The star of the Jervis National Park, near Sydney, is the Black Swan. Will this sanctuary resist the pressures of tourism and development?

We were standing on the sandbar separating the Pacific Ocean and Lake Wollumboola. The sky was a clear cerulean blue and, in front of us, was a spectacular sight: thousands upon thousands of Black swan along with myriad other smaller waterfowl in that lagoon. On the far side, a forest of tall gum trees stood up to the edge of water. It was a primordial sight, without any indication of modern civilisation. This is part of Jervis National Park, about 200 km from Sydney

Aeons ago, during the Ice Age, the level of the sea rose due to melting of ice and water spilt over into the land. Over the years a wind-swept sand bar between the sea and the lake was formed and a coastal lagoon came into being.

Familiar species

This brackish water lake offers food, in the form of water plants and small aquatic lives, to sustain millions of the water fowl. Some birds, like the Little tern, nest here. Others seen here in great numbers are Chestnut teal, Gray teal and Little pied cormorant. For a birdwatcher from India there are some familiar species here such as the Coot and the Oyster catcher. This lake is on the East Asia-Australasian fly way and so a variety of wintering migrants like Godwits and sandpipers stop here to feed. It was July when we were there; so the migrants had not yet arrived from the northern hemisphere.

The star of the sanctuary is the Black swan, a bird exclusive to Australia. It was once found in New Zealand also but was shot out of existence there. In recent years it has been re-introduced. It is an arrestingly graceful bird with a bright red beak and white wing feathers that are revealed dramatically in flight. As far as the eye could see there were black swans, in a dreamlike tableau. The silence that pervaded the area added a surreal touch to the scene. If you strained your ears you could hear the swans hissing. Binoculars revealed some swans were cygnets. Evidently they are breeding here.

These birds mate for life and both the male and the female share parental chores. A particular variety of algae that grows in this lake is what attracts the swans. In one year, birdwatchers counted 12,000 swans in this lake. The only other breathtaking sight of birds I have seen is that of flamingos in Lake Nakuru in Kenya.

The first time I set my eyes on a Black swan at close quarters was in the 1970s in Ward Lake, Shillong. A pair was in the lake in the centre of the town as virtual captives with their wing feathers clipped. Undeterred they built a nest among the reeds in preparation for breeding. Nari Rustomji, the chief secretary and a keen birder, kept a daily eye on the swans on his way home from office. He made sure that the birds got police protection round the clock. In time four cygnets arrived and the family of six proved a major attraction.

High stress

The Jervis National Park is close to the beach resort town of Culbarra and so the stress on the area is high. Of all the ecosystems, it is the wetland that is highly vulnerable to pressures. In the 1950s, there was a move to reclaim this lagoon to build houses as part of the beach town. Frances Bray, an ardent birder who lives in Culbarra, organised a campaign opposing the move and eventually redeemed the lake for the birds and for posterity. Even today the pressure can be seen and she is still actively defending the lake. A developer has submitted a proposal for a golf course by the side of the lake. Realising that the run off of organic material and fertilizer would spell doom of the lake, Bray is busy arranging meetings. There is also a proposal to declare the lake a Ramsar site.

I checked the birds I had logged in Wollumboola that day; there were two lifers in the list, birds I had seen for the first time in my life. One was Gannet which I saw in flight and the other a Masked plover, a bird reminiscent of our Yellow-wattled lapwing, but slightly larger. Before we left the place, from a view-point we watched a lone Harbor seal frolicking in the water. He had the ocean to himself.