28 Jan 2022
HEXHAM SWAMP: THE SAFETY VALVE OF THE LOWER HUNTER
Passionate nature lover and long-term WWF supporter David Waterhouse shares a story with us to celebrate World Wetlands Day.
David has been fascinated by nature all his life and continues his support of nature through a gift in his will to WWF-Australia. This month we gain an insight into his experience of wetland habitats and the seasonal changes in native fauna, specifically waterbirds and the likes.
On the floodplain of the lower Hunter River, near the city of Newcastle, New South Wales, lies an extensive area of wetland known as the Hexham Swamp.
In times of flood, particularly, this huge expanse of standing water acts as a giant sponge, holding and then gradually releasing its flow back into the river, via a sluice gate.
Hexham Swamp is a lonely, wide-open space, despite its proximity to a big city. Few people venture into it. The only break made in its flat expanse was the long mound bisecting the whole wetland built by the Coal and Allied Company to accommodate a single railway line for coal transport. This has since fallen into disuse. Holes had been cut at intervals to allow floodwaters to drain back into the river via Ironbark Creek.
Some years ago, I was allowed to access to the disused line to make regular surveys of the waterbirds which came and went, depending on the seasons and the water levels. Over time, I was able to experience the various conditions and ‘mood swings’ of this quiet and extensive ‘swampscape’.
On hot summer afternoons, when the swamp was reduced to isolated pools and extensive mudflats, the smell of the rich black earth mingled with the aniseed odour of fennel. These plants grew higher than a man along the railway line with its long rows of parked coal wagons. In those beds of fennel, tiny Cisticola warblers flew in and out, the males emitting their loud rasping sounds in pursuit of the females.
The reedbeds would look like fields of golden wheat as the water dried during a relentlessly hot summer. Sometimes these dried out swathes of reed would catch fire and the blue of the sky would be quickly blotted out by the rising palls of smoke. Dragonflies and other insects would swarm above the holocaust. It was then that a fast little hawk, called a hobby, could appear out of nowhere to snatch the unwary dragonflies one after another. Before being consumed on the wing, each victim was dismembered between claw and bill, the inedible wings glistering in the sunlight as they twirled downwards onto the water’s surface.
Sometimes on a summer’s night, the stillness over the vast reedbeds to the east of the embankment may well have been broken by a resonant ‘whump’ sound. The noise, repeated regularly, is as mysterious as it is startling. For a long time, when swamps were a more familiar part of the landscape back in the days of early European settlement, it was attributed to the bunyip. Aboriginal peoples and white settlers alike were convinced that only some secretive but powerful denizen of the reed swamps could be capable of making such as noise. At first, I thought that I was hearing the thumps of harbour deepening work at the mouth of the Hunter, which as the swan flies was not too far distant.
In fact, the sound was made by a large secretive swamp bird called a bittern. It is a member of the heron family but is very cryptic in both behaviour and appearance. This skulking bird mostly hides in the reads, where its camouflaged plumage blends in well. It merges even better into the vegetation if you actually spot one, perhaps on the edge of an open pool, for then it will shrink its body by lifting its long neck and pointing its dagger-like bill straight upwards. It may even sway with the reeds.
Occasionally, on my walks beside the railway, I would flush one of these bitterns from a patch of reeds close to the embarkment. It would almost lumber into the air, giving vent to a single grunt as if annoyed at the disturbance. It never rose far above the level of the reed heads and would drop down into another patch soon afterwards. Compared with a snipe or a sandpiper its flight was unhurried and ponderous.
The other side of the embankment was devoid of reeds. Any birds present in the shallow expanse of water or in the remaining pools during a dry spell were easily visible, except for those in the far distance. There was often a considerable variety of waterbirds to be seen and each walk seemed to produce something different, apart from the usual ducks, herons, egrets, grebes, cormorants, and swamphens.
In the summertime there would be a scattering of migratory waders from Asia, including sharp-tailed and Curlew sandpipers with perhaps a few greenshanks and Marsh sandpipers. During inland droughts, whiskered terns could turn up in large flocks haunting the air just above the water surface.
An early morning mist would sometimes cover the swamps like a grey shroud. On such days the eerie silence was broken only occasionally by a distant train noise or by the squeals of the purple-hued swamphens. Other sounds might include the deep melancholy bugling uttered by flocks of swans as they glided and mingled on the open patches of water. Sometimes a flock would number in the hundreds with their constant calling muffled by the thick blanket of fog.
The fog, however, rarely persisted and, as the sun rose slowly it soon dispensed the wreaths which had once covered the surface of the water. It was then that an observer could see the elegant creatures in the distance. Those afloat were joined by the slow ponderous forms of other swans in loose formation, winging in from the direction of Fullerton Cove on the northern part of the Hunter estuary, beyond Kooragang Island. As the largest of the local waterfowl lost height for landing amongst their kin, they would extend their webbed under-carriages and flap their wings. At that moment, the sun’s rays shone on the white panels of the secondary flight feathers with dazzling effect on the observer.
Few people remain unmoved on seeing such sights but the two-thousand-acre wetland of the Hexham Swamp, now having extra protection as a, has much to offer those who love nature.
Because of our supporters, WWF has been able to work to conserve and protect wetlands worldwide for more than 40 years, providing animals like the bittern and sandpiper with a chance of survival into the future.
But we can’t achieve this conservation work alone. Together with your support, we can continue to protect significant wetland habitats, ensuring a safe future for native species. One of the most effective ways to have an impact on this work into the future is by leaving a .
You have the power to make a lasting impact on our wetlands, and other vital habitats that our precious species call home.