About Me

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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. I am now a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. As part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past few years.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Mount Ginini; top of the Australian Capital Territory

The Brindabella Mountains form the western boundary of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT hereafter). They also form the northern end of the Australian Alps system; the 104,000 hectares of Namadgi National Park connect with Kosciuszko National Park to the west and south in New South Wales and thence to the Alpine National Park in Victoria further south. They are managed cooperatively by the relevant states and territory, with the federal government providing coordination to form one of the world's great national park systems, protecting some 16,500 square kilometres of montane, subalpine and alpine forests and heaths. They are also one of the best reasons to live here in Canberra, accessed by a sealed road just 50km from the city centre. The road continues as a good gravel road along the spine of the range, south for another 20km until it reaches a locked gate just past the short road up to the summit of Mount Ginini, which is the highest point of the ACT and provides the best drive-in view in the territory.
Looking south from the summit of Mount Ginini along the spine of the Brindabellas to Mount Gingera.
The dead Snow Gums in this and subsequent photos date from the devastating fires of January 2003,
which continued into the suburbs, destroying more than 500 homes.

The Australian Alps national parks (courtesy of Wikpedia) with Namadgi National Park at the northern end.
Mount Ginini is just to the north of Mount Bimberi, which is marked.
On Sunday we drove up there to check the progress of the flowering. I've been taking people up there every December for over 30 years, and it is noticeable that the flowering has been getting steadily earlier during that time, to the point where peak flowering is probably now some two weeks ahead of where it was 30 years ago. Of course there are fluctuations in this from year to year and this year spring has been wet and cool so the timing this season is back to where it was in the past. One excellent indicator of this is the common understorey shrub, the pea Leafy Bossiaea Bossiaea foliosa, which appears in the foreground of the photo above (and more below); for the past decade or so it has finished flowering by December, which was very rarely the case in the past.

But first, a couple more 'scene-setters'; it is prevented from being a 360 degree view by the presence of an air navigation facility which blocks the vista to the north. 
Looking west to the Bogong Peaks in northern Kosciuszko (not to be confused with Mount Bogong in Victoria).

The view south-east (to the left of Mt Gingera in the earlier photo) to the mountains in the rugged
southern wilderness of the ACT.

On the other side of Gingera, to the south-west, lies the Tangtangera Plain and Reservoir in Kosciuszko NP.
On a clearer day than this one you can readily see the Main Range, including Mt Kosciuszko itself,
some 115km away.
The single highlight of the day was undoubtedly the bossiaea though, so here's some more of it!
Leafy Bossiaea dominated beneath the Snow Gums.

The flowers are no more than 7mm long and the leaves are tiny.
Big patches of yellow on Mount Gingera stained by the bossiaea.
There were however plenty of other flowers to enjoy; here's a selection, starting with a couple more peas. I think for the most part they can speak for themselves.
Gorseleaf Bitterpea Daviesia ulicifolia.
Common Shaggy-pea Oxylobium ellipticum; this is another that can be quite dominant, and
like the bitterpea above, but unlike most of the other flowers shown here, it is also found at lower altitudes.

Purple Eyebright Euphrasia collina.These delightful plants are hemiparasites on the roots of other herbs, and as a result are almost impossible to cultivate.

Daisies are always prominent in the high country.
Spoon-leaf Daisy Brachyscombe spathulata.
These Alpine Sunrays Leucochrysum alpinum were just starting to open.
Until recently they were regarded as a subspecies of the widespread Hoary Sunray L. albicans.
Showy Copperwire Daisy Podolepis jaceoides.
This handsome daisy can form extensive meadows of gold.
A couple of lilies.

Tasman Flax Lily Dianella tasmanica
Rock Lilies Bulbine glauca, above and below, were just coming into flower.

 Just one orchid, but it's a favourite of mine.
Alpine Caladenia Caladenia alpina.
buttercup Ranunculus lappaceus.

Candles Stackhousia monogyna; another found at lower altitudes too.
Prickly Starwort Stellaria pungens.
I've had a special affection for this little herb, which is common enough but scattered in the high country woodlands,
since the summer following the 2003 fires, when an unsuspected vast seedbank in the soil gave rise to
uncountable millions of starworts covering the ground along the full length of the road.
Mountain Pepper Tasmannia xerophila; its family Winteraceae is an ancient Gondwanan
and one of the oldest of living flowering plant families. It has separate male and female plants,
like many primitive families; this one is female.
Black-eyed Susan Tetratheca bauerifolia.
A delightful little herb whose down-pointing flowers can be challenging to photograph.

Showy Violet Viola betonicifolia.
This little beauty has a remarkable distribution from Tasmania to New Guinea and beyond into Asia,
and from sea level to the Snow Gums.
Of course there were many animals, but not many vertebrates; one however greeted us as soon as we pulled up.
Male Flame Robin Petroica phoenicea, with an unidentified snack.
Surprisingly for a warm day we saw few reptiles, but one substantial one skittered across the road in front of us; it didn't stop to socialise, but here's one of the same species I prepared (a couple of years) earlier, in much the same place.
Blotched Bluetongue Tiliqua nigrolutea, one of a group of aberrant big skinks.
The other animals were mostly here for the flowers too, especially the abundant butterflies. Local butterfly guru (gura?) Suzi Bond had given us a heads-up on the huge numbers of Rayed Blues Candalides heathi zipping everywhere, but they refused to sit still for posterity. Neither did the lovely Macleay's Swallowtails Graphium macleayanus, but they are too delightful not to share, so here's another photo from a previous visit to Mount Ginini.
Macleay's Swallowtail on Pimelea ligustrina.
The hardy caterpillars browse on the fiery leaves of the Mountain Pepper.
One butterfly which had no objection to being photographed was the common Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi.
The bossiaeas attracted many insects, including this pretty little Concealer Moth Orthiastis hyperocha, family Oecophoridae (thanks Suzi and Ted!).

Concealer Moth on Leafy Bossiaea.
These lovely green scarab beetles Diphucephala sp. are often found in large numbers on the bossiaeas.
The Alpine Sunrays were a flower of choice for many insects, including these flies.

Hoverfly, family Syrphidae.
My France-based friend Susan, who is far more erudite than I in such matters, thinks
it's likely to be Melangyna (Austrosyrphus) viridiceps. (See her comments below for more detail.)

I'm afraid I can't help you with this fly, but I'd love to hear from you with any suggestions.
Another, very bristly, fly, which despite my initial doubts apparently really is a Bristle Fly, Family Tachinidae,
and quite likely subfamily Dexiinae based on the long legs (thanks again Susan).
On reflection I think my doubts were based solely on the fact that that seemed too easy,
and that if thought that, it was almost bound to be wrong!
A wasp (again unidentified, my invertebrate ignorance is embarrassing!) on the eyebright,
which is an excellent insect attractor.
I hope this has been enough to convince you that a visit to the mountains is a very good idea at this time of year (if you're in the Southern Hemisphere at least); if you're in my part of the world Mount Ginini would be an excellent choice, but don't leave it too long...


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Wednesday, 30 November 2016

On This Day, 30 November: Scottish National Day

National days have a very eclectic mix of raisons d'être, with some having apparently fairly nebulous significance. I'm afraid one may see Scotland's National Day, Saint Andrew's Day on 30 November, as being in this category. I feel that I can make the observation as one whose father was born there - my grandfather, a World War One soldier, prisoner of war and survivor, was an electrician in the coal mines, and brought his family out to Adelaide in 1928. 

The connection to Scotland of Andrew, one of the apostles is, at best, vague. It is claimed that a couple of relics associated with him found their way to Scotland, but the two surviving manuscripts, as I understand it, are now in Paris and London. It is said that in 832AD King Óengus mac Fergusa of the Picts (in what is now Scotland) won a battle against the southern Angles after doing a prayer deal with Saint Andrew in which he undertook to make St A the patron saint of Scotland (though Scotland didn't strictly exist at the time), if St A gave him victory. St A kept his side of the bargain, and it's not at all clear what King Óengus did in return. It was only in 2006 that the Scottish parliament officially declared 30 November a bank holiday - but a sort of voluntary one, in that banks only close, and give their employees a holiday, if they feel like it. Moreover, far from having a monopoly on him, Scotland must share Andrew's patron saint favours with Barbados, Greece, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine, as well as assorted towns and regions.

All of which is not very relevant to our main purpose today, which is to celebrate the various Scots whose names are commemorated in the names of Australian plants!

Some of them I've acknowledged before in their own right, so I won't retell their stories here but will refer you to the original posting if you're interested. Perhaps the greatest of them was the remarkable botanist Robert Brown, who sailed with Matthew Flinders on the Investigator, a major scientific expedition beginning in 1801.
Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Two Peoples Bay, Western Australia.
'Brunonis' is Latin for brown, and appears for Robert in quite a few Australian names.
It was named by the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher in 1839 as Glossodia brunonis,
and the current genus was erected for it by great Western Australian botanist Alex George in 1963.

Charles Fraser, horticulturalist and botanist, was appointed Colonial Botanist of New South Wales by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.
Kapok flowers, Cochlospermum fraseri, family Bixaceae, Timber Creek, Northern Territory.
A common tree of the central and western Australian tropics, it was named to honour Fraser
by French botanist Jules Planchon.
Another Scottish Charles, Charles Moore, was also appointed New South Wales Colonial Botanist, in 1848. 
Macrozamia moorei near Springsure, central Queensland, where it has a very small range.
It was named by the towering figure of late 19th century Australian botany, Ferdinand von Mueller to honour
Moore, who had a strong interest in cycads, in 1881 while Moore was still alive to appreciate the compliment.
And sadly, not all Scots have been universally admired; one such as was the self-aggrandising pioneer of the Murray River steam paddleboat trade, Francis Cadell, who von Mueller also honoured, in this case with a whole genus.
Ooline Cadellia pentastylis, Family Surianaceae, Tregole National Park,
inland south-east Queensland near Morven.
This is another species of limited distribution, the only one of its genus.
But now it's time to meet some Scots whose names appear on Australian plants and who I haven't previously introduced here.

Peter Good was a young man of whom we know sadly little, other than that he was born in Scotland, and worked as a gardener for Earl Wemyss. He was selected by Kew to go to India to bring back a plant collection assembled by the botanist Christopher Smith. On his return he was appointed a foreman at Kew, from where Robert Brown appointed him as assistant on the Investigator expedition. One of his major roles was keeping living plant collections on board, to avoid the problems of getting dried specimens through the tropics. Like many others he contracted dysentery in Timor but continued collecting until he died and was buried with naval honours in Sydney.
Goodia lotifolia, Tallaganda National Park, east of Canberra.
The genus was named for Peter Good by controversial English botanist Richard Salisbury.
(Some of the story of his controversy can be found here.)
A much more highly ranked Scot was John Clements Wickham who served under Lieutenant Phillip Parker King during the first of the British South American Marine Surveys, and was then Second-in-Command of the Beagle during Darwin’s famous voyage. He was responsible for maintaining order in the cramped on-board spaces, and Darwin (known on board as ‘the flycatcher’) and his specimens were a cause of much angst to Wickham, who referred to them as a ‘damn beastly bedvilment’. In fact he told Darwin that ‘if I were skipper I would have you and all your damn mess out of the place’. Darwin on the other hand wrote to his father that Wickham was ‘a glorious fellow’ and it was Wickham who named a bay Port Darwin; later the city took its name from it. In the late 1830s Wickham was back, now in command of the Beagle, charting the Bass Strait Islands and those still uncharted sections of the north-western coasts. His health was ruined, and he left the navy to work as police magistrate at Moreton Bay. When Queensland gained independence in 1860 he retired to the south of France. A more lasting reward was the naming of a widespread and beautiful tropical grevillea for him, by Swiss botanist Carl Meissner.

Grevillea wickhamii (and Grey-headed Honeyeater Ptilotula keartlandi), Kings Canyon, central Australia.
Across the country, Scot James Drummond was appointed to the (honorary!) position of Government Naturalist for the Swan River Colony in its earliest days. He was somewhat desperate, having been made redundant from his post as curator of Cork Botanic Gardens when the British Government withdrew funding, and was led to believe that if a public gardens was to be opened, he could expect a paid job. It didn't end any more happily than you might expect, but he did acquire some land grants and was able to sell plant specimens. Governor Stirling did appoint him as paid Superintendent of the Government Garden, but then the Colonial Office abolished the position of Government Naturalist! He spent most of the rest of his days tending his garden and vines, and collecting for British botanist and entrepreneur James Mangles.
Drummondita hassellii, family Rutaceae, Merredin, WA.
James' brother Thomas was a nurseryman who collected in North America.
This genus commemorates them both – the I is a latinised form of J for James, and the T for Thomas!
The responsible party for this creativity was Irish botanist William Harvey.
Cephalipterum drummondii, Mount Magnet, inland WA.
This one was specifically named for James Drummond.
Thomas Mitchell was born in Stirlingshire in 1792 and joined the British army, fighting in the Spanish Peninsula wars, attaining the rank of major and becoming a surveyor and draughtsman. In 1827 he arrived in Sydney to become Deputy Surveyor-General  to John Oxley; when Oxley died the next year he got the top job, which he held until he died in 1855. His explorations were vital to the growing understanding of the colony. In 1831 he explored in north-western NSW, and reported that all the rivers flowed into the Darling. On other expeditions he followed the Darling from Bourke; the Lachlan to the Murrumbidgee; through western Queensland to try to find the route to Port Essington – he always had a profound belief in a river he called the Kindur, which he was sure would take him all the way to the northern sea; and the famous 'Australia Felix' journey in western Victoria. He wrote astutely and even sympathetically of Aboriginal culture, but his expeditions were involved in several fatal skirmishes. He collected natural history specimens as he went; on the western Victorian trip he took 100 sheep for food, and the shepherd was also the plant collector, which seems to be an unfortunate combination. Mitchell died after contracting pneumonia while surveying the road down the Clyde Mountain.

Native Orange Capparis mitchellii, Lake Broadwater, south-east Queensland.
Named for Mitchell by English botanist John Linley.
Our final Scot, Patrick Murray, Baron of Livingston, not only never visited Australia but could not have done so - he died well before the first English-speaker set foot on the continent. He had a famous garden, and after his early death in 1671 his huge plant collection was transferred to Edinburgh where it formed the nucleus of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden. Much later his countryman Robert Brown named the genus palm genus Livistona for him (or at least for his title, though it's unclear what happened to the 'ng'!).
Livistona rigida, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, north-west Queensland.
Which is about all I've got for you today. I'm very grateful to Scotland for, in small part at least, making me what I am. And I'm grateful for the many significant contributions that Scots have made to Australia, not least botanically. If you're a Scot, have a happy national day - even if you find it's not a holiday for you...


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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Wildsumaco Continued; away from the lodge

In my last posting I ran out of time before finishing my introduction to Wilsumaco, the truly superb new  conservation-oriented lodge on the eastern Andean slopes of northern Ecuador. I waxed enthusiastic on the immediate surrounds of the lodge itself, but didn't manage to leave its immediate vicinity! That can now be rectified in a fairly brief posting. 

We came to Wildsumaco from the west - not from Quito itself, but from the much closer (and higher) San Isidro Lodge, which is also worthy of its own post in the not too distant future. This is the direction from which most visitors are likely to arrive, but you could also come from the east, leaving Coca after a stay in the Amazon basin. Before we even reached the lodge we stopped at a set of feeders off the road at the edge of the forest, where we saw some species that we didn't later see from the lodge verandah. Inevitably some of these photos were taken on the feeders - sorry about that!
Violet-headed Hummingbird Klais guimeti, another eastern slopes specialist in the Andes,
but curiously also found at lower elevations in central America and Venezuela.
Gould's Jewelfront Heliodoxa aurescens; like some of the species mentioned in the previous post,
this is primarily a lowland bird which has only recently been recorded at this altitude (1500 metres above sea level)
at Wildsumaco, presumably because people weren't looking here prior to the lodge's existence.
Green Hermit Phaethornis guy, another species which doesn't find its way to the Pacific side of the Andes,
though its range extends from central America to Peru.
I find the hermits especially hard to photograph, as they don't seem to land where they're photographable!
One hazard of watching feeders is that it can hard to remember to look up or down as well, and one should!
The seemingly weightless Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus must be one of the loveliest birds of prey.
It is a widespread resident in the northern half of South America; a population in the south-east of the US
migrates south to join the southern birds after breeding.
This magnificent caterpillar was doubtless destined to become an equally  magnificent butterfly or moth
- there are plenty around - but I can't begin to suggest what that might be.
The extensive lodge driveway and the road past the gate provide excellent birding opportunities too, but another highlight was accompanying guide Byron down into the forest to look for trickier options. The forest itself is of course beautiful.

Creek above, and cloud forest below, along the forest track.

Bromeliad flower. Bromeliads are a feature of the Andean cloud forests, with more than 4500 species
in Ecuador alone, at densities which can exceed 100,000 plants per hectare.
Some glowing leaves.
Like other lodges, Wildsumaco has begun habituating wild antpittas, infamously difficult birds to see normally, and Byron was an expert in calling them up.
Byron calling up Plain-backed Antpitta Grallaria haplonota, which has a breathy fluting series of notes.
Plain-backed Antpitta - not much light or time, so apologies for the poor photo.
It's the only one I've ever seen though!
He also conjured up Ochre-breasted Antpitta, which I had previously seen in Peru at Paz de las Aves - I never mind seeing a bird, especially one this elusive, more than once however!
Ochre-breasted Antpitta Grallaricula flavirostris, Wildsumaco.
Other prized birds are much less easy to photograph, so bear with me if you will - I worked hard for these miserable shots, believe it or not!
White-crowned Manakin Dixiphia pipra. In my defence, this is a tiny bird, hard to approach in the dim
light of the forest understorey, and jet black.
The males form small loose leks, just in earshot of each other, where they display to attract females' attention.
Blackish Antbird Cercomacroides nigrescens; like any antbirds this one is shy and cryptic in the dense
understorey. If this photo is memorable for anything (and OK, it's really not!),
it's for being the only antbird I've ever managed to lay lens on!
So, a brief introduction to a special, exciting, and utterly enjoyable place. I hope you can find your way there some day.


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