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, 30 April 2014

On This Day, 30 April; Charles Moore and Kustav Kunze died

Both Charles Moore and Gustav Kunze have made a visible mark on the Australian botanical landscape (or at least its labelling!), and while neither were anywhere near being major players, any story is made up of lots of small incidents and characters. 

Moore was born Charles Muir in Scotland, but when his family moved to Ireland they changed their surname to Moore - no explanations available I'm afraid! Charles trained at Kew, and returned to Ireland to work as a botanical surveyor. His work impressed the English botanist John Lindley who was doing a lot of work on the Australian material which was flooding back to Europe, and at Lindley's recommendation Moore was appointed NSW Government Botanist in 1848 (aged just 28), which included responsibility for the botanic gardens.
Charles Moore, date and photographer unknown.
Courtesy State Library of New South Wales.
He got off to a bad start, through no fault of his own, because the man acting in the job, John Bidwill, was popular and was a local, and Australians were already starting to resent having London impose outsiders on them. The gardens' Committee of Management opposed him and attempted to undermine him for decades to come. Nonetheless Moore threw himself into the job with enthusiasm, and it was not an easy brief, to rejuvenate the badly run-down gardens while maintaining and restoring both their scientific and recreational values. His system of informatively labelling all specimens is still followed.
Churnwood Citronella moorei, family Cardiopteridaceae, Bunya Mountains National Park, Queensland.
This rainforest tree was collected by Moore in northern New South Wales and named by English
botanist George Bentham.
Within two years he was off collecting in the Solomons, New Caledonia and New Hebrides. He built an educational centre and lectured in it to students for the next 30 years. Later he conducted expeditions throughout wetter New South Wales, including Lord Howe Island, and into Queensland, and made trips to Europe, including on behalf of the citrus growers' association!
He corresponded with the great Ferdinand von Mueller of Melbourne and supplied him with many specimens, but later they reportedly fell out, though I can't ascertain the cause and von Mueller was still naming species for him at least until 1881. 
Macrozamia moorei, in dry ironbark forest, Mt Moffat NP, central Queensland.
This big cycad - the largest Macrozamia species in Australia - was named by von Mueller for Moore in 1881.
Less gloriously perhaps, he notoriously had one JC Dunlop and his wife tossed out of the gardens for displaying 'uxorious affection'; it is not made clear to what extent they were affectionate! Dunlop was outraged and successfully sued Moore (in the Water Police Court??), but no less august a person than the Colonial Secretary crushed the unfortunate magistrate's ruling.

Moore became a very influential figure, and served on many scientific committees; he published a significant Handbook of the Flora of New South Wales in 1893, retired in 1896 - after guiding the gardens and botanical research in the state for 48 years - and died 'today' in 1905.
Pinkwood or Plumwood Eucryphia moorei, Monga National Park, New South Wales; named by von Mueller in 1863.
An ancient Gondwanan, with five Australian and two South American species.

Gustav Kunze died long before Moore, and never came to Australia, but he did have a significant and beautiful Australian genus named for him. Kunzea is in the family Myrtaceae, closely related to Callistemon and like that genus the flowers are dominated by long stamens.
Kunzea recurva, Stirling Ranges National Park, Western Australia.
Kunze was a German botanist and entomologist, professor at Leipzig University; fellow German botanist (and zoologist) Ludwig Reichenbach named the genus for him in 1828. Kunze was born in 1793 and died on 30 April 1851. His main botanical interests were ferns and orchids, but I'm sure he would have been pleased with his Australian namesake.
Kunzea parvifolia, near Canberra.
This lovely shrub covers disturbed land, including unworked farmland, in spring, in its
role as an ecological coloniser. For the same reason it is sometimes also regarded as a weed.
 I'm about to go away for a few weeks, taking a group of people to central Australia - please come back and visit again when I get back!


Saturday, 26 April 2014

Ball's Pyramid; mighty outlier of Lord Howe Island

I often think of a wonderful week we spent a while back on Lord Howe Island, out in the Tasman Sea (part of the Pacific Ocean) 600km off New South Wales. For some more information, here's a past posting, which in turn has links to others. It's a relatively recent (about seven million years old) crescent-shaped volcanic crater remnant some 10 kilometres long.
Lord Howe Island is clearly marked just to the east of the word Newcastle in the Tasman Sea.
It is on the edge of the Lord Howe Rise, an extensive seamount chain stretching north for some 1000km,
surrounded by water more than 4000m deep.
One of our most memorable afternoons of a memorable week was a boat trip out to Ball's Pyramid, a spectacular eroded remnant of the shield volcano 24km to the south-east of Lord Howe. 

The sizes of the two islands give an idea of the remoteness of the pyramid from Lord Howe.
Map courtesy of Oregon State University.
We were very privileged, in that the trip is cancelled due to bad weather more often than it is run, and I've met people who've failed to get there in several attempts. We however had a perfect afternoon, albeit with a moderately heavy swell running. Our guide was the wonderful Ian Hutton, synonymous with Lord Howe natural history, a quiet, charming and immensely erudite man whose retiring personality can give the misimpression of abruptness.

The pyramid is a huge overwhelmingly steep and rugged near-vertical lump of rock, which imposes on the southern skyline of Lord Howe even at such a distance. It rears 550 metres straight up out of the ocean, though is only twice that in length and just 300 metres wide; it claims to be the tallest volcanic seastack in the world.
Ball's Pyramid looming in the distance from Clear Place, on the north-east coast of Lord Howe,
at least 30km away.
The trip, in an open boat, leaves from the harbour in the sheltered bay just south of the north-western 'hook' of the island (see outline in second map above) and travels north to pass along the eastern coast, giving views of the island not otherwise obtainable.
Mount Eliza, far north-west corner of the island.
The trip home completes the circumnavigation, passing close to the base of the mighty hills that form the south of the island, Mounts Gower and Lidgbird. (The names were applied with an honest lack of modesty in 1788 by Lieutenant Henry Lidgbird Ball, the first European to sight the Lord Howe group.)
Mount Gower (above) and Mount Lidgbird (below) from the sea.

These views however, while superb, are very much the supporting acts. Once clear of the main island, the vertical bulk of the pyramid becomes increasingly riveting.

The only thing that distracts the eye is the abundance of seabirds, and especially the wheeling
Flesh-footed Shearwaters Puffinus carneipes, whose main breeding areas include Lord Howe.
You can watch the shearwaters for a long time, banking into the wind and riding down its waves,
over and again, without seeing them flap. They are supremely at home in the winds,
second, if that, only to the albatrosses. Their family name, Procellariidae, means 'storm birds'.
And with a wingspan of 130cm, they're very impressive indeed.

The sheer wall of rock rising half a kilometre above us is very dramatic indeed.
In fact, it is so abruptly vertical that, close up, it is pretty much impossible to convey an accurate impression.
A wider angle shot of the pyramid, from close up on the south side.
The seabirds are constant and magnificent (and encouraged by fish scraps and fish oil!).
Flesh-footed Shearwaters, above and below.
The tubular nostrils, characteristic of the group, are clearly visible above.

While dominant, the Flesh-footeds are not the only family members present. The delicate and tiny storm-petrels are usually only seen far out to see, and in my experience provide immense challenges to photographers; while not in any way extolling the photos I managed of them that day, they are infinitely better than anything else I'd ever achieved with regard to them!
White-bellied Storm-Petrel Fregetta grallaria.This 'pattering' feeding behaviour on the sea surface is typical of the birds long known to
sailors as 'Mother Carey's Chickens'.
('Petrel' incidentally, seems to have arisen in English by the start of the 17th century, with no evident influence from another language, but with no obvious English origin either; later attempts to explain it by reference to Peter - who supposedly walked on water - or from 'pitteral', referring to 'pitter patter', are speculative, though the latter seems to have some merit.)
Nearly all the Lord Howe seabirds nest on Ball's Pyramid (though ironically, not the abundant Flesh-footed Shearwaters) including the locally scarce Kermadec Petrel Pterodroma neglecta - indeed this is the only place in Australian waters that it does breed. Rolling seas and boat operators' much-appreciated caution about approaching too close make photography a bit tricky, but here are a couple of attempts - these were the first Grey Ternlets I'd ever seen.
Grey Ternlets Procelsterna albivitta and Common Noddies Anous stolidus,above and below.

However perhaps the most interesting inhabitant of Ball's Pyramid is not a bird, and is not accessible to visitors. The stack wasn't successfully climbed until a team from Sydney did so in 1965; the dangers involved, and the presence of numerous nesting birds, mean that it is now mostly restricted to researchers. However an otherwise unsuccessful climb in 1964 found a dead insect, which excited great interest as it had been presumed extinct since 1920. Like several endemic bird species, the magnificent Lord Howe Island Stick Insect Dryococelus australis was rapidly exterminated on Lord Howe by Black Rats escaping from the SS Makambo which ran aground in 1918 - yes, it took them just two years to wipe out the entire species. But fortunately, not quite... Despite the appearance of more dead animals, it took 37 years for scientists and rangers to find live ones; they are nocturnal and success required a climb of at least a third the height of the pyramid at night!

They found just 24 individuals in just a few Melaleuca bushes. Captive breeding at Melbourne Zoo has been very successful. In time, when ambitious but realistic plans to eliminate all mice and rats from Lord Howe have proved effective, it should be possible to rerelease the insects onto the main island. Meantime I understand that it is possible to see some at the excellent island Visitor Centre and Museum, though they weren't there when we were.
Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, courtesy Melbourne Zoo.
If you get any opportunity at all to do so, please visit Lord Howe - it's one of the Special Places. And when you do, I hope you're as lucky as we were in getting out to the unforgettable Ball's Pyramid.


Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Orchids by the Ice; Patagonia

It probably seems surprising to my Northern Hemisphere readers, but outside of Antarctica only the southern tip of South America lies below 50 degrees south; Australia and Africa come nowhere near it. 50 degrees north however is well inside northern Europe, Asia and North America, but my Australian readers will probably share my wonderment at the concept of a healthy forested ecosystem - and orchids - 1000km south of Hobart.

This is Patagonia, and today I want to offer another snippet on South American orchids, a very different one from previous postings on orchids of tropical Peru and Ecuador. Orchids are so widespread and successful that it shouldn't be surprising to find them absolutely anywhere, but when I first came across them in these distant cold wind-blasted lands I was amazed as well as delighted. 
Two Chilean Patagonian habitats where orchids may be found.
Above, open pampa - high dry grassland - east of Coyaique.
Below, Nothofagus (beech) forest, Torres del Paine NP.

The first one I found was the lovely and robust yellow Gavilea lutea - not surprising as it is not only big and conspicuous, but as I now know it tends to favour disturbed sites, including clearings in the beech forest, roadsides and disturbed grassy areas which are often found around lodges in parks such as Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile.
Gavilea lutea, Torres del Paine NP.
The thick stem can be 60cm high and bear over 20 flowers.
The Spanish name for it translates simply as Yellow Orchid; I don't know of an English one.
 There are 14 Gavilea species, all in the south. A much less common one, in my experience at least, though no less lovely, is G. araucana, Araucana Orchid. I found this one on a very wet bank (on a very wet day!) along a section of the Sendero de Chile (the Chile Track) just south of Torres del Paine.
Gavilea araucana.
The species name comes from the Spanish name for the indigenous Mapuche people.
This one is found as far north as 35 degrees south.
A larger genus is Chloraea, with some 50 species, mostly from the southern Andes. As expected, they are tough, able to withstand not only the deep snows of winter, but drought and even fires, by means of underground tubers - this of course is a characteristic of many terrestrial orchids.
Chloraea magellanica, Porcelain Orchid, is a most striking orchid, up to 40cm high and robust like Gavilea
(well you have to be tough to survive in Patagonia!) and also found in relatively open sites.
Chloraea for the greenish flowers, magellanica for the far southern distribution, as far south as the
Strait of Magellan.
The last one I know from down there is a delicate little delight which can form carpets in the beech forests. One of the best places I know for it - though it's widespread - is the walk to Lago Grey in Torres del Paine, where the icebergs come to die on the black sand beach. The orchids grow in sight of the ice.
Iceberg approaching the beach, Lago Grey.
(The glacier in the background, where the berg was born, is 18km away -
it is big!)
Codonorchis lessonii, Lago Grey.
Dog Orchid in English (purportedly for the scent!) and in Spanish,
somewhat more poetically, Palomita - 'little dove'.
(Though there are other meanings, ranging from popcorn to a dive in football!)
There are only two members of the genus - this one is found also across the Strait of Magellan
on Tierra del Fuego, and even on the Falklands.

So, not the overwhelming diversity of orchids that are found far to the north, but I find these little survivors fascinating and very beautiful. You'll probably not go to Patagonia specifically for the orchids - but when you do go, don't miss them!


Saturday, 19 April 2014

More Classical Animal Names

This is the last - for which you may be grateful! - in this little series on plant and animal names derived from classical mythology. Having talked at some length on birds last time, we'll conclude with a bit of a round-up of 'other animals' - though I confess that another bird has also slipped in here, which I trust you can forgive.

Let's start with a family who pretty much embody all that the Greek theistic panoply stood for - murder, outrageous punishment and revenge, and lots of sex, preferably incestuous. Uranus was god of the skies, married to Gaia, goddess of earth. (These are very much the abridged versions of the stories, of which in any case there are often differing and even conflicting versions.) They had six sons and, conveniently, six daughters, who pretty much inevitably formed six couples producing children. The youngest was Cronus, married to sister Rhea. For reasons typically obscure the French zoologist Mathurin Brisson applied Rhea as a genus name to the South American ratites (an ancient group of giant flightless Gondwanan birds) in 1760. (Though other sources credit German biologist Paul Mohring, a little earlier - I don't understand this.)
Darwin's Rhea Rhea (sometimes called Pterocnemia) pennata, with chicks, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
These twelve siblings were the Titans, generally described as 'godlike giants'; the word has of course become a synonym for anything large.

Acrophylla titan, Nowra, New South Wales.
This magnificent stick insect can be 30 cm long.
Another son - and another giant - was Anax, a word which in Ancient Greek also more generally meant a king.

Green Emperor Anax gibbosulus, Litchfield NP, Northern Territory.
Even emperors can come to grief it seems, this time in the form of a spider web.
Gaia really needed a break from all this fertility, especially with the production of giants being involved, and enlisted Cronus and his sickle to help. Where the drops of blood from Uranus' castration fell to earth, the Erinyes (equivalent to the Roman Furies) emerged. These beauties have been described as having coal-black bodies, dogs' head with the interesting embellishment of snakes wound round them, bats' wings and eyes that dripped blood. At least two of them live on in the names of two very different, but equally blameless, animals.

Tisiphone fell in love with the mortal Cithaeron - lucky him! When he politely demurred, she killed him with the assistance of one of her convenient head snakes. What this has to do with a butterfly is anyone's guess.
Swordgrass Brown Tisiphone abeona, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
One of her sisters was Alecto ("the implacable of unceasing anger" - a bit like some teenagers actually). Now while fruit bats can be pretty squabbly, this description seems a bit over the top, but I think the blackness implication is the relevant one. 
Black Fruit Bats Pteropus alecto, Charters Towers, Queensland.
Yet another product of Cronus' dreadful deed was, according to some stories at least and improbable as it sounds, Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, inter alia. Aphrodite (her Roman equivalent was Venus) went by numerous aliases, partly due to different groups of worshippers, and partly to her many roles. Adonis Morpho, 'fair shaped', was used in Sparta.
Morpho butterfly, Morpho sp., Sacha Lodge, Ecuador.
When opened the wings are a gloriously brilliant blue, but I was always too slow to snap them!
Aphrodite Urania was 'heavenly Aphrodite' (in apposition to the more earthy love of Aphrodite Pandemos). The Urania moths are limited to the tropical Americas; I refer here to the genus Urania, though the common term is also used for all members of the family Uranidae, which is much more widspread.

Green-banded Urania Moth Urania leilus, Yasuni NP, Ecuador.
Many butterflies and moths sip moisture from river bank silts with their proboscis.
And there I think it's time to leave that particular family of gods well and truly alone. An apparently more benign entity was Hamadryas, mother of the hamadryads, eight spirits associated with particular trees.
Cracker Butterfly Hamadryas sp., Cerro Blanco Reserve, Guayaquil, Ecuador.
These butterflies typically use their camouflage to hide on tree trunks. Their common name is based on their
habit of 'cracking' their wings, apparently by clapping the tips together, though the purpose is still debated.
The Hamadryas Baboon, Papio hamadryas, of north-eastern Africa and Arabia, is also named for her.
King Aegeus was key to the founding of Athens, according to the legends; the Aegean Sea, in which he drowned himself through a classic misunderstanding, was also named for him. So is this rather nice local butterfly.
Female Orchard Swallowtail Butterfly Papilio aegeus, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
Diana the Huntress has many names also; apparently Diaea is one variant, applied to a genus of spiders by Swedish aracnologist Tord Tamelan Teodor Thorell, working in Italy. He described over a thousand spider species in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Flower Spider Diaea sp., National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
I'm going to end though with a name from legends much closer to home. When Mike Archer, then curator of mammals at the Queensland Museum, named a new genus of tiny marsupial carnivores as recently as 1975, he turned to indigenous stories of minute nocturnal hunters with short feet - all very descriptive of the animals he called Ningaui.
Wongai Ningaui Ningaui ridei with delicious winged termite.
Photo courtesy of David Nelson.
This time however I must take full responsibility for anything you wish to dispute. I'm not sure what we'll be discussing next, but it won't be names, and murderous or licentious Greek deities will not rate a mention!


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Classic Birds

Last posting was about some plant names derived from classical mythology; I promised that this time I'd do the same with some animal names. Well, yes and no... In practice I discovered that there were far too many good classically-based stories to be found in the world of animal names, so this mini-series has evolved into a three-parter - birds today, other animals next time. 

The kingfisher families are especially rich in such allusion, because the Greeks were quite excited about kingfishers - even though they only knew one species initially (at least until they got into Africa). Ceyx was the son of Hesperos, the Morning Star, married to Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, the wind guardian. Blissfully happy, they made the mistake of comparing themselves to Zeus and Hera - big mistake actually, as Z and H turned out to be not at all happy, and punished their presumption by drowning them both with a storm. The other gods felt that this was a bit over the top and turned them into halcyons, birds generally agreed to be kingfishers. (I can't help but think they might have preferred to have been themselves again, but what would I know?) Not being very experienced in such things, Alcyone opted to nest on the beach near the waterline - her dad arranged for windless days to allow her to get away with it. These were of course the original Halcyon Days. So, let's meet some of their etymological descendants, starting with the obvious.
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azureus, Barmah Forest, Murray River, Victoria.
Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica, Budonga Forest, Uganda.

Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Ceryle was an alternative name for the Halcyon.
Other kingfisher genus names, including the American ones, build on this name.
Ringed Kingfisher Megaceryle torquata, Isla de Chiloe, Chile.
A handsome big kingfisher, found from southern USA to the Strait of Magellan;
there is no evidence that it has ever heard of ancient Greece or Alcyone though.

Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Alcedo seems to have been the Latin equivalent of Alcyone.
 Many other bird groups bear similar burdens, though apparently blithely.

The tropicbirds comprise three species of glorious white seabirds, with no close relatives, found throughout tropical waters. For no evident reason (Linnaeus rarely deigned to explain his names, though he probably didn't have time to do so) their genus is Phaethon, 'shiner', named for the son of Helios the Sun God, who gave in to nagging and lent the boy the family vehicle for the day. Oops, he lost control, set the world alight and died in the crash. Not the birds' fault!

Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, Lord Howe Island.
Some other birds are also named for Phaethon, though whether directly or via the 'shining' implication is unclear.
Crimson Finch Neochmia phaeton, Darwin.
White-whiskered Hermit Phaethornis yaruqui, Alanbi, Ecuador.
Phaethornis is 'shining bird' - or 'cocky teenager bird', as my friend and co-author Jeannie Gray would have it.
 Back at sea, there are several other classically-named birds. The great Wandering and Royal Albatrosses are Diomedea, for Odysseus's companion in his Boys' Own adventures, Diomedes. Other albatrosses have been monickered similarly. Phoebastria was a Greek prophetess (though not necessarily a specific one).
Waved Albatross pair Phoebastria irrorata, Espanola, Galapagos.
Pandion was a king (or perhaps two kings) of Athens; he (or they collectively) had three children, all of whom were turned into birds - there was a lot of it about. He didn't share their fate then, but now has been, in name at least.
Eastern Ospreys Pandion cristatus at nest, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
Terns are regular classicists too, though the exact identity of the mythical Greek nocturnal bird Gygis remains a mystery, as does the thinking of the genus' German author Johann Wagler (actually he was primarily a herpetologist, which might help explain it). Certainly the exquisitely delicate White Tern doesn't eat other birds at night, as its namesake was alleged to do.
White Terns Gygis alba, Lord Howe Island.
Procne was the very ill-fated daughter of Pandion - see above - and you really don't want to know what happened to her! However in the end she was turned to a swallow, which helps explain the use of her name in a couple of tern genera.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia, Moulting Lagoon, Tasmania.
Hydroprogne is of course 'water swallow'.
The Nereides, daughters of Nereus, were Mediterranean sea-nymphs, and surprisingly nothing especially bad seems to have happened to them - being transformed into a delightful Fairy Tern certainly isn't bad!

Fairy Tern juvenile Sternula nereis (right; the big blokes are actually relatively diminutive
Silver Gulls Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae), Goolwa, South Australia.
Back to Pandion again - his son was Nisus, turned (of course) into a bird, apparently a sea-eagle; later his name was associated with the European Sparrowhawk Accipiter nisus. And here's a really weird story; the Australasian hawk owl or boobook genus is Ninox, a blend of Nisus and Noctua, an owl! Who knows??
Southern Boobook Ninox novaeseelandiae, Nowra, New South Wales.
A more familiar type of mystery is the 'what does this bird have to do with her?' type. Amytornis, the grasswrens, are 'Amytis birds', Amytis being either the daughter of Medean king Astyages, or the later daughter of Persian King Xerxes, renowned as 'the most beautiful and licentious woman of Asia' according to one source. The French ornithologist Rene Lesson saw no reason to explain his thinking in naming the not-very-evidently licentious birds for her.
Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, Desert Park, Alice Springs.
To end, something of an anticlimax - a god, Myiagra, whose sole role was apparently chasing flies away from sacrifices to more significant Roman deities. How humiliating must that have been?! Needless to say, the Australian flycatchers named for him do chase flies, but not 'away' if they can help it.
Leaden Flycatcher Myiagra rubecula, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
My thanks again to Jeannie Gray, co-author of our Australian Bird Names; a complete guide, on whose work much of the above material on Australian bird names in based.

Back next time with more weird and wonderful stories from times fortunately long gone, as they have insinuated themselves into the names of other animals - especially insects, with some spiders and mammals thrown in.