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.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Those South American 'Geese'

For me at least, one of the highlights of a visit to the far south of South America - loosely known as Patagonia, incorporating the southern extremities of Chile and Argentina - is the presence across the landscape of flocks of big geese. I well recall my first visit to Patagonia, getting a hire car early on Sunday morning and heading out of Punta Arenas to drive along the Strait of Magellan - an amazing experience in itself. I was concentrating on driving on the 'wrong' side of the road for the first time when I suddenly saw a flock of Upland Geese in a wet paddock near the road and risked a rapid U-turn. In the event I needn't have - the next flock was only just down the road, and the next soon after that, and so on. But I was rapt.
Upland Geese Chloephaga picta near Punta Arenas.
This species is dramatically sexually dimorphic; males are black and white with black legs,
while females are rusty brown with orange legs.
This dimorphism doesn't end there either - the males come in two forms, which can be seen in the same flock.
The barred morph has densely black-barred breast and belly. It is commonest around
the Strait of Magellan, including on Tierra del Fuego.
This one was on Isla Magdalena, which is a Chilean island in the famous strait.

The white-breasted form becomes commoner further north - this is in
Torres del Paine National Park.
OK, back to the indicator in the title that these aren't really geese - and they're not, despite the protestations of my good friend Jorge from Chiloé! They are in the same sub-group as the shelducks - whether this is the tribe Tadornini or the slightly more prestigious sub-family Tadorninae is a debate I'll leave for those with more information and more time than I.

There are four members of the genus Chloephaga, all from the cold wind-swept south. All are essentially vegetarian, concentrating - with one interesting exception - on stems and seed heads of grasses and sedges; it is suspected that they are important vectors of these seeds. 

The exception is the surprising Kelp Goose C. hybrida, which lives right in the sea spray, on the often stormy rocky shores and shingle beaches of Patagonia. It does so because it lives almost exclusively on sea weeds (though grazes on grass when breeding on freshwater lakes). 
Kelp Goose pair, Puñuhuil, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
Another strongly dimorphic species - again the male is much paler.
These are very handsome birds - like all their group - and deserve to be admired from closer up too.
Kelp Geese on Isla Magdalena, Strait of Magellan.
Female above, male below.

The other two members of the genus have identical sexes (except for a minor size difference). Ashy-headed Geese C. poliocephala are relatively common, but nowhere near as readily seen as the abundant Upland Geese. In addition to being less numerous, they are birds of forest clearings in the cold Nothofagus rainforests, so less likely to be seen from vehicles crossing the landscape.
Ashy-headed Geese, Ushaia National Park, Argentinian Tierra del Fuego.
The last Chloephaga species is very scarce indeed on the mainland, where it seems that less than a thousand Ruddy-headed Geese survive; they are still abundant in the Falklands however, despite heavy persecution from farmers. I've only seen them once, on the shores of the Strait of Magellan east of Punta Arenas, and have no really acceptable pictures; this one will have to do I'm afraid!
Ruddy-headed Goose C. poliocephala in the foreground.
(Behind it is a male Kelp Goose and two Crested Ducks Lophonetta specularioides.)
Finally there are two other South American geese (I don't think I need to continue with the apostrophes, which will only make them feel judged - they didn't claim to be anything at all!), both found much further north. They form a separate genus in the shelduck group, though the Andean Goose has only recently (and not unanimously) been moved from Chloephaga .

Andean Geese Neochen melanoptera live in the high Andes - never normally below 3300 metres above sea level (except when exceptional snows force them lower) - from central Chile to central Peru and adjacent Argentina. They are a big bird, weighing up to 3.5 kilograms. A haemoglobin mutation has enabled exceptional oxygen carrying ability, to help them at the high altitudes.
Andean Geese in a bofedale - a high mountain wetland - in the Aguada Blanca National Reserve, southern Peru.
Andean Goslings at the same site.
They lay up to ten eggs in a nest on the ground.
Just one member of this group prefers the heat of the tropical lowlands. The Orinoco Goose is found along streams throughout much of the northern Amazon basin, though it is loath to actually take to the water. It is rarely common; indeed in Peru it is listed as Critically Endangered. Both Neochen geese, like their southern relatives, are vegetarian grazers.
Orinoco Goose, Manu National Park, Amazonian Peru.
They don't have the cachet of Jaguars, Condors, macaws or toucans, but I reckon the South American geese (or 'geese') are a special little part of that wonderful continent.

BACK ON THURSDAY (26 November)

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Housekeeping; updating some earlier postings

This may be of little interest to anybody, but I find constantly that people are visiting older postings, so I skim through them a couple of times a year and update as required. Mostly this means replacing pictures with better ones, or adding to postings as more pics become available.

Here, in the perennially popular posting on Wildlife of Machu Picchu, I've added four more photos of different organisms. Links to images (without captions) here, here and here.
Here, in a posting on millipedes, I've added three photos from Borneo. Links to images (without captions) here, here and here.
Here, in a posting on flightless birds, I've added a photo of the Titicaca Grebe. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on colubrid snakes, I've added two photos, from Borneo and Queensland. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on the Lichenostomus honeyeaters, I've added a photo of Varied Honeyeaters. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on South American flamingoes, I've added a photo of Andean Flamingo. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on camouflage in vertebrates, I've added a photo of a very camouflaged Peruvian frog. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on camouflage in invertebrates, I've added a photo of a near-invisible Bornean ghost crab. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on botanist Charles Moore, I've added a photo of Citronella moorei. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on dragon lizards, I've added a photo of a Frill-necked Lizard. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on kingfishers, I've added a photo of Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on bottle trees and kurrajongs, I've added photos of vine scrub and deciduous bottle trees. Link to images (without captions) here and here.
Here, in a posting on kangaroos, I've added a photo of a Whiptail Wallaby. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on Australian robins, I've added a photo of a male Rose Robin. Link to image (without caption) here.

Living Rainbows; animal iridescence

[This posting originally appeared on 13 June 2015, but while trying to update it with the addition of three extra photos, it inexplicably and totally disappeared! With the gratefully received help of David Nash I've retrieved it - and added the extra pictures.]

This is another in the sporadic series on colour in nature. You can find the most recent one here and trace it back therefrom. However for this particular installment you might also like to cast a glance at the first posting on blue in nature; the reason for this is that iridescent colours - where parts of an animal appear to shine, and even to change colour with a slight change of viewing angle - are formed in somewhat similar ways to blue (and combinations of blue, such as give yellow and purple). The colours have nothing to do with pigments, but are down to structures in the feather or skin of the animal, which reflect certain wavelengths.

However while non-iridescent blue for instance is always the same blue from any angle, iridescent structures give varying colours and rely on layers of cells that have different light-reflecting or refracting properties. We see the different colours by looking at different angles, and seeing light coming from the different surfaces. Moreover subtle aspects of these adjacent layers can cause effects to be reinforced or neutralised. Iridescence relies crucially on a reflecting base layer of melanin, or the light just keeps going through. 

An oil layer on water produces similar effects, with light reflecting back from the bottom surface and the top one, creating a rainbow effect as light wavelengths suppress or reinforce each other. (The word is based on Greek iris, a rainbow.)

For a more thorough analysis of the basis of the phenomenon in nature, this is a very comprehensive review.
Iridescent speculum in the wing of the Australian Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosus.The photos above and below were of the same bird, taken just seconds apart.

It seems that iridescence can be used by species to convey information about the individual which includes sex, age, fitness as a mate, fitness to defend territory against an intruder and even species identification for very similar species. It may also play a role in camouflage (breaking up outlines, or in underwater situations), scare or confuse predators, for instance by making it hard to judge the exact distance to the prey, or by alternately flashing and hiding wing patterns in flight. Blues, purples, greens and bronze dominate iridescent colours.

But for the rest of today, let's just enjoy some examples of iridescence in bird feathers - leaving aside for now just one very important family which employs iridescence so comprehensively that they warrant their own posting next time. Let's continue with ducks, which are significant employers of the technique, on heads and backs as well as in wing speculums.
Feral Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, Canberra.
Chiloé Wigeons Anas sibilatrix, Puerto Natales, Chile.
The male is on the right.
Male Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata, Manu NP, Peru.
Even in the dull rainforest light which is my excuse for a poor photo, the iridescent back gleams.

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata, Taronga Park Zoo, Sydney.
The most widespread ibis in the world is the iridescent Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, but it is not the only iridescent ibis. 
Glossy Ibis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
A very familiar African bird, named for its compellingly loud call.
Austral Parakeet Enicognathus ferrugineus, Cuevo del Milodon, southern Chile.
The lightly iridescent head of this parrot is found further south than any other parrot's,
to very tip of South America.
Pigeons also feature impressive iridescence, mostly in the wings in Australia at least.
Common Bronzewing Phaps chalcoptera, Canberra.A very common bird, including in urban situations, across most of Australia.
Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes, displaying in central Australia.
Another very common and familiar bird which probably thereby often fails to receive the admiration it deserves
(though this one wasn't interested in human admirers!).
Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera, central Australia.
The similarity of the display of these two species is striking.
Squatter Pigeon Geophaps scripta, Mareeba, Queensland.
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis, found across southern and south-east Asia,
here at Sepilok, Sabah. Many starlings are gloriously iridescent.
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris, Canberra.
An unwelcome exotic here, but the green to purple iridescence of the breast is still striking.
Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling Lamprotornis chalybaeus, one of the
many stunningly iridescent African starlings.
Ethiopian Swallows Hirundo aethiopica, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
Many swallows show such iridescence.
The green iridescent sheen of the wing covers of the male Great Frigatebird Fregata minor is one feature that distinguishes it from similar species. Here on Genovesa, Galápagos.
Leaden Flycatcher male Myiagra rubecula, Canberra.
This familiar bird catching the light took me by surprise; in most lights it's a more sombre and well, leaden colour.

Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
Kingfishers also commonly display iridescence, but I especially love the highlights of this one.
Masked Flowerpiercer Diglossa cyanea, Yanacocha Reserver, Ecuador.
These lovely birds 'cheat' by stabbing the base of a flower to steal nectar without
offering pollination services.
Shining Bronze-Cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus, Canberra, one of the world's smallest cuckoos.
All bronze-cuckoos have the strikingly iridescent wings.
Superb Fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus, Canberra.
One of south-east Australia's most familiar and loved birds whose iridescence
is often not recognised - until the sun catches them and 'flash'!
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (or just Rubycheek) Chalcoparia singalensis, Batang Ai NP, Sarawak.
Many sunbirds are strikingly iridescent.
Olive-backed Sunbirds Cinnyris jugularis, Cairns, Queensland.
This species, Australia's only sunbird, is presumably a recent arrival, being also found through southern Asia.

I hope this has brightened up your day a little, as preparing it has mine.


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Southern Tablelands Ecosystems Park; a tucked-away treasure

In the last days of 2001 fires roared through exotic pine plantations scant kilometres from the centre of Canberra. Just 13 months later a far greater conflagration swept away 500 homes and most of the vegetation of the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) south and west of Canberra. In the aftermath, in the midst of the recovery process, it was decided to replace the pines with an international arboretum - a sort of tree zoo. It is a large area, covering 250 hectares, and comprises a series of approximately 100 single-species plantations of trees, planted in neat grid lines. It opened in early 2013 and has since consistently attracted large numbers of visitors.

In general I've not been among them. In saying so I'm not being critical of the concept or its implementation, which has been highly professional and well-funded. It's just a personal preference; I actually think we've got enough exotic monocultures and when I get time to go out I'll always opt for one of the many natural areas enhancing Canberra, or the nearby and superb Australian-only National Botanic Gardens.

Having said that, there is one too-obscure corner of the arboretum which regularly draws me to inspect its progress; this is the Southern Tablelands Ecosystems Park (STEP hereafter), an absolutely delightful pocket of diverse native vegetation tucked away in a corner. Effectively it is a lovely, and rapidly evolving, little botanic garden of local plants, including 16 eucalypt species; in this context 'local' means the elevated Southern Tablelands of New South Wales and the ACT. 
The STEP garden from up the slope, separated from the visitors' centre, the hub of the arboretum,
by an unwelcoming expanse of weedy open space.
The gardens are not obvious in this shot, scattered among the growing trees.
The remnant woodlands in the background are to be preserved as planned suburban development
proceeds, and are to be added to the arboretum land and managed by STEP.
The idea of a STEP garden arose quite independently of the arboretum - indeed it was being discussed even before the 2003 fires. It was proposed and championed by two local community organisations, the Australian Native Plants Society (Canberra Region) and Friends of Grasslands, following a workshop in 2002 to explore the concept. Importantly, it gained the support of the then ACT Chief Minister Jon Stanhope, also a champion of the arboretum. Potential venues were explored without progress being made, until in 2005 it was proposed that STEP's future should be with the arboretum and subsequent planning and selection and propagation of plant species proceeded on that basis.

It is most significant to realise that the entire process has been carried by volunteers - in that context the progress made has been even more remarkable. Life was made harder for them by the fact that most of the development years were times of extreme drought. 
Tall Ammobium Ammobium alatum, on the edge of one of the diverse garden beds.
Well-attended weekly working bees are responsible for such beautiful and well-maintained plantings.
The STEP garden opened in February 2013, with the rest of the arboretum. At the time it was new and sparse-looking, and the weeds were not at all keen on being displaced. In less than three years since then it has been transformed. Let me share some images with you.
Some of the eucalypt plantings; no monocultures here, the designers have utilised the topography of the site
to plant the 16 species according to the relative situations they would occupy naturally.
Scrambled Eggs (not that I've actually heard anyone call it that!) Goodenia pinnatifida.
Trigger Plant Stylidium graminifolium.
Triggers have a remarkable pollination system; the style (which is initially a pollen presenter) is bent back
against the flower stem - quite visible above. A visiting insect releases the 'trigger' and the style whips over
and whacks the insect, either delivering pollen to it or collecting it from it.

Smooth Flax Lily Dianella longifolia, above and below.
Long in the family Phormiaceae, then shifted to Hemerocallidaceae; now some would put
it into Xanthorrhoeaceae. Take your pick.

Wee Jasper Grevillea G. iaspicula, above and below.
This is a rare and threatened shrub from the vicinity of the nearby town Wee Jasper;
the species name is an attempt to Latinise the town name!

False Sarparilla Hardenbergia violacea above and below.
A vigorous scrambling pea and an early coloniser of disturbed land.
Bulbine Lily B. bulbosa. Family Asphodeleaceae.

Rock Fern Cheilanthes austrotenuilfolia.A hardy little fern of local rocky hillsides.
Native Flax Linum marginale.

Kangaroo Apple Solanum linearifolium.
A spreading shrub of rocky sites; ignore the common name, all Solanum fruit should be treated with great respect,
though indigenous Australians have long known how to separate the edible from the toxic.
Remember that while this is the family that brought you tomatoes and potatoes,
it also boasts tobacco and Deadly Nightshade.
Amphitheatre; this is the focus of STEP's education program with visiting school groups.
Introductory sign.
Already the wildlife is accumulating, though the most obvious birds are still utilisers of relatively open space. Nonetheless they are obviously homing in on the plantings and this will only increase as the garden beds mature and the contrast grows between their naturalness, diversity and dense shelter and the comparatively unwelcoming surrounds.
Plague Soldier Beetles Chauliognathus lugubris on eucalypt blossom.
At least one family of Superb Fairy-wrens Malurus cyaneus has set up a territory in
the STEP garden, and is doubtless breeding there.
Red-rumped Parrots Psephotus haematonotus are attracted to the seeding native grasses.
This Silvereye Zosterops lateralis is on a weed (Senecio sp. I think) just outside the STEP garden,
but they regularly visit the garden to feed on both insects and nectar.
As the STEP garden matures further, I will probably revisit it in a future blog - meantime though I will certainly be doing so physically. If you live in Canberra, or next time you visit, I strongly urge you to do likewise. You won't get much help in finding it - for all the clear signage throughout the arboretum, management has not invested in one to indicate that the STEP garden even exists, let alone direct us to it. Nor can I find a map on the arboretum web site. However there are clear directions here. Basically, drive up to the visitors' centre and walk down the hill to the west. (And, as an addendum, please note the Comment below from Rob, regarding a new walking track and brochure from the Visitors' Centre to STEP - a most desirable innovation.)

It is a shame that, having offered a home to such an important, vigorous and self-sufficient initiative, the arboretum has not taken the small extra step of directing public attention to it. However I have little doubt that, in time, the word will spread, and I hope I've just made a small contribution to that.

[It is important to note that while writing this I made a conscious decision not to discuss it with anyone associated with STEP, so as not to compromise either them or me. Nor has anyone involved with the project ever expressed to me the concerns I've raised above - they are solely my own observations.]