Thursday, August 02, 2012

Birdsland Reserve

This area of riparian bushland off McNicol Road in Belgrave Heights is important both from a community and an environmental point of view.

On occasion referred to as "the lungs of Belgrave", Birdsland Reserve is a 75 hectare reserved managed by the Yarra Ranges Council and abuts a further 36 hectares that is currently managed by Melbourne Water.  This latter area is referred to officially as the Monbulk Creek Retarding Basin, but to us locals the whole area is known simply as Birdsland.

Unless you have under 5's in your family, in which case it may be fondly known as Duckland :)

"What? Is that it?!"

The reserve is a firm favourite of local families, environment groups, birdwatchers, equestrians, runners, mountain bikers, ever hopeful fishermen and dog walkers.

The lakes that form the retarding basin were built in the 1970s to try and reduce the impact of flooding further downstream.  There were some hopes in the past of creating a fishery in the larger lake, with the release of 70 brown trout and 800 rainbow trout between the years 1995 and 2003.  The larger lake contains some brown and rainbow trout,  redfin, small roach, short-finned eel and the occasional river blackfish. 

The small lake on a cold afternoon

The lakes and surrounding bushland and pasture is also important from a wildlife perspective, with several significant species present including platypus, sugar gliders and swamp wallabies, along with turtles and various lizards - not to mention the 86 species of birds that have been sighted.

Actually, make that 87 as they don't have pelicans on the list and we saw some there yesterday! :)

With Birdsland being such a popular spot (hey, it even has a song written about it!), it always surprises me how little most of the visitors know of it's history and establishment.

Monbulk Creek was originally named Dargon's Creek, after the pastoralist Thomas Dargon.  Dargon was an Irishman and one of our pioneering residents, arriving in the area in the 1850's and purchasing around 760 acres on the Hallam Road, as well as an area backing onto the existing Wellington Road that now forms part of Birdsland.  Dargon is credited with the renaming of the creek to Monbulk, which is believe to have come from the aboriginal words "mon", meaning magic, and "bolloc" meaning pond or lake.  It appears to be a reference to the nearby springs and their medicinal properties.

Dargon died in 1860.  Ironically, the creek which once bore his name took his life when he drowned crossing it's swollen waters in an attempt to reach home.

The track that passes along the south of Birdsland and down to Wellington Road is named for Dargon.

His widow attempted to continue the lease, but very soon the cattle became diseased and were lost.  Tragically, 2 of her 3 children were also lost at the same time after contracting diptheria from exposure to the rotting carcases.  A daughter survived and later married Joseph Winter, who took over the families Watercourse Paddock on Boundary Road.

Mrs. Dargon later married Robert Nixon, for whom Nixon Road is named, and they resided together in the original homestead with their daughter Isabella (Isobel?)  Robert Nixon was for many years a councillor in the Shire of Berwick, which proved to be to his benefit in 1887 when he stood trial accused of stealing and selling a bullock belonging to another pastoralist.  Witnesses to his good character led to him being aquitted.  Nixon however died suddenly in 1890 after suffering a ruptured blood vessel.

Isabella was seen as one of the belles of the district and in 1902 married Alfred Brandt, a German sailor who had commenced working on her father's farm in 1888.  Together they had a son name Julius.  Tragedy once again struck in 1958 when fire destroyed the original Dargon homestead, taking Isabella's life in the process.

The ruins of the homestead can still be seen alongside Dargon Track - if you know where to look.

A more intact historic home can be seen by the Birdsland Environment Education Centre and nursery.  Built in the 1890s, the weatherboard farmhouse was still occupied until very recently by the O'Brien family, who acted as caretakers, overseeing the reserve and managing the facilities.  There is still a garden here and remnants of a heritage orchard, which have been sadly neglected over the years, though recent attempts have been made to restore it and plant more heritage, or heirloom, fruit trees.

In 1980, the Bird family who owned the land at the time, submitted an application to the former Shire of Sherbrooke to activate an old small lot subdivision for housing on the property.  Prior to this the land had been farmed by the Bird family for a number of years.

Unsurprisingly, a number of local environmental, community groups, and residents were not happy with this plan and petitioned the council to consider purchasing the land as public open space.  As several councillors felt this was a good solution, the council entered into negotiations with the Bird family.

At the time, there were concerns among the councillors regarding ongoing maintenance, but the condition of the site with existing remnant bushland and it's proximity to the Monbulk Creek Retarding Basin, meant that the opportunities for recreational use swung in favour of those who were for the proposed purchase.

After some modifications and access improvements, Birdsland Reserve opened in 1984 and later Parks Victoria purchased the land beyond, on either side of Wellington Road, to create an important biolink between the reserve and the existing Lysterfield Park.

The late 1990s saw the building of the Birdsland Environment Education Centre, incorporating a stable block, which is used by many local environment groups and recently hosted the first Mini-Beasts Festival.

In 2000, the wonderful Southern Dandenong Community Nursery (I am biased, I know!), formally opened it's doors on it's existing site at Birdsland and has been working alongside Yarra Ranges Council, Parks Victoria and Melbourne Water to revegetate the reserve ever since.

SDCN, Parks Vic and Sea Shepherd volunteers planting around a fire ravaged gum
Below the nursery, there is a wetland boardwalk which you can follow down through the clay-lined basins to the main reserve, enjoying the frogs as you go.

The reserve has had it's problems however.  The lakes have suffered from blue-green algael blooms, erosion of creek banks and of course the area is at risk from bushfires.  It is still recovering from the fires in 2009, which saw losses to some of the most beautiful trees and important wildlife, and closed off areas of the reserve for an extended period.

Fortunately, the importance of the reserve is recognised by the organisations involved and a joint masterplan has been developed to ensure it's future is preserved.

The Birdsland Reserve Draft Masterplan is soon to be released for public viewing and comment.  If you can't wait for the colour version, then check out this agenda item from the latest council meeting held on Tuesday 24th July.

My one hope is that they make the "Dogs on Leads" signs more prominent!!

For those interested in seeing more (and better!) photographs of Birdsland Reserve, please check out these Google Image search results.  I am particularly in awe of Darren Clarke's work here and here.  Or better yet, visit Birdsland and take your own! :)

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