Thursday, July 2, 2015

A History of the Toowoomba Bicentennial Water Bird Habitat by Neil McKilligan

This is not an official history, there is none. It is the possibly imperfect, recollections of someone intimately involved in the project from its earliest beginnings to its completion and beyond.

Earlier times

When in a state of nature, some 200 years ago, Toowoomba was a place of meandering streams and lagoons. These wetlands were mostly reduced to concrete-lined drains as the city was adapted to better suit the needs of urbanization and industrialisation. A small paddock near the corner of Alderley and Mackenzie Streets on East Creek survived total elimination, albeit being greatly modified, for example, as Chinese market gardens. (A well that supplied these gardens has been preserved in the reconstructed parkland). In 1980 it was a cow paddock, drained by several deep ditches and infested with weeds. By about then the Aberdeen Street development had encroached on the eastern side of the swamp giving it an unnaturally steep profile. 

The vision of Ken Ferrier

Enter Ken Ferrier a local man and committed ‘greenie’. Ken recognized the historical and environmental value of this swampy piece of land and I needed little persuasion to his point of view. Together we wrote a submission to go to the Toowoomba City Council for the preservation and development of the East Creek swamp. It was sent jointly by the Toowoomba Field Naturalist Club (TFNC) and Toowoomba Green Watch (TGW). Both of these organizations were actively involved in conservation at that time. The latter is now defunct, regrettably. 

Well this ‘grand plan’ was received with interest by Council who politely ‘put it on the shelf’. However, that was not the end of the matter. The Australian Bicentennial Celebration was to take place in 1988 and each local council had to produce a suitable commemorative project. So we submitted another, more detailed, proposal. Alternatives projects were considered by Council, one being the refurbishment of the Empire Theatre, and costed and rejected. However, the plan for the creation of a water bird habitat on East Creek was adopted in 1983 as Toowoomba’s Bicentennial Project. It had a predicted cost of half a million dollars. Quite a lot of money in those days, to be got from local and federal government and private donations. And seven hectares of land were available, too little really. Work started in 1985. 

Five objectives of the TBWBH

  1. To save the swamp
  2. To attract a variety of water birds
  3.  To encourage passive recreation and education
  4.   To have it look attractive
  5. To aid in flood mitigation

All have been achieved except number 5, which was a bit optimistic in the light of the massive excavations of flood detention basins presently being undertaken upstream and downstream. 
The Committee.
Peg Iseppi at the 1988 opening of the Habitat
Of course a committee was needed to plan and guide (debate and argue) the Habitat. It comprised Council staff and local bird watchers and conservationists. The TFNC, TGW and Toowoomba Bird Watchers were well represented. I will not attempt to remember all the names but there was Ken, myself and Rod Smith of USQ  (a water engineer). In attendance was the City Engineer Ray Moore. The late Garnett Lehmann was especially good value with his knowledge of earth moving and sympathy for the views of the ‘birdos’. The anchor that held this multifarious bunch together and ensured that the right course was followed was the Chair Person, the late Mrs Peg Iseppi. She was a feisty little lady and had been one of the main movers in the formation of TGW. She smoked like a chimney and had I known then what I know now about the dangers of passive smoking I might have been unhappy sharing the same room with her!. The very attractive ibis statue standing in the North Lake of the TBWBH is a tribute to her achievements.

Designing for birds and people
Platform over the north Lake
About this time Ken Ferrier relocated to Bundanoon in NSW. He was greatly missed. I drew up what I called a ‘conceptual plan’ (so called because it lacked the sort of detail the engineers needed for their on-site excava-tions). Its main elements were three lagoons each with a large, treed island. The plan was adopted by the Committee. A competition was held to decide on a name, with the illustrious poet Bruce Dawe on the naming sub-committee. Despite there being many good entries the ‘Toowoomba Bicentennial Water Bird Habitat’ was adopted. The safe option, but at least descriptive. Large machinery was brought in to divert East Creek from its main course to allow the basin to dry sufficiently for earth removing. Three large holes were dug and islands created. Across Mackenzie Street a Sedimentation Pond was dug to catch silt and allow for its easy removal. An Ephemeral Pond was belatedly proposed for an empty area of grassland on the southeast corner. Clive Berghofer generously provided the machinery to create this.

Domestic ducks
The concept was to confine people to one side, the west side, of the Habitat and an unobtrusive fence was installed for this purpose. A high perimeter fence was put in place to keep out human and animal intruders and the gates were to be locked from dusk to dawn. Two viewing platforms on Aberdeen Street allowed for 24 hour observation. Extending over the North Lake a large wooden platform provided easy access to the water’s edge for little persons wishing to feed the ducks. A hide was built at a later date, with my rough sketches being converted into useable plans by local architect, the late Bill Durack. It was to be placed on the end of an island in the South Lake. Bench seats were built by two Field Nats., John Swarbrick and Mike Russell. A toilet, paved paths and picnic tables were provided by Council. The brick toilet was in my opinion out of character with the natural surroundings, but it proved to be quite functional. A novel feature, built by local Jaycees, were floating islands in two of the lakes. Volunteer groups and private citizens planted trees and shrubs, mainly around the perimeter and on the islands.

Important ‘small’ details included a gap under the internal fence to allow for the passage of ducklings from their nest holes to the safety of the water, the preservation of the flyway (gap in the trees) from the southwest to the northeast for larger birds with a shallow take-off trajectory, bench seats placed on the lagoon side of the pathway to preserve the view of bird watchers.

Eastern Swamphen


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