About Me

My photo
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.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Farewell to 2013!

It hardly seems that long since I was saying goodbye in this blog to 2012, via a series of sunset photos. It would be altogether too corny and unoriginal to do that again, but I'm definitely running down for the year, so have decided to settle on a few of my favourite photos from the year. As ever, I make no claims as to the quality of my pics, but rather they are selected, just one per month, as ones that bring back particular memories.
Geckoes are not common in Canberra - winters are probably too cold for a start - and the lovely Marbled Gecko Christinus marmoratus is rarely seen away from rocky areas around the urban fringes. We were delighted then when this beauty appeared on the outside wall one night last summer when we were sitting out in our little back yard enjoying the warm evening.
In February we spent a weekend at the top of Australia (yes, I know it's only 2300 metres above sea level, but it's our highest point!). The weather was very atmospheric (cold, windy, wet) but it really did make for a special experience. These lovely Alpine Gentians Gentianella muelleriana in the mist through drops on the lens bring it back for me.
More on the trip here, and in subsequent postings.
The Australian National Botanic Gardens is a favourite desination of mine when in town.
Taken in the rainforest gully at the gardens, with the misters on, on a warm early autumn morning.
In April we set off for a wonderful holiday to the dry centre of Australia. Our first camp was in Bladensburg National Park in central Queensland (which will get its own posting soon), and this dawn photo brings back memories of silence and isolation, other than the Red-winged Parrots and goannas which were among the camp visitors.
Bough Creek Waterhole, Bladensburg National Park.
Our camp, among the Coolabah trees Eucalyptus coolabah, can just be seen on the left bank.
From there we progressed into the Northern Territory, and from a demanding crowd of photos clamouring to be chosen I couldn't really go past one of magnificent Uluru, part of Australia's heart and soul.
Uluru sunset, from a long series. This is the moment that the shadow of the horizon begins its rapid rise up the wall.
To be honest I didn't have many options to choose from in June, but this one (or rather two, but please think of them of two parts of one photo!) of a tiny female Superb Fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus taking a full plunge on a very chilly winter day in our back yard bath appeals to me.

Superb Fairy-wren female, about to (re)plunge above,
and totally submerged below.

Ironically, given all the ones I've had to omit, I seem not to have taken any photos at all in July! At least I feel more justified in using two above...
We indulged in a delightful romantic weekend at a remote little one-room cottage (no power) at the edge of the Deua National Park in southern New South Wales, prior to a very busy spring. One highlight was this visitor just outside one night.
Ring-tailed Possum Pseudocheirus peregrinus in Black Wattle Acacia mearnsii.
This month I took a tour to south-west Western Australia; the task of choosing just one image from this treasure-house was almost too much, but this orchid was a special find.
Arachnorchis nivalis, bizarrely known as the Exotic Spider Orchid! Apart from its breathtaking crimson on snowy white colouring, it grows only on the edge of the sea - sometimes almost in the spray zone among the limestone - along a very few kilometres of coast in Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park.
By now I had the privilege of accompanying a group to Ecuador, so choosing one picture for the month is almost a lottery. This one however brings back good memories of hours spent in towers high above most of the canopy in the Amazon.
Purple-throated Fruitcrow Querula purpurata, a very handsome cotinga 50 metres above the ground,
Sacha Lodge, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
I do like the juxtaposition of the spider web too, though of course it was total serendipity.
Still in Ecuador and so hard to choose just one. However the memory of totally unexpected time sitting in a canoe in a little creek in Yasuni National Park, again in Amazonia, entranced by the antics of a family of Giant Otters Pteronura brasiliensis, made the decision for me.
Giant Otter, one of a family of this sadly Endangered species which gave me, and others, huge pleasure at very short range from a small canoe.
Finally, ending where I began, in our little suburban yard. Just a couple of weeks ago I chanced to look out of my study window and saw an unfamiliar shape land in a tree along the back fence, separating us from a public park. I was surprised and delighted to recognise it as a Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus, an elegant small goshawk which is quite at home in suburbia, though we don't always expect it in our yard! It was lurking under cover to enjoy its meal of an introduced House Sparrow - I'd be happy for it to come back daily for those! - but allowed me to approach quite close before taking dinner elsewhere.
Collared Sparrowhawk in our back yard - with sparrow!
I hope you have as many good memories of 2013 as I have. Thank you for taking the time to read these postings, I do appreciate the honour you do me. May 2014 bring you health and happiness and lots of natural pleasures - I hope to have the chance to share some of mine with you again.


Friday, 20 December 2013

Lek it or Not; where blokes show off

Nature has come up with a wealth of ways to achieve the most pertinent end of all - ensuring that your genes are passed on to the next generation, and preferably to a greater extent than those of your neighbours. One of the most impressive of these mating systems, from a spectator's point of view, is the lek, where hopeful males gather to display in competition, with the prize-winners being chosen by selective females, who ensure his gene line will continue on, in combination with their own.

The word is from Swedish, and referred originally to the display areas and gatherings of various grouse species, where the males gather in dozens to show off their finery and make a lot of noise. (If this reminds you of certain social situations involving young human males, there may be a reason for that too...) In many leks - perhaps even most - most of the  females' selection process is done for them, with the most successful males taking up position in the centre of the display area. It is no coincidence that these positions are the safest, with predators inevitably drawn to the edges of the performance. It is certainly to the females' benefit not to have to travel far to compare the talent on offer, and for said talent to sort out their rankings for her to inspect. The benefit to successful males is clear, though the also-rans may miss out entirely.

In the case of the Cocks-of-the-Rock, two species of outlandishly attired South American cotingas, the prize positions at the centre of the lek are determined by a series of one-on-one display contests between males, with winners edging ever closer to the middle. 

Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruvianus, San Pedro area, southern Peru.
These brilliant colours come at a cost, as the carotenoids can only be obtained from fruits, then converted, by expenditure of much energy. More about this here.
Further, when a female (below) arrives, a frenzy of flapping and harsh calling erupts, again expending energy. They can ill afford to leave the lek to feed while others are present, lest they lose their spot.
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock female, Aguas Calientes, Peru.
She has no need to spend lavishly on gorgeous attire.
Another cotinga which forms leks is very familiar to movie-goers, even if they don't realise it. The startlingly loud call was used in every Tarzan movie, and most movies since then that featured rainforests, regardless of the continent! You can hear a selection of their calls here; I'd recommend the second and third ones as being pretty typical. Again such huge calls are at great cost, which is the point of the exercise - he is telling the world how strong he is, and what an appropriate father he'd be.
Screaming Piha male Lipaugus vociferans - love that species name! - Yasuni NP, Ecuador.
Here the display is purely aural, so no sartorial extravagance is required.
Still in South America, many of the hermit group of hummingbirds also engage in lekking, albeit not quite so spectacularly as cocks-of-the-rock or pihas. Males gather together, in dozens sometimes, in traditional lek sites, singing and tail waggling when a female approaches. Both of the species illustrated below are known to form leks.
White-whiskered Hermit Phaethornis yaruqui, Mindo Valley, north-west Ecuador.

Great-billed Hermit Phaethornis malaris, Yasuni NP, Ecuadorean Amazon.
Deep in the shadows of the rainforest floor is not a good place for clear photos - sorry!

Some African antelopes also practise lekking, though it seems that for them this is only one strategy. In species including Uganda Kob and Topi, some males form a traditional territory with good resources and try to attract females to it, while others form leks on relatively bare areas - of little other value - and fight to attain the coveted central positions. Because of the lack of resources males cannot maintain their position in the lek for very long. Females visit regularly, and make for the centrally located males; they will fight other females for the privilege of mating with these desirable males, especially in Topi where the females are only receptive for one day a year! ('Topi' are now regarded as comprising several species of the genus Damaliscus.)
Korrigum female and male Damaliscus korrigum, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
Previously regarded as a sub-species of Topi or Tsessebe.
Uganda Kob male Kobus thomasi, Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda.
He is lekking, in typically sparse grassland, unattractive as a permanent territory.
(And if were prone to anthropomorphism, I might suggest he is looking very pleased with his position of honour on the Ugandan coat of arms.)
In the 1990s Galapagos Marine Iguanas Amblyrhynchus cristatus became the first reptile to be added to the list of 'lekkers'; in summer males gather on lava platforms to display and attract females.

Male Marine Iguanas, Isla Espanola, Galapagos.

Male frogs gather to call competitively, as do cicadas; many butterfly species indulge in 'hilltopping' where males compete for the sites closest to the top of a hill, where they display for females. All these are forms of lekking.
Macleay's Swllowtail Graphium macleayanum, a species which forms leks over mountain tops in Namadgi National Park high above Canberra.
Then there is a form of lekking known as 'exploded lekking', where the displaying males are far apart, but compete by loud calling. The most-cited of these is the wonderful but sadly critically endangered flightless New Zealand parrot the Kakapo which emits far-carrying booms - all night for up to four months, at great cost. Another apparent example is the Australian Musk Duck Biziura lobata, which splashes loudly and whistles and grunts, being audible and visible from far across the water.
Musk Duck male, south of Canberra.
I hope you've found this of some interest - at worst I've had fun writing it!

I'm off for a few days out of town over Christmas, but will be back soon with more offerings for your delektation.


Tuesday, 17 December 2013


I recently received a request from a loyal reader for a posting on Ecuadorian orchids - I am flattered to be asked, so here is my offering on that daunting subject. 'Daunting' because Ecuador, incredibly, boasts some 4000+ orchid species, and there is no accessible guide to them that I'm aware of. Hence I can at best offer you genus names - bear in mind, if you will, that Sobralia, Elleanthus and Odontoglossum each have well over 100 species, Pleurothallis has more than 500 (though until recently it was more than double that) and Epidendrum more than a thousand. As ever, any suggestions you can make as to identification of what follows will be gratefully received and acknowledged. 

Unlike the situation in temperate Australia (and elsewhere) most of the species are epiphytes.

Probably the richest orchid habitats in Ecuador are the cloud forests of the slopes of the Andes.
Cool mountain cloud forest, El Cajas National Park. This is a superb park high in the Andes above the World Heritage town of Cuenca in southern Ecuador.
These forests grow from 2000 to 3500 metres above sea level and are rich in orchids.

Cloud Forest, Paz de las Aves, Mindo Valley. These forests of the north-west slopes of the Andes are part of the Choco Bioregion, recognised as one of the most biodiverse in the world.
Yanacocha Reserve, on the northern slopes of Pichincha Volcano, on the other side of which lies sprawling Quito. The cloud forests, including the high altitude 'elfin forests', are protected by a foundation. This photo was taken at 4000 metres above sea level.
To add to the complications, many of the species grow and flower high above our heads in the forest canopy. Anyway, enough excuses - enjoy some orchids with me!

Elleanthus sp., El Cajas NP.

Epidendrum sp., El Cajas NP, above and below.

'Mosquito Orchid' El Cajas NP. This was the only name I could elicit for this one, and I can't pin it down any further.
Odontoglossum sp., El Cajas NP.
This genus produces some huge sprays of up to hundreds of flowers on spikes a metre or more long.
Odontoglossum sp., Yanacocha Reserve.
Pleurothallis sp., El Cajas NP.
These delightful orchids have flowers which only appear to grow out of the leaf!
Sobralia sp., El Cajas NP.
Then there are some which I can't even assign to a genus; over to you, if you'd be so kind...
Unidentified orchid, Pacha Quindi, Tandayapa Valley, north-western cloud forests.
This was growing close to the ground in a magnificent area of regenerated forest - formerly cow pasture.

Unidentified orchid, Paz de las Aves.

Unidentified orchid, El Cajas NP.
In the Amazon basin I have seen surprisingly few orchids, but I'm sure that this is simply because they are far above our heads, as in the case of the one in the photo below growing on the branches of a huge old Kapok Tree. It is only accessible because Sacha Lodge has built a viewing platform in the tree, 45 metres above the ground. The photos that precede the orchid indicate both the distance above the ground that this orchid is growing, and the incredible richness of these epiphytic gardens, which support hundreds of orchid species generally unseen by human eye. 

Unidentified orchid, 45 metres above ground level in a Kapok Tree, Sacha Lodge.
I hope this brief and incomplete snapshot of a few of the Ecuadorean orchids gives you some pleasure, and ideally an extra reason to go there one day! And if you have any (sensible and polite!) requests for future postings, I'm very happy to consider them.


Thursday, 12 December 2013

Genovesa: Tower of the Galápagos. Part 2.

Last time I found that there was more rhapsodising to do about wonderful Genovesa than I could politely fit into one posting, so I desisted after talking about some of the seabird treats, leaving its other wonders for another day. That day is here.

It's probably fair to say that most of us wouldn't make the considerable journey there just to admire the vegetation and landscapes, though the arid environments of the Galapagos, sun-baked and often growing out of pure lava, are in themselves fascinating and rapidly become compelling. Unexpected combinations of organisms, penguins and tropicbirds for instance, are the norm for the Galapagos, but I find cactus alongside mangroves to be equally wondrous.
Prickly Pear cactus Opuntia spp. juxtaposed to Red Mangrove Rhizophora mangle. I can understand why the Swallow-tailed Gulls find it perfectly normal, but I'm delighted by the concept.

The mangroves don't follow the cactus inland - even in the Enchanted Isles, as the Galapagos were once known! - but here the tough deciduous Palo Santo is prevalent.
Low tangled Palo Santo-dominated forest, Bursera graveolens Family Burseraceae.
As is true pretty much anywhere in the archipelago you are likely to be greeted ashore by lounging Galapagos Sea Lions Zalophus wollebaeki.
Sleeping Galapagos Sea Lion, Darwin Bay landing, Genovesa.
This species is confined to the Galapagos, except for a small colony on Isla de la Plata, closer to the mainland.
Also relatively easy to see on Genovesa is the much less commonly seen Galapagos Fur Seal Arctocephalus galapagoensis, the smallest of the sea lion/fur seal family Otariidae.

Adult male Galapagos Fur Seal.
While often regarded as rare, this species is actually almost as numerous as the sea lions, but is far less frequently encountered. One reason, oddly, is its thick fur, which led to heavy exploitation and a population crash in earlier years. This insulation means that it cannot safely lie out in the sun on beaches, or crowd together as the sea lions do.
Instead individuals climb nimbly onto cliff faces and retreat into shady niches when not at sea. They go out to hunt at night, unlike sea lions, so are rarely encountered from boats either.
After the sea lions, one of the first animals likely to greet you is the Sharp-beaked Ground Finch Geospiza difficilis. Genovesa is the only place they are readily found; elsewhere, on Santiago and Fernandina, they are mostly only in the remote high country. On the far more isolated and harsh islands of Darwin and Wolf (far to the north-west of the map in the previous posting) this little insectivore has gained a notoriety as 'the Vampire Finch', for its ingenious habit of pecking nesting boobies to collect blood in a water-pauperate world.
Sharp-beaked Ground Finch, inordinately naive, like other Genovesans.
Another hard to see 'finch' (see here for explanation of this equivocation) which is easy to see on Genovesa is the Large Cactus Finch Geospiza conirostris, found only on remote islands - here, Espanola in the far south-east, and the out-of-bounds Wolf and Darwin.

Large Cactus Finch female, Genovesa.
The Marine Iguanas of Genovesa are tiny compared with other sub-species; the largest males here weigh scarcely a kilogram, compared with a massive 12kg maximum in southern Isabela.
Marine Iguanas, clustering for warmth in the late afternoon sun.
Apparently bare sand can suddenly be seen to be swarming with little Fiddler Crabs, which just as rapidly vanish again into their burrows when disturbed.
I think these are probably Uca galapagensis, but I can't find any record of them occurring on Genovesa.
Advice welcomed!
On the east side of Darwin's Bay, up the cliffs via the steps known as El Barranco, a track leads to a vast creviced lava field, where some 200,000 pairs of Galapagos Storm-petrels nest.
Unfortunately the storm-petrels had just left when we were there, but this is their nesting ground.
Someone who regretted the end of the nesting even more than me was this Short-eared Owl Asio flammeus, who regards the breeding storm-petrels as a vast smorgasbord.
Roosting Short-eared Owl, Genovesa. This species is found throughout much of the world.
As a result, the delightful Galapagos Doves Zenaida galapagoensis are now finding life more difficult, as the owls' attention turns to them, and until next storm-petrel breeding season they will be a lot warier than they were on this day.
Galapagos Dove, almost underfoot, Genovesa.
Genovesa is a special place in a special archipelago (and in a world that despite all, is still special too). Try and include it in your dream trip, and maybe one day even a real one!