Discovering the secret Birdlife at Rippon Lea Estate

Volunteer Guide Helen Williams shares her surprise at discovering the haven of birds that call Rippon Lea Home.

On first parking the car and walking through the iron gates 30 years ago, the gardens at Rippon Lea Estate immediately stamped their impression on my young daughter and myself. The grand winding driveway bounded by dense shrubbery and a canopy of Algerian Oaks set the scene for what was beyond …a botanical wonderland of massive trees, a picturesque fernery, delightful flower beds, rolling lawns and a simply enchanting lake. And of course, along with its imposing mansion, it was a simply perfect Victorian setting for a performance of Little Lord Fauntleroy, the most Victorian of tales. 

‘But probably no interesting birdlife,’ I remember thinking as we settled on the lawn to enjoy the show. 

I was wrong. 

Despite the exotic character of its gardens, Rippon Lea Estate was, and still is, home or haven to a wide range of birds, and this is a major factor in it being regarded as a leading biodiversity hotspot within the City of Glen Eira. Moreover, it is recognised for the role it plays today in supporting a number of formerly common birds which, sadly, are no longer familiar sights in the surrounding parks and gardens of inner Melbourne.  

But I didn’t find this out until 30 years later, when I applied to become a volunteer guide at Rippon Lea.  

So, let’s fast forward to 2022. Retirement beckoned, offering time to explore pursuits that both mirrored and developed my interests. And here was the chance: the National Trust was calling for volunteer guides at Rippon Lea Estate for both the house and the garden.  

As I was to find out, the focus of both the house and garden tours at Rippon Lea Estate is its social history; the people, practices, attitudes and fashions that moulded the estate from its pre-colonial times. But although its history is fascinating and absolutely fundamental to understanding what we see today, there are of course other aspects to explore at Rippon Lea. Walking around the beautiful gardens, who could fail to be captivated by the amazing assortment of plants? … And who could fail to notice the surprising and delightful assortment of birds? 

Renowned local naturalist, Gio Fitzpatrick, had already noticed of course, and his insightful bird-spotting tours had proved to be extremely popular. So it was not long before, once again, the National Trust put out the call for volunteers. This time it was for interested bird observers to become guides so that such tours could run on a more regular basis. I jumped at the chance.  

So what specific birds are causing such interest at Rippon Lea Estate? There are many. 

Take the Grey Fantails, still commonly found in the outer suburbs, but now, in inner Melbourne, only believed to be breeding at Rippon Lea, and in the fernery at that! What a delight last Spring to see the parents feeding their 2 chicks in a perfect little nest balanced on a palm frond. 

Or the flocks of Silvereyes, excitedly announcing their arrival as they descend to devour the berries of a fruiting perennial; a sound that will evoke memories of childhood for many. 

Or the tiny Spotted Pardalotes, calling from the railway embankment in which they have dug their nests, who feel safe enough to visit their favourite eucalypts by the lake. 

Or the White-browed Scrubwrens and Brown Thornbills, also known as ‘LBBs’ (little brown birds) who once may have been taken for granted in inner city gardens, until they seemed to vanish. 

It even has its very own raptors, a pair of Collared Sparrowhawks. Absent from other local parks, these birds of prey also ‘enjoy’ the abundance of LBBs around Rippon Lea. 

But it is not only the more cryptic or increasingly uncommon birds that are a drawcard for bird lovers to this biodiversity hotspot. 

Some familiar characters like Charlie the White-faced Heron and Barry the Magpie, and are looked upon as old friends by those who walk the gardens regularly. Other birds never fail to charm with their stunning plumage and plucky antics; will the Australasian Grebes ever be able to establish their floating nest?… Will the Galahs or the Rainbow Lorikeets win the battle over the prized hole in the old elm?… Will the Wood Ducks continue to risk crossing the Nepean Highway with their ducklings, or will they learn to stay put at the Yalukit Willam wetlands? 

But perhaps the most important story to tell is not one of a bird that occurs regularly at Rippon Lea Estate, but one that does not, the Noisy Miner.  

Luckily for many of the birds at Rippon Lea Estate, Noisy Miners, so prevalent across the inner city, are only occasionally sighted as they do not appreciate what an authentic Victorian garden offers. Not for them the dense shrubberies and exotic plantings. Instead they seek old eucalyptus trees surrounded by grass, such as on a golf course or in a park, where they  aggressively defend their territory and mob intruders. In recent decades, these, albeit native, birds have spread across Melbourne, chasing out many other birds before them. Some, such as the White-plumed Honeyeater, are now said to be locally extinct, but Rippon Lea Estate has proved to be a sanctuary for others that have been able to adapt to life in a Victorian-style garden. 

So Rippon Lea Estate certainly made an impression on my daughter and I when we visited 30 years ago and we have grown in our appreciation of the estate and all that it has to offer ever since. 

In fact, that visit led to quite unexpected consequences. Who would have thought that one day I would be conducting tours showcasing the bird life I thought back then would be so uninteresting, or that one day, my daughter and her family would live in the house next door? 

Helen Williams is a Volunteer Guide at Rippon Lea Estate and lead regular tours of the gardens and bird life.

Guest writers


Guest writers

Writers from the National Trust community share their stories and expertise.