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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, 5 May 2016

Colours in Nature: gingery shades 1

It's been a while now since I did my last posting in the ongoing but irregular series on colours in nature; that one was the third in a series of orange in animals, a topic that gave me some angst, in that I found it very difficult to say just where orange ends and rufous-ginger-chestnut colours begin. I doubtless included some examples that you don't agree were really orange, and I'm not going to argue; in addition to our propensity to define colours differently from each other, the limits of 'orange' do seem to be very blurry indeed.
Chestnut Teals Anas castanea, south coast New South Wales, females on the left, males on the right.
The rich rusty colours on the males are the ones I'm talking about today.
Not that it really matters of course; the ultimate purpose of these postings, in addition to saying a little about how colours come about, is to revel in a parade of glorious animals (not many flowers in this colour category, though I may look into plants again in this context in the future). Once I started looking at potential examples of gingery-coloured animals, I realised that the options are very plentiful indeed. Indeed, I reckon I've got material for four postings; as it happens I'm going back to Malaysian Borneo next week, so I'll prepare another two postings on this topic to tide us over until I return in late May.

While perusing the possibilities, I realised that we use different terminology when talking about rusty birds and the same-coloured mammals. We use 'red' fairly carelessly in mammals (think of Red Kangaroos, Foxes and Deer for instance, not to mention 'red'-haired humans) but not nearly so much in birds. In fact for today's posting I'm going to concentrate solely on birds with Chestnut or Rufous in their name - and there are very many indeed. 

The chemicals that make the Chestnut Teals chestnut, and red-headed people 'red', are a class of melanins called phaeomelanins (or pheomelanins). Melanins are produced in the body, unlike some other pigments we've discussed in the past which can only be obtained in food. Combinations of various phaeomelanins and brown or black eumelanins give rise to all the shades we'll be looking at over the next few weeks, plus others. And now, let's just enjoy some Chestnut and Rufous birds.

Chestnut Quail-thrush Cinclosoma castanotum near Norseman, inland southern Western Australia.
Quail-thrushes of course are neither of these bird groups, but belong to an ill-defined family of Australian
(and possibly New Guinea) passerines.
Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon Petrophassa rufipennis, Kakadu National Park.
A little more about this lovely sandstone endemic here; the chestnut quills are just visible.
Chestnut-breasted Mannikin Lonchura castaneothorax, Darwin.
Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla, a close relative of the previous species,
though 'munia' is not much used in Australia.
Chestnut-bellied Starling Lamprotornis pulcher, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
This attractive starling has a huge range across arid sub-Saharan Africa, from the Atlantic to the Red Sea.
Chestnut-breasted Coronet Boissonneaua matthewsii, Guango Lodge, northern Peru.
A gorgeously rich hummingbird from the cloud forests of the northern Andes.
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Grallaria ruficapilla, Paz de las Aves, Ecuador.
Without the patient habituation to being fed worms by the Paz brothers, such a sighting would be almost impossible.
Chestnut-hooded Laughing-thrush Garrulax treacheri, Kinabalu NP, Sabah.
Not a thrush at all, but an Old World babbler.
Chestnut-mandibled Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus, Milpe Reserve, north-west of Quito, Ecuador.
It is assumed that phaeomelanins are also responsible for such tones in bills and legs too, but
as far as I know it has never been demonstrated.
Which brings us from Chestnuts to Rufouses - and I suspect that if I jumbled them up and didn't tell you which was which, you'd have some real trouble allocating them correctly!
Rufous Treecreeper Climacteris rufus, Porongorups NP, Western Australia.
The Australian treecreepers are a very ancient passerine lineage.
Rufous Owl Ninox rufa, Yungaburra, tropical Queensland.
Rufous Fantail Rhipidura rufifrons, Monga NP, New South Wales.
A very active and attractive flycatcher of wet forests of eastern Australia and beyond.
Rufous Whistler male Pachycephala rufiventris, near Canberra.
A rather more washed-out rufous than most we've met so far.
Rufous-banded Honeyeater Conopophila albogularis, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
A small tropical honeyeater also found in New Guinea.
Rufous Songlark Megalurus mathewsi, near Georgetown, north Queensland.
Not quite as silly as it sounds - the rump is rufous, just visible here.
Rufous Antpitta Grallaria rufula, Yanacocha Reserve, north-west of Quito, Ecuador.
A shy resident of high altitude cloud forests.
Rufous Motmot Baryphthengus martii, Arasha Lodge, Mindo Valley, Ecuador.
Rufous Hornero Furnarius rufus, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
A common ground-dwelling ovenbird in Buenos Aires parks.
Rufous-bellied Thrush Turdus rufiventris, another common Buenos Aires bird.
Rufous-collared Sparrow Zonotrichia capensis, Machu Picchu.
One of the most ubiquitous and delightful South American birds, found the length and breadth
of the continent, and from sea level to the high Andes.
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Amazilia tzacatl, Alanbi Lodge, Ecuador.

Rufous-tailed Plantcutter Phytotoma rara, Chilean Patagonia.
For now at least regarded as a cotinga.


Rufous-crested Coquette Lophornis delattrei, Waqanki Lodge, north-eastern Peru.
Even by hummingbird standards, this one is over the top!

And with that I think we can leave it for today; there were others I could have featured and of course there are many rufous/chestut/etc birds which aren't called that; we'll visit some of them in due course, but I think that next time we'll look at some rusty-coloured mammals.


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Thursday, 28 April 2016

Uluru: at the heart of Australia

There are some places that just feel intrinsically special. For me - and very many others - Uluru is such a place. Sometimes when we finally visit a place that we've heard about for so long, the reality doesn't quite match the myth that we've imagined. I steeled myself for Uluru to be like that the first time I visited it, but when the moment came the opposite was true - it was, and is, beyond anything I could have conceived. The vast mass of sandstone looms from the desert, itself a remarkable experience, and something in my heart responds.
From the distance when we first see Uluru by climbing a dune near the Lasseter Highway the rock seems
fairly featureless, but this is an artefact of the distance - we are still tens of kilometres away.
From closer, as in this photo, though still many kilometres distant, the complexity of the monolith becomes obvious.
The red dune on the right is typical of the desert country of central Australia.
Mere numbers don't reflect the sheer vastness of the rock; soaring 385 metres above the desert, three kilometres long and two kilometres wide at its widest point, ten kilometres around. And, like a desert iceberg, most of it is hidden under the sands. Close up the apparently smooth monolith actually contains canyons with rockpools, caves and deeply incised erosion scars.

Uluru is not alone on the plains. Within sight to the west, 25km away, are the domes of Kata Tjuta (for a while known as the Olgas, as Uluru was known as Ayer's Rock); both are part of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park. 
Kata Tjuta at sunrise, from Uluru.
Despite the different formation and base material (Kata Tjuta is comprised of coarse conglomerates, where the sandstones of Uluru are much finer), they formed at about the same time, some 500 million years ago, from material washing across the plains from mighty eroding mountain ranges to the west and south, though in different alluvial fans. Buried deeply, eventually they became compressed into solid rock, in time forced to the surface by movements in the earth's crust.

Ninety kilometres to the east is Atila (more usually known at Mount Conner); nearly everyone coming to Uluru comes by the Lasseter Highway which passes by Atila, and more than a few think they've found Uluru when they see it. 
Atila from the highway. Unlike the other two mighty rocks it is is on private land and can only be visited
with a contracted tour company; the quality of their guides is unfortunately very much a matter of pot luck.
The three rocks are in a straight line and it used to be supposed that they formed during the same geological event, from the eroding mountain ranges, but sadly for a good story it seems that Atila is much older than the other two, formed by erosion of the surrounding beds as the hard cap just visible in the hazy photo above protected the underlying layers.

The Anangu, as the Pitjantjatjara- and Yankunytjatjara-speaking people refer to themselves (don't panic, just take the names a syllable at a time!), have lived in the centre for tens of thousands of years. To them Uluru is an immensely significant place - 'sacred' would probably be the closest we have to it. It's not my place to tell the stories of a living culture that I can never really understand, but if you're interested there are many of the Anangu Uluru stories on the web, many of them approved by the traditional owners. Other stories cannot be told to outsiders; many of them are restricted to one gender and they will not risk their own men or women seeing stories forbidden to them.
Desert Oak Allocasuarina decaisneana in front of Uluru at sunset.
Europeans arrived to run stock (at rates of one beast to tens of square kilometres) in the late 19th century and the conflicts that characterised the arrival of Europeans in occupied lands throughout Australia ensued. 'Aboriginal Reserves' were set up in the early 1920s to protect the desert people - generally of course on lands not required for other purposes. Indeed in 1958 the 'Ayers Rock - Mount Olga National Park' was excised from the Petermann Aboriginal Reserve to meet growing tourist demands. 

This tourism is a remarkable story in itself; the first visitors arrived at the rock in 1936, twelve years before the first road was built! Tour bus services began soon afterwards; the facilities would be regarded as remarkably primitive today, but people came in numbers. By 1959, just a year after the park declaration, motels at the very foot of the rock, and an airstrip, were being constructed. Already by the early 1970s however, concerns of the Anangu were being heard and plans were in place to removed all accommodation from the immediate vicinity of the rock. The modern town of Yulara, 15km away, was planned to meet tourism needs and the rock-side motels and camp ground had closed by 1984. 
Hawkmoth caterpillar, Family Sphingidae, base of Uluru.

The following year the Australian Government handed back the whole area to the Anangu, but with the condition that they immediately leased it back to the government to be run, in close consultation with them, as a national park. Prime Minister Bob Hawke had promised to abide by a 10-point plan drawn up by the Anangu; these included a ban on climbing the rock, in line with traditional beliefs, but when the lease was signed, this promise was broken. I can't discuss Uluru without mentioning the ongoing controversy over climbing, but I'll come back to that later. In 1987 the park was listed as a World Heritage site.

Many of us first see the rock properly with the sun setting on it - there are extensive dedicated viewing areas for the purpose. One of the extraordinary aspects is how rapidly the colours change; the following series (and I could have imposed many more on you!) was taken over 33 minutes, some only a couple of minutes apart. The red incidentally is due to the iron-bearing minerals in the rock; at the surface they are oxidising (rusting in effect), while within, as seen in some newly-exposed cave surfaces, the rock is grey.
28 minutes before sunset; this is pretty much the colour it appears during the day.

14 minutes to sunset; the colour is intensifying.

Nine minutes to go.


Six minutes to sunset.

The shadow of the horizon is starting to climb up the rock, as the sun slips from sight.

Five minutes after sunset.
At the same time, don't forget to look over your shoulder as the sun sets behind Kata Tjuta too!
Kata Tjuta domes in silhouette (above), and seen
through flowering Spinifex grass Triodia sp. (below) from the Uluru viewing area.
(Both photos taken on the same evening, but a different one from the Uluru series above.)


Sunrise is equally spectacular, but you don't need to see a series for that too!

The sun appearing behind the Desert Oaks (above) and beginning
to warm the rock (below).


I am surprised how few photos I actually have of details of the rock, though I've walked and driven around it several times. Perhaps I've been too busy being enthralled to remember to take shots, though there is also the issue that we're asked not to take pictures in some sections of the walk - again because of the risk that Anangu men or women might inadvertently thereby see things they ought not see.
Tumbled rocks fallen from the slopes.

Crevice in the rock face.

In addition to the Desert Oaks, the major woodland tree is Mulga Acacia aneura - which in fact dominates some 20% of the Australian landscape.
Mulga flowers.
Eremophilas (the 'desert lovers') are among my favourite plant groups, not least because of their tough arid habitats; there's an entire posting on them coming up. And there are some at Uluru, as there are seemingly everywhere inland.
Berrigan, or Long-leaf Emubush E. longifolia, with Uluru as a backdrop.
('Emubush' because of an apparently erroneous belief that the seeds need to pass through an emu to germinate.)

Wills' Desert Fuchsia E. willsii. Fuchsia for a supposed resemblance to the unrelated South American
genus, and Wills for William Wills, who perished with nearly all his comrades on the infamously
badly-planned and led Burke and Wills expedition in 1861.
Again I have remarkably few animal photos from the rock; they are of course present, but are often kept at a distance by noisy tourist groups, and are often familiar species which tend not to draw too much attention from the rock itself. One of the most striking residents is the Black-breasted Buzzard Hamirostra melanosteron, a large raptor of the arid inland. It is the only member of the genus which, far from being related to the true buzzards, may well prove to be a member of an ancient southern sub-group of raptors. 
Black-breasted Buzzard pair at nest near Uluru.
Each year, inexplicably to many of us, thousands of visitors climb the rock, using chains attached to poles hammered into the rock face by a private operator in the early days of the park before there was control over such activities. Many more thousands do not. One very good reason not to do is in the conspicuous sign at the start of the walk. ‘Our traditional law teaches us the proper way to behave. We ask you to respect our law by not climbing Uluru. What visitors call the climb is the traditional route taken by our traditional Mala men on their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance.’ Pretty clear you might say, but many don't see it that way. Anecdotally those who choose to disrespect the wishes of the traditional owners are likely to be Australians who see it as their 'right', though some tourist operators bringing overseas visitors also encourage their clients to do so. 
Part of the climb; the erosion in the rock face alongside the chain is evident.
The steepness of the climb is here evident. Over 30 people have died climbing the rock, most from heart attacks.
The traditional owners feel a responsibility for those deaths, despite asking people to desist.
You can read some people's reasons for ignoring the pleas here and here, but in reality any arguments seem to me irrelevant - it's a matter of the respect due to a host by a guest. Legally and ethically we are on Anangu land and should be bound by courtesy. If I am invited into a stranger's house and they say "this furniture is very old and of great significance to us; we would be grateful if your children didn't climb on it", I would not be interpreting this to mean we could choose to do so anyway, simply because the residents were too polite to ban it outright. And then there is the more specific question of religious respect - it is no secret that I don't share any religious beliefs, but if I choose to take myself to a place of religious significance to somebody else, be it a cathedral or mosque or Uluru, it behoves me to treat it with appropriate courtesy.  

So why don't the Anangu simply ban the climbing? At one level, it's simply not their way of doing things; they prefer to leave it to a guest's sense of decency and, again, respect. At another level it seems that, under the terms of the 1985 lease, they can't do so; only the Federal Government can do that, and successive governments have refused to do so, fearing an electoral backlash perhaps, or maybe for ideological reasons.

In 2010 the new management plan stated that "for visitor safety, cultural and environmental reasons the director and the board will work towards closure of the climb". The criteria that would provide a trigger for permanent closure (any one of them would be sufficient) are when:     
* the board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or
* the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or
* the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.
The first and third seem to imply that a significant number of people only go there to climb (and of course that this should be of over-riding significance), but surveys suggest that only 2% of visitors say they wouldn't go there if they couldn't climb. I would also suggest that the associated publicity would draw at least that number of extra, sympathetic, travellers.

As for the '20% of visitors who climb' criterion, it seems that the number had dropped to that some years ago, and remains at the threshold level, but actual numbers are suspiciously hard to obtain, though no-one is challenging the assertion. So it comes back to politics. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced, with no justification offered for yet again ignoring both the management plan and the wishes of the Anangu, that there are "no plans to change current arrangements".

All I can say is, when you visit wonderful Uluru, and please believe me that you must, please don't climb. (Though I realise that anyone who chooses to snub the pleas of the traditional owners are not going to be swayed by me!).

However I don't want to end this piece on one of the most wonderful places on the planet on such a sour note. I have an abiding mind-image of a Black-breasted Buzzard gliding along the mighty red rock face, which I suspect might be one of the last images to fade from my mind when the time comes. Please go as soon as you can; you'll be richer for it.
Black-breasted Buzzard over Uluru.
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Thursday, 21 April 2016

Have a Hakea

This is the fourth in a sporadic series on plants of the great Gondwanan family Proteaceae; it began here, but it might be easiest to go the most recent instalment, on grevilleas, and follow the links back.

While not nearly as large a genus as the better-known Grevillea, Hakea is still pretty substantial with around 150 species recognised. It is possibly less widely familiar because hakeas have generally been less cultivated; they are often regarded as prickly and not as colourfully bloomed as grevilleas, but neither of those observations are anywhere near universally true, as we shall see. All are Australian.

Corkwood Hakea lorea, Kata Tjuta National Park, central Australia.
Hakeas can be found throughout Australia, but unlike grevilleas they do not grow in rainforests. Many, like the Corkwood above, thrive in the arid lands, but like so many Australian groups their stronghold is the fabulously rich sandy heaths of the south-west of the continent. They grow as shrubs or small trees but, again unlike grevilleas, they tend not to form ground covers. 
Mountain Needlebush H. lissosparma, Ben Lomond NP, Tasmania.
As suggested by these two photos, hakeas can be found almost anywhere.
Curiously the genus was named back in 1797 by German botanist Heinrich Adolph Schrader - 'curiously' because that was very early in the history of naming Australian plants, and the Germans weren't generally involved that early (though there were a number of significant collectors later on). In fact he named it in a book (in Latin) of rare plants grown in Hanover gardens. Of course this just begs the question, which is how did it get there so early? I have no answer to this teaser. The species, Hakea teretifolia, is a fairly common east coast one. Schrader called it Hakea glabra, not realising that British botanist Richard Salisbury had already named it Banksia teretifolia the year before. Salisbury's species name had to take precedence, but when it became clear that it wasn't a banksia, Schrader's genus name was the next in line. He named it for Baron Christian Ludwig von Hake, universally described as a Hanover councillor and patron of science (or botany); there must have been a bit more to him but I can't find any of it. 

The name is usually pronounced Hay-kee-a in English, but I prefer Hah-kee-a, that being how the Baron would have said his name - the question of whether we should name organisms after people is a separate one, but if we're going to do so it seems to make sense to pronounce it like the model's name.

A final note before we talk about the real topic - the plants themselves. It's an interesting phenomenon that botanical taxonomists, at least in Australia, seem keen to expand the concept of a genus as widely as possible so that huge genera comprising several former separate taxa are becoming the norm. Zoologists (eg bird taxonomists) meantime, are going the other way and fine-tuning so that it's more common to find genera being split up to reflect subtler differences. It does seem to me that the latter tells us more about the history of the groups, including the timing of their separation. The point here is that we seem to be moving towards lumping Grevillea in with Hakea (which would mean that all Grevillea would become Hakea, not likely to be a popular move among most of the population!).

The most obvious difference between Grevillea and Hakea is in the fruit; while that of Grevillea is brittle and papery, Hakea fruit is hard, woody and even massive.

Mountain Needlebush fruit, Ben Lomond NP, Tasmania.
Many of these species live in fire-prone heathlands, and protect seeds (just one per fruit) in the massive cases. After the fire has passed, and the ash-bed has cooled, the case opens up and drops the seed into the enriched, unshaded, soil.
Post-wildfire opened hakea cones, Lesueur NP, Western Australia.
But for species which do not grow in areas affected by regular fires, the cases are flimsier and do not rely on a fire's heat to open them.
Small-fruit Hakea H. microcarpa, Namadgi NP above Canberra.
This species grows in high country boggy areas which do not regularly burn.
Leaves can be cyclindrical or narrowly strap-like as in the above examples, or flat and leathery.
H. neurophyllya, Lesueur NP, Western Australia.
Some other Western Australian species have unexpected stem-clasping leaves which surround the flowers; it could be that by trapping 'moats' of dew or rain they are preventing ants from stealing nectar.
Scallops H. cucullata, Twin Creeks Reserve near the Stirling Ranges, Western Australia.
Others are divided and spiky.
Unidentified hakea, Shannon NP, south-western Australia. Any suggestions?
Some of the most extraordinary foliage of all however belongs to the remarkable Royal, or Lantern, Hakea H. victoria, which has a small range centred on the Fitzgerald River NP, southern Western Australia. The plant can be three metres high and has colourful leaves the size of large cabbage leaves, surrounding inconspicuous creamy flowers
Lantern Hakeas in Fitzgerald River NP

The leaves of Lantern Hakea; it is likely that at least part of their function is to attract attention to
the otherwise non-obvious flowers.
Hakea flowers are rarely at the tips of branches, as those of grevilleas usually are. Many are indeed simply white and not very dramatic, with small clusters of flowers, as per the oft-heard bias against them as garden plants.
Harsh Hakea H. prostrata, Torndirrup NP, Western Australia.
Other white-flowered ones can be dramatic however, simply through the masses of flowers.
H. recurva, Paynes Find, inland Western Australia.
 Many others are highly colourful with great cylinders or spheres of clustered flowers.
Grass-leaf Hakea H. francisiana (who thought the leaves were its most prominent feature?!),
Pinkawillinie Conservation Park, South Australia.

H. invaginata, Ballidu, Western Australia.

Grass-leaf Hakea (again - see above comment!) H. multilineata, Goldfields Woodlands NP, Western Australia.
So, there's a brief introduction to a genus which may be unfamiliar to some, especially if you're reading this from overseas, and which will probably never overtake Grevillea for popularity in the garden. But I reckon it deserves more admiration than it gets.

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