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.

Friday, 31 January 2014

"I Love a Sunburnt Country"

While my overseas readers will probably have no reaction to that line, I'm sure my Australian ones will recognise it immediately. It is the first line of the second verse of a poem called My Country, written in the first decade of the 20th Century by a young Australian called Dorothea Mackellar who was travelling in Britain and Europe. It is in the form of one side of a conversation with someone who loves the misty European countrysides, acknowledging that love while expressing her own passion for the harsh extremes of Australia. She was from a wealthy Sydney family, but spent formative time on family property in the mid-west of New South Wales. The poem caught the Australian imagination and was widely printed in newspapers. It has been put to music more than once  - most recently, and somewhat mind-bogglingly, by eminent Australian composer Elena Kats-Chernin for the Vienna Boys Choir! I recall  singing a version at primary school, though I can't determine what the origin of that tune was. To many of us it's still an unofficial national anthem. (To many of us too, that's no bad thing as the official one could plausibly be described as a dirge-like tune accompanied by words that range from archaic-weird to not-quite-as-good-as-banal. That's a subjective view of course...)
Superb Lyrebird Menura novaehollandiae, Fitzroy Falls, New South Wales.
Presumably singing his own anthem.
This is a week which began with Australia Day, commemorating the day in 1788 that a small armada arrived in Sydney harbour to found a convict colony and claim the entire country for Britain, regardless of the fact that it had already been fully occupied for some 50,000 years. For obvious reasons this a pretty divisive day here. As I have implied numerous times in this blog's postings, I never cease being profoundly grateful for my ridiculously undeserved luck at being born in this remarkable land. 'Pride' however would suggest taking credit for things I'm only the beneficiary of, not responsible for. And that good fortune carries, for me, an obligation of stewardship, and my periodic criticisms of actions which damage the land and our society stem directly from my passion for it. You can't claim to love someone or something if you stand back while it's being assaulted.

Anyway, enough of that. I thought it might be fun to illustrate, line by line, at least the second and third verses of My Country, from my own perspective. (The whole thing is worth reading and some of it is surprisingly modern.) The first verse is her acknowledgement of her imaginary English conversation companion's love of softer climes, the last three talk about the recovery of the land from drought when the rains come. The "droughts and flooding rain" reference is a perfect summary of the El NiƱo nature of our climate.

I love a sunburnt country,
West MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia
 A land of sweeping plains,
Theldarpa Station, far north-western New South Wales
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Musgrave Ranges, Northern Territory-South Australian border
Of droughts
Droughted Mitchell Grass plains, west of Boulia, far western Queensland
                       and flooding rains.
Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia
I love her far horizons,

Lake Eyre South, South Australia
I love her jewel-sea,
Head of Bight, South Australia
Her beauty and her terror - 
burning spinifex at night, Uluru National Park, Northern Territory.
 The wide brown land for me!
Castle Hill and Chambers Pillar on the horizon, Northern Territory.

A stark white ring-barked forest
All tragic to the moon,
            (Well, like all of us she was a person of her time - I don't need to illustrate this bit though!)    
The sapphire-misted mountains,
View from Mount Kosciuszko, New South Wales.
The hot gold hush of noon.
Illyarrie Eucalyptus erythrocorys woodland, South Beekeepers Nature Reserve, Western Australia.

Green tangle of the brushes,
Monsoon forest, Litchfield National Park, near Darwin, Northern Territory.
Where lithe lianas coil,
Chichester State Forest, New South Wales.
And orchids deck the tree-tops
Bulbophyllum (or Oxysepala) shepherdii, Nowra, New South Wales.
And ferns the warm dark soil.
Tree Ferns Dicksonia antarctica, Monga National Park, New South Wales.
And there I shall leave Dorothea - and you - and come back to a more conventional posting next time. Thanks for bearing with me!


Tuesday, 28 January 2014

On This Day, 28 January; James Stirling's birthday

James Stirling isn't well known in eastern Australia (or indeed in his native Britain) but he was instrumental in the early days of the Swan River Colony, which we know better as Western Australia. A series of mighty French scientific expeditions to Australian had made nervous the British Admiralty, so the hitherto ignored western half of the continent suddenly became of interest in London and Sydney, and to forestall any undesirable ambitions the French may have had a settlement was proclaimed in 1826 at King George's Sound (site of modern Albany) on the south coast, to keep an eye on the sea lanes. The following year James Stirling, captain of the HMS Success, was sent to check out the Swan River, on the west coast, following reports by Dutch and French visitors. 

Stirling was a Scot, born in 1791 as the halfway point of his parents' 15 children! Entering the navy at age 12, he saw considerable fighting in the Americas. Things went quiet for him after Napoleon's defeat and he filled in time by marrying, touring the continent and having his own children. It was the French interest in the southern continent that revived his career. He liked what he saw on the Swan River and recommended that a colony be established there. Indeed he rhapsodised he even had a name for the colony – Hesperia, because it faced the setting sun! This was Greek, denoting ‘far western’, ultimately from Hesperus, the evening star, ie Venus. Hesperia was a nymph, one of the Hesperides who inhabited a fabulous peaceful garden somewhere in the far west. Neither the New South Wales governor or the British government were very enthusiastic, partly due to the cost, partly because the French seemed to have lost any interest they might have had. 
James Stirling, some time in the 1820s (ie probably before his governorship).
Courtesy of the State Records Office of Western Australia.
Stirling, lobbying in London, tilted the balance by proposing that private enterprise bore the main cost, and finding some willing investors. The western third of the continent was claimed for the British crown in 1829. Stirling was instructed to ask the Aborigines if they minded; he was satisfied that they didn't…. All of Australia was now formally claimed by the British. The name of Perth was bestowed upon the town, it being the home of Sir George Murray, the Secretary of State for the Colonies. Perth was formally proclaimed the Capital of the Swan River Country and the ceremony took the simple form of cutting down a gum tree – it all sounds pretty prophetic! 

For the next decade, except for a two year break, Stirling ruled the colony with little effective counter-balance. This is not the place for a detailed history, but it was not a happy time for anyone much; in his absence virtual war broke out with the indigenous inhabitants and savage retribution followed. English farming practices were inappropriate and many settlers were unwilling to adapt. There were also fundamental schisms based on the old class system. He resigned in 1837 and returned to naval duties, but maintained an active interest in the western colony. 

Unusually in the context of this blog, Stirling had little obvious interest in the natural world, but his name is forever associated with one of Western Australia's special places, as well as an interesting plant genus.

The Stirling Ranges, inland from Albany, were named by Surveyor Septimus Roe. They mark the tearing apart of Antarctica and Australia 54 million years ago, 'unzipping' from the west and pinching the land (then sea bed) to the east, compressing and hardening it, and squeezing it upwards. 
Stirling Ranges, from Central Lookout.
Photo courtesy Louise Maher.
Biologically this is a remarkable place; over 1500 plant species are known from the 115,000 hectare national park, including at least 87 known from nowhere else. It is also an important part of the program to reintroduce the seriously endangered Numbat Myrmecobius fasciatus to parts of its former range from which foxes have been removed. 
Signpost, western Stirling Ranges.
Below, Numbat, Perth Zoo.
Finally, among the many genera and species of the great Gondwanan plant family Proteaceae (Proteas, Grevilleas, Banksias etc) which are endemic to Western Australia is one dedicated to James Stirling. Stirlingia was published by the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher in 1838, after it was realised that Robert Brown's earlier Simsia had already been used, and was hence not available. There are seven species, all restricted to the south-west. The best known is Blue Boy, Stirlingia latifolia.
Stirlingia latifolia, Badgingarra NP, above and below.

I would feel perfectly safe in offering you 500 guesses as to why the name 'Blue Boy'. It derives from the doubtless surprised observation that when sand from its vicinity is used to make cement, the cement turns blue!

And on that note I might wish James a happy birthday, and leave him and you to it.


Friday, 24 January 2014

The Plenty Highway; plenty of it, not much highway...

'Highway' in Australia doesn't always mean what you might expect. Certainly in the more populated and near-coastal areas a nice (albeit perhaps boring) strip of bitumen can be anticipated, but in the dry inland it may simply refer to any track with some level of maintenance, built to link different regions. We're perfectly aware of this, and for some time I'd had an urge to cross from western Queensland to central Australia via the Donohue and Plenty Highways, across the northern fringes of the somewhat forbidding Simpson Desert. The last time we planned it there were big rains across the centre, and while the country would have looked magnificent, all the roads were closed for many weeks. Last year we finally made it, but ironically by then the region was in the grip of severe drought, and not at its best from our perspective at least. 

Moreover, we had the good fortune to come along soon after a young chap had come off his motorbike early on the second day; he was in pain, albeit stoical, but not seriously injured, so we re-organised our load and were able to take him on - several hundred kilometres as it happened - to a clinic from where he was air-lifted to Alice Springs. We were of course delighted to be able to help, but it did mean we pushed on through the central part of the journey faster than we would otherwise have done.

Nonetheless it was a great experience which we are very glad to have in our portfolio of memories, to be unpacked and relived over and again.
The Donohue and Plenty highways are indicated by the broad red line just north of the Tropic of Capricorn.
The Donohue Highway begins just out of Boulia in western Queensland, and heads west for 250km to the
Northern Territory border, from where it continues for another 500km as the Plenty Highway,
terminating at the Stuart Highway (a 'real' highway linking Adelaide with Darwin) 50k north of Alice Springs.
The start of the Donohue Highway, just 8k north of Boulia near where we'd camped on the riverbank
the previous night.
It's country that you need to get used to I think, and if you were seeing it for the first time in drought you may be underwhelmed or even intimidated. I love it.
Rolling gibber plains, Donohue Highway.
There is a real grandeur to the vastness of the land, and in years when the cyclonic rains wander
this far inland, the plains are green, covered in flowers and exploding with life.

Desert Bloodwood Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) terminalis and
Spinifex Triodia spp. hummock grassland.
The road surface is unsealed for all but the last 100km before the Stuart Highway. It can be corrugated and there are loose rocks on the surface. It gets maintained more regularly on the Northern Territory side than in Queensland. All of which means that a four-wheel drive is preferable, but if your vehicle is solidly built with reasonable clearance, you'll be fine in a 2WD as long as conditions are dry. At western end is a camping area with facilities and a shop called Gemtree, but as that's still on the bitumen it's hardly part of the highways adventure. That aside a couple of cattle stations - particularly Jervois and Tobermorey - sometimes do and sometimes don't provide basic camping and fuel, varying with current management policy. In other words, don't rely on it, and do be self-sufficient with regard to fuel, food and water. Basically all you'll get there is a bit of grass (or not) to camp on, a toilet block - and neighbours. And you don't go all the way out there to have neighbours at night!
Camp in the Gidgee Acacia georginae Plenty Highway.
The last light of the sun is catching the tops of the trees, my hat has been retired for the day,
dinner is about to be cooked on the trailer, and we're looking forward to another excellent night's sleep,
knowing that the stars will be blazing above our swag whenever we open our eyes.
In the Queensland section, away from the stream lines - especially the winding channels of the Georgina - trees are fairly stunted and birds seeking to nest in them must make do with what they've got.
Wedge-tailed Eagle Aquila audax nest, Donohue Highway.
This magnificent bird would rather be a lot higher off the ground than this, but needs must...

Once on the Plenty Highway in the Northern Territory, the landforms become more varied and the road passes near ranges including the Tarlton, Jervois, Elua and Harts, as well as the eastern end of the MacDonnells and the northern fringes of the Simpson Desert. 
Outliers of the Tarlton Range, Plenty Highway.
More tree species are evident to the west too, in addition to the widespread Desert Bloodwood and the ubiquitous Mulga Acacia aneura.
Ghost Gum Eucalyptus apparerinja, Plenty Highway.
Blue-leafed Mallee, or Warilu Eucalyptus gamophylla, Plenty Highway, above and below.
This lovely little mallee is found right across the central arid lands.

With the very dry conditions not much was flowering, though we did find a few things in a recently burnt area of mulga towards the western end of the highway.
Ipomoea polymorpha
Solanum ellipticum, one of the 'bush tomatoes', and a close relative of 'real' tomatoes,
potatoes, capsicums etc.
Among the most ubiquitous animals anywhere in Australia are ants; we have an unusually high diversity it seems, and Mulga Ant nests are a feature of any landscape.
Nest of Mulga Ants, Polyrhachis sp. They are inevitably surrounded by these rings of painstakingly gathered
fallen Mulga phyllodes ('leaves'), apparently to form levees to protect the nest from flooding
when storms cause water to rush across the non-absorbent soil surface.
The animals themselves are far less obvious, being nocturnal foragers.
Perhaps the major highlight of the Plenty however is an area of huge termite mounds near to the Simpson Desert, more typical of tropical savannahs to the north. The Australian desert lands are truly termite-land; it has been suggested that termites here are the equivalent of the herds of big grazing mammals in African grasslands. The construction of mounds of this scale by an animal that tiny is an extraordinary thing to consider.
Termite mounds, Plenty Highway.
The Desert Bloodwood (above) and Mulga (below) are both full-sized small trees.
It's a very big country and there's so much more to see; I don't know if I'll travel this highway again, though I'd love to see it after the rains. Bear it in mind though; with a bit of thought and preparation it's a great option for a trip between Queensland and the Alice. There's always Plenty to see.


Tuesday, 21 January 2014

River Red Gums; Australia's tree?

Well, if pushed I would have to say that they're my favourite Australian tree at least! For me, this mighty tree represents the Australia that I love most, the essence that makes me feel so very priviliged to have been born here. This is another in an irregular series on Australian trees - other recent ones here and here.

Even if you've not visited, it is quite possible you've seen the tree in art - great Australian landscape painters including Albert Namatjira (see an example here) and Hans Heysen (here) featured them repeatedly. It is the only eucalypt found in every mainland Australian state and territory, always following the waterways, and absent only from the deepest deserts and the coastal strip.
River Red Gum Distribution, courtesy of the Atlas of Living Australia.
The actual distribution will be more continuous than this - each dot represents a specimen or record.
(The apparent dot in Tasmania will represent a planted specimen.)

In the mighty Barmah forest of the Murray River which divides the states of Victoria and New South Wales, the red gums form a great forest 25 kilometres wide, of trees up to 40 metres tall. Along the desert watercourses the 'forest' is only one or two trees deep, and the trees rarely exceed 25 metres in height.
Trephina Gorge, East MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory.
Every tree in this photo is a River Red Gum.
A River Red Gum forest growing in a rainfall of 400mm a year has a biomass similar to that of a forest with a rainfall three times as much; the key to the red gum forests are the underground waters, and flooding. The trees above benefit from both. 

Floods are essential for seed distribution too, downstream and out onto the flood plains. Seed production is vast - it has been estimated that one tree can produce 150 million seeds in its lifetime - but obviously enough most of this bounty never germinates. Ants account for a huge proportion of the production.
River Red Gum seedlings, Ormiston Gorge, West MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory.
Whether these seedlings survive will depend on the timing and ferocity of the next storm-flood.
The trees in the following photos were once such seedlings germinated in the dry river bed. (Don't be fooled by the 'road' in the middle of the river in the first pic - that's normal in these parts!)
Hugh River, Owen Springs Nature Reserve, central Australia.
Stephens Creek, north of Broken Hill, far western New South Wales.
The limits of past floods can be seen in the lines of Red Gum saplings that grow on the flood-plains where the receding flood left them.
River Red Gum saplings, marking a past flood peak, Hattah-Kulkyne National Park, north-western Victoria.
Big River Red Gums are old!! It is estimated that the growth rate of a mature tree is less than a centimetre of diameter a year. Consider some of these magnificent old-timers, and what they've seen.
Melrose, southern Flinders Ranges, South Australia.
 I love the way the road goes around it!

Orroroo, South Australia.
This venerable tree has a circumference of more than 10 metres and is estimated to be over 500 years old.

Brachina Gorge, central Flinders Ranges.

Burra Gorge, South Australia.
The trees here are probably the oldest I've seen; some of them must be close to a thousand years old.
It is remarkable that any trees this old survive, given the extraordinary pillaging that has taken place from the nineteenth century to today. River Red Gum timber is superb, hard and dense - so dense in fact that it doesn't float and had to be transported by barge, and so hard that in the earlier days blasting powder was used to split it. It is proof against rot and insect attack, so hundreds of thousands of trees went to make jetty piles, railway sleepers, fenceposts, wharf pylons and mine props. 25 tonne logs were cut, from trees that are claimed to have been 1000 years old. Worse, it makes excellent firewood, and probably millions of trees went into the fireboxes of the paddle-steamers, and the fire-places of Melbourne and Adelaide homes, which still burn it. Cutting wood for the river boats was a boom job. An average boat burnt a tonne an hour.

The common name refers of course to the timber, rather than the tree itself - here in Australia we have long suffered from an inability to see the trees for the wood. 

The scientific name is rather more intriguing. It was named E. rostrata ('beaked', for the little bud caps) by German botanist Diederich Franz Leonhard von Schlechtendal in 1847, and was known by that very sensible name until the 20th century, when it was realised that von Schlechtendal had actually been beaten to the punch. Back in 1834 Friedrich Dehnhardt, botanist of the Naples Botanic Gardens (or possibly chief gardener at the gardens belonging to the Count of Camaldoli - some of the fine details of the story vary according to your source) described a eucalypt growing in that garden. It has been claimed that it derived from seeds sent by botanist-explorer Allan Cunningham from his 1817 trip to central New South Wales - certainly plausible. Anyway, Dehnhardt named it camaldulensis, the '-ensis' being a standard suffix denoting a place of origin, but his publication promptly sank from sight. (At one stage in my youth I spent some time searching gazetteers for the place, which I decided must have been somewhere in Queensland. I failed.) Why he should have thought it was appropriate to do so from this source, and how he was sure it had not been already described, I cannot imagine. In 1902 Joseph Maiden of the Sydney Botanic Gardens found the name, but regarded it as a synonym of rostrata, and published it as such in 1920. It was William Faris Blakely, one of Australia's great amateur botanists, who pointed out in 1934 that precedence must always rule in taxonomy - quite rightly of course, or anarchy would prevail - and so camaldulensis it is.

Enough of all that, mere human conceit. This is a truly wonderful species of tree, and if you're not familiar with it yet, then you're not familiar with my Australia at least...

River Red Gums,Murchison Gorge, Kalbarri National Park, Western Australia.


Friday, 17 January 2014

Bird Baths

Firstly, it turned out that I was understating the situation with regard to the predicted hot spell that I mentioned three days ago when we were about to plunge into it. Adelaide yesterday, at 44 degrees was officially the hottest city in the world; next was Melbourne. Here in Canberra, where at 600 metres above sea level we're usually spared the real heat extremes, it reached 40 yesterday and today we're on the way to 41 and apparently to the hottest week ever recorded here. 

However my point is not to whinge about the world, but to continue to use the situation as a trigger to talk about how animals use water, whether in extreme heat or not. Last time I talked a little about how animals drink; today I'm going to torment myself slightly (as I sit in front of the fan with a wet towel round my shoulders) with stories and images of animals bathing. In practice it will be mostly about birds, as I seem not to have images of other animals indulging themselves, other than simply swimming as part of their lifestyle.

Firstly, birds don't just bathe when it's hot, though most species do so more often then. Bathing is not optional - it's critical to the continued well-being of feathers, which can be the difference between life and death when a falcon or goshawk's on your tail, which can happen at any moment.
Female Austral Negrito Lessonia rufa bathing, El Calafate, Argentina.
She isn't here to cool down - this is ice-melt water from glaciers, and the air temperature is definitely single-digit!
In a way I should be talking about preening overall, because bathing is an integral part of that, but the careful rearranging of each vane of each feather by the bill, at least daily, is a topic that warrants a posting to itself. Bathing helps remove surplus preening oil which can clog up feathers, as well as getting rid of other dirt, loose feathers and barbules, and parasites.

Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius, Canberra.
This was in May, a chilly month, so again lowering body temperature wasn't the chief motivation. Note how the feathers are all fluffed up  - this can be to help increase insulation, but when bathing, feathers are erected and separated to expose the skin between the feather bases to allow water to wash the skin and expose the entire feather.
It's still not a passive process though. In fact a bathing bird works very vigorously to force water into the feathers, pushing the breast into the water and rocking hard from side to side, hurling water around with the wings. 
European Blackbird Turdus merula (above and below), Melbourne.

Red-rumped Parrots Psephotus haematonotus, Lake Cargelligo, New South Wales.

Australian White Ibis Threskiornis molucca, Darwin.

After that water is thrown onto the back, again with the feathers first raised, then lowered to squeeze the water through them.

Golden Whistler male Pachycephala pectoralis, Canberra.
Perhaps surprisingly, even waterbirds need to bathe vigorously. This shouldn't be too surprising actually, as such birds need waterproof plumage, so must make a special effort to get their body surface and under-feathers wet.
Magellanic Penguins Spheniscus magellanicus, Strait of Magellan.
So far these pictures were taken in natural settings, but a bird bath is one of the most valuable pieces of assistance that we can offer birds, up there with growing local native plant species.
Double-barred Finches Taeniopygia bichenovii and Chestnut-breasted Mannikins Lonchura castaneothorax, Darwin.
Silver-crowned Friarbird Philemon argenticeps, Darwin.
Here the head is thrown back and the wings are arched to form a bowl to hold water on the back.
(Below is the bird afterwards, so you have some idea as what it actually looks like!)

Superb Fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus, Canberra (our yard in fact), fully submerged.
At the end of the process the bird is sodden, and needs to squeeze water from the feathers and dry them out to regain their essential insulation properties.
Dusky Honeyeater Myzomela obscura, Darwin.
Noisy Miner Manorina melanocephala, Canberra.
Birds are adaptors however - indeed to live in suburbia you must be able to adapt to unfamiliar conditions. Part of this is the enthusiasm with which some species have adapted to sprinklers. This is not entirely new behaviour, but based on rain-bathing, wherein the bird hangs upside down to allow water to penetrate.
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Cacatua galerita, Canberra. Hanging from eucalypt foliage to expose its breast to the rain. This is also known as leaf-bathing, as water shaken from the wet leaves is also utilised.
Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophota, Canberra (our yard again).
The sprinkler is to the bird's left, and it was turning from side to side and raising the near wing to let the water in. This is learned behaviour, as it's hard to imagine a natural situation where water would be coming from the side.
Just a couple more things. Firstly, one token non-bird.
African Bush Elephant Loxodonta africana, Okavango Delta, Botswana.
And OK, it's not actually in water, but it's just left it!
Significantly, many birds bathe in dust - obviously when water is absent, but also when it is not. In fact some species often follow a water bath with a dust bath, and in doing so seem to increase removal of both parasites and surplus preening oil.
House Sparrow Passer domesticus, Isla de Chiloe, Chile, dust-bathing. Plenty of water is available here.
By the time I'm back here with the next posting, things will be cooler here - for a while at least. Birds will still be bathing assiduously however.