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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.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Thinking Pinkly #1

It's been a while since I offered a new colour in my very intermittent 'colours in nature' series - the last was green, found here, and you can track it back from there.

Way back someone asked me to be sure to do a posting on/in pink one day, and of course I promised to do so; it's been on my conscience (intermittently at least) ever since. Pink is generally a colour based on pigments, and especially carotenoids; we discussed them when we looked at red in nature some time ago, and the same principles apply. In general animals can't produce carotenoids but must take them from food, be it plants, algae or bacteria, then convert them, an outrageously extravagant thing to do just to look good. And never mind the strange Western tradition that reserves pink for girls - in many animals not only do the boys also flaunt it, but in some birds in particular they reserve it for themselves. 

A final comment, before the featured birds (I'll offer some other animals next time, then some flowers). I've been very conservative in what I've selected as 'pink'; there is after all a continuum that includes various reds, orange, russet, pink and mauve. Someone in my home sees colours in that part of the spectrum differently from me, so if I'm not cautious I risk domestic scorn at my colour sense...

Pink isn't actually abundant in animals; I guess the logic is that if you're going to go to all that trouble and energy expense you might as well do it properly and go for something really lurid and red. 

The most obvious pink bird of course to most people is a flamingo. I talked about the details of flamingo pinkness back here, so I won't go through it again, but it's all due to the carotenoids in its brine shrimp diet.
American Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber, Isabela, Galápagos. Exquisite.
Some of the other more spectacular pink birds are found among Australian cockatoos.
Part of a large flock of Galahs Eolophus roseicapilla, Forbes, New South Wales.
These glorious cockatoos are abundant, having spread south-east in the past 50 years with the
spread of grain crops and water points. They are often dismissed as 'just galahs', but deserve better.
Major Mitchell's Cockatoos Lophochroa leadbeateri, Bourke, New South Wales.
An even more beautiful and much less common cockatoo of the inland.
Major Thomas Mitchell was a 19th century explorer who brought them to the public attention
by rhapsodising over them.

Both pink cockatoos in one tree, Buldbodney State Forest, central New South Wales.
Other bird feature pink, rather than fully clothe themselves in it.
Western Bowerbird Chlamydera guttata, Alice Springs.
The spectacular pink nape is only shown when the bird is displaying.
Pink-eared Duck Malacorhynchus membranaceus, Canberra.
A single-species genus of the inland waterways of Australia, the pink 'ear' is really only
visible through a telescope - or on a dead bird, which was doubtless how it was named.
Other species have pink on exposed skin, rather than feathers. This makes sense given the cost of producing carotenoids and the fact that feathers are moulted once a year. But if you refer back to the flamingo portrait above, you'll see that it favours pink all over - bill and legs, as well as feathers.
Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus, Nowra, New South Wales.
In part the pink bill pouch is due to blood vessels near the surface, but this is probably not
applicable to the bony upper mandible.

African Penguin Spheniscus demersus, south of Cape Town, South Africa.
The pink patches here definitely owe much of their colour to blood vessels;
when it's hot, more blood is directed there to assist in heat loss, so they're brighter pink.
Southern Caracara Caracara plancus, far southern Chile.
It's not a matter of losing heat down there!
Finally, a couple of examples of very attractive (to me, but probably more importantly to others of their species) pink legs.
Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus, Genovesa, Galápagos.
A beautiful bird all round, from the pink legs up, and the world's only nocturnal gull.
Black-necked Stilt Himantopus mexicanus, Isabela, Galápagos.
So, pink is not as easy to find examples of as red, say, but it's worth looking for. Next time, a few other pink-bearing animals, mostly reptiles.


Monday, 17 November 2014

Walking Watarrka; the King's Canyon Rim walk

After a couple of postings reflecting some personal highlights of my recent trip to Ecuador, it's probably time to come a bit closer to home for this one. 

The George Gill Range lies 300 kilometres south west of Alice Springs in central Australia, and about the same distance north-east of the more famous Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. It was named in 1872 by one of the toughest of all 19th century European desert explorers, Ernest Giles (who will surely feature here one day in his own right), somewhat prosaically for his brother in law, George Duff Gill of Melbourne, who helped finance the expedition. The western end of the range, covering some 72,000 hectares, has since 1983 been protected as Watarrka National Park.
Views of the George Gill Range, above and below, from the north.

The walk of some seven kilometres around the rim of Kings Canyon, the best-known feature of the range, is very much a favourite of mine, though I only 'discovered' it relatively recently. The creek which flows through it was also named by Giles, for a Mr Fielder King, though we know little of him other that he lived on a property that Giles had visited, and Giles regarded him as an "old and kind friend".

The walk features both exposed arid land forms, many of them dramatic, and surprisingly sheltered oases in gullies in the rock. It begins with a fairly daunting stone stair case climb to the plateau, but thereafter it is an easy walk on level ground until a long undulating descent.
A section of the climb; it takes about 15 minutes, but it's always good to get the worst part over first!
Looking back from the top of this climb, giving an idea of the ascent, to Kings Creek flowing into the plain.
The hard pure sandstone of the plateau is some 50 metres deep and is believed to have formed from wind-blown dunes some 360 million years ago; very little soil is found on the plateau.
Route of the walk near the start, on pure Mereenie Sandstone.
To the right is dramatic cross-bedding on the surface of the 'beehives' which characterise the plateau.
This crossbedding (detail below) is regarded by geologists as further evidence of a wind-blown dune origin.

Later (around 320 million years ago) a dramatic period of mountain-building tilted and thrust up iconic forms such as Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and forced fault lines into the Mereenie Sandstone. These fault lines formed cracks which weathered and eroded into the modern beehives.
The 'beehives' provide some of the most dramatic aspects of a dramatic walk.

By contrast, the walls of the canyon itself, seen from above magnificently from vantage points along the route are sheer for the top 50 metres at least.
The hard sheer Mereenie Sandstone walls of the canyon.

Below the Mereenie layer is an older, softer, redder one of Carmichael Sandstones,
formed  under a sea 440 million years ago.
These are crumbling and undermining the Mereenie layer, causing huge boulders to fall from the walls.
The plateau is a tough environment but inevitably plants thrive there, though the going is obviously hard in same instances.
Ghost Gums Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) aparrerinja, above and below.

Here the Ghost Gum roots are sprawling across the surface seeking access to water.
Also searching for water on the rocks are the roots of this Rock Fig Ficus brachypoda.
Baeckea polystemmonea, another shrub clinging for life to the rock face; flowers below.
This is a generally uncommon species, but is readily found along the walk.

Acacia macdonnellensis, limited to the central desert ranges;
the name comes from the nearby MacDonnell Ranges.
In the sheltered depths of the gorge itself however, and in one particular rocky gully along the walk, conditions are dramatically different, cool and sheltered, and life is very different.
Known locally as the 'Garden of Eden' (!), this mini-gorge supports River Red Gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis)and MacDonnell Ranges Cycad Macrozamia macdonnellii (also below), a relict of ancient wetter times.
MacDonnell Ranges Cycad with male cones.
Animal life is less evident in these exposed conditions (especially with lots of walkers) but it is there.
Little Eagle Hieraaetus morphnoides on a nest on the canyon walls.
Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera, an exquisite dryland pigeon of rocky areas.
Grey-headed Honeyeater Lichenostomus keartlandi on Grevillea wickhamii.
Ring-tailed Dragon Ctenophorus caudicinctus.
A beautifully camouflaged grasshopper - though it doesn't seem to have saved it from losing an antenna!
This brief posting really doesn't do justice to one of Australia's great walks, but hopefully it will at least encourage you to add it to your 'must do' list - it deserves to be there.


Tuesday, 11 November 2014

"Good night, and thanks for the tinamou..."

In 10 trips to South America I'd never managed to see a tinamou, to my chagrin. I'd heard them, and on one occasion the group just in front of me saw some walk across the track, but not me. It's possible I've even mentioned the fact to other travelling companions...

They really are a most interesting family of birds, close to the most ancient of living birds. Together with the ratites - the mostly large, flightless runners of the southern continents, emus, cassowaries, kiwis, rheas and ostriches (plus extinct moas and Madagascan elephant birds) - they comprise the grouping known as the Palaeognathae, 'ancient palates'. This refers to primitive palate characteristics which are more reminiscent of reptiles than other living birds. All other birds belong the 'other' grouping, the Neognathae. Some put the ratites and tinamous into separate orders, others insist they are all part of one order of very closely related birds.
A South American ratite; Darwins Rhea father and chicks, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
Another reminder of the close relationship between rheas and tinamous is the breeding behaviour. Tinamou males call to attract females, one of whom mates with him and then leaves him with a clutch of eggs to brood on the ground,
while she goes off to find another male for another clutch. This is not identical to ratite breeding but is very similar.
The key difference between the two Palaeognathae groups is that the tinamous retain the keel on the breastbone, which is the anchor point for the great flight muscles, and can still fly, though reluctantly and inexpertly. It seems that the ratites broke away early from the tinamous and then diversified in the Gondwanan lands.

There are 47 tinamou species found throughout most of Central and South America, in pretty much every habitat type, but they are notoriously shy and skulking.

One night recently at Napo Lodge within the magnificent Yasuní National Park in the Amazon basin in Ecuador I was about to have a shower prior to collapsing for the night when a knock on the door was followed by "come quickly, I have something you want to see". It was Dani, the lodge-employed guide attached to our group, who had heard about my desire for tinamous from Marcelo, our own guide. He'd seen one roosting nearby a few days previously and had gone to see if it was still using the same site; it was...

With torches we descended into the rainforest on muddy tracks and after a few hundred metres, there it was above the track.
Great Tinamou Tinamus major.This  is a big bird, up to 45cm long and weighing well over a kilogram.
It has been heavily hunted and suffers from forest clearance, but is doing better than some other species.
We didn't stay long, not wanting to scare it off into the night, especially when dazzled by our torches. It was a very special moment for me and one I'll never forget, not only for the wonderful bird itself, but for the kindness of Dani and Marcelo. Of course I still want to see one on the ground in the daytime, but for now I'm very content.

And as a footnote, on the way back we saw another delight that I'd only read about, a beautiful coral snake. These are highly venomous, but small and not readily encountered.
Coral Snake, probably Micrurus sp., disappearing under a log.
There are some 20 species in Ecuador and I can't hazard a guess as to the species, but it capped a memorable night.

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Mysterious Owl of San Isidro

Just back from another visit to wonderful Ecuador, it's perhaps inevitable that my first posting will relate to that. I'm easing myself back into life in Australia (albeit only for another 3 weeks!) so this is a relatively brief posting, based on one of the most interesting and intriguing encounters of our trip. I had not previously been to the north-eastern slopes of the Ecuadorian Andes, and realised I'd been missing some very special places. The eastern slopes seem to me wilder and less populated than the western ones that I've seen, at least in the north. 

San Isidro Lodge is a beautiful place to stay in a large tract of mostly primary rainforest whose continued existence is due to the foresight of Simón Bustamante back in the 1970s when the government was making wild land available to people to clear for farming. Simón did something unexpected - he acquired the land and left nearly all of it in its pristine state despite considerable pressure on him to 'improve' it. Today there are nearly 1800 hectares of forest protected in the expanded reserve. 
Cloud forest protected by San Isidro; the lodge is at 2000 metres above sea level.

Some of the cabins and elevated viewing platform.
The lodge grounds themselves are full of wildlife and there is no reason to go far from the cabins before breakfast. (San Isidro is noted for its food almost as much as its birds!) Here are a couple of my personal favourites, both species which are almost totally restricted to the eastern slopes - the high treeless paramo along the spine of the Andes provides a near total barrier to forest birds, allowing evolution to proceed separately on the two slopes.
Inca (or Green) Jays Cyanocorax yncas (also found in southern North America) form large
raucous mobs around the cabins and dining room. They are stunning.
The exquisite Long-tailed Sylph Aglaiocercus kingi is a glorious hummingbird which fits the
east-west divide concept perfectly, with a sister species (Violet-tailed Sylph A. coelestis) on the western slopes.
However, there is one bird found around the cabins which doesn't seem to fit any established concepts - unless it is indeed that most marvellous of treats for a birder, an undescribed species. This big handsome owl is indeed widely known in birding communities as 'the Mystery Owl'. 

It is one of four species of the South American genus Ciccaba - at least according to the influential South American Classification Committee, though elsewhere the genus is often included in the more widespread wood owl genus Strix. The Mystery Owl is only known from the vicinity of the San Isidro Cabins, though I'm not sure how intensively the wild forests further away have been searched for it. It is closely related to the Black and White Owl C. nigrolineata of the western slopes and the Black-banded Owl C. huhula (I love that name!) of the eastern lowlands. In plumage and, reportedly, in voice, it seems midway between both those species. Indeed the general approach to it is to tentatively regard it as an isolated sub-species of Black-banded, though it seems to me there is little basis for that. 

The Black-banded has apparently never been recorded higher than 900 metres above sea level; if it can indeed live in the extensive forests higher than that, why has it never been found there? However, before I conclude, let's meet this delightful and amenable bird.
San Isidro's wonderful 'Mystery Owl', photo taken in the carpark, by torchlight.
It's a substantial owl, standing at least 40cm high. Nonetheless, based on the habits of its closest
relatives, it probably eats mostly insects, hence its attraction to the lights of the lodge.
In the bad old days (not so long ago in fact) it would have simply been 'collected' (ie with a shotgun) though before the advent of modern DNA testing this wouldn't actually have told us much. We need DNA samples - eg from feathers from a nest or under a roosting site, or from hatched eggs - to get the final answer, but we can wait for that. My own feeling is that it will prove to be a separate species, and will probably eventually be found more widely in the mid-level cloud forests. 

Meantime it's good for us to be reminded regularly of how much we don't know, and how much is lost without our ever knowing it as we continue to treat the earth so badly. We must also remember though that there are good dedicated people trying to make amends; I am grateful to everyone associated with San Isidro.

Try and visit some time.


Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Considering the Lilies; part 4

At last - you may well be thinking - here is the last in this series on the lovely lilies. It started here, and followed from there.

In this last posting I want to introduce you to some beautiful members of a family whose name may well be unfamiliar to you. Hemerocallidaceae was first proposed by the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown in 1810 but was certainly not familiar to at least most Australian amateurs until very recent years when some familiar species from other families were shifted into it. Elsewhere in the world many people would go further and include the members of this family in the grass tree family Xanthorrhoeaceae, but here we prefer to give that wonderful group of quintessentially Australian plants their own family. You don't of course need to know any of this to enjoy the plants, but I thought I should mention it in passing to explain why the system I'm using here might seem strange to you. It might be too, but I didn't invent it!

One such subsumed family is (was) Phormiaceae, which includes the New Zealand flaxes Phormium spp. Though not a numerous family it is widely spread, due largely to the genus Dianella - referring to Diana, in her role of goddess of the woods. These are robust familiar herbs in this part of the world, where they are known as flax lilies.
Mountain Flax Lily Dianella tasmanica, Namadgi NP above Canberra.
Above can be seen the big strappy leaves and tall flower stem.
Below is a close-up of the lovely yellow-stamened blue flowers.

Following the flowers are almost equally attractive big glossy blue or purple berries.
Mountain Flax Lily berries were eaten by the Aboriginal people of the mountains, who also used the leaf fibres
(remember the flax part of the name) and pounded and roasted the roots.
This species is found in higher places from northern New South Wales to Tasmania.
The paler-flowered Dianella caerulea is found in near coastal and lower hinterland habitats,
often sandy, in much of eastern Australia.
Apart from Nodding Blue Lily (another formerly in Phormiaceae), the rest of the lilies to be showcased today were until recently in family Anthericaceae. 

Blue Grass Lily Caesia calliantha is another local lily with a wide eastern Australian distribution. It is found in grassy understoreys of open forests and woodlands. Other species are found in New Guinea and southern Africa.
Blue Grass Lily, Kama NR, Canberra.
Thelionema is a closely related and similar genus, containing just three species from eastern Australia.

Blue Tufted Lily Thelionema caespitosum, Tallong, New South Wales.
Yes, I know, an unfortunate name! White flowers get commoner at higher altitudes.
Stypandra is a very small genus, with one species in Western Australia only, the other, Nodding Blue Lily S. glauca, very widespread in eastern and southern Australia. It is flowering delightfully right now around here. The flowers are very similar to Dianella, but the plant is entirely different with tall leafy stems.
Nodding Blue Lily, above and below.
The plant can grow to a metre and a half high.

Johnsonia is a small genus of five lilies, all Western Australian. They have strange little sheathed flowers in a spike. The genus is named for Thomas Johnson, a 17th London physician and herb gardener who was also a serious field botanist and mountaineer. He had the honour of displaying the first bunch of bananas to be seen in England in his shop in 1639.
Pipe Lily Johnsonia pubescens, Yandin Lookout, north of Perth

Hooded Lily Johnsonia teretifolia, Shannon NP, south west Western Australia.
And finally for this series, a somewhat more conventional-looking lily. Yellow Rush Lily is found again widely in grassy areas in much of eastern and southern Australia, where it favours grassy areas and can stud such meadows with numerous flowers.
Yellow Rush Lily, above and below, Tidbinbilla NR, Australian Capital Territory.

I hope you've enjoyed meeting or re-meeting these lovely plants as much as I have enjoyed introducing them to you.

(I should mention perhaps that also in the huge order Asparagales are now included orchids, irises and grass trees, but I prefer to leave my definition of lilies short of them, and treat them as separate groups in due course.)

I'm currently in Ecuador, and this is as many posts as I had time to put up in advance before I left.