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, 28 November 2013

Cicadas; the song of summer

For reasons uncertain (I was a somewhat boring youth who didn't hang around at loud concerts for instance) I have fairly strong tinnitus, which can be a nuisance. Different people report different manifestations, but mine sounds like a chorus of insects - tree crickets or higher-pitched cicadas in particular. This means that I can't always tell if the chorus I'm hearing emanates from inside or outside my head but a week or so ago, during a family visit to Nowra in near-coastal southern New South Wales, I was in no doubt whatsoever. 

Like many cicada species, the very handsome Redeye Psaltoda moerens doesn't appear every year in any given locale, but this year appears to be theirs in that part of the world. From quite early in the day, as the temperature rose towards 20 degrees, the roar of the massed Redeyes filled the world. After a while the steady roar breaks into what's known in the cicada students' world, somewhat quaintly, as 'yodelling'; it sounds like a sawing but melodious "cheee-aw-chee-aw-chee-aw (etc!)"
Redeye Cicada on Spotted Gum Eucalyptus maculata. This species is found throughout near-coastal south-eastern Australia, and has a strong preference for smooth-barked trees, which are probably easiest to penetrate with the strong proboscis to access the sap.
The aggregations typical of this species - and others - can be enormous; I watched a constant stream of Redeyes flying from tree to tree in the yard. They gather to mate, with the males striving to capture the females' attention by the force and persistence of their song.
A few of the Redeye gathering on just one tree - and many had flown away as I approached.
A successful suitor.
This gathering had its genesis in a past one, though for most Australian cicadas we don't know the length of the cycle, though it seems to be some years at least for many species. Like her mother before her, this female will lay her eggs in dead eucalypt branches; they will hatch in 10 to 12 weeks, when the tiny nymphs will hurry down to the ground and enter soil cracks, where they will insert their proboscis into a tree root. The liquid waste they exude helps form a wall to their cell. This is how a cicada spends most of its life - the adult phase that either thrills or exasperates us, depending on our approach to nature, lasts probably no more than four weeks at the most. When the time is right, some years later, the nymph comes up to the light, climbs onto a convenient surface and emerges from the shell at night.
Redeye nymph cases; on the left-hand one the split can be seen along the back where the adult emerged.
Much of the male Redeye's body is designed to sing - his abdomen forms a fearsome resonating chamber, as we can attest, amplifying the sound made by vibrating timbals, corrugated membranes like a wobbleboard on his sides just in front of the abdomen. His song is unique to his species. The energy required to drive it at up to 100 vibrations a second is significant, which is why he can only sing when the temperature reaches a certain level. 

He is a bug - no, really, a member of the Order Hemiptera, characterised by a long sucking proboscis.
Sap-sucking Hemipteran, Kata Tjuta, central Australia.
Cicadas all have such a proboscis (more properly a rostrum), both as nymphs and adults, though it is generally kept tucked away under the body.
The adults insert the rostrum gradually into the bark, inserting saliva and extracting partly digested sap. This is dilute food, and a considerable quantity of water is constantly sprayed from the trees where large numbers of cicadas are feeding. Feeding need not be interrupted by either singing or mating incidentally!

More than one cicada species can cohabit, though only one was present this time, as far as I could see. In a recent Nowra summer however the gorgeous Yellow Mondays were abundant.
Yellow Monday Cyclochila australasiae.
This lovely cicada is very common and comes in a somewhat bewildering array of forms, including the Masked Devil, form spreta, pictured below from the Blue Moutains.
Masked Devil, still the same species as the Yellow Monday.
Other colour forms of this species are known as Chocolate Soldier, Greengrocer and Blue Moon.

Closer to home, around Canberra, cicadas are not as prominent as nearer the coast, though some years we too have massive Redeye eruptions, when a variety of bird species live well for a few weeks. Even up in the Snow Gums in the mountains however cicadas can be found, though the great choruses are rarely heard.
Southern Mountain Squeaker Atrapsalta furcilla on Snow Gum at approximately 1300 metres, Namadgi National Park.
I love the internet! Three years after I tentatively (mis)identified this little cicada, cicada authority
Lindsay Popple read this blog and kindly identified it for me - it was only described in 2016.
See his comment below, with a link to more about it.
As for overseas cicadas, I'm afraid I can't even offer a guess at the identity of this Andean specimen; again, help welcomed!
Cicada, Cuenca, 2500 metres above sea level, Ecuador.
Cicadas are one reason I look forward to summer (or maybe I like cicadas so much because they are emblematic of summer for me). But, you know one good thing about tinnitus? I can hear cicadas all year round!


Monday, 25 November 2013

The 'Other' Flamingoes

I think it's fair to say that, for most people, flamingoes suggest Africa, and with pretty good cause. Even if only gleaned from the telly, most of us have pretty powerful mind images of millions of breeding flamingoes in the great salt lakes of the rift valley of the east, though for me at least the image of hundreds of flamingoes adorning the Strandfontein sewage works in Cape Town, with Table Mountain as a backdrop, is an abiding one. However flamingoes - Greater and Lesser - can pop up almost anywhere in Africa outside of the dry northern hinterland.
Lesser Flamingoes  Phoeniconaias minor, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda
However they are also an important part of the landscape of parts of the Americas too, though in North America only as far north in general as eastern Mexico. Indeed, there are more American species than African ones - four all told. For those unfamiliar with these American birds there is another surprise too - while most of us probably think of flamingoes as warm weather birds, they live way down to nearly 50 degrees south in Patagonia, or up to nearly 5000 metres above sea level in the central Andes.  
Chilean Flamingoes Phoenicopterus chilensis, above and below,
Torres del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.

Chilean Flamingoes belong to the same genus as the Greater Flamingo of Africa (and southern Europe and southern Asia), though the two Andean species - Andean and James's or Puna Flamingoes - are assigned to a different genus Phoenicoparras.
Andean Flamingo P. andinus, Atacama Desert, northern Chile.
Presumably the ancestors of American flamingoes arrived relatively recently and the two high mountain species evolved in that very different world - or perhaps their ancestor arrived first, and the Chilean's more recently. Given the existence of seven million year old fossil flamingo footprints in the Andes I suspect the latter. (At least I keep coming across that 'fact' but haven't yet found the original source of it.) I don't suppose their exact origin matters much, though I'm always intrigued by such things. 

The fourth American species is more conventional in living in tropical and subtropical areas, especially around the Caribbean and in the Galapagos. Traditionally it was regarded as a subspecies of the Greater Flamingo, but more and more it is now seen as a species in its own right, though still closely related - called, without much imagination, American Flamingo Phoenicopterus ruber.
American Flamingoes at sunset, Floreana, Galapagos.
Overall we don't really know where to 'put' flamingoes; they are an ancient group, with affinities to other waterbirds, notably grebes, ducks herons and other waders, but having been around for some 30 million years this is not surprising. The general - but not universal - view now is that they are separate enough to merit their own Order, Phoenicopteriformes. 

They certainly have some very special characteristics, not least being their extraordinary approach to feeding. Try to imagine (but only imagine it, I'd recommend!) eating with your head upside down, so your bill - or equivalent - is pretty much horizontal.

American Flamingo feeding, Isabela, Galapagos.
What the bird in this photo is doing it to separating water and unwanted muddy particles from food items using a large, fatty, highly sensitive tongue with numerous fleshy protuberances (lamellae), complemented by a keeled bill also fringed with fleshy lamellae. The tongue is used as a pump which beats from five to 20 times a minute to suck in beakfuls of muddy water and wrigglies and to expel unwanted gunk via a complex set of movements.

This diet, comprising algae, small fish and invertebrates, leads to another spectacular aspect of flamingoes, their glorious colour.
American Flamingo, Isabela, Galapagos.
In terms of its colour, this bird is definitely what it eats. Its glowing reds and pink are due to carotenoids, derived entirely from its food, and in particular the blue-green algae and shrimps.
In captivity flamingoes on artificial diets gradually fade to grey - which is also the colour of flamingo chicks. Zoos overcome this by adding canthaxanthin to their diets, a carotenoid pigment found naturally in mushrooms, algae, bacteria and some fish - and less naturally in (mostly illegal) 'tanning pills'.
Chilean Flamingoes, east of Coyaique near the Chile-Argentina border in the central Andes.
The striking black wing tips are due to melanin, which confers resistance to wear and is thus found
in the flight feathers of many birds.
And while on the subject of flamingo food, in all the world of birds only flamingoes and pigeons have evolved (quite independently of each other) a 'milk' on which to feed their young. Now you're right of course - it's not really milk, which is by definition a mammalian trick. However, like 'real' milk both pigeon and flamingo 'milk' is a fatty protein produced by glands; that of flamingoes is fattier and has less protein than that of pigeons. Rather than exuding it from external glands, both flamingoes and pigeons produce their 'milk' internally - from the upper digestive tract and the crop respectively. And, both can do what no mammal can - produce it by both parents.

I am a massive fan of flamingoes - as you may have guessed - and I regret that I only missed by a miserable couple of million years the chance to enjoy them in Australia. We had at least seven species in four genera, including our own endemic genus Phoeniconotius, and the ubiquitous Greater Flamingo. It was only the great drying which began about two million years back which led to their extinction, by eliminating the vast inland wetlands.

Nonetheless, my self-centred regret won't bring them back and it's yet another reason to explore other parts of this wonderful world. Next time you go flamingo-spotting, remember the South American option too...
American Flamingoes at sunset, Floreana, Galapagos.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Enter Olinguito

One of my very first postings in this blog asked the question "When is a REALLY lousy photo OK?". My suggested answer to the question then was "when it's the only way to properly tell a story that I think is worth telling". Today, as you may have divined, that situation raises its head again.

The omnivorous family Procyonidae of the Americas (in the Order Carnivora) includes some familiar species, including raccoons and coatis.
South American Coatis Nasua nasua, Manu National Park, Peru.
A widespread and relatively familiar procyonid.
Among the less familiar species is the Olingo Bassaricyon spp. - I use that term because at least until very recently there was some considerable confusion and dispute as to just what constituted an Olingo. Some authorities recognised just one, while others separated out the central American olingos from those of north-western South America. 
Northern Olingo Bassacaryon gabbi, Costa Rica.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Recently the olingo specialists, generally working around Kristofer Helgen at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, did a thorough survey of museum specimens and studied their DNA. It was not particularly startling when they determined that the lowland forms east and west of the Andes apparently represent separate species; others had already suggested that. What was a surprise was their growing realisation that a quite different species of olingo inhabited the cloud forests of the northern Andes, from Colombia to Ecuador and at elevations of 1500 to 2700 metres above sea level. 

Cloud forest at its most typical, Bellavista Lodge, north-western Ecuador.

Museum specimens had been lumped with lowland olingos (though one New York zoologist came close to the truth in the 1920s, but didn't ever publish). It transpired that one had even been exhibited in US zoos in the 1960s and 70s, where it understandably declined to breed with 'other' olingos. Helgen's group realised that cloud forest olingo specimens were consistently smaller, redder and heavier-furred than lowland ones with different dentition; they were named 'Olinguito' (little olingo). A targeted expedition to the historical range actually did find the animal in the wild; in August 2013 a publication officially named it Bassaricyon neblina (ie 'misty'), the first new species of carnivore to be named from the Americas in 35 years.

I'd followed the story with some excitement, but never dreamed that I might have the opportunity to actually meet the Olinguito when I went back to Ecuador last month. However it turned out that Bellavista Lodge (where the above photo of prime Olinguito habitat was taken) had been hosting visits from its local Olinguitos for some time, first when they began sharing in the hummingbirds' nectar from the feeders and later when they were offered bananas at an elevated feeding platform.

It was one of the most amazing wildlife offers I'd ever received when our group was invited to come and observe a pair of this very special animal coming down to this feeder at night. This brings me back to my opening comments on lousy photos - obviously enough no flash is permitted and my basic little camera was struggling. Nonetheless I think this is one of those occasions when sharing poor photos is justified - so far not many people have had the opportunity to see the Olinguito in the wild and I think that in that circumstance almost any pic is better than none. (And in any case you can easily find better ones on the web!)
Above and below; wild Olinguito coming to sample some banana at Bellavista Lodge, north-western Ecuador.

Probably in due course other cloud forest lodges will discover they live with Olinguitos too but meantime Bellavista might be one of your few realistic chances of seeing one! And of course the question, yet again, is 'what else is out there?'...


Friday, 15 November 2013

Olive Pink Botanic Gardens; legacy of a remarkable woman

I'm just back from Ecuador - at least corporally, the whereabouts of my brain is more problematic - but any postings arising from that trip will have to wait until I've had a chance to process photos. Meantime however I'd like to offer another in my periodic series on favourite botanic gardens; see here for the most recent in the series (which links to the previous one, and so on), or check Botanic Gardens under Labels elsewhere on this page.

Alice Springs, in central Australia, has one of the most beautiful settings of any Australian town, set in the desert and nestled against the magnificent MacDonnell Ranges. Its chronic social problems are no secret, but it is still a place which demands and receives the loyalty and love of many people.
Location of Alice Springs, Northern Territory.

Alice Springs looking south from Anzac Hill to Heavitree Gap in the MacDonnell Ranges.
The Todd River - nearly always comprising dry sand - passes through the Gap.
In the east of the town (left of this photo) is one of my favourite parts of town, a peaceful haven called Olive Pink Botanic Gardens - the name might raise eyebrows but it commemorates one of the great characters of Australian history, though few outside of the Centre, or academic anthropological circles, will know of her.

Olive was born in Tasmania in 1884, studied art, and later taught it in Perth and Sydney. Her 'very dear friend' Captain Harold Southern died in the slaughterhouse of Gallipoli in 1915, and she remained single for the rest of her life. Retrenched during the Great Depression in the late 1920s from the New South Wales public service (where she designed posters for the Railways Department) she went sketching in the central deserts, became fascinated by the lives of Aboriginal people, and studied anthropology at Sydney University. The highly influential Adolphus Elkin assisted her to get Australian National Research Council grants to work among the Arrernte people of the central deserts and the Warlpiri of the western deserts. Her published work on the Arrernte was highly acclaimed, but she earned the wrath of the establishment by refusing to publish her Warlpiri studies because they included details of rituals not permitted to outsiders.

She worked to establish a 'secular sanctuary' for Warlpiri where they could come to terms with European encroachment without interference from state or church but was largely thwarted by the academic establishment, which used its influence to deny her access to many communities under government and church control. In Alice Springs she worked as a cleaner at the court house, constantly agitating for social justice for indigenous Australians, in pursuit of which she was unrelenting, 'difficult' and even vitriolic, though it is fair to say that she was probably cantankerous in other matters too. She lost her basic galvanised iron hut and her job, and lived for some years in a tent, finally setting it up on the land where the botanic gardens now stands; by the time she succeeded in getting the area gazetted as a flora reserve in 1956, with herself as Honorary Curator, she was already into her 70s. 

That didn't stop her from working, with Warlpiri assistants, in developing the gardens until she died nearly 20 years later in 1975. When she settled there the land was badly degraded, with most of the shrub and tree cover gone. Famously she assigned names of dignitaries to trees she planted; when she wasn't getting the support she demanded for one of her causes she let the world know by ceasing to water the tree associated with the offending official!

After her death the Territory government took over the site and undertook extensive plantings, exclusively of central Australian species, track and 'theme habitat' construction and development of an interpretive centre. The gardens opened to the public in 1985.

My photos date from my most recent visit, when the area had experienced a run of dry years, so the gardens weren't looking their best - please trust me that they generally look more inviting than these images might suggest, as there was little of the natural herb understorey present. There is a feeling too that resources might not be all one might hope for at present. Of the 16 hectare site, only five hectares are planted; the rest, primarily comprising the adjacent hilly country, is regenerated bushland.

Red Cabbage Palm, Livistona mariae, which grows naturally only in nearby Palm Valley.
Interpretation is excellent, particularly with regard to traditional uses of the plants.

Eremophilas, or Emu Bushes or Fuchsia Bushes, one of the most widespread and beautiful of desert shrub groups, feature in the plantings.
Eremophila christophori, Christophor's Desert Fuchsia or Dolomite Fuchsia Bush, grows only in the Alice Springs area.

Eremophila polyclada, 'Flowering Lignum' for its superficial resemblance (at least when not flowering) to the entirely unrelated sprawling lignums, Muehlenbeckia spp. Its natural occurrence is a little further to the east.
 There is an excellent little cafe where one can enjoyably relax while profitably watching the birds come and go to the artificial watering points in the rocks and to the foliage above.

Yellow-throated Miner Manorina flavigula, a ubiquitous colonial honeyeater,
taking advantage of a little pipe-fed pool by the cafe.
Grey-crowned Babblers Pomatostomus temporalis, an engaging and highly social species, in the trees above the tables.
Australian babblers are not at all related to Old World babblers. (The apparently much larger bird on the right is simply all fluffed up after a dip.)
Perhaps the star bird turns of the gardens however are the Western Bowerbirds Chlamydera guttata, which have bowers near the carpark, though many visitors are unaware of them. 
Male Western Bowerbird displaying to a rival male, showing off his normally hidden pink nape (it is only conspicuous when the neck feathers are raised).
The extraordinary bower, his display arena, decorated with bones, shells, flowers and plastic scraps.
The remarkable bowerbirds deserve, and will receive, their own story here one day; for now, just make sure to look them up when you visit!
Next time you go to central Australia - and I hope it's in your plans - you will inevitably spend some time in 'the Alice'. When you do so, please put time aside for a visit, or two, to the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens, one of its true treasures.