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, 3 March 2016

The Great Western Woodlands; a botanical cornucopia. Part 1.

It is probably fair to say that most Australians are entirely unaware of one of the world's most important temperate woodlands, even though many people drive through them on the seemingly near-obligatory journey 'across the Nullarbor', the huge 4,000km trip from the east coast of Australia to Perth, capital of Western Australia. The Great Western Woodlands cover some 16 million hectares - the size of England - of semi-arid, largely waterless country in the area that includes Australia's most recent major gold finds; the region is known, both popularly and formally, as the Western Goldfields. The lack of surface water and low soil fertility (by European standards) means that the woodlands and heathlands of the system have been left largely intact - it is the largest remaining relatively untouched area of Mediterranean climate woodland in the world.
Approximate delineation of the Great Western Woodlands, which in part straddle
the Great Eastern Highway from eastern Australia to Perth.
However, a more satisfying way of experiencing it is to take the 300km Granite and Woodlands Discovery Track
from Hyden to Norseman. It is largely unsealed but perfectly suitable for conventional vehicles.

It is underlain by the Yilgarn Craton, a vast block of very ancient granitics - more than 2.6 billion years old, with some formations 3.7 million years old. The Yilgarn Craton was one of the parts of 'original Australia', the bits to which other lumps of land became stuck as it roamed the world's oceans. (I hope this technical talk isn't too off-putting!) A feature of the landscape is the appearance of granite outcrops towering over the trees.
Granitic outcrop on the Granite and Woodlands Discovery Track.
A characteristic of these outcrops is the presence of gnamma holes (known elsewhere as panholes or opferkessels),
naturally eroded cavities in the rock; they may be small, as above, or large, below.
They were important water sources for Aboriginal People (and European travellers), and very important
ecological refuges for plants and animals.

Newman Rocks near Balladonia.
Australian Shelducks Tadorna tadornoides on Newman Rocks.
They have few options for water in this part of the world.
Such ephemeral stream lines as there are flow into a system of salt lakes, remnants of ancient river systems; after heavy rains they can fill, offering the ducks their only other opportunity, but mostly they are dry with a covering of salt.
Salt lake, Dundas Nature Reserve, east of Norseman.
As for the woodlands themselves, they are absolutely gloriously and bewilderingly diverse - among some 3,300 flowering plant species there are over 80 species of eucalypt! Think of that next time you scratch your head in an eastern forest with perhaps three or four euc species. And to my eye at least these semi-arid woodlands are very beautiful.
Gimlet Eucalyptus salubris woodland over bluebush Maireana sp., east of Norseman.

Gimlet woodland with samphire near a salt lake east of Norseman.
May I introduce you to a few of these woodland eucalypts? They are trees you're not going to meet elsewhere for the most part - and like some other western ones, they can be rather more dramatic than some we're familiar with in the east.
Sand Mallee E. eremophila, Balladonia; found throughout the Goldfields.
E. georgei north of Norseman. This one is found in only a few scattered localities,
and I count myself very lucky to have found it.
Detail of Gimlet bark - I just can't get enough of this tree!
Dundas Blackbutt E. dundasii, Norseman. Dundas is the name of the shire.
There is an excellent Woodlands Walk off a scenic drive through a hillside reserve in Norseman,
which introduces several of the trees.
It's east of the railway, accessed from the town via Mines Road and Battery Road.
Merritt E. urna, Norseman.
Merritt is more widely distributed in south-west WA. In the 1920s and 1930s it was heavily
logged in the Goldfields for mine props and firewood. Densely regenerating stands are commonplace.
Coral Gum E. torquata Norseman. Restricted to a small range between Coolgardie and Norseman,
it is often grown as s street tree for its lovely pink flowers.
Dundas Mahogany E. brockwayi, Norseman.
 George Ernest Emerson Brockway worked for the WA Forestry Department for 40 years from the 1920s,
and spent a lot of time based in Kalgoorlie. The tree is limited to the Norseman area.

Golfields Blackbutt E. lesoeufii.Restricted to the central Goldfields, south to Norseman.
There were three Le Soeuf brothers, all scientists and zoo directors around the turn of the 19th-20th centuries.
I suspect this was named for Ernest who spent many years working in Western Australia.
Ribbon Bark Mallee E. sheathiana, Goldfields Woodlands National Park, Great Eastern Highway.
This is a distinctive species due to the numerous hanging ribbons of bark,
and more widespread than most of the others featured here.
Jeremiah Sheath worked as a landscape gardener at King’s Park in Perth, becoming Superintendent.
Ill-health, apparently attributed to his all-weather outdoor work, led to extended sick leave from which
the government compulsorily retired him without retirement pay.
The King’s Park Board, presumably through shame, gave him a £100 honorarium. He died in 1915.
Wheatbelt Wandoo E. capillosa, Goldfields Woodlands National Park, Great Eastern Highway.
Closely related to the more familiar Wandoo E. wandoo, this one typically grows on
crumbling granite ridges.

It would be logical now to proceed to other plants, but frankly there are so many that they deserve their own posting, which they will get next time. Instead I'll conclude this instalment with a few animals that I recall from my times in the Goldfields.
Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus, Norseman.
Widely distributed in woodlands and drier forests across
Australia, closely related to the Australian magpies, currawongs and woodswallows.
Always a delight for its melodious song.
Male White-winged Triller Lalage tricolor along the Granite and Woodlands Discovery Track.
This small cuckoo-shrike can also be found widely in Australia, but that's no reason to disregard it!
Male Copperback Quail-thrush Cinclosoma clarum (split from Chestnut Quail-thrush C. castanotum in 2015) along the
Granite and Woodlands Discovery Track. They are limited to dry southern woodlands and mallee,
and generally far less obliging than this one was!
Crested Dragon Ctenophorus cristatus along the Granite and Woodlands Discovery Track.
Another southern Australian southern dry woodland specialist, which we found to be especially
associated with the granitic outcrops.
I hope that you're already inspired to go and explore, but maybe you could wait until next week so you can see some of the flowers you've got to look forward to as well.



Peter Black said...

Semi arid and mallee landscapes are probably my favourite areas, I'm not sure if I'm envious of the diversity on plant life in the WA mallee or glad I have a slightly more manageable task getting my head around what's going on in our south eastern mallee. The 11 species of Eucalypts in Gluepot is already more than my (admitedly poor) grasp of botany can handle.

What has spurred me to comment, however, is your remarks on the names of some of these western Eucalypts. My mother has recently started a Eucalyptus arboretum and often wonders where the botanical names of some of her trees some from, especially the ones which seem to be named after people. If you ever felt like writing a book on this subject you'd have at least one buyer and I'd have at least one Christmas present sorted out.

I gather you have actually written a similar book about bird names. Is there any chance I could prevail upon you to sell me a signed copy for my mother's birthday?

I can be contacted at peter_black_@hotmail.com


Ian Fraser said...

G'day Peter. As you probably gathered, I share your fondness for those landscapes - in fact I grew up in SA and mallee is probably my favourite habitat. I know what you mean about being overwhelmed - I feel that way in the West, and go into panic mode in rainforest! What's your role at Gluepot? - one of my favourite places.

Your idea about the names of eucs is an interesting one and I'll give it serious thought.

With regard to the other matter, I'll email you separately.

Peter Black said...

My role at Gluepot is the best one of all, 'Regular Visitor'!

A friend was recently described as a 'Semi Arid Landscape Connoisseur' Which is something I could live with too. As spectacular as they are I just can't get as enthused about tropical rainforests as I am about the mallee, though I do live on the edge of a very small cool rainforest (Sherbrooke on the outskirts of Melbourne) which is rather nice. Not nearly the massive diversity of the bigger tropical forests though.

If the Eucalyptus name book goes ahead I'll definitely be first in line to buy a few copies.

Thanks for the email too, I'll get right back to you.