About Me

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Canberra-based naturalist, conservationist, educator since 1980. I’m passionate about the natural world (especially the southern hemisphere), and trying to understand it and to share such understandings. To that aim I’ve written several books (most recently 'Birds in Their Habitats' and 'Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings'), run tours all over Australia, and for the last decade to South America, done a lot of ABC radio work, chaired a government environmental advisory committee and taught many adult education classes – and of course presented this blog, since 2012. I am the recipient of the Australian Natural History Medallion, the Australian Plants Award and most recently a Medal of the Order of Australia for ‘services to conservation and the environment’. I live happily in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise surrounded by a dense native garden and lots of birds.

Thursday, 1 April 2021

Augrabies Falls NP; a magnifent South African dryland

I first visited Augrabies Falls, up near the Namibian border in north-western South Africa, back in 2005 and was smitten by it. To the north, in Botswana and Namibia, is the mighty Kalahari Desert. The northern part of South Africa along the Orange River where Augrabies Falls thunders is sometimes known (mostly for tourism purposes) as the 'Green Kalahari', to reflect the irrigation production along the river.

I was travelling alone then but was embarking on the relationship that has come to define the rest of my life, and was determined to share this wild arid land with Lou one day. One of its attractions for me was that it reminded me in many ways of outback Australia, and we both feel passionately about that. Finally, just before COVID changed the world forever and shut down international travel for who knows how long, we managed to get there (and back!). This post is a record of a brief but memorable time there.

The wild wide rocky landscape of Augrabies Falls National Park.

The red arrow marks the approximate position of Augrabies Falls, on the Orange River
some 120km west of the thriving (and not entirely lovable) frontier town of Upington.
The park was declared in 1966 and protects some 50,000 hectares of semi-arid landscape surrounding the Orange River. The focus is the falls which crash 60 metres into a deep gorge which extends for nearly 20kms - and the rock it has chewed away is granite!

I would of course love to show you the full drama of the falls - they were pretty good when I was there in 2005 but that was pre-digital camera days for me - but the area was in severe drought at the time (as was most of Australia) so the falls were a relative trickle.

The falls are accessed by walking tracks and viewing platforms just below the very
comfortable cabin we stayed in. Even in its diminished state the sound of rushing
water could be heard all night, though somewhat muted. The name is an Afrikaans derivative
of the Nama name Akoerebis, meaning 'Place of Great Noise'.
The Nama, who still live in the area and contribute to the park's management, are descendants
of the Khoekhoen (or Khoikhoi) people, nomadic pastoralists who were the original inhabitants of the area, along with the San who were primarily hunters.

Compare this with the photos below, displayed on a board at the information centre, of the same falls during a wet year in 2010!

Downstream are access points to lookouts over the lower reaches of the gorge. Here the river has been temporarily reduced to near-stagnant pools; I don't know how much water is extracted upstream for irrigation.

Echo Corner.

Oranjekom Lookout.
However we were not just here for the water, and as I mentioned earlier the superb arid landscapes drew us right in. There is a series of drives (mostly accessible to non-4WDs, like our little hired vehicle), arranged so that at various points you can take a loop to return. They start with a shallow stream crossing (just shallow enough for us!) where the bushes were always busy with birds. 
A pool in the granite by the track, where birds came to drink.
After that we were in a magnificent arid rocky landscape, where every climb of the road revealed another superb vista. We chose a 66km loop option.



The vegetation is incredibly hardy (as any desert plants must be) with thorny acacias and tough grasses predominating. Succulents are also present (as they are mostly not in Australia), taking advantage of the rare rains to store water.
Slender Milk Bush Euphorbia dregeana; the 'milk' of the name refers to
the caustic milky sap common to most euphorbs.

Probably the most impressive plant of this part of the world however is the striking but endangered Quiver Tree, or Kokerboom, Aloidendron dichotomum in the family Asphodeleceae - a lily family which some of my Australian readers will know for the little Bulbine Lilies Bulbine spp. They are thus one of the few monocots (which are mostly herbs) to form a tree, along with palms.

They can seemingly grow in almost any substrate and are a substantial tree.


This big Kokerboom on the sandy plain is hosting the massive grass nest of
Sociable Weavers Philetairus socius, which breed colonially. We watched them flash in and
out of the nests, but didn't manage a photo unfortunately.
Kokerboom flowers; it's not clear what prompts flowering, but it's obviously not rain.

The most unusual bark of the tree was apparently used by San people for arrow quivers
(they are experts in preparing and using arrow poison), hence the English name.
Beneath the bark is not wood (monocots don't have 'real wood') but spongy tissue
which transports water.
There were gratifying numbers of birds - many of them were around the accommodation and park headquarters, with its enticing shade, plantings and water, but by no means all. The next few were ones we saw by our accommodation, or while sitting on the cafe verandah in the hot early afternoon.
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis, a dapper little dweller of dry rocky landscapes -
just like Augrabies Falls in fact!

Karoo Scrub Robin Cercotrichas coryphaeus; another dry southern African
specialist. African scrub robins are not all related to the Australian robins (or to
North American ones either) but are Old World flycatchers, like the European Robin.
The English naming of African birds is as confusing as it is in Australia.

Sickle-winged Chat Emarginata sinuata; all the comments about the previous bird
apply to this one too, including its naming. It too is an Old World flycatcher.


Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup. This arid land starling has learnt
at Augrabies to hang around the restaurant in hope of handouts or leftovers.


Red-eyed Bulbuls Pycnonotus nigricans are also dryland birds (as you must be to live here)
which readily adapt to human habitations.
Speckled Pigeons Columba guinea are also happy to share our dwelling places, regularly nesting in buildings.
These two were coming for a slightly risky drink at the falls.
Out on the plains and hills birds weren't quite as easy to observe, but they were there. Africa is rich in larks, especially in open country. Coming from a country where there is only one native species, this is a bit of an eye-opener.

Spike-heeled Lark Chersomanes albofasciata, displaying its distinctive 'heels'.

Sabota Lark Calendulauda sabota; sabota is the general word in Tswana (or Setswana),
widely spoken in north-western South Africa, for a lark. 


White-throated Canary Crithagra albogularis. Yes, there are plenty of 'real' wild
canaries out there, including this one from the dry south-west of the continent.
And of course there are plenty of birds of prey out there, waiting for an unwary animal - mammal, reptile, bird or insect, depending on the size of both predator and prey - to make a mistake. Here are a couple that we admired.

Immature Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus on a distant ridge top.These are huge powerful
predators which will hunt hares, hyraxes (see below), small antelope, jackals, large reptiles,
guinea fowl, bustards - pretty well anything in the medium size range.

Pale Chanting Goshawks Melierax canorus feed on smaller prey including mammals, birds,
reptiles, insects and even carrion across dry southern Africa.
Which brings us to some of the other animals; given that we didn't go out at night, we did quite well there too, though reptiles were a bit thin on the ground. Surprisingly this included the famed lizards which swarm around the rocks along the falls walks - they certainly did so around my feet on the previous visit. This time though, doubtless because of the drought, they were few and scattered. Luckily there were still a few though!
Augrabies Flat Lizard Platysaurus broadleyi; the sun wasn't cooperating with this photo (!)
so we can't really appreciate his glorious colours. His remarkable shape, for slipping into
safe rock crevices, is evident however.


Angulate Tortoise Chersina angulata by the road;
this hardy small tortoise is sadly threatened by the illegal pet trade, apparently.
Fortunately not this one, I imagine.
I mentioned hyraxes earlier; these are odd and endearing little characters, most of whom live among rocks - and whose closest (albeit still distant!) relatives are elephants. There are five living species, all in Africa. The most best known of these is the Cape Hyrax Procavia capensis, found widely in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. As we walked along the tracks to the falls, young hyraxes were chasing and tumbling on steep rock faces above a sheer drop to the waters. Not their elders though.
Rock Hyrax dozing on some comfortable granite in the late sun.
There are quite a few mammal predators in the park, up to the size of Leopards, though unsurprisingly we didn't see those. We did enjoy a couple of species of mongoose, which I find delightful.
Small Grey Mongoose Galerella pulverulenta which was cautiously investigating
the situation in bushland alongside the restaurant, after most people had left.

Yellow Mongoose Cynictis penicillata in a now quiet late afternoon picnic ground.
Like the previous species, the Yellow Mongoose is comfortable around humans.
I'm a fan of antelopes (as I am of most wild animals!) and Augrabies hosts a good array, though none more handsome than the big strong Gemsbok, one of six species of desert-loving oryx.
Gemsbok Oryx gazella, at home in the wild rocky landscape of Augrabies Falls.

Red Hartebeest Alcelaphus caama - another big, and generally solitary antelope.

Kalahari Springboks Antidorcas hofmeyri nibbling on a very hard and thorny shrub.
You'd think that going to South Africa might mean automatic sprinboks, but they're not
quite that easy. In recent times three species have been recognised rather than just one - this one,
an eastern South African species and one from Angola.

Cape Klipspringer Oreotragus oreotragus. This stocky little character is one of my
favourite antelopes, specialising in cliffs and rock outcrops, a sort of African
rock-wallaby. Augrabies is one of the best places to see them, as they are common in the
park, including near the vehicle tracks, and are not fazed by traffic.
New biochemical and genetic tools have now allowed us to recognise 11 klipspringers,
rather than just one!

Finally I was delighted when we came across giraffes in this desert landscape; I'm always delighted by giraffe encounters but this was quite unexpected, as I'd not seen them here previously. Whether this was just chance, or due to increased population or even a recent reintroduction, I can't say. As I say, a delight though.
Southern, or Cape Giraffe Giraffa giraffa.
Not just springboks can defeat the thorny plant protectors; these huge browsers
seemed quite immune to them.

I hadn't really thought of giraffes in a desert, but these certainly seemed at home.

Augrabies Falls is probably not on most travellers' South African 'to do' lists; if you're interested enough to be reading my blog though, I reckon it should definitely be on yours. Especially after a rainy season!

A couple of sunsets, enjoyed from the verandah of our cabin, to finish with.



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Thursday, 18 March 2021

Gluepot Reserve; one of the great Australian conservation success stories

The mallee comprises a vast swathe of semi-arid woodland stretching from the dry inland of south-eastern Australia to south-western Australia, reaching the coast in South Australia and across to the west. It is characterised by a multi-stemmed form adopted by many eucalypt species growing in low phosphate soils. More on the mallee in general in another post. I grew up in South Australia and identify strongly with the mallee. I once had the privilege of talking on radio to Graham Pizzey, the great naturalist and author of the first world-class Australian bird field guide, and was thrilled when he nominated the mallee as his favourite habitat.

Mallee form at Gluepot Reserve, either Eucalyptus oleosa or E. gracilis
(both are present and I didn't check which this was at the time).
Notwithstanding its significance, the mallee has not been treated kindly, and huge areas have been razed by broadscale clearing and burning for agriculture. In the higher rainfall areas of its range wheat and sheep production is quite successful if chemical fertilisers are applied - however the plants which evolved to lower levels of the nutrients do not do well when levels are raised. In particular old-growth mallee - ie unburned for 50 years or more - is a scarce treasure now, and some of the most threatened species (notably birds, but other animals as well) rely on this habitat. 
 
This map (courtesy of the Australian National Botanic Gardens) gives an indication of
the current (green) and estimated former (pink) distribution of mallee woodlands.
However we should note that the current range by no means implies continuous or
undamaged mallee. Most is fragmentary.
 
Which brings us to Gluepot, literally, as well as in this blog! The Murraylands north of the Murray in South Australia contain a reasonable area of remnant mallee, mostly subject to low-level grazing. It was here in 1997 that someone recorded, on Gluepot Station some 60km north of Waikerie, a population of Black-eared Miners Manorina melanotis, one of the rarest species in Australia. It is an old-growth mallee specialist, threatened by mallee clearing in an unexpected way, as well as the obvious. As gaps appear in the mallee, creating edges along with associated stock watering points, the closely related and abundant Yellow-throated Miner Manorina flavigula invades and interbreeds with the previously isolated Black-eareds. It is only in the area north of Waikerie and Renmark that Black-eared Miners are hanging on in any numbers, though these numbers are still small. 
Approximate location of Gluepot, at the end of the red arrow.
Gluepot had been taken up for grazing in 1887, under legislation dealing with 'Waste Lands of the Crown'! The name supposedly refers to the state of the clay areas after the infrequent rain. It had been grazed lightly but the lessee in 1997 had applied for permission to burn the mallee to increase his grazing. By then it was established that viable populations of another five nationally endangered bird species were also present, and that none of it had burnt signifcantly since the 1950s and much of it seemingly not for centuries. This was a conservation treasure and Birds Australia scrambled to crowd fund to buy the property; the owner wasn't averse to selling but was also quite willing to burn to get a few more years of grazing out of the mallee. Incredibly the $360,000 was raised in ten weeks, along with pledges of $30,000 a year for the next five years to manage the reserve. Volunteers worked hard and still provide management to this day. 

Perhaps counterintuitively at first sight, the key job initially was to fill in dams and remove watering troughs. These enabled dangerous increases in numbers of Western Grey Kangaroos and survival of feral goats, anathema to the mallee. On the other hand the old mallee specialists got along perfectly well without permanent water. There is a lot more about the history and management of the reserve on its excellent web site

Access is good, two-wheel drive is generally enough. Visitors are welcome and are greeted by a very good information centre. There are three basic campgrounds, featuring cleared sites, long drop toilets and a couple of tables. We had a campground to ourselves, but this was in early autumn, not the most popular time of year to visit, for reasons we can confirm! (Though we went into it with eyes open.)

Sunrise in the campground. Much of the mallee in the reserve seems to be
recovering from some form of canopy dieback, about which I'm hoping to find out more.
It was still a wonderful scene to awake to.

I've only mentioned the mallee, but even that isn't at all uniform and there are other habitats present.

Mallee with a relatively sparse chenopod understorey - ie saltbushes and bluebushes.
This is good habitat for fairywrens, thornbills, babblers etc.

Mallee over spinifex or porcupine grass, Triodia spp. I wrote more about this
very important component of arid Australia here. This is key habitat, with specials like
grasswrens and heathwrens and numerous reptiles and invertebrates sheltering in
the dense prickly strongholds.

Belah, or Black Oak, Casuarina pauper, a species which was formerly
included with C. cristata, though that is now recognised only from further east.
One species which specialises in this habitat is the White-browed Treecreeper.
Birds of prey may hide among the relatively dense foliage.
This is a somewhat shadier, cooler environment than that provided by the more open mallee.
We took our chance going now, just after the end of summer, and though it had been relatively cool prior to our stay it was mid-30s while we were there and the birds were pretty elusive - fortunately I know from previous visits that this is the not the norm there.

We saw a few reptiles, but doubtless would have seen more if we'd been willing to venture out into the sun during the day! There are 42 species so far recorded from Gluepot.
Common Snake-eye Skink Morethia boulengeri, which is found in a remarkable range
of habitats across Australia.

Eastern Mallee Dragon Ctenophorus spinodomus. South-eastern populations of
mallee dragons have recently been recognised as separate from those
across most of Australia.

Eastern Tree Dtella Gehyra versicolor living in the camp toilet block.
This pretty little gecko is found across much of inland eastern Australia.
Western Grey Kangaroo Macropus fuliginosus on a track. These inland kangaroos
are really brown rather than grey, but were lumped in with Eastern Greys M. giganteus
until relatively recently. Numbers at Gluepot are lower than we're used to seeing
of Eastern Greys in wetter country, but that's an artificial situation.

 
Chestnut Quailthrush Cinclosoma castanotum; a male crossing the entrance
track (and stopping for a quick song). A bird of arid scrublands, especially
mallee. I associate it with sandy substrates.
190 bird speces have been recorded from Gluepot, and in additon to the six nationally threatened species, another 17 are listed as threatened by one or more of the three eastern mallee states. Our birding however largely concentrated on the series of hides set up in front of raised water troughs to attract birds. And there is no contradiction here with the comments earlier about closing dams etc - the hide troughs are raised so that goats and kangaroos can't reach them. They are fed from nearby closed tanks of water maintained  for fire fighting. 
The view from Josie's Hideaway Hide; the hide is raised so that viewers
are looking straight at the trough. The following photos were taken
at Josie's in late afternoon. Most of the visitors are honeyeaters.

Yellow-plumed Honeyeater Ptilotula ornata; this was the most prominent
bird at all hides while we were there, and is found across southern inland Australia.

Brown-headed Honeyeater Melithreptus brevirostris, a softly-coloured little
short-beaked honeyeater of drier forests and woodlands. They usually
hang out in flocks.
White-eared Honeyeater Nesoptilotis leucotis. The distribution of this handsome
honeyeater fascinates me; in South Australia I grew up thinking of it as a mallee bird,
but when I went east to live I found it up in the Snow Gums! I find this remarkable.

Yellow-throated Miners Manorina flavigula. There's always a thrill of excitement when these
turn up - will they turn out to be the fabulously rare Black-eared?
For me so far - no.

Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata, another mallee bird with a broad
range of habitat preferences; they are resident in our Canberra yard.
This is a young bird, whose red wattle is just starting to appear behind the eye.

Mulga Parrots Psephotellus varius, a pair, with the spectacular male on the left.
They're a parrot of the dry inland, but are as likely to be seen in mallee as in mulga
(which is an acacia). Josie's was the first hide we visited and this pair was the first thing we saw -
an excellent introduction indeed!
In the morning early we tried Froggy Dam Hide (love it!), tucked into a dense stand of Belah. We only saw a few hesitant White-eared Honeyeaters come in, but then a young Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus swooped in and glowered near the water. It was partly hidden but was clearly inexperienced and kept fidgetting and moving position. We suspect it might have been hanging around before we saw it, explaining the lack of action at a usually busy time of day.
Collared Sparrowhawk; a youngster learning its trade.
Incidentally the best clue to distinguishing it from the very similar
(but smaller) Brown Goshawk from this angle is the notched,
not square, tail.
After breakfast we drove out again to the two remaining car-accessible hides (the fifth, the John Martin hide, requires a 5km walk, and these were not the conditions for that). The Don and Chris Lill Hide (the names commemorate people who have contributed to the reserve through their work) is set in very nice mallee woodland and was attracting plenty of activity, despite the morning now advancing.
Don and Chris Lill Hide, with trees and shrubs all around.
The drinkers prevalent at the previous hides (especially Josie's) were here too and I won't repeat them. One that was at Josie's but very reticent, uncharacteristically, was also one of my favourite honeyeaters. The Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater Acanthagenys rufogularis is a lovely bird and I was pleased to see that those frequenting the Lills' hide were much more relaxed.
Spiny-cheekeds are striking, fairly large honeyeaters with creamy 'spiny' cheek feathers,
salmon breast, pink bill and blue eyes (which show up better in a photo below).
Their musical fluting and loud 'pops' and quiet 'ticks' are part of the inland sound track;
in fact they are found throughout the continent except for the south-eastern,
south-western and northern coasts and hinterlands.
However on this occasion they were just about upstaged by what is probably my favourite honeyeater, an eastern dryland specialist, though like some other inland species it comes to the coast further north.
The Striped Honeyeater Plectorhyncha lanceolata doesn't really look like a honeyeater
at first, and the colour pattern, with dark-centred feathers forming stripes, is like no other.
It too has a lovely warbling call.

Lovely to see these two side by side (note the Spiny's blue eyes).

The lovely Mallee Ringneck (a subspecies of the widespread Australian Ringneck
Ringneck Barnardius zonarius) hung around a couple of the hides but didn't come
to drink while we were there.
Not all was peace and harmony at Lills' hide though. First a pugnacious Grey Butcherbird - and what a name to live up to! - came in to drink and quite unnecessarily harried the honeyeaters. However it could take one if it tried and they were wise to retreat.
Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus; note the wickedly hooked beak. 
The group name comes from its habit of storing surplus prey on thorns or in
branch forks, though it had been brought by the new settlers from Britain, where
it was applied to shrikes for the same reason. I can hear its lovely tune at home in Canberra too.

But the air of menace was to darken considerably more at Lills' hide. The three arrivals who muscled in next had no need to do any chasing or threatening; their mere appearance was threat enough.
Grey Currawongs Strepera versicolor are big, tough and swaggering. This is the all-black
mallee subspecies - the eastern subspecies is ashy grey as you'd expect. 


I don't share the antipathy which many people feel towards currawongs (which is due mostly to
their habit of feeding their own chicks on others' nestlings in spring)
but I can understand their reaction when looking into those wild yellow eyes.
Finally the Wally and Betty Klau hide, in a more open situation and with the day warming now in earnest. There were still plenty of birds, but most were the 'usual suspect' honeyeaters. In fact the only 'new' species was another old familiar from back home. 
Willie Wagtails Rhipidura leucophrys are found virtually throughout Australia
and I think just about everyone is happy to see them.
The Yellow-plumed and Brown-headed Honeyeaters are bonuses here - you're welcome!

This Weebill Smicrornis brevirostris hung around the hide (though rarely stopping for a photo)
but didn't come down to drink. It is often cited as 'Australia's smallest bird'
but I'm not getting into that one!
That evening we returned to the busy bar at Josie's hide - it was lovely to see the swirl of drinkers.
There are four honeyeater species here; I'll leave you to sort them out.

It has long been my belief that conservation on non-government reserves is a key part of the future of conservation here, and in many other places I've seen. This is no bad thing of course; the problem here is that it has been rendered necessary by the accelerating abdication of governments from their role in biodiversity protection and management. Resources are continuously cut from research programmes, compliance agencies and management of public reserves. Even legislation is being weakened to make exploitation easier and to diminish responsibility of government agencies and landholders. Destruction and extinctions are the inevitable results. In these grim times a project like the Gluepot Reserve is a light of hope and an indication of what can be achieved. It could even be seen as an inspiration to governments who are not doing their job, but I'm not going to get too carried away!

In any case it deserves your support, and it's a real joy to visit in difficult times.

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