About Me

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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. For much of my life I have been 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. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. 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.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

On This Day, 21 June: Lake Burley Griffin was born

Well, one could very justifiably argue that any number of other dates could fit that description of course, but I've opted for the day in 1963 that the weir gates closed on Scrivener Dam and the lake which is the centrepiece of Canberra, Australia's capital city, began to fill. As it happened that was a drought year and flow in the Molonglo River was minimal, so it took until the following March for the desired water level to be achieved. 
View from Black Mountain (part of Canberra Nature Park) across Lake Burley Griffin to the Federal Parliament.
The lake was named after Walter Burley Griffin, the US landscape architect who, with his wife
Marion Mahony Griffin, produced the grand design that won the international competition
to determine the shape and nature of the city, including the lake. However his surname was just Griffin,
never Burley Griffin, and many people have questioned the odd choice of name for the lake
- aside from the fact that his co-worker Marion was thus written out of history.

The city centre and the national institutions are all built on or near the shores of the lake, which have hitherto (mostly) been kept clear for public use. 
The view slightly to the left of the previous picture. The arrows represent (somewhat crudely) the city centre (Civic)
in brown, the Carillon in red, the National Library (and behind it the National Science Centre, National Gallery and
National Portrait Gallery and High Court) in green, the National Museum in blue and parliament again, in purple.
It is a substantial body of water 11km long and over a kilometre wide, and an average of four metres deep. Theoretically power boats are banned to retain the peaceful nature of the water body, but permits to avoid this restriction seem to be available for a range of purposes. On the whole however it is a calm and beautiful focal point, and is a haven for wildlife. The rest of this post will be a simple celebration of some of that wildlife; much of it comprises common birds, including of course many waterbirds, but even common birds are very welcome in the heart of a city! Fish in the lake - mostly carp, sadly - support a good population of four species of cormorants, plus darters and pelicans.
Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris drying its wings.
Cormorants don't have oiled feathers (which would inhibit their diving) so must
hang them out to dry at the end of a fishing expedition.

Little Pied Cormorant Microcarbo melanoleucos.One of the world's smallest cormorants, this species is familiar throughout Australia, north
into Indonesia and across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand.

Great Cormorants Phalacrocorax carbo are found on every unfrozen continent except South America,
though it is possible that more than one species is involved.

Male Australian Darter Anhinga novaehollandiae preening; he is collecting oil from
his uropygial gland at the base of his spine to distribute through his plumage.
It is common to see such birds on the edge of the paths along the lake shore, as here.
Australian Wood Duck pair Chenonetta jubata, female on the left.
A common grazing duck of uncertain relationships.
Black Swans Cygnus atratus are common on the lake, breeding in floating weed nests starting in winter.
Black Swan cygnet.
Land birds can be seen anywhere around the shores, but the woodland and forest remnants at the western end of the lake, especially near Yarramundi Reach, are especially productive, along with the Bulrush beds just off shore. 
Bulrush, Typha sp., Yarrumundi Reach; such stands support many shelter-loving small passerines,
as well as species of crake and even bitterns.
Australasian Reed Warblers Acrocephalus australis make the reed beds raucous with their metallic
territorial calls in spring and summer, going north to warmer parts of the continent in winter.
Superb Fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus male; one of the most familiar and 'popular' urban
birds of south-eastern Australia.
The Dusky Woodswallow Artamus cyanopterus is another migrant which is usually to be found
in spring and summer at Yarramundi Reach.
Even the open spaces can be rewarding however.
Welcome Swallows Hirundo neoxena.
Red-rumped Parrot pair Psephotus haematonotus feeding on exotic herb seeds.
It amazes me that even the brightly coloured males can escape the notice of passers-by
when feeding quietly in flocks alongside footpaths.
Water Rats Hydromys chrysogaster can often be seen in the daytime on the shore or swimming strongly,
especially in the vicinity of the Carillon.
By far the richest area of the lake however is found at the eastern end, near where the Molonglo and Jerrabomberra Creek both flow into the lake. Jerrabomberra Wetlands are protected as part of Canberra Nature Park. Large areas are reserved for research and refuge, based around the palaeochannels of the Molonglo, but the area around Kellys Swamp is one of my favourite local birding and general natural history sites around here. Over the years I've seen over 140 species here. 
Kellys Swamp in the evening. This is an ephemeral pan which these days is kept inundated from
Jerrabomberra Creek in all but the driest seasons.
Here is a small selection of some of my favourite memories there in the decade or so since I 'went digital'. 
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, an uncommon visitor to our part of the world.
Great Egret Ardea alba alighting; a common visitor, but I liked this moment
(unfortunate shadow notwithstanding!).
Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia, in full breeding glory.

Yellow-billed Spoonbills Platalea flavipes are much less common visitors to Jerrabomberra.
Latham's Snipe Gallinago hardwickii visits every year from its breeding grounds in northern Japan.
I love it that I can watch this bird from a hide, while in the distance I can see Parliament House,
where the international treaties designed to protect the bird were ratified.
Australian Painted Snipe Rostratula australis; these birds created a major stir when they appeared and
stayed for a while in 2011. They are one of the rarest and hardest-to-see Australian birds,
numbering at the most a very few thousands.
Black-backed Bittern Ixobrychus dubius lurking among the bulrushes.
Another very hard to see bird, but not because of its rarity.
Australian Spotted Crake Porzana fluminea; when low water levels expose the mud, crakes and other
normally elusive rails appear. Always exciting times!
Freckled Duck Stictonetta naevosa, another threatened species which turns up
not infrequently at Jerrabomberra.
The now mature plantings around the swamp also attract an array of locally uncommon species, including these two honeyeaters which are not often recorded in Canberra.
Yellow-plumed Honeyeater Lichenostomus melanops.
Fuscous Honeyeater Ptilotula fusca harvesting honeydew.
While the birds tend to be the main attraction - and I could have selected many more! - they are not the only ones.
Brush-tailed Possum Trichosurus vulpeculus and joey, which took up residence in one of the hides for a while.
Chequered Copper Lucia limbaria.
Fiddler Beetle Eupoecila australasiae on Bursaria spinosa.
Every time I spend time by Lake Burley Griffin I am grateful to the Griffins for having had the vision, and to those who carried the vision through to the reality, decades after their deaths.

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Thursday, 14 September 2017

Kata Tjuta 2; life among the domes

Recently I posted on Kata Tjuta in the central deserts, one of the special places of Australia. I promised to revisit there before the end of September to introduce some of the animals and plants I've come across among and around the great domes. Inevitably there are more plants than animals, not least because of the numbers of visitors much of the time, and because many desert animals are nocturnal, preferring to shelter during the hot dry days. Here is a brief array however to start with.
Mud Dauber wasp, family Sphecidae; like many animals, this one was attracted to
water dripping from a tank provided for walkers.
One of the many dry country cockroaches.
A bug - ie a Hemipteran - sucking sap with its proboscis inserted into the shrub's 'veins'.
Brooks' Ctenotus Ctenotus brooksi (and bonus beetle - for the skink anyway).
This skink, rusty to match the iron-rich desert sands, is found from the centre across the western deserts.
Black-breasted Buzzards Hamirostra melanosternon at their nest on the plains near the domes.
The only member of their genus, they are thought to belong to an old line of Australian raptors
(and are certainly not close to the northern hemisphere buzzards).
Anywhere there is water in the deserts - such as at the walkers' tank mentioned above - there
will be Zebra Finches Taeniopygia guttata. Exquisitely evolved for dryland living, they
are found across inland Australia.
Which brings us to the plants of the domes, and fortunately I can offer you a few more of them than of animals. They're in no particular order - I hope you can just enjoy them! 
Kata Tjuta Wattle Acacia olgana (above and below) forms thickets in the gorges; it
is also found in ranges in the nearby north-west of South Australia.
The scientific name comes from the former name Mount Olga for Kata Tjuta,
applied in colonial times. (See previous Kata Tjuta post.)

Dead Finish Wattle Acacia tetragonophylla. This is supposed to be one of the last plants standing in a severe drought, hence the name.
As you might expect from such a hardy plant, it is found right across the inland southern half of the continent.
Acacia inaequilatera, named for the phyllodes which are unevenly divided by the central vein.

Rulingia (or Androcalva) loxophylla, family Malvaceae.
In wet years hundreds of kilometres of outback roads can be lined with this plant.
Upside-down Plant Leptosema chambersi. Everything about this plant is upside-down in fact! Not only are the flowers at the bottom of the plant,
but they themselves are upside-down. I have seen plenty of evidence in the form of numerous footprints
of birds visiting the flowers, but I can't suggest how the unusual position or orientation of
the flowers assists in pollination.
Goodenia cycloptera (I am almost sure of the species, but it is variable and there are
several similar ones).
Olearia ferressii, a daisy of sheltered gorges of the central Australian ranges.
Corkwood Hakea lorea, family Proteaceae.
This small tree is found widely across central and northern Australia.
Honeysuckle Grevillea, G. juncifolia.A particularly lovely grevillea, also found across much of the drier parts of the country.
Showy Indigo Indigofera basedowii, a shrubby pea which favours the shelter of gorges
in the central desert ranges.

Fanflower Scaevola parvifolia, family Goodeniaceae, in Walpa Gorge.
Scaevola basedowii; this one was in the past included with the previous species.
This is the second species we've met named for Herbert Basedow, a South Australian geologist,
anthropologist and explorer who spent many years between 1903 and 1928 recording the lives of the
central desert people, and collecting plants as he went.
Desert Heath Myrtle Aluta (formerly Thryptomene) maisonneuvei, a tough inhabitant
of exposed red sand dunes in the central and western deserts.
Crimson Foxtails or Silver Tails Ptilotus sessilifolius family Amaranthaceae.
One of many species of Ptilotus found across the inland, which can dominate entire landscapes after rain.
Jockey Caps Prostanthera striatiflora family Lamiaceae.
The mintbushes are a large genus of aromatic shrubs endemic to Australia; most
live in the more humid near coastal zones, but this one is widespread in inland ranges.
Desert Lantern Flower Abutilon leucopetalum family Malvaceae.
And yes I know the name means 'white petals', but I didn't name it! Actually flowers can be white or yellow.
Butterbush or Berrigan (and many other names across the country) Pittosporum angustifolium
(formerly P. phillyreoides), a widespread inland tree whose closest relations are in east coast rainforest.
Spearwood Pandorea doratoxylon family Bignoniaceae, above and below.
The dense twiggy climber has light tough flexible stems which are indeed used for spear shafts;
the scientific name means the same as the common name.
It seems only to grow in rocky gorges.
Hopefully this celebration of life among the domes has given you another reason to visit Kata Tjuta soon - there are certainly plenty of reasons to do so!

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