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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 20 September 2012

On This Day 20 September - the national capital's lake started to fill!

The Molonglo River, once known as the Fish River for its richness, was in the early 1960s a stream flowing across the grasslands of the frosty Limestone Plains, still polluted by unmanaged heavy metal mining dumps at its headwaters at Captains Flat 50km away. The fish had virtually disappeared long ago. When Chicago architects Walter Burley Griffin and Marion Mahony Griffin designed the national capital 50 years earlier a major lake was always a crucial focal point, an essential element of their carefully designed landscape axes. Unfortunately politics and economics interfered and the Griffins never saw this part of their plan come to fruition, though Marion, who outlived Walter by 24 years, died only two years before it happened. 

It was on this day, on 20 September 1963, that the gates of the Scivener Dam finally closed and Lake Burley Griffin began to fill. (No one is sure, incidentally, why it is 'Burley Griffin' rather than just Lake Griffin, or Lake Walter Griffin - not to mention why Marion missed out either.) The lake is 11km long, but the focus of many Canberra naturalists, and especially bird watchers, is a wetland complex that formed at the eastern end, furthest from the dam. The Jerrabomberra Wetlands were not new, but their permanence was; previously they had been ephemeral, based around the paleaochannels of the Molonglo, which filled in times of high flow, and dried out during droughts. It is this aspect of the national capital's lake, rather than the national institutions which line it - library, museum, galleries, high court - that I want to celebrate today.
Kelly's Swamp, the focal point of Jerrabomberra Wetlands for birders, in evening light.
Jerrabomberra, a reserve managed as part of Canberra Nature Park, is included on a national Directory of Important Wetlands of Australia, as it is a crucial refuge for waterbirds in particular during droughts. Over 80 waterbird species have been recorded there, but the plantings which have been undertaken for screening and habitat make it important for many terrestrial birds too - my own list for the wetlands over the years stands at 135 species, which is more than half the birds I've seen in the entire Australian Capital Territory.

Undoubtedly the birding highlight in recent years was the advent of two Australian Painted Snipe late last year - this is one of the rarest birds in Australia and I'd never seen one anywhere. (One had turned up here a few years ago - I got the call when I was out of town but couldn't get back before dark. I was there at 5.30 the next morning, but it wasn't seen again... I actually almost missed these too - I arrived back from South America and was driven straight there from the airport!)
Other specials are the migrants which fly some 12,000km from the Arctic Circle to spend the southern summer here; among these, most celebrated is Latham's Snipe. It is a surreal and wonderful experience to sit in the hides and watch the snipe with the national parliament building in the background. 

The hides are well-placed and well-designed, to allow comfortable contemplation of the passing waterbirds. When my life wasn't going as I'd planned it (that was a while ago now) I spent many meditative and recuperative hours in the Jerra hides; they're a good place to go when life is good too though!
Great Egret
Royal Spoonbill in breeding plumage.
Glossy Ibis; one of many species not normally seen in our part of the world,
but which turn up at Jerrabomberra during drought times.
The hides shelter other mammals than bird watchers at times too.
Brush-tailed Possum and joey.
I mentioned land birds too, and one threatened species is often seen here. The Little Eagle is listed as threatened in both the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales; a pair, one of the very few left here, includes Jerrabomberra in its territory.
Little Eagle at the sewage ponds just across the road;
these are ecologically an integral part of the wetland system.
If you live near here and haven't been out to Jerra recently - why not?! If you don't, make sure you put a couple of hours at least aside to visit next time you come to Canberra.

Happy Birthday, Jerrabomberra!


Flabmeister said...

A key aspect (IMHO) of the Jerrabomberra wetlands is that they can fill quickly after rain, even during a savage drought. Then they become a refuge for waterbirds. I think this is why the Royal Spoonbills nested there in 2008-09 (see a summary in http://franmart.blogspot.com.au/2009/01/too-many-spoonbills-are-never-enough.html)


Beth said...

The Jerrabomberra wetlands was the first "birdy" place visited when I first moved to Canberra from Queensland. It really is a beautiful habitat - though I still haven't seen Painted Snipe! Thanks for a really nice article.

Ian Fraser said...

Flabmeister; you're right (of course!). One reason they fill so quickly is that Kellys is so shallow; that also makes it important wader habitat. I've been there just after it rained and Kellys was wet again after a dry empty spell; fascinating to watch the Swamp Hens trot across the road from the permanent sewage ponds.
Beth; thanks for your kind words. It is special, and I'm sure I'm not the only one to have a heart-connection with it, as well as its
more obvious wonderful values. Maybe when you're as old as me you'll have seen Painted Snipe too! :-}

Denis Wilson said...

Hi Ian
Nice historical connection there.
I do not remember "the day" but i do remember that after the Lake started to fill, Canberra entered a long period of drought. That made a wonderful swamp right in the middle of Canberra.
My father started banding in the lake bed, around Yarralumla Bay and below Sullivan's Creek. We got lots of birds not previously recorded in Canberra - Crakes and Rails.
Shades of "Field of Dreams" The adage "Build it and they will come" fits perfectly.
Eventually it rained heavily and our banding spots were suddenly 30 feet under water, and Canberra had its lake.
Denis Wilson

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks for those memories Denis. Before my time in Canberra I'm afraid. I've heard a few stories about the legendary banding exploits of your dad and his colleagues, but hadn't heard that one.