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. 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, 10 February 2016

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Part 1, Mweya Lodge.

It's been far too long since I offered a post about Africa (and even longer since I've been there!). I can rectify the former more readily however. 

Queen Elizabeth National Park was declared in 1952, and enlarged soon afterwards. It covers 198,000 hectares of rolling grassy and wooded plains in the far south-west of Uganda, some 380kms south-west of Kampala. It lies between Lakes George and Edward - the border with Democratic Republic of the Congo runs through Lake Edward. 
Queen Elizabeth National Park marked (somewhat crudely!) in red.
More detailed park map. (Courtesy Safari Bookings.)
For a while the name changed to the arguably more appropriate Rwenzori National Park (the Rwenzori Mountains provide a backdrop to the south) but curiously it changed back again more recently; I can't get the details, but I suspect it coincided with the declaration of the nearby Rwenzori Mountains National Park in 1991.

We stayed at the very nice Mweya Lodge on a peninsula between Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel which joins the two big lakes. There are several other lodges and camps, as on the map above, but I have no experience of them.
Approaching Mweya Lodge, above and below.
The euphorbias in the foreground are typical of the park vegetation.
I very much like the life-sized statue that greets us on arrival!
The view from the outdoor restaurant, over Lake Edward and the Kazinga Channel, is superb.
Slender-billed and Yellow-backed Weavers work the tables, hoping for left-overs.

Dawn views, above and below, over Lake Edward.

Meals were good, though I confess I didn't try this one.

The lodge grounds are excellent for an array of wildlife - birds, mammals and reptiles.
Yellow-backed (or Black-headed) Weavers Ploceus melanocephalus are bold and ubiquitous.
This seems to be a male moulting into (or out of) breeding plumage.
Swamp Flycatchers Muscicapa aquatica are also prominent here;
they are found right across central Africa.
Grey-capped Warblers Eminia lepida are not nearly as easy to see, though their lovely song
is often present. They are the only member of the genus, in the cisticola family.
Speckled Mousebirds Colius striatus are common enough garden birds in much of Africa, including Mweya,
but they always delight me. There are just six species of mousebirds comprising the family Colidae.

Warthogs Phacochoerus africanus appreciate the watered grounds, where they play havoc with lawns
by digging for roots and tubers. This kneeling posture while foraging is typical.
As can be seen here, they are not at all reticent about approaching the cabins!

Another mammal moves through the grounds en masse too, hunting smaller animals attracted by the amenities offered by the lodge grounds, with a particular fondness for beetles and millipedes. The latter is an unlikely delicacy as many species exude noxious chemicals for protection. They will however eat pretty much whatever comes their way, including frogs, lizards, small snakes, birds and eggs.

Banded Mongooses Mungos mungo are found widely across central and eastern Africa.
Unlike most mongooses they habitually forage in groups of up to 40.

The spectacular Blue-headed Tree Agamas Acanthocercus atricollis loll around the grounds too, though their apparent sloth is in fact an established hunting strategy - they wait for their prey (especially grasshoppers, ants and beetles) to come to them. Like the Banded Mongooses, they too can cope with bitter millipede chemicals.
Male Blue-headed Tree Agama above, female below.
Another characteristic of this lovely dragon lizard is its social structure - unusually among lizards
they live in colonies, with a dominant male and several females and immature animals.

I don't normally do promotions for establishments, but Mweya really is an excellent place for wildlife and scenery. Obviously however there is much more to the park than the lodge, and too much for just one posting; indeed I've realised that I'm going to need three! So, next time I'll look at life across the plains, and in a third installment I'll share a most remarkably wildlife-rich boat trip, along the Kazinga Channel.


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Gulls; the wailers

'Gull' is a strange word, one of those back-formed in English through both misunderstanding and attempted Anglicisation of a foreign word. (Think of Spanish naranja, heard by English ears as 'an aranja', which became 'an orange'.) In the case of 'gull', it is not at all clear why the word even arrived in western England, from Welsh or Cornish Gaelic, in the 15th century. English is always borrowing words from other languages, and invaders (notably the Norman French) imposed new words on the populace, but Gaelic was certainly not a conquering language, and there is no obvious reason why the doubtless conservative folk of the west felt a need to replace the old cob and mew with another word. The fact stands however that they did. Gullen in Cornish and gwylan in Welsh were words for gull - both meant 'wailing'. However, they were interpreted as plural - like children or oxen - and gull was back-formed as the singular. 

Gulls are everywhere, breeding on every continent including Antarctica. They are fairly uniform in appearance - we have no difficulty in recognising a gull, even one we've not previously seen. Indeed for a long time nearly all gulls were placed in the genus Larus, though DNA work has shown this to be too simplistic, and around 10 genera are now recognised. Overall they tend to be black, grey or white (often white head and darker back mantle) with coloured long legs and heavy bills. There are of course exceptions, and we'll come to some of those. Here are a couple of examples, modelling typical 'large gull' and 'small gull' outfits.
Pacific Gull Larus pacificus, Binalong Bay Tasmania, above. As is common for the larger white-headed species,
this bird's legs and beak are yellow, the latter with a red tip.
Below is a beautiful Dolphin Gull Leucophaeus scoresbii, in Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
Like many smaller gulls, it has red legs and bill.
Both birds show the fairly standard heavy gull bill, contrasting dark mantle and the pale eye
that is typical of many species when adult.


As I mentioned above, these patterns are by no means universal however. The Arctic-dwelling Ivory Gull Pagophila eburnea, is pure white. On the other hand the Galápagos endemic Lava Gull Leucophaeus fuliginosus is entirely grey-brown.
Lava Gull at sea, Galápagos.
This is the world's scarcest gull, with population estimates of less than 250 birds.
Some, in different genera, have dark heads or caps - these species often lose these dark caps when not breeding.

Brown-hooded Gulls Chroicocephalus maculipennis, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
This elegant little gull is found in much of southern South America.

Andean Gull Chroicocephalus serranus, Lago Miscanti, Atacama Desert, northern Peru.
This species - seen here at over 4,100 metres altitude - is most unusual among gulls in
breeding only at high altitudes.
Swallow-tailed Gull Creagrus furcatus, North Seymour, Galápagos.
This exquisite bird is virtually a Galápagos endemic too, though a few pairs also nest on an island
off the Colombian coast. Its large eyes hint at another claim to fame - that of being the world's only
nocturnal gull (I have a strong memory of looking out the cabin window at night and seeing one flying
alongside, illuminated by the boat's lights).
With its markedly hooked bill it takes squid as they rise to the surface.
Wings are long and relatively slender, for soaring above the ocean, and sometimes hovering, albeit somewhat clumsily.

Band-tailed (Belcher's) Gull Larus belcheri, Pisagua, northern Chile.

Brown-hooded Gull, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
Gulls have independently evolved the response to needing to drink salt water that many other seabirds have also done; glands above the eyes, which filter the blood flowing through them. The resultant salt solution runs in ducts down to the nasal passages, and drips off the end of the bill. (They have this in common with groups as disparate as penguins, petrels, pelicans, cormorants, frigate-birds and sea-ducks, among others.)

Like many different groups of swimming birds too, they have developed webbed feet, by bringing three toes to the front of the foot, and joining them with flexible skin.
Silver Gull Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae, Nowra, New South Wales.
The three forward-facing toes joined by webbing are clearly on display.
This, one of the world's smallest gulls, is seemingly ubiquitous in Australia, including sometimes
far inland. Due to its proclivity for roosting on open spaces - including cricket grounds - it has
become perhaps the most televised bird in Australia!
It's a curious thing that Australia has only 3 of the world's 55 gulls species (not counting vagrants)
but approximately half of the 45 tern species.

This penchant for roosting in flocks is another characteristic; they may gather on the beach or inland.
Grey Gulls Leucophaeus modestus on the beach near Iquique, northern Chile.
Remarkably, this gull breeds inland in the harsh Atacama Desert, where presumably
the lack of predators outweighs the disadvantages.

A very small part of a huge flock of Pacific Gulls roosting in a paddock near the Tamar River, northern Tasmania.
Among the adult Pacific Gulls above are scattered dark brown immatures. This change from dark or mottled plumage to adult garb over a couple of years for smaller species, or double that for larger ones, is typical of most gulls.
Second year immature Pacific Gull, Esperance, Western Australia.
Immature Silver Gull, Nowra, New South Wales.
The plumage is 'clean' and nearly adult, but the eye, bill and legs are still dark.
Dolphin Gulls, adults and immatures (dark heads) Ushuaia, Argentina.

Franklin's Gull immature, Española, Galápagos.
In this case the adult (below) does have a black head and young birds don't!

Juvenile Swallow-tailed Gull with parent, Genovesa, Galápagos.
A strict hierarchy is maintained in the flocks, especially with regard to food access, and aggression, both threatened and actual, is common.
Dolphin Gull aggression (adult bullying immature, as is usual), Ushuaia.
Breeding may take place in colonies or, more rarely, individually. Nests are often just a lined scrape on the ground, but there are variations on this theme.
Kelp Gull Larus dominicanus colony (with Magellanic Penguins),
Isla Magdalena, Strait of Magellan, Chilean Patagonia.

Kelp gull on nest, a ground scrape lined with grass and feathers, Isla Magdalena.
Brown-hooded Gulls over breeding colony, Laguna Coluco, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.

Brown-hooded Gull on floating nest, Laguna Coluco.
Swallow-tailed Gull chick, Genovesa, Galápagos, above and below.
Gull chicks hatch with eyes open and with down feathers; they can move around but
stay in or near the nest to be fed.

Mating tends to be for life, and pair bonds are maintained by displays and mutual grooming.

Swallow-tailed Gull pair allo-preening, South Plaza, Galápagos.
Gulls are widely seen as scavengers - as indeed they are - but they are also quite capable of catching live food (eg the Swallow-tailed Gulls discussed earlier). 
Brown-hooded Gulls scavenging spilt fish-meal, Puerto Montt, Chile.

Pacific Gull eating dead fish, Esperance, Western Australia.

Silver Gull with discarded fish-head, Cairns, tropical Queensland.
Kelp Gulls (and Black-browed Albatross) fishing, Strait of Magellan.
Immature Dolphin Gull with shellfish, Ushuaia, Argentina.
I have seen Kelp Gulls in Chile carry mussels into the air
and repeatedly drop them on the rocks to smash them open.
Sometimes I think that familiarity, and the ability of some species to make a living on our scraps and garbage, leads to some contempt, or at least a lack of respect, for gulls. Like any animal though they are worthy of our attention - and there are some pretty handsome characters in their ranks!


Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Tyto Wetlands: Ingham's highlight

Ingham is a sugar town in tropical Queensland, and a place where you'd probably not choose to spend a lot of time on your way to more salubrious spots further north. You won't find it hard however to get a decent meal and a coffee there, with over 50% of the population claiming Italian heritage. It's 17km from the sea and sitting in a sea of sugar cane, which rarely makes for environmental benefit or a particularly lovely landscape, though that of course is subjective. Nonetheless, if at all possible you should make an effort to spend a night there on your travels, for just one reason.
Tyto Wetlands comprise some 120 hectares of restored swamp and woodland on
the very edge of town - see the light towers in the background. There are many kilometres of
walking tracks, with hides and raised viewpoints. It is not a gazetted nature reserve, but
seems to be a project of the Hinchinbrook Shire Council - though I'd welcome further information.
With two metres of rain a year, there is generally water present!

Anyone who reads these postings regularly will know that I have a well-developed penchant for pottering around wetlands, and this is an excellent place to potter! It is on the southern edge of town, well away from the busy town centre but still in the suburbs, west of the highway.

As you walk into the complex, initially past the football training fields, the locals will inspect you.
Agile Wallabies Macropus agilis, above, and big male below.
(Most of these photos were taken in the evening or early morning, so the light is muted.)
This is the common wallaby of open country and woodlands across tropical Australia.

There is a mix of open water and reedbeds - inevitably water birds are a feature.
Cotton Pygmy-geese Nettapus coromandelianus, male on the right.
These delightful little ducks are not geese at all, but are generally, though somewhat reluctantly,
placed with the 'perching ducks' - itself probably not a 'real' grouping.
The species is found throughout south and south-east Asia.
Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia.Another common species and widespread beyond Australia, but too aesthetic - especially in the context
of the water lilies - not to include.
Wandering Whistling Ducks Dendrocygna arcuata (very early morning!).
Another which is found beyond Australia into the islands to the north.
In Australia at least it doesn't actually wander as much as does our other whistling duck,
the Plumed, but it does seem to move around the islands.

Magpie Goose Anseranas semipalmata, the only member of its family, and apparently
descended from a very early split from the main line of ducks and geese.
These are found commonly in the Australian tropics, but I am always captivated by them
(but then, I'm not trying to grow rice!)

As mentioned earlier however, the site does not just comprise swampland. Trees and shrubs are scattered throughout, and many land birds use them.
More views, above and below, across Tyto Wetlands.

Female Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii; the male has a blue tail and dark eyes.
This big tropical kingfisher feeds on a range of invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals.
My favourite Australian bird field guide, that of the late Graham Pizzey, memorably describes
the call as 'appalling'. (He does go on to elaborate, but that's an excellent start!)

Crimson Finches Neochmia phaeton are found across much of the tropical north,
generally near water and in tall grassy vegetation.

Rufous-throated Honeyeater Conopophila rufogularis.This inconspicuous little honeyeater is also generaly found near water. Unlike several
of the previous species it is endemic to Australia.
Even weeds can attract birds though (which is not a reason to plant them - the birds like native plants just as much!) One such is the attractive but highly invasive African Tulip Tree Spathodea campanulata, family Bignoniaceae, originally from sub-Saharan tropical and sub-tropical Africa from Ghana to Ethiopia and Zambia, but widely planted in north Queensland, to the detriment of the environment - they are highly invasive and can choke out gullies and waterways. There are moves to eliminate them from wild areas and it is possible that these specimens have been by now removed from Tyto.

Helmeted Friarbird Philemon buceroides in African Tulip Tree.
A large and raucous tropical honeyeaer.

The Yellow Honeyeater Lichenostomus flavus (in the same tree) is found only in tropical Queensland.
Birds aren't the only animals flying around of course; the dragonflies didn't cooperate with my photographic efforts, but this elegant butterfly did.

Orange Bush Brown Butterfly Mycalesis terminus, family Nymphalidae. Her interest in the grass stem is not necessarily
simply as a resting place - she lays her eggs almost exclusively on grasses.
Having said that, one bird really is the star of the reserve - indeed it gave the wetland its name. Tyto is the barn owl genus, and Eastern Grass Owls T. longimembris live in the reedbeds of this wetland. There is even a viewing point dedicated to searching for them when they take flight at dusk.
Owl-viewing platform, Tyto Wetlands.
 Here are a couple of views from the platform.

Maybe you can make out the grass owl that I missed on my most recent visit.

Either way, that's just another excellent reason to stop in next time you're driving to or from Cairns or points further north. My thanks to all those who have worked to restore, and maintain, Tyto into the world-class wetland that it is today.