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, 28 February 2014

Ben Lomond - the Tasmanian one!

There is a lot of homesickness and a need to commemorate the 'home country' to be found in Australian place names, and Anglo-Tasmanians seem to have suffered particularly strongly from the malaise. Indeed it's hard to find non-British names throughout the island. One dramatic case in point is the magnificent 15 kilometre long plateau in the north-east of Tasmania called, with no evident irony, Ben Lomond! 
Ben Lomond from Launceston, Tasmania's second-largest town, some 40km away.
(Sorry about the ad - no sponsorship involved, I promise!)
Location of Ben Lomond National Park.
The name was bestowed by Lieutenant-Governor of New South Wales, Scottish-born William Paterson, who was dispatched by Governor King in 1804 to found a colony in Van Diemen's Land (as Tasmania was then known) to thwart any designs the dastardly French may have had in that direction. His colony, after a couple of false starts, was on the site of modern Launceston, so the massif would have been a feature of the colony's life. It was much later in the century that William Legge, commander of the queen's forces in Tasmania, locally-born and living to the east of Ben Lomond, explored the plateau and added another layer of utterly irrelevant names to its features. He'd been in England when news was all of the British search for the source of the Nile, so we find Nile Valley, Victoria Valley and Speke Gorge (for John Speke, one of those searching for the source) on the remote Tasmanian plateau!

To our eyes however, there is no doubt that we're in Australia, though like Western Australia, Tasmania represents something of an alternative Australia, product of tens of thousands of years of isolation. The Bass Strait however, separating Tasmania from Victoria to the north, only exists during inter-glacials; during glaciation, such as the most recent which only ended around 10,000 years ago, sea levels drop and Tasmania is simply a southern peninsula of the mainland.

Ben Lomond is truly Tasmanian in a very particular and obvious way. Dolerite is a basalt-like rock formed deep underground, especially when continents rip apart at continental plate boundaries and molten material pours in. This happened in the turbulent Jurassic, 170 or so million years ago, when Gondwana was beginning to tear apart at the seams. In Tasmania, more than anywhere else in the world, dolerite landscapes dominate, and Ben Lomond is a great example of one.
Dolerite landscapes, Ben Lomond National Park plateau.
Although only 1500 metres above sea level, at this latitude this means cold at any time of year, with heavy snow in winter, and cloud is common.

The steepness of the massif, high above the surrounding valleys, is evident in this shot.
The climb through the forests of the lower slopes is steady but not particularly steep; these forests are typical of other montane forests in Tasmania.
Eucalyptus delegatensis, Alpine Ash on the mainland, Gum-topped Stringybark in Tasmania, dominates the higher forests below the plateau. The bark of this sub-species is much paler than what I'm used to.
The final climb however, up the vicious zig-zag known as Jacob's Ladder, is spectacular and somewhat hair-raising.
Jacob's Ladder, only built in 1963 on the north side of the plateau to service the developing ski fields.
There is a relatively extensive ski village on top, but in summer it is oddly, even eerily, deserted, though the major building is open; it seemed an excellent setting for a murder mystery and we were glad to be out in the open again!
Once on top, the plateau is relatively flat with few major peaks, dominated by dense rich heathlands.
Ten of square kilometres of such heathland, prickly and rich in flowers in summer, dominate the plateau.
This is above the tree-line, which is at least 500 metres lower than in Kosciuszko National Park on the mainland.
(That link will lead you to a discussion on differing tree-lines at different latitudes.)

Richea scoparia, Epacridaceae (or Ericaceae, as is becoming more popular again); one of many species of the Australian heath family in these alpine pastures. This species is endemic to Tasmania.

Gentian Chiongentias diemensis, another island endemic.

Mountain Rocket, Bellendena montana, family Proteaceae;
in this case the whole genus - of which this is the only species - is endemic.
Bellendena is regarded as an early member of the family to have split off from the main line.
The red are fruits, quite different from those of most other Proteaceous plants.
In the forests below, wildlife is quite evident, but is not nearly so conspicuous on the plateau.
Green Rosella Platycercus caledonicus in montane forests below the summit.
This is yet another endemic Tasmanian species.
On the plateau, distant Black Currawongs Strepera fuliginosa and Forest Ravens Corvus tasmanicus call, but it is generally pretty quiet. There are eyes watching us however!
A face in the landscape.
This is a Bennett's Wallaby (known as Red-necked Wallaby on the mainland) Macropus rufogriseus.
On the way down, pause - if traffic allows, though it's likely to be pretty quiet in summer, at least outside of school holidays - to admire the tenacious plants clinging to the sheer dolerite cliffs, far above the valley.
Hakea lissosperma. I'm familiar with this shrub in the Brindabella Ranges above Canberra, where it's not common but does restrict itself to more conventional sites in montane forests!
If you go to northern Tasmania, unless conditions are consistently very cloudy (never out of the question there!) you'll be very aware of Ben Lomond. It may not be on your schedule, but I think you should consider adding it. It is a spectacular spot. More on Tassie in blogs to come.


Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Koel of the Wild; an exotic tale?

I got back from two delightful and stimulating weeks in Tasmania a couple of days back to discover that I'd missed a delicious piece of bird-inspired political farce at home - mystifyingly, the Hobart Mercury hadn't seen fit to report it. At the heart of the matter is a beast who seems to have assumed the mantle of centre of contention in Canberra in recent years, at least in matters natural.

Koels are a small group (around four species, depending on your favoured taxonomy) of large parasitic cuckoos in the genera Eudynamys and Microdynamis, found from eastern Asia to Australia. Our understanding of their relationships is still evolving (faster than the birds are); until recently the birds which move south each year from Indonesia and New Guinea to breed in eastern and northern Australia were regarded as part of the single widespread species Common Koel E. scolopaceus. Now many, though not all, authorities regard 'our' koels as part of a separate species, the Eastern or Pacific Koel E. orientalis.
Male Eastern Koel, Rosedale, south coast New South Wales.
Only he is this handsome glossy black; she is gorgeously mottled in browns and creams.
The female parasitises the nests of medium-large species such as wattlebirds and friarbirds (both large honeyeaters), magpie-larks (this being an Australian name, the bird is neither magpie nor lark!) and figbirds.
Female Eastern Koel, Canberra.
In fact this was taken from the balcony outside my study!
Immature Eastern Koel, Mount Molloy, Queensland.
This bird was being attended by Australasian Figbirds Sphecotheres vieilloti.
It is fair to say that most Canberrans are uninterested in complexities of taxonomy, and most indeed haven't seen a koel, since they can be surprisingly obscure when calling from within foliage. The common name apparently derives from Hindi, and is clearly onomatopoeic, from the male's somewhat manic two-note rising call; here's one example, but you'll easily find more. His alternative 'wirra wirra' song is probably even more manic. And here begins the story.

By their call shall you know them, and oh we do! We often divide the world into people who love X and those who hate it - and in Canberra often X = koel. People profess themselves to be driven demented by its often nocturnal serenade, though others, including me of course, love it and don't understand how it could be more annoying than traffic noise, say. 

Another key piece of information for what's about to follow - and I do seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time getting to the point today! - is that until about a decade ago koels were very scarce visitors to Canberra, with Sydney and the mid-south coast representing their normal limits. Recently however things have changed - a warming world being the most obvious and likely explanation - and they are now common summer visitors, even breeding regularly courtesy of our large population of Red Wattlebirds Anthochaera carunculata. 

A newly-elected member of our territory Legislative Assembly, Nicole Lawder (she was only elected on a count-back last June following the resignation of her leader who left for greener fields), has found herself opposition spokesperson on the environment, despite having no evident qualifications. (To be fair it's a pretty small pool of talent from which to draw a shadow cabinet, and indeed a cabinet.) The fact that this is foreign territory to her was shown up with dramatic embarrassment when, on behalf of a couple of her constituents, she asked the Environment Minister about the government's plan "to eradicate or manage" this "imported pest", the koel. Oops.

She later claimed she was merely representing her constituency, but .... no.

Of course this strategy, of demonising a species as exotic for personal purposes, is not original. Pigeon fanciers here and elsewhere have long sought ways of discrediting legislation protecting their bitterest enemies - large falcons, notably Peregrines, and goshawks in particular. These bird-specialising raptors are glad to snack on the passing flocks of racing pigeons, whose owners are less than keen to share.
Peregrine Falcon Falco peregrinus, Waikerie, South Australia.
Probably on the lookout for passing pigeon pie.
In the Top End of Australia (a sort of northern Wild West) in the post WW2 years, pigeon owners put it about that the Japanese had introduced Peregrines during the war to disrupt critical carrier pigeon communications lines... At the other end of the country, Tasmanian pigeon folk much more recently were convinced that evil Canberra pigeon-haters were introducing Peregrines to the Apple Isle - and they had proof! This turned out to be in the form of leg bands (taken from Peregrines they'd illegally shot) with a Canberra address on them - the standard inscription on all bands used for bird studies in Australia, which are co-ordinated by the national scientific research institution, based in Canberra.

So, logic and truth can be pretty irrelevant in the face of a good prejudice, especially when vested interests are involved. However, if you're seeking and training to be a government minister, it is probably best to cross-check the claims of your constituents (and perhaps even your political advisers) before you champion them too publicly. In this case, we'll see what's been learnt as time passes.

Next time, I'll aim to start sharing something of lovely Tasmania with you - no pigeons or even Peregrines though.


Friday, 7 February 2014

Rosellas; a flash mob

In south-eastern Australia, from Brisbane to Adelaide - ie where the majority of the human population lives - one of the commonest and most familiar birds is also surely one of the most colourfully dramatic in the continent. 
Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans, Canberra.
(The Coastal Banksia B. integrifolia, is not native to Canberra.)
Flocks of these beauties fly through suburbia, feeding on flowering or fruiting plants and partaking of back yard seed trays. People tend to get to the 'just a rosella' stage, but I reckon that if these birds only lived in a remote part of the country they'd be a tourist magnet. The generally restrained English ornithologist John Gould, who made such an impression on our zoological landscape in the mid 19th century but was not over-given to hyperbole, wrote of Crimson Rosellas in his 1848 seven-volume opus The Birds of Australia: "I could never fail to pause and admire the splendour of their appearance, of which no description could give an adequate idea."  

It seems that others felt the same, as nearly all the rosella species names are more hagiographic than helpful. The genus name Platycercus means 'broad-tailed', as applied by the Irish taxonomist Nicholas Vigors; for reasons not so clear today he felt that this distinguished rosellas from all other parrots. The species name elegans is self-evident, if not very useful - but as we shall see the German zoologist Johann Friedrich Gmelin who named it was not alone in becoming somewhat tongue-tied when faced with allocating names to rosellas. 

Unlike other rosella species, Crimsons often confuse mere humans by having youngsters which are quite different in colour. In Canberra in autumn, flocks of newly-independent youngsters, down from their breeding grounds in the mountain forests, carouse through the suburbs and aren't always recognised.
Immature Crimson Rosella, Canberra.
As the year goes on, red feathers appear through the green until by completion of first moult they are all red.

There is ongoing debate over the status of two other rosellas, which are currently (but not universally) regarded as sub-species of Crimsons. Yellow Rosellas P. e. flaveolus live along the riverbanks, in the River Red Gum forests of the Murray-Darling system. 
Yellow Rosella, Berri, South Australia.
The blue cheek patch indicates its relatedness to Crimson Rosellas;
just how close is the question and the answer is ultimately subjective. I personally think that the separate habitats and
fairly limited overlap and interbreeding suggest full species status, but of course I claim no expertise.
Like other rosellas, Yellows can be pretty squabbly!
In South Australia is an orange version, the Adelaide Rosella P. e. adalaidea. And given that I lived in Adelaide for 30 years I can't believe I don't have a single photo of one!

Crimsons are largely birds of the mountain and coastal forests; to the west they are replaced by the equally familiar Eastern Rosella P. eximius. Their species name means 'excellent'! Canberra is unusual in that we commonly see Easterns and Crimsons feeding side by side; Easterns are essentially woodland birds, and here we are at the interface of the hinterland montane forests and the great inland grassy woodlands. 
Eastern Rosella, near Canberra.
The striking white - not blue - cheek patch is one obvious distinction from the Crimson.

They also lived in the woodlands west of the new colony of Sydney, in an area known as Rose Hill (now called, more euphoniously, Parramatta). Unlikely as the story sounds, we can trace the development of its name from 'Rose Hill Parrot' to 'Rose Hillers' and finally eliding, as the origin was forgotten, to Roselle and Rosella! Oddly the name didn't become applied to other rosellas until the situation was formally tidied up in 1926 - until then they had to manage as just 'parrots'.

The juxtaposition of Crimson and Eastern Rosellas in Canberra gives rise occasionally to another interesting observation too. Their ancestors separated - perhaps by climate-induced habitat changes - for long enough for their progeny to become reproductively isolated (ie separate species) but only just. Hybrids appear here from time to time, though they appear to be infertile, as we'd expect. 

Crimson - Eastern Rosella hybrids, Canberra.
(Both shots were taken long ago in a previous yard of mine in fact.)
Below the hybrid appears with its Crimson parent.

Continuing north into Queensland both species are replaced by the widespread Pale-headed Rosella P. adscitus, a softly-coloured rosella, widespread in the drier woodlands well up into the tropics, especially near waterways. Adscitus means 'approved'! The eminent John Latham saw no reason to explain this, but I guess the bird was supposed to be grateful.
Pale-headed Rosella, Roma, Queensland.
Continuing into the tropics and across to the north coast, the comparatively sooty Northern Rosella P. venustus is found across tropical woodlands of the Northern Territory's Top End to the Kimberleys. (This one means lovely, or charming...)
Northern Rosella, above and below, Darwin.
Gould reported that by the 1840s residents of Port Essington (the predecessor to Darwin)
were calling this really very demure bird the Smutty Parrot!
For its colour I hasten to add, rather than a taste in dinner stories.
Finally, in the south-west corner, is the lovely little Western Rosella P. icterotus - and finally too, a sensible name; 'yellow-eared'! More of a yellow cheek actually, but at least they tried!
Western Rosella males - only in this species are the sexes different.
Above Albany, below Stirling Ranges NP.

This one was once known as the Earl of Derby's Parakeet, a nod to the zoologist, zoo owner and president of both the London Zoological and Linnean Societies - in fact it was once derbyi, but that name was applied too late. Gould tried to keep it alive with the cumbersome common name, but for once was unsuccessful - fortunately perhaps, on this occasion. 

The final rosella species was not represented in my image library when I wrote this post, but immediately afterwards we holidayed in Tasmania, so I can now rectify that omission.
Green Rosella Platycercus caledonicus, Bruny Island, Tasmania.
This is a Tasmanian endemic. The confusing species name was based on the type specimen
being erroneously labelled as deriving from New Caledonia.


Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Orchids of Southern Peru 1: Acjanaco Pass, Manu Biosphere Reserve

A few weeks ago, on request, I posted on a few Ecuadorian orchids of the estimated 4000 plus; you can refresh your memory here. It would be unfair not to continue the general theme and acknowledge the incredible richness of the Peruvian orchid treasure chest as well. While most references suggest 'only' 3000 orchid species for Peru, I have read also that it supports more species than Ecuador, so take the figures with a small grain of salt. What I can say is that, in my own experience, orchids are more evident in Peru, but that might just be chance with regard to timing of visits, seasons etc. I have hitherto only been to southern Peru, so my experience is limited, but even so I'm going to make this the first of three postings.

The drive from beautiful World Heritage Listed Cusco at 3400 metres above sea level over the high Andes and down into the wonderful Manu Biosphere Reserve is an experience never to be forgotten. It is not a simple climb - the road descends into deep valleys, and soars up to ridges 4000 metres high. The beginning of the final descent on the eastern side of the Andes begins at the Acjanaco Pass entrance station that always seems somewhat mysterious to me - mysterious because in three visits I've only ever seen it in wreathed in mist.
Cloud forest - or 'elfin' forest - 3600 metres above sea level, Acjanaco Pass.
Birds appear - and disappear! - in the swirling clouds, but every now and then an orchid, and then another, looms from the shroud. Many of them are limited to these high elevation, low stature, rich, dripping forests.

Epidendrum is a huge, conspicuous and diverse genus of over 1000 species from sub-tropical North America to Argentina; they seem to be everywhere in the Andean forests, though I only saw these two at Acjanaco. As ever, any help with identification will be most gratefully received, though you've remained silent in the face of such requests in the past!
Epidendrum ardens, Acjanaco Pass.
Epidendrum sp., Acjanaco Pass.
The lower flowers have been fertilised and the swelling ovaries are filled with tiny seeds.
Odontoglossum is another widely encountered genus in the cool higher elevation cloud forests of the northern Andes, though after a breakdown of the genus into several smaller ones it has now a mere hundred or so species. 
Cyrtochilum mystacinum, Acjanaco Pass.
A most striking plant - the mist droplets that constantly deliver water can be seen on the flowers.
Other Cyrtochilums at high altitudes however are characterised by huge sprays of hundreds of flowers.

Cyrtochilum tetraplassium, above and below, Acjanaco Pass.

Telipogon has nearly 200 species, but most of them grow in the Andes further north than Peru, particularly in Colombia. This lovely little flower was one of the treats that seem to pop out from behind every tree at Acjanaco.
Telipogon salinasiae, Acjanaco Pass.
Pachyphyllum is a genus of 50 species; the origin of the genus name, 'thick leaf', is pretty obvious.
Pachyphyllum  sp., Acjanaco Pass.
Tiny flowers are another characteristic of this genus.
On the other hand there are only about 10 Neodryas, delightful little orchids. I'm pretty sure of the identification of this one, but as ever am open to suggestions.
Neodryas rhodoneura, Acjanaco Pass.
I hope that one day you get to drive over the Acjanaco Pass into the wonders of Manu. Make sure you go for a magical, misty walk before you start the descent.