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 18 July 2024

Corymbia; ghosts, blood and spots!

This is my first post for a while as we've been exploring the wonders of south-western Queensland, as I mentioned in my last post. We brought back plenty of material for future posts, but for now I'm going to offer something different while I sort out my photos. I also thought this one might be a relatively easy one with which to ease myself back in (my mind is still back with big blue skies, huge horizons, narrow roads stretching out of sight ahead, and surprises round each corner). However, as usually happens in such a situation, it's been a lot more work than I'd realised, as I discovered how much I didn't know and, with new knowledge, came across a couple of misidentifications in my photos. All for the good, I know.

Today I'm talking about an important group of eucalypts, including a few pretty familiar ones, which are no longer called Eucalyptus. That might sound contradictory, but in fact 'eucalypt' is a general name to describe any of the trees that have at some time been called Eucalyptus; they remain as closely related to each other and as instantly recognisable as they ever were.

Flowers of Red Bloodwood Corymbia gummifera, here at Tianjara Falls in Morton
National Park inland from Nowra, south coast NSW. There are a couple of issues here
that are relevant to today's post, the first being the way the flowers are clustered. You may not be
able to see it well here, but the relatively flattened shape of each flower cluster is caused
by the different lengths of the flower stems within the cluster. The lower stems are longer
than the higher ones, so the overall shape is flat, or only slightly domed. This, in botanical
terms, is a corymb, which is different from the way in which other eucalypt flowers grow,
hence the genus name - more on that in a couple of paragraphs time!

The other thing to note in the above caption is the name of the tree. 'gummifera', naturally enough, means 'bearing gum' and while we may not think this remarkable, many early Europeans who encountered eucalypts certainly did. In 1688 the English pirate-naturalist William Dampier reported from the far north-west of Australia that "the Gum distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of  the trees". Governor Arthur Phillip, who commanded the first British colony on what is now Sydney Harbour, used the term 'gum-tree' in 1778; he collected this gum, and send samples back home, doubtless to have its commercial potential tested. The German botanist Joseph Gaertner first used the name gummifera in a description, but it was Daniel Solander, who sailed with Cook and Banks in 1770 and became the first university-trained botanist to land in Australia, who formally described it in 1788. 

However more than 200 years later the respected botanist Lawrie Johnson of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, along with colleague Ken Hill, grasped a very large and forbidding nettle indeed when he tackled the problem of what to do about Eucalyptus. The problem, in a gum-nut shell, is that the differences between Eucalyptus and Angophora are no greater than between the various sub-groups of Eucalyptus. Logic demanded either incorporating Angophora into Eucalyptus, or splitting Eucalyptus; Lawrie boldly chose the latter. Before his sad death from cancer in 1997 he had got as far as separating out the bloodwoods, spotted gums and ghost gums as Corymbia; they remain in most books now as the only other non-Eucalyptus eucalypt. There are four sub-groups within Corymbia; in simple terms they are the red bloodwoods (59 species), the yellow bloodwoods (11 species), the ghost gums (24 species) and the spotted gums (3 species). (There are also three outliers, but we won't worry about them today). 

That's about as technical as I'm going to get here - for the rest I'll introduce members of the four main groups and we can just admire them! Many of the bloodwoods, including those most familiar in the south-east, readily 'bleed' sap on the trunk, often encouraged by the gnawing of glider possums.

Desert Bloodwood Corymbia opaca near Windorah, south-west Queensland,
'bleeding' copiously, though not to any detriment! This species was separated
from the much more widespread C. terminalis (see below) in 1985, though
not everyone accepts the distinction.
Many of this group have plated bark, like this one, though not all.
Red Bloodwood again, near Narooma on the NSW south coast.

Pink Bloodwood C. intermedia (like most tree 'colour' names, the pink refers
to the timber, not that I've ever seen it). This one was in the Coffs Harbour Botanic
Gardens on the north coast of NSW, though it is an original tree.
These last two species are trees of the temperate south-east, though a couple of other well-known red bloodwoods are from the south-west (though are not called 'bloodwood').

Red-flowering Gum Corymbia ficifolia, in Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens.
This small tree has a very small natural distribution in the south-west of Western Australia,
mostly along roadsides, but is very widely planted in gardens and road verges across
southern Australia. This photo shows the corymbs fairly clearly.

Marri C. calophylla, Darling Ranges near Perth. This is a very impressive
tree which dominates some dry forests in the south-west, often along with
Jarrah Eucalyptus marginata. Its big hard fruits (very like those of the Red-flowering Gum
above) are key food for the Red-capped Parrot and the Endangered Baudin's
(or, more helpfully, Long-billed) Black Cockatoo, both of
which extract the tiny seeds with a thin elongated upper mandible.
Others, like the Desert Bloodwood above, are restricted to the arid inland and the seasonally dry north.

Inland, or Desert Bloodwood C. terminalis, above and below. The one above
is in Currawinya NP, in south-west Queensland, and the one below in
Boodjamulla/Lawn Hill NP in monsoonal north-west Queensland,
with torrential summer rains and arid winters.

I'm especially fond of this species, and I see it on any inland trip to the northern half
of Australia, in four of the five mainland states and the Northern Territory.
 Another closely related desert bloodwood was only recognised in 1995.

Sand Dune Bloodwood C. chippendalei, Great Sandy Desert, central eastern WA.
This one only grows on dunes in the central and western deserts.
It was named for George Chippendale, an expert on plants of the Northern
Territory and later the author of the mighty eucalypts volume of the Flora of Australia.
He was also a lovely person who delighted in sharing his knowledge with others.
Corymbia deserticola (another 'Desert Bloodwood' though without a formal English name)
also growing in the Great Sandy Desert. It has a similar distribution to the Sand Dune
Bloodwood, but a wider range of habitats though is usually found on the plains.
Other red bloodwoods grow only in the seasonal tropics.
Small-fruited Bloodwood C. dichromophloia, Boodjamulla/Lawn Hill NP.
This common bloodwood is found from north-west Queensland to the Kimberley.
It is smooth-barked except for the base of the trunk, to which flakes of old bark adhere.

(Another) Red Bloodwood C. erythrophloia, Undara Lava Tubes, north Queensland.
This very striking tree grows in eastern tropical Queensland.
The yellow bloodwoods are much fewer in number. This one is common, and especially conspicuous.

Yellow Jacket C. leichhardtii, Salvator Rosa NP, south-central Queensland
(part of the Carnarvon Range), above and below. This is its southern-most extent,
but it extends north on the western slopes to Mareeba and is readily seen on a
drive through the Queensland tropical woodlands, where sandy soil overlays sandstone.
And one familiar to readers from the Sydney region, is Yellow Bloodwood C. eximia, also found only on sandstone, from Nowra to the Hunter Valley.
Yellow Bloodwood, here at Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains
(and I really must get a better photo of this species!).
There are just three species in the spotted gum group, including the well-known Queensland endemic Lemon-scented Gum C. citriodora - well known because it is widely planted in southern Australia. I used to walk to university in Adelaide through a large stand of them in Botanic Park. However further south by far the best known spotted gum is, wait for it... Spotted Gum C. maculata, which grows all along the NSW coast south from Taree. It is a lovely and readily recognisable tree for its blotchy bark, caused by grey flakes of old bark sticking to the trunk. Here are three Spotted Gum portraits from the south coast of NSW - I'm very partial to them!
Spotted Gum forest along a walk to the beach, Murramarang NP.
Tall old Spotted Gum near Nowra - I couldn't get far enough away to fit
it all into a conventional photo.
Spotted Gum forest with typical understorey of Burrawang cycads,
Macrozamia communis, near Nelligen.
Finally, the last group of Corymbia comprises the wonderful ghost gums, which I blogged about in more detail seven years ago here. By far the best known is the Ghost Gum of central Australia, from eastern WA to western Queensland.
A Ghost Gum C. aparrerinja, estimated to be at least 300 years old, at Trephina Gorge,
eastern Tjoritja (MacDonnell Ranges). For more photos of this very beautiful species,
and some interesting information I was given about the origin of the unusual
species name, see the link immediately above.
Ghost Gum by the road west of Windorah, south-west Queensland.
This must be close to its south-eastern limits.
(It occurs slightly further east to the north of here, at Barcaldine.)
Other ghost gums occur in the tropics.
Rough-leaved Ghost Gum C. aspera, Boodjamulla/Lawn Hill NP. The species is
found across the northern tropics from here in north-west Queensland to the Kimberley.

Ancient C. blakei in Bladensburg NP in central Queensland, growing on
a substrate too hard to penetrate with its roots! It is restricted to this part of Queensland.

Two others in the ghost gum group are very striking trees from eastern Queensland, though to my frustration my photos don't do them justice. Oh well, I'll just have to go back!

Dallachy's Ghost Gum C. dallachiana, Barcaldine. This is a young tree (and drought-affected)
and doesn't give much indication of how handsome it will grow up to be!
And we end with another favourite of mine, the stately Carbeen, or Moreton Bay Ash
C. tessellaris. Heading north we encounter this tall white tree with a rough grey or black
bark stocking in northern NSW, and it continues right up to Cape York.
Well, if this topic didn't interest you much, you won't be still reading! For those who are, thank you for persevering and I hope you learnt something of interest (I certainly have) and at the least enjoyed some of the trees themselves. Next time I'll be back with a more general posting, almost certainly based on one of the lovely parks we've recently spent time in, in south-western Queensland.

I love to receive your comments and in future will be notifying you personally by email when a new posting appears, if you'd like me to. All current subscribers have been added to this mailing list and have already been contacted. This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. I promise never to use the list for any other purpose and will never share it.
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Thursday 30 May 2024

Celebrating Botanic Gardens Day#2; some animals of the gardens

In my most recent post, I celebrated Botanic Gardens Day, which this year fell on Sunday 26 May. There I introduced and celebrated a range of 18 mostly regional gardens (though briefly also touching on a couple of big city ones) across five states and territories. Today I'm going to wrap up this mini-series with a celebration of some of the animals we've enjoyed meeting in 14 different Australian botanic gardens. In this case Canberra's own Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG hereafter) features much more heavily, doubtless disproportionately so, but as a reflection of the fact that, over the decades, I've spent a lot more time there than in all the other featured gardens put together. I shall try to do better in other gardens in the future!

Male Satin Bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus violaceus snacking on Lilly Pilly berries
(Syzygium or Acmena sp.) in the ANBG.
I don't doubt that there have been bowers in the national gardens before but I've not seen them. Needless to say though these are not the only gardens with bowerbirds, and I have enjoyed the wonders of male bowerbirds displaying in their elaborately constructed and decorated performance stages in other gardens.
Male Satin Bowerbird standing proudly (and hopefully) in his bower, surrounded
by blue ornaments (all artificial in this case) at the entrance to the North Coast BG,
Coffs Harbour, north coast of NSW.

Western Bowerbird Chlamydera guttata in his impressive bower at the lovely
Olive Pink BG in Alice Springs, central Australia. This arid land bowerbird is
using traditional decorations, mostly white bones and stones, with some greenery.
I definitely wanted to show you the bower, but he deserves a better portrait too.

Alright, so he's shy about showing his face, but I especially wanted you
to see this gorgeous lilac crest, only visible when he's displaying.
That lovely soft fawn-spotted chocolate back is very attractive too.
Elsewhere in this garden, which is a particular favourite of ours, this White-plumed Honeyeater was attending the nest, just above the coffee-sippers (ie us on this occasion) at the outdoor cafe.
White-plumed Honeyeater Ptilotula penicillata with nest, Olive Pink BG, Alice Springs.
Like bowerbirds, honeyeaters arose in Australia, though both have extended into New Guinea and nearby islands. Honeyeaters make up something like 10% of Australia's breeding bird species, so it's inevitable that they'll pop up regularly in botanic gardens.
Far to the south of Alice Springs is another arid land gardens, in fact called the
Australian Arid Land Gardens Botanic Gardens, just outside Port Augusta
at the head of Spencer Gulf in South Australia. It features a bird hide facing
this bath/drinking trough, in the extensive natural area of saltbush and shrubs;
Singing Honeyeaters Gavicalis virescens, one of the commonest arid land
birds, are of course one of the major clients of this water supply.
(Here's a photo of the hide, as featured in last week's post.)

Rather more colourful, and a lot less common here than Singers are at Port Augusta,
was this exquisite male Scarlet Honeyeater Myzomela sanguinolenta in the ANBG
in Canberra feeding on an equally richly-coloured bottlebrush Callistemon sp..
The honeyeater is common enough at the coast, but infrequently makes
its way up the escarpment for a visit.
Flowers and berries are, as you might expect, good food sources for native birds in any garden. Here are a couple of different lorikeets getting stuck into nectar from two very different flowers in gardens in two different states.
Scaly-breasted Lorikeet Trichoglossus chlorolepidotus feeding on eucalypt blossom in
Goondiwindi BG, an excellent native garden on the Queensland-NSW border.
Rainbow Lorikeets Trichoglossus moluccanus are familiar urban birds everywhere
in eastern and south-eastern Australia, and are rapidly spreading inland.
This one is feeding on the numerous tiny blossoms of a flowering spike of grass-tree,
Xanthorrhoea sp., in the Wollongong BG south of Sydney.
Both these lorikeets are feeding (destructively) on both pollen and nectar.
Far to the north these Metallic Starlings Aplonis metallica are feeding on palm fruits
along the boardwalk between the Flecker Gardens and the Centenary Lakes in
the Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Another cafe bird (like the White-plumed Honeyeater above) is this male Superb Fairywren Malurus cyaneus which literally came to the table at the Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Gardens near Batemans Bay on the NSW south coast.

This was in March, and he was just finishing moulting out of his breeding finery
to be less conspicuous - and thus safer - for winter. Like the bowerbirds and honeyeaters,
he belongs to an endemic Australian family, with a couple of outliers in New Guinea.
This bird is one of the most familiar and beloved of south-eastern Australian birds.
Many other birds are, like the fairywren, drawn by the rich biota of invertebrates in a healthy garden.
Black Butcherbird Melloria quoyi, stalking the understorey of the Cairns BG,
for small reptiles as well as invertebrates.

Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis in Eurobodalla BG, looking not only
for insects, but also opportunities to parasitise the nests of smaller birds,
leaving eggs for the involuntary hosts to brood and then ultimately rear the chicks.
Here are two more birds availing themselves of the invertebrate food store of Eurobodalla.

Eastern Whipbird Psophodes olivaceus, briefly appearing in the open.

Jacky Winter Microeca fascinans waiting for lunch to fly by.
This is one of the Australian robins.
(I'm pretty sure this isn't its bower...)
Male Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula, nicely catching the sun in the ANBG.
Like the White-plumed Honeyeater above, many birds of course nest in botanic gardens which may provide some security, especially if cat control is undertaken.
White-winged Chough Corcorax melanorhamphos nest in the Australian Inland
Botanic Gardens, Buronga, south-west NSW. These belong in this list of
invertebrate-eating birds of botanic gardens, which continues below.

Papuan Frogmouth Podargus papuensis roosting in mangroves in the
Cairns Botanic Garden, beautifully camouflaged. At night they feed
mostly on large insects, usually on the ground.
More formidable predators, focussing on vertebrate prey, also inhabit gardens.

Powerful Owl Ninox strenua, which took up residence in the ANBG for some
weeks in autumn of 2007. It stayed until the supply of Sugar Gliders in particular
ran low, then moved on, but while there it was quite a celebrity. This top-order
predator elsewhere is known to prey on fruit bats, larger possums and domestic cats.
Brown Goshawk Accipiter fasciatus with an introduced Common Blackbird Turdus merula
in the Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens. As I sat on a bench the bird flew right over my
head, with still-struggling lunch in its claws, then sought a more private spot to eat it.

A few gardens birds are omnivores, like this Australian Brush-turkey Alectura lathami in the
Cairns Botanic Gardens, though I'm surprised to discover how little we know about their diet.
He was tending a mound at the time.

Some eat seeds.
Double-barred Finch Stizoptera bichenovii, Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens.
Common Bronzewing (Pigeon) Phaps chalcoptera, ANBG.
A familiar pigeon, found across virtually the entire continent, but always
a pleasure to encounter up close, especially with the sun bringing its iridescent
wing feathers to glittering life.
My last gardens bird for today is a special one for me, being the first Australian 'lifer' that I've come across in a botanic gardens (or at least for a very long time).

Spotted Whistling Duck Dendrocygna guttata, Centenary Lakes, Cairns Botanic Gardens.
They are found from the Philippines to New Guinea, and in the last couple of decades
have established a colony at Weipa up on Cape York Peninsula. However it was a real
surprise to find a small group in 2019 here, another 800k to the south-east.

Mammals are, unsurprisingly, much less frequently encountered in botanic gardens, but mostly because we're only there in the daytime. Additionally, large grazers like kangaroos and wallabies are understandably discouraged by garden managements. However, sometimes we get lucky.

Black-tailed Wallaby (or often Swamp Wallaby, though it's a misleading name) Wallabia bicolor
in the ANBG. They are browsers on shrubs, so could be a problem, but there are very few
in the gardens so unlikely to be very damaging.
Also in the ANBG, this Echidna Tachyglossus aculeata was definitely no threat to
the plants, though the ants and termites are distinctly unsafe.
Grey-headed Fruit Bat (or Flying Fox if you like, but really?) Pteropus poliocephalus,
Sydney Botanic Gardens, part of a large daytime roosting colony. This was in 2009, and
they've since been moved on. I understand the dilemma - in large numbers they can be
quite destructive to the canopy of roost trees - but they are also a nationally listed
threatened species (and were at the time of the removal). Personally they provided
one my strongest motivations to visit the gardens, but I wouldn't want to have
to make decisions on the issue either.
Reptiles live in any botanic gardens, I feel safe in asserting, albeit without actual comprehensive proof! I'm thinking especially of the numerous small skinks...
Rainbow Skink Carlia sp. (I think C. pectoralis, but am happy to be corrected),
Cooktown Botanic Gardens.
Red-throated Rainbow Skink Carlia rubrigularis, Cairns BG.
I'm a little more confident about this one...
Dragons are more conspicuous, especially the larger ones. In fact they are one of the highlights of the ANBG.
Australian Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii, ANBG. There is a thriving population
throughout the lower part of the gardens where there is permanent water.
They regularly lurk under the restaurant tables.
They're not the only dragons here though.
Eastern Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata absorbing as much of the early spring
sun in the ANBG as it can. It has flattened its body and tilted it towards the sun
to maximise exposure to the sun, and cells containing melanin have turned its
flanks almost black for greater heat absorption.
And here's another (though not closely related) water dragon,
the Northern Water Dragon Tropicagama temporalis in the Darwin BG.
Not all gardens reptiles are lizards though, of course.

Krefft's Turtle Emydura kreftii, Centenary Lakes, Cairns BG.
This turtle is found along almost the full length of the Queensland
Pacific Coast, but not south of there.

Green Tree Snake Dendrelaphis punctulatus, in the big lush conservatory, Cairns BG.
Perhaps not a great name, as it is as much at home on the ground as in trees, and isn't always green!
Common Tree Snake is another name that reflects this aspect of it. I don't know if this
one had just popped in for some reconnaissance, or if it was finding enough frogs and
skinks here to make a permanent living. A lovely encounter anyway.
And this time I'm giving the invertebrates the honour of closing the show. As you might imagine I could have offered many more photos than these, but hopefully these can satisfy. I have just noticed that a disproportionate number of these photos feature butterflies (not really apology-worthy) and were taken either in the ANBG (because that's where I spend most time) or Cairns (because it's Cairns?).
Shining Oak-blue Arhopala micale, Cairns BG. Like other blues, its
caterpillars are attended and protected by ants while they feed. It is found in
Queensland, New Guinea and throughout Melanesia to Fiji.

Red Lacewing Cethosia cydippe, Cairns BG. We can just see the distinctive big red patch
on its upper wing. This tropical butterfly is found from north Queensland to Indonesia.
Male Cruiser Vindula arsinoe, Cairns BG, with a similar distribution to
the Red Lacewing. Both these butterflies were in the steamy green and extensive
conservatory; I suspect that they were introduced there (though maybe not) but
in either case they are local species.

Imperial Jezebel Delias harpalyce, ANBG. I find it interesting that the upperside
(not visible here) is a somewhat dingy black and white. This is a common butterfly throughout
the southeast mainland. (Just noting in passing that people - English blokes? - who gave
butterflies English names seemed somewhat preoccupied with human women,
often with derogatory connotations. Keep your eye out, though now that I think
about it, it's probably not as common in Australia as elsewhere.)

Male Common Brown Heteronympha merope, ANBG. This is always a common
butterfly, but in the summer of 2022-23 (when this was taken) they were
extraordinarily abundant, literally everywhere!
Orchard Swallowtails Papilio aegeus, ANBG. Here two males (left and right) are
attending - harassing?! - a female with intent. These were in the Tasmanian
rainforest gully by the footbridge, before the gully was severely damaged
by the devastating hailstorm of January 2020.
Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi on Xerochrysum sp., ANBG.
Its proboscis, clearly visible, is probing the numerous tiny florets for nectar,
without having to burn energy in moving. See previous comment re butterfly names...
Staying in the ANBG, but moving on from butterflies though staying largely with daisies!
Common Flatwing Austroargiolestes icteromelas, ANBG, a very
common eastern Australian damselfly.

Flower spider Diaea sp., waiting on a daisy for a pollinator to alight in the ANBG.
Isn't it a beautiful camouflage?

Fly, Family Acroceridae, pollinating a daisy.

Native bee (best I can do, sorry!) collecting pollen from a paper daisy, Xerochrysum sp.

And finally, an insect from a different botanic garden, before the rumbles about local bias become too overwhelming!

A spider wasp (ie she hunts large spiders to paralyse and lay eggs on, to feed her babies),
Family Pompilidae, in the Inland Botanic Gardens, Buronga.

And that's the end of this celebration of botanic gardens, though I don't doubt there'll be more in the future. My thanks if you're still reading, I appreciate that.

In a just over a week we're planning to head off for four weeks in south-west Queensland, where we're hoping that the wet seasons of the past year or so will have relented enough for us to get to places, but left them full of flowers and breeding birds! We'll see, but whatever we find will be rewarding, and will doubtless provide material for future blog posts. The point here though is that there will a hiatus in Ian Fraser Talking Naturally, until Thursday 18 July. In the meantime you can always find more to read in past posts that you might have missed. See you then!

I love to receive your comments and in future will be notifying you personally by email when a new posting appears, if you'd like me to. All current subscribers have been added to this mailing list and have already been contacted. This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. I promise never to use the list for any other purpose and will never share it.
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