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, 27 March 2014

Orchids of Southern Peru 2; the eastern slopes

As I mentioned a few days ago we've been having some serious health distractions in our home this week; the patient (not me!) came home today, to my immense relief, so it's time to make you another offering. I'm feeling pretty wrung out, so maybe a gentle return to the orchids of southern Peru is in order. We began this exploration here, a few weeks ago.

From the Acjanaco Pass the road to Manu begins a huge winding descent of the eastern Andes into the Amazon Basin, ending at the somewhat wild little town of Atalaya on the Upper Madre de Dios River where the journey continues by boat. There is so much to see en route however that you are likely to make a couple of overnight stops before beginning your Amazon experience. If you are lucky and well-informed, the first of these might be at the Wayquecha Research Station run by ACCA, the Asociación para la Conservación de la Cuenca Amazónica (Association for the Conservation of the Amazon Basin). The station, at 3000 metres in the rich dripping cloud forest, also provides basic accommodation for visitors who can use the reserve walking tracks and learn something of the research being carried out at the time by visiting scientists from all over the world.
Cloud forests at Wayquecha, in unusually clear conditions!

The views from the balconies are superb.
However, this is a post about orchids, so having set the scene, I should show you some orchids! Yet again I will plead for any help you can give me with any of these identifications - inevitably there are species and even some genera I can't put a name to.

Cyrtochilum is a genus of nearly 150 species of the high Andes, from Venezuela to southern Peru. Many of them have huge sprays of flowers, a metre or more long.
Cyrtochilum sp. Wayquecha.
Full raceme above, and close-up below.

Odontoglossum is another commonly-met genus of the cloud forests; once its members numbered in the hundreds, but taxonomic reallocation of many of them leaves us with only 100 or so select from!
Odontoglossum auroincarum, above and and an unidentified (by me) Odontoglossum species below, Wayquecha.

Pachyphyllum ('thick leaf') is a genus of some 50 species found from northern South America to Mexico; we found two species along the research centre forest walking tracks.
Two Pachyphyllum species, Wayquecha, above and below.

Habenaria is a vast genus of some 800 species, found in much of Africa, southern Asia, tropical Australia and North and South America. It is believed that it arose in Africa and only reached South America relatively recently; tiny dust-like orchids seeds are very suited to being distributed by winds over huge distances.
Habenaria sp., Wayquecha.
(Though Richard Hoyer - see comments below - suggest that this could actually be Epidendrum fimbriatum.)
Maxillaria is yet another huge genus - nearly 600 species - but this one is limited to the tropical and subtropical Americas.
Maxillaria sp., Wayquecha.
Perhaps we can almost see the resemblance to a jawbone referred to in the name.
Maybe if you squint??
Stelis is yet another massive genus, of at least 500 small-flowered species, over 40 of which are found in Peru.
Stelis sp., Wayquecha.
If the identification is correct, it is atypical in that most Stelis have white flowers.
And inevitably there were a couple I couldn't even get to genus level; I really would be grateful if you can help!
Unidentified orchids, above and below, Wayquecha.
Much lower down the mountain, but still within the cloud forest zone, the San Pedro area is at around 1200 metres above sea level. The orchids are not as obviously abundant here as in the high elevation forests - perhaps just because the trees are higher - but there are some delights, notably among the Sobralias which, unusually for tropical orchids, are terrestrial. These are big plants; in some remarkable species the flower stems can be 10 metres tall!

We found two of the 120 or so Sobralia species along the roads near the lodge.
Sobralia virginalis, San Pedro area.
Sobralia sp. San Pedro area.
I hope you've enjoyed this little orchid ramble; I've found it decidedly therapeutic! I look forward to my next visit to this most wonderful part of this wonderful world.


Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Rain Check

Hello all, and my apologies to those hoping for another posting today, as promised.

The last day or so has been all about hospitals and stents, rather than anything healthier and happier. All looks good now, but I'd best defer the next posting for a few days. My thanks for your understanding. 

Meantime, as an interim offering.

Waved Albatrosses Phoebastria irrorata, Espanola, Galapagos.
The world's only tropical albatross, which apparently only breeds on this one small island in the far southern Galapagos
and spends winter on the Ecuador and Peru continental shelf.
Espanola is earmarked for its own posting here one day soon!


Thursday, 20 March 2014

Tasmania's Endemic Birds; born of ice and isolation

The current ice age began some 2.6 million years ago. The assertion that we are now in the grip of an ice age might surprise you, but that's because ice ages comprise a series of cycles of glaciation and warmer inter-glacials, and we're in the midst of one such inter-glacial now. Further, we use the term 'ice age' carelessly for the glaciations within the overall ice age, hence the confusion. For the first one and a half million million years of the ice age the cycle was about 40,000 years; since then however the cycle has stretched, so that we've fairly reliably experienced a pattern of some 20,000 years of relatively balmy inter-glacial followed by 80-100,000 years of cold, dry, windy glaciation.

The most recent glaciation had its major impact in Australia from about 35,000 years ago, ending only about 13,000 ago. But what's this got to do with Tasmanian birds? Fair question, and the answer is 'just about everything'. During glaciation a large amount of the earth's water is locked up in ice sheets, especially at the poles. Sea levels drop and large expanses of continental shelf are exposed - that is, the shore lines are much further out relative to modern ones. In particular currently major islands, including Tasmania and New Guinea, were simply highland areas across grassy plains where Bass Strait and Torres Strait now surge.
The shadings represent dry land at the height of the last glaciation; I've indicated Tasmania with
the red arrow for those unfamiliar with Australian geography.
Map courtesy of Peter Brown.
So, for those 20,000 years animals (including humans and birds) could move freely between what is now Tasmania and the mainland. Moreover it is likely that this was also true (albeit not for humans) for at least some of the other nine glaciations in the last million years, though the most recent one seems to have been particularly intense.

On the other hand, the cold treeless steppe-lands of the Bassian Plain (now Bass Strait) would have been highly unattractive to forest birds, so for them the plain may have been as effective an isolator as the current 200km of stormy sea. All this means that the evolution of the twelve species of birds endemic to Tasmania need not have occurred in the last 13,000 years, and indeed is unlikely to have done so, particularly for one which is in its own genus.

OK, enough background - let's just meet a few of those birds, along with their nearest mainland relations with whom they share a common ancestor.

Perhaps the first you are likely to meet - and the one you're probably going to see most regularly in the east - is the wonderful Tasmanian Native-hen, one of only two flightless rails in Australia. It is no coincidence that the other is also an islander, the Lord Howe Island Woodhen. It is also no coincidence that, while the Tasmanian hens are known from mainland fossil deposits, they abruptly disappeared at the time the Dingo arrived, some 4700 years ago. There can be no smoking gun, but a flightless bird would have been hugely vulnerable to such a quick clever hunter. Further, it's most unlikely that a smallish flightless bird would have evolved on the mainland, so I suggest they arose in Tasmania, and 'crossed over' during the last glaciation; unlike all the other endemics, they're not forest birds.
Tasmanian Native-hen Tribonyx mortierii, Copping, north-east of Hobart.
The powerful running legs - they are reputed to manage 50km an hour - are evident.
Another name is Narkie, probably from the nasal aggression calls, and possibly from an indigenous word.
Black-tailed Native-hens Tribonyx ventralis (and Great Egret) Kinchega National Park,
western New South Wales. Found right across arid Australia, and the only other member of the genus.
Green Rosellas Playtcercus caledonicus are clearly closely related to the mainland Crimson Rosella P. elegans, though are not as abundant or quite as cooperative for the most part.
Green Rosella, Bruny Island.
The resemblance is most striking to the immature Crimson Rosella (adults are indeed crimson).
Another loud and proud Tasmanian is the world's biggest honeyeater, the huge and raucous Yellow Wattlebird Anthochaera paradoxa. As with the closely related mainland Red Wattlebird, the name refers to the colour of the facial wattles, a source of endless confusion.
Yellow Wattlebird with cicada snack, Bridport, northern Tasmania.

Red Wattlebird, Canberra.
Another with very obvious mainland connections is the big noisy Black Currawong Strepera fuliginosa. Oddly though, in high-use national park areas where it was abundant and decidedly pushy when I was last there 13 years ago, and where the literature claims it still is, it was virtually non-existent. Not so in the forests south of Hobart however.
Black Currawong, Tahune Forest.
Pied Currawong Strepera graculina, Canberra.
Currawongs, fruit eaters which also prey on animals, especially stick insects but also nestlings,
are in the same family as Australian magpies, butcherbirds and woodswallows.
Of the smaller endemics, undoubtedly the most abundant in shrubby understorey from rainforest to coastal scrubs is the rather plain Tasmanian Scrubwren Sericornis humilis. There is some disagreement as to whether it is indeed a separate species from the equally abundant mainland White-browed Scrubwren S. frontalis, but the current general consensus is that it is.
Tasmanian Scrubwren, Freycinet National Park, east coast.
White-browed Scrubwren, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
Her leg adornments are due to the fact that she lives over the road from the
Australian National University Zoology Department.
Another in the scrubwren family, with no close relations (the only one in its genus) is presumably the product of an earlier period of Tasmanian isolation. The active little Scrubtit Acanthornis magna is a busy and inconspicuous insect hunter of rainforests in particular, often overlooked I suspect.
Scrubtit, Liffey Falls, west of Launceston.
There are three small endemic honeyeaters, two of them in the genus Melithreptus, short-billed honeyeaters which primarily glean insects from leaves rather than rely on nectar. The Strong-billed Honeyeater M. validirostris is, in my experience, the least common of the three, but is the only one I managed to photograph. The other two are the smaller Black-headed Honeyeater M. affinis and the Yellow-throated Honeyeater Lichenostomus flavicollis, both of which I found impossible to entice to stop still for more than a millisecond!
Strong-billed Honeyeater (immature) Wielangta Forest, south-east Tasmania.
The mainland Brown-headed Honeyeater M. brevirostris (here near Canberra) seems to be its closest relative.
The other Tasmanian endemics are the Dusky Robin Melanodryas vittata, the Tasmanian Thornbill Acanthiza ewingii (of which my only picture is too fuzzy to inflict on you) and the rare Forty-spotted Pardalote Pardalotus quadragintus. I hope you track them all down when you next go to Tassie - it's not that hard - but meantime I think that having some understanding of how they came to be is interesting in its own right.

I'll pursue this theme with Western Australian endemics at some time in the future; and I've now made lists of all the topics I've promised to pursue 'at a later date'!


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

When Movies Fail Basic Biogeography; does it matter?

It mattered to me when I was a boy, getting taken to Tarzan movies for the animals. (I was less keen on the mandatory quicksand scenes and Loyal Native Bearers falling off narrow cliff tracks.) But I would be inevitably infuriated by what were to me monumental gaffes, such as having the wrong elephants in Africa!! (On the other hand I was quite relaxed about the preposterous basic premise of the story, which says something about me.)
I can't say for certain if this is Johnny Weissmuller (the US Olympic swimmer turned
archetypal Tarzan) but I can say with authority that these are Indian Elephants!
My search for screen animals broadened when the family up the road got a telly in the 1950s (or maybe early 1960s), and I used to go up to watch Jungle Jim in black and white. My boyish fury was unabated. Unlike Tarzan it wasn't always clear where it was intended to be set, but it didn't matter much - the combination of animals was wrong!
Grant Withers, the original Jungle Jim.
The would-be man-eating lion seems to be asleep (or worse) but that wasn't my main concern.
Withers was in time supplanted by Johnny Weissmuller, looking for a life after Tarzan.
And the tiger supplanted the lion (though I recall it was pretty random). I gather the original comic book series
was based in South-East Asia (in which case a tick for the tiger) but it was not at all clear
where the TV series was supposed to be.
And of course every 'jungle' movie ever made, including Tarzan and the Jungle Jim series, whether set in Africa, Asia or South America, includes as an essential element of the sound track Australian Laughing Kookaburras, South American Screaming Pihas, and Asian Green Peafowl (peacocks).
Both the Screaming Piha Lipaugus vociferans, Sacha Lodge, Ecuador, above
and the Laughing Kookaburra Dacelo novaeguineae, Canberra, below,
would probably be most surprised to hear their own impressive and distinctive voices ringing
out above Tarzan's head, Wherever-he-is in Africa.

My interest in this aspect of entertainment was unexpectedly reawakened over the weekend, when we went to see the movie Tracks, based closely on the 1978 book by Robyn Davidson of her truly remarkable solo camel trek of some 2000km west from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean. (To be honest I don't go to many movies, so I'm not about to set up as film critic, but I enjoyed this one, especially the landscapes, while not entirely seeing what it added to the book.)

But.... In a scene not from the book, whose significance evaded me entirely, a large python slips across the sleeping 'Davidson' deep in the western deserts.
Irrespective of the purpose of the scene (I'm sure it will be immediately obvious to you), there's a
very fundamental problem. Carpet Pythons Morelia spilota, which this undoubtedly is, do not occur
anywhere near the western deserts - indeed there are no large pythons at all in the vast sandy tracts.
You can see the scene briefly here, at the 1 minute 27 second mark; being technologically limited, and
unable to find a still of the scene, I photographed it from this promo on my computer screen, hence the poor quality!
(There was another little blip to upset the biologist too, albeit not biogeographical; a Euro is shot for food by an Aboriginal elder, but mysteriously turns into a female Red Kangaroo when dead! The Euro only appeared briefly, and I'd like to see it again, but I tend to trust myself on this. On the other hand if it was a make of car, say, they could get away with anything as far as I'm concerned!)

Another famous bioblunder I recall from way back - though at least I was at uni by then - was the inexplicable insertion of Brazilian Tapirs Tapirus terrestris into a scene at the start of the epic 2001: a space odyssey. The problem is that the scene was set in the early days of human evolution - quite rightly in Africa.
The black hairy ones are our ancestors - the tapirs (whose alternative name South American Tapir says
it all really) are... well who knows?!

I hardly expect cartoons to be scientifically rigorous, but still... I recall Antz, an animated movie (yes, about ants - I can't explain the 'z') from the late 1990s. All the soldiers were explicitly male!
As most of us could have told them, ALL useful members of an ant colony, most certainly including
the soldiers, are exclusively female.
One I didn't see was Lion King, but I have read about the opening scenes, featuring leafcutter ants above the savannah.
Oops, sorry - only in South America!
Another I didn't see was Jurassic Park, but acting on a tip-off I looked up the amber-trapped mosquito which carried the dinosaur DNA (and I'm not getting into that one here!).
Very nice, but the lovely plumed antennae tell us that it's a male -
and only female mozzies feed on blood. Males are staunch vegetarians.
Another I managed to miss was the apparently history-annihilating 300, featuring Persians versus Spartans. The Persians apparently brought 'war rhinos' to the party - interesting concept, though I'd be fascinated by the logistics of training and control. However the movie makers fell into the Tarzan trap, albeit in reverse.
This redoutable accoutrement has two horns; the only plausible Asian rhino has only one.
They were looking at pictures of either of the two African species...
(I had a lot of trouble tracking down a still of this one - I'm still not totally sure this is it.
If you know I'm wrong, please let me know. However I have read elsewhere that the
movie war rhinos do have two horns so the story stands.)
At a different level entirely, even the saccharine and very English Mary Poppins is culpable. The well-known earworm Spoonful of Sugar refers to a robin 'feathering his nest'. Given that it's set in and around London, one might reasonably expect a familiar European Robin Erithacus rubecula. One would in that case be disappointed and surprised.
Did they think no-one would notice it was an entirely unrelated and dissimilar American Robin Turdus migratorius?
(Or that it is apparently stuffed, but to be fair the film was made 50 years ago - this year in fact.)

And while we're on Mary Poppins, it seems the use of male gender in the line from the song above
wasn't used lightly. I'm no expert on North American birds, but I'm almost certain this pair comprises two males.
A very bold statement from Disney back in 1964!
Mary Poppins isn't the only classic under my scrutiny today either. Harry Potter's faithful female Snowy Owl Hedwig regularly went out for nocturnal excursions; unfortunately Snowies are almost wholly diurnal. Also it is unlikely that Harry's evil relatives would have been so disturbed by her hooting (she literally couldn't give a hoot), though they may have got a bit fed up with her squeaky screeches which didn't rate a mention.

And even the wonderful Finding Nemo got one important point bizarrely wrong. Why would you impose an American Pelican - Brown or Peruvian, I can't be certain, though it's a bit of mix really - onto the Australian east coast?? There are plenty of Australian Pelicans there who would have been happy to step in!
Nigel was never going to pass muster as an Australian Pelican, which is essentially black and white!

Even a couple of my favourite recreational authors have let me down on occasions. Peter Corris, in one of his historical ventures (I think it was Wimmera Gold) talked about 'the mulga' in western Victoria. Acacia aneura covers a large part of inland Australia - but the only mainland state where it isn't found is Victoria. And Paul Doherty, in his generally well-researched ancient Egyptian series, more than once dressed important people in jaguar skins; I'm pretty sure the Egyptians didn't ever make it to South America!

Does any of it matter? Well if it doesn't bother you, then of course it's not important to you. On the other hand if you saw a car model, or a clothing style, that you knew wasn't possible in that context, it may jar enough to make you question other things that you would otherwise trust, and generally spoil your enjoyment. That's how it is for me with regard to tigers in Africa or Carpet Pythons in the western deserts. And these days in particular, there's really no excuse, is there?

Any contributions anyone?


Thursday, 13 March 2014

On This Day 13 March; death of Ronald Gunn

It's probably fair to say that Ronald Gunn is not widely known, at least outside of his adoptive home in Tasmania, and outside the world of botanical history. Part of the fault is his own - though hard-wording and a most diligent field collector, he published very little of his work, leaving that to others.

Born in South Africa in 1808, he followed his army father to Reunion, Scotland and Barbados, and eventually into the army himself, albeit as a clerk. Urged by his older brother William, he resigned and sailed to join him in Hobart, where Ronald obtained a position under William as overseer of convicts in Launceston, and later became police magistrate and eventually private secretary to Governor Franklin. He went on to be a member of the Tasmanian parliament, and then Deputy Commissioner of Crown Lands and State Coroner.
Ronald Gunn in 1848, by Thomas Bock; courtesy State Library of New South Wales.
From our perspective however, his key appointment was as estate manager for William Lawrence in 1841, before he (Gunn) went into politics. Lawrence was one of Tasmania's leading land owners and a highly intelligent and scientific man in his own right, but the key connection for Gunn was the development of his friendship with Lawrence's son, the ill-fated Robert. Young Lawrence only lived in Tasmania for eight years before his premature death on his 26th birthday, but in that time he was an assiduous correspondent with and collector for the great British botanist William Hooker, then of Glasgow University, later director of Kew Gardens. Lawrence introduced Gunn to Hooker, and for the rest of his life Gunn travelled throughout the state, including its very wildest parts, gathering plant specimens to send to Hooker.
Gunn's Willow-herb Epilobium gunnianum Family Onagraceae, Namadgi National Park near Canberra.
The type specimen was collected in Tasmania, and named by German Epilobium specialist Heinrich Haussknecht.
He became close friends with Hooker's son Joseph, who spent some time in Tasmania travelling with him; Joseph in due course would succeed his father at Kew, and achieve his own eminence in the botanical world. Gunn of course supplied him with plants too.
Deciduous Beech Nothofagus gunni Family Nothofagaceae, Cradle Mountain NP, Tasmania.
This is one of the very few deciduous plants native to southern Australia.
It was named in Gunn's honour by his friend Joseph Hooker.
While best known for his plant expertise, as befitted a good naturalist of his age - and he was a very good one - Gunn also took an active interest in zoology and geology. He was responsible for sending the first live Thylacine back to England, and accompanied John Gould on his Tasmanian expeditions. In addition he took an active interest in the reptiles and snails of the island.

Eastern Barred Bandicoot Perameles gunnii; now almost extinct on mainland Australia, but still
quite common in Tasmania. The type specimen was sent by Gunn to London, where it was named
for him by zoologist John Edward Gray.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
He edited the Tasmanian Journal of Natural Science and was recognised in London by being elected to both the Linnean and Royal Socities - both most prestigious appointments. His private herbarium is now part of the National Herbarium of New South Wales (an oxymoronic name, but one which dates back to pre-Federation days). 
The orchid genera Gunnarorchis and Gunnia were named for Gunn, but they
have since respectively been subsumed into Dendrobium (above) and Sarcochilus (below).
He died in 1881, widely respected both for his scientific and social contributions. At least 50 plant species, the majority of them Tasmanian, were named for him. Joseph Hooker (not William, as claimed by Wikipedia) wrote in his introduction to his Flora Tasmaniae: "There are few Tasmanian plants that Mr Gunn has not seen alive, noted their habits in a living state, and collected large suites of specimens with singular tact and judgment. . . . accompanied with notes that display remarkable powers of observation, and a facility for seizing important characters in the physiognomy of plants, such as few experienced botanists possess". At the time it would have been hard to imagine a more significant endorsement.

Baeckea gunniana Family Myrtaceae, Cradle Mountain NP, Tasmania.
This shrub is also found in montane bogs on the mainland but was probably collected originally by Gunn,
and named for him by German botanist Johannes Schauer.