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!
|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!