IT IS a wild and windy winter’s day and I am on my way to Swan Lake. Nestled behind high dunes at the western end of Phillip Island, Swan Lake is a sheltered place to go when the cold winds blow.
A gravel path leads through a sunny picnic area into banksia and eucalypt woodland. Ahead is a wallaby, sitting with its back to me in the middle of the path. I step quietly to see how close I can get. I’m only twenty metres away when it hears me and turns its head. I stay still and the wallaby does the same. We remain in a kind of stand-off until I make the first move and the wallaby bounds into the bush.
Soon I am walking through a tunnel of coast tea-tree, a reminder of childhood summers exploring sandy paths through the foreshores of Inverloch and Cape Paterson.
Some twisted tea-tree trunks have fallen over and ramble over the ground. Their girth shows they are quite old. I wonder if they are some of the many thousands of trees planted here in the 1960s by Phillip Island Conservation Society volunteers.
In Christine Grayden 2008 book An Island Worth Conserving: A History of the Phillip Island Conservation Society, she tells how Swan Lake was saved from the bulldozers. Since European settlement, cattle grazing, rabbits and weeds had degraded the surrounding area and in the late 1960s the dunes beside the lake were earmarked for the Shire of Phillip Island’s next sand pit. Local councillor Ken Pound had the foresight to rally the PICS volunteers to save the dunes and restore bushland to the shores of the lake.
A little further on, another wallaby has sensed me coming. It peeks through the trees from a safe distance then disappears into the scrub. Bower spinach and seaberry saltbush climb through the shrubbery and up the trunks of dead trees. Thickets of coast sword sedge shine brightly under tall gums. Birds flit through flowering banksias.
I cross a little bridge flanked by spindly swamp paperbarks and pass a fallen log adorned with fungi. The path rises out of the bush and opens onto expansive dunes covered with short-tailed shearwater rookeries. The sound of waves thumping on Summerland Beach rises from the other side of the dunes.
Now that it is winter, the shearwaters have returned to their other home in the islands off Alaska. Bright-green mounds of bower spinach cover their burrows. Between them are open sandy spaces with scattered shells, remnants of shellfish meals collected from the rock platforms that bookend Summerland Beach. Middens are extensive throughout the Summerland dunes, reminders that this is Boonwurrung country.
The massive dunes that hold back the sea were formed after the last global phase of cold climate when the sea was at least 100 metres below its present level. Aboriginal people lived on the coastal lowlands that stretched all the way to Tasmania.
As the sea rose it brought sand from the sea floor. From around 6000 years ago, when the sea reached its present level, sand built up against the land to form beaches and wind-blown sand piled up as dunes to join the former Summerland Island to Phillip Island and enclose a former bay into Swan Lake.
A boardwalk leads past seaberry saltbush laden with purple-red berries to two bird hides overlooking the lake. One faces north where after spring rains the lake swells and spills into the paddocks of neighbouring farms. The other faces east along the bend in the lake that follows behind the dunes. It has been a dry autumn so the lake is now quite low.
I open the latched door of the north-facing hut and walk into the darkness. I raise the shutters to a framed view of hundreds of waterbirds feeding, resting and preening.
Dozens of Australian coots are resting in the shallows, their heads tucked beneath their wings, looking like plump grey balls. Some of them peck along the muddy shore with their distinctive white bills. When a child arrives and runs excitedly down the boardwalk they all dash to open water in a rush of beating wings.
Hoary-headed grebes move busily across the water, appearing and disappearing as they dive for aquatic insects. They resurface close to each other, holding together like a tattered raft that’s gradually drifting apart.
As I settle onto the bench seat in the other bird hide, a pair of black swans glides through the rippled water. Many more are feeding on water plants, dipping their long necks into the water, bringing up strands and shaking their heads to snap off a piece to eat.
Other swans are preening themselves at the water’s edge, scooping up water with their red beaks then nuzzling into their feathers, pushing in and wiggling around. They twist their necks behind them, working through their back feathers and wings then bend their necks forward and move methodically down their bellies. When the job is done they open their wings, shake themselves and display their white under-wing feathers.
After preening, several swans wander off to graze on grasses on the lower slopes of the dunes. They join the dozens of purple swamphens that peck around like chooks, nipping the tops off grasses and herbs, picking up seeds and insects.
A birdwatcher enters the bird hide carrying a camera with an enormous lens. He seems to know the place well and notices that most of the swans are mottled brown and grey so they must be from last year’s brood.
The birdwatcher tells me there is less diversity here in winter and points to several species of birds in the painting on the wall that are missing from the lake today. He adds that bird numbers are greater in spring when thousands are here breeding.
A cape barren goose wades into the water to drink. A white-faced heron, with outstretched smoky blue wings, descends like a parachute and lands softly on long skinny legs. An egret stands like a statue. A cormorant preens itself on a post.
I sit in silence watching the birds go about their business, enjoying the peace and quiet. Ripples on the water are the only sign that gale force winds are blowing beyond this protected place.
It is only a short stroll from the car park to the lake but the bird hide scenes roll on all day long. It is easy to lose track of time at Swan Lake.