The Wonder of Wetlands

Celebrating World Wetlands Day on 2 February

Bronwen Scott

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Georgetown, Far North Queensland. © Bronwen Scott

In summer, when it rains and the roadside verges fill with water, wildlife moves in. Patrician-profiled swamphens in navy blue and royal purple stalk through the flooded grass. Dragonflies hover on Dolly Parton diamante wings. Double-barred Finches and Red-browed Firetails flit in busy flocks, their activity first attracting predators, then confusing them.

At night, the water shines like opal under the lights of passing cars. The noise of diesel engines, of rusted exhausts and tyres on blacktop is not enough to drown out the croaks and creaks, the kazoo blasts and trills, and the rasps and rubber band snaps from the ditches. Although the vehicles are loud, the frogs are louder still.

It rains — and an ecosystem assembles itself.

This is a story from a long time ago. The details may be misremembered.

I returned to my office to find voicemail full of messages. The maintenance department was emptying a pond, ripping down all the reeds and sedges along its edge and scooping out the algae and Azolla with a front end loader. By the time I got there, a mountain range of sloppy black mud had been dumped on the grass. Dragonfly larvae and water boatmen struggled to find their way back to the water.

Why were they destroying the wetland?

It wasn’t a wetland, they said. It was just a drain.

The Reed Warblers and Australasian Grebes that had lived there and the Wood Ducks that dropped by to dabble for food could not tell the difference between a wetland and a drain. Nor could the aquatic insects dying in the sun. The drain was their world.

There is no hard-edged, laser-cut definition of wetland. We can say, in a hand-wavy way, that it is an area where water overlies soil either permanently or seasonally. A wetland might be fed by a river or by ground water rising to the surface or even by run off, as was the case with Reed Warblers’ drain. It might be freshwater or brackish. As Justice Potter Stewart said about an entirely different subject, I know it when I see it.

The Okefenokee Swamp is a wetland. Yellow Waters at Kakadu is a wetland. The Danube Delta is wetland. But so are the flooded paddocks…

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Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: bronwenscott.com