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.

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Kosciuszko National Park #2; to tree or not to tree?

In my last posting I talked a bit about this significant alpine and montane park, but I couldn't do it justice in one entry, so here's a bit more, specifically on trees - where and why they aren't, and a few that are! The alpine zone, ecologically, is that area above the tree line, where the vegetation comprises only shrubs and herbs. 
Granite-strewn alpine zone, Kosciuszko National Park.
It is a phenomenon of mountain landscapes everywhere.
El Cajas National Park, Ecuador; here in the tropics the tree-line is close to 4000masl.
The habitat is known here as paramo.
Andes north of Cusco, Peru. Again the altitude is 4000masl, but here we can see the trees pushing higher up the mountains in the shelter of gullies. Locally this is called puna.
Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.
At 51 degrees south, the foreground is less than 300 metres above sea level.
It can look a bit bleak at first glance, but the beauty is both in the huge spaciousness of it, and in the detail of life at smaller scale. The alpine zone is defined throughout the world, as we approach the poles and increase in altitude, by the point at which the mean temperature of the warmest month is less than 10 degrees C. Here there is simply not enough available solar energy to build and maintain the massive trunks and supporting root systems that define a tree. In Kosciuszko this occurs at about the 1800 metres above sea level (masl) mark, but it changes with local conditions; in sheltered situations it can be as high as 2000masl. As we'd expect it gets higher at lower latitudes, and falls towards sea-level closer to the poles, as illustrated above.

In Australia the true alpine zone comprises around 0.01% of the land surface, and most of that is in Tasmania. It is a relic of the glacial times, most recently between approximately 25,000 and 10,000 years ago, when cold windy treeless steppes covered much of south-eastern Australia. Now the habitat and its plants and animals survive only on a few high isolated mountain islands.

The actual tree-line can be quite dramatic.
Tree line at around 1850masl, Kosciuszko NP.
Tree line at 1000masl, near Puerto Natales, southern Chile.
Lower down of course there are trees, with the wonderful Snow Gums Eucalyptus pauciflora being the only ones capable of surviving up to the tree line. Here are a few trees that demanded to be admired and recorded on our weekend visit.
Old Snow Gums, above and below, Charlottes Pass. Here at 1850masl trees are at their limits of growth and
they survive because the massive granite boulders provide a heat sink. Nonetheless they probably
only grow for a few weeks a year, and these are hundreds of years old.

Black Sallee E. stellulata in the rain.
The name comes from an old English word for willow, and was applied because they often grow in
boggy and frosty situations. Normally the trunk is a beautiful smooth olive-copper colour, but the bark
turns red just before dropping off.
Candlebark Gum E. rubra.
The common name is based on the observation that in a fire, burning bark from this gum can be
hurled hundreds of metres ahead of the fire front. For most of the year the trunk is white, but the old bark before being
shed turns dramatically red, orange or pink.
I still want to show some of the relatively few flowers and fewer animals that we saw - next time.


Monday, 25 February 2013

Kosciuszko National Park #1: on top of Australia

As foreshadowed last time, we have just spent an exhilarating weekend in Kosciuszko National Park, best known for its protection of the highest parts of Australia, the alpine areas around Mount Kosciuszko, but which also encompasses nearly 700,000 hectares of subalpine and montane forests. 

Looking east from Mount Kosciuszko.
It is New South Wales' largest national park, but even more importantly it is contiguous with Namadgi National Park in the Australian Capital Territory to the north, and the Victorian Alpine Parks system to the south, to create a co-operatively managed system of mountain reserves covering more than 1.6 million hectares, one of the world's great parks systems. (In Australia the states and territories are responsible for land management; in the case of the Australian Alps Agreement, the Commonwealth - the Federal government - provides a coordinating role.)
The Australian Alpine Parks system, courtesy of the Great Eastern Ranges website.
You'll probably need to click on the map to see it properly; Mt Kosciuszko can be seen half way between the two
KOSCIUSZKO NATIONAL PARK labels. The reason that the Victoria/NSW border suddenly becomes wobbly
in the middle of the parks is that from there on to the west it is defined by the Murray River, which rises in the Alps.
Mount Kosciuszko is only 2,230 metres above sea level, a rather puny 'highest point' by world standards, but it is all to do with the nature of Australia itself. The Australian Alps are an old range, and in the stable centre of a continental plate. Loftier ranges, like the Himalayas, the Andes and the New Guinea ranges, are young and growing; at the edge of their plates they are constantly thrust upwards by the irresistible mass of the plate itself behind them, crashing into the adjacent plate. Mount Kosciuszko is long past its glorious growing days, and is slowing but inexorably eroding away.
Mount Kosciuszko from 4.5 kilometres away, with the access track in the foreground. This track is sealed, and mostly raised above the boggy ground to prevent erosion, for its entire length. From the top of the chair lift at 1930 metres above sea level, above the resort village of Thredbo, the 6.5 kilometre track rises gently for another 300 metres.
One might reasonably suspect that Kosciuszko is not an 'Australian' name - or at least neither indigenous or Anglo-Celtic. One would be correct. 'Count' Paul Strzelecki (there is some evidence that the honorific was self-bestowed) arrived from Poland in 1839 as a competent field geologist who had worked in the Scottish highlands. The following year he undertook an expedition south from Sydney to seek grazing land  in what is now Victoria. En route he detoured to climb the highest part of the alps, via the precipitous ascent from the Murray Valley to the west. He climbed and named 'Kosciuszko' the mountain that he deemed to be the highest, after a Polish patriot and fighter for freedom, on the basis that the rounded summit supposedly resembled Kosciuszko's tomb in Krakow! Unfortunately it seems certain that he actually climbed nearby Mt Townsend, as it now is, which is lower by some 45 metres. For a short time in the 1890s the 'real' Kosciuszko was named Townsend (after the surveyor who first mapped the range), but in 1892 the names were officially switched to honour Strzelecki's intention. 
Granite boulders on the slopes of Mount Kosciuszko.
Before leaving Poland Strzelecki had tried to elope with Adyn Turno, but her parents intervened and they both remained single for life, corresponding for many years. He sent her a pressed flower from the mountain, "the highest peak on the continent - the first in the New World bearing a Polish name. I believe that you will be the first Polish woman to have a flower from that mountain. Let it remind you for ever of freedom, patriotism and love." Poignant stuff, though his prediction in the second sentence seems unnecessarily cautious!

As the football commentators like to say (apparently without irony), our walk was of two halves. It was windy pretty much throughout, but on the outward walk the clouds hung low and the views were mostly non-existent. It was very atmospheric though.
Granites predominate; in fact they underlie most of the park. They are the same 400 million year old rocks
that form the Lachlan Fold Belt, a 700 kilometre wide band under much of south-eastern Australia.
Small streams, fed by snow melt, are everywhere.

Little Ravens Corvus mellori on Mount Kosciuszko itself.
They forage for Bogong Moths Agrotis infusa which over-summer in the granite crevices.
I don't normally intrude pictures of myself here, but this portrait of us on the summit summarises the conditions.
No, you can't see wind, but my beard doesn't normally grow sideways!
However, as we sheltered just below the summit to eat something, the mist started to clear below us.
This is the valley that holds the source of the Snowy River, of some significance in Anglo-Australian folk traditions.
The ballad 'The Man from Snowy River' by journalist and poet Banjo Paterson is one of the best-known Australian poems; it was the title poem of a collection of his verse which sold 7000 copies in a few weeks in 1890.
From there on the views were stunning for our return walk.
This means lots more wonderful granites in large part!
This is also one of the very few glacial landscapes in mainland Australia, though glaciers probably only covered a few square kilometres up here in the most recent glaciation, ending some 13,000 years ago. For perhaps the previous 10,000 years here though, the ice was up to 100 metres thick. Some of the clearest - and most aesthetic - evidence is in the form of the series of glacial lakes. Most formed when the terminal moraine, the rocks and soil bulldozed down the slopes by the front of the glacier, created a dam across the gouged-out valley.
Lake Cootapatamba. The dam wall, comprising the terminal moraine, can be clearly seen to the left of the lake.
The U-shaped valley is another typical glacial form, carved by the ice as it progressed.

There is more I want to say of course, including about plants and (a few) animals, but this posting is probably already as much as you want to read for today, so I'll continue this in a couple more offerings during the week.

However, I must mention one surreal encounter, on the windy misty slopes of Kosciuszko, with a procession of Polish-Australians led by a man carrying a large wooden cross! Lou, my partner, is a journalist to her marrow, and whipped out her tape recorder (it's true!) and put together the story that you can read here if you like.


Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Wildlife of the National Botanic Gardens

Recently I paid a tribute to the Australian National Botanic Gardens, to me the most significant and most beautiful of the national institutions. (These things are purely subjective, and I also regularly visit and delight in some of the others, notably the National Library, Gallery, Portrait Gallery and Science Centre. However the gardens live and breathe and evolve.)

The gardens are also full of wildlife, and it is that important and exciting aspect of them that I want to talk about today. Birds are the most obvious inhabitants throughout, but they may well not be the first animals you meet there, especially on a warm day. A notable feature of the gardens is a healthy population of the colourful big Gippsland Water Dragon Itellagama (Physignathus) lesueurii, and you're quite likely to have to step around one in the carpark when you arrive. The species name honours Charles Lesueur, naturalist and artist with the Baudin expedition; more on him, and on the dragons, in the future. I'm sure they were pushed up into the developing gardens when major habitat was flooded with the filling of Lake Burley Griffin in 1963-4.
Breeding male Gippsland Water Dragon. (Gippsland is far to the south of here in Victoria, but this name refers to
subspecies howittii; Eastern Water Dragon is the name for the more northern race lesueurii.)
Their diet is broad, encompassing everything from insects to frogs to lizards to ducklings to fruit. In the Gardens
they regularly sit alongside diners at the outside cafe, being vaguely menacing - a male can be nearly a metre long.
(To save spelling it out each time, all photos in this posting were taken in the National Botanic Gardens.)
Birds also scavenge at the cafe, or just hang about hopefully.
White-winged Choughs Corcorax melanorhamphos, preening.
These obligate cooperative breeders are among the most sociable birds in the world.
Research, much of it emanating from the Australian National University just across the road, is an important activity here; young researchers with binoculars and notebooks are a common sight (though much of their work is done a lot earlier in the day than visitors see), and colour-banded birds and dragons are evident.
White-browed Scrubwren male Sericornis frontalis.
Virtually every scrubwren and Superb Fairy-wren in the Gardens wears identifying bling.
Flowers are of course an important bird-attractant, and there is something blooming every day of the year.
Eastern Spinebill females Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris, on Pityrodia sp. (from Western Australia)
New Holland Honeyeater Phylidonyris novaehollandiae, on Grevillea rosmarinifolia. Note pollen on head.
Abundant in coastal heaths, this species is very focused on the Gardens here; in 27 years living just a few hundred
metres away, with lots of suitable food plants, I never saw one in my garden.
Many other bird species are present, seasonally or permanently, using a wide range of resources.
White-faced Heron Egretta novaehollandiae, on one of the many ponds.
Gang-gang Cockatoo male Callocephalon fimbriatum at breeding hollow.
Leaden Flycatcher male Myiagra rubecula; a summer breeding migrant
The most dramatic visitor in recent times though attracted hundreds of people over a few days; it was necessary to put up fencing to protect garden beds and minimise disturbance of the mighty owl, though it didn't show many signs of angst. The same could not be said of the Gardens' population of Sugar Gliders, which was substantially depleted during its stay.
Powerful Owl Ninox strenua. Normally a very scarce resident of the ranges, this was probably a young bird dispersing.
Insects are of course abundant and diverse.
Soldier Beetles Chauliognathus lugubris. These can emerge in huge numbers on occasion.
Black-headed Skimmer Crocothemis nigrifrons.
Native fly pollinating Xerochrysum sp.

Australian Painted Lady male (?!) Vanessa kershawi, on Isotoma sp.
Native Bee on Xerochrysum sp.
Even (non-human) mammals are not uncommon in quieter corners.
Black-tailed Wallaby Wallabia bicolor having a quiet browse.
Short-beaked Echidna Tachyglossus aculeatus.
Whether your interests are in plants, animals, peacefulness or learning more about this special country, make sure you leave a few hours for the Gardens when you next visit our National Capital. Your visit certainly isn't complete until you've done so.

We're off to Kosciuszko National Park on Friday for a weekend on the (not very high!) roof of Australia.


Sunday, 17 February 2013

On This Day, 17 February; three biological birthdays

Actually, only one of today's three birthday boys was an Australian biologist, but all three live on in the names of familiar Australian organisms. They were three very different people indeed, in almost every way. In order of their years of birth, they were:

* Richard Pulteney, 1730, an English rural botanist and surgeon. He did a seven year apprenticeship to an apothecary, which permitted him to practise surgery! He wrote articles for The Gentleman’s Magazine, which would sound pretty dubious today but probably wasn’t then, given that his topics included the Linnaean system of plant classification, fungi and the sleep of plants! He also wrote botanical and medical papers for the Royal Society. At age 34 he went to Edinburgh University to become formally qualified in medicine, before continuing to London to become personal physician to his relative the Earl of Bath. In private practice he later prospered, and became very wealthy on the death of his father. He taught himself conchology (the study of shells) and became regarded as an authority. In addition to an 8-volume work on Linnaeus’ work he wrote a history of British botany. He left his collection of shells, minerals, herbs and books to the Linnean Society. The great English botanist and botanical patron Sir James Smith commemorated him with a familiar genus of 120 species of Australian peas, usually referred to as 'bush peas' (a singularly unhelpful name!), Pultenea.
Pultenea procumbens, Tinderry Nature Reserve. A common local species.
* Nicolas Baudin, 1754, was a French career naval officer who worked his way up through the ranks, and led exploratory and scientific expeditions to central and South America before being selected by Napoleon in 1830 to lead the third, and grandest, of the French exploratory expeditions to Australia on Le Geographe and Le Naturaliste.  It was superbly planned, even carrying a large library of the journals of Dampier, Cook, Phillip, Bligh and La Billardiere. They also carried passports from the British Government as protection from the Royal Navy; this was standard practice at the time, when science was seen as benefitting all humankind. Sadly the concept withered not long afterwards. 

Unfortunately living conditions on board were so bad and, according to the records (admittedly written by his opponents, who outlived him), Baudin was so appallingly rude, that more that 60 expeditioners, including virtually all the scientists and the three official artists, left the ship at the first available opportunity, in Mauritius. 

Baudin reached Cape Leeuwin in May 1801 and, ignoring instructions, sailed north along the coast to Timor, then on around Australia to Van Diemen's Land, rather than going straight to the latter. He had little choice in this though, as problems with the authorities in Mauritius meant that he was desperately short of supplies. In so doing he missed the chance to be the first to explore and chart much of the south coast, because in April 1802 he met Flinders at Encounter Bay in South Australia, where he learnt that Flinders had just done much of the job in the Investigator. Thus distracted by each other, they all managed not to notice the nearby mouth of the Murray River, though this was perhaps understandable and it may even have been closed at the time.
Encounter Bay, from the Murray Mouth.
Overall though, Baudin's survey was not thorough; he also sailed past Port Phillip Bay without noticing it! The management and supply of the expedition were terrible; many became ill and had to return home. Baudin himself died in Mauritius on the way home, but the survivors delivered 100,000 animal specimens of 2,500 species (nearly all of them new to science) in 80 crates, and a mountain of botanical material. 

Thirty years later Edward Lear (of Owl and the Pussycat fame) named an impressive Western Australian black-cockatoo Calyptorhynchus baudinii (Long-billed, or Baudin's, Black-Cockatoo) after him in a book of paintings. However I just discovered, to my chagrin, that I don't have the photo of this species that I thought I had, so you'll have to make do with one of the very similar Short-billed (Carnaby's) Black-Cockatoo C. latirostris; they are essentially identical apart from the beak. Sorry about that!

* Gerard Krefft 1830, was curator of the Australian Museum in Sydney in the 1860s. Though largely self-taught, he was probably the leading Australian vertebrate zoologist of his day. More importantly, he led the resistance of Australian science to the assumption that only European scientists were competent to study Australian biology. Born in Germany, he lived as a teenager in New York, making money selling his copies of Audubon paintings. He came to Australia in 1852 to work on the Victorian gold fields, joined the Blandowski expedition to the Murray Darling junction (which provided the only record of several mammal species in New South Wales, before pastoralism eliminated them) and was then employed to catalogue the expedition's collections. The museum trustees, a very powerful cross-section of the establishment, resented the fact that the Governor made the appointment (though it was a government establishment, paid for by government money). I suspect that his somewhat direct and even abrasive manner contributed to the problem. Nonetheless he became curator in 1864, and seems to have been a very good one. He was a champion of using museum specimens for public education – this was revolutionary for the time.

He had a very broad knowledge of zoology and geology, specialising in snakes. He wrote the book Snakes of Australia, and one on Australian mammals. He built up the museum collection and made an international reputation as a scientist, corresponding with Charles Darwin, as well as Richard Owen, the doyen of English anatomists, and leading US and German scientists. Significantly he became the first Australian zoologist to champion Darwin’s new theories of evolution. He was a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London and a Knight of the Crown of Italy. He reworked the Wellington Caves fossil sites, and it was over the interpretation of one of these fossils that he dared to clash famously and openly with Richard Owen, the world authority and a conservative creationist. This made him something of a hero with younger Australian scientists of that and subsequent generations. 

More ominously for him, he also clashed with the powerful trustees, accusing some of them (with justification it seems) of feathering their private collections at the museum’s expense. In retaliation they set up an enquiry into charges ranging from drunkenness to disobeying the trustees’ orders. He, perhaps reasonably, refused to defend himself until he’d seen the charges and evidence – this was refused until they had found him guilty and dismissed him! He refused to leave his quarters until they hired a couple of prize-fighters to break down his door and evict him. The courts later agreed with him that the trustees had no such power, but the parliament then dismissed him instead, withholding salaries owed until he agreed to relinquish his rights. Perhaps this wasn’t too surprising, given that the Treasurer, Attorney-General and Chief Justice were all trustees! He was demoralised and ruined, and much important research was lost and never published. He died bankrupt in 1881. This remains, in my mind, one of the most shameful episodes of Australian science history.

His legacy is the name Lasiorhinus krefftii, the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat; a tough battler like Krefft, but also sadly threatened with extinction. Only a little over 100 of them survive in just 300 hectares of Epping Forest National Park in east central Queensland, where they are regarded as Critically Endangered, though once they extended all the way south to northern Victoria. I don't suppose I'll ever see one, and this statue is probably as close as I'll come.
Lasiorhinus kreftii, Clermont, Queensland
It's been a long post today - if you're still reading, thank you! 

Back on Wednesday to complete the tribute to the National Botanic Gardens.

Friday, 15 February 2013

An Australian Treasure; the National Botanic Gardens

This is the second in an irregular series on botanic gardens which I regard as special.
Part of the entrance garden, opposite the Australian National University.
To the right can be seen large mature cycads and a Bottle Tree Brachychiton rupestris, transported whole from
Queensland. The complex and expensive process of acquisition and transport was funded by the
Friends of the Gardens.
The National Botanic Gardens in Canberra have been an important part of my life for over 30 years, from when they and I were young. I’ve been a regular visitor for that time, though it was easier when I lived just 20 minutes walk away. In my bad times (a long time ago now) it was a haven. I’ve celebrated friends there – by way of a wedding, birthdays, many picnics and two memorial services for friends who, in life, loved the place as much as I do.
Eucalypt Lawn, home to more than 100 eucalypt species from all over the country,
scene of a million picnics (approximately...) and summer-time evening concerts.
In the foreground the amphitheatre is a memorial to a great Canberran,
botanist and conservationist Nancy Burbidge.
It is, I’m sure, one of the few national botanic gardens in the world to focus exclusively on the native plants of the country; I’d be fascinated to hear of others. Sixty years ago the site, on the lower slopes of Black Mountain, comprised degraded dairy farms on what had originally been dry eucalypt forest; some remnant trees remained, and can still be seen in the gardens, along with extensive areas of regenerated forest. 
Old Brittle Gum Eucalyptus mannifera among the plantings.
Although older than the gardens, it seems that it was coppiced by the lessees, perhaps for firewood or fence posts.
In the 1950s the locally legendary Lindsay Pryor, forester and Canberra’s Superintendent of Parks and Gardens, oversaw the resumption of the land and the beginning of its development. It was not until 1967 that the gardens opened to the public, and 1970 before its official opening. At this stage it was still the Canberra Botanic Gardens; not until 1978 was its national role formalised.

Now there are over 70,000 cultivated plants in the 90 hectare site (less than half of which is yet developed), representing more than 5,000 species from the entire country, a remarkable tribute to horticultural skill and wizardry, given our location on a cold, dry plateau. There must be ten of kilometres of walking paths; you couldn’t see it all in a day. In addition to its important research function – as part of which it hosts the National Herbarium – it contains Canberra’s best natural history bookshop, an education centre and lecture theatre, public reference herbarium, and a cafĂ© which, on a good day, can be quite good. A vital and passionate Friends group performs many voluntary roles, the most visible of which involves free guided walking tours, twice a day (or on request) all year round.
Memorial to Sir Joseph Banks, patron of early Australian botany, who sailed here with Captain Cook in 1770.
Erected in 1988, the bicentenary year of European settlement of Australia.
He is framed - of course! - by Banksias.
The layout is largely based on taxonomic groupings – massed plantings representing the major Australian plant families – though sections representing ecological regions are important, and seemingly becoming more of a focus. The best known and loved of these is doubtless the remarkable rainforest gully, which 40 years ago was still dry and open.
Ephemeral gully above the rainforest gully; this is how the scenes below looked prior to development.
Careful sequential planting, soil preparation and aerial misting have produced an environment which supports plants from the cool temperate forests of Tasmania to the tropical tangles of north Queensland. It’s a wonderful – and sought-after – venue on a hot day.
Walking tracks follow both the rim and floor of the gully.

Ferns, palms and epiphytes outside in Canberra (where winter nights can be -10 degrees)?
A form of botanical alchemy.
Another is the rockery, an extensive area of raised beds which supports plants from habitats as diverse as the dry Western Australian heaths and alpine bogs. This is an extraordinary venture, including a stream which culminates in a rock wall, waterfall and plunge pool.
The waterfall is in the dark section of rock just to the right of centre of the photo.
The rockery itself (featured in the next photos) is behind the rock wall.

It was commenced in December 1979, a couple of weeks before I arrived here. I clearly remember the piles of huge boulders, some weighing over 20 tonnes. I remember too being told by one of the rangers at the time that a consultant spent days wandering round looking at the rocks – and at the end of the time knew exactly which went where.

Other habitat- and regional-themed areas include mallee (from both western and eastern Australia), Sydney sandstone, grasslands and Tasmania. 
Edge of the Sydney sandstone gully;
new plantings featuring Flannel Flowers Actinotus helianthi in the foreground.
The latest, and an exciting, development is a central Australian section, featuring the red sandstone of the Centre.
Central Australian section under construction, February 2013; due for opening in spring 2013.
For scale, see the full-sized rare Central Australian Cabbage Palm Livistone mariae, on the far left.
There is, as one would expect, an emphasis on threatened plant species too.
Eucryphia wilkei belongs to an ancient Gondwanan genus found only in southern Australian and Patagonian cool rainforests - except for this species, which is limited to the high cloud forests of Mount Bartle Frere, thousands of kilometres from its relations in tropical north Queensland. The Botanic Gardens helps preserve it.
And all this is to say nothing of the prolific wildlife of the gardens; I’ll dedicate a posting to that next week.

Meantime, I’ll be back on Sunday to celebrate some birthdays from Australia’s biological history.