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, 18 October 2018

What a Superb, Splendid Creature! #3

This posting concludes a three-part series which explores 'empty' (or at best unhelpful) but laudatory names of organisms. Why? Well, partly just for fun, and partly to meet some plants and animals which we may not otherwise have done. Interestingly mammals for the most part seem not to have inspired such names. 

For translations of these words I'm relying on my friend and colleague Jeannie Gray, co-author with me of Australian Bird Names, of which we're currently working on a new edition. I'm using her work in that book for nearly all of these names.

concinnus/a - elegant, neat

One of the beauties of such names for a taxonomist is that they can be applied as readily to animals as to plants!
Musk Lorikeet Glossopsitta concinna, Coles Bay, Tasmania.
The eucalypt was a street tree, Eucalyptus ficifolia from Western Australia.
Southern Pyrgomorph Grasshopper Monistria concinna, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales.
Posing neatly on Prostanthera cuneata.
Red Comb Grevillea, Grevillea concinna, Cape Le Grande NP, Western Australia.
Trim Greenhood Pterostylis concinna, Calala, south coast New South Wales.
nobilis - noble

 And a change of tone now, to a more dramatic name.

Bismarck Palms Bismarckia nobilis, southern Madagascar.
Nothing too discreet about Otto von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire.
Christmas Bells Blandfordia nobilis, Currarong, south coast NSW.

Yellow Tails Ptilotus nobilis Family Amaranthaceae, far northern South Australia.

Bearded Mountaineer Oreonympha nobilis at Nicotiana flowers, Huaycarpay, southern Peruvian Andes.
This exotic tobacco tree seems to be helping sustain populations, which occur only in a very small
area of the Andes. Moreover some authorities believe the populations on opposite slopes represent
separate species, as is the case for quite a few hummingbird species-pairs.
 gracile - graceful, slender
Another more 'gentle' subjective adjective (though less subjective if the 'slender' translation is used). We have 'graceful' representatives of three different Kingdoms here!

Slender Pitcher Plant Nepenthes gracilis, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Little Laughing Leek Orchid Prasophyllum gracile, Gathercole NR, Western Australia.
I think this little orchid needs all its 'grace' to bear that English name!

Smooth Cage, or Basket Fungus Ileodictyon gracile, growing in our front yard;
we assume that the spore came with mulch, but unfortunately it hasn't reappeared.
In this case it is 'graceful' by comparison with the other member of the genus, which is much chunkier.

Carlia gracilis Slender Rainbow-Skink, south of Darwin, Northern Territory.

Elliot's Storm Petrels Oceanites gracilis, Galápagos.
These undeniably graceful little birds are the only storm petrels in the world to regularly
feed in harbours, at least in the Galápagos, 'pattering' in the water to briefly anchor themselves
in place while they harvest tiny animals.

Grey Teal Anas gracilis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Probably the most abundant Australian duck, though unlike the more familiar
Pacific Black Duck it eschews town ponds and picnic areas.
Despite my comments above, quite a few 'graceful' mammals exist, most of them being small rodents and South American marsupials.

Well that's the terminus of our journey to explore some of the ways that taxonomists found to imprecisely express their admiration for organisms, and ever more importantly of course to celebrate the animals themselves.  Back next time for something completely different.

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Thursday, 11 October 2018

What a Superb, Splendid Creature! #2

This posting continues a theme of exploring 'empty' (or at best unhelpful) but laudatory names of organisms. Why? Well, partly just for fun, and partly to meet some plants and animals which we may not otherwise have done. Interestingly mammals for the most part seem not to have inspired such names. Last time we met quite a few animals carrying some of the names we'll be looking at today and next time, but those also used the name as an English name, so we won't revisit them. 

For translations of these words I'm relying on my friend and colleague Jeannie Gray, co-author with me of Australian Bird Names, of which we're currently working on a new edition. I'm using her work in that book for nearly all of these names.

superbus/a - superb
Apart from the ones we met last week, I don't have many with this name.
Flame Lily, Fire Lily, Glory Lily etc, Gloriosa superba Family Colchicaceae, near Masindi, Uganda
- and isn't 'superb glorious plant' an over-the-top name?!
One can understand its describer's passion though, it really is stunning, though every part of it is highly toxic.
gloriosa - superb
And of course the previous plant could have been included here too. What we do have here is the Australian Capital Territory's official flower (and for more on that somewhat murky story, see here).
Royal Bluebells Wahlenbergia gloriosa Family Campanulaceae, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
magnificus - magnificent (really Jeannie, how hard is this?!)
Large Pansy Orchid Diuris magnifica, Perth, Western Australia.
And I do have to say that the somewhat anaemic English name is a bit sad compared with magnifica!
Most of the following names however aren't as bombastic as those; they're gentler, but no more helpful!

elegans - elegant, fine, handsome, tasteful
Velvet Parachute Marasmius (Collybia) elegans, Tidbinbilla NR, near Canberra.
And I'm pretty sure this will be the only fungus to make an appearance here.
Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans, Canberra, where it's a common garden bird.
The rosellas inspired a few such names, as you'll see.
Red-backed Fairywren Malurus elegans near Injune, Queensland.
Ring-tailed Vontsira Galidia elegans, Amber Mountain, Madagascar.
Often misleadingly called Ring-tailed Mongoose, this is actually one of the ancient Madagascan carnivores
and the Malagasy name Vonstsira is a much better choice. And it is elegant!
venustus - lovely, charming, graceful
Northern Rosella Platycercus venustus, Darwin.
As mentioned previously, various taxonomists ran out of ideas when faced with these lovely parrots.
eximius - uncommon, excellent, select

Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius, near our home in Duffy, Canberra.
Another taxonomist brought to near incoherence by these lovely birds!
pulchellus - pretty (a diminutive of beautiful)
Quite a few of these, especially due to some botanists who'd seemingly run out of ideas.
Correa pulchella Family Rutaceae, Coffins Bay NP, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia; a very pretty flower indeed,
widely cultivated but with only a limited distribution in coastal South Australia.
It lacks a generally accepted common name.
Sphaerolobium pulchellum, Lesueur NP, Western Australia.
And spare some sympathy for anyone trying to keep coming up with new names for
the extraordinary cornucopia that WA wildflowers represent! See the next three species too.
Prickly Moses Acacia pulchella, South Beekeepers NR, Western Australia.
This name is applied to several spiny acacias, Moses being a corruption of Mimosa.
Native Pomegranate Balaustion pulcherrimum Family Myrtaceae, near Hyden, Western Australia.
This one, according to its name, is very pretty!
Teasel Banksia Banksia pulchella, Family Proteaceae, Esperance, Western Australia.
And a non-WA plant is also deemed to be Pretty!
White Peppermint Eucalyptus pulchella, Wieltangta Forest, Tasmania.
And finally for today, some Pretty birds, from three continents.
Green Pygmy Geese Nettapus pulchellus, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
Not really geese at all, but a part of a genus of three small ducks (two in Australia and nearby, and one in Africa).
Golden-naped Barbet Psilopogon pulcherrimus, Mount Kinabalu, Sabah.
A Borneo endemic, this one is also identified by its name as a very pretty bird.
Chestnut-bellied Starling Lamprotornis pulcher, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
Found across the full width of arid Africa just south of the Sahara.
And that's enough for today I think - I have enough material left for another posting on three more such flattering adjectives. If you're still enjoying this, hope to see you back for it next week.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER (by when I'll be back from Brazil)
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Thursday, 27 September 2018

What a Superb, Splendid Creature! #1

I completely get it - indeed I warmly applaud - when someone waxes lyrical over a plant or animal; even gushing is totally understandable. However when we name a creatures solely with such an appreciative adjective (as opposed to a descriptive one), it becomes perhaps a little less supportable for a couple of reasons. For one thing it's not generally very helpful; for instance, what makes one fairywren Superb, another Lovely and yet another Splendid? If there's a nuance of distinction there I'm afraid it's too subtle for me. For another it can be seriously discriminatory with regard to related creatures. Other equally beautiful fairywrens have sensible serviceable names like Blue-breasted, Red-backed, Purple-crowned etc, so how must they feel about their extravagantly monickered relations?!

Well fortunately the answer is of course "not much", so we probably don't need to waste too much sympathetic outrage on their account. Perhaps we can just smile indulgently and enjoy some animals who have excited sufficient admiration to attract such an 'empty' but almost reverent adjective for their formal English name. (Not many plants seem to have attracted such appellations, but they'll get their turn next time when I turn to scientific names, applied by equally fawning professional taxonomists.) 
I began by using the Superb Fairywren as an example, so I'll allow it to be first along the red carpet.
Superb Fairywren Malurus cyaneus, just round the corner from my home in suburban Canberra (in Duffy).
Like many of these examples, as you'll see, this one was bestowed its Superb name directly from its scientific
name (though in this case that original name disappeared - George Shaw used the name on a plate which showed
both this species and a Variegated Fairwren, as he thought they were variants of the same species,
so it was impossible to know which he meant).
Superb Parrot Polytelis swainsonii, Mulligans Flat NR, north of Canberra.
This name seems to have arisen spontaneously towards the end of the 19th century.
Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, Fitzroy Falls, NSW.
Again it was originally named superba, but in this case the eminent English ornithologist John Latham
seems to have back-dated his own description to gain precedence!
We also have a Superb Fruit Dove, but in all the rest of the world there are only another four Superb birds, including a pitta and a bird-of-paradise (but plenty of other superb ones of course!).

There are five Splendid birds in the world, but only one in Australia.
Splendid Fairywren Malurus splendens, Alice Springs - and he'll be even more splendid
when he's finished moulting into his breeding finery.
 Here's one of the overseas Spendid birds though.
Splendid Starling Lamprotornis splendidus, Entebbe, Uganda.
And it's time we thought beyond birds too...
Splendid Ghost Moth Aenetus ligniveren, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
Probably upping the ante somewhat now, and the only Australian bird candidate is a riflebird, of which I don't have a photo. It's not the only Magnificent Australian animal though.
Magnificent Tree Frog Litoria splendida, Territory Wildlife Park south of Darwin.
Restricted to the Kimberley of north-western Australia, this beauty was only described in 1977.
Note the conflict between English and scientific names!
Elsewhere there is a Magnificent bird however in the waters of tropical America and the eastern Atlantic.
Magnificent Frigatebird Fregata magnificens, Seymour, Galápagos.
Despite earlier comments it might seem a bit hard to argue with this name - except that
all other frigatebird males are likewise adorned!
This is a rather odd one, for perhaps a couple of reasons, but mostly because 'paradise' is generally regarded as only a noun. However it appears in various animal names.
Paradise Tree Snake Chrysopelea paradisi, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
Also known as Paradise Flying Snake, this one hurled itself into space, gliding on flattened ribs,
a couple of seconds later; I don't know if this had anything to do with its naming...
There is a group of paradise-kingfishers and another of Old World paradise flycatchers (Family Monarchidae); here are some of them.
Blyth's Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone affinis, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
Madagascan Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone mutata, Ankarana NP, Madagascar.
African Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone viridis, Benoué NP, Cameroon.
This is a white morph of a usually copper-coloured bird.
In Australia there is also a Paradise Riflebird, though my only photo of one is awful, in dull light against the sky; moreover the female was probably not what William Swainson had in mind when he named it.
Female Paradise Riflebird Ptiloris paradiseus, Bunya Mountains, Queensland.
In happier days we also had a Paradise Parrot, before we extirpated it.

Then there are names which celebrate equally nebulous traits, but more modest ones - elegance, daintiness and grace.

We have an Elegant Parrot, but I don't have a photo, though other elegant species will feature in a coming posting for their scientific names. I can offer a couple of Elegant Americans though.
Elegant Terns Thalasseus elegans (and Grey-hooded Gulls Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus), Paracas, Peru.
And to suggest that other terns are inelegant does seem defamatory to me!
Elegant Treecreeper Xiphorhynchus elegans, Muyuna Lodge, north-eastern Peru.
To be fair, there are rather a lot of these, all very similar, to find names for.
Seems a bit unlikely perhaps, but perhaps not so much as the news that the only Dainty Australian organism that I'm aware of is a frog.
Dainty Tree Frog Litoria gracilenta, Mount Molloy, north Queensland.
This one, found along the east coast from the tip of Queensland south almost to Sydney,
could just as readily have been translated as 'graceful' and been included under the next heading.
Graceful Honeyeater Meliphaga gracilis, Cairns, North Queensland.
This one seems to be down to an error in translation; John Gould in bestowing its scientific name made
it clear he was using it in its more precise sense of meaning 'slender', by contrast with a couple of related species.
And that'll do us for today; such names - indeed all names really - are just human conceits, but I've had some fun with it, and more importantly we've got to meet some lovely, if not superb, animals.

Back next time with more of the same, but looking at scientific names instead.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 11 OCTOBER (when I'll be still be in Brazil)
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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)
(And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.
And I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!)