The heathland sanctuaries of Bayside

It’s a typical winter’s morning in Melbourne: raining, windy and ten degrees. But despite the weather, a group of dedicated volunteers has donned their beanies, gathered at a small heathland reserve in Sandringham and is busy digging holes in the damp, sandy soil. I’m joining these volunteers for the monthly working bee of the Friends of Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary. Today, I’m told, is all about planting and weeding.

The group’s convenor is Michael Norris, who was first drawn to the group because of his passion for birds. He has been the convenor since the mid-1990s. He’s kindly offered to show me around the Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary. Michael has a wealth of knowledge about the history of the reserve, but he is not afraid to interrupt the conversation to pause and peer through his binoculars into the trees.

‘I think it’s an Eastern Spinebill,’ he says excitedly. We stop often – there’s plenty of bird life to see in the reserve. As we wander around, Michael also points out interesting plants, including a huge colony of Nodding Greenhood orchids (Pterostylis nutans) and a magnificent Creeping Mistletoe (Muellerina eucalyptoides).

 Spring native wildflowers at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary.  Images: Lyndsey Vivian

Spring native wildflowers at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary. Images: Lyndsey Vivian

The vegetation of the reserve is like a patchwork. Some areas are dense with tall thickets and other areas open out to low-growing shrubs. The shrubs intermingle with a rich diversity of herbs, lilies, rushes and grasses.

‘These are patches of burns of different ages,’ Michael explains as we traverse the vegetation patchwork. Controlled ecological burning is an important management tool to maintain species diversity. Without fire, species such as Coast Tea-tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) and Coast Wattle (Acacia longifolia subsp. sophorae), indigenous to the nearby foreshore vegetation, become dominant and ‘ecologically out-of-balance’, outcompeting everything else. One area, burned just a few months ago, has already been reclaimed by masses of Chocolate Lilies (Arthropodium strictum), ready to burst into a sea of purple flowers.

The reserve is one of several that protect the last remaining pockets of heathland and woodland vegetation in the area. They are remnants of the once-famous ‘Sandringham Flora’, which captured the attention of Melbourne’s early naturalists. Native orchids were a particular favourite:

‘Not the least charm about the Sandringham flora lies in the profusion of orchids contained in it, and probably no other locality in the State presents such a variety and abundance of species.’*

 A recently burned patch at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary colonised by Chocolate Lilies and Sandhill Sword Sedge.  Image: Lyndsey Vivian

A recently burned patch at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary colonised by Chocolate Lilies and Sandhill Sword Sedge. Image: Lyndsey Vivian

Members of the Victorian Field Naturalists Club went to great lengths to visit the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In August 1890, C. French described how he and his son travelled by train to Oakleigh and then ‘tramped about fifteen mile’ to Cheltenham and Sandringham to explore the ‘heath-grounds’.**

Along the way the pair described an astounding diversity of plants, birds and insects. The experience of their journey is hard to imagine: today the same walk would pass along busy arterial roads, monotonous suburbia and stark industrial areas. But back in 1890, the same route was covered with wildflowers. There was ‘Epacris impressa, with its charming variety of colours, varying from the purest white to crimson…’; at Cheltenham you could see ‘the lovely little Euphrasia brownii, Hovea heterophylla, the trailing Kennedya [Kennedia prostrata], with its bright red blooms…’; and near Sandringham you could find ‘quantities of the Sweet-scented Acacia (Acacia suaveolens)… in full bloom…’ C. French concluded that ‘the number of orchids seen in flower was 12 – not so bad for the month of August.’

As the area became increasingly developed, concerns were raised about the loss of the Sandringham flora. Today, the handful of remaining reserves exist because of the local people who have lobbied tirelessly for their preservation. At Bay Road, for example, the City of Sandringham had planned to develop the land, but received 96 letters of objection due to the site’s botanical significance. The reserve was set aside in 1976.

But these tiny reserved fragments in a sea of suburbia present challenges. Jo Hurse has worked in the reserves since 1999 and knows firsthand the difficulty of the work involved. Jo has offered to show me around two other local reserves in Beaumaris: Long Hollow Heathland Sanctuary and Balcombe Park Reserve.

‘Eighty percent of what we do is managing weeds,’ she says, which includes the Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle. Jo and her team also carry out the burns, which take months of planning and preparation. Before a burn, the area must be cleared of Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle – all by hand.

 The contrast between a more recently burned area on the right and an area infested with Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle on the left, Balcombe Park Reserve.  Image: Lyndsey Vivian

The contrast between a more recently burned area on the right and an area infested with Coast Tea-tree and Coast Wattle on the left, Balcombe Park Reserve. Image: Lyndsey Vivian

Jo shows me one recently burned patch in Balcombe Park Reserve where ‘... it took seven weeks with three staff working five days a week to remove the Coast Tea-tree.’ But the hard work has paid off: the patch is species-rich and clear of weeds.

On my tour with Jo we are also accompanied by Pauline Reynolds, convenor of another local heathland Friends group at George Street Reserve. Pauline is passionate and hugely knowledgeable about the reserves and their ecology and has many stories to tell from her decades of experience. My favourite story of Pauline’s perfectly illustrates the enthusiasm and passion of the Friends group members. At Long Hollow, Pauline shows me a small mistletoe plant growing on a wattle. ‘It was hand-planted on to the tree,’ Pauline explains. The sticky fruit was in fact originally collected from the very same Creeping Mistletoe plant that Michael had shown me at Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary.

Like Melbourne’s early naturalists, the heathland reserves have clearly captured the attention of many locals, who devote huge amounts of volunteer time. Back at Bay Road, I meet Sue Forster, a regular volunteer here and at the local Bayside Community Nursery.

‘I originally became involved to learn about the locally indigenous plants,’ Sue says. She now advises customers at the nursery on which indigenous plants to buy and helps to guide visitors during the spring open days.

 A boardwalk through the trees at Long Hollow Reserve.  Image: Lyndsey Vivian

A boardwalk through the trees at Long Hollow Reserve. Image: Lyndsey Vivian

Other volunteers come from further afield, such as Tian Gao, one of a trio of Monash University students from China helping out at the working bee. Tian has travelled from Box Hill and when I meet him he is busy planting Trigger Plants and Chocolate Lilies in the ground.

‘I wanted the opportunity to learn more about the local plants and animals,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to find experiences like this in China.’ Surprisingly, the students aren’t studying ecology or environmental science; they’re studying sociology, business and psychology. I ask what his favourite plant is: ‘Nodding Greenhood,’ he says with a grin.

Every year in spring the seven main reserves have open days which include guided tours to see the incredible displays of wildflowers. If you’ve never been, I highly recommend a visit. Take a camera, but more importantly take your time. Wander through the heathlands and enjoy what is left of the magnificent Sandringham flora.

Spring Open Days for 2018:

• Bay Road Heathland Sanctuary: Sundays from September 2nd to October 28th, 2pm to 4pm.

• Gramatan Avenue Heathland Sanctuary: Sundays throughout September, 2pm to 4pm.

• Balcombe Park Reserve: September 30th, 10am to 12pm.

• Long Hollow Heathland Sanctuary: September 30th, 1pm to 3pm.


Lyndsey Vivian is an ecologist, writer and bushwalker currently based in Melbourne.


*C.S. Sutton (1911). Notes on the Sandringham Flora. The Victorian Naturalist 28, 5-20.

**C. French (1890). A Ramble Through the Heath-Ground from Oakleigh to Sandringham. The Victorian Naturalist 7, 71-75.

Banner image of a Chocolate Lily courtesy of Mikeybear [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons.

Kennett River wanderings

It was raining and cold, but we put on warm jackets and raincoats and went out anyway. The beach was calling… and waterfalls, rainforest and glow worms. Why stay indoors? It was mid-June and we were spending the weekend at Kennett River, halfway between Lorne and Apollo Bay. The small town, full of holiday houses, was peaceful and almost deserted, apart from busloads of tourists visiting the solitary shop on the Great Ocean Road and feeding the flocks of waiting Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, Crimson Rosellas, King Parrots and sparrows.

We followed the steep streets down to the beach. It was close to high tide, but there was a narrow strip of wet sand. Among the washed-up seaweeds, a few with their tough stalk still attached to a small rock, we found a sponge shaped like a shallow bowl on a pedestal. When the beach ended, we walked across the sloping rock platform and rounded stones, towards Point Hawdon, dodging out of the way of waves washing in towards us. At the rocky point, the tide was too high for us to continue, and bigger waves were breaking around the corner. We retraced our steps, watching large swells of green water on the horizon.

 Kennett River locals hoping to share our breakfast.  Image: Kristen Cook

Kennett River locals hoping to share our breakfast. Image: Kristen Cook

The nearby river was deep and more peaceful. We walked along its grassy bank below houses, avoiding puddles deep enough for ducks to take a swim. Across the river was a steep, bush-covered slope. Past the last garden, an old vehicle track followed the base of a cliff through riverside forest of tall trees, mosses and fungi. Beyond the cliff, we scrambled up a steep, and at times, muddy track which brought us out behind the highest houses. We retreated to warmth and dryness to eat lunch, then ventured forth again.

This time we drove, following the winding road west along the coast to the mouth of Carisbrook Creek. A muddy track led uphill under arching sheoaks. We noticed damage to the track, the bank above us and the vegetation, caused by large animals, probably deer. We arrived at a wooden fence and a view in the distance of the long waterfall cascading down a rock slope. I watched waves of lacy white froth sliding downwards, dropping into small pools, dividing around higher mounds of dark grey rock, then falling into another pool, the pattern of movement and water drops constantly changing. The bottom of the fall was out of sight behind a pile of huge lichen-covered boulders. The creek turned a corner, becoming visible again above another boulder, where it split and fell to form a narrow, boisterous creek rushing over rocks and under sheoaks on its way to the sea.

We drove inland to Grey River Picnic Area, a small open patch of soggy greenness, sloping gently downwards towards the sounds of a narrow rushing river hidden amongst the tall gums, wattles and tree ferns. We watched its flow from the nearby bridge, then followed a narrow walking track into the gloom beneath the trees. Daylight was diminishing, so we saw only hints of ferns, mosses and fungi growing on the ground, on rotting logs, and the trunks of tree ferns. The track ended at a view upstream, partly obscured by the growth of young trees. As we returned, the world had become grey and black. We admired our roof of tree fern fronds and the ancient, giant gum trees towering above them.

 The emerald green tree ferns and ancient towering eucalypts of Grey River.  Image: Wendy Cook

The emerald green tree ferns and ancient towering eucalypts of Grey River. Image: Wendy Cook

It was soon fully dark. Leaving our torches in our pockets, we walked up the road. On the dirt bank, under the tree ferns, were tiny white fairy lights, hundreds of them. These were the lights of glow worms, the larval stage of fungi gnats. They spin dangling, sticky threads to catch small flying insects. To attract their prey to this line, a light-producing chemical reaction occurs in the body of each larva. While to the insects this is merely a feeding strategy, to us it was magic. We continued up the road gazing and wondering.

We returned the next day to enjoy the forest in daylight. As we drove up the road, we saw a Koala sleeping in the fork of a gum tree, and watched a Red-necked Wallaby hop away from the road’s edge. The rainforest was still gloomy, but now it included colour - greens and browns. We waded along the first few metres of the track where a newly arisen creek, born of the last day’s rain, rushed through the forest to join the river. The trunks of the tree ferns were covered in plant life. The upper portions offered support for the creeping rhizomes of Kangaroo Fern, its fronds’ long side lobes occasionally giving it the shape of a kangaroo’s foot.

Below this, the trunks wore a dense, dripping cloak of False Fern Moss, their stems reaching outwards, laden with tiny dark green leaves only one cell thick. When I held a mirror under these long mosses, light reflected upwards shone through them, revealing them as almost transparent with a mere hint of green. Among the ferns and mosses, tiny fungi grew solitary or in clusters, their stalks curving away from the tree fern’s trunk, supporting delicate caps of white or brown. Seedlings of rainforest trees had germinated on the verdant trunks of some tree ferns. Some carried saplings, while a few trees showed the bowed remnants of a tree fern on which it had started its life. Mosses and fungi grew on the bases of the giant eucalypts, on the fallen rotting logs, and among the ferns covering the remaining soil.

 After heavy rainfall, Grey River rushes rapidly under fallen branches and tree fern fronds.  Image: Wendy Cook

After heavy rainfall, Grey River rushes rapidly under fallen branches and tree fern fronds. Image: Wendy Cook

We visited the river bank. The muddy brown water rushed and foamed among the tree ferns, and under and over mossy logs. I watched a tree fern frond, caught in the current, sweeping downstream as far as it could reach. As the river hurried below and beyond it, it relinquished the frond which returned to its natural position, to be immediately caught again.

We left the forest, returning to the brightness of the coast. Today, as well as the rain, a strong wind was blowing inland and the sea was wild. We parked facing into the weather and ate lunch while the big, busy waves raced and foamed in front of us, crashing onto the rocks and the sand. Small flocks of dark birds soared and twisted through the sky above the waves. Four glided towards us and landed on the beach, revealing themselves as Sooty Oystercatchers with black feathers, pink legs and long red bills, strolling comfortably along the sand, unconcerned by the weather.

At Wye River, the beach was mostly submerged. We watched waves rolling a log and other debris to block the path to the sand. Barricades have been built to keep the sea in its place, but the water rose against them, almost to the level of the grassy picnic area. Further east, we stopped at Artillery Rocks, where the battering of the sea has created knobbly formations on the rock platform. From the base of the steps below the road, we could see a few rocks above the foam. We watched and heard the white fury of the waves crashing over the platform and eventually the lowest step, causing us to retreat to the windswept road edge. From there we could see the green sea filling the bay, spray flying from the white wave tops as they rolled in towards the forest-covered hills. The road hugged the feet of the hills, just above the vanished beaches.

 The crashing waves at Artillery Rocks make for an exhilarating end to this eventful journey at Kennett River.  Image: Wendy Cook

The crashing waves at Artillery Rocks make for an exhilarating end to this eventful journey at Kennett River. Image: Wendy Cook

With no hope of a beach walk, we looked at the inland side of the road. Sheoak Creek had flooded the path to Sheoak Falls. Nearby, the waves crashing on the rocks were only one or two metres below the road. We walked up the estuary of St George River and into the forest following an old tramway, once used to remove the tall straight trees that grow there. We turned back at a river crossing, where a bridge had been washed away or stepping stones were covered by the rushing brown water. From there, we followed the Great Ocean Road eastward through Lorne and beyond. As the hills became lower, the coast more populated and the towns larger, the waves, although still covering the beaches, seemed smaller. At Anglesea, we turned inland, away from the wild sea and headed for the warm sanctuary of home.


Wendy Cook lives on a farm west of Melbourne with her husband and two teenagers. She loves watching the nature she sees around her every day and writing about it. She is a volunteer with Fungimap and at her local primary school where she hopes to instil a love of nature and reading in the children.


Banner image courtesy of Wendy Cook.

Winter whale-watching along the Victorian coast

While the idea of going for a swim in Melbourne’s cold winter waters might seem like a nightmare for some, hundreds of others have recently flocked to our shores for a welcome winter holiday. For a few short months each year, the Victorian Coast becomes home to some of the world’s largest and most majestic creatures - whales.

The whales are migrating up to 10,000 kilometres from the colder Antarctic waters where they’ve spent the summer feeding, to the shallower, warmer waters of New South Wales and Queensland. On their way north along the eastern Australian coast, a handful visit the Bass Coast between April and November each year to calve and rest.

That’s right – they’re in our backyard, and they’re easier to see than you might think.

Last month, I went on a four-hour whale-watching cruise around Phillip Island, only an hour-and-a-half drive from Melbourne. I spend the first hour of the cruise eagerly looking out to the horizon – is that a whale? No, it’s another buoy. Finally, a promising blow in the distance indicates we’ve found what we were looking for, and the boat heads in the direction of the sighting.

 Humpback Whales seen from a distance.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Humpback Whales seen from a distance. Image: Ella Loeffler

The vessel approaches the whales, abiding by strict regulations under their permit – they must keep a 100-metre distance at all times. It is up to the whales if they choose to approach the vessel any closer, although often they do, in which case the engine is turned off.

Coming up for a few breaths, the Humpback Whales give us a good look before they disappear underwater for several long minutes with a flick of their tail. They leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface - and an excited energy in the air as we wait for them to reappear.

Every year, two main species of whale – the Humpback Whale and the Southern Right Whale – are welcomed by the Bass Coast. Humpbacks have a characteristic white underside and a dorsal fin, while Southern Right Whales are generally black, and are smaller but heavier than humpbacks. Occasionally, Orcas (or Killer Whales) also come for a visit to feed on seals, but the crew tells us that on the days when Orcas are spotted, there is nothing else in the water.

 Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Whales leave only a ‘footprint’ – a distinct, clear patch of water that’s left on the surface after they disappear. Image: Ella Loeffler

Wildlife Coast Cruises, together with the Dolphin Research Institute, contribute to the Two Bays Whale Project, which relies on citizen science to build a database of whale sightings. In 2017, an estimated number of 458 individual whales were sighted in Port Phillip and Western Port Bays. These figures are promising, especially considering the dark history of industrial whaling, which saw whale numbers plummet dangerously close to extinction. But it seems that these populations have bounced back, highlighting the importance of continued research and protection of these species.

'Ten o’clock!' calls the crew, pointing to the resurfaced pair of humpbacks, as everyone huddles to one side of the boat. Watching the whales, I feel a child-like exhilaration I haven’t felt in years. Everyone else on board seems to share the same feeling – all you can hear are awestruck exclamations and camera clicks.

Commentating on the loudspeaker, the crew at Wildlife Coast Cruises are careful not to anthropomorphise, highlighting that we really don’t know much about the behaviour of these captivating yet cryptic creatures. But it’s hard not to see these animals as playful, curious beings. One of the crew members hangs off the back of the boat, slowly clapping his hands – apparently, this attracts whales.

At one point, we find ourselves surrounded by three small pods of Humpback Whales, all in different directions. Seemingly jealous that the attention is not on them, a large group of fur seals arrive, playing in the water around the boat. A minute later, there are dolphins swimming along the bow, catching a free ride. Pelicans, albatrosses and gulls fly past – I don’t know where to look, overwhelmed by the abundant wildlife.

 Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Fur seals are a common sighting off the coast of Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

 Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island.  Image: Ella Loeffler

Dolphins can also be spotted on the whale-watching cruises at Phillip Island. Image: Ella Loeffler

When things calm down again, we’re watching a pod of three whales lazily swimming along. The crew tells us that they only exhibit breaching behaviour (jumping out of the water) five to ten percent of the time, and not to get our hopes up. But just as we’re about to head back in, one of the whales flings itself out of the water, landing with a huge splash; the sheer size and force is incredible. No one really knows why whales breach – it could be to clean themselves, or as an act of aggression. Or it could just be a playful leap. Either way, it makes a wonderful end to our cruise as we head back to Rhyll jetty.

 There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world.  Image: Ella Loeffler

There is still much debate over why whales breach, but it is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular events to witness in the natural world. Image: Ella Loeffler

The cruises at Phillip Island run between June and August, and have finished for the year. But if you’ve missed out, don’t worry – what comes up must come down, which means you can catch the whales returning through Wilsons Promontory from September to November. And Jess from Wildlife Coast Cruises promises a good show at the Prom – 'we had a 100% success rate for sightings last year with up to 50% of cruises sighting breaches.'

If you’re looking for a new way to experience our beautiful coastline, a whale-watching cruise is a great chance to get outdoors and see some of the spectacular wildlife Victoria has to offer.


Ella Loeffler studied a Bachelor of Arts and Science at Monash University, combining her love for literature and animals. She is currently completing her honours in Zoology at Deakin University, where she is researching the foraging ecology of the critically endangered Eastern Barred Bandicoot. She is passionate about wildlife conservation, and hopes to continue working in threatened species management.


This article is an honest review and has not been sponsored in any way by Wildlife Coast Cruises or affiliates.

Banner image courtesy of Wildlife Coast Cruises.

Plastic pollution: a peril to our shores

Being both pliable and durable in nature, plastic has become one of the most used human-made products in the manufacturing industry. Yet when it comes to the existence of our marine life and the status of our shores, this synthetic substance is finding itself in the firing line. This year, Keep Australia Beautiful Week puts plastic in the spotlight. While marine litter is made up of an assortment of debris, it is plastic that is the major contributing factor, accounting for 80% of the items found along many stretches of Australian coastline.

Plastic debris can be categorised into two forms depending on its size: macroplastics and microplastics. Macroplastics include large, often single-use items, such as plastic bags, food packaging, plastic coffee cups, straws and drink bottles.

 Despite efforts to reduce usage, plastics still make up 80% of the debris found along our shores.  Image:  Jo Lanta  on  Unsplash

Despite efforts to reduce usage, plastics still make up 80% of the debris found along our shores. Image: Jo Lanta on Unsplash

As a substance, plastic of any kind is hard to completely eradicate and becomes impractical after its initial use. However, in terms of their slender size, straws in particular can easily fall through conveyer belts that are used in the recycling of waste products. Even if appropriate measures are taken for disposal, most end up as landfill or swirling into mouths of water drains and finally being deposited onto our shores.

While most of us are accustomed to the addition of a straw, whether to sip on a smoothie or indulge in a glass of iced tea or coffee, now consumers and some bars, pubs and cafes are starting to cause a stir, ditching the plastic accompaniment altogether. It is clear that banning and reducing straw consumption, along with other types of macroplastics, is starting to become a priority.

On the other end of the scale, microplastics - that is, any type of plastic that is 5mm or less in diameter - is also under scrutiny. Primary microplastics are a major nuisance to marine life, and include items such as resin pellets, also called ‘nurdles’ or ‘mermaid tears’, and microbeads found in shampoo, gels and other cosmetics. Secondary microplastics are those resulting from macroplastics that have been broken down into tiny particles. These are so minuscule that they can barely be seen with the naked eye.

Regions such as Port Phillip Bay are at serious risk of becoming pools of plastic pollution through stormwater run-off, which enters into systems such as the Yarra and Maribyrnong Rivers and finally into the Bay. While samples from both categories of plastic are present, along with recreational fishing nets and gear, it is the smaller form that is an emerging threat to our marine ecosystems.

 Port Phillip Bay and its inhabitants are at particular risk when it comes to plastic pollution.  Image: Cathy Cavallo

Port Phillip Bay and its inhabitants are at particular risk when it comes to plastic pollution. Image: Cathy Cavallo

Port Phillip Bay lends itself to over 1,000 species of marine plants and animals. It is a cosmos of activity, providing an abundance of food and habitat to a multitude of unique species. However, plastic pollution is resulting in much cause for concern, with the Bay's population of bottlenose dolphins at particular risk. Plastics that encroach on their environs can disrupt the balance of the food chain and cause blockages to the intestinal system. In marine habitats, plastics can also soak up toxins already found in the surrounding environment, leading to further issues for the unfortunate organism that may ingest them. 

While reducing the need for plastic is a simple act that many of us can introduce to our daily routines, the impact of doing so on a large scale allows our shores to be free from this form of debris that is a pest to the marine life present. In turn, this will hopefully better protect those species that call our seas and shores home.

For more information on Keep Australia Beautiful Week, see here. 


Priya Mohandoss reports for the Royal Society of Victoria and writes a column called “Environment Matters” for the Kinglake Ranges community news magazine, Mountain Monthly. She has recently completed a Masters of Media and Communications and is an avid explorer of all aspects of nature. 


Banner image courtesy of Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash.