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.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Oddbills 4

Another in a sporadic series on more-than-usually remarkable bird bills; here's the link to the previous one in the series (and through it to earlier ones). As on that occasion, you get a special offer today - two for the price of one; both are parrots, and both are endemic to the south-west corner of Australia, long isolated from the rest of the continent by aridity and limestone plains. Quite independently, these two species have developed a highly specialised upper mandible, extremely slender and protruding - and both have done so for the same reason, to exploit a remarkably rich food resource, available all year round, provided by just one of the hundreds of species of eucalypts found in the south-west. 

This species is Marri, Eucalyptus calophylla, found (most often in association with Jarrah, E. marginata) as a defining species in huge areas of dry eucalypt forest that dominate the south-west hinterland.
Marri-Jarrah dry forest near Bannister; the Jarrah has fibrous bark, the Marri's (see also below) is in little plates.

The food source that our (still anonymous) stars today are after however is found in the distinctive big fruits, in which hundreds of seeds are produced. The fruits can form all year round, and within them seeds continually ripen over a long period; each seed is tiny, but the overall resource is huge and is particularly important in winter when other food is scarcer.
Marri fruit, John Forrest National Park.
These impressive seed-producers can be 50mm long and 35mm wide; when ripe, they are also formidably tough.
A very few birds - notably Carnaby's Cockatoo Calyptorhynchus latirostris - have the tools to simply crush the fruit walls, but our subjects for today are more subtle than that.
Red-capped Parrot Purpureicephalus spurius, Albany,
a truly glorious bird, fairly large and the sole member of its genus.
The key feature of the Red-capped Parrot from our perspective however is the extended upper bill, fairly clear in this picture. Experienced older birds show great dexterity in nipping off the hard ripe Marri fruit, holding it in one claw, testing it and, if it is of good enough quality, rotating it while inserting the upper bill to extract the fruit. (Green fruit are simply chewed apart.) An earlier study found that 54% of Red-capped Parrots in winter had been eating Marri seed. 

Today's second Oddbill is a very close relative of Carnaby's Cockatoo mentioned earlier; indeed Baudin's Cockatoo is virtually indistinguishable in the field - unless you can get close enough see the bill. The long-used names of Short-billed and Long-billed Black-Cockatoo in fact seem eminently more useful. Baudin's has a long slim upper mandible like the Red-capped's, and for exactly the same purpose.
Baudin's Cockatoos Calyptorhynchus baudinii (named for French commander Nicolas Baudin, leader of one the most splendid exporatory expeditions ever to visit Australia, in the first years of the 19th century),
Stirling Ranges National Park.
The special mandible is not as clear as it is in the Red-capped, largely because the bill is part-hidden in feathers; in this pair it can best be seen in the female on the left.
Baudin's Cockies are even more dependent on Marri than the Red-Capped Parrot, with wood-boring grubs comprising most of the rest of the diet. Like the Red-cappeds, they are experts at extracting the seeds without damaging the fruits. Unlike the Red-cappeds though, they are listed as Endangered, both by the IUCN and the Western Australian government. The single population is estimated to comprise between 10,000 and 15,000 birds; the main threat formerly was habitat clearance, while now it is regarded as a mix of loss of mature Marri trees (the key food source), competition for nesting hollows with feral Honeybee colonies, and illegal shooting (primarily by orchadists).

We can only hope that this superb product of evolution can survive our assaults on it.


Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Australian Bird Names; a new book

I don't generally advertise here, but I thought my new book - co-authored with friend, colleague and linguist Jeannie Gray - might be of interest to those who read this blog. 
It's been out for a little while, but I'm mentioning it now because it's just been awarded a Whitley Certificate of Commendation. I don't expect that to make you sit up and take notice, but in its own little field it's fairly prestigious. The Whitley Book Awards are granted annually by the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales for Australian zoological books published during the year; ours was judged to be "best book in the category Zoological Resource".

We believe it to be unique, and not just in Australia. Jeannie used her knowledge of Greek and Latin to elicit the meanings of names of every Australian bird species - family, genus and species - but perhaps more significantly tracked down and translated the original descriptions in a range of languages where there were ambiguities or uncertainties. I tried to extract every name ever used in English for each species, and to explain why. Needless to say we came across some great stories in the process. You won't be too surprised to hear that some of these contain some humour.

Anyway, that's enough skiting from me; here's the publisher's link to the book if you're interested.

Thanks for bearing with me; normal business will be resumed on Thursday!

Monday, 14 October 2013

Fifty Shades of Red

Not really one of my intermittent series on colours in nature - though I'll come back for another of those soon enough - but rather in the footsteps of an earlier posting wherein I explored some of the often ingenious ways that taxonomists have come up with to describe, or sometimes just imply, black in a name. The field would seem to be even more wide open with red, since there is technically only one black, whereas we use 'red' loosely to cover a range of shades or even colours.

In the illustrations I've used here, we can see that taxonomists have not only used a variety of ways to describe red and similar colours, but have often used the same word to describe what we would probably see as very different colours. However to be fair, basic Latin words for red, notably rufus and ruber, meant either red or reddish when used by the Romans too. For instance, Red Kangaroo Paw and Rufous Treecreeper share the same species name (allowing for gender endings), but are not at all the same colour.
Red Kangaroo Paw Anigozanthus rufus, south-west Western Australia.

Rufous Treecreeper Climacteris rufa, Porongurup NP, Western Australia.
Ruber likewise means either red or reddish; here are some examples from each of three biological kingdoms!
Starfish or Stinkhorn Fungus Aseroe rubra.Found throughout eastern Australia and much of the Pacific,
this species apparently mimics an open wound,
in smell as well as appearance, to attract flies which disperse the spores!
Escallonia rubra, Family Escallionaceae, Salto Petrohue, southern Chile.
Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, nesting on Lady Elliott Island, Queensland.
Here the species name means exactly the same as the English name.
And for hedging bets, it would be hard to go past the next one, whose name potentially at least means 'reddish-ish'.
Blushing Tiny Greenhood Orchid Pterostylis (Speculantha) rubescens, Black Mountain, Canberra.
The Greek equivalent is eruthros/erythros, which also appears in both plant and animal names.
Red Bloodwood Eucalyptus erythrophloia, Cooktown, tropical Queensland.
The allusion is, like the common name's, to the wood, literally 'red-wood'.
(This is not the only eucalypt referred to as Red Bloodwood by the way.)
Red-kneed Dotterel Erythrogenys cinctus, Diamantina River, far western Queensland.
This time it's the genus name containing red, in combination, thus 'red-kneed' like the common name.
(And no, it's not really the knee, but we can discuss that another time.)
This single-species genus evolved on the inland waterways as Australia dried out in the last few million years.
Other words used have more specific meanings in the original, though this hasn't always apparently reflected the organism described. For instance kokkinos is the Greek (in transliteration) for scarlet, generally agreed to be a bit on the orange side of red.
Notro Embothrium coccineum Family Proteaceae, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.

Scarlet Banksia Banksia coccinea Family Proteaceae, near Albany, Western Australia.
Both these examples are pretty fair renderings of the colour as we understand it, but this isn't always the case when the Greek phoenicius is employed. This is usually translated as purplish-red, or even violet, so these examples might seem surprising.
Flame Robin Petroica phoenicia, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
Here the common name seems more appropriate.
Bottlebrush Callistemon phoenicus, Cape le Grande NP, Western Australia.
Perhaps this one is a bit closer to the intent.
Then there are names based on allusion or analogy. The Latin ferrugineus refers to rusty iron, and some of the applications of this one again seem unexpected.
Diplolaena ferruginea Family Rutaceae, Badgingarra NP, Western Australia.
I guess here it depends on whether the author was looking at the more obvious red stamens
or the definitely rusty sepals.

Pimelea ferruginea, Woody Island, Western Australia.
I find this one distinctly odd! (The name, not the delightful flower.)
Andean Ruddy Duck Oxyura ferruginea, El Calafate, Argentina.
This one seems pretty unequivocal.
Austral Parakeet Enicognathus ferrugineus, Chilean Patagonia.
While it might seem a little strange to name the entire bird 'rusty' for the tail, the colour seems convincing enough.
This parrot is found further south than any other, way down to about 52 south, at the tip of South America.
Likewise the implication of the Latin sanguineus, bloody or blood-coloured, would seem pretty unequivocal, but not so it seems.
Dark-banded Greenhood Orchid Pterostylis sanguinea, Perth.
Maybe dried blood?
However, in other places it has been much more obviously appropriately-used.
Scarlet Honeyeater Myzomela sanguinolenta, Cape Hillsborough NP, Queensland.
Here the derived word sanguinolenta implies 'blood-filled'.
Of course names usually tell us more about ourselves than the organisms, but it can be fun - and sometimes even instructive - to explore them. Not to mention an excuse to introduce you to some plants and animals you might not have been familiar with.


Friday, 11 October 2013

Refugio Paz de las Aves; a good news ecotourism story

Ecuador is a wonderful destination for anyone who cares about nature, and it seems that the government actually realises this. One of the wonderful things about the country to me is that it has an official National Avitourism Strategy! I wish my country did... An important part of the strategy is the involvement of local communities in helping people see the astonishingly rich birdlife of Ecuador - in just 280,000 square kilometres (about the size of Victoria, for my Australian readers) there are some 1600 bird species, which is an amazing 15% of the world's total, and more than half of all South America's! One of the cornerstones of birding tourism in Ecuador is the rich Mindo Valley area, a little north-west of Quito, part of the Chocรณ cloudforest bioregion, one of the world's biodiversity hotspots. Many people have worked to protect and promote it, significant among them being members of the Mindo Cloudforest Foundation, but one resident, a quiet smiling man, has earned a place in birding folklore.

Ten years ago Angel Paz and his family were poor farmers, contributing in their small way to the incremental loss of the cloud forests. Today they are regarded as pioneers and leaders in cloud forest conservation tourism. Until recently their place - open only through bookings - was better known as Paz de las Antpittas, but the more general name seems now to be preferred. Paz in Spanish means peace; 'Peace of the Birds' is a lovely name, apart from the allusion to the family behind it.
Angel Paz (and a blogging birder you may have heard of).
Photo courtesy of Juan Cardenas - gracias amigo!
In 2004 Angel discovered a small Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek in a forest gully and, encouraged by local bird lodges to diversify his income, he built a track down to it to attract birding visitors. 
Cloud forest, Paz de las Aves.
During the building process he noticed a plain bird following him in the hope of obtaining worms; all he knew of it was that it was edible. Fortunately on this occasion he resisted any temptation in that direction, and local ecotourism operators convinced him that if the cocks were silver attractions to birders, then Giant Antpittas were pure gold. 
Giant Antpitta Grallaria gigantea, Paz de las Aves.
Antpittas (not at all related to 'real' pittas) are a group of mostly ground-dwelling members of the uniquely South American funariids, notoriously hard to see anywhere - until the advent of Angel Paz.
Angel took to feeding the birds with worms. It took months, and persistence in the face of objections from his wife who suggested on more than one occasion that there were better ways of spending his time than feeding his forest chooks, but eventually individuals of four different antpitta species had become habituated. These birds are notoriously shy and hard to see, so the concept of them coming out to a group of visitors is remarkable. 
Ochre-breasted Antpitta Grallaricula flavirostris, Paz de las Aves.

Yellow-breasted Antpitta Grallaria flavotincta, Paz de las Aves.
Chestnut-crowned Antpitta Grallaria ruficapilla, Paz de las Aves.This is a relatively recent addition to Angel's successes; I first saw it there in 2014.

Moustached Antpitta Grallaria alleni, Paz de las Aves.
Angel has tried tempting them with worms from the garden, but they are adamant that free-range forest worms are best, requiring a lot of work on his part. 

These are not the only birds he has patiently trained to come to his call to feed either. Dark-backed Wood-quail Odontophorus melanatus are New World quail, not related to the Old World quail; it is another heart-breaker of a bird to find normally - my trusty Ecuadorean field guide says it is normally encountered "only by chance". Not so at Paz de las Aves.
Dark-backed Wood-quail, Paz de las Aves, another dream-like encounter.
Here the attraction is not worms, but fruit.
By now nothing should surprise about Angel's abilities, but when I returned in 2012, the latest addition to his list of bird familiars still startled me. Tapaculos are another almost mythically skulking group of dense forest ground-dwellers, also funariids. A bird often heard in the Ecuadorean cloud forest where its piercing whistle carries long distances - but almost never seen - is the wonderfully named Ocellated Tapaculo Acropternis orthonyx, an unusually large and spectacularly coloured tapaculo.
Ocellated Tapaculo, Paz de las Aves.
As I sat within a very few metres of this extraordinary bird, I could scarcely believe what I was seeing.
Reserve managers now come to Angel from other parts of Ecuador and further afield to learn the tricks of the trade. I understand that different species of antpittas in Peru and Colombia at least are now being attracted by regular worm-feeding. 

Angel's fruit-feeders attract many other very special forest birds too, especially at that period when the rainforest fruiting trees are drying up. 
Black-chinned Mountain Tanager Anisognathus notabilis (above),
and Sickle-winged Guan Chamaepetes goudotii (below),
both succumbing to the lure of Angel's bananas.

I should note that the birds are in no way permitted to become dependent on the hand-outs, which are strictly limited. And there are of course many birds which do not have any interaction with people, but are present simply because of the excellent habitat. The remaining three photos, all taken at La Paz de las Aves, are of mostly indifferent quality, but they portray very special birds; I trust you will forgive me.
White-faced Nunbird Hapaloptila castanea, a very rarely encountered bird and this is the only one I've seen
Orange-breasted Fruit-eater Pipreola jucunda, a delightful little cotinga.
Toucan Barbets Semnornis ramphastinus, one of my favourite South American birds,
not least for their wonderful honking duets.
It has relatively recently been recognised that the New World barbets are not closely related to the Old World ones; the Toucan Barbet and one other species are now placed in another family again.
Golden-headed Quetzal Pharomachrus auriceps.Truly a glorious bid; pity about the branch in front of it!
Today the Paz forest is a must for any visiting birders, the family is comfortably off, and they have diversified into fruit growing, which in turn attracts more birds. It is very hard to see a downside to the story, and I'm sure there will be more spinoffs as the word spreads further.

Try to visit Ecuador if you possibly can, and be sure to include a visit to La Paz de las Aves when you do so. Things change there constantly; you probably won't see all of these species in one visit, but on the other hand you're very likely to see others. That's the joy of it.


Wednesday, 9 October 2013

When Nature Satirises Art...

The view from over the fence of a very fancy and pricey-looking winery-cum-conference centre in the Margaret River area of far south-western Western Australia.
Whether this Little Black Cormorant Phalacrocorax sulcirostris was perfecting the pose or just taking the mickey,
I reckon she just about nailed it.
The statue's right arm might offer a hint as to her motives though.


Tuesday, 8 October 2013

On This Day, 8 October; birth of William Swainson - parrot and goose

William Swainson, a passionate and skilled English naturalist and artist, was born on this day in 1789. Unfortunately his passion seemed to blind him to his own limits at crucial points of his career, a myopia which can either lead to greatness, or – as in his case – a tumble into something malodorous.

At the age of 14 he followed his father into the customs service, but already the lure of natural history was loud in his ears and in order to travel he joined the army (not as a combatant, but on the staff of the Commissary-General) and spent years immersed in the plants and animals of the eastern Mediterranean. Unspecified illness forced him from the army at age 26 on half-pay to pursue his real love, which by now was further empowered by discovering and developing his considerable skills as an artist. Crucially this happened at just the time that the new process of lithography was being introduced, enabling an artist to draw directly onto a stone printing block (with a waxy pencil, to which oily inks adhered) rather than having to rely on an engraver to accurately interpret the artist’s work on a copper plate. Teams of colourists hand-coloured the books, following the artist’s colour template. This was a revolution akin to modern publishing software, allowing artists to self-publish. 

Swainson did just that, pioneering the technique among naturalists, following a trip to Brazil which he undertook almost as soon as he left the army. He was not the first or last naturalist to succumb to the call of the tropics. Nor was he the first or last to have trip to the tropics disrupted by political upheaval, but he collected enough to begin a series of subscription-paid books of Brazilian birds, and of shells, on which he had become an authority. They were published in sections, each section subsidising the next.

Several bird names were published by him, including some Australian ones. He was sufficiently respected for the French ornithologist Anselme Desmarest to name a particularly spectacular Australian parrot in his honour.
male Superb Parrot Polytelis swainsonii, Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Canberra.
Additionally, bird species from Africa and the Americas were also named for him, though not all the original names have survived.
Swainson's Thrush Catharus ustulatus, Mindo Valley, Ecuador.
This species was named by the US-based English ornithologist Thomas Nuttall.
Meantime, most unfortunately, he had enthusiastically espoused the new classification system developed by WS MacLeay, the Quinary system. (MacLeay had already been a diplomat and judge in the Spanish-English slave abolition commission in Cuba and went on to play a major role in Australian entomology.) It was a serious attempt at classification, but from our perspective it was also seriously loopy. Groups of animals were allocated to one of three circles, containing respectively ‘typical’, ‘subtypical’ and ‘aberrant’ members of the group. The ‘aberrant’ circle was further divided into three circles (hence the five of the quinary). Associations of species in different circles were linked with lines. The leading biologists of the day took an interest – then shied away from its utter arbitrariness and irrelevance to the real world. Not Swainson though. He was excited by the evident links between tigers and zebras, on the basis that both are ‘striped and impossible to tame’. Or baboons and whales with ‘head very large, little or no tail’, or macaques and rodents with ‘tail relatively long, hare-lipped’. This did not enhance his standing, but it didn’t totally destroy it either.

Cheaper book printing processes also developed at this time, and Swainson contributed to the revolution in learning which accompanied the availability of affordable books by writing for Dionysius Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopedia series. He produced 11 volumes on a wide range of topics before the difficulties of working with Lardner got too much for him and he emigrated to New Zealand. The question of the relative contribution to this move of his problems with Lardner and the fall-out from the Quinary episode is unclear; both are cited as reasons.

He should probably have stayed in New Zealand, though Maori land claims over ‘his’ estate meant it wasn’t an entirely happy time. However, for reasons and in ways not at all clear, he was head-hunted in 1853 by the Victorian government to work on the colonial tree flora; as far as I can determine he had never published or even shown any particular in botany before. Beware the late arrival in a field. With explicit disdain for those who had gone before, he listed in his report 1520 Victorian ‘gum trees’ and 213 casuarinas (where we now recognise about 14). He would have done more but ran out of names… 

He died two years later back in New Zealand. He predicted ‘surprise and almost incredulity amongst the botanists of Europe’. Indeed. Sir William Hooker of Kew – a man noted for his tolerance and tact – wrote to von Mueller “in my life I think I never read such a series of trash and nonsense. There is a man who left this country with the character of a first rate naturalist, and of a very first rate natural history artist, and he goes to Australia and takes up the subject of botany, of which he is as ignorant as a goose.”

Given this, the existence of the Australian pea genus Swainsona might seem surprising, but in fact it honours William’s much older cousin Isaac, botanical garden owner, herbalist – and purveyor of apparently quack medicines.
Swainsona galegifolia, Liverpool Range, New South Wales.
Perhaps William should have left the plant side of biology to him; it’s probably better to be remembered as a parrot than a goose.


Friday, 4 October 2013

Living on the Nullarbor

In the last posting I waffled enthusiastically about the wonderful Nullarbor Plain, and summarised the drive across in terms of the physical environments and vegetation encountered. Needless to say there is plenty of wildlife to see too, though much of it is small and tends to keep its collective head down out of the wind and out of view.This is not true of all animals though.

Dingo, Canis lupus dingo, east of Nundroo.
These Australian wolves can be seen anwhere, at any time of the day. See here for more information.

Crimson Chat Epthianura tricolor, Head of the Bight.
Note that Australian chats have no relationships with anything called a chat in other lands;
we now know in fact that they are true honeyeaters.
Birds however are probably more evident in the treed sections either side of the treeless plain.
Major Mitchell Cockatoo Lophochroa leadbeateri, near Nundroo.
This truly glorious cockatoo is thinly scattered across the arid inland.
Yellow-plumed Honeyeater Lichenostomus ornatus, Nundroo, gleaning scale insects from mallee eucalypt leaves.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides pair, Eucla.
The dragon lizard in the claws of the larger female on the right is a reminder that, as throughout dry Australia,
lizards are a dominant life form here.
Indeed, the animal you're most likely to see with some regularity in warm weather is the aberrant skink that I grew up calling affectionately Sleepy Lizard, but which is more generally known as Shingleback Tiliqua rugosa. They are regularly encountered crossing the road and some certainly don't get to the other side, but it does seem to me that drivers may be showing more lizard-awareness than in times past. The number of casualties seems low relative to the number of live ones seen, given that they are pretty ambling by nature, and have the unfortunate habit of stopping to threaten the car that's just passed, instead of getting off the road.
Tiliqua rugosa
Tiliqua rugosa
Tiliqua rugosaTil
One of the many endearing things about Shinglebacks is that they seem to pair for life, an unusual behaviour among reptiles - indeed among animals in general.
Much more to be said about these animals, one of my very favourites, in a post to come!
However, there is one animal, a mammal, which is probably the one that most people making the crossing between May and October make a special effort to see. These days though, thanks to the Yalata Aboriginal Community which runs the excellent interpretive centre, and the South Australian Parks Service, the effort to see this spectacular animal is minimal. In fact, I suspect this is one of the world's truly great land-based whale-watching experiences.
From this platform on top of the spectacular Bunda Cliffs can be seen at close quarters....
Tail of Southern Right Whale Eubalaena australis, immediately below the cliffs.
In May these mighty animals begin to appear in the Bight - and other southern Australian waters - having migrated north from the far Southern Ocean where they spend summer. Initially only adults are present, but by August females are starting to give birth in the sheltered on-shore waters.
Southern Right Whale with calf.
This youngster was becoming adventurous, swimming away from mum, but not for long.
At birth the calf already weighs a tonne, but on a diet of very rich milk gains 50kg a day.
A female only has one baby every three years.
They are baleen whales - that is, they sieve plankton and small animals through baleen plates,a filter of long bristles along the upper jaw.

The baleen can be seen clearly in this adult - as can the callosities, raised roughened patches of skin - which are used to identify individual animals.
The adults weigh up to 50 tonnes and are up 17 metres long. Like all the great whales they suffered terribly from over-hunting, well into the 20th century; being slow and having a body which floats after death, they were regarded as the 'right' whale to hunt by inshore whalers. Once they were in vast numbers - the Tasmanian governor once complained that their 'snoring' in the Derwent River kept him awake at night, and it was dangerous to navigate the river in winter. Numbers crashed from an estimated 65,000 - 100,000 originally to perhaps 300 in the 1920s. At least 150,000 were killed during the 19th century. A single animal reported off Western Australia in 1955 was apparently the first in Australian waters for the century. Despite theoretical world-wide protection recovery was very slow - explained in part by a later confession by Russia that they had continued illegally killing the species in the Antarctic during the Soviet 1960s. 

There may be now 15,000 Southern Right Whales in the world, a steadily increasing number; some 2,000 of those visit southern Australian waters.

A group of four Southern Right Whales from the viewing platform - truly a thrilling sight. There were at least 10 present during our visit in late September.

There are many reasons to cross the Nullarbor, as I tried to explain last time; this one alone however surely is enough.