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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. I am now a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. As part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past few years.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Considering the Lilies: part 2

Last time I started an exploration of the wonderful world of lilies, including their complicated definition, which I finally settled upon, for the purposes of this blog, as plants which have in the past been included in the family Liliaceae - and there are very many of them! Not only has the giant pseudo-family been broken into 24 separate families, but this wealth of species is spread across two entire orders - it would be as though ducks and herons had recently been mixed in together, or carnivores with horses and rhinos. Last time we looked at some lilies which remain in the order Liliales; today I want to start looking at the larger order Asparagales.

First however, a couple of omissions from last time to rectify! I talked about some Australian members of the Liliales, but omitted a couple of rather lovely overseas members of the families discussed. Bear with me - they really are worth it.

Probably the best-known and most widespread member of the family Colchicaceae is the glorious Flame Lily (among many other names), also called, with some justifiable hyperbole, Gloriosa superba. It is found in much of Africa and Asia, and is the national flower of Zimbabwe. It is reputed in different places to cure almost every ill known to humankind, though it is highly toxic from top to bottom and is used as an arrow poison in West Africa.

Gloriosa superba near Masindi, Uganda.
Another family that we explored was the South American Alstromoeriaceae; again I left out a particularly lovely one that I ought not to have done! Luzuriaga has a classic Gondwanan distribution, the few species being found in Patagonia and New Zealand. L. polyphylla (Quilineja or Coral in Spanish - I'm not aware of an English name) is a beautiful climbing herb from the dripping wet temperate rainforests of the Lakes Region of northern Chilean Patagonia.
Quilineja seems to glow softly in the dark wet forests it inhabits.
Alerce Andino NP, near Puerto Montt, Chile.
So, to the order Asparagales. There are, as I've said, many families involved and today I'd like us to look at representatives of some of the smaller families.

Amaryllidaceae is probably best known for its cultivated members - daffodils and snowdrops for instance. However there are many beautiful ones to be found in the wild too of course. A couple of species occur in inland Australia, where they grow and flower, sometimes prolifically, as flood plains dry out. 
Darling Lily Crinum flaccidum, Lake Broadwater NP, Queensland.
They have a strong sweet scent in the evenings, suggesting they're pollinated by night-flying moths.
In Africa eight species of blood lilies, Scadoxus spp., are found widely. They are highly toxic with both leaves and bulbs containing potentially deadly alkoloids.
Scadoxus sp. (I think S. multiflorus - any clues anyone?), Mt Cameroon.
Asteliaceae is a largely Pacific family, most members of which are in the genus Astelia; New Zealand is its heartland, but there is one species in the far south of Patagonia, others scattered through the Pacific, and a couple in Australia.
Astelia alpina (above and below), Mount Field NP, Tasmania.
Known as Pineapple Grass though it is neither of course, but the name is appropriate!
It can dominate alpine understoreys in the south-eastern Australian alps.

Blandfordiaceae is a tiny family of just four species, all in the genus Blandfordia of eastern Australia. They are known as Christmas Bells for their mid-summer flowering and are much-loved. They grow generally in moist heathy areas.
Christmas Bells, Blandfordia nobilis, Morton NP, New South Wales.
Boryaceae is another small family, exclusively Australian, with most species in the genus Borya and in south-western Australia where they are especially found around great granite outcrops, drying out to apparent death and recovering dramatically when it rains. Unsurprisingly they are known as resurrection plants.
Borya sphaerocephala, Dingo Rock, south-west Western Australia.
Doryanthaceae is yet another tiny Australian endemic family, featuring just two giant species in the genus Doryanthes. Gymea Lily D. excelsa is found near the coast in rocky forests from Sydney to southern Queensland and is one of the most striking plants in Australia. In winter and early spring it puts up a massive flowering spike to four metres tall!
Gymea Lily, above and below, Royal National Park, Sydney.

Hypoxidaceae on the other hand is a near world-wide family, as is the large type genus with up to 150 species.
Yellow Star Hypoxis hygrometrica, Canberra.
The odd species name - it means 'water measuring' - refers to the curious fact that the plant's hairs
coil up when dry and extend when wet. To my knowledge this has never been explained!

Hypoxis sp., Ngaoundaba Ranch, central Cameroon.
And finally for today, family Asphodeliaceae, the aloes and asphodels. Some modern taxonomies subsume this one into the Xanthorrhoeas, which intuitively feels a bit odd, but this has not been accepted in Australia. Locally there are a couple of species of Bulbine Lily.
Bulbine bulbosa, Canberra.
In case you'd missed it, the name is trying to assure us that it has a bulb!
An edible one too apparently, well known to indigenous Australians.
This is a very common and cheerful spring flower in grassy areas locally.
Rock Lily Bulbine glauca, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
Unlike Bulbine Lily this one lacks an edible tuber; it replaces that species at higher altitudes.
And I think that will do us for today - you must be just about lilied out by now. We've not yet finished with the glorious lilies though; we'll wrap it up with a posting on each of two families, the next being the asparagus family!


Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Considering the Lilies: part 1

The other day we were walking in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve on the northern edge of Canberra; for the whole time we surrounded by millions of Early Nancies, low-growing native lilies.
Massed Early Nancies Wurmbea dioca Family Colchicaceae, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
It got me thinking that lilies would be a great topic for a blog post, but the more I thought about it, and after I'd checked up on recent changes in thinking of the place of lilies in the world, I realised that there are actually at least two and probably three postings involved, just because of the numbers of 'lilies'. I use the inverted commas there because the question of what actually is a lily is a very vexed one. 

At one stage the answer seemed easy - everything in the family Liliaceae. But... The family was described by Antoine Jussieu in 1789, and was basically defined as any herb with six roughly equal flower parts, six stamens, an ovary that sits above the flower base, and three sections within the ovary. Unfortunately it soon became obvious that this definition included very many species indeed. In fact despite growing concerns which had begun to be expressed in the mid-19th century as to the validity of the family, by 1980 the definition had actually been broadened and the family included over 300 genera and nearly 5000 species!

Reality kicked in then and people began looking at the real relationships, resulting in a major break-up of the family and the erection of close to 50 new genera and quite a few new families. With new biochemical tools in particular, the work is proceeding and more changes have recently been made and widely accepted. The artificiality of the old family is underlined by the fact that former members have been spread across not just 24 families, but two Orders - in other words many members of the old Liliaceae aren't even moderately related! For the purposes of this blog I'm going to define a 'lily' as anything that has historically been regarded as such, but I'll also explain the current situation for anyone interested as we go.

I'm going to introduce today some of those members which stayed in the order Liliales (which is the smaller of the two), but first, some lilies in history.

You may not have suspected it, but onions and garlic (family Alliaceae) are lilies by this definition. They have been grown around the Mediterranean for at least 5000 years. The Greek historian Herodotus described an inscription on the Pyramid of Cheops detailing the large sums of money spent on onions, garlic and radish (unrelated) for the labourers. Somewhere I read that the first recorded sit-down strike was staged at the Necropolis in Thebes because the onion wage wasn't being paid. Quite right too! 

In the 13th century Florence was a world trading centre; their gold coins, embossed with a lily, were called fiorin d'oro, 'little gold flower', which entered English as 'florin'. Tulips - among the few remaining members of family Liliaceae - came to Austria from Turkey in 1554 and the craze spread throughout Europe. In Holland single bulbs sold for thousands of guilders; Belgian speculators traded at the van Beurse home, hence our word 'bourse' for a stock exchange. 'Paper tulips' were promisory notes, and millions of them circulated. When the government shocked everyone by demanding that the notes had to be honoured, people went bankrupt - and many went off tulips... Another lily, the hyacinth, arrived in Europe via the middle east from the western Asian plains in the mid-16th century; within two hundred years some 3000 varieties had been developed in Holland, of which we now know only around 150.

It's a long time in this post since a picture, a dangerous thing in a blog posting, so here are some lilies of the Order Liliales. The Americas aren't particularly well endowed with native lilies, especially in the south, but one notable central and South American family is Alstroemeriaceae, with just four genera but some 250 species, including some beauties. Two of these genera, Alstromoeria and Bomarea, account for nearly the entire family, each having 100-120 species.
Alstromoeria patagonica, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
This tiny herb is endemic to Patagonia.
Bomarea sp., El Cajas NP, Andes above Cuenca, Ecuador.
Bomarea sp., 4000m high cloud forest, Manu NP, Peru.
In Australia we also have a few members of this order, including the cheerful little Early Nancies I mentioned earlier, in family Colchicaceae.
Wurmbea dioica, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
As the species name implies the species is dioecious - it has separate male and female plants.
Female above, male below.
A less common member of the family locally is also a grassland lily, and also named for a human female!
Milkmaids, Burchardia umbellata, Bigga cemetery, New South Wales.
An umbel is a floral arrangement whereby all the flower stalks arise from a common point,
well illustrated here and again reflecting the species name.
Burchardia rosea, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
A third member of the family Colchicaceae locally is found in wet forests not far to the east of here.
Schelhammera undulata, Lilac Lily, Carrington Falls, New South Wales.
The flower streaks are nectar guides, advertising hoardings for pollinating insects.

Smilacaceae is another Liliales family found in Australia as well as widely elsewhere. The most familiar member in south-eastern Australia is Smilax australis, known unkindly as Lawyer Vine (one of several species so named in fact) because it is prickly and easy to become entangled in!
Smilax australis, Monga NP, New South Wales.
The leaves are most unusual among monocots - mostly herbaceous plants like lilies, orchids and grasses - in having
net-like leaf veins, instead of simple parallel veins.
We'll leave it there for now - there are many more lilies to meet! I must say though that one of the best known quotations about lilies, the famous biblical one, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin" leaves me baffled. I have never understood that one - are we being exhorted to a life of sloth, hoping for the best?? Oh well, best I stick to what I know a little about.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

On This Day, 18 September: Chile's National Day, featuring two saltos.

On this day in 1810 the Spanish colonial governor of Chile was deposed and replaced by a Council of seven, based in Santiago; this was only the beginning of the end of Spanish rule, but it is marked now as the first of two consecutive Fiestas Patrias, effectively Chile's national days. Chile was my first experience of South America, and as such retains a special place in my heart. My experience of it has so far been limited to the south, though in the next 12 months I plan to rectify that by visiting the Atacama. However it means that a strong part of my impression of Chile is water and in paying a tribute to the country on its special day, I'm going to do so by introducing you to two very special and spectacular saltos - literally a jump, but also meaning waterfall or cascade.

The first is Salto Petrohué in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, inland from the bustling Puerto Montt, on the Petrohué River soon after it flows out of Lago Todos los Santos. The second is much further south, in the sublime Torres del Paine National Park. Salto Grande - the 'big falls' - forms in a slot canyon between Lago Nordenskjöld and Lago Pehoé. 
Location of Salto Petrohué shown (approximately!) by end of red arrow;
that of Salto Grande by end of brown arrow.
The settings of both are superb. 
Looking east along Lago Todos Santos to the Andean spine; the mountains, including Tronodor, are
on the Chilean-Argentinian border. The Petrohué flows west from the right of the photo.
The mountains around Lago Todos Santos are still visible from the saltos, a little downstream.
The top of Salto Petrohué, with mighty Puntiagudo in the background.
(The name simply means 'pointy'.)
From there the water roars down through a narrow slot.
The rocks are laval basalt, very tough but still being gradually worn away.
Below the falls the river runs over shallow bars and through rocky channels, sometimes still white, sometimes relatively peaceful.
Rio Petrohué flowing through cool temperate rainforest downstream of the falls
(above and below).

While the falls are the obvious attraction, the forest itself is well worthy of our attention too, especially if we have an eye to the Gondwanan connections of the plants, a striking aspect to those of us lucky enough to visit from other southern lands.
Notro, Embothrium coccineum, overhanging the Petrohué River.
This member of the family Proteaceae bears a striking resemblance to the
Australian waratahs, Telopea spp., in the same family.
The characteristic blue of the water is due to the presence of fine suspended particles of silt.
Weinmannia trichosperma, family Cunonicacae - another Gondwanan family.
Escallonia rubra; its family, Escallionaceae, is mostly found in South America, with
a smaller focus in Australia.
But let's fly south now, to the second of our saltos to celebrate Chile's day. It too has a spectacular setting, between two of the lakes for which Torres del Paine is famous (among many other things!). 
Lago Nordenskjöld, with the Towers (Torres) behind it.
Not a very Spanish (or Tehuelche!) name, you may well think; it was named for Swedish
geologist and explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, who investigated the area in the 1920s.
Lago Pehoé whipped up by the winds that are typical of the area; I've been nearly knocked off my
feet by them while visiting Salto Grande.

Pehoé is lower than Nordenskjöld, causing the waters to rush into Pehoé with dramatic force.
Upstream of the salto, with the Horns (the Curenos) in the background.

The falls, above and below; the latter shows Lago Pehoé in the background.

Another view of the mighty Cuernos, looking back from Salto Grande.
And, as everywhere, there are plants and animals to admire too, including the ubiquitous Notro.
Notro by the Salto Grande.
Southern House Wren Troglogdytes musculus, Salto Grande. This bird will be instantly familiar to my northern
hemisphere friends, though the Eurasian species has now been separated. Many ornithologists recognise
just one species (T. aedon) from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, but the South Americans disagree.

Male Austral Negrito Lessonia rufa, an equally widespread bird in the south.
It is one of the vast group of South American Tyrant Flycatchers which makes
South American birding such a challenge and a joy to the rest of us.

So, Happy Day Chile, and thanks for sharing your wonderful saltos with us!


Friday, 12 September 2014

Homage to Kingfishers: 2

Last time I had the pleasure of introducing some of the Tree Kingfishers, by far the most numerous of the three kingfisher families as generally recognised. Today I've been looking forward to completing this little alcenid homage by meeting, with you, some members of the other two families, the ones who actually do fish as a key part of their lifestyle. The best-known of these, via the literature, calendars and Christmas cards, is probably the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, found right across Europe, North Africa and most of Asia. However it's been decades since I was in those parts, and I can't offer you any pics - there are some superb shots out there in webland however!

The smaller of the two fishing families is Cerylidae, the Water Kingfishers. (This is not a very helpful name compared with the other one, Alcedinidae, the River Kingfishers, but I wouldn't have wanted to have to come up with anything more useful either!) It comprises just nine species and oddly I have photos of six of them - this is because they comprise all the American kingfishers, which are ubiquitous and evident in South America. It seems that they arose only a few million years ago when an ancestral ceryline crossed from Asia, via the Bering Strait. In the orthodox view this ancestor did not to have left any direct descendants in the Old World, though this is certainly not an unheard of occurrence. 

However it has been recently suggested that this ancestral line is represented by the Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis, found across most of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. It is a very handsome bird, without the usual bright kingfisher colours, common and evident on lakes and rivers, perching on branches and reeds, poles and buildings above water; moreover, unlike other kingfishers it greatly increases its hunting range by hovering conspicuously above the surface. Like many kingfishers they draw attention to themselves by constant calling. Less typically they roost in flocks.
Pied Kingfisher, Kazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda (where all these Pied Kingfisher
photos were taken). This is a female, with just one breast band.
Typically, fish are carried back to a perch, battered into stillness and swallowed headfirst so that fins don't catch in the throat.
Part of a sequence, above and below, of bashing the fish then swallowing it.
(This is a male bird, with a second narrow breast band.)
Like many kingfishers, Pieds nest in a burrow in the bank, which they excavate themselves.
Male Pied Kingfisher at the mouth of a nesting burrow.
By one theory the American cousins then divided into two genera. Megaceryle is represented in South America by the Ringed Kingfisher M. torquata, an imposingly big bird found from the Amazon basin to the Strait of Magellan, and north into the southern USA. (Further north it is replaced by the closely related Belted Kingfisher M. alcyon.)
Ringed Kingfisher, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
Despite its size (similar to that of a kookaburra) it's a fishing bird, diving spectacularly into the water.
In this scenario a Megaceryle kingfisher later recrossed the Atlantic to give rise to two Asian-African species, but more recent thinking has the genus arising in Africa and later in arriving in the Americas. Either way the African representative, the appropriately named Giant Kingfisher M. maxima, is a most impressive bird, found throughout the non-desert lands of the continent.
Giant Kingfisher, Benoue NP, Cameroon.
This one too, despite its considerable bulk, hurls itself into the water after fish, frogs and crustaceans.
The other American kingfishers - all from the South American tropics - are very similar birds of the genus Chloroceryle, which neatly divide into two species-pairs, one pair with rufous undersides, the other with substantial white below (though males have a broad rufous breast band). In each pair there is a large and a small species, thus avoiding competition.
Male Amazon Kingfisher C. amazona, Cocha Salvador, Manu NP, Peru.
He is a big bird, 30cm long, with no white spotting in the green.

Male Green Kingfisher C. americana, Manu NP, Peru.
He is less than 20cm long.

American Pygmy Kingfisher C. aenea, Yasuní NP, Ecuador.
This scarce and tiny bird is only 13cm long; this one was seen at roost at night above a creek from a canoe.
Its 'pair partner', the Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, also scarce, is 24cm long.
The third kingfisher family, also specialist fishers, is found throughout most of the world except the Americas. Mostly smaller birds, they are notably short-tailed and typically blue above and rufous or white below.
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azurea, Barmah Forest, Victoria.
Ceyx, you may recall from last time, was one of the doomed couple who just got too happy for the liking
of the typically grumpy Greek gods, and got turned into birds.
This exquisite bird is found along streams in near-coastal eastern and northern Australia and, as here,
inland along the Murray River.
African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
A tiny bird, the size of the relatively unrelated American Pygmy Kingfisher. It will sometimes hunt
insects far from water.
Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo (or Corythornis) cristata, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
One of the jewels of Africa, no bigger than the Pygmies, common and widespread in Africa.
So, this is the end of our kingfisher journey; I hope you've enjoyed meeting them as much as I have. Wherever you are, there'll be one or more not too far away. And every one's a pleasure.


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