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.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Learning From Experience; wattlebird and banksia

A feature of our small yard is a magnificent big Silver Banksia tree (Banksia marginata), planted just outside the fence but leaning strongly over it. A local species (the only local Banksia) it flowers profusely from autumn through winter. 

The honeyeaters love it, and the big aggressive Red Wattlebirds move in and vigorously stake an exclusive claim to it. (These are not red, and don't live in wattle trees... Rather, they have red wattles, like a chook - that's a hen in Australia!)
Red Wattlebird; the red wattle can be seen just below the white cheek patch.
By now however the flowers have finished, leaving only drying spikes bereft of nectar and pollen. As we sat out on the balcony the other evening, we noticed that a young wattlebird - not long fledged - hadn't realised that the bounty had finished and was determined that a bit more effort would produce the reward that it had obviously learnt to expect.
Young Red Wattlebird; the pink gape behind the beak, the lack of wattles and big white cheek triangle,
the grey (not yellow) belly, seen below, and the general 'fluffy' appearance are giveaways.
And it did put a lot of effort in, though it couldn't have been getting anything in return.

Finally, as dusk was falling, it gave up. However it must have been watching when an adult flew in for a quick probe, as it came back for another try; unlike the experienced elder it again persisted for a while. It seems that previous experiences were so good that their memory outweighed its current frustration. 

I've not seen it since, so presumably the lesson has finally been learnt.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

When Hoppers Start Flying; the amazing plague locust story

Locust plagues have been reported - and feared - since at least Biblical times. What we have not done, until very recently, is understand them. In recent decades that has changed, due in large part to the CSIRO (the Australian national science institution, for those reading from elsewhere).

'Locust' is a curious term referring not to a species, but to an even more curious life form; some grasshoppers can be locusts sometimes. In Australia just four arid land grasshopper species (plus others elsewhere in the world) can perform the trick. They are normally solitary and sedentary, but in some specialised conditions they suddenly increase dramatically in number, start to move in vast numbers, eating hundreds of tons of vegetation per day. Individuals change in colour, size and behaviour when in high densities compared with when they are solitary; the term is kentromorphism!

Spur-throated Locust, Austracris guttulosa, south-west Queensland;
all the following photos were taken in this general area.

It is all to do with the uncertainties of living in deserts, especially those ruled by El NiƱo. Normally the female lays about 40 eggs in a hole drilled into hard open ground between patches of vegetation, scattered over vast areas. In drought they are forced into smaller and smaller moist areas eg at the foot of dunes, in soaks etc. Eggs are laid closer and closer together, until there may be 3,000 holes per square metre, ie there may be a thousand million eggs per hectare – that’s a lot of little grasshoppers!

Spur-throated Locusts.
What’s more, they only hatch in favourable conditions (no point in emerging in a drought), so they may sit in the ground for years until the right conditions come along, then all hatch simultaneously. When such large numbers hatch at once, a behavioural change occurs, apparently induced by developing in close proximity to lots of other little grasshoppers. In such circumstances they seem to need company, which they don’t if they’ve hatched separately. They also look different – darker pigments form in the skin, so they absorb more of the sun’s heat, so are more active, so in turn must eat more. All this leads towards a swarm. 
Locust swarm; in fact this was just a tiny part of a swarm that we drove through for hours.

Having unusually high internal energy levels from the sun, and from increased eating, forces them to keep moving, so they must keep eating. Under normal circumstances these great swarms are driven by the winds into south-eastern Australia; when the wind speed exceeds 11kph, they move with it. As they move into cooler areas, they stop moving and eventually all die. Meantime they’ve been laying eggs as they go, which until the next drought changes things, will hatch as 'normal' grasshoppers.

For obvious reasons the swarms are dreaded by anyone relying on growing plants, but there are always good reasons for understanding a phenomenon. This one is an adaptation to the 'boom and bust' nature of desert living - spread when conditions are good, contract and survive when they’re not. It is a perfectly natural event, and as wonderful a survival mechanism as any in all of nature.