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.

Friday, 31 August 2012

Wattle Day!

We're about to head off for a weekend visiting a friend in Lake Cargellico, mid-west New South Wales; I'm sure there'll be things to share when we get back. Meantime, happy Wattle Day tomorrow!
Acacia acuminata, Christmas Rock, south-west Western Australia
Acacia aneura, Mulga, south-west Queensland
Acacia cyperophylla, Minnie-ritchie, Mt Magnet, Western Australia
Acacia longifolia, Ulladulla, south coast New South Wales
Acacia mearnsii, Black Wattle, Canberra
Acacia pulchella, South Beekeepers Nature Reserve, north of Perth
Acacia tetragonophylla, Dead Finish, near Quilpie, south-west Queensland
unidentified Acacia pod, Nallan Station, near Cue, Western Australia

On This Day, 31 August

* 1699; the Roebuck, assigned by the British Admiralty to William Dampier for exploration purposes, anchored off Enderby Island, north-western Australia; the next day he began collection of the first Australian plants that would be described in English. He was also the first Englishman to describe Australian birds in the course of this trip.
The Common Noddy was one of the first Australian birds to be
illustrated and informally described, by William Dampier in 1699.
This one was across the country on Lady Elliott Island.

* 1798; Matthew Flinders and George Bass, while circumnavigating Tasmania in the Norfolk and proving the existence of Bass Strait, stopped at the Swan Islands off the north-east coast where Bass shot two ‘Barnacle Geese’ (now Cape Barren Geese).

* 1836; the Beagle stops off at the Cape Verde Islands, some 500km west of Senegal, for their penultimate stop before getting home. It was a brief stop, but it had also been their first port of call on the way out, more than 5 years previously, when Darwin expressed his excitement at being somewhere new (he had never before left Britain). In his journal he amply demonstrated his curiosity and powers of observation on animals from sea slugs to octopi. I've never been there, and probably never will, but it sounds an interesting place for a naturalist, with five endemic bird species, 12 endemic lizards (out of 15!), nearly 100 endemic vascular plant species and hundreds of endemic invertebrate species.

When is a REALLY lousy photo OK?

If your answer to that is 'never' (which would be perfectly reasonable), then look away now! I make no pretensions to being an artistic photographer, or even a particularly good one, unlike many of you. I see my photos as illustrative, to record a plant, animal, behaviour, habitat or scene that I might want to revisit, or to use for talks or courses - or now, for blogs!

My answer to the above question would be "when it's the only way to properly tell a story that I think is worth telling". Until the beginning of last year I lived on the other side of The Lake (in Canberra this is relevant) in a rented house with a very large garden - and had done so for 27 years. When it was finally time to set up home here with Lou, with a much smaller garden, one of the few things I regretted leaving behind was 'my' population of skinks in the garden. I was pretty sure the house would be sold and bulldozed for townhouses (it is very near the city and the university), so I seriously considered the unthinkable - catching some of the lizards and transferring them here. In the end I didn't, because while we were moving I discovered that we had our own skinks, in both front and back yards. I didn't need any persuasion that coming here was a Good Move, but that discovery seemed to be some sort of endorsement. For the record the skinks are Grass Skinks (Lampropholis delicata) widespread along the eastern coast and ranges, but not always found in Canberra suburbia.

Yesterday, for reasons that would be boring to relate, I was looking under the topmost of a small and unaesthetic pile of concrete roofing tiles tucked under a shrub out the front; they would have gone ages ago, but the skinks call them home. It was a miserable grey drizzly day but to my astonishment, under the flimsy shelter of the top tile were not only three skinks but a gecko! There are only two geckos in our part of the world, and both occur uncommonly in gardens, but generally only when alongside a reserve - we, sadly, are nowhere near one. Yet, here was this exquisite Marbled Gecko (Christinus marmoratus) doing us the inexpressible honour of living in our little yard! I raced in for the camera, and when I relifted the tile they were all still there, though by now burning precious energy reserves in waking up. I took three quick shots (still holding the tile in the other hand); with the dearth of light I was working at 1/8 of a second, and the flash chose to slip out to lunch at that point! (Needless to say it worked fine 5 minutes later inside.) I didn't want to harass them any more than necessary, and in any case the gecko then slipped away behind a plant container. 

I was rapt, but the photos are rubbish. They do however record the special moment for me. Share it with me if you can bear it...

Thursday, 30 August 2012

Spring Wildflowers 1

One of the things that makes the Canberra region a joy for natural historians is its seasonality; of course all of Australia has seasons of varying contrast, but not much of the continent has such a sharply defined winter-spring changeover. In this it has somewhat more in common (though of course less harshly) with northern Europe, Asia and North America than even with the nearby NSW coastal habitats. As to when spring starts, that can spark a surprising intensity of debate. For reasons I don't have at my fingertips, Australia uses the agreed Meteorological definition of the seasons, which sets the change of season at the first of September (and December, March and June), while Europe and North America use the Astronomical definition, which uses the equinoxes and solstices to mark the season kick-off. I have heard people assert quite strongly that these are the 'real' seasons, but I don't really get that - they're both human conceits. There are good reasons to define the seasons by what's actually happening, as many societies have done, and as some Australian indigenous communities (such as in the Top End) still do. This would of course mean that the dates would change from year to year, and while that seems perfectly reasonable to me, I doubt that we could cope easily with it. 

For me however, spring in Canberra is defined by the first finger orchids and that has happened! For the rest of this post I'll let the flowers do most of the talking. All photos were taken on Black Mountain, a unit of Canberra Nature Park on the edge of the city centre (our Civic), dominated by dry eucalyptus forest.

Blue Fingers, Cyanicula caerulea above,
and Dusky Fingers, Petalostylis fuscatus (often still known as Caladenia fuscata)

Blue or mauve peas dominate their family in terms of flowering at present; the sprawling climber False Sarparilla Hardenbergia violacea, at the top of the post, has been shining for a couple of weeks now, but the small erect Purple Hovea Hovea heterophylla, is another good end-of-winter indicator.
White is currently popular (I generally think of such flowers as being likely to be pollinated by night-flying moths), and the beard-heaths stand out (for more on heaths currently flowering, see the recent post in The House of Fran_mart, under Blogs I Regularly Read, opposite). It is likely that the densely hairy throats deter ants, notorious nectar thieves.

Leucopogon fletcheri, millions of individually tiny flowers
can light up a forest floor!

Another contributor to the white theme are the multi-flowered Rice Flowers; they were originally described as Banksia, for the great Sir Joseph, but it was realised then that the name had already been taken.

Pimelea linifolia; the bark fibres were valued by
Aboriginal people.

And of course wattles are prominent, as they are everywhere and always it seems. With Wattle Day only two days away (when I'll be away) it seems appropriate to showcase them here, starting with a controversial one. Cootamundra Wattle, Acacia baileyana, is native to the western slopes, a couple of hundred kilometres west of here. It is a vigorous invader of native forests, and in parts of the Adelaide Hills has become a serious pest, as it is threatening to do in parts of Canberra Nature Park. On the other hand the seeds are favoured by Superb Parrots, a threatened species.

Acacia baileyana; the name commemorates a veritable
dynasty of 19th and early 20th century Australian
government botanists.

Early Wattle, Acacia genistifolia, which having flowered through much of winter
is about to hand over the baton to less hardy wattles; the name means 'gorse-leafed'.
Lastly for today, the modest little Box-leaf Wattle is starting to play its role in the understorey.
Acacia buxifolia - the name means just 'box-leafed', with no reference
to containers. Buxus was the Latin name for an unrelated European tree;
from a resemblance to its hard timber came the name 'box' for
a group of Australian eucalypts.

And I did warn yesterday about digressions, so maybe time to leave it there, but I'll continue to offer spring flowering updates over the next couple of months. Now stop sitting inside reading this, and get out there and enjoy it!

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

British Lions

I am prompted to this by a curious story about a reported lion in rural Essex. The sighting, which doesn't appear to be a deliberate hoax, was taken seriously enough to prompt a police operation, only called off in the last few hours.

[I am not referring in my title to the rugby 'team' of the same name. What could one say about an aggregation of players from four countries; England, Scotland and Wales - which only regard themselves as separate countries when it suits - plus an unequivocally sovereign nation in the Irish Republic? (Yes I do know about the odd situation of the Irish Football Union, but this is about natural history and we already have confusion enough.) It would be like Australia and New Zealand putting up a joint team called the Australasian Leopards, though actually there would be two problems with that. One is that it's currently doubtful if an Australian could get a guernsey, but the other is material to this posting.]

There were never leopards in Australia or New Zealand, but there certainly were lions native to Britain not so long ago. Cave Lions - bigger than modern African Lions, shaggy against the cold - roamed across northern Europe until the most recent glaciation, disappearing perhaps only 10,000 years ago. During this glaciation, and previous ones, Britain and Ireland were connected to continental Europe by lower sea levels. Evidence from mainland European cave paintings suggests that these lions lived in prides but may not have sported manes. Current thinking is that Cave Lions were the same species as living lions, Panthera leo, though they have also been called Panthera spelaea, giving them full species ranking. They also crossed the Bering Strait into North America, where a large long-legged lion developed.
While one might assume that a lioness in Queen Elizabeth
National Park was English, this one is in fact Ugandan.

Cave Lions would certainly have cohabited with early Brits; humans (ie of genus Homo, not necessarily Homo sapiens) have been in Britain for perhaps 800,000 years, though it seems that they came and went at least eight times as sea levels and temperatures rose and fell. The current continuous occupation phase started only 12,000 years ago, so it is quite likely that Stone Age British encampments shared something with a modern African game park - the thrilling vibrating nocturnal rumble of a male lion stating his claims. (They would not have shared the presence of a nice reassuring boundary fence though, which changes everything.)

In the end though, the people stayed and, for reasons unclear, the lions disappeared. Or did they? Is the Essex lion a swirl of the imagination, a most unusually large domestic cat (as claimed by some and emphatically rejected by the witnesses), or a Cave Lion that stepped through a wrinkle in time? For now it seems to be lion low. After all, as the Eagles explained, there ain't no way to hide those lion eyes.
As a final digression - and you need to get used to digressions here -
these blokes were just a couple of hundred metres away from the lion, and yes,
that is a supposedly feared Cape Buffalo just behind them! There were also
Nile Crocodiles and Hippos a few hundred metres in the other direction.
Kazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda 2010

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

From Lord Howe to our bathroom; frond memories

We share our bathroom (there's still just room for us) with a refugee. Other people give homes and new lives to condemned dogs in pounds; we did likewise with a Kentia Palm which was deemed too scruffy and ignoble to go on gracing the office hire-plant circuit. I've not had much to do first-hand with house plants, partly due to what has been a somewhat peripatetic lifestyle in the past, and partly because my own gardening bias has always been towards Australian native plants. Lou brought this one home, but I'd have been happy to welcome it anyway. It's Australian (its home of origin is legally Australian anyway) and we had a very happy week on its ancestral island earlier this year and enjoyed walks in forests of its fellows. 

Kentias live naturally only on Lord Howe Island, that wonderful lump of volcanic rock which burst from the Pacific only 7 million years ago. The thing about such oceanic islands of course is that they started with no land life at all; everything that lives there arrived by air or by sea from somewhere else, and by evolution changed over time to unique forms. I love such islands, in part because I'm fascinated by the origins of their inhabitants and the high degree of endemicism (endemics are species found nowhere else - nearly half the plant species of Lord Howe are endemic). The Kentia Palm (Howea forsteriana) is one of just two species of the genus Howea, both of which are restricted to Lord Howe; their closest relatives form a large sub-group of the palm family found throughout the south-western Pacific, including the familiar southern Australian Bangalow Palm. Their ancestors then could have arrived from either Australia or New Zealand, or conceivably further afield, the seeds either being carried by birds or floating. Kentia fruits are now hard, but those of their ancestors need not have been. 

Kentia Palm and Banyan forest, Lord Howe Island
The name is a bit of an anachronism; the genus was originally Kentia, and applied until quite recently to half a dozen species of palm, especially in New Guinea. It was named for William Kent, a gardener and assistant to Caspar Reinwardt, Dutch botanist, Javan expert and general Renaissance Man who kept Napoleon's Amsterdam menagerie, and who collected in the region. That name (Kentia) is now deemed illegitimate, and the name Howea (for the island) became available. I assume that forsteriana was for Johann Forster, fill-in naturalist on Cook's second Pacific expedition after Banks pulled out; he was a competent scientist, but it's not easy to find anyone who had a good word for him apart from that.

But how, beyond the immediate events, did it turn up in our bathroom? The mid-19th century was a time of immense European interest in exotic plants, especially those which would survive indoors. Kentias are surprisingly tolerant of cool temperatures, drying and low light levels, and a thriving Lord Howe industry in Kentia Palm seeds arose. This export industry, now tightly controlled and based solely on nursery-grown seedlings, ranks with tourism as Lord Howe's major economic support base. Kentia Palms are now the most popular decorative palms in the world - there's a good chance you live or work alongside one!

From here I can envisage future articles on Lord Howe, on other oceanic islands (such as the Galรกpagos) and on familiar domestic plants in their original settings. So much that's bloggable, so little time...
Kentia Palm trunk, Lord Howe Island