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.

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Pacha Quindi: a very special place

In Quichua, the language once spoken by the Incas and still spoken by many indigenous Ecuadorians, Pacha Quindi means 'place of the hummingbirds'. It's not hard to see why Tony Nunnery and Barbara Bolz chose it for their superb and inspiring cloud forest home property in the Andes north-west of Quito. Their 'garden' - defined a little broadly perhaps, but not unreasonably - boasts the largest number of hummingbird species ever recorded in one place. That number is 42! They claim that on most days of the year you can see up to 19 species in an hour.
Part of the Pacha Quindi garden; the cleared area is immediately surrounding Tony and Barbara's house
with regenerating cloud forest hemming it in on all sides.
Tony and Barbara arrived in the upper Tandanyapa Valley nearly 20 years ago and bought first 30 hectares of land - a mix of forest and cleared cattle pasture - and with outside assistance later added another 50 neighbouring hectares. With a vast amount of physical labour and a lot of experimentation they set about first removing the densely matted exotic pasture grasses, and then encouraging the return of the forest, by direct planting (including of over 6000 trees) and by enabling natural regeneration to proceed. The results are remarkable.
Photo from the Pacha Quindi garden.
A decade or so ago the ridge across the valley (as well as the foreground) was devoid of native vegetation.
They employed local workers - often the same people who'd helped clear the forest to start with - but their very limited resources did not permit this on a permanent basis.

Tony was from Mississippi, where his family ran a building business, so he was equipped to tackle the task of building their beautiful timber home, which originally stood in the cow paddocks until they developed the garden around it. And with the plants came the hummingbirds; these cloud forests on the equator are fabulously rich in these amazing birds. Each hummer species has its preferred flowers, to which its bill has evolved in size and shape, and when these flowers are absent the provision of hanging hummingbird feeders helps ease the stress. However when the flowers are present, the birds eschew the feeders; in any case the feeders, charged with a sugar solution, do not provide the protein the birds need, which they obtain from insects and pollen. Nonetheless the 30 or so feeders use up to 40 kilograms of sugar a week in peak demand period (in February, when it is coldest and energy demands are correspondingly high). The birds drink over $1000 worth of sugar a year!
Hummingbirds at Pacha Quindi feeder.
The stunner centre front, with his back to us, is a male Violet-tailed Sylph Aglaiocercus coelestis;
the rest are Buff-tailed Coronets Boissonneaua flavescens.
It is essential to refill every day with fresh sugar water to prevent the risk of disease from contaminated solutions; each feeder must be regularly cleaned too.

Visitors are very welcome, but don't expect to just drive up the mountain and turn in when you see the sign. The access is unmarked, and comprises an obscure foot track through the roadside grass, which emerges in the lovely garden above the house. They need no driveway as they don't have a vehicle but use the local buses to go to town when required. Powerlines cross their land, but they have refused the offers to be connected to the electricity grid, opting for simplicity. They don't eat animal protein, so don't need refrigeration, and can run their computer and charge phones from solar-charged batteries. 
Looking down through epiphytes to the village of Tandanyapa in the valley below;
Tandanyapa lies almost exactly on the equator.
To find them, visit the newly erected web site here: http://www.pachaquindi.com/  They can advise the best way to visit, or you can make arrangements through travel agencies. Local lodges can also help in theory, and often will in practice, though there have been some unfortunate incidents when staff of neighbouring lodges, presumably seeking to protect their employer's market share, have lied to guests about either not knowing of Pacha Quindi or even claiming it had closed. Don't believe such stories - Tony and Barbara aren't going anywhere soon!
Tony Nunnery in his garden - he is a great communicator, passionate, articulate and funny.
He and Barbara met in Germany (from where she comes) and travelled south through the
Neotropics before settling in Ecuador.


They do ask a very modest entry fee - $10 last I was there - which goes a little way towards maintaining the place and enabling them to live their very basic lives while doing their very important work. For that you'll get an amazing bird list and a never-forgotten experience. They have got small NGO grants in the past, Tony does bird guiding for a company from time to time to replenish the coffers, and your entry money - whether you go alone or with one of the bird tour companies who increasingly take their clients there - all helps keep it going.

However you can help more if you so desire too, by clicking on the Donations button on the web page. No, just saying  - I have no vested interest whatever in the place, beyond what any caring person should.

In addition to the hummingbirds, over 300 bird species have been recorded for the property - which Tony claims, somewhat impishly, makes it the longest back yard bird list in the world. Many of these are Chocó endemics, the Chocó being the ridiculoulsy wet western slopes of the Andes in north-western Ecuador and adjacent Colombia; it is one of the world's great biodiversity hotspots and boasts more than 50 endemic bird species. In addition the mammal list for the property is startling, including Andean Bear, Puma and the remarkably recently 'discovered' Olinguito. Not to mention the amazing botanical richness.
Unidentified (by me!) orchid along one of the network of lovely walking tracks in the forest.
(As ever I'd be glad of your assistance.)
One of these tracks leads to a raised and enclosed bird hide facing the forested slope.
I was startled to discover how few photos of Pacha Quindi I have, which doesn't make sense given how many images I have in my mind! I can only suppose that I've been so entranced by the place when I've been there that I've just forgotten my camera, not something I do often! Here are a few anyway.
Eighty-eight Butterfly Diaethria anna under the house; named for the wing pattern.
(Thanks Rainer!)
Toucan Barbet Semnornis ramphastinus, a very special bird, one of the Chocó endemics, and readily seen
from the garden at Pacha Quindi. Its wonderfully melodious honking is one of the sounds of the cloud forests in
this part of the world. Now not regarded as either toucan or barbet, but one of only two
memebers of the newly erected family Semnornithidae.

And I do have a couple of hummingbird pictures at least!
Wedge-billed Hummingbird Schistes geoffroyi. An uncommon hummer which sometimes
(but not always) 'cheats' by puncturing the base of flowers with its awl-like bill to steal nectar.
A regular in the garden.
Brown Inca Coeligena wilsoni is restricted to the west slopes of the Andes, in Ecuador and Colombia.
White-tailed Hillstar Urochroa bougueri, another scarce hummingbird resident at Pacha Quindi.
This bird regularly roosts on garden implements under the house!
Pacha Quindi is not yet on the main ecotourist trail, but that's changing, and so it should. I'd love you to support Tony and Barbara's work however you can - and the first way to do so would be to visit them!

It's always a highlight of my visits to Ecuador - and Ecuador is a treasure trove of highlights. One more memory of Pacha Quindi, not of its natural wonders. By now you won't be amazed to hear that Tony and Barbara are also accomplished musicians (Tony studied music composition) and as we left in fading light from my first visit there, we were followed by a superb and energetic jazz piano solo from Tony. Every now and then I wonder how they got the piano from the road down to the house - and how they keep their instruments tuned in 100% humidity. But everything about Pacha Quindi is pretty wonderful.

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Friday, 20 February 2015

Bluetongues; Australia's favourite lizards

OK, so maybe that's a provocative title, but the mere fact that a large number of Australians would know immediately what you meant by bluetongue, or even just bluey, is indicative. The six Australian species of the genus Tiliqua (plus two New Guinea species) comprise the bluetongue skinks, usually referred to here just as bluetongue lizards, because they don't really seem like skinks. They are atypically large (sometimes up to 50cm long) and relatively slow, not small and slender and whisking across the surface of ground, rock or log like their numerous more familiar and ubiquitous relations.

The one exception is the Pygmy Bluetongue T. adelaidensis, barely a quarter this size; it is remarkable too in being an ambush hunter, using as cover the burrow of a wolf or trapdoor spider (having evicted and eaten the rightful owner). The story of its remarkable return from oblivion can be found here.
 
The Blotched Bluctongue T. nigrolutea (here in the high Brindabellas above Canberra) is a typical bluetongue.
It can be over 40cm long, with a heavy body and diamond-shaped head. Further south, including in Tasmania,
it can be found at sea level and the pink spots are less conspicuous.
Many Australians, even in suburbia, have a bluetongue in their yard, either as a resident or passing through. Many people leave out water or even food for them, and a very welcome tenant they are too, with a healthy appetite for snails in particular. (They do like strawberries too, but that can be managed with a bit of fencing!) The wedge-shaped face is in part due to the heavy jaw muscles which, in conjunction with large rear teeth, make easy work of crushing snail shells and beetle carapaces. 

They are daytime omnivores, with little defence against larger predators - birds of prey, goannas and large snakes, plus of course now dogs and cats. However, bluff can count for a lot, and blueys are good at it - and here's where the blue tongue comes in!
The fleshy blue tongue, which of course is just a food manipulation organ, is also utilised,
in contrast with the pink inside of the mouth, and a bit of huffing and puffing, to scare off
real or potential threats. This, in combination with the somewhat snake-shaped head, is apparently enough
to save them from at least some attacks.
This is the northern race of the familiar Eastern Bluetongue T. scincoides, which is found widely across
northern and eastern Australia.


Size apparently counts too, as they will also try to make themselves look as big as possible in such situations.
Eastern Bluetongue, Kakadu National Park.
This one has turned itself side on to me, flattened its body and tilted it towards me to appear bigger than it really is.
Unusually, the entire genus gives birth to live young. While this - which essentially means the young hatch internally - is not uncommon among lizards from colder climates, to avoid eggs developing in cold or even frozen soil, even tropical bluetongues do it. There is some dispute in the literature as to whether there is a placental connection between mother and unborn babies, as there is in some other smaller skinks, though the weight of opinion is that there is. The young are large, and Shinglebacks T. rugosa generally have only two at a time; other species may have more.

Shinglebacks are also unusual among lizards in forming lifelong pair bonds; at the start of each breeding season they will seek each other out and remain together for the next couple of months until they mate and then go their own way again until next year.
Shingleback pair, Nullarbor Plain, South Australia.
This is the most physically aberrant of the group, and perhaps the most unusual skink in the world.
Widespread across inland southern Australia, it has attracted names including Bobtail, Stumpy Tail,
Pineeone Lizard, Boggi (or Bog-eye) and Sleepy Lizard, the name I grew up calling them.
I have a great affection for Sleepy Lizards, having followed them around the paddocks at the back of our home north of Adelaide when I was little, and later kept them in a big lizardarium in the back yard in Adelaide (in the days before protective legislation restricted the keeping of native animals).

They are mostly animals of the hot inland - and I couldn't imagine how many I've moved off outback roads to safety in my time - but they reach their south-eastern limits in the high cool country near here, just coming into the northern part of the Australian Capital Territory. Interestingly, at these cold limits, the local Shinglebacks are completely black, to maximise sun absorption.
Shingleback, Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Canberra.
Bluetongues always makes me smile fondly when I see one - and I'm sure many people reading this will have stories and good memories of these slow, gentle Australians. Here are some portraits to finish with.
Blotched Bluetongue, Namadgi National Park.
Eastern Bluetongue, Kakadu National Park.
Shingleback, Nullarbor National Park, South Australia.
Western Bluetongue T. occipitalis, Nambung National Park, Western Australia.
Despite the name this species is found from the Indian Ocean to south-western New South Wales
and western Victoria, substantially overlapping with the Eastern Bluetongue in South Australia.
The only species missing from this gallery (apart from the frighteningly rare Pygmy Bluetongue) is the Centralian Bluetongue T. multifasciata, an omission I can't readily explain. One day...

Blueys, a good part of the Australian landscape. I hope you've enjoyed meeting or remeeting them.

[By a bizarre coincidence, just 24 hours after I posted this my friend Harvey Perkins posted a similar offering here on his excellent blog. It's worth visiting for his photos alone.}

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Sunday, 15 February 2015

On This Day, 15th February: Archibald Menzies died

The moral of this story, if any, is perhaps that you don't want to annoy an amorous Musk Duck. Archibald Menzies did and his memories of the trip would not have been entirely happy ones.
Male Musk Duck Biziura lobata, south of Canberra.
This striking duck is the only member of its genus, long regarded as a member of the sub-group known (for evident
reasons) as stiff-tails, though it's starting to seem as though it's one of those Gondwanan specials which diverged long ago and is not that closely related to the stiff-tails. That however is a story for another day.
They are not uncommon on deeper water throughout much of the southern half of Australia. The males are
characterised by the leathery lobe beneath the bill which engorges with blood during courtship, when he
whistles and grunts and sends out great sprays of water with his feet. He also then emits a strong musky smell.

George Vancouver (a veteran of Cook’s Pacific expeditions) was sent by the Admiralty in the Discovery in 1791 to sort out the Spanish who were regarded as being tedious off the north-west coast of North America. As ever, Sir Joseph Banks made sure there was a scientific presence, in the person of Archibald Menzies, a Scottish naval surgeon and botanist. Now, getting to the North American west coast from England literally meant travelling much of the globe in a way hard to imagine today. You could of course go round the southern tip of South America, via Cape Horn - an enormous distance anyway - but that was a very bad idea. After Magellen navigated his eponymous strait, the next 21 ships to attempt it were all lost, with at least 1000 lives. The alternative was to sail down the west coast of Africa, across the southern Indian Ocean below Australia, then north-east across the entire Pacific. 

Since he was in the vicinity Vancouver thought he might as well have a look at south-western Australia. Inland from the current Albany, Menzies made extensive plant collections, live as well as dried, and presumably for future visitors he planted vines and water cress, and sowed orange, lemon, pumpkin and almond seeds. (None of which were sighted again.)

He made some significant bird discoveries, including the first European descriptions of a couple of Western Australian endemics.
 
Red-capped Parrot Purpureicephalus spurius (above)
and Western Rosella Platycercus icterotis (below), both in Albany;
both were first described in writing in Menzies' diary.


However he never got round to publishing and others got the credit later. He also collected the unfortunate duck; it's not often that we can say with certainty which individual animal gave a name to an entire species, but in this case we can. The poor beast had been cut down at the height of his amorous activities and proceeded to imbue the entire ship with his potently musky aroma. 

Things got worse for Menzies though - he fell out with Vancouver, and though the subject of contention seems to have been the health of his living plant specimens details vary. One account I read had Menzies locked up on board for three months (during which time his plants died) though other versions omit this bit. 

In Australia he is best remembered for some plant species, especially the magnificent and common Western Australian Firewood Banksia, Banksia menziesii.
Banksia menziesii Badgingarra NP.
The name was bestowed by eminent fellow Scot Robert Brown in 1830, though Menzies
never saw the species.
Menzies went on to make his mark in Britain by introducing many plants, especially from the Americas, for the first time. One of his coups was in pocketing some seeds he was served with dessert by the governor of Chile and cultivating them on board - thus were the first Monkey Puzzle Pines Araucaria araucana introduced to Britain. 

However, while in Hawaii in 1794 with the Discovery, he made the first recorded ascent of the volcano Mauna Loa; the next European to do so was another Scot, David Douglas, 40 years later. Their paths crossed again, though I doubt they ever met. In 1791 on Vancouver Island Menzies collected specimens of the mighty tree which was named Pseudotsuga menziesii for him. But it was Douglas who many years later reported on the values of the timber and brought it to public attention, which is why we now know it as Douglas Fir. Whether it was Menzies who passed his bad luck on to Douglas via the tree is unknown. (Well OK, maybe just a touch of poetic licence there...) 
Douglas Fir, courtesy Wikipedia.
Douglas though, indubitably had little luck. From various sources I've gleaned the following series of events; I can't vouch for the veracity of all of it, given how unlikely it sounds. Early in his time in North America, while he was collecting up a tree, his guide absconded with his jacket and money. The hired horse and carriage were left, but the horse only understood French and Douglas at that stage didn’t. His health profoundly deteriorated after drifting for some time, drenched and frozen, in Hudson Bay, and he was substantially blinded by years of sun on the snow. At this point he decided it was time to go home to England - via Alaska and Siberia, on foot, to save money. En route to the coast though his canoe went over a waterfall and all his specimens and notes were lost. Somehow he found himself in Hawaii, where having climbed Mauna Loa he managed to fall into a bull trap, complete with bull, and at that point all luck ended. 

However we started with Archibald Menzies, so should leave with him too. He had a much longer and happier life than Douglas. After retiring he went into medical practice in London, and succeeded Aylmer Lambert as president of the Linnean Society. He died in 1842 aged 88.
Archibald Menzies.
This image is widely reproduced, but I can nowhere find the original colour version,
who the artist was or when it was painted. My apologies to whoever it was!
Just another very small-part player in our story, but as I've said before, they all add up. And once you start following a loose story thread, who knows where it will lead?

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Thursday, 12 February 2015

Housekeeping; updating some earlier postings

This may be of little interest to anybody, but I find constantly that people are visiting older postings, so I thought I'd skim through them and update as required. Mostly this means replacing pictures with better ones, or adding to postings as more pics become available.
Here I've replaced the photo of Bellendana montana. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here a better picture of Green (or Golden) Tree Snake. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here a much better photo of Crimson Finch. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here a better picture of White-gaped Honeyeater. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here a better Black Currawong photo. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on Darwin's Finches, I've replaced three photos with better ones, and added two species of which I didn't previously have photos.
Here I've also made some significant additions, and replaced one pic (of a Yellow-breasted Antpitta) with a much better one. The additions are mostly of extra antpittas, which might be of interest.
Here I've added Green Rosella to the posting on rosellas.
Here I've replaced the photo of a Jacky Lizard with a much better one. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here I've added a photo of Forest Kingfishers to the posting on kingfishers. Link to image (without caption) here.

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Tuesday, 10 February 2015

On This Day 9 February: Francis Cadell born

As I've mentioned before, one of the many things that fascinates me about this wonderful world is the persistence of relic species in habitats that have survived in special situations when the world around them has changed. The survival of groups such as palms and cycads in desert ranges of central Australia is one such example. 

Another is the existence of the 'bottle tree scrubs', 'vine scrubs' or 'bonetree scrubs' of inland south-eastern Queensland, alluded to here. These are remnant dry rainforest patches that have survived within the formerly vast Brigalow Acacia harpophylla belt; this broader habitat is most unusual in dry Australia in being strongly fire resistant, and within this protection rainforest elements have survived and adapted. Long-nosed Bandicoots Perameles nasuta for instance survive in them, though at such latitudes are otherwise found only in much wetter habitats.

One tree species which can dominate in such situations, though now fairly scarce following past widespread clearing, is Ooline Cadellia pentastylis, from the small family Surianaceae (mostly Australian with one species widespread around the Paficic). Ooline is the only member of the genus.
Ooline, Tregole National Park, inland south-east Queensland near Morven.
It is a throwback to much wetter times, when rainforests dominated much of Australia. It extends in similar habitat into northern inland New South Wales.

It was named in 1860 by the great 19th century Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller, who chose to commemorate a somewhat unlikely character. Francis Cadell was Scottish-born (on 9 February 1822), an enthusiastic entrepreneur and pioneer of the steam-driven river boat trade on the Murray-Darling River system. After knocking around for a while he came to Australia and focussed on the South Australian government's huge offer in 1850 of 2000 pounds for each of the first two riverboats - which had to be shallow-draft iron steamers of at least 40 horse-power - to navigate upstream as far as the Darling River junction. The government was trying to develop a river trade with the vast sheep and cattle stations far upstream, and ultimately to provide a shipping lifeline to the east without the extreme hazards of the coastal route via Bass Strait.

Cadell managed to persuade the government - who had no takers by 1852 - to up the ante, with the addition of more conditions to suit him, to 4500 pounds, and he had a boat purpose-built in Sydney. With much pomp he entered the Murray via the hazardous mouth, then proceeded upstream as far as Swan Hill in Victoria (beyond the Darling), making sure that one of his passengers was the Lieutenant Governor Sir Henry Young.
Francis Cadell, late in life; photographer unknown.
Photograph courtesy State Library of South Australia.
Unbeknownst to him however, he was beaten to it by a young South Australian country flour miller from Gumeracha, who started from scratch and built his own paddlewheeler. William Randell had never even seen a paddlesteamer, but he was anxious to get his flour to the Victorian goldfields to take advantage of the high prices on offer. There are horrific stories of his early attempts, with the bulging steam box being held together only by bullock chains and his engineer (his brother) running for safety. Miraculously it held, and he set off up the river in advance of Cadell and got much further than Cadell did; it seems that they each only became aware of the other when Cadell's Lady Augusta overtook Randell's Mary Ann (named for his mum) near the Murrumbidgee Junction. It is most unclear whether Randell had even been aware of the prize on offer before that.

Outside of South Australia, Randell's role is largely forgotten, and there is little doubt that Cadell helped to ensure that, with the assistance of Henry Young who had three gold medallions struck to commemorate "the first successful steam voyage up the Murray" - one for himself, one for Cadell, and one for the Legislative Council. None for Randell.  

In responding to a toast at a banquet at his honour in Adelaide later, Cadell said that his ambition was the "waking up of a mighty but hitherto torpid stream" so that it might "fulfil its alloted duties, as intended by the Creator of all things, and to render it subservient to the uses of mankind". Hmm. I am not entirely amazed that he was murdered by a crew member in 1879 near Ambon, while trading in the East Indies; he was widely accused of mistreatment of his crew, including withholding of wages. An article in the Register of 1917 said that he was "a red-headed, red-moustached, pompous and bombastic man, who knew how to keep himself in the limelight and to reap what others had sown"

But, he got an interesting and attractive tree, for reasons that aren't clear to me. This is von Mueller's explanation from his formal description of the tree; my reading of it in my rudimentary Latin (since, and more significantly, confirmed by my linguistic friend Jeannie Gray) is that he simply praises Cadell's efforts in exploring the rivers and opening up the hitherto unknown inland. Perhaps he was trying to encourage Cadell to collect some plants for him in the future!
"Genus aucto carpidiorum numero in ordine alienum, transitum ad sapindacearum familiam ostendens, signavi nomine clarissimi Francisci CadelL praefecti navalis, qui navigationem fluviorum Murray et Darling animóse incipiens non solum explorationeni terrae Australis interioris adhuc incognitae faciliorem reddit, sed etiam expeditionem nunc in plagas Australiae centralis suscipiendam animo generoso adjuvit."

Names, as always, are just human conceits, but stories matter, and I've long found the story of Cadell and Randell an intriguing one, a contrast in personalities and motives. I'd have been happier if Ooline had been named Randellia though; he had no connection with or knowledge of the tree either, but I confess to liking him more...

Ooline stand, Tregole National Park.
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Tuesday, 3 February 2015

A Busy Umbrella Tree; Darwin Museum

When we're in tropical Darwin (capital of Australia's Northern Territory - see here for a map) we always make a point of popping into the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. Of course one of our motives is the art and exhibits - notably the indigenous art, the dramatic and moving gallery telling the story of Cyclone Tracy which almost wiped Darwin from existence on Christmas Day 1974, and in a different way the also moving story of Sweetheart, a magnificent 5.1 metre long Estuarine Crocodile which drowned in 1979 while being relocated away from fishing dinghies, to which it had taken a liking.

However of equal attraction is the subsequent coffee or cold drink taken on the café verandah afterwards, looking out across treed lawns to the Timor Sea.
The view from the museum café verandah on a recent sunny day; the Timor Sea
can be seen in the near distance.
Of course the views are not always this clear, especially in the summer wet season.
The same view, taken on a previous summer visit.
In both pictures, a handsome Umbrella Tree Schefflera actinophylla features. This member of the Araliaceae family (which includes ivy and ginseng) is native to tropical Queensland rainforests and wetter monsoon forests (ie 'wetter dry rainforests'!) of the Top End, as the imprecisely defined wet northern sector of the Northern Territory is known.

And because of this tree, we are not the only ones to come to the museum verandah for refreshments. The flowers are small but incredibly numerous, with many hundreds of them on each spray of flowers, which may be two metres long. They are rich in nectar and the birds come to them by day, and bats by night. Later the fruits are also hugely attractive but on our most recent visit it was the flower-visiting birds which distracted our attention, coming in waves to the flowers almost above our heads.

Here are the main visitors.

Little Friarbird Philemon citreogularis, the smallest of the group of large honeyeaters known as friarbirds.
The first one named, the Noisy Friarbird P. corniculatus, was common around Sydney when the first European
settlers arrived; its head is bald of feathers which prompted the disrespectful moniker.
More on them in a separate posting one day.
Little Friarbirds are found across much of eastern and northern Australia.
Helmeted Friarbirds Philemon buceroides on the other hand are solely tropical.
Unusually for honeyeaters the birds were largely willing to permit others to feed nearby, a sure sign that the nectar resource is effectively infinite.
Helmeted Friarbird and White-gaped Honeyeater Lichenostomus unicolor; unusual table-mates.
White-gaped Honeyeater; another tropical specialist.
Its notably loud and stroppy disposition doubtless assists it in being allowed to feed
undisturbed by the bigger bully. This species and the next are on the increase in Darwin gardens.
Brown Honeyeater Lichmera indistincta; both common and species name do scant justice
to its sparky personality and big voice. Unlike the previous species it is found in a huge range
of habitats across western, northern and eastern Australia; I feel it is penetrating further and further
into the dry country too.
Another honeyeater was visiting too, but was being chivvied on by the other bigger and more aggressive birds too quickly for me to get a photo.
Dusky Honeyeater Myzomela obscura feeding in a quieter restaurant elsewhere in Darwin.
And just before we reluctantly moved on, a couple of truly spectacular diners rocketed in and took over.
Red-collared Lorikeet Trichoglossus rubritorquis.This tropical beauty has a chequered taxonomic history, being alternately regarded as a separate species
and lumped in with the ubiquitous east coast Rainbow Lorikeet T. moluccanus.Now however it (and some non-Australian taxa) are widely regarded as separate species.
No doubt if we'd come at another time or sat for longer we'd have enjoyed still more species, but it was a pretty good distraction - or in my case probably the coffee (and even the delightful human company) was more the distraction...

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Thursday, 29 January 2015

Northern Territory Wildlife Park; the wild side

Having just returned from a week and a bit based in Darwin at the very northern end of central Australia (and having organised my photos) it's inevitable that this wonderful tropical part of the world should feature today. Some people considered us mad for visiting during the 'Wet' (or the 'Green Season' as the tourist industry has taken to preferring!) and while they may have a case, we loved it. It doesn't rain all the time, though impressive storms featured late on most days, and while it's of course humid the temperatures were surprisingly mild - no more than about 33 degrees.
Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, at the end of the red arrow.
We live a bit over 3000km away (and some 2600km to the south) at the end of the green arrow.
One 'must visit' destination for any visitor is the magnificent Territory Wildlife Park (the 'Northern' is apparently considered superfluous!), 60km south of Darwin. Technically I suppose it is a zoo, but that conjures up images quite misleading in this case. Founded by the territory government in 1989, it is set in 400 hectares of natural habitat, of which only a tiny proportion is developed. A four kilometre circuit track is regularly travelled by a little train (not on rails) driven by informative guides and is paralleled by walking tracks which also branch off into the bush. Features include a series of habitat-based aviaries, culminating in a huge and magnificent aviary featuring the monsoon forest; an aquarium including a walk-through tunnel with animals swimming by and over you; a nocturnal house, and daily educational displays of free-flying birds. All are well done, and the educational and conservation themes are powerful.

However I want to feature today 'the rest' - the huge area of the park which is outside the developed sections, accessed by the walking track system. There are three basic habitat types represented within the grounds; dry woodland, monsoon forest and wetland systems, though each can be further sub-divided. 

Dry eucalypt woodland, the dominant vegetation type of the Top End.
Above, featuring 'Screw Palm' Pandanus spiralis,and below the cycad Cycas armstrongii; both are common understorey components.

'Screw Palms' are of course not palms at all - monocots certainly, but in the family Pandanaceae. The leaves
are spirally arranged on the trunk, and their bases form the distinctive stem spirals when they drop.
Indigenous culture is alive and well in the Top End, and this plant is very important to the original Territorians: it provides food from seeds, fruit and stem; medications; fibre for mats, baskets and rope; wood for drum sticks and rafts.
Monsoon Forest (above and below), or Vine Forest, is a type of dry rainforest, occurring in
isolated patches across the Top End, especially nearer the coast. Away from the coast, where rainfall
is often lower, it tends to be found around streamlines (below).
There is no true ('wet') rainforest in the Top End because winter rainfall is too low to sustain it.

Wetlands comprise open water and their fringing vegetation, plus surrounding areas of paperbark (Melaleuca spp.) swamp woodland which may be inundated for weeks or more every year.
Goose Lagoon (above) and associated paperbark swamp (below).
 
The rain didn't disappoint us either. On the one occasion we travelled a section in the little (open-sided) train it bucketed down, and as we cornered a gush of water from the roof filled the curved plastic bench sit beneath us. We naturally leapt up - and were politely but firmly requested by the driver-guide to sit down again! Oh well, it was a warm pool to sit in at least.
Tropical rain in the Park.
The attractive but bedraggled centipede (below) shared our shelter; I'm afraid poor light and
its haste to escape make for an inadequate photo.
 
Which brings us to the many wild animals which dwell within the park boundaries. One of the apparently counter-intuitive aspects of the Wet is that water birds are far harder to find than in the Dry. It makes sense of course - with water across ten of thousands of square kilometres of country the birds are scattered across the plains. However even now there are some to be found around the park's wetlands.
Australian Pelicans Pelecanus conspicillatus.

The eponymous geese of Goose Lagoon. Magpie Geese Anseranas semipalmata are widespread
across northern Australia. They are neither goose nor duck, but the sole living member of an ancient
family which predates all current ducks, geese and swans. One distinguishing characteristic is the partially
webbed toes (from which derives the species name).


Radjah Shelducks Tadorna radjah are well within the mainstream of duckdom -
and in my opinion are one of the most beautiful ducks in the world.

Forest Kingfishers Todiramphus macleayii are another spectacularly beautiful component
of tropical Australian birdlife; they are members of the tree kingfisher family.
Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt.These relatively small megapodes - mound-builders - build huge incubating mounds for their eggs.
This is the only one of the three Australian species to be found in the Top End where they are widespread.
They can be encountered anywhere in the park.
The Varied Triller Lalage leucomela is another common Top End bird, but also found throughout
the near-coastal tropics and down the east coast almost to Sydney. Its melodious call is
part of the musical sound track of the park.
Agile Wallaby Macropus agilis, the commonest wallaby of northern Australia.
You can't afford to live up here if you can't cope with wet feet and a bit of rain!
This Javelin Frog's (Litoria microbelos) luck changed for the better when we arrived at the Goose Lagoon
bird hide. It was being seriously molested by a trio of Green Tree Ants and launched itself at me when I appeared.
The ants were dislodged and I placed it on a post outside (below) from where it could jump into the water.
It was still being stalked however...
 

Reptiles are always present in the Top End, and the Wildlife Park is no exception.
Slender Rainbow Skink Carlia gracilis. This is a breeding male; only they develop the spectacular
blue-green head and bright chestnut sides.
Yellow-spotted Goanna Varanus panoptes; originally in this posting I had misidentified it as the locally commoner Mertens' Goanna V. mertensi. My thanks for Wildlife Park staff Alice Anne Body and Dion Wedd for taking the trouble to contact me and point out my error. The transverse bands of conspicuous dots are one characteristic I should have recognised. Both these goannas are nowhere near as common as they used to be before the arrival of the
toxic introduced Cane Toad Bufo marinus.
So, when you go the Top End, whatever the season you must visit the Territory Wildlife Park; when you do so don't miss the aviaries and aquariums, but equally importantly don't miss the wealth of life going about its wonderful business outside the developed sections. This is the Top End concentrated!

BACK ON TUESDAY

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