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Lake Cowal NSW'S LARGEST BIRD SANCTUARY AND SIGNIFICANT WETLAND HABITAT

The sun rises early in summer when the migratory birds come to Lake Cowal, the largest natural inland wetland in NSW. The shallow lake just north of the town of West Wyalong in the Riverina covers just over 13,500 hectares when full. When we visited in December, 2020, the lake covered about 40% of its normal maximum surface area. The good rains in 2020, after the record drought of 2019, meant that the area was teeming with bird-life.

Half the lake is owned by Evolution Mining, the company that operates a large open-cut gold mine at the edge of the lake, the lights of its heavy machinery just visible (above) in the haze of the early morning. When the wind blows from the mine to you its workings can be heard and the scars of the mine are clearly visible from anywhere in the lake. But the greatest threat to the immediate future of the lake is not the mine, but a proposal to raise the height of the Wyangala Dam wall on the Lachlan River by 10 metres. This will reduce the water flows into the lake leading to desiccation and loss of habitat for its many visitors, some of which, like Latham's snipe, travel thousands of kilometres each year to be here in the austral summer.

Around the edge of the outermost extent of the lake is a ring of river red gums.

Some skeletons of trees that grew earlier in the first half of the twentieth century, when lake levels were, on average, lower than at present times, dot the lake bed. Just before we arrived a huge storm had blown through knocking many branches off the living gums and blowing an empty watertank across the lake.

Many different types of birds inspect their surroundings from the towering branches.

Galahs gather

Old giants die, but nature, left to its own devices, is quick to renew itself. Immature red gums grow alongside the older trees.

Wallaby among immature red gums

A whistling kite's nest had been dislodged during the storm but the pair of kites was still hunting in their territory.

A pair of sacred kingfisher also used the branches of the gums as vantage points in their hunt for insects. The male has more strikingly blue plumage compared with the female pictured below.

The Lake Cowal and West Wyalong area has an interesting human history. This is Wiradjuri country and people of the Wiradjuri nation welcomed other peoples who would gather in the area to trade and utilise the significant natural resources. Gold deposits attracted white miners and prospectors and the water supply facilitated livestock and cropping enterprises. Visitor access to the lake is managed by the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre (LCCC) through an arrangement with Evolution Mining who purchased the "Lake Cowal" homestead complex and property (seen here) in 2003. There is a good dirt road to this point where we parked when visiting the lake.

The original "Lake Cowal" homestead, built in 1888, was destroyed by fire in 1927. A new homestead, utilising some of the surviving buildings, was built in 1934. The LCCC has plans to rescue this homestead, now in need of some care and repairs, and establish a luxury campsite nearby for visitors. When wandering around the desolate buildings I could still sense that it had been a wonderful place to live with good views of the ever-changing lake and its ring of river red gums.

A man-made fire break just below the "Lake Cowal" homestead allowed access to water and let us appreciate the extent of the edges of the shallow lake otherwise obscured by a healthy cover of cane grass.

From here we were able to observe and photograph some of the lake's current inhabitants.

Galah drinking
Chough gathering mud for the communal nest
Stilt feeding
Stilt stalking

The cane grass made it difficult to see the abundant bird life, like these magpie geese, until they lifted off as soon as we approached.

Magpie geese lift off
Glossy ibis lift off

There were often birds flying overhead.

Glossy ibis
Black swans

In the afternoons the ubiquitous whiskered terns chased dragonflies over the expanses of grass.

White-necked heron with their "headlight" wings moved to better hunting grounds.

White-necked heron

Mal Carnegie of the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre paddled a kayak to a man-made dam near the edge of open water to place a camera to record bird populations there. Mal was born in the district and has made the welfare of the lake his life's work.

Magpie geese lift off from the dam wall as Mal approaches - testament to the abundance of life supported by Lake Cowal.

Acknowledgement: Many thanks to Sally Russell and Mal Carnegie of the Lake Cowal Conservation Centre for cheerful and helpful provision of information and access.

Created By
Helen McFadden
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All photos and text Copyright Helen McFadden