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, 26 August 2013

Magnificent Murchison (the Australian one!)

I have to specify that in the title, because elsewhere in the world people are likely to think of the superb Murchison Falls in Uganda - and they too will get a turn here in due course. I am prompted by my mention in the last posting of Augustus Gregory's mapping of part the Murchison River in 1848. Both features were named for Sir Roderick Murchison, Scottish geologist and president of the British Royal Geographical Society. 

The Murchison River is the second longest in Western Australia, flowing for some 800km from the dry inland Robinson Range to the sea at Kalbarri National Park near Geraldton on the semi-arid Indian Ocean coast, much of the water coming from overflow of salt lakes which fill only during cyclonic summer rains.
The red arrow point indicates Kalbarri and the mouth of the Murchison, flowing from the north-east.
The Murchison Gorge in Kalbarri NP is just magnificent, 80 kilometres of huge red sandstone cliffs above the sharply twisting river bed, with wildflower-rich sandy dry eucalypt woodlands on the plains above.

The Murchison, in the dry season, beneath the cliffs at Ross Graham Lookout, Kalbarri NP.

Dry woodlands, typical of the sandplains of Kalbarri above the Murchison.

"Nature's Window", a wind-eroded feature high above the Murchison.
Down at river level, a quiet pool. While the level is low here, after a dry summer when the cyclones
don't bring rain this far south, the flow can stop altogether.

Mind you, it can still rain there even in the dry season!

Semi-arid Kalbarri NP woodland rapidly becoming awash!
The rocks contain some fascinating stories too.
The tubes are in fact Skolithos - casts of the burrows of  worms that lived in a shallow sea here some 410 years ago.
Another fossil here, almost overlooking the Murchison, is one of the most exciting fossil traces I've ever seen. It marks one of the first forays ashore of a major predator, over 400 million years ago in the Silurian.
These tracks are those of a eurypterid, or 'sea scorpion', the top predator of its time, which
here followed small prey ashore onto a soft muddy shore, where they had doubtless thought they were safe!

Today the predators are generally out of sight, but the wildflowers of the Murchison plains are some of the most spectacular in Australia; let me share a few of my favourites with you.
Tall Mulla Mulla Ptilotus macrocephalus, in almost unimaginably massed flowering; this species is widespread across the arid inland, but I've never seen it like this.
Pink Milkmaids Burchardia rosea,  family Colchicaceae.
One of just five species in the genus,  this beautiful lily is restricted to the Murchison area.
For more about the somewhat mysterious person it was named for, see here.
Two superb big grevilleas light up the plains too, and are not found much further afield from here.
Grevillea candelabroides, above, and
Grevillea petrophiloides (Pink Pokers) below

Wiry Honeymyrtle Melaleuca nematophylla, another magnificent massed display.
And finally, a sandplains representative of one of the most beautiful West Australian genera, the Myrtaceous Verticordias - the genus name means 'heart turner'.
Verticordia monodelpha, guaranteed to turn both hearts and heads!
Which indeed is true of the mighty Murchison itself, and the rest of Kalbarri where it ends its journey. Make a date to get there some time, preferably in late winter or early spring.

I am about to head west myself, though not this far north this time, taking a group of people to explore the rich south-west corner. There'll be lots to talk about when I get back, so please don't forget me!


Wednesday, 21 August 2013

On This Day, 21 August; Augustus Gregory's birthday

Augustus Charles Gregory was born in England on this day in 1819, son of an army Lieutenant. Wounded, his father accepted a land grant in the new Swan River colony (now Western Australia, and struggling badly at the time) in place of an army pension, when Augustus was 10. He went on to become a most successful explorer, though not nearly well enough known, for reasons that I believe to be highly ironic - we'll get to that - and an unusually respected politician. His first remarkable stroke of luck was having as a neighbour the impressive Surveyor-General John Roe, who encouraged Augustus to join the department as a cadet in 1841. His bush skills and general competence led him to be appointed just six years later, still not 30 years old, to lead his first exploring expedition north of Perth, returning with reports of good grazing land and a coal seam. This led to more such engagements, including the mapping of part of the Murchison River and the opening of the country where Geraldton now stands; this was all tough country.
Murchison River, Kalbarri National Park; probably here at least still much as Gregory saw it.
While the biographies tend not to mention it, it is clear that Gregory was already collecting plant specimens and sending them to Ferdinand von Mueller, probably the greatest of the 19th century Australian botanists.

Desert Kurrajong Brachychiton gregorii, central Australia (through a rain-spotted lens!).
The type specimen was collected by Gregory in the Murchison area and sent to von Mueller, who named it.
In 1855 he led one of the great Australian exploring expeditions, the North Australian Expedition which crossed a great unknown swathe of the country from the north-west to Brisbane on the east coast, well over 5000km, mostly on foot. Crucially from a biological perspective, the company included von Mueller, temporarily unemployed while the Victorian government couldn't pay him in his position as government botanist. 16 months after setting out, the expeditioners walked into Brisbane just in time for Christmas.
Baobab, Adansonia gregorii, Gregory National Park (also named for Augustus), East Kimberley, western Northern Territory; collected by von Mueller on the North Australian Expedition and named by him for Augustus Gregory.
Gregory continued collecting for von Mueller on subsequent expeditions, notably the unsuccessful search for the tragic Leichhardt expedition in central Australia. (His lack of success wasn't surprising; Leichhardt had disappeared in 1848 - 10 years previously - somewhere between Brisbane and Perth!)

This was his last expedition and he is seldom mentioned now in the same breath as some of the other great (and a few 'great') explorers. I think he was a victim of his own modesty, humanity and excellent planning. He insisted on exemplary behaviour towards aboriginal people through his lands he passed, and planned meticulously. All of this combined to mean that his teams were content, safe, healthy and always knew where they were - none of which made for exciting news stories! Additionally he didn't talk much about his achievements, and was apparently cheerful and well-liked, which were also probably not newsworthy characteristics.

He became Queensland Surveyor-general, then Geological Surveyor, for 20 years, then entered the Queensland Legislative Assembly where he spent the remaining 23 years of his life attacking government and aligning himself with the conservative squatters' bloc. He was reputedly incorruptible and refused government ministries so as not to compromise himself.
Senecio gregorii, Lasseter Highway, Northern Territory - South Australian border.
Collected by Gregory on the Leichhardt search expedition, and named for him by von Mueller.
Would I have got on with him I wonder? In the bush certainly, but probably not in town. No matter, he was one of our greatest explorers, though unsung, and contributed his share to our knowledge of the north and dry centre. Worth acknowledging I think.
Also on this day, in 1803, surprisingly - because it was more than 15 years since the founding of the British colony at Sydney - the first Koalas known to Europeans were collected from what is now the Wollongong area.


Friday, 16 August 2013

Darwin's Famous (Un)Finches

It was one of the thrills of my natural history life to get off the aircraft at Baltra Airport, an ex-military base in the midst of a typically Galápagos lava field, and suddenly realise that the 'sparrows' around my feet were in fact the famous 'Darwin's Finches'. It was one of those literally breath-taking moments. 
Medium Ground Geospiza fortis and Large Ground Finch G. magnirostris, Baltra Airport; females or immatures.
Distinguishing them is not always easy, but that's not because they're hard to see!
I put the name in quotes advisedly; not only were they not referred to as 'Darwin's' until the 20th century, but we're very confident now that they're not finches. Their actual nature is still somewhat problematic, but the general consensus is that they're probably highly evolved tanagers, whose ancestors - probably like a grassquit, small and plain - blew across the Pacific about a million years ago.

In that time, under immense evolutionary pressures due to living in such an often brutally harsh environment, racked by regular La Niña droughts and El Niño flooding, some 13 species have developed, filling niches occupied elsewhere by groups including warblers, small woodpeckers - and of course finches. For a superbly vivid and rivetting account of their (ongoing) evolution, you can't go past Jonathon Weiner's wonderful The Beak of the Finch; evolution in real time. In large part this is the story of the remarkable Rosemary and Peter Grant, British biologists based at Princeton who have spent 6 months of each of the last 40 years (at least until recently) on little exposed Daphne Major, following, knowing and measuring every finch on the island. The rapidity of changes that they observed in species under such pressures is astounding. It's one of the great stories of modern biology.
Daphne Major at dawn. The expeditioners' landing place is among the low cliffs to the right; no beaches or jetties here!
Among the ground and cactus finches, adult males are black.
Large Ground Finch male Goepsiza magnirostris, Puerto Ayora. The bills are adapted for seed collection, different sized bills being suited to seeds of differing size and hardness.
Common Cactus Finch G. scandens, Puerto Ayora on Opuntia cactus. The bird relies heavily on the Opuntia, for nectar, pollen, fruit and seeds at different times of the year.
Large Cactus Finch Geospiza conirostris, Genovesa.
Similar to Cactus Finch but bigger and more heavily-built; restricted to just four outer islands.
 Living in such a precarious environment requires flexibility and the finches on different islands have adapted to a range of opportunities.
Small Ground Finch G. fuliginosa, Isla Fernandina, gleaning parasites and dead skin from Marine Iguanas.
In some birds the differences in beaks between species - which is the key difference for the most part - is relatively minor. It is reputed that the staff of the hugely significant Charles Darwin Research Centre say that "only God and Peter Grant" can claim to reliably assign a species to every bird encountered. 

The birds are famous because of their role in the growing understanding of the great Charles Darwin as to how species evolve, but the connection wasn't as immediate and clear-cut as is sometimes asserted - mythology has replaced history in some accounts. By that stage of the voyage, they had been away from home for nearly 4 years and were understandably anxious to get home. Perhaps partly because of this Darwin wasn't quite as meticulous as he generally was. At the time of his 1835 five week stay in the Galápagos he was still fairly conservative by the standards of his circle of peers and hadn't yet accepted the concept of species changing. It was another creationist, a young John Gould, who back home identified his finches as a group of closely related species; Darwin hadn't considered that separate but closely related species could exist on islands in sight of each other, and he had to scramble to identify exactly where his specimens had come from. (At the time he was more interested by the mockingbird species.)

It was another 10 years before he wrote, in the second edition of The Voyage of the Beagle: "Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one, small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends." This was truly revolutionary stuff.

For the rest, let me share with you some of the beak variations among other species.
Woodpecker Finch Camarhynchus pallidus, Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz, above and below.
In this species the sexes are indistinguishable. The strong woodpecker-like bill is used to probe crevices and rip bark in search of invertebrate prey. When times are tough in the dry season however, it famously fashions and uses cactus spines and fine sticks to extract nutritious items from hollows.

The massive parrot-like bill of the Vegetarian Finch C. crassirostris is employed to snip off buds, leaves, fruit and seeds, and to strip bark off growing shoots to access sugar-rich sap. Here is a female on Santa Cruz.
Small Tree Finch male C. parvulus, Los Gemelos, Santa Cruz.Its stubby curved bill is specialised for tweezering
insects and grubs from leaf and bark surfacesand extracting larvae from inside soft stems.

Sharp-beaked Ground Finch female Geospiza difficilis, Genovesa.
Genovesa offers the best chance of seeing this often elusive species; this is the one which, on the remote
outliers of Darwin and Wolf, has learnt to peck the base of booby feathers to obtain blood,
giving rise to the somewhat sensationalist name of 'Vampire Finch'.
While all sub-species have the sharp, more slender bill atypical of ground finches, the
others haven't adopted this behaviour.
Green Warbler Finch Certhidea olivacea, Santa Cruz.
A tiny bird with a small fine bill evolved for snapping up small insects.
Older books list jut one species, but two are now recognised, with
Grey Warbler Finch C. fusca restricted to smaller more outlying islands.
And there are another four; I've seen but not yet photographed Grey Warbler and Large Tree Finch and not yet seen the restricted range Medium Tree and Critically Endangered Mangrove Finch. Maybe one day. They are all fascinating birds and if you can possibly get to see them one day, I'd urge you to do so. You'll never be sorry.
Large Ground Finch, Puerto Ayora.

Monday, 12 August 2013

On This Day, 12 August: deathday of Samuel Goodenough

The Reverend Samuel Goodenough, Bishop of Carlisle, died in on this day in 1827. English botanist John Smith, co-founder with Goodenough of the Linnean Society of London in 1788, named the large Australian genus Goodenia for him in 1793. As well as containing some 180 species, nearly all Australian, it is the type genus of a family which includes such well-known Australian genera as Lechenaultia, Dampiera and Scaevola.
Goodenia beardiana, Twin Creeks Reserve, Western Australia.

Goodenia ovata, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
It seems rather ironic that the Bishop, a highly regarded botanist at the time, should have honoured Linnaeus with the name of the still-eminent taxonomic society; he was profoundly appalled by Linnaeus' decision to use the sex organs of flowers as a basic part of his classification system. It wasn't because this system was so arbitrary - Linnaeus knew that, and saw it as merely an essential first 'pigeon-holing' step - but because it wasn't seemly to even acknowledge that flowers had such inelegant dangly bits!

"To tell you that nothing could equal the gross prurience of Linnaeus' mind is perfectly needless. A literal translation of the first principles of Linnaean botany is enough to shock female modesty. It is possible that many virtuous students might not be able to make out the similitude of Clitoria." wrote Goodenough to a fellow Linnean Society member in 1808. It seems that one thing that dismayed him was that ladies would no longer be able to dabble in botany as a genteel hobby.

Presumably ornithologists Nicholas Vigor (Irish) and Dr Thomas Horsfield (from the US) were able to overlook this eccentricity when they named the lovely Red-capped Robin for him "in honour of this most reverend and most erudite man".
Red-capped Robin Petroica goodenovii, Forbes, New South Wales.
Overall I reckon the bishop came out of it rather well, considering.

Today would also have been my dad's birthday; thinking of you Fred.


Thursday, 8 August 2013

An Alphabet of Yellow Flowers

This is another in a periodic series on colours in nature, though it's now a while since I promised to wrap up the mini-series on yellow with a posting on yellow flowers. It seems that not a lot of work has been done on flower pigments (compared with pigments in fruits and vegetables for instance) but it seems agreed that flavonoids are the most important class of yellow-causing pigments in flowers. Yellow is a good colour for insects - they see better at the blue-yellow end of the visible spectrum than at the red end. Today however I just want to have a bit of fun, and parade some of my favourite yellow flowers, beginning with A and ending with Z! 

My intention was to keep it simple, and to show a yellow-flowering species from one genus for every letter of the alphabet, or using a relevant species name if I couldn't find a genus to fit the letter. It almost worked too. Y was never a starter, as there is no Y in Latin; other than that only letter I couldn't come up with anything for was K, perhaps unsurprisingly. Enough blathering, let's start the journey.
Alstroemeria patagonica, in the cold and windy Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
The family, Alstroemeriaceae, is limited to South America.
Bossiaea foliosa, Buccleuch State Forest, west of Canberra.
This lovely pea shrub lights up the entire Snow Gum understorey in early summer in a good season.

Calceolaria biflora, again from Torres del Paine NP.
Current thinking takes it out of Scrophulariaceae and puts it into its own family, Calceolariaceae.
One of several unrelated plants called 'Lady's Slippers' for obvious reasons.
Dillwynia sericea, Silky Parrot Pea, Canberra
A common and distinctive shrub in the dry forests that are my 'back yard'.
Eremophila maculata, south-west Queensland. Family Myoporaceae (or Scrophulariaceae).
A yellow form of a generally red flowering shrub, widespread in inland Australia.
Arbutilon fraseri, western south Northern Territory. This is one where I had to fall back onto the species name, though you might think I'm biased. This Fraser though was Charles, first colonial botanist of New South Wales.
Family Malvaceae; most of this big genus is South American, though there are some 30 inland Australian species.
Gavilea lutea, Torres del P aine NP, Chile.
A spectacular big orchid from grassy areas of the far south of South America.
Hypoxis sp., Ngaoundaba Ranch, central Cameroon.  This is a huge genus of some 150 species found in damp grassy places right across the southern hemisphere, including 10 in Australia. Family Hypoxidaceae.
Isopogon anethifolius, Bundanoon, New South Wales. Family Proteaceae.
An important component, as a genus, of sandy and sandstone heathlands in south-west and south-east Australia.
Jonesiopsi roei, north-east of Perth. And I agree, it's not very yellow, but I was struggling a bit for J.
This one's for the eminent (and some might suggest maverick) Australian orchidologist David Jones.
Labichea lanceolata, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia. Family Caesalpinaceae.
An endemic genus of 14 species found across inland northern Australia.
Microseris lanceolata, Canberra. A widespread, but now uncommon, species of daisy, whose story I told here last yeat.
Nuytsia floribunda, Western Australian Christmas Tree, Torndirrup National Park, family Loranthaceae.
A mistletoe that grows as a tree, drawing water and nutrients from the roots of nearby plants.


Odontoglossum mystacimum, Manu National Park cloud forest, Peru.
A huge orchid genus, with some truly spectacular species;
this is one of my favourites, growing at 4000 metres above sea level.
Podolepis jaceoides, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
I love the 'frayed ends' of the ray florets of these big high country daisies.
Cotton Fireweed Senecio quadridentatus, Family Asteraceae, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.
Definitely yellow flowers, which just protrude beyond the encasing bracts.

Ranunculus sp., Tallong, New South Wales.
The surface cell structure of these buttercups acts as a mirror to attract pollinating insects.

Senna coriacea, Caralue Bluff Conservation Park, South Australia. Family Caesalpinaceae.
The sennas are found throughout inland Australia, brightening entire landscapes sometimes.
Tricoryne elatior, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra. Family Hemerocallidaceae (formerly Anthericaceae and Phormiaceae). A summer-flowering lily of grasslands, one of seven Australian members of the genus
(one of which extends to New Guinea).

Utrichularia odorata, Fogg Dam near Darwin, Northern Territory. Family Lentibulariaceae.
The bladderworts grow in water, trapping tiny animals in senstive 'bags' on the roots.
Viola maculata, Chilean Patagonia.
Was it so unreasonable to expect that violets should be violet - even in South America? Apparently yes.

Waitzia nitida, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
An attractive widespread group of about five dryland Australian paper daisies.


Xyris operculata, Morton National Park, New South Wales.
An enormous genus of wetland plants found mostly in northern South America.
(I bet you didn't think I coud do an X...)
Zygophyllum auranticum, Lake Gilles Conservation Park, South Australia.
Twin-leaves - the direct translation of the genus name - grow naturally from Africa,
via the Mediterranean, to Asia and Australia.

I hope you've had fun, thanks for coming along.