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, 28 January 2013

Entebbe Botanic Gardens

When I visited Uganda a couple of years ago I absolutely loved the country. My introduction to it was Entebbe Botanic Gardens, where I walked on my very first morning there. On that walk I discovered an interesting truth about poor damaged Uganda, where some of the most appalling things were done within the memory of any citizen over the age of about 40. This was that almost universally people will say "hello, how are you?" - and mean it, waiting for an answer! Entebbe is a town of less than 100,000 people (but growing) almost on the equator on the shores of mighty Lake Victoria, source of the Nile, and only 30 kilometres south of the sprawling capital, Kampala. 

The gardens were founded around the turn of the 20th Century and cover some 35 hectares. Parts of them look a bit shabby now, but like the rest of the country they suffered badly in the Amin years and those that followed, and like the rest of the country they are being helped to recover. The plantings include specimens from all over the world, plus some rainforest remnants...

Rainforest track.
...and of course the lake shores.
Fishermen on Lake Victoria from the gardens (above).
Marabous and African Open-billed Storks on the shore (below).
For an entrance fee (at the time) of the equivalent of A50 cents (plus A$1.50 for the camera!) it's great value and an excellent introduction to the birds. For a few dollars more you can have a guide for an hour or so; they may or may not know the birds, though my new mate Alex did. And for anyone new to east or central Africa, the birds can be an eye-opener. Here are some examples.
Scarlet-chested Sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis).
This is a widespread and exquisite sunbird.

Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) - it really does live substantially on oily palm-nuts!
Splendid Starling (Lamprotornis splendidus).
Woodland Kingfisher (Halcyon senegalensis); this delightful bird (we can't see its bright blue wings here)
was everywhere the day I was there.
Black-and-White-Casqued Hornbill (Ceratogymna subcylindrica).
Probably the star of the day for me.
Pied Kingfisher (Ceryle rudis).
As in much of Africa - and east into Asia - this is one of the commonest birds along the lake shore.
Egyptian Goose (Alopochen aegyptiacus) family on the lake.
Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta), a truly fascinating bird, not least because
it is the sole member of its family, and it is unclear even what Order it belongs to.
Nor are birds the only residents of course. Any place with resident monkeys is fine by me!
Vervet Monkey (Chlorocebus pygerythrus).
I'm also a big fan of squirrels.
Striped Ground Squirrel (Xerus erythropus).
Unidentified dragonfly - sorry!
I hope you find your way there some day; I'm sure you'll love it as I did.

And now I've started, I suspect that more botanic gardens will feature here from time to time.


Thursday, 24 January 2013

Playa Espumilla; where Darwin walked

A highlight of my recent life was a week in the Galápagos Archipelago; so much to say about that, but for now I'd just like to share an amazing morning's experience on Santiago Island - not that much happened, and it wasn't the most spectacular scenery or wildlife we saw, but it moved me for a very particular reason. 
The (faint!) pink arrow in the centre of the map indicates the location of
Playa Espumilla ('Foamy Beach') on Santiago.

Looking south along Playa Espumilla.
On 8 October 1835 a young Charles Darwin went ashore on this beach, accompanied by Surgeon Benjamin Bynoe and "some servants". They spent a week on the island, including a visit inland to some Spanish fish-dryers and tortoise flesh salters.

He commented that the Land Iguanas were so numerous that "we could not for some time find a spot free from their burrows on which to pitch our single tent". (These were nesting burrows.) Sadly Land Iguanas are no longer to be found on Santiago.
Land Iguana (Conolophus subcristatus), Santa Fé Island.
Darwin also commented fairly matter-of-factly that a few years previously a party of sealers had murdered their captain - "and we saw his skull lying among the bushes"! We did not see his skull, but we did see others, which were those of feral goats which had been on the point of destroying the entire island ecosystem when they were systematically eradicated from Santiago by the end of 2005. It was an astonishing feat, removing every single one of 80,000 goats from 60,000 hectares; such a scale of feral animal removal had never before been attempted and it inspired land managers elsewhere with an example of what was possible. As a result the vegetation, which had previously been eaten to the ground, has now recovered magnificently.
Mangrove-fringed lagoon, with Playa Espumilla behind.
Espumilla is also significant as a Green Turtle nesting site.
Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas) tracks, Playa Espumilla.
Green Sea Turtles mating.
Darwin - and many since him - commented too on the tameness of Galápagos wildlife; that hasn't changed.
Small Ground Finch (Geospiza fuliginosa), Espumilla Beach.
(The legs are Australian, rather than Darwinian; or perhaps both...)
Given the turn-over of beach sand, I know that my sandals probably didn't tread on a grain that Darwin's did (in fact I'm probably more likely to have in my lungs a molecule of oxygen that he breathed), but they might have... And that excites me.


Monday, 21 January 2013

Bark Codes; or Barking Up the Right Tree

The oozing of sap from the trunk is not the first - or probably 10th - thing I'd think of when asked to characterise eucalypts, but early Europeans certainly did. Abel Tasman back in 1642 in van Diemen's Land (later to be renamed Tasmania for him) was intrigued by it, and collected samples. This may have been a hint as to the nature of their interest; he probably had hopes of economic applications. Forty-six years later the English pirate-naturalist William Dampier reported that "the Gum distils out of the knots or cracks that are in the bodies of  the trees". Governor Arthur Phillip, who commanded the first British colony on what is now Sydney Harbour, first used the term 'gum-tree' in 1770; he too collected this gum, and send samples back home.

Now, most people probably use Phillip's term for all eucalypts (ie in excess of 700 of them) but in an attempt to make such a huge number of species manageable, and in part because such characteristics do largely reflect relationships within the genus, we divide eucalypts up according to their bark characteristics and use descriptive terms to reflect it. In this classification 'gums' are actually smooth-barked eucalypts.
Salmon Gums E. salubris, Wilmington South Australia.
These were planted in a town park, but the species is native to inland southern Western Australia.
All eucalypts shed their bark - the question as to why they do does not have a generally agreed answer, but perhaps it makes life harder for bark-burrowing insects. However, gums shed it all at once, leaving a clear smooth surface. At least, that's the theory, but nature being nature the rule is immediately broken. For instance in many gums patches of bark remain on the tree, giving darker or differently-coloured patches.
Spotted Gum E. maculata, Nowra, New South Wales. (Above and below.)

Yet other gums retain the shed bark, still attached to the branches.
E. sheatheana, Wongan Hills, Western Australia.
Most eucalypts however retain their dead bark, which comes off in bits over time, giving a rough surface to trunk and often branches too. We classify these rough-barks too according to the surface type. Boxes - nothing to do with containers, but named for the European Buxus, which also produces hard wood used for instance in making mallet heads - have bark which tends to be in plates or narrow blocks. 
Coastal Grey Box E. boistoana, near Candelo, southern New South Wales.

Apple Box E. bridgesiana, Canberra.
Peppermints have short-fibred, crumbly bark; they also have chemicals called pipiterones in the foliage which have a strong peppermint aroma and have been used to make menthol. Eucalypt - including peppermint - oil extraction has been a major industry in Australia; in South Africa it still is!
Narrow-leaved Peppermint E. radiata, Brindabellas near Canberra.
By contrast, some eucalypts have very long-fibred bark, which when dead can be pulled off in long strips.
Red Stringybark E. macrorhyncha, Canberra.
The bark can also be cut away in sheets and was used for shelters by both indigenous and early
European Australians.
Ironbarks can look superficially similar, but the bark is deeply fissured, generally impregnated with tannin-bearing kino, beads of which can be seen in the bark, and which help to make the bark literally iron-hard; you can easily bounce an axe off it.
Grey Ironbark E. paniculata, Narooma, New South Wales.
Bloodwoods have tessellated bark, often quite soft, which 'bleed' non-viscous kino from damage to the trunk. Some mammals, especially Sugar Gliders Petaurus brevipes, exploit this by chewing the bark and harvesting the flow.
Red Bloodwood E. gummifera, south coast New South Wales.
Below, 'bleeding'.

As I suggested above, it's never straight-forward; members of the ash group (again named for the resemblance of the timber, this time to Northern Hemisphere Fraxinus) have a rough stocking on the lower trunk, but bare upper limbs.
Alpine Ash, E. delegatensis, Namadgi National Park, near Canberra.
Such classifications are ultimately just human constructs but when dealing with so many species, any help is worth trying! Anyway, any excuse for talking about the wonderful eucalypts is worth seizing on.


Thursday, 17 January 2013

On This Day, 18 January; When Canberra Burned

On this day exactly ten years ago – 18 January 2003, a date branded into Canberrans’ minds – the unimaginable happened. Bushfires of incredible intensity crashed into the south-western suburbs and in the space of a few hours destroyed more than 500 homes; more than 200 of them were in the suburb of Duffy where I now live, some 17 in my street alone. It still feels hard to accept that such a thing could happen in a modern capital city. Tragically four people died, but in the shocked confusion it seems miraculous that the number wasn’t far higher, as people fled along streets choked with burning debris, including cars, fallen power lines and dense smoke. 

This is a very different blog from any I’ve written and I hope you can forgive me my self-indulgence. It’s something I need to write about; even now I find my fingers trembling as I type.

Eleven days earlier, on 7 January, during perhaps the most severe drought for a century, major electrical storms swept across south-eastern Australia, starting a series of fires in the Alpine National Park of Victoria before moving north. The next day 40 fires erupted along the western fall of Kosciuszko National Park and another five along the Brindabellas on the Australian Capital Territory ’s western border. Despite heroic fire-fighting efforts the fires continued to grow steadily. On the 18th – a Saturday – temperatures were around 400C, and winds were in excess of 100 kilometres an hours. Catastrophe was inevitable. Another fire came roaring up the steep western slopes from New South Wales, joining with the Brindabella fires; such a situation creates huge bursts of activity, hurling burning material kilometres ahead. A vast open roaring furnace swept down into the Cotter River Valley, up over the Tidbinbilla Range and engulfed the entire much-loved Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Rangers sheltering in the new visitor centre, including people I knew well, very nearly died; had they still been in the old one they certainly would have. From there it was possibly only 20 minutes to the suburbs. 

I then lived on the other side of town. Like tens of thousands of us, I spent the day glued horrified to the wonderful local ABC radio station (666!); most of management was on leave, and staff started coming in spontaneously to begin what was to be a marathon of emergency broadcasting. For that time, during the crisis and well beyond it during the major recovery efforts, 666 was the essential source of fire-related information and communication.

I watched the sky spread bruised orange and purple from the south, in helpless anguish for suffering friends and fellow Canberrans, and apprehensive about what might be coming my way over the adjacent Black Mountain. In days to come I continued listening, stayed away from the south-side to respect people’s grief, and in due course went over and helped friends sift the ashes of their life in the hope of finding physical scraps of the past to carry into the future. So far, my story was just that of any of us who were here at that time and not directly affected. 

Like everyone I tried to do my bit, and my role became one of helping to keep Canberrans informed in the subsequent weeks of the situation in the ranges, particularly Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve and Namadgi National Park. I was 666’s ‘resident naturalist’ with a regular broadcast slot. Because of this I was approached by ACT Parks and Conservation and asked to accompany them on tours of inspection of areas which would be closed to the public for months to come, and report on them. Emails I later got in response to my reports confirmed that indeed this was something that many people – including those who’d lost everything – wanted and needed to know. 

For twenty years Namadgi had been my back yard. I’d written two natural history guide books and a wildflower guide about it and I knew and loved the park as well as most people. One of the more useful things I’ve done in my life was to write a report in 1991 which assisted in getting the northern part of the Brindabellas included in Namadgi. 

Six days after the fires I was taken to Tidbinbilla. From within the Weston Creek suburbs all the way out to Tidbinbilla – and on a second trip later all the way up into the Brindabellas in Namadgi – I saw scarcely a square metre of green. The one exception was a metre-wide ribbon of tree ferns in one creek line on the eastern slopes. On the plains trees were bent parallel to the ground by the inconceivable ferocity of the fire winds. Paddocks that had been eaten bare to the ground by stock somehow carried a fire so intense that it burnt through the base of power poles. I saw endless thousands of hectares of burnt trunks and no leaves; in some slightly less intensively burnt areas the dead leaves were beginning to fall. On the steep western slopes, soil had had all the organic material burnt out of it – it didn’t even feel like soil. Great granite boulders were shedding layers of skin.

The lush wet eucalypt forest gullies at Tidbinbilla, with some of the most beautiful and soothing walks I know, contained just stark leafless trunks standing over utterly bare ground and the oozing creek. Tree ferns had vaporised. “It’s Mordor” I wrote at the time. I watched the surreal movement of the two stoical workers in white overalls and breathing masks moving through a skeletal landscape collecting six day old carcases and piling them into a truck to take to the pit, 16 metres long, 3 metres wide and four metres deep and filling. When I stared down into it there were already over 500 kangaroo and wallaby carcasses in it, plus 130 sheep from neighbouring properties. A couple of koalas were added as I watched. It was – literally for me – the stuff of nightmares. The memory of the stench stayed with me for a long time; even after a shower that night I could still taste it. 
Burnt Alpine Ash, Namadgi National Park.
A week later I was with the first Parks Service group high in Namadgi National Park when we discovered that, contrary to earlier reports, the internationally significant Ginini Flat sphagnum bogs had burnt, destroying hundreds of years of water-holding moss growth. That was one of the bleakest moments of my life. (The recovery work is still continuing; just last week another fire nearly destroyed the efforts, but parks staff saved it.) In the coming weeks I made further trips with rangers to chart the natural recovery, which is an integral part of the nature of Australia. Those trips, incidentally, helped my own recovery process. In the event 95% of Namadgi National Park eventually burnt, and the fires were not finally extinguished until rain on 21 February, 45 days after they started.

Single sprouting eucalypt in burnt forest, 8 weeks after the fire.
I initially sent my written reports to friends, and then to a natural history chat-line. They ‘went viral’, as they say. I received emails from all over the world. In less than three weeks I wrote over 300 emails to people seeking more information and such reassurance as I could offer for the future of the areas.

I guess the only reassurance is in the mighty cycles of nature; we see only a tiny portion of a single cycle. The mountains have seen it all before – though probably not in European times – and will doubtless see it again, though hopefully not for centuries. The Mediterranean landscapes of southern Australia are some of the most fire-adapted in the world – I’ll certainly talk about that in a forthcoming blog. The natural fire cycle of the Alpine Ash forests (Eucalyptus delegatensis) is probably of the order of 300-400 years; we’ve not been here long enough to see a single cycle.

And life moves in unexpected ways; after a pretty bleak couple of years I found love again soon after the fires, as a direct result of the after-fire radio work, leading ultimately to my move across town to the heart of the fire grounds.
Hypoxis hygrometrica in a burnt landscape.
Later that year, when I could take people up into the high country, many of the trees were sprouting the fuzzy green cloak of epicormic growth, and the ground flowering was like nothing I’d seen there. We drove through 25 kilometres of a white carpet of Prickly Starwort (Stellaria pungens), which normally is a scattered little herb. There must have been thousands of millions of seeds in the soil, awaiting a fire; no-one had predicted that. Every year the healing progresses and one day it will look again as it did, but I’ll not see it in my lifetime.
Stellaria pungens in burnt Snow Gum forest, December 2003.
This morning, after Louise finishes hosting a special radio broadcast from the site of the destroyed and rebuilt Mount Stromlo Observatory just up the road, helping people tell their stories again, we’re leaving town for the weekend. Anniversaries are funny things. If you’ve read this far, thank you. Next time it will be lighter, and more ‘normal’; so will life, hopefully.

My apologies for the paucity – and poor quality – of photos (pre-digital days). I have none from the first two difficult inspections; whether I left the camera home, or was just too shocked to use it, I can’t now recall.


Monday, 14 January 2013

Two Beautiful Heads are Better than One

It's a rule of taxonomy that no two animals or plants can have the same genus name, for obvious reasons of clarity. However there is nothing to prevent a plant and an animal genus from being identically named, and a truly iconic Canberra animal and a less-celebrated but beautiful little Canberra plant have the same (or virtually the same) name.

A commonly occurring word-stem in names - especially of plants it seems - is calli- or cali-, from the Greek word meaning beautiful. (The Australian bottlebrushes, Callistemon, are an obvious example.)
Callistemon rugulosus, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
The genus name means 'beautiful stamens'.
Another, in both plants and animals, is cephalo-, meaning a head. (Squids are cephalopods - head feet!)

Putting the two together, as Callocephalon, or Calocephalus (the final form may vary slightly, based as it is on one taxonomist's conversion of a Greek word into a Latinised form), we get of course 'beautiful head'. The Gang-Gang Cockatoo is one of the best reasons to live in Canberra, which is the only city in the world where Gang-Gangs can be regularly found even in the city centre. The loping flight, the male's foppishly floppy and wispy red coiffure and the creaky calls, reminding me of the time when accessing a bottle of wine meant extracting a cork, all make this smallest cockatoo a most endearing neighbour.
Gang-gang Cockatoo Callocephalon fimbriatum, Canberra;
male above, female below.

Unsurprisingly the Gang-Gang is the faunal emblem of the Australian Capital Territory, and the symbol of our Parks Service and the Canberra Ornithologists Group (actually we're just bird-watchers, but our founders were a bit snobby and it's too good an acronym to give up apparently).

The plant I mentioned is much more modest little character, a summer-flowering daisy of grasslands, with effectively the same name in Latin and English - Calocephalus citreus, Lemon Beauty-head. In the close-up we can see the tiny florets that make up the daisy flower-head, which we talked about last month.
Lemon Beauty-heads

Two very lovely and very characteristic Canberrans; and neither is just a pretty head...

Friday, 11 January 2013

Sometimes Nature Really IS Black and White! #2

I began this train of thought in my last post, and am picking up the thread here. There we focussed on animals which use the visibility of black juxtaposed with white to draw attention to themselves, to make the point that they are rough and tough and not to be messed with.

There are other reasons to be visible however; while the message from the previous set of animals is mostly directed to other species, an animal feeding in deep shade or on the ground among vegetation might want to let others of its kind - perhaps especially mates or potential mates - know where it is.
Eastern Whipbird Psophodes olivaceus, south coast New South Wales.
Whipbirds live in dense vegetation, rainforest or wet eucalypt forest, or riverside shrubbery. Their piercing call is one way of staying in touch; the striking white-on-black throat is another. Other rainforest birds do likewise.
White-headed Pigeon Columba leucomela,  Nowra, New South Wales.
They eat fruit in dense, often rainforest, trees, and being aware of others of the flock
will be assisted by the contrasting heads in the shadows.
Carnaby's (or Short-billed) Black-Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus latirostris, north of Perth, Western Australia.
It's not entirely clear why being so visible is significant to a big flock-living bird of open country, but it can't be chance.
Banded Lapwing Vanellus tricolor, Windorah, Queensland.
They feed, often in loose flocks, on the ground in inland plains. In this situation too the black and white contrast
would assist in staying aware of the whereabouts of others. 

African Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer, Queen Elizabeth NP Uganda.
Pairs perch near water, often far apart, and the white-over-black stands out over great distances.
Paradoxically after all that, there are some circumstances in which black and white can also provide camouflage. For instance an animal against the sky above water will be less visible from below if white, and from above if dark; it is no coincidence that many hunters over water fit this pattern.
Little Pied Cormorant Microcarbo melanoleucos and White-necked Heron Ardea pacifica,
Lake Cargelligo New South Wales.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis, Queen Elizabeth NP Uganda.
Galapagos Penguin Spheniscus mendiculus, Bartolomé.
The same argument might apply to a small bird feeding in foliage, though in a eucalypt forest at least an olive-green back might be better than black.
White-naped Honeyeaters Melithreptus lunatus, Jindabyne, New South Wales.
These are primarily leaf-gleaners.
Even very large animals it seems can benefit from being black and white. It is generally accepted that Malay Tapirs are so dramatically black-white-black because this breaks up their outline in dense forest, particularly at night - which is when tigers are mostly abroad.
Malayan Tapir Tapirus indicus, Adelaide Zoo.
Unfortunately the black rump and hind legs aren't visible here.
One might expect zebras to be included here, but in fact the general consensus now is that the patterns perform a social function. Zebra brains are stimulated by the sight of stripes, and in particular they are driven to groom other zebras. It is thought that the ancestral horse was striped.
Plains Zebras Equus burchellii, grooming, Etosha NP, Namibia.
Then, nature being what it is, there are some Very Black and White animals which we can't readily explain. A classic case is the Giant Panda, surely a contender for the Most Familiar Pied Animal. Opinion is divided; some say that the pattern is for visibility in their dense bamboo habitat, or while up a tree - their short-sightedness is cited here, with the need to find a mate in a solitary animal. Others assert the opposite, that tapir-like it is to break up the outline and provide camouflage. But what would be the predator (apart from humans, and we assume that pandas have been black and white for a long time)?
Giant Panda Ailuropoda melanoleuca, Adelaide Zoo.
The beautiful Guereza Colobus Monkey seems to me provide the same alternative explanations, though I haven't read anything about this.
Guereza Colobus Colobus guereza, Queen Elizabeth NP Uganda.
Perhaps my favourite monkey!
I haven't mentioned plants here; in fact the only black and white flower I can think of is a Broad Bean. However Melaleuca means black and white, so that's enough excuse to pay at least token tribute.
Melaleuca cuticularis, Lake Monjimup, Western Australia.
Of course we could go on, but I think that's enough for today. Perhaps a change of diet from Pie is required.

Back Monday.