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.

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Farewell to 2014!

Continuing an old tradition (well OK, 12 months old...), I'm going to celebrate the last day of 2014 by selecting just one photo taken in each month of the year. I never make any claims of artistry or anything beyond basic competence for my photos; these are chosen because they bring back particular memories (and to be honest in a couple of instances because I didn't take many photos in that month!). In general too I've tried to select photos I've not otherwise featured this year.

At a personal level it's been a good year - I'm at an age where I need to make sure that every year's a good one - and these photos reflect that. More broadly it's been a bad year to be Australian, having to take responsibility for a government which despises (and/or doesn't understand) science, has dumped on its head our self-image as a compassionate welcoming country to those in need, and which is insisting that the poorest members of society take brutal economic cuts so that big business need take no responsibility at all. This is not the time or place for a rant beyond that; just bear in mind that we're not all like that...

Yellow-billed Spoonbill Platalea flavipes, Jerrabomberra Wetlands Nature Reserve, Canberra.
Taken on a morning visit to one of my favourite local sites, where this beautiful bird had finished feeding for the
time being and was carefully cleaning and aligning each feather in turn.
Another favourite pic from January can be seen here, in the form of a lovely cicada.
Lowland Copperhead Austrelaps superbus, Bruny Island, Tasmania.
Our trip to Tasmania (just us!) was one of the year's highlights and I could have chosen any of dozens
of pics, but the detail of this, especially its air-tasting tongue, appeals to me, as does the memory of this attractive,
venomous but generally very amiable snake crossing a country road.

Well OK, this is one month when I seem not to have taken many pics! (Perhaps I was busy working to make up for the holiday.) However this unusual aggregation of Meat Ants Iridomyrmex purpureus on a morning walk (a training session for volunteer guides) at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve did catch my attention.
I still can't really explain it, unless a nest had been flooded or otherwise destroyed.
Rosy Rozites Cortinarius roseolilacinus, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. Good memories of another walk at Tidbinbilla,
this one an evening stroll when fungi were abundant following good late summer rains. I could have offered a dozen
different fungi here from that walk but I love the colour (and the associated species name) of this, the soil still sitting on the surface from where it forced its way upward, and the tantalising nibble taken from the edge. My bet would be on a wallaby, but I can't be sure; whatever it was, it was clearly not inspired to finish the cap off!
Sunset on the domes of Kata Tjuta, central Australia, through flowering spinifex Triodia sp.
I am spoilt for choice of pics from May, as we took a tour to central Australia and these deserts inspire me
as few other environments can. I could have offered you many animal and plant photos, and
lots of other scenery, but I love watching the sun rise and set over these magnificent domes,
and spinifex hummocks are a key part of arid Australia.
Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus, McKellar Wetlands, Canberra.
This one was easy to choose (though I like some taken in the snowy Brindabellas too), as I can claim
it as the first photo taken in the ACT ever published of this very cryptic and threatened species.
('Published' in this case, on the Canberra Ornithologists' Group email discussion group line.)
The last sighting here was 70 years ago, so no living birder had ever seen one here.
Eastern Yellow Robin Eopsaltria australis, Deua National Park, New South Wales.
A common bird in this part of the world, but a wholly engaging one; this one was very much a part
of our now-annual getaway to a lovely little cabin (no electricity or phone available) on the edge of this
big wild park in the mountains between here and the coast. This stance is typical of this robin,
as it 'perch and pounce' hunts. It was quite uninterested in us sitting outside just a couple of metres away.
Platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.
The only half-decent picture I've ever managed of the marvellous monotreme;
the Sanctuary wetlands at Tidbinbilla are the local hotspot for them.
Hoverfly, Family Syrphidae, at Grasstree, Xanthorrhoea glauca, Goobang NP, New South Wales.
One of my personal highlights of the year was being invited to be the after-dinner speaker at the
Fifth Annual Malleefowl Forum in Dubbo, 400k from here (no, the audience comprised people
who are studying the wonderful birds, not the Malleefowl themselves!). En route we drove through Goobang NP,
an important reserve in the Hervey Range. The Xanthorrhoeas were flowering profusely, huge
spikes two or three metres high, and pollinators were excited, especially the abundant hoverflies.
I've actually got a better pic of the fly perched on the flower, but I like the fact that
this one is doing what it does best - hovering.
Anaconda Eunectes murinus, Napo Lodge, Yasuní NP, Ecuador.
A difficult month for which to select just one photo, as I spent it accompanying a group
of naturalists through Ecuador. However I'd never seen this superb animal in half a dozen visits
to Amazonia and this was a real thrill; it was estimated by the locals as 3-4 metres long
and was admired from a canoe as it rested on floating vegetation. Note the head in the centre.
Speckled Warbler Chthonicola sagittatus, Narrabundah Hill, Canberra.
This month provided the opposite problem for me, in that I hardly took any photos
in the four weeks I was home between South American trips. It's fair to say that this little chap
probably wouldn't have got a guernsey in other circumstances, but I'm glad it did. We went for a walk on our
local hill and were very pleased to see a pair of this pretty little threatened woodland species
(albeit it in exotic pines); eventually one paused for just long enough to enable me to get one snap in.
Currently it is regarded as the only member of its genus.
Marine Otter Lontra felina (and lunch), Puñihuil, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
Patagonia offers amazing scenic photography opportunities, but in the end I settled on this
fortuitous shot of a rare species from a small boat off the Puñihuil Islands.
Marine Otters are found along the southern west coast of South America and just around the corner
into Argentina. They are essentially a fresh-water otter which has evolved to a marine lifestyle;
they are not at all the same as the big Sea Otters of western North America.
So, that's one view of my year; I hope yours was as happy and naturally enriched. I thank you for taking the trouble to read some of my musings over the year; on Boxing Day I was astonished to note that 100,000 people have visited these pages over the past couple of years. I realise that this is a modest number by blogging standards, but I am humbled and amazed by it.

May your 2015 open brightly and happily, and I hope to share some of it with you.


Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #5 - orchids in the pink

To conclude this series on pink in nature, and just in time for Christmas, I can't think of a better way than to indulge myself - and hopefully you - by revelling in some pink orchids. If you've just come in you might want to go back to number 3 in the series for a little background on pink in flowers, or you could just dive in here and relax! All these Australian orchids are insect-pollinated, though I'm not so sure about the big Peruvian ones, which could well be serviced by hummingbirds.

We'll start with some Australian ones though.
Hyacinth Orchid Dipodium variegatum, Nowra.
This is a group of striking orchids in every way; they flower at the height of summer when few others are out,
the flowering stems are up to 60cm high, and they bear up to 50 big colourful flowers.
Moreover (other than a couple of tropical species) they are leafless, relying entirely on
mycorrhizal fungi to tap into nearby plant roots.
Pink Spiral Orchid Spiranthes australis, Mongarlowe New South Wales southern tablelands.
In great contrast to the Hyacinth Orchids, these delicate little plants have flowers only 5mm long,
tightly wound around the stem. A genus widespread in Africa, Asia and the Americas, with an uncertain number of Australian species which are still being sorted out.
Esperance King Spider Orchid Caladenia (or Arachnorchis) decora, Esperance, south-west Western Australia.
The debate about whether to divide the huge and apparently disparate genus Caladenia is slowly dying down,
with the forces of conservatism seemingly prevailing.
This is not the time of year in Australia to fan flames however!

Pink Candy Orchid Caladenia (or Arachnorchis) hirta Paynes Find, inland Western Australia.
Little Pink Fairies Caladenia reptans (at least everyone agrees that this is still Caladenia!),
Boyagin Rock, south-west Western Australia.
Purple-heart Fingers Caladenia (or Petalochilus) hillmanii, near Nowra, New South Wales.
The members of this (sub-)genus are notoriously variable in colour.
Pink (or Rosy) Caps Caladenia (or Stegostyla) congesta, Canberra.
The beautiful black 'tongue' makes this a favourite of mine.
Pink (or Purple!) Donkey Orchid Diuris punctata, Tallong, southern tablelands New South Wales.
Striking in a genus of mostly yellow flowers; the flower purportedly resembles a donkey's face.
Parson's Bands Eriochilus cuculatus, south of Canberra.
A delicate little group of orchids, dominated by a pair of lateral sepals far larger than the other flower parts.
Flowers in summer, unusually around here.
Pink Sun Orchid Thelymitra carnea, Canberra.
Opens fully only on hot sunny days.
Epidendrum syringothingus, near Machu Picchu, Peru.
At least some members of both this genus and the next are known to be pollinated by hummingbirds.
Sobralia dichotoma, near Machu Picchu, Peru.
And on that delightful note I will leave you for 2014; my very sincere thanks for reading this far, and I can hope we can explore further together next year.


Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #4 - pink glow from the west

Continuing with a celebration of pink flowers - see my last posting for the start of it, including some thoughts on the nature of pinkness in flowers. On going through my pictures I was struck by how many of my pink flower shots were from Western Australia, though I expect that the reason is simply that the south-west is one of the most botanically diverse areas in the world and I've got lots of pics of western flowers in general! I think they can speak for themselves, with the help of their captions.
Schoenia cassinianus Pindar. (Pindar is a small wheat town in the mid-north, 450km north of Perth,
in a dry area famed for its wildflowers.)
A spectacular daisy of the dry mid-north, though unlike many of the species which follow,
this one is not limited to Western Australia.
Pityrodia (or Dasmyalla in some recent thinking) terminalis, Family Lamiaceae (or Chloanthaceae), Pindar.
A glorious group, mostly bird-pollinated.
Bridal Rainbow (!) Drosera macrantha Droseraceae, Leeuwin Naturaliste NP, far south-west.
The sundews are insect-trapping and -digesting plants; this dramatic one is a vigorous climber.
Yellow-eyed Flame Pea Chorizema dicksonii, John Forrest NP, Darling Ranges near Perth.
Painted Lady Gompholobium scabrum, Two Peoples Bay, near Albany.
I'd intended to only include one example from each family, but I really couldn't bear
to leave out either of these superb pink peas, each so different from what most of us are used to!
(They also illustrate the different colours included in 'pink'!)
Snakebush Hemiandra pungens, Family Lamiaceae, Pinnacles NP, north of Perth.
I have no idea of the origin of the common name; the genus, closely related to Prostanthera,
is entirely restricted to Western Australia.
Pink Bottlebrush Beaufortia schaueri, Family Myrtaceae, Stirling Ranges NP.
A widespread brilliant shrub in gravelly soils.
Wiry Honeymyrtle Melaleuca nematophylla, Kalbarri NP.
Again I've allowed two species from one family to creep in, but my memory of these huge bushes
blazing pink was too strong to resist.
Actually I'm going to devote an entire posting to the WA members of Myrtaceae one day
- there are so many remarkable ones.
Grass-leaf Hakea Hakea multilineata, Family Proteaceae, Goldfields Track east of Hyden.
I could also have included some pink grevilleas from this family, but some restraint seemed in order...
Beaked Triggerplant Stylidium adnatum Family Stylidiaceae, Woody Island, Esperance.
The remarkable triggerplants have a pollination mechanism which involves a fused male-female structure
held back against the stem by liquid tension, released explosively by the contact of an insect to deliver pollen
forcefully to its body, or to collect pollen it's carrying. More on this one day too.
Coastal Banjine Pimelea ferruginea Family Thymeliaceae, Woody Island, Espereance.
Eastern species ('rice flowers') are all white; this one grows on
coastal dunes and headlands right around the south-west coast.
Pink Milkmaids Burchardia rosea Family Colchicaceae, Kalbarri NP.
A superb pink lily growing in winter-wet sand in heathlands in the mid-north.
And here we'll leave the wondrous west for now; next time I'll conclude this series with a look at some pink orchids.

Note that by the time you read this I'll be in Patagonia (this is 'one I prepared earlier');
this means that I won't be able to respond to any comments you care to make until I get back.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #3 - flowers

Unlike the pink situation with animals, I am almost overwhelmed with choice for pink flowers to share with you. I was going to prune severely and just offer one posting but further thought suggested that we can afford to indulge ourselves and wallow in their beauty for three whole postings!

A couple of years ago a rather silly (though science-based) argument was waged on line based on the premise that pink isn't really a colour (because it's not on the light spectrum, ie in the rainbow). This seems like an argument for someone with too much spare time - ie not me! - but I have a reason in this context for wondering just what pink is. You see, most of the flowers I'll be showcasing in this and forthcoming postings are insect pollinated. As a non-artist if I wanted to create pink from basic paints I'd just combine red with white. However insects don't see well at the red end of the spectrum - their strength is at the blue-violet end, and well beyond into what we poor limited creatures have to vaguely lump as 'ultra-violet'. So what's going on with all these pink flowers? I think the answer lies in other definitions of pink - magenta for instance (which is sometimes used interchangably with pink) is defined as being between red and blue, or violet-red. Presumably the insects (many of which have much better colour resolution than we do) are responding to the violet part of the reflected light; why the red element is so often included is a question worth exploring, but it's beyond me I'm afraid.

We do know that most of them are due to a class of pigments called anthocyanins.

Meantime, let's just enjoy a pink parade.

Pigface Carpobrotus rossii Family Aizoaceae, Lincoln NP, South Australia.
Here the pink 'petals' are in fact sterile stamens, or staminodes.
Gomphrena canescens Family Amaranthaceae, Litchfield NP, south-west of Darwin.
The floor of this tropical woodland was carpeted with pink.
Poison Morning Glory Ipomoea muelleri, Family Convolvulaceae, south-west Queensland.
There are some 40 Australian members of this huge genus which includes sweet potatoes.
River Rose Bauera rubioides Family Cunoniaceae (or Baueraceae), Bundanoon, New South Wales.
A common and lovely shrub along streamlines in sandstone country.
Blueberry Ash Elaeocarpus reticulatus Family Elaeocarpaceae, Meroo NP, New South Wales, a tree of rainforests and wet gullies in moist eucalypt forests of the east coast of Australia.
An ancient Gondwanan family, with members also in Madagascar and South America.
Coopernookia barbata Family Goodeniaceae, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
The odd genus name comes from the small town of Coopernook in northern New South Wales.
Until 1968 it was included in the large genus Goodenia.
Sturt's Desert Rose Gossypium sturtianum Family Malvaceae, Alice Springs, central Australia.
This beautiful member of the cotton family is the floral emblem of the Northern Territory.
Eremophila miniata Family Myoporaceae (or more recently, often included in Scrophulariaceae),
Norseman, Western Australia.
The Eremophilas ('desert lovers') include some of my very favourite flowers and it was not easy choosing just one!
This species comes in both white and pink.
Pale Pink Boronia Boronia floribunda Family Rutacaeae, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
There are many richer pink boronias to choose from but I love the delicacy of this one.
See here for an account of the young Italian for whom it was named.
Eyebright Euphrasia caudata Family Scrophulariaceae, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales
The eyebrights, named because a concoction was believed to relieve eye inflammation in Europe, have curious
round-the-world distributions at similar latitudes in both hemispheres. They are partially parasitic on the roots
of other plants, so are nearly impossible to cultivate.

Black-eyed Susan Tetratheca thymifolia Family Tremandraceae, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
Named confusingly because the 'other' black-eyed susans from elsewhere in the world are all yellow, as far as I know;
maybe the name just arose spontaneously here?
Collaea sp. Family Fabaceae, Machu Picchu, Peru.
One of a genus of somewhere between 9 and 17 pea species from across South America.

Passiflora trifolia Family Passifloraceae, Sacsayhuaman, Peru.
And with this lovely passionfruit from the Sacred Valley, we'll close this chapter of our tribute to pink flowers.
Note that by the time you read this I'll be in Patagonia (this is 'one I prepared earlier');
this means that I won't be able to respond to any comments you care to make until I get back.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #2 - other animals

This topic, another in my intermittent series on colours in nature, began here, with birds. After an interruption last week I'm continuing it now by looking at other pink animals - though I've spent more time looking for them than at them! It is an uncommon colour it among animals (though of course there are more examples than the few I can show you here); again it may be that if you're going to go to the trouble of synthesising carotenoids you might as well go for stand-out reds rather than a paler version. Moreover most mammals have notably limited colour vision relative to most other animals; only apes, old world monkeys (and a few new world ones) and some marsupials have trichromate vision, meaning for instance that they can distinguish red and green. Birds, reptiles, frogs, many fish and invertebrates can do much better than us. There's limited point in being colourful if you can't see the colours, so most mammals are relatively restrained in their hues. In coming postings, by contrast, we'll be seeing a wealth of pink flowers - their pollinators are colour-acute insects and birds.

Sea Horse, Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin.
I'm not an underwater photographer, so I can't offer you examples of the pinkness that adorn many other fish.
One thing that surprised me in going through my photo files was the general lack of pink in the butterflies I've photographed on three continents; in fact, this one from Uganda was the only example I could come up with.
Butterfly (any suggestions welcomed, as usual!) Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park,
south-western Uganda.
My only other offerings are all reptiles. Perhaps the most discussed pink reptile of recent years is the Pink Land Iguana Conolophus marthae, a critically endangered species only recognised in 2009 as genetically distinct from the more widespread Galápagos Land Iguana C. subcristatus; it is limited to the upper slopes of Volcan Wolf at the north end of Isabela in the western Galápagos where only 100 individuals live. Understandably visitors are forbidden so I can't offer you a picture of my own.
Pink Land Iguana, courtesy Animals Wiki.
However a cousin of the Pink Land Iguana, from the island of Española in the far south-east of the archipelago, is also distinctly pink. The isolated population of Marine Iguanas here is probably the most spectacular in the Galápagos.
Male Española Marine Iguanas Amblyrhynchus cristatus venustissimus.
 My other examples, from a couple of other lizard families, are Australian.
Blotched Blue-tongue Lizard Tiliqua nigrolutea, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
A member of a small group of large aberrant skinks, this species is limited to higher altitudes here in
the more northern part of its range; further south it tends to lack the distinctive pink blotches and
is found down to sea level.
Wedge-snout Ctenotus Ctenotus brooksi, Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park, central Australia
- a more typical skink (and lunch, a beetle).
The pink-brown coloration here is an obvious camouflage adaptation on desert sands.
Cooktown Ring-tailed Gecko Cyrtodactylus tuberculatus, Cooktown, North Queensland.
This one belies its name because it has previously shed its tail, probably escaping a predator. The replacement
is rarely as fancy. Recent work based at the University of Queensland has identified five species of

Cyrtodactylus in Australia where previously only one was recognised.
OK, if you're strongly into pink you may well be dissatisfied after this offering, but please bear with me - I promise a plethora of serious pink in coming postings!

Note that by the time you read this I'll be in Patagonia (this is 'one I prepared earlier');
this means that I won't be able to comment on any comments you care to make until I get back.