Bird watching at Phillip Island

RoyalAuto Magazine

This page contains archived content

To visit the new RoyalAuto website you can use the link below. 

A phillip Island penguin standing on the beach

Winging it

While the waddling ones get most of the attention, by looking a little harder you’ll get to enjoy Phillip Island’s other brilliant birds.

The Boonwurrung people called Phillip Island ‘kooryong’, their word for ‘bird’. But they didn’t give it the name out of admiration for their winged co-habitants but out of something more basic: the birds were a readily available food source. Yet the name is still apt today, only now people come to admire the birds.

Everybody knows Phillip Island for its penguins which every night, via their sheer number and the little swagger in the gait, waddle themselves into the heart of visitors – four million annually. But had all the other bird species on the island taken flight? Surely not, and so after watching the smallest of the penguin species strutting their stuff the night before, I’m ready to get to know some of the other birds that call this island home.

Graeme Burgan, ranger and a fourth-generation Phillip Islander, runs a dawn-to-dusk tour covering numerous habitats and eco-systems, and while many people come a very long way to view the local birdlife, it’s incredible how far some birds come to be viewed. “The shear­waters fly some 15,000km, from as far away as the Bering Sea, to breed here,” Graeme says. “The vagrants don’t come here on a regular basis, but are occasional visitors – such as the endangered orange-bellied parrots. And then we have many resident birds, such as the Cape Barren geese, ibis, the little penguins, and lots more. All in all there are some 250 different species of birds here.”

And one of the reasons for the great variety of birds becomes clear as we follow Graeme from site to site, through gates that remain firmly locked to other visitors, and to secreted locations that the uninitiated just will not find.

This small island has habitats from bushland to temporary and permanent wetlands, from sand dunes to mangrove habitats, from saltmarshes to ocean locales, and each attracts different species. While the shearwaters come down once a year in their millions, they stick to the south coast, as they need to be near the open ocean. The numerous parrot species can be found near the koala reserve in the centre of the island.

The gracious black swans and many duck species are found in Swan Lake and Swan Bay, and small bushland birds mingle and spread themselves across quite a few habitats.

I’m no ‘birder’, and certainly not one of those mostly interested in ticking through their list of sightings to show off back home. But exploring its various ecological habitats is not only a great way to see the island and go on a few short hikes across different terrains, but it’s also thoroughly relaxing (sitting in a darkened hutch with binoculars poised to watch a particularly cute duck is quite meditative), and to top it all, you learn about the birds, the ecology, the history of the island … much more so than if you went alone and stuck to the official paths.

Like those stoic visitors from the northern hemisphere, the shearwaters, I’ll be back.



The Island Bird Tour starts at the Koala Conservation Centre (1790 Phillip Island Rd, Cowes) and runs from 8am to 4pm (7am to 6pm during daylight saving time) with a break for lunch. Includes binoculars and a high-powered spotting scope for the duration of the tour.

Call 5951 2800 to book. The tour is $240 per person and runs with a minimum of two people and a maximum of 10.

RACV can help

Combine your trip to Phillip Island with member discounts on other attractions, such as the Penguin Parade, Koala Conservation Centre and Churchill Island Heritage Farm. See for details, visit any RACV shop or call 13 13 29.

And why not add a few nights at RACV’s award-winning Inverloch Resort, just half an hour’s drive from Phillip Island. RACV members get 25% discount on accommodation at Inverloch and RACV’s other resorts in Victoria, Tasmania and Queensland.

Written by Ulrike Lemmin-Woolfrey, Photos John Krutop
February 02, 2015