.
Leaving the feeding frenzy I paddled south. There were Black Swans everywhere. Most were feeding on the matted algae beds, elegant necks rising as a forest around the edges of the lake. A few took to the air when I got too close, although most simply angled away from my approach. Occasionally a group would get spooked by the White Bellied Sea Eagles that were patrolling the lake.
The Black Swans and Australian Pelicans were the biggest and most numerous birds on the lake but far from alone. Broad sand flats stretched around the margins of the lake, creating hundreds of hectares of shallows perfect for feeding waders. Wherever the bottom was visible it bore the pock marks of probing beaks.
The most abundant waders were long legged species that specialise in feeding in shallow water: Black Winged Stilt, Bar Tailed Godwit, Red Necked Avocet, Greenshank and Royal Spoonbill.
These species feed in water up to their bellies, dipping their heads beneath the surface and using long bills to extract food from the sands and finer sediments. Bar Tailed Godwits have the most robust bills and use them to probe deep into the sand.
Black Winged Stilts have delicate bills that can be used as a probe or like tweezers to grab shrimp and other crustaceans off the surface. They have extremely long legs, and appear supremely elegant as they stride across the flats.
Red Necked Avocets are similar in size but have longer bills, more delicate and curved upwards. They don’t probe into the sediment, instead running the curved bill over the surface to detect and grab tiny invertebrates.
Greenshanks are a bit smaller than stilts, avocets and godwits. They stalk slowly then dash ahead when they spot something to eat. Like godwits they spend the summer on our shores before heading north to breed in the northern hemisphere summer.
Royal Spoonbills shuffle their broad tipped bills through the sediment. They feed on submerged flats, their heads often disappearing entirely beneath the surface. A feeding flock of spoonbills will synchronise their movements as they dip, swish and lift their heads. Likewise, if one flies off the whole flock follows. Many waders and shorebirds will circle around and return to their original feeding site if disturbed, but spoonbills tend to shift out of sight before landing.
Turning towards the centre of the lake I heard the familiar call of Little Terns. I normally encounter Little Terns when they are roosting during high tide. This flock of around 50 were actively feeding out in the middle of the lake. They were flying at about ten metres height, turning through wide circles as they searched for baitfish below. When a tern spotted a suitable fish they would come to an abrupt halt, pirouette and plunge into the water.
Arriving at the eastern shore more waders and shorebirds were stalking the shallows, including Little Egret, Great Egret and Red Necked Stint. The waders would periodically take to the wing to shift to another feeding area. Several times flocks of Black Winged Stilts passed overhead, piping calls announcing they were on the move.
My paddle around Lake Wollumboola offered a remarkable variety of wetland wildlife and my first images of the wonderfully photogenic Red Necked Avocets. Despite the spectacle of all that wildlife it was the sounds of the lake that left the strongest impression on me: the splash of feeding pelicans, the roar of swans at take off and the contact calls of terns and stilts.