Thursday, 5 September 2019

Superb Costa Rica - an introduction

I had long wanted to see something of Central America, and in particular Costa Rica, and very recently we had the opportunity to do so in the form of a reconnaissance trip preparatory to taking a group there next year. As well as our long-term friend and tour organiser extraordinary, Peruvian Juan Cardenas, we had the company and remarkable knowledge and skills of local guide Leo Garrigues. 

For now I just want to offer a very brief overview of this remarkable little country with an introduction to some of its habitats and birds today, to be followed up next time with a selection of some of its other spectacular wildlife. 
Montane Rainforest from above; Canopy Walk at Monteverde, northern Pacific slopes. (a)
See map for locations of photos, using the letters at the end of each caption.
Costa Rica is tiny, just 50,000 square kilometres (about 75% of the size of Tasmania, for my Australian readers) with a population of five million. It is bordered by Nicaragua to the north, Panama to the south, the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Caribbean to the east. A spine of mountains from north to south divides it. 
The letters on the map refer to the locations of the habitat photos above and below; letters follow captions.
(Approximate only.)
It is fairly well-known that Costa Rica dissolved its army 70 years ago after a brief six week civil war; since then it has known only peace and prosperity. Moreover it has a refreshingly responsible approach to social and environmental issues which most wealthy countries should be embarrassed by. For instance its education budget is 7% of its total expenditure, compared with a world average of roughly 4.5%. (The most recent Australian figure I can find is 5.9%.)

Remarkably it is seemingly the only country to meet all five of the United Nations Development Program criteria for measuring environmental sustainability. We were constantly struck by just how much forest remains, with regeneration programs to supplement this. By 2016 98% of its energy was produced by renewables, with a goal of being nationally carbon neutral in the near future. And for a visitor, the infrastructure for nature-based tourism is just superb!

Nowhere is perfect of course, but few of us come from a country which could look down on Costa Rica’s aspirations and achievements. I certainly don’t come from such a one.

Here is a sample of the range of habitats we enjoyed in our stay,

Primary Lowland Rainforest, La Selva Biological Station, Caribbean Lowlands. (b)

Cloud Forest, Talamanca Mountains, southern Pacific Slopes. (c)

Wetlands, Medio Queso, near the Nicaraguan border. (d)

Parramo heath vegetation, 3400 metres above sea level, southern Pacific slopes. (e)
Mangroves, Puerto Morales, Pacific coast. (f)
And with that, please meet some of the more than 300 birds species we saw (in just 9 days of travelling!) that lived there and particularly impressed us. Perhaps we should start with one of the most famed and sought-after birds of Costa Rica.
Resplendent Quetzel Pharomachrus mocinno, Savegre Valley.
Maybe the name is a bit over the top, but then isn't he??
A stunning trogon, restricted to central America, and the national bird of Guatemala.
And she's well deserving of an introduction too.
Resplendent Quetzal female; a small flock of these amazing birds were feeding on fruit in this
tree early on our very first morning in the country!
And from here on let's just take them in random order.
Collared Aracari Pteroglossus torquatus, in a private garden in the Central Valley
north of the capital San José. This one is found from southern Mexico to Ecuador.
Male Great Curassow Crax rubra, La Selva Biological Research Station, lowland rainforest.
A very big bird, a metre long and weighing up to five kilograms. Threatened by hunting in much
of its range, which is similar to that of the Collared Aracari, above.

Pale-billed Woodpecker Campephilus guatemalensis, Carara NP, near the Pacific coast north of San José.
A big Central American woodpecker.
Staying with the spectacular... Scarlet Macaw Ara macao, Cerro Lodge near Carara NP (see above).
It has a large range into South America but this has been very fragmented by clearing
and the pernicious illegal pet trade.
Turquoise Cotinga Cotinga ridgwayi, San Isidro, south-east of San José. Another exquisite bird, but very restricted (to a narrow band of Pacific forest in Costa Rica and adjacent Panama) and threatened by clearing, especially in Panama.
Turquoise-browed Motmot Eumomota superciliosa, found only from Costa Rica to southern Mexico.
It has the honour of being the national bird of both El Salvador and Nicaragua.
Like other motmots it flicks its tail back and forth like a pendulum and is thus known in Spanish as the clock bird.
Red-headed Barbet Eubucco bourcierii, Bosque de Tolomuco, yet another superb private reserve,
this one in the cloud forest north of San Isidro, south-east of San José.
You won't be surprised to read that barbets are fruit eaters!
White-throated Magpie-Jay Calocitta formosa, western Central Valley.
A dramatic big jay, one of the crow family, noisy, gregarious and eating almost anything.
In a boat in the wetlands of the far north (near the wonderfully named Medio Queso, 'Half Cheese') we saw some waterbirds that are normally very hard to encounter indeed.
Least Bittern Ixobrychus exilis, indeed one of the world's smallest herons (less than 35cm long
and weighing less than 100 grams) and usually notoriously hard to see. Not this one!
Yellow-breasted Crake Porzana flaviventer, fairly widespread but like most crakes usually a skulker.
And tanagers and hummingbirds are always going to earn a place on any list of special Latin American birds - Costa Rica is certainly no exception here.
Crimson-collared Tanager Ramphocelus sanguinolentus, Mariposaria private garden, Caribbean slopes.
Another bird limited to Central America.

Speckled Tanager Tangara guttata, Restaurant de Nayo, near San Isidro, south Pacific slopes.
 A lovely open-sided rustic restaurant overlooking a forested valley with close-at-hand bird feeders,
which produced this beauty, among others, as well as excellent simple local cuisine.
Purple-throated Mountain-gem Lampornis calolaemus, Monteverde. A gorgeous hummingbird even by their lofty
standards; the throat can be dark one moment and shining purple the next, depending on the angle.
Found mostly in Costa Rica, with outlying populations in adjacent Nicaragua and Panama.

Snowcap Microchera albocoronata, one of the most exquisite hummers I've ever met, with its snowy cap
and purple body. It's tiny, only six centimetres long and weighing a mere 2.5 grams!
It was relentlessly bullied by the bigger hummers in the Mariposaria private garden,
and got very little chance to rest or feed. It lives along the Caribbean slopes from Honduras to Panama.
But just before we go, I really should acknowledge the Costa Rican national bird, given that we've met representatives of three other Central American countries. It seems somehow appropriate that this bird is not spectacular or rare at all, rather it is plain-coloured and ubiquitous, perhaps a bird of the people. Here in fact is a whole patriotic feeder tray of them.

Clay-coloured Thrushes Turdus grayi, La Fortuna; the national bird of Costa Rica!
Costa Rica is truly wonderful. I hope you can join me next time to celebrate some of its other animals. 

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Thursday, 22 August 2019

Terania Creek; a significant 40th anniversary

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of what is very arguably the birth of the modern Australian environmental protest movement, when citizens put their bodies in the way of bulldozers and police to protect ancient rainforests in far north-eastern New South Wales. They felt they had to take direct action because governments – local, state and federal – had refused to respond to increasingly passionate pleas for a proper assessment of the natural values of the forests, backed by some of the nation’s most respected professional ecologists. 

Their actions were entirely vindicated within a decade, when the forests which had been on the brink of intensive logging and conversion to eucalypt plantations were not only declared national park but internationally recognised as of World Heritage Significance. 

Terania Creek, Nightcap National Park
Terania Creek is in the farthest north-eastern corner of NSW, at the end of the red arrow.
Many of those initially involved had moved to the region north of Lismore, around the settlement of The Channon, for its relatively pristine environment and were horrified at what was planned for their new neighbourhood. 

Prostanthera sp., Nightcap NP
Later they were joined by supporters from further afield as images of the initial destruction were circulated. The name Terania Creek has become synonymous with a key chapter in the history of Australian environmental history (though I wonder how many people would recognise the name?). It was this valley that was selected for the NSW Forestry Commission’s plans. It is always invidious to select individuals for attention when a community is responding, but the fact that Hugh and Nan Nicholson had recently (1974) bought an abandoned farm alongside the Whian Whian State Forest may well have been critical. Their plans were simply to open a rainforest nursery and encourage the use of such plants in revegetation programs and gardens, but they felt obliged to react when they learnt what was afoot. (Today they still live there, though now looking onto national park, are still environmentally active, and have published several very valuable guides to rainforest plants, as well as a superb online key to rainforest species from the tropics to Victoria.)

Their property became a de facto headquarters of the Terania Native Forest Action Group (TNFAG). When submissions were ignored, they went to the Channon market early in August 1979 to spread the word and ask for help to resist the logging; 300 people turned up at their property.

Their demands were modest – that no logging should take place before a proper Environmental Impact Assessment process had been implemented. The local council was single-mindedly pro-logging, and many locals had traditionally relied on the sawmill industry. Trucks and bulldozers, supported by well over 100 police, including a contingent from Sydney, were initially prevented from accessing the track but local tow-trucks were engaged to clear it. (Ironically, all these vehicles and personnel used the Nicholson’s property for convenience, despite their objections.) Dozens had been arrested by the end of August (though it’s unclear how many were successfully prosecuted), and logging of ancient Brush Boxes (Lophostemon confertus) began. 

By now there was major national press interest, and support for the protesters from major conservation groups and Sydney unions. NSW Premier Neville Wran (‘Nifty Nev’ as he was widely known) began to take serious interest and met with conservation representatives on several occasions. He sent a delegation of Ministers to inspect the situation, followed by another of backbenchers, accompanied by Dr Len Webb, CSIRO’s chief rainforest ecologist. (Dr. Webb was also publicly outspoken about the values of the forests – 40 years on I seriously doubt that his employers would now allow that.)
Along Boggy Creek walk, Nightcap NP.
On 4 September 1979 Wran announced a halt to logging, and a couple of weeks later Cabinet, supported by Caucus, agreed to extend the moratorium while an Environmental Impact Statement was prepared. The success of this campaign informed and inspired subsequent forest protection campaigns, successful and otherwise, from Daintree in north Queensland to the Franklin River in Tasmania.
Protesters' Falls, Terania Creek Nightcap NP. These lovely falls, and the walk to it,
were named to honour the Terania Creek protesters; official national park material specifically pays tribute to them.

The falls here are at the far left of the photo.

View from the top of the falls.

Twisted Liana along the track to Protesters' Falls.
With the EIS information on the remarkable values of these rainforests, Nightcap National Park (including Terania Creek) was declared in April 1983. Then in 1989 Nightcap was one of a series of north-eastern NSW parks given joint World Heritage Status as the Central Eastern Rainforest Reserves of Australia. In 1994 several reserves in adjacent Queensland were added, bringing the number of units to 40 and in 2007 the name was amended to Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. It protects the largest area of subtropical rainforest in the world, most of the Antarctic Beech cool temperate rainforest and significant areas of warm temperate rainforest, plus many species, including rare ones, with direct links to the Gondwanan past. 
Bangalow Palm forest, Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, Terania Creek.
And its continued existence owes much to the dedication and courage of many idealists of all ages, often maligned, who were prepared to stand up for something they knew was too valuable to destroy. We are in their debt. Happy 40th Terania Creek Protectors.
Minyon Falls, Nightcap NP.
Blue Fig Falls, Nightcap NP.
Rough Tree Fern Cyathea sp., Boggy Creek, Nightcap NP.
Immature Fan-Tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis, Nightcap NP.
Lace Monitor Varanus varius, Nightcap NP.
Carpet Python Morelia spilota, Nightcap NP.

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Thursday, 1 August 2019

An Orchid Alphabet

I am writing this post in the depths of Canberra winter, thinking longingly of the coming spring. And when I think of spring I also inevitably think of orchids. In anticipation of that I've put together an alphabet of orchids from four continents, just as a celebration of these wonderful plants, with which I am besotted. (If you enjoy it, you might also enjoy some previous alphabets that I've put together; on yellow flowers, red flowers, white flowers, acacias, and eucalypts.)

My general guidelines are to try to offer an Australian and an overseas orchid for each letter, using a genus name if possible, but using a species name if I can't manage a relevant genus. I'm not going to get hung-up on taxonomy here (it is a celebration after all), and inevitably some of the names I'm using are not now universally accepted, but all are published and at least have been and usually still are widely used. In a couple of cases I simply can't narrow it down to just one Australian or overseas offering per letter, but if you're interested in orchids I can't imagine that will be too hard to take. Finally I've failed on a few predictable letters - K, Q and W-Z.

So thanks for joining me, and let's go tiptoeing through an orchidaceous alphabet!


Large Mosquito Orchid Acianthus fornicatus, Callala, New South Wales south coast.
The mosquito orchids (named for their pointy flowers, which is also the meaning of Acianthus) are a group
of mostly autumn-winter flowering colonial orchids of damp places
Bamboo Orchid Arundina graminifolia, Crocker Range, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
A big and dramatic orchid found from India to New Guinea
Tiny Strand Orchid Bulbophyllum (this species sometimes separated as Adelopetalum) exiguum, near Nowra,
south coast New South Wales. This is the largest orchid genus, with over 2000 species across the tropics.
This species has tiny delicate flowers less than 10mm across growing on rocks and tree trunks in rainforest.
Two of my favourite Australian orchid genera start with C, and I can't omit either.

Purple Beard Orchid Calochilus platychilus, Gungahlin Hill Nature Reserve, Canberra.
An orchid genus dear to my heart (though my own beard has faded with the years). One of the many
ground orchids which attract pollinators by deceptively mimicking (in looks and scent)
a female insect.

Flying Duck Orchid Caleana major, Bundanoon, southern New South Wales.
What else could you call it?! The flower is 'upside down' and the labellum at the top snaps down
when an insect alights, trapping it inside for a while until it has been forced into contact with the
reproductive organs. The genus name is for George Caley, an early 19th century collector
around Sydney, socially difficult but very good in the field, employed by Sir Joseph Banks.
 And I have the same problem with the overseas Cs - two beauties and I can't ignore either of them.
Porcelain Orchid Chloraea magellanica, Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
Aside from its inherent beauty, this robust orchid fascinates me for its ability to survive
far to the freezing windy south of South America.
Coelogyne sp. near Serian, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
One of some 200 species of this magnificent genus, across southern Asia; Borneo is a hotspot.
Diuris, the donkey orchids or doubletails (both reflecting the flower's form, supposedly like a donkey's face - well I can see it! - though 'doubletail' also translates Diuris) are common and familiar orchids across southern Australia. In a good season open forest floors are carpeted with yellow flowers. They are the first orchids I remember being made aware of, on family excursions to the Adelaide hills.

Common Donkey Orchid Diuris corymbosa, Wireless Hill, Perth.
Probably, as its name claims, the commonest donkey orchid in Western Australia.
However not quite all these donkeys are yellow, and I really had to introduce you to one of the truly lovely purple ones (about 12 of the 65 donkey species).
Purple Donkey Orchid Diuris punctata, Tallong, New South Wales Southern Highlands.

Disa spp., Bamenda Highlands, western Cameroon.
This is a large genus - more than 160 species - essentially restricted to Africa.
As usual, any further identification help gladly received.
The Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Two People's Bay NP, is a startlingly glossy orchid from the south-west
of Western Australia, one of only two members of the genus. The species name means 'brown', which
is pretty perplexing until you know that it's in honour of the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown.
(Attempts to subsume this genus into the huge genus Caladenia haven't received much traction in Australia.)

Epidendrum syringothyrsus, Inca Track near Machu Picchu, Peru.
This beauty is restricted to rock outcrops in cloud forest in the high Andes of Peru and Bolivia.
There are more than 1500 Epidendrums through the tropics and subtropics of the Americas.

And  here's another Epidendrum whose species name starts with F, because I have no photos of any orchid genera starting with F! (In fact there seem to be only two tiny Australian 'F' genera, from the Queensland tropics.)

Fringed Epidendrum Epidendrum funkii, also on the Inca Track.
(Also known as E. blepharistes, but that wouldn't do for my purposes here!)
Waxlip Orchid Glossodia major (and bonus jumping spider, Salticidae), Black Mountain NR, Canberra.
This is yet another that some would subsume into Caladenia, but Glossodia (which contains just two species)
is still widely used. This one, common and in a good season abundant in colonies, is sometimes known
as the Parson in the Pulpit for the erect column over the white base to the labellum.

Orchidea amarilla ('yellow orchid') or Varita do oro ('golden wand') Gavilea lutea,
Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia. A common robust orchid of cold grasslands
as far south as Tierra del Fuego.

Midget Greenhood Hymenochilus (Pterostylis) muticus, Nangar NP near Canowindra, New South Wales.
This group of very small-flowered greenhoods (the flowers of this species are less than 10mm long) was
split off as a separate genus for some time, though most recent sources would reinstate the huge and varied
genus Pterostylis.
In acknowledgement of that, I'll also offer another Australian 'h-orchid', this one based on the species name.

Purple-heart Fingers Caladenia (sometimes Petalochilus) hillmanii, Myora, south coast New South Wales.
The name commemorates George Hillman of Port Stephens, who brought it to the attention of orchid
guru (and somewhat maverick) David Jones in the 1990s.

Habenaria sp., Wayquecha Research Station, high southern Peruvian Andes.
(At least that is what I was told at the time, though now I have some doubts.)
Habenaria is a genus of over 600 species found throughout the tropics.
This letter caused me some angst too; I have a photo of the lovely Ida locusta from Peru but the poor thing is so nibbled and shrivelled that it would be embarrassed to be shown. Instead I offer another Australian species chosen for its species name.

Spotted Sun Orchid Thelymitra ixioides, Bundanoon, New South Wales southern highlands.
A very widespread and common orchid in south-eastern New South Wales.
A slightly contentious one, in that the establishment has largely returned all the genera which were split from Caladenia in an attempt to provide some nuance, back to the huge amorphous grab-bag of Caladenia. However some authorities, including the respected Atlas of Living Australia, still recognise this genus for instance, named for the eminent Australian orchidologist David Jones; good enough for me today!
Zebra Orchid Jonesiopsis (or Caladenia) cairnsiana, Stirling Ranges NP, southern Western Australia.
I really love this jaunty little orchid, which can be quite common in sandy heaths throughout the south-west.
Rattle Beaks Lyperanthus serratus, Wireless Hill, Perth. Apparently the flower rattles if you shake it,
but I've never felt the need to do so! A very distinctive orchid, which has a relative (but only one)
in the south-east of Australia too.

Alpine Onion Orchid Microtis sp. aff. unifolia, Brindabella Ranges, Namadgi NP, above Canberra.
As far as I can tell, this one is still undescribed. I've mentioned a couple of small-flowered orchids above,
but onion orchid flowers are tiny, just 2-3mm long, sitting on an expanded ovary.
Mayfly Orchid Nemacianthus caudatus Spring Mount CP, south of Adelaide.
A very distinctive colony-forming orchid, widespread and common, formerly included in Acianthus;for a change this split seems to have been widely accepted.
(Scan of an old slide - sorry.)
Neodryas rhodoneura, Acjanaco Pass, high Andes, Manu NP, southern Peru.
There appears to be some confusion surrounding this genus, which is also sometimes dumped in Onicidium,
seemingly (as far as I can make out) because no-one quite knows what to do with it.
Not our problem here - we just get to enjoy a lovely orchid starting with N!
Horned Orchid Orthoceras strictum, Black Mountain NR Canberra.
This is a most distinctive orchid, quite widespread and said to be sometimes common, but that hasn't been
my experience. In the ACT it grows in just one small site.
(David Jones, in his monumental Complete Guide to the Orchids of Australia, suggests that there are
two or three other undescribed species in Australia and that the New Zealand and New Caledonian populations
also represent separate species. You'll read otherwise elsewhere, but my strong inclination is to believe
Jones until more evidence is available.)

Odontoglossum auroincarum, Wayquecha Research Station, high southern Peruvian Andes.
(This has also been called O. lasserum, but auroincarum seems to be correct here - it was only described,
from this area, in 2014.) There are about 100 Odontoglossum species, nearly all from the northern Andes.
P begins with a double-P in fact, and it's a rare species as well.
Tarango Leek Orchid Prasophyllum petilum, northern Canberra.
A grassland species now regarded as Endangered, as are many native grassland-relying
species in south-eastern Australia.

Pleurothallus sp., above Machu Picchu, southern Peru.
I love the way these flowers seemingly grow from the leaf stalk.
R was surprisingly challenging. There aren't many Australian orchid R-genera; the best known is probably Rhizanthella, the truly remarkable underground orchids - three species which live entirely beneath the ground, the flowers covered by soil or litter. Needless to say I don't have photos of them. Let's settle for an R-species instead.
Large Gnat Orchid Cyrtostylis robusta, Alligator Gorge, southern Flinders Ranges, South Australia.
A fairly common species of sandy alkaline soils of the extensive limestone belt of southern Australia;
it is usually found in big colonies.
S provided the opposite problem - too many delicious choices. In the end I could only get it down to two Australian S-orchids, plus one from overseas.
Myrtle Bells Sarcochilus hillii, Nowra, south coast New South Wales. This is a pretty little drooping
epiphyte, with flowers less than 10mm across, usually along streamlines in drier rainforest.
I love the glistening crystalline effect of the flowers.

Pink Spiral Orchid Spiranthes australis, Canberra. Another small-flowered orchid, this one of moist grassy areas,
with flowers tightly spiralling around the stem, a most unusual effect.
Sobralia dichotoma, Inca Track above Machu Picchu, southern Peruvian Andes.
A stunning big flower on a plant that can be three metres high! Hard to ignore.

Swollen Sun Orchid Thelymitra megacalyptera, Weddin Mountains NP, south-western slopes New South Wales.
The 100+ species of sun orchids tend to open only on warm sunny days. This one is most prominent
in the drier forests of the western slopes.
Telipogon salinasiae Acjanaco Pass, high Andes of southern Peru.
Another big Neotropical orchid genus, many with unusually patterned flowers.
This one was described in 2003.
Green-banded Greenhood Urochilus (Pterostylis) vittatus, Shannon NP, south-western Western Australia.
As mentioned previously, many do not accept the breakup of Pterostylis into more manageable chunks,
but Urochilus is still used, including by the Atlas of Living Australia.
And finally - because after this we hit the tricky end of the alphabet, which I found intractable today - we end with a V, another based on a species name.
Common Hyacinth Orchid Dipodium variegatum, Nowra, southern New South Wales.
The hyacinth orchids are big leafless orchids which are semi-parasites, relying on a complex relationship
of its roots with both a host plant and a fungus.
This one, with a 60cm high stem, is by no means the tallest; it is found from Queensland to Victoria.
I do love orchids, and I'm really hoping that this spring is more productive than the last couple of dry years have been. Meantime, I hope this has encouraged you too to start looking forward to this year's orchid season.

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