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, 8 November 2012

Off to the Sacha Rainforest Tower; back in 4 weeks!

Well, actually I'm visiting a lot of the rest of Ecuador too, but it's one place I'm especially looking forward to, not least because I dread high places, and this walkway (linking three fifty metre high towers) was so amazing - and stable - that I forgot to be scared. 

Epiphytes high above the canopy.
The tower is owned by Sacha lodge, a beautiful and sensitively run ecotourism lodge on the edge of the superb Yasuní National Park.

The experience of being above - and alongside - the primary rainforest canopy was totally absorbing in itself; we spent hours there, including watching a tropical storm coming and passing over.
In the midst of the storm (above) and the rising mist in its wake (below).

However the real thrill is the parade of life that comes past, apparently oblivious to us watching. Here are just a few examples.
Masked Tanager; there is a seemingly endless parade of glorious tanagers everywhere in Ecuador.

Bare-necked Fruit-crow.
Blue-throated Piping-Guan.
Double-toothed Kite; this bird approved of the provision of the cables as a convenient
perch to bring a succession of canopy lizards to munch on.

Gilded Barbets.
Ivory-billed Aracaris; the aracaris form a group of small toucans.
Black-mantled Tamarin; small monkey, not very close...
I'll have lots more to talk about in the coming months from this trip, as well as on lots of other things; please don't forget me in my absence!


Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Marvellous Monga

I very recently spent a day in one of my favourite parks (though admittedly there are quite a few of those!). One of the reasons I'm so fond of Monga though, is that for a while there it looked as though we might lose it to logging. Thanks to the unflagging efforts of a very passionate and determined group of people in the 1980s and 90s, researching, lobbying, even taking direct action in the forest when dialogue and science seemed to be failing, the park was declared, comprising 26,000 hectares of state forest, in 2001. By then the sawmill had already closed, after decades of over-cutting. 

It sits on top of the coastal escarpment; immediately inland lie the frosty grasslands of the Monaro Plains, but as the moist coastal air climbs the scarp and meets the lower temperatures higher up, rain results, enabling wet eucalypt forests and even rainforest to thrive. Ferns are a feature.
Wet eucalypt forest over Soft Tree Ferns (Dicksonia antarctica)
One of the highlights of the Monga year is the flowering of the Monga Waratah (Telopea mongaensis), which occurs in early November. There are five species of Telopea, in the old Gondwanan family Proteaceae, closely related to the Notros of Patagonia. This one is not limited to the Monga, despite the name, but its small distribution is centred on here. 
Waratah flower heads comprise a cluster of individual bright red flowers sitting on a disc,
clumped for greater visibility to the birds which pollinate them.
There will be more on waratahs in a future posting!

Perhaps the most important aspect of the Monga however is the unusual and ancient cool temperate rainforest, a direct legacy of Gondwana, dominated by Pinkwood (Eucryphia moorei); other Eucryphias are found in Tasmania (where they produce the famous Leatherwood honey) and in Chile. 
Pinkwood, Monga National Park, above and below.

Another thing that gives me a particular affinity to the Monga relates to a rather shocking coincidence. When I first visited in 1986, we stumbled on the aftermath of what felt at the time like a massacre. Illegal tree fern cutters had been in the previous night, taking scores of old tree ferns out to sell probably at markets in Sydney; the fresh leaves littered the ground among the cut-off stumps. Tree ferns grow only from the tip, so while the plundered logs would have regrown, the remaining stumps were dead. This killing ground forms the focus of a beautiful board walk installed and interpreted by the New South Wales National Parks Service; poignantly, they have called it Penance Grove. The dead stumps are a constant reminder of that dark day.
Penance Grove, Monga National Park.
 There are however still many living ferns to celebrate.
Rough Tree Fern, Cyathea sp.
Soft Tree Fern fronds unfurling.
The Mongarlowe River runs through the centre of the Park.
Spent Waratah flowers floating in the Mongarlowe River.
The Monga is also a wonderful place for bird-watching; wherever you are, there's a yellow robin.
Eastern Yellow Robin.
Why not go and visit her? Not to mention all the other delights of this very special place.

(The turnoff to the park is clearly marked, just over 20km south-east of Braidwood along the Kings Highway to Batemans Bay. The edge of the park is just 2km in, along a good all-weather gravel road.)

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

On This Day, 6 November; a little Australian made a surprise return!

Twenty years ago today, in 1992, a small miracle happened on a roadside in the rolling grassy hills near Burra in the mid-north of South Australia. An amateur herpetologist stopped for a road-killed Eastern Brown Snake and, as you (apparently) do, cut it open to see what it had been eating. Fortunately it is a world where a great number of different sorts of people live... Anyway, to everyone's astonishment, what it had been eating turned out to be a Pygmy Bluetongue Lizard Tilique adelaidensis.

We were astonished because the species had last been seen 33 years previously in the Adelaide suburb of Marion, and we had given up and said our goodbyes. The bluetongues are a group of large skinks, some of them among Australia's most familiar lizards; here are a few of the others.
Blotched Bluetongue (T. nigrolutea), Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.
Shingleback Lizard (T. rugosa), Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Australian Capital Territory.

Western Bluetongue (T. occipitalis), Pinnacles National Park, Western Australia.
The Pygmy Bluetongue however, at just 90mm long, is well under a third of their size. Another difference is that it has a pink tongue! Oh well... Its diminutive nature is better appreciated when we realise that its favourite dwelling place is the burrow of a wolf or trapdoor spider; once it has ousted the rightful owner it lurks in the mouth of the burrow and seizes passing insects and spiders. We're still learning more about it, though we know that, like other bluetongues, it gives birth to live young. 
Pygmy Bluetongue, courtesy Regional Council of Goyder.
They are mostly children of the grasslands, and ploughing, cropping, overgrazing and changed fire regimes have all contributed to their decline. All the known populations are on private property and landowners are working with government to work out how to conserve them; surveys are being conducted for new populations, and fliers and other advertising have been produced to encourage people in the district to look out for them. For now though, it's cause for celebration that we've been given an opportunity this time to make some amends for past mistakes.

Monday, 5 November 2012

When it All Gets a Bit Much...

Today has been somewhat fraught; you don't want or need to know the details, but the seemingly pernicious actions of a certain South American airline have a lot to do with it...

Accordingly I'm feeling well and truly wrung out, and don't think I can manage the story I had in mind. Instead it occurred to me that I have a few photos of various animals whose demeanours more or less reflect my state of mind at present; maybe, having looking at them, you might sympathise and forgive my lack of a narrative today.
Green Ringtail Possum, Atherton Tableland, Queensland.
Three-toed Sloth and baby, Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

Galapagos Sea Lion, Puerto Ayora.
Nile Crocodile and Cape Buffalo, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
Social Flycatchers, Amazonia Lodge, Peru.
Hippos, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
Marine Iguana, Isla Isabela, Galapagos.
Striped Ground Squirrel, Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda.
Common Bronzewing Pigeon, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.
Chimpanzee, Kibale National Park, Uganda.
Tomorrow I look forward to being refreshed and with more to offer!

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Odd Bathfellows

This one falls into the category of 'not realising what you've got until later'. Three grumpy old bachelor bull Cape Buffaloes were sharing a very muddy wallow near a track in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda. They weren't particularly thrilled to be ogled, and mentioned as much to us. 

I liked the snap of the bloke tossing his head at us - and even more when I saw the bullfrog (so-called by our very knowledgeable South African guide) in the foreground. I wouldn't have thought it was an attractive waterhole to him, but maybe he just liked the company.

Back tomorrow!

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Narky Guanacos

One of the features of the wonderfully wild Torres del Paine National Park in the Patagonian region of southern Chile, is what is probably the greatest remaining concentration of wild Guanacos, Lama guanicoe. This elegant camelid is one of only four living wild species; the only other South American one is the even rarer dainty little Vicuna from further north. (The domestic Llama was derived from wild Guanacos some 4,000-4,500 years ago; it is now given its own species name, but we needn't go there today!)

While an estimated 500,000 Guanacos survive, this is estimated to be only 0.1% of the pre-European population. Alienation of land and direct persecution by herders jealous of 'their' grazing resources are the key causes of this crash.

In summer, dominant males stand on elevated ground in their territory to watch for rivals; solitary males roam the fringes of the territories testing for weaknesses, and are met by a furious incumbent charging down the slopes. Most of the literature suggests that clashes, while violent, are not necessarily protracted, but that wasn't our experience one November afternoon a couple of years ago. My impression was that the two were unusually evenly matched; in fact I couldn't be sure which was the resident. 

When we arrived the two were already matted with mud, having wrestled each other to the boggy ground more than once. Support to my belief that this was a very even contest came with the observation that from time to time the role of aggressor was reversed, and after a protracted and surely exhausting chase and vicious tussle, when I thought it must be nearly over, the pursued turned the tables and became the pursuer.

The actual conflicts were savage, biting and wrestling each other down, over and again, even in the middle of the road on one occasion.

Their stamina and determination was astonishing. In the end we had to drive on, but they were still racing and brawling as determinedly as ever.

We weren't the only spectators, and of course the females had a lot more riding on the outcome than we did!
(As a final observation, I couldn't help comparing this frank scrutiny with the response of one of our group. Having announced that he couldn't bear to watch, "I don't like this sort of thing", he was observed surreptitiously peeping out from behind the bus. It takes all sorts as they say, both among humans and Guanacos.)

Friday, 2 November 2012

Spring Wildflowers (6)

This will be the last in this series, mostly because I'm heading off to Ecuador next week, and won't be back until early summer. For posting number 5 see here; further links to earlier ones can be found there. The main orchid season is winding down around Canberra, though there are still some nice ones around (and some still to come).

Mountain Beard Orchid, Calochilus montanus, Black Mountain.
A striking and and uncommon orchid which may also be found in the ranges, up to about 1000 metres above sea level.
A much commoner one is the Slender Sun Orchid; last time I featured a rare pink version, but here's the 'standard' form.
Thelymitra pauciflora, Black Mountain.
Another uncommon one locally is a widespread shrub, Kangaroo Apple; the flowers tell us immediately that it is closely related to tomatoes, potatoes etc in the family Solanaceae.
Solanum linearifolium, Black Mountain.
The rest of today's feature plants are all yellow, starting with two species of Guinea Flower.
Hibbertia calycina above, and H. obtusifolia below.
The flowers are almost identical, but the leaves are very different.
The genus was named for George Hibbert, a London merchant and anti-slavery MP who lived from 1757 to 1837.
He had a private botanic garden at Chelsea, where he was one of the first to grow Australian plants, though his chief passion was for South Africa where he maintained his own private collector for five years.
Henry Charles Andrews, who named the genus in 1800, described him as "one whose knowledge and fervour in botanical pursuits, as well as liberality in his endeavours to enrich our collections, from every quarter of the globe .... has not been exceeded by any".
Other sources suggest that this might contain a modicum of hyperbole.

Finally Ivy Goodenia is an attractive little ground cover which can be found from local forests to the high mountains. The person it was named for - the Reverend Samuel Goodenough, Bishop of Carlisle - warrants his own story, and I shall oblige in due course.
Goodenia hederacea, Black Mountain.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

On This Day, 1 November; Francesco Borone's deathday

On this day in 1794, in Athens, a very talented young field botanist met a tragic death; furthermore it was a death that has become enveloped in mythology and mystery. His name was Francesco Borone, and he was the protegé of the great English patron of botany, Sir James Smith. Four years later Smith fulfilled a promise he made on hearing of Borone's death, and named a genus of very beautiful Australian shrubs for him; the flowering of Boronia is one of the highlights of spring in many parts of southern Australia.
Boronia floribunda, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
The waxy four-petalled flowers are unusual and readily identified.

Originally employed by Smith as a domestic servant, Borone soon showed his interest and intelligence and became a valued botanical field assistant. With Smith's recommendation, he accompanied the eminent Swedish botanist Adam Azelius to Sierra Leone then, fatefully, went with the great John Sibthorp to Greece to collect for the monumental Flora Graecae. Recovering from a bout of fever (which may have been something he picked up in west Africa) he appears to have sleep-walked out of a narrow hotel bedroom window high above the street. It sounds an odd tale, but we have Sibthorp's direct account in a letter written the same day to Smith. Unless Sibthorp and at least two assistants and companions of Borone were in some strange conspiracy - and there is no reason to suppose such a thing - the bizarre accident seems to have been just that. (Sibthorp also speculated that it was possible that Borone had mistaken the window; he was used to stepping out of the one across the room to walk on the hotel terrace.)
Boronia algida, at high altitude in Tinderry National Park, New South Wales.
Boronia is in the family Rutaceae, like citrus fruit. And like oranges and lemons the leaves
of many Boronia species have pungent oils with scents that different people find pleasant or repugnant.

People seem unable to resist rewriting history however, and there has been a fairly impressive smoke screen puffed across the years to confuse things. For instance in 1895 botanist Joseph Maiden, in his significant book Flowering Plants and Ferns of New South Wales, wrote that Borone found a plant "in a situation difficult of access, and in spite of the doctor's warnings, Borone endeavoured to secure the prize for him, but alas! overbalanced himself and was killed". This sounds suspiciously like a Victorian piece of bowdlerisation; presumably Maiden didn't believe Sibthorp's account of how Borone came to exit the window!

Boronia coerulescens, Wanilla Conservation Park, South Australia.

Even worse was Myrtle Rose White's account in her 1932 memoir No Roads Go By. "Yellow-cupped, heavenly-scented berona. ... it is said that is named in honour of a young Italian, Francis Borone, who, when studying flowers in Western Australia, attempted to gather a fine specimen of the shrub and, losing his balance, fell over a precipice to his death." It would be interesting to know who said this, because it is a fabulously bewildering farrago of nonsense. Borone never came to Australia, and never saw a boronia (nor did the name exist in his life). The Western Australian species she describes (B. megastigma) was not the one on which the genus was based (which was a pink-flowering New South Wales species sent to Smith); in fact it wasn't named until 1873...

Fantasy can be fun, but why bother when the real story is so good anyway?

Ciao Francesco; I'm sorry you didn't get to see your flowers.