It’s not possible to come to Canberra without noticing Black Mountain just at the edge of the city with the soaring needle of the iconic telecommunications tower that shoots above it. It’s everything ancient and modern, natural and man-made at once. An essential part of Canberra’s history and planned and natural landscape and beloved by locals and especially photographers. One could argue that Black Mountain is the heart of this city known as the Bush Capital and this month it celebrates its 50th year of being officially designated a nature reserve.
There are things to celebrate, with walks, talks and a new book thrown in for good measure.
Here’s some things you mightn’t have known about this treasured pocket of biodiversity in the heart of Canberra.
What is it?
Black Mountain Nature reserve provides a natural retreat and backdrop to the city of Canberra and forms an essential part of its planned landscape. It’s a sandstone island covered in dry sclerophyll forest that’s home to a feast of flora and fauna: over 640 species of native plants, lichens and macrofungi, 174 species of native vertebrate animals, and at least 2150 species of native insects and other invertebrates, including a number of endangered species. It’s also home to a number of species found nowhere else on earth.
Forming part of an extensive area of open forest and woodland, it also supports a rich shrub and herb diversity including some rare and threatened plant species and houses several threatened or regionally declining birds. It offers walking tracks , amazing views, and a thousand photo opportunities.
Sitting opposite the Australian National University (ANU), bordering the Australian National Botanic Gardens and the CSIRO, it’s hardly surprising it’s one of the most studied natural areas in Canberra, or Australia. And on 23 July, it celebrates 50 years of being a nature reserve. Happy Anniversary!
History of Black Mountain
Black Mountain has been home to Indigenous people for more than 20,000 years and to Europeans for just under two centuries. It was a key part of the Walter Burley Griffin’s plan of the city which set aside hills as open space, including Black Mountain and Mt Ainslie, both now nature reserves. Peer out over the city and lake from the top and you’ll see the plan in action.
It’s believed it was ‘named’ by Surveyor Robert Hoddle who worked in the region. In 1832 he wrote ‘Black Hill’ under his sketches of Black Mountain and O’Connor Ridge because both were burnt as part of the local Aboriginals’ land management practice, and the name stuck.
Canberrans value Griffith’s landscape plan highly so when the government decided to build a telecommunications tower bang smack on the top of Black Mountain, Canberra’s first environmental protests began in earnest, led by academics from the ANU, sited at the foot of the mountain. It was to no avail and construction went ahead in 1973 and now it’s become a much-loved part of the landscape and helps orientate visitors and locals alike as it’s visible from almost anywhere in the city.
The Australian National Botanic Gardens sits at the base of the mountain and displays the world’s greatest living collection of Australian plants, a different take to other Australian botanic gardens which displayed exotic plants.
Aboriginal heritage sites
The Canberra region is part of the traditional home of the Ngunnawal Aboriginal people. Black Mountain and Acton Peninsula are believed to have been meeting places and Black Mountain and the surrounding area is a highly significant Aboriginal cultural place. There are a number of Aboriginal cultural heritage values and sites in the reserve and traces of a traditional lifestyle, including stone artefacts, campsites and scarred trees are visible in the landscape.
Up until the arrival of pastoral settlers, the foothills of Black Mountain were known to be an important camping place where Aboriginal groups gathered before travelling south into the mountains. It was a place where gatherings, knowledge transference and ceremonies took place.
Black Mountain is a haven for native wildlife with a rich diversity of bird and plant species and an array of wildflowers in the spring and early summer. Much of the reserve is old growth dry open forest. The understorey is diverse with shrubs, grasses, orchids and other herbs. Ecosystems in this reserve include Open Forest, Woodland and Grassland
For hundreds of millions of years, Black Mountain has been a large sandstone block in a Canberra landscape that was otherwise dominated by volcanic and alluvial soils. It is therefore not surprising that Black Mountain supports many plant species isolated from similar species in other locations within the ACT.
The Nature Reserve is home to a wide array of animals including insects and reptile species. Keep your eyes peeled for the most common marsupials , Eastern Grey Kangaroo and Swamp Wallaby, and the Ringtail Possum if you’re there in the evening.
Reptiles living in the reserve include three snake species (this may or may not be appealing to visitors, depending on your viewpoint), nine skink species and seven lizard species including dragons. Not the fire-breathing kind. The most common reptiles are the Delicate Skink and Copper-tailed Skink.
A small number of endangered Pink-tailed Worm-lizards have been found here which is unusual in a forested location as they are more commonly found on hill slopes and grassy woodlands. Nine frog species and more than 200 insect species have been recorded in the reserve, including moths and butterflies, two rare cricket and scorpion species along with a number of ant and termites species. Are you getting the picture? Lots and lots of different species! Canberra’s Amazon.
You can find more information on Canberra’s birds at the Canberra Birds website.
Canberra Nature Map provides photos and descriptions of many species listed.
Birds, butterflies and more
Black Mountain is also a haven for bird life. You might see or hear honeyeaters, dollarbirds, fantails, orioles and a host of other birds which migrate via the reserve, usually in the autumn. The range of habitats and plant diversity within the reserve’s undisturbed bushland provide havens for a range of species including threatened woodland birds. Mature trees provide nesting hollows; younger trees, shrubs and grasses provide blossoms, seeds and protection for smaller birds.
Black Mountain is a bit of a “hotspot” for butterflies and during different seasons you can see the butterflies in various growth stages on different plants. The Friends of Black Mountain often have Butterfly Walks (what a lovely concept!) led by Dr Suzi Bond where you can discover more of their secrets and places you’re likely to spot them. Hot tip: look for clusters of flowers as butterflies love blue, yellow and red flowers.
The nature reserve includes a wide variety of plants, in fact around 600 different species of them, including some very rare species and ones which are endemic just to Black Mountain. This includes more than 60 types of orchids and ten species of eucalypt.
When you look around, there are a number of native species which dominate the vegetation. The most common trees are Brittle Gum, Scribbly Gum, Red Stringybark and Red Box. You’re also likely to see lots of herbaceous plants (240 species) and grass and grass-like plants (200 species of those).
Keep your eyes out for the myriad of orchids and daisies and pea-flowers . They are 61, 50 and 22 native species of those respectively so there’s quite a bit of flower-spotting to do. Up to 33 rare plant species are found in Black Mountain Nature Reserve, including orchids only found in this area of the ACT.
Canberra Nature Map offers photos and descriptions of many species listed.
Walks at Black Mountain
There are a multitude of walks to be taken on Black Mountain, some short and some up to two hours. The Friends of Black Mountain website has a wealth of information about the walks and the different flora and fauna you’ll encounter on them. This year is also the 20th Anniversary of the official opening of the two hour Summit Walk, a joint project between ACT Government, Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG), and Telstra.
A couple of guided walks will be taking place for the 50th anniversary (already booked out) although there are plenty of opportunities to explore the trails yourself.
A couple of words of caution though. It’s a nature reserve so remember:
- dogs aren’t allowed (even on a lead)
- don’t pick flowers or anything else
- stick to the paths.
Friends of Black Mountain
If you want to be more involved in the teeming natural life of Black Mountain or learn more, you can join in regular activities with Friends of Black Mountain, a local community group of volunteers who help conserve and promote Black Mountain’s biodiversity and values now and for future generations. They organise walks and talks for the public and weeding parties (perhaps the only parties still appropriate in socially-distanced times) to keep weeds under control. You can find out more about their activities and the history of Black Mountain nature reserve on their website.
ParkCare volunteers also contribute their time to improve and protect natural and cultural values.
If you’re keen to know more, a new book celebrating Black Mountain has been produced— Black Mountain: a natural history of a Canberra icon, written by two Canberra locals who know the area intimately, naturalist Ian Fraser and plant ecologist Rosemary Purdie. Richly illustrated with maps and illustration, it’s the definitive collection of scientific knowledge about the area’s biodiversity, ecology and history. Black Mountain has a long history of scientific collecting and research making it one of the best studied and documented areas of its size in the ACT.
You can order a copy here.
Black Mountain is an intrinsic part of my life. I lived at the base of it (at ANU) for three years when I first came to Canberra. I’ve walked up there and followed the tracks, eaten at the revolving restaurant there when there was a restaurant, taken in the sweeping views of Canberra it provides, even studied at the timber tables up there in the sun, and taken about a million photos of it, possibly more.
I guess this weekend I should make a special visit to mark the occasion, wander some of the walking trails with the grandkids in tow and discover a little more about this place.