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, 21 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Puerto Maldonado

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

Puerto Maldonado is not a particularly attractive city, though it is in the Amazon basin of south-east Peru and on the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers. But it is a sprawling, dusty (or muddy), aggressively growing frontier town. In the last twenty years it has grown from less than 30,000 people to over 100,000 and it's still expanding rapidly, faster than infrastructure can keep up. It was a logging town but all the readily accessible timber in the immediate vicinity has been cut and last I heard there was only one mill still operating. On the other hand there are reputedly 30,000 small-scale gold miners based there, using mercury to extract the metal, to the great detriment of themselves and the environment. Insidiously too the gas industry has been sniffing around in recent years, as elsewhere in Amazonia, and the government is sympathetic, irrespective of the fact that much the land under exploration is world-class national park, and land supporting indigenous people who don't want to have contact with 'civilisation'. The controversial big bridge across the river at Pto Maldonado, and the associated new Intercontinental Highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, smashing through formerly pristine primary rainforest, are both further causes for concern and facilitators of further growth of the city.
Puerto Maldonado streetscape; this is near the city centre where things are more established,
and in the relative quiet of early morning.
The reason that so many outsiders pour through the airport and waterfront every year however is that Pto Maldonado is the gateway for many tourists to the rivers, parks and lodges of southern Peruvian Amazon basin. And despite all the real problems spelt out above it is still surrounded by rainforest remnants at least, and wildlife is not at all uncommon in the city.

Even the central plaza supports various species, especially before the traffic really gets going.
Curious Ruddy Pigeon Patagioenas subvinace, town centre.
Tropical Pewee Contopus cinereus.Like the Ruddy Pigeon this little monarch flycatcher is widespread but it is always good to see
native birds in the middle of busy cities. It too is at home in the central plaza.
Streaked Flycatcher Myiodynastes maculatus ornamenting a Puerto Maldonado roof line.
Like the pewee it is a member of the huge monarch flycatcher assemblage, a group of the ancient sub-oscine
passerines which elsewhere in the world comprise only a few species, but which dominate in South America.
Palm Tanager Thraupis palmarum.Common and widespread but welcome as a reminder of what was here before the city.
The most remarkable example of wildlife I saw in Puerto Maldonado however was in a tree in the hotel grounds near the river - it was very much a case of 'welcome to Amazonia'!
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth Bradypus variegatus with the city visible behind.
The species is known to adapt to disturbed habitat, but I never expected to see one somewhere this disturbed.
And the fact that she has a baby (visible on her belly) is a good indicator that she's not alone here!
A closer view of the same animal. This really was a thrill.
So, as with the other cities so far featured in this series, you probably wouldn't even go to Puerto Maldonado as a visitor other than as a means to being somewhere else; but if you do, it's definitely worth keeping your eyes open...

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Douala

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

Douala, the largest city in Cameroon with over three million inhabitants, is a complete shock to anyone unfamiliar with cities in the less-developed world. My first diary entry when I was there included these observations: "What an amazing, appalling place – and I’m on the edge of the commercial sector! Vast, throbbing, noisy, frantic, hustling chaos. Footpaths are just bumps at the sides of the roads, useful for parking. The roads are dominated by thousands of seriously clapped-out old yellow Toyota taxis and motos – not a helmet in sight of course and commonly three on board. ... surreal lunacy."


This was the view from my hotel window; early morning, so still fairly quiet.

Typical traffic on the way out of town, above and below.
Note the state of the roads - normal throughout the country.


Birding by a very polluted little wetland on the way out of town.
It's different.
You  won't be surprised to hear that this offering is pretty short on wildlife, though there is probably more than I saw and certainly more than I photographed - there are trees, but I wasn't inclined to take my camera or binoculars with me very often on the crowded streets, and it was raining a fair bit of the time.

One of the most dramatic wildlife spectacles comes in the evening when the Straw-coloured Fruit Bats Eidolon helvum appear. I had excellent views from my hotel window.

They seemed to be coming mostly from the direction of the Wouri River estuary, presumably
roosting in the mangroves.

However there were even some roosting in the few trees in the hotel grounds.

Just two of the numerous bats flying past my window.
They occur across sub-Saharan Africa, but seem to be declining.
In the grounds of the nearby chaotic service station I was astonished to see large colourful lizards zipping about under cars on the oil-slicked asphalt.

Male Common or Rainbow Agama Agama agama in full breeding splendour.
This one was actually in the hotel grounds; as I mentioned I wasn't keen on taking the camera into the streets.
We also ventured into an industrial area near the river for some more birds, though my most abiding memory is of a swelling chorus of song which materialised as a troop of army recruits being exercised through the streets. A couple of Grey Parrots winging overhead assured me I really was in west Africa!
Reichenbach's Sunbird Anabathmis reichenbachii near the Wouri River;
it is found across central-west Africa.
And yes I agree - it would have been a much more desirable photo if it had a beak!
And on that somewhat uninspiring note I'll end here. You certainly won't be going to Douala for the wildlife; indeed you probably won't be going there at all unless en route to somewhere else. Which is in itself a reason to introduce it here, albeit so briefly.

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Thursday, 7 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Buenos Aires

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm
absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

The capital of Argentina is a dense teeming city of over three million people. One striking aspect of it to visitors used to cities of houses is that the entire city seemingly comprises apartment buildings; it really is densely populated. We recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days there and despite constantly crowded streets we found little parks where there was wildlife - especially birds - living in the roar of traffic.
Rufous Hornero Furnarius rufus.
This handsome and engaging ovenbird is common in the parks, and has learnt to benefit from human
developments in eastern South America. It has been designated as Argentina's national bird!

Rufous-bellied Thrushes Turdus rufiventris are also quite common.
I'm guessing the somewhat scruffy character below is a young bird, but I'm woefully ignorant of the whole of eastern South America (so far anyway).

 
Picazuro Pigeon Patagioenas picazuro. Despite its resemblance to Feral Pigeons
(also common in BA, as everywhere) this belongs to a separate - though closely related - genus,
to which many familiar South American pigeons belong.
My assumption is that the common name (and the scientific, presumably derived from it) refers to a blue bill.
Guira Cuckoo Guira guira.This was a bird I was particularly keen to see, having seen photos and read about it, but we were surprised
to find one in a particularly small and unsalubrious park. Our surprise was partly due to the fact that
there was just one - this non-parasitic cuckoo is noted for being very sociable, feeding in sometimes
large groups on the ground.
We also watched a pair of American Kestrels preparing to roost on an aerial across the road from our hotel window, but it was too dark for successful photos by then.

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city - though everyone we spoke to immediately warned us to be very careful of thieves - and the architecture, museums, people, food and drink are all highly worthy of exploration. But keep on eye out for the wildlife too.

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Thursday, 30 April 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Guayaquil

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

No-one visiting Ecuador is likely to spend much time in Guayaquil for its own sake. It is the country's largest city, crowded and industrial, and home to at least four million people. Moreover it burnt extensively in 1895, so lacks the feeling of age that Quito and Cuenca carry. Nonetheless its location 60km from the coast on the Guayas River, the largest west coast South American river, ensures that there is wildlife, especially birds, to be seen. The riverfront esplanade development known as the Malecon 2000 is a must for anyone visiting Guayaquil. The next four photos were taken along the Malecon.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea.These handsome herons roost in trees above the Malecon and feed unconcernedly below the walkways.
Pacific Parrotlet Forpus coelestis.This little delight was photographed from a restaurant table on the Malecon.
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola; despite the name it seems that it's actually a tanager!
I couldn't resist this outrageous clash of colours.
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus.One of the most familiar birds throughout Ecuador (and well beyond) but there's something
special about seeing it backed by city buildings.
But even away from the river, there is wildlife alongside and above the chaotic streets.
These Red-Masked Parakeets Psittacara erythrogenys were investigating and squabbling over this
pipe over the street, presumably considering it a potential nest hollow.
Shamefully this parrot's numbers are in decline due to the demands of the pet trade.


But one of the most startling aspects of Guayaquil is the presence of a large population of Green Iguanas Iguana iguana in Seminario Park, surrounded by busy streets. They are quite unfazed by people, lounging in the trees and coming down to dine on lettuce provided.

On weekends locals crowd in to see them, and the whole thing is quite surreal!


And that's all for this time. I hope you've found it better than nothing! And when in Guayaquil, it really is worth taking a few hours to stroll the Malecon, have lunch there - and of course visit the iguanas.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Ecuador's Drier Side

Ecuador's natural values are well-known and for very good reasons; tropical lowland rainforest, Andean cloud forests, alpine páramo above the tree line, and of course the ever magnetic and fabulous Galápagos. But dry deciduous forests, where no rain falls for half the year? Well they certainly exist and support their own suites of plants and animals, but there is a reason you may not be familiar with them - most of them have gone, converted to crops, stock pasture and cities. They grow along the southern near-Pacific coastal strip, and in a land where most of the surface area is mountainous or Amazon rainforest, the flat fertile coastal plains have inevitably attracted intensive agriculture. The rich volcanic soils washed down from the Andes now support crops of bananas, sugar cane, rice, cocoa and cattle. Tiny Ecuador is the world's leading banana producer and exporter, and the eighth largest exporter of cocoa. And, in the last decade the insidious palm oil industry has begun taking up land in the northern sector of the coastal strip. The remnants of the dry forests now represent barely 5% of what they once were.

But despite all this, all is not lost. 
Cerro Blanco Reserve, on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city.
It is a 2500 hectare private reserve, owned by a large cement company and staffed and
researched by volunteers, many of whom are students.
The big deciduous trees are Bottle-trunk Ceibas Ceiba trichistandra.
South of Guayaquil, by the highway to Machala, is the much bigger Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve of 35,000 hectares. The majority is dry forest, but not all; manglares means mangroves in Spanish and the reserve protects 8000 hectares of mangroves, another highly threatened habitat in Ecuador. (Here the burgeoning prawn farming industry is the chief culprit.)
Mangroves and dry forest, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.
There are other small scattered reserves too, such as the wonderful Jocotoco Foundation's Yunguilla Reserve near Cuenca; this 370 hectare reserve was purchased to protect the last known population of the Critically Endangered Pale-headed Brush Finch Atlapetes pallidiceps. Although I've been fortunate enough to have fleeting views of this very rare bird, I'm afraid I can't offer you a photo!
Looking across Yunguilla Reserve.
Due to Jocotoco's efforts, the finch has been downgraded (or upgraded surely!) from Critically Endangered
to Endangered; nonetheless there are still only 250 birds left, all of them here.
What lives in the these forests? Well, rather a lot of species still, despite their decline. Here are some of them. I apologise for some of these photos, but most of the species are scarce and I felt it worth introducing them anyway.
Male Northern Violaceous (or Gartered) Trogon Trogon caligatus Cerro Blanco.Trogons are a delight, especially to those of us who don't normally see them.
They form a tropical Family (and indeed Order) found especially in South America but also
across Africa and Asia.
 
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola Cerro Blanco Reserve. It is now regarded as a tanager;
it is widespread, but is too beautiful not to include here.
Laughing Falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans Cerro Blanco Reserve.
A species not restricted to these dry forests; a snake and lizard specialist.
Tropical Gnatcatcher Polioptila plumbea, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
One of the numerous tyrant-flycatchers, an ancient South American
passerine grouping.
Pacific (or  Peruvian) Pygmy Owl Glaucidium peruanum, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
This tiny owl, often found by following mobbing small birds, is a dry forest specialist, though it has
also adapted to urban living as the forests are cleared.
Streak-headed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes souleyetii, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
The woodcreepers are trunk and branch probers, funariids or oven birds, the 'other' big group
of South American sub-oscines, ancient passerines. Most woodcreepers are wet forest birds,
bu this one specialises in dry forests.
White-tailed Jay Cyanocorax mystacalis, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
A scarce species apparently declining further through habitat clearance.
Grey-cheeked Parakeet Brotogeris pyrrhoptera, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
Loss of the dry forest has led to this subtly-hued little parrot being listed as Endangered.
This reserve and Cerro Blanco are two of only four reserves that protect them, including one in Peru.
White-necked Puffbird Notharchus hyperrhynchus Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
Again, most puffbirds live in wetter forests; this one is described as 'rare to uncommon' in Ecuador.
Mantled Howler Monkey Alouatta palliata, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
While common in South America, this species is not at all common further south, and this reserve
is a stronghold for them in Ecuador.
Tegu, Family Teiidae, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
Unidentified skink, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
I love that tail!
Cracker Butterflies Hamadryas sp., Cerro Blanco Reserve, above and below.
Their camouflage is superb.
The name comes from the sound of a displaying male's wings!
 
Colonial spider web, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
To my shame I have no idea what these lovely flowers are at Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve,
but I find them too interesting to omit. I'd appreciate any assistance you can give.
I was intrigued too by this epiphytic cactus in the same reserve;
the concept was entirely new to me, but maybe I just don't get out enough...
You probably wouldn't got to Ecuador specifically for the dry forests, but when you do go it would be a great shame to miss them.

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