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.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Bénoué National Park

I'm a big fan of woodlands; OK, I like any natural habitat, but the openness of woodlands, along with their generally rich wildlife, makes for a great natural history experience. Generally you go to central-west Africa primarily for rainforest, but there are some great woodland reserves too, and Bénoué National Park in central Cameroon is a treasure. It's huge - some 180,000 hectares - and has been reserved for over 80 years; it was officially declared a national park in 1968.

Woodland, Benoue National Park

Cameroon is in the 'armpit' of Africa (don't go reading any double entendre into that!). Colonised by Germany in the 1880s, it was divided between France and Britain after World War I, finally achieving unity and independence in 1961. French and English are the official languages, though English is limited to a relatively small area in the south-west.

Benoue National Park is indicated by the red arrow, bounded to the east by the Benoue River and to the west by the main south-north highway.
Cameroon is not always an easy country for westerners; infrastructure is widely dilapidated, roads are often appalling, and the regular military and police road blocks (whose main purpose is to extract petty bribes from drivers) can be intimidating. Nonetheless, there is not evident grinding poverty and people in general are cheerful and welcoming. Given the levels of corruption reported, I was not optimistic about the state of the parks - indeed we were warned that poaching had seriously damaged Bénoué - but in the event this park at least had good levels of fairly relaxed wildlife. It is surrounded by hunting 'reserves'.
Loder's Kob male, Kobus loderi, Benoue National Park.
This relatively recently recognised species is found across central Africa from Nigeria to western Sudan.
Accommodation in the park is basic but quite adequate, a mix of traditional rondavels (yes, I realise that's a South African term, but it's what they look like!) and less elegant rooms, set above the mostly sandy river.
Benoue accommodation. ('My' room below.)
Dining room - however it's a case of 'bring your own cook'!
An aspect perhaps unexpected to an Australian at least was the presence of people living in the park. I know nothing of their history; it could be that their families were there when the park was declared. One assumes there must be some impact on wildlife, but again I'm unable to comment.
Children of Benoue; I couldn't make out what the game was.
Nonetheless, there were certainly mammals to be seen immediately below the accommodation, in the river bed. 
Olive Baboon Papio anubis; not tame, but not intimidated by us. A powerful species, found right across central Africa.
Red-flanked Duiker Cephalophus rufilatus; tiny and shy!
We spent a lot of time by the river, but en route we did see some impressive birds.
Abyssinian Ground Hornbills Bucorvus abyssinicus; very early morning, not much light - sorry.
In the case of their facial adornments, it's blue for girls, red for boys.
Black-bellied Bustard Lissotis melanogaster female.
Unlike some of the species already mentioned, this superb beast is found throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa.
This however was our destination and we spent a very pleasant and rewarding morning here - though the residents (below) were highly suspicious of us.

The main goal was the rare and localised Adamawa Turtle-Dove Streptopelia hypopyrrha, a west African special - we didn't see it there, but to be honest I was more than happy with what I did see, though the light was awful, overcast and glarey, as you'll see in the following pictures.
Guereza Colobus Colobus guereza (it goes by a variety of common names);
surely one of the most beautiful of all monkeys, and one I'd long wanted to see.
I spent quite some time with this family of eight or so.
I also saw a bird I never thought to - the strange Egyptian Plover Pluvianus aegyptius, not a plover, long thought to be a pratincole, now given its own family Pluvianidae all to itself.
Egyptian Plover, also called the Crocodile Bird for its supposed habit of providing dental hygiene service to crocs;
sadly this doesn't actually seem to be based on fact.
Two kingfishers - none the less delightful for being common species and widespread through Africa - featured at the waterhole too. Unlike most kingfishers, these two actually do make a living plunging for fish and other water animals.
Giant Kingfisher Megaceryle maxima; this beauty lays claim to being the world's largest kingfisher, though the title is hotly disputed by our own Laughing Kookaburra.
Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata, is one of the smallest, barely a quarter the Giant's size.
The bee-eaters, one of my favourite bird groups, are kingfisher relatives (same Order anyway), and this was the first time I'd seen the glorious Red-throated Bee-eater Merops bullocki.
Red-throated Bee-eater, being especially confiding.
It was hot, the beer at the accommodation was room temperature (ie about 35 degrees), the water pump wasn't working (so no showers or flushing toilets) and the little sweat bees were relentless.
Sweat Bees; the term is used for a wide variety of bees that are attracted to excreted salt, but fortunately in Africa they are mostly stingless little characters in the same family as honeybees, Apidae.
Nonetheless I remember Bénoué fondly. Oh, and in the end we did see the Adamawa Turtledove, albeit somewhat distantly!

I don't suggest you alter your travel plans to take in Bénoué - or even Cameroon, though there's plenty to see there - but if you happen to be in the area...


Friday, 26 July 2013

Fifty Shades of Black

This is not really another in the intermittent series on colours in nature; it's rather about some of the amazingly diverse (and creative) ways in which taxonomists have sought to say simply that an organism - or part of it - is black. One simple way is to use the Latin ater, implying 'dull' or 'gloomy' black.
Black Tiger Snake Notechis ater, Twin Creek Reserve, Western Australia.
(This species is often now regarded as a subspecies of Tiger Snake N. scutatus.)
Another is niger, also Latin, suggesting glossy black (one English manifestation of it is in the word 'negro').

Black Caiman Melanosuchus niger, Blanquillo Lodge, Peruvian Amazon.
(The genus name means 'Black Crocodile', in case you missed the point; we'll get to melano- soon.)
No-one said names have to make sense of course; Black Caimans aren't particularly glossy, and White-cheeked Honeyeaters are even less so; in fact much of them isn't black at all!
White-cheeked Honeyeater Philydonyris niger, Lesueur National Park, Western Australia.
Variants of both these words can be used to describe 'degrees of blackness', or to specify black bits of the organism. 
Undertaker Orchid Pyrorchis nigricans; here the implication is 'blackish'.
Both this and the common name seem weird until you know that the pressed specimens went black in transit!
(It only flowers after a fire.)
Black Falcon Falco subniger, Bladensburg National Park, Queensland.
In other words, 'a bit less than black'!

Pied Butcherbird Cracticus nigrogularis, Lake Logue Nature Reserve, Western Australia.
The 'black throat' of the name is obvious here.

Black-headed Skimmer Crocothemis nigrifrons, National Botanic Gardens Canberra.
The species name just means 'black-fronted'.
 A derivative of ater is atratus, meaning 'clothed in black', or 'in mourning'.
Black Swans Cygnus atratus, Canberra.
Another option would be the Greek melas, but for some reason that is rarely used alone; the Long-finned Pilot Whale Globicephala melas is one of the very few examples I know of (and I'm afraid I can't illustrate it!). However melano- is often used in combination to describe a black aspect of the plant or animal. Blackwood Wattle is Acacia melanoxylon, though the wood isn't what we see when look at the plant! It is however a popular cabinet timber.There are many examples among birds in particular.
Noisy Miner Manorina melanocephala, Canberra; an abundant and pugnacious honeyeater.
Its black head distinguishes it from other miner species.
Black-breasted Buzzard Hamirostra melanosternon, Uluru National Park, Northern Territory.
Both common and species names refer to the same obvious feature.
Other black-implying names are more allegorical or even poetic. Fuliginosus for instance means literally sooty.
Black Currawong Strepera fuliginosa, Cradle Mountain, Tasmania

Black Kangaroo Paw Macropidia fuliginosa, Lesueur National Park, Western Australia.
This fabulous plant really does look sooty too!

Western Grey Kangaroo Macropus fuliginosus, Broken Hill, New South Wales.
A bit more imagination required here, though it's darker than the other grey kangaroo species.
Carbo, Latin for charcoal, is in similar vein.
Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, Narooma New South Wales.
Linnaeus named this bird Pelecanus carbo; it would certainly be a very black pelican!
Dusky Moorhen Gallinula tenebrosa, Adelaide.
According to John Gould who named it, this is a bird of shadows or dark places!

And black has long been associated with funerals, especially in western traditions, so perhaps it's not surprising that 'funereal' has been used as a descriptor of some black animals.
Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo Calyptorhychus funereus, Murramurang National Park, New South Wales.
Well, it's been fun, but maybe a slightly brighter topic next time!


Tuesday, 23 July 2013

These Wallabies Rock!

If you came here hoping for some material on the Australian Rugby team, my apologies; whether they rock remains to be seen in weeks to come... No, this is a tribute to one of my favourite marsupial groups - indeed, one of my favourite mammal groups - the elegantly beautiful rock-wallabies. 

It seems that their ancestors were small rainforest dwellers; as the land began to dry out in the last 20 million years, the general belief is one branch of the group remained in the shrinking rainforest and still survive as the pademelons, while the rockies adapted to the increasing aridity.

Red-necked Pademelons Thylogale thetis, Mount Clunie, northern NSW.
More recent, and surprising, chromosomal studies suggest that their most recent connections were in fact with the tropical tree-kangaroos.

Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroos Dendrolagus lumholtzi, Malanda, Atherton Tableland, Queensland.
Whichever was the last link with other kangaroos, the rock-wallabies now form a very distinct and coherent group of some 16 species, all in the genus Petrogale (ie 'rock weasel'!), superbly adapted to life on rock stacks and cliffs. Presumably it was in the inland ranges that conditions remained sufficiently amenable for their continued survival. They are scattered right across the country, so are - or were before the advent of foxes and probably dingoes - quite capable of crossing large tracts of open land.

One of the key adaptations is in the feet. Other kangaroos push off with a powerful elongated fourth toe and claw.
Agile Wallaby Macropus agilis, Cape Hillsborough National Park, Queensland.
The powerful long fourth toe and claw are quite visible.
This wouldn't work at all on rock faces, so rock-wallabies have short broad feet, with reduced claws. The gripping and pushing happens underneath; the soles of their feet are thick and spongy and the surfaces are rippled and ridged like sandshoes.
Black-footed (or Black-flanked) Rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis, Alice Springs.
The shorter toes without protruding claws are evident.
The tail too isn't tapered, stiff and smooth like other kangaroos' (see again the Agile Wallaby above), but heavy, cylindrical, flexible and furry. When they run the tail is held high and swivels like a rudder, even helping them change direction in mid-leap.

Another 'unkangaroo-like' trait is in the nature of their care of youngsters newly emerged from the pouch. In other species the 'at foot' young simply follows mum about, suckling from the pouch as required and hopping back in as the mood strikes. Again this would be impractical on a cliff face - dangerous territory for inexperienced youngsters learning , and also for a pouch-carried baby likely to be banged on rocks when mum is hurrying - so the baby is parked in a convenient cave or crevice, to which the mother returns to feed it. When it is strong and confident enough, it embarks on a life on the rock faces. 
Black-footed Rock-wallaby, Alice Springs.
This baby will be left in a safe place while mother feeds, when it gets too big for her to continue to carry safely around.
All rock-wallabies had a common ancestor only 4 million years ago. The Short-eared Rock-wallaby P. brachyotis (and a couple of recently-recognised closely related species) from the north-west, the Proserpine Rock-wallaby P. persephone (a rare and threatened species from the tropical Queensland coast) and the southern inland Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby P. xanthopus, are the oldest and most distinct species.
Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby, Brachina Gorge, Flinders Ranges, South Australia, an 'old rocker'.
This lovely animal also demonstrates how colourful some rock-wallaby species are, relative to other kangaroos.
The most recently arisen are a group of species from the Queensland coast and ranges, whose ancestors came east from the drylands only in the last million years. Indeed some of them have only been recognised in the past 20 years or so, and several are virtually only distinguishable by chromosomes (not a generally useful field characteristic!) and range. 

A life on isolated outcrops has led to serious problems for several species, in combination with disruption and competition from feral goats, and ferocious predation from feral Red Foxes, especially when they are dislodged by the goats and try to cross open country. The once-abundant Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby P. penicillata has virtually gone from its south-eastern range, though captive breeding and re-colonisation programs are proceeding; animals bred at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve have been released in Gariwerd (Grampians) National Park in Victoria.
Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby, Wollomombi Falls, northern New South Wales.
Only in small parts of north-eastern New South Wales and south-east Queensland
is this species still moderately common.
And while I try to hold my anthropomorphism in check, I have to confess that the sheer grace and beauty of the rock-wallabies biases me heavily in their favour. While the bigger Euro Macropus robustus, which often coexists with them, seems to power up the cliffs by sheer force, the rock-wallabies glide, like water improbably flowing uphill.
Euros, Broken Hill; powerful hill-climbing kangaroos.
Yellow-footed Rock-wallaby, Idalia National Park, south-west Queensland; all grace and poise, capable of flying up slopes where not even a toe-hold is obvious to us.
The range of the Yellow-foot is typical of the fractured remnant population of rockies; it is found in the Gawler and Flinders Ranges in South Australia, with a very few in the Barrier Ranges of western New South Wales, and a population in Idalia - all many hundreds of kilometres apart.
I've seen a couple of other species, but not with a digital camera; I intend to try to see more in the years to come. And every time I do, it's a good day.


Friday, 19 July 2013


I'm taking an easy option for today's post I'm afraid; struggling a bit with the lurgy that's going around, and leaving town soon for a significant family birthday in Sydney. 

As I've mentioned (and demonstrated!) before, I make no claims to being a good photographer, but I have fun, and I'm always drawn to shots of the moon in natural situations. For no good reason I'll share a few of those today - maybe they'll inspire you to put up a collection of your much better ones! I'd like to see them. 

First, perhaps my favourite moon shot, taken recently in the northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia, just before it got too dark. (Normally I'd leave the best until last, but you might not read that far!)
Australian Magpie Cracticus tibicen, Arkaroola
You can take 'straight' moon shots, and of course it can be a quite different colour depending on its elevation and atmospheric conditions.
These shots were taken just 23 minutes apart, soon after moonrise, on the south coast of New South Wales.

However I like to include other features; vegetation is an obvious choice.
Through palms, Darwin.
Through Norfolk Island Pines, south coast New South Wales.
Moon over Coolabahs, Idalia National Park, south-west Queensland.
You can't go far wrong with water either.
Moon over the Pacific, Murramarang National Park, southern New South Wales.
Same ocean, moonlight without the moon!

And I'm pretty keen on rocky hills in moonlight too.
Moonrise over Sachsayhuaman, above Cusco, southern Peruvian Andes.
Moon over the Horns, Torres del Paine National Park, southern Chile.
OK, that's enough of that! As I mentioned earlier, I'm hoping this will inspire you to show off some of yours - by all means post a link to them.

(with a more conventional posting...)