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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Spring: wattles of the Australian Capital Territory

Wattle Day (on 1 September, the first day of our spring) was a week or so back as I write this, but it's only really started to feel 'springy' here in the past few days. As you probably know, Australia uses the Meteorological definition of seasons - that is they start on the first day of the month which contains the equinox or solstice, whereas in much of the rest of the western world at least they use Astronomical seasons, which start on the actual equinox/solstice. I read recently that in Finland and Sweden spring begins when the mean temperature over five consecutive 24-hour periods rises above 0 degrees centigrade; this does mean that spring starts on different days at different latitudes within the country. (For the record a mean 5-day average of above 10 degrees means summer, and of below 0 means winter. I quite like the concept, though I'm uncertain what happens if spring is declared then the mean drops below zero again...)
Spring in Canberra; massed Box-leaved Wattle Acacia (hereafter just A.) buxifolia, in September.
All this confirms of course that it is simple human conceit to rigidly define seasons; I'm on record as saying that spring in Canberra really starts when the little blue orchid Cyanicula caerulea first flowers, but that means that spring's official welcome varies from year to year. I'm OK with that, but I don't expect widespread acceptance any time soon. (However in northern Australia the traditional people of Arnhem Land define their six seasons by just such a system, so I'm neither alone nor original.)

For many of us the first wattle flowers of August are harbingers of better days to come (though in truth there's a wattle flowering somewhere on any given day of the year, and at least one local special flowers in winter). Some time ago I was asked to do a posting on local wattles, and finally here it is! It's a simple photo essay, introducing most of our native species (just over two thirds of them anyway, 16 of 23) in alphabetical order, lest I be accused of favouritism, and ending with a couple of non-locals which are widely established. Most of the absent seven here are scarce and/or grow in relatively remote areas of the ACT. I think I'll only need to use one photo taken outside the ACT.

Here we go then!
Box-leaved Wattle again, also on Black Mountain, above and below.
Locally it is found mostly on stony soils in the north of the ACT.

Box-leaved Wattle close-up; the little phyllodes are generally only 15-20mm long.
The common and scientific names both refer to the supposed resemblance of the phyllodes to the mostly
Northern Hemisphere boxes, Buxus spp., and probably in particular the common European B. sempervirens.
Poverty Wattle A. dawsonii, Molonglo Gorge.
Found mostly on low-nutrient rocky soils in dry areas above waterways in the north of the territory.
Seemingly named for otherwise little-known 19th century NSW surveyor and plant collector James Dawson.

Massed Silver Wattle A. dealbata, Namadgi National Park.
One of the most widespread and conspicuous local wattles, forming dense understoreys in both
dry and wet forests. In higher rainfall areas in Victoria and Tasmania it can be an impressive tree
to 30 metres tall; it has been used for furniture timber.

Silver Wattle detail; dealbata means 'whitewashed'.
It is probably sometimes mistaken for the locally exotic Cootamundra Wattle (see near end
of posting for distinctions), and probably vice versa too.

Spearwood Wattle A. doratoxylon (the common name is the translation of the scientific one, for a reported
Indigenous usage). In this picture the wattle is the somewhat wispy one in the foreground, below the
Black Cypress Pines in Molonglo Gorge. The species is widespread on rocky ranges to the west of here,
but in the ACT is restricted to this rocky gorge.

Broad-leaved Hickory Wattle A. falciformis, Namadgi National Park.
Found commonly at mid-altitudes across the ranges of central ACT, a handsome small tree.
The name means 'sickle-shaped'.

Early Wattle A. genistifolia, Black Mountain, above and below.
A prickly shrub, but delightful, especially as its pale flowers shine through the winter months.

The name means 'broom-leaved'.
Ploughshare Wattle A. gunnii, Black Mountain.
Named for the triangular phyllodes (which have very efficient little spiked tips), and for Ronald Gunn,
Tasmanian 19th century naturalist and collector for whom many species are named.
This one is found from South Australia to Tasmania to south-east Queensland.
Hickory Wattle A. implexa, Black Mountain. Sorry about the absence of flowers, which come in summer.
This small handsome tree grows in dry forests in the north of the territory.

Black (or Green!) Wattle A. mearnsii, Narrabundah Hill; this is one of the commonest and most
familiar wattles around Canberra, but not so much to the south of here. Its flowering is dramatic.

Black Wattle, Jerrabomberra Wetlands.
The name is bizarre; the very short version of the story is that in 1925 a US collector named Edgar Mearns collected
some specimens of it growing near Nairobi, where they had been planted, though neither he nor the Belgian
botanist De Wildeman to whom he gave the specimens realised that. (Why they thought that a new Acacia,
and not of the African type at all, should have been unnoticed there is beyond me.) De Wildemans, unaware that
the species had been described well over 100 years previously, treated it as a new species, and called it A mearnsii
after the collector. For obvious reasons the name was immediately ignored - until some detective work by
Kew Gardens researchers in 1967, who discovered that the original early 19th century name was invalid
(due to a crazy confusion of mismatched description and illustration), and mearnsii was the
next available name! There's not much more justice in taxonomy than there is in life sometimes.

Blackwood A. melanoxylon, National Botanic Gardens - and I can't believe that I don't have a 'wild'
photo of this wonderful tree, which is quite common in the ranges. It grows from the Adelaide Hills to
tropical Queensland, but in Tasmania and Gippsland in particular it grows into a huge tree, much sought after in
times past for furniture and panelling. Indeed the wall panelling and the doors and frames, including the massive
external front door, of Australia's original Parliament House, are made of Blackwood.
Melanoxylon (properly pronounced mel-an-oh-ZIE-lon) just means 'black wood'.

The lovely, almost white, flowers of Blackwood, high in Namadgi NP.

Blackwood pods, Namadgi NP.
The red arils are nutritious, and serve to attract ants to carry the hard (inaccessibly so) fallen seeds to the nest,
where the seeds are discarded, well away from the parent tree, and the arils taken in as food.
Mountain Hickory Wattle A. obliquinervia is found in mountain forests right up to the Snow Gums.
This one is regenerating in Namadgi National Park in the aftermath of the massive and intense wildfires of 2003.

Mountain Hickory Wattle, Namadgi National Park. If you click on the picture to enlarge it,
you will see that the mid-vein of each phyllode is off-centre - obliquinervia of course means
'oblique-nerved', referring to the veins.
Kangaroo Thorn A. paradoxa, Mount Ainslie, above and below.
This spiky tangled shrub was widely believed, for reasons uncertain, to be exotic in the ACT,
but that seems not to be the accepted view now. I don't know the significance of the 'paradox' in the name.

The pair of stem spikes beneath each phyllode are evident here.
Wedge-leaved (or Oven's) Wattle A. pravissima, Namdadgi NP, above and below,
is widespread in the lower slopes of the ranges, flowering profusely in early spring.
It is also widely planted. The species name means 'very crooked' for the stems.

The diagnostic triangular phyllodes are the best identifier.

Golden Wattle A. pycnantha,  Lincoln NP, South Australia. This is Australia's national
floral emblem and widespread in south-eastern Australian, but scarce in the ACT.
Mount Ainslie is probably your best chance of seeing it here.
Redstem Wattle A. rubida, Namadgi NP (all three pictures). A widespread and common
species, around Canberra and well up into the ranges.

These curved phyllodes are not universal in the species.

This photos shows both the red stem of the names, and an interesting characteristic,
wherein both juvenile foliage (pinnate feathery leaves) and adult phyllodes (flattened leaf stems)
occur on the same plant. To the right you can see the pinnate leaves growing from an already flattening stalk.

Dagger Wattle A. siculiformis, Namadgi NP, above and below.
Common enough along creek lines and swamp margins of the ranges.

The wickedly tipped phyllodes and the flower heads at their base are both characteristic.

Finally, a couple of  widespread wattles in the northern ACT which are (probably) not native to here, mostly originating from plantings.
Green (or Black!) Wattle A. decurrens, Cooleman Ridge - see also A. mearnsii, which it closely resembles.
It is generally agreed that it was not originally here, though it grows nearby. It flowers in early spring (A. mearnsiiblooms later) and has distinctively ridged branchlets.

Cootamundra Wattle A. baileyana, Black Mountain, above and below. A very well-known plant which grows
ferally across much of south-eastern Australia, but has a very limited natural range to the south-west of here,
with little of that included in reserves.

It could be mistaken for Silver Wattle, but Cootamundra Wattle has only three or four pinnae (leaflet-bearing
stems) per leaf-branch, compared with up to 20 for Silver Wattle.

So there it is, our local wattles (or most of them). Enjoy them, and spring - however you define it - and we can all only hope for some rain soon...

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 27 SEPTEMBER (by when I'll be in Brazil)
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Thursday, 23 August 2018

Gibraltar Range and Washpool; world heritage parks

This is another in a sporadic series introducing some national parks we visited in north-eastern New South Wales earlier this year. The series began here. Gibralatar Range and Washpool National Parks are contiguous and managed jointly, in the Great Dividing Range. Both are part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, a discontinuous mosaic of some 40 parks, mostly in the near-coastal ranges of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, featuring remnant temperate rainforest of types which have their origins firmly in Australia's Gondwanan past. 
Warm temperate Coachwood rainforest (Ceratopetalum apetalum, Family Cunoniaceae),
Coombadjha Creek Nature Walk, Washpool National Park.
Approximate location at the end of the red arrow; both parks are readily accessed
from the Gwydir Highway between Glen Innes and Grafton in the New England highlands.
The Gibraltar Range, prior the building of the highway, was remote and rugged, and much of it supports heathland, in boulder-strewn eucalypt forest and boggy wetlands, so fortunately were not very appealing to those seeking grazing lands. The Gwydir Highway, which climbs over the range and was opened in 1960, enabled ready access and the possibilities for recreation were recognised. 14,000 hectares were declared for the purpose, and with additions a national park was declared in 1967; this was one of the first parks declared under the new National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1967, then ground-breaking legislation. It now protects 25,000 hectares. The Act was improved in 1974 and for a while the state government was a world leader in national parks legislation and practice. Today it must be said that those good days are just a wistful memory.
Forests of Gibraltar Range National Park, from Raspberry Hill Lookout; a rainstorm was clearing.
The history of Washpool, a little to the north, was much more tempestuous. It contains much more rainforest, including stands of the prized Red Cedar Toona ciliata (or australis), which was logged comprehensively wherever it could be accessed in subtropical rainforests, primarily for high quality furniture. By the 1960s cedar was getting scarce, but the industry no longer relied on axes, hand saws and bullock drays, and the wilderness of the Washpool was under immediate threat from the industry, assisted by the NSW Forestry Commission. Widespread community concern was expressed about opening the wilderness to logging, and in response threats were made by townsfolk worried about job losses against National Parks Association members and violence was threatened in the forest. Recommendations of a government advisory body were adopted however and in 1982 it was announced that the Washpool wilderness would be protected, and subsequently declared a Wilderness Area under the Act. World Heritage listing followed. Today the Washpool protects 59,000 hectares of wild country and visitors like us bring money to the region.

For some reason it is not possible, unlike at most NSW park campgrounds, to book a site at Mulligans Campground in Gibraltar Range, and as we happened to turn up on a weekend we were lucky to get a site. The sites here, in open forest, aren't as well separated as at some other grounds and next time we'll stay at nearby Bellbird Campground in Washpool NP (bookings not available here either, but camp sites are more scattered around a rainforest clearing). Nonetheless we enjoyed our stay and the surrounds are lovely. Here are some pictures taken in the vicinity of the campground.
Little Dandahra Creek, above and below, just below the campground.
The granites which dominate much of the park are 250 million years old,
part of the great  New England Batholith.
Here some more, at Barra Nula Cascades, a few minutes walk downstream.
We were here in late April, a bit late for swimming, but in summer the creek offers lots of refreshing options.
Nor are the granites confined to the creek lines.
The dry forest had flowers in it even then in mid-late autumn; in spring I'm sure it would be superb.
Privet-leaved Stringybark Eucalyptus ligustrina over Xanthorrhoea glauca.

New England Blackbutt E. andrewsii, on the walk to Murrumbooee Cascades (see below).
Xanthorrhoea glauca; some huge specimens near camp.
Hairpin Banksia Banksia cunninghamii; there is robust debate (and has been for nearly 200 years) as to whether this
is a full species or a subspecies of B. spinulosa. Either way it's a very handsome plant indeed!
Alpine Boronia B. algida, is found in the higher ranges from Victoria to the Queensland border.
(I'm pretty sure of this one, though I don't normally expect it to flower then.)
Hibbertia villosa, Family Dillenaceae.
Partly in order to experience the rainforest, we did the lovely walk from Mulligans Campground to the Murrumbooee Cascades, which begins along the Little Dandahra Creek in dry forest, then enters the rainforest.
Entering the rainforest - it's a surprisingly abrupt transition, presumably associated with a sheltered slope or gully.
To give some idea of this, here is another view from Raspberry Hill Lookout, which mostly looks over drier forest, but the darker green of rainforest can be seen in the gullies.
One such rainforest gully runs in a 'north-west to south-east' slash in the middle of the photo.
 Here are some more forest scenes along the route.
There are hardly any large Coachwoods along the route; I'm guessing that this section was logged
before being gazetted as park.
Rainforest pool.
An important component of the rainforest understorey here is Walking Stick Palm Linospadix monostachyos, a small palm which thrives in the shade.
As the name suggests, the palm stem was formerly cut to make walking sticks and umbrella handles.
The fruit cascades, above and below, are spectacular in the dim rainforest light.

Ferns of course are prevalent in the rainforest and along the streams.
Big Rough Tree Ferns Cyathea australis.
Strap Fern Blechnum patersonii (I think - advice welcomed).

Hard Water Fern Blechnum wattsii.

Fragrant Climbing Fern Microsorum scandens.

Spreading Fan Fern Sticherus lobatus.

Pouched Coral Fern  Gleichenia dicarpa.

King Ferns Todea barbara; this big fern is up to 3 metres high and is often mistaken for a tree fern.
It is also found in New Zealand and South Africa.
And talking of big old plants, there's nothing lowly about this moss!
With some internal structures not normally found in mosses, analogous to some found in more
modern plants, Dawsonia superba can grow to over 50cm high!
The Murrumbooee Cascades themselves were pretty lethargic, with not much recent rain, but their tranquility among the forest made them well worth the walk.
Granites in Dandahra Creek at Murrumbooee Cascades.
We saw surprisingly little photographable wildlife - much of it was high in the canopy and it was cold and wet for some of the time - but one remarkable little creature made itself very obvious on our camp table. I'd never seen anything like it.
Despite its armoured appearance it was soft to the touch. It turned out to a mealybug, Monophlebulus sp.
(thanks for that Beth!), a slow-moving sap-sacker which sometimes covers itself in a fluffy white waxy
coat, hence also Giant Snowball Mealybug. We were pleased to make its acquaintance!
The drive into the campground passed several of these extensive heathy bogs.
I'm sure that in summer this will be glowing with Christmas Bells Blandfordia spp.
Across the highway, but still in Gibraltar Range NP, is a picnic area and walking track to the impressive Boundary Falls, set down in the rainforest, well worth a visit.
Boundary Falls.

Coachwood forest on the walk to Boundary Falls.
And just up the road is the access (also 2WD) to Washpool National Park, that the National Parks Asssociation and others thought it worth fighting for in the 1980s. We only visited briefly on the way out, but will return to explore it further. The lovely little Coombadjha walking track from the picnic area near Bellbird Camping Area is a delight; as we walked by the beautiful creek of the same name, a lyrebird fired silver bolts of sound at us from up the hill. Above the Coachwood is a forest of massive Sydney Blue Gums Eucalyptus saligna.
Coombadjha Creek.

Mossy logs returning to the soil.

Bracket fungi, helping wood to be recycled through the forest.

Base of an old Sydney Blue Gum just above the rainforest, Washpool NP.
Next time you're in the New England area, please make time to visit these parks; you'll never regret it.

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