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.

Monday, 31 December 2012

As the Sun Sets on 2012...

It is traditional to review the year that is about to slip below the horizon (as my friend Martin from The House of Fran_Mart has done so comprehensively here), and I was tempted to do so, but in practice I've been working most of the day (preparing the index for a forthcoming book on Australian bird names) so I'm going to settle for some symbolic sunset shots from a variety of places. I haven't been to all these places this year!
Blanquillo Lodge, Peruvian Amazonia.
The highlight here is undoubtedly a fabulous parrot lick, but sunsets over the cocha are also a feature.
Kata Tjuta, central Australia.
You may know it as 'the Olgas', but we haven't called it that here for some time.

Waza National Park, northern Cameroon.
The Sahel is a harsh landscape, and under threat, but still beautiful.
Blackburn Island, off Lord Howe Island.
We had a delightful week on Lord Howe early this year - you've not heard the last of it!
Volcan Chacabuco, over Puerto Montt, southern Chile.
Darwin, Northern Territory of Australia; the Timor Sea hosts excellent sunsets!
Sacha Lodge, eastern Ecuador.
Lake Mburo National Park, Uganda.
Later that night there were lions around my suddenly flimsy-feeling fixed tent;
they're not supposed to be there, but of course I was glad they were. In principle...
May 2012 end happily, and 2013 dawn bright and hopeful for us all. I look forward to sharing some of it with you; my thanks for coming with me this far.

Back on Wednesday.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Oddbills 2

This occasional series began recently here. It seeks to celebrate some especially wonderful and unexpected bird bills; all bills are pretty amazing organs, but some really do make us open our mouths in astonishment at the ability of evolution to produce solutions to problems most of us probably didn't realise existed!

One such belongs to the remarkable skimmers, which comprise a small family, Rynchopidae, of three species of birds related to gulls and terns. There is one species each in Africa, the Americas and southern Asia. They have in common a most improbable-looking bill, in which the bottom mandible is dramatically longer than the top one, giving a distinctly distorted appearance. 
Black Skimmers Rynchops niger, Caulin, Isla de Chiloe, Chile.
African Skimmers R. flavirostris, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
If you click on these photos to enlarge them, you'll see what I mean.

But, why would you want such a contraption? As ever, the answer comes when you see how they use it.
Black Skimmers, Caulin.
These two are flying along steadily, just above the water, with that long lower mandible skimming (see?) the surface. When it contacts a small animal - fish or shrimp for instance - it automatically snaps shut, flipping the snack inward. Makes perfect sense then.

Nature generally does when we get an insight into why things are the way they are. I love it.

Back tomorrow for the last time in 2012!

Friday, 28 December 2012

Some Christmas orchids

Not a lot of orchids flower in our part of the world in mid-summer, but those that do are worth admiring. I'm just back, as I flagged last time, from lower elevation climes near the coast, where one of the stars, in my opinion at least, is the small genus Cryptostylis, known generally as tongue orchids for the usually long and extended labellum. They don't occur here on the highlands, but are reasonably common further east. 

I enjoy three species down there most Christmases, and this wasn't an exception. 
Tartan Tongue, or Bonnet, Orchid, Cryptostylis erecta.
Like other Cryptostylis, the flower is 'upside down', in that the labellum - the petal that acts as a landing platform
for pollinating insects - is at the top of the flower rather than the bottom as is more usual in orchids.
More on that as a topic in its own right one day!
Cow Orchid, Cryptostylis subulata.Perhaps not very romantic, but you couldn't really call it anything else...
Spotted Tongue Orchid, Cryptostylis leptochila, Fitzroy Falls, Morton National Park.
Less common than the other two, in my experience.
Another genus we associate with mid-summer are the leafless saprophytes (ie taking nutrients from roots of other plants via a fungal association) the hyacinth orchids, Dipodium.

They are found from the coast to the mountains; they can stand a metre tall on a leafless often red-black stem (no need for leaves or chlorophyll if you don't do your own photosynthesising) with up to 50 flowers, so are hard to miss!
Slender Hyacinth Orchid, Dipodium variegatum, Nowra.
Blotched Hyacinth Orchid, Dipodium puntatum, Nowra.
Rosy Hyacinth Orchid, Dipodium roseum, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.
Another that I was particularly pleased to see - the first time I've seen it in flower - is the delightful tiny epiphyte known as Myrtle Bells, because in this part of the world it is pretty much limited to the trunks of Grey Myrtle, Backhousia mytrifolia, along creek lines in drier rainforest. These flowers were barely 5mm across (which I hope partly excuses the ordinary photos!) though it had been dry and I gather they can be twice that size.
Sarcochilus hillii,  near Nowra;
whole plant (above) to give some idea of it, and a single flower (below).

Of course there are other orchids around at this time of year (and I'll be going up into the local mountains this summer in the hope of finding more to share with you) but this was pretty much what I saw this time; they made me happy though, and I hope they can do the same for you. 

Back Sunday.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Australian Christmas Trees

A touch premature perhaps, but we're about to head off for a few days for a family Christmas at Nowra (3 hours away on the Shoalhaven River, near the New South Wales south coast). 

Apart from the traditional northern hemisphere image, Christmas Tree means different things to different people in Australia, depending on where you live. In New South Wales it refers to a rainforest tree whose hitherto inconspicuous sepals develop dramatically and turn red after the petals drop.
Ceratopetalum gummeriferum, family Cunoniaceae.
Victorian Christmas Bush on the other hand (which also grows well north into New South Wales!) is a member of the mint family, with copious snowy white flowers in wet mountain gullies at Christmas time.
Prostanthera lasianthos, family Lamiaceae.
To a South Australian or Tasmanian, Christmas Bush refers to an equally prolifically white-flowered spiky shrub whose summer flowers attract hordes of native insects.
Bursaria spinosa, family Pittosporaceae.
A West Australian though would immediately think of Western Australian Christmas Tree, a wonderfully showy root parasite (a member of the mistletoe family in fact) which glows in the western heat.
Nuytsia floribunda, family Loranthaceae.
Wherever you are, and whatever this time of year means to you, may it be happy and peaceful - and full of the wonders of nature!

Back on Friday 28 December.

Friday, 21 December 2012

On This Day, 21 December; Robert Brown's birthday

Robert Brown was born in 1873, becoming a modest Scottish medical student with a passion for natural history who went on to become one of the great botanists of the early nineteenth century. At age 18 he delivered a paper on Scottish botany to the Edinburgh Natural History Society; it came to the attention of the eminent Sir Joseph Banks in distant London, who with typical generosity gave him access to his library and herbarium. In 1799 he was asked to accompany Matthew Flinders on the Investigator in a scientific expedition to New Holland which was partly prompted by the increasing activities there by major French expeditions.See here for a little more information on the expedition.

They were away from 1801 to 1805, Brown collecting assiduously while Flinders carried out the first detailed mapping of the south coast. He collected some 3,400 plant specimens, more than half of which were new to science. His best specimens were all lost when the Porpoise struck a reef while taking them back to England; Brown simply stayed on and started again. 
Blue Pincushions Brunonia australis, family Goodeniaceae; brunneus is Latin for brown, and his name
appears in this form (as well as brownii) in many Australian plant names.
Back in England he worked for five years on the specimens, becoming librarian to the Linnean Society and eventually president. He succeeded Joseph Dryander as Banks' personal librarian, and in due course inherited Banks' mighty library and herbarium, which he donated to the British Musuem, who appointed him Keeper of its Botanical Collection. His hobby was fossil plants and he donated an important collection of fossil woods to the Museum. He was also a brilliant taxonomer and a paper he read to the Linnean Society in 1809 on the family Proteaceae was remarkable in that 37 of the 38 genera he proposed are still recognised. 
Brown's Triggerplant Stylidium brunonianum, Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia.
He embraced the new technology of microscopy, and discovered the plant cell nucleus. While studying pollen grains he observed the physical principle which became known as Brownian Motion - even I remember that from long ago high school days!
Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Perth;
in older books this is called Robert Brown's Orchid.
He was also kind, modest and gentle; a close friend described him as having ‘a woman’s gentleness’. He was recognised with very major honours, both from Britain and overseas; Sir Robert Peel got parliament to grant him £200 a year. 

He almost got a lovely bird too; the Northern Rosella was originally named for him, but publication delays meant he missed out.
Northern Rosella Platycercus venustus, Darwin.
He died aged 85, having contributed more to the world than many of us could hope to. Worth remembering, I think.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

All White Again

I might as well finish off yesterday's foray into white organisms, given that I have a list other potential pictures cluttering up my desk, and I didn't say anything about how or why animals or fungi or plants - or rather flowers - are white. When a surface (living or otherwise) absorbs some light wavelengths and reflects others, it is the reflected light we see and the wavelength of that light determines what colour we interpret the object as being. White is not a wavelength or colour, but the combination of all visible wavelengths; clouds or snow look white because they reflect virtually all light. (I hasten to say that I'm no physicist, and this is the simplified version!)

A white flower is very visible to pollinators, especially in dim light - many flowers which are pollinated by night flying moths or bats are white, though many other flowers use white to be conspicuous to daytime visitors. On the other hand animals don't necessarily want to be very visible. It is relevant that very few small animals are white; for instance quite a few larger non-passerine birds are, but almost no small passerines. One situation in which white is advantageous is against a white background, and we can easily think of white Arctic animals in particular, but I've spent little time in snowy places and can't offer pictures of these beautiful beasts. 

Quite a few waterbirds are white underneath; these tend to be hunters, which don't want to be too obvious to small animals below them in water. Presumably they are harder to see from underneath against a glarey background than a dark object would be. 
Large fungi, Korup National Park, western Cameroon.
orchid Sobralia virginalis, Peruvian Amazonia.
Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia, Canberra.
Splendid Everlasting Daisies Rhodanthe chlorocephala splendida, Nallan Station, Western Australia.
Rough-barked Angophora Angophora floribunda, Araluen Valley, New South Wales.
Butterfly, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
Quilineja Luzuriaga polyphylla, Family Philesiaceae,
a beautiful wet forest climber, Alerce Andino National Park, Chile.
Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, Lord Howe Island.
Watching these seemingly impossibly white birds flying off the Malabar Cliffs on the north coast
of Lord Howe is reason enough to go there!
Lambswool Lachnostachys eriobotrya, Family Chloanthaceae, Kalarri National Park, Western Australia.
Carissa sp., Family Rubiaceae, central Cameroon.

Little Corellas Cacatua sanguinea, Bourke, New South Wales.
And on that romantic note I'll leave you to wander off, wondering whitely...

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

All White?

For no obvious reason (not to me anyway - maybe a psychologist could assist!) the thought came to me to offer some pictures featuring organisms being very white. It's nothing to do with an approaching White Christmas - it's 33 degrees C here today, with 36 degrees looming for Christmas Eve. Once I started looking, I found far more candidates than I could use today. I find white hard to photograph satisfactorily (I've mentioned before that I make no claims to being a Photographer), so bear with me...
Great Egret Ardea modesta, Canberra.
White Tern Gygis alba, Lord Howe Island. This really is one of the whitest animals I know!
Coscoroba Swan Coscoroba coscoroba, Puerto Natales, southern Chile.
Unidentified moth, Manu National Park, Peru.
Probably family Geometridae, but any suggestions welcomed!
Featherheads, Ptilotis macrocephala, Murchison River, Western Australia.
Alpine Mint-bush Prostanthera cuneata, Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales.
Eucalyptus victrix, Nallan Station, inland Western Australia.
Orchid, Stegostyla ustulata, Gungahlin Hill, Canberra.
Fungi, Korup National Park, western Cameroon.
Perhaps genus Mycena, the parasol and bonnet genus?
There is plenty of scope to continue this theme, with white and with other colours.

If that's all white with you....

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Losing It; the flightless option

Flight developed in bird-dinosaurs some 150 million years ago. It was an astonishing development, which has only happened four times in the history of life (among birds, bats, pterosaurs and insects) and which demanded some very profound adaptations. Accordingly, it seems counter-intuitive that within a few tens of millions of years some bird groups had already lost this marvellous ability; Hesperornis was a genus of several species of large flightless waterbirds whose wings had virtually disappeared by 80 million years ago. 

Why should this have happened? Not carelessness, as Oscar Wilde might have suggested. It seems to me that there are two basic reasons why an adaptation might subsequently be lost, and I think that the existence  of all flightless birds can be explained by one or the other of them. 

Firstly if an early adaptation becomes an interference with a subsequent one, it may well be selected against. Penguins are a good case in point; once the ancestral penguin began using its wings to 'fly' through water, it had to make an evolutionary 'decision' to focus on one or the other. 
Galapagos Penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) 'flying' under water.
Their short insulating plumage and flipper-like wings make flying in air impossible, but that's not nearly as important to them as being highly competent underwater.
Magellanic Penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) Seno Otway, far southern Chile.
Waterbirds from a series of totally unrelated families (which, unlike penguins, are still dominated by flying birds) have also taken the flightless option; these include grebes, auks, ducks and cormorants.
Titicaca Grebe Rollandia microptera.
This, one of only two flightless grebes, is found almost exclusively on the huge Lake Titicaca,
though some birds are found from time to time on associated smaller lakes.
Flightless Steamer Duck (Tachyeres pteneres), Isla Chiloe, Chile. Note tiny non-functional wings.
Galapagos Cormorant (Phalacrocorax harrisi); again see the obviously non-flying wings.
Another example of this principle is among the ratites - the giant flightless birds of the southern continents. Emus for instance (or their ancestors) presumably got progressively larger, perhaps to reduce the number of their predators, or perhaps to see over the grassland habitat - or both. Eventually the evolutionary question had to be answered - stop getting bigger, or give up flight? The ancestral Emu went for size. This raises another point - flightlessness removes the constraints on bird size. Emperor Penguins weigh over 45kg, Emus 55kg, Ostriches 150kg, and the extinct Elephantbirds of Madagascar and the Australian Mihirungs weighed around half a tonne!
Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), Shark Bay, Western Australia.
The wings are not obvious in this windy situation, but are retained and function as balancers while running.
The other situation in which a useful adaptation may be foregone is if the possessor finds itself in a situation where the pressures that led to it have disappeared. For instance if a bird arrived in a place where there were no enemies, then the cost of building and constructing the massive flight musculature may well not be worth while any more - especially if there was nowhere to fly to. This conundrum is encountered by birds arriving as castaways or storm refugees on a remote island, where being in the air might be more dangerous than being land-tied, with the hazards of being blown out to sea again. Such flightless island products are many - the New Zealand Kakapo is a parrot, the Dodo of Mauritius and the Solitaire of Rodriguez were pigeons, and the enigmatic Kagu of New Caledonia seems to be related to the South American Sunbitterns. Throughout the Pacific in particular there are numerous flightless rails.
Lord Howe Island Woodhen (Gallirallus sylvestris) is a large flightless rail; again the small wings are evident.
(This is a wild bird, but virtually all the population is banded for study.)
Just asking 'why?' can take us to all sorts of unexpected destinations, and we don't necessarily need to fly to get there.