I sometimes see entries to the chat line referring to the mangroves bordered
by the Darwin suburbs of Stuart Park and Bayview Haven, and thought readers
might be interested in the birding history of the place.
I first became aware of the area as an alderman in 1981. I¹d been elected to
Darwin City Council on the platform of conserving mangroves at a time when
no one thought they were anything but disease-ridden, horrible places only
fit for destruction or development. Ludmilla Creek was to be the first to go
a housing development was planned there, and there were also rumours about
the area opposite Stuart Park.
Nobody on Council was interested in birds, or that mangroves might provide
a buffer against storm surge. However, most of the aldermen fished, and so I
based my arguments around that, and won a reprieve for Ludmilla Creek.
At this time the Power and Water Authority, with cooperation from Darwin
City Council, was digging channels through areas around Darwin to drain
areas thought to be prone to mosquito breeding, and I visited some of these
places, including the area in question. It was a wonderful combination of a
range of habitats, from monsoon vine-thicket and open forest to Ceriops and
Rhizophora mangroves, and one of my favourite places. The diggers created a
hell of a lot of damage for what, it seemed to me, was a questionable
result. However, the combination of channels and relatively pristine habitat
in the Stuart Park mangroves appeared to favour Chestnut Rail. The bird was
certainly easier to see there than anywhere else.
>From 1983 I birded the area with Hilary Thompson and began taking birders in
soon after. We were quite despondent when we heard the area was destined to
be cleared for development. Darwin lost so many prime birding spots in those
years, and our appeals to a government and tourism industry not interested
in birding went unheard. The ignorance is demonstrated by the response of
a senior public servant in the Northern Territory Tourism Commission when I
protested at the planned removal of the pylon, on which a pair of ospreys
had nested for years. He told me that if he lived in Bayview Haven, the
swank new suburb being built next to the mangroves, he certainly ³wouldn¹t
want to see an untidy bird¹s nest from (his) kitchen window².
The suburb went ahead, but fortunately, the mangroves on the city side were
left untouched. And they appeared to be even better for Chestnut Rail and a
few other mangrove birds than ever before.
I got to know the rails relatively well. In the late afternoon, they would
often make their way through the patch of Rhizophora where I stood,
clicking as they went. At high tide I¹d be crouched in the Ceriops watching
for Mangrove Robin, and a rail or two would walk past.
They would approach within a few metres as long as one wore
suitably-coloured clothing and made no sharp movements or sound. On one
occasion I hid a large group behind mangroves while another group and I
worked our way around a bend in the channel. From our spot we could see the
position of the other group, all well hidden. That is, except for one
individual, who had taken off her jacket to reveal a pale blue shirt. My
heart sank. I expected that any rail catching sight of that shirt would
flee immediately and that¹s what happened.
Another problem was people who fidgeted, but that¹s another story. Then
there were the fishermen who one day set up an illegal net across one of the
channels. I contacted the police, and to my surprise they turned up, two of
them, in smart, crisp uniforms and polished boots. One, Constable Ben
Martin, and I ended up hip deep in mud, retrieving that net. At one stage
we got stuck and the senior constable (I forget his name) had to enter the
mud to pull us out. I later heard that they got a frightful ribbing back at
the station. However, I thought they were terrific, and sang their praises
far and wide.
Despite the area becoming well known, ir was still zoned for development,
and 80 metres or so back from Tiger Brennan Drive was to be the first to
go. Hoping to raise awareness, I produced a book, The Birds of Darwin
Mangroves & Mudflats, and T-shirts featuring Chestnut Rail. Soon after the
one and only Ita Buttrose asked me to put together a sewage pond and
mangrove trip for her travel club. Then PAWA asked me to run birdwatching
soirees at Leanyer Sewage Pond, and the publicity from this led to national
television production companies asking me to put on more soirees for
national television. We all, including the presenters (one of whom was
model Kate Fisher), wore evening dress and gumboots or running shoes.
I also wrote to Mike Reed, then the Minister for Conservation, on the value
of the birding groups who visited the area. Mike was wonderful. He changed
the zoning thus protecting the area. But not only that he declared the area
on the other side of Bayview Haven a park, and named it after Charles
Darwin. One of his offsiders told me that I had nothing to do with the
creation of the park, that it was the huge number of biting midges in the
area that influenced his decision. I didn¹t care.
However, few locals used the Stuart Park mangroves, but either went to
Buffalo Creek or Middle Arm, fifty or so kilometres out of town, as did some
international tour operators.
When the NT Tourist Commission heard that Keith Betton was visiting
Queensland to set up a conference for European travel agents, they decided
they simply had to get him to the Top End. On discovering he was a birder,
staff rang to ask me to guide him.
Keith faxed me a list of the birds he wanted to see and where he wanted to
see them, and against Chestnut Rail was Middle Arm. I replied that I could
show him the bird within a couple of kilometres of the CBD. There was
silence. He told me later that that when he was invited to visit various
destinations, they often supplied him with a birding guide who invariably
knew little. So he thought I didn¹t know what I was talking about. Keith
saw the bird within a few minutes.
So I¹m pleased to see that the Stuart Park mangroves are now receiving much
more visitation. It just might help to keep them safe.
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 3460 NT 0832, AUSTRALIA
Ph. 61 08 89 328306
Mobile: 04 386 50 835
Birdwatching and Indigenous tourism consultant
http://www.theloveofood.com (Rowan Goodfellow Thompson)
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