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.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Magnificent Murchison (the Ugandan one). Part 2.

This is to conclude an introduction to the wonders of Murchison Falls National Park in western Uganda, began here in my last posting. While we met some animals in the context of specific places last time, they were just a tiny sample of what the park offers. (As indeed are those introduced here, but hopefully this will give you a stronger taste.)

I'll start with one of the little and too-often overlooked animals.
Dragonfly, Family Libellulidae, by the Nile.
(Thanks for the i.d. Susan - see Comments below.)
From that extreme to the other, the park is rich in mammals, including very big ones!
African Savanna (or Bush) Elephants Loxodonta africana are one very good reason to stay in your vehicle!
(I specify the full name because we now recognise the African Forest Elephant as a separate species L. cyclotis.)Family above, and bull returning from mud bath below.

Elephants aren't the only ones to enjoy the mud, presumably both for its cooling properties and as protection against biting insects - including Tsetse Flies.
This huge Cape Buffalo bull Syncerus caffer was one of three grumpy old bachelors sharing the wallow.
Herds of buffalo are found throughout the park - another very good reason not to go wandering around!

Somewhat less nervousness-inducing but none the less impressive are Giraffes - could anyone ever tire of seeing these magnificently unlikely products of evolution?
He was more interested in her than vice versa. The Murchison Giraffes are Rothschild's,
sub-species Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi. They have long white socks and the males are very dark,
at times the patches are almost black. This is a highly endangered sub-species and Murchison Falls NP
is a key reserve for them.
Cattle and antelopes all belong to the same big family of grazers, and there are plenty of 'other' antelopes wherever you drive in Murchison. Indeed near to the river the open grasslands are grazed down to a short lawn. Perhaps the honour of first mention should go to a Ugandan national emblem.
Actually the lovely Uganda Kob Kobus kob thomasi isn't officially the national emblem -
that honour belongs to a bird, which we'll meet soon - but it does appear on the national coat of arms.
Oribi Ourebia ourebi are delicate-looking little antelope, widespread south of the Sahara.
Uganda Topi Damaliscus ugandae. A very handsome stocky antelope, in a group
which has undergone a lot of taxonomic scrutiny recently. I'm almost certain I've
identified this correctly, but would be grateful to hear if you think otherwise.
And after drawing attention to the garbage sorting activities of some Warthogs last time, I feel that I should acknowledge that most of the Muchison Falls warties do live wild and independent lives!
Warthog family Phacochoerus africanus on the move.
Olive Baboons Papio anubis are another species which has recognised the benefits of human haunts, in terms of what we might leave for them to scrounge. They tend to be rather more proactive than the Warthogs however, and if you leave a car open at a picnic area, baboon retribution is likely to be dramatic!
Olive Baboon mother and baby watching events at the Paraa ferry crossing.
And there are even some small but conspicuous mammals - and coming from a place without any, I reckon that squirrels are a delight.
Striped Ground Squirrel Xerus erythropus are bold and cheeky.
The Murchison birds are slightly less obvious if you're not attuned, but they are a rich part of the landscape. And as we gave top billing among mammals to one part of the Ugandan coat of arms, so we must accord similar respect to the kob's bird counterpart. The Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum is also the official national faunal emblem.
Cranes are always superb in my opinion, and the crowned cranes have something a bit extra with the wonderful
crest and the unexpectedly short bills. Grey Crowned Crane on the plains of Murchison Falls NP above and on the Ugandan coat of arms - with the Uganda Kob - below.

Unlike mammalian predators which are most active at night, bird hunters are easier to see.
Dark Chanting Goshawks Melierax metabates, are effective hunters of quite large ground birds,
plus small mammals, reptiles and insects. I'd have said it whistled rather than chanted, but that's just me.

The Grey Kestrel Falco ardosiaceus is a much smaller hunter, but scarey enough if you're in its size range!
Among the known prey of the goshawk are francolins, ground-dwelling relatives of chooks, partridges and pheasants.
Crested Francolins Dendroperdix sephaena
The open areas support many other ground-dwelling birds too.
I'm a big fan of bustards too and Africa has a pretty rich trove of these large birds, compared with
just one in Australia. This is Denham's Bustard Neotis denhami which is found across much of sub-Saharan
African, but everywhere declining.
Black-headed Lapwings Vanellus tectus doing their best to avoid a decline in their species.
African Spur-winged Lapwing Vanellus spinosus. This really is a very neat - and in-your-face - group of birds,
found over most of the world. The bony spur, in the angle of the wing, is kept hidden normally, but is used
to wicked effect when protecting the nest or chicks on the ground.
African Wattled Lapwing Vanellus senegallus, yet another member of the genus.
(It was in Uganda that I saw the last of the African species that I hadn't yet come across - at least
of those living in areas I've been to.)

Senegal Thick-knee Burhinus senegalensis, one of an intriguing group of waders found throughout the world.
Mostly they are known as stone-curlews, which may not be accurate but is at least more euphonius. The African
species however are mostly called thick-knees (based on an old species name for the European representative).
Even Australia, which toyed with this awful name for a while, reverted to 'stone-curlew' by popular protest.
'Dikkop' is an alternative in Africa too, and to my ear is pleasanter, but is mostly South African.
Abyssinian (or Northern) Ground Hornbill Bucorvus abyssinicus. These very large (a metre high) birds
stalk the grasslands in small groups, hunting small animals.
And just to show that there are some small birds there that don't spend their time on the ground!
Northern Red Bishop Euplectes franciscanus, one of the weavers, constructing
a delightful woven enclosed nest hung among grass stems.
I can't imagine that you'd go to Uganda without visiting Murchison Falls, but this is just to make sure! It's a great reserve.


Monday, 25 August 2014

Magnificent Murchison (the Ugandan one). Part 1.

The bracketed clarification in the title refers to the lovely and dramatic Murchison Gorge area of Western Australia, which I introduced in these pages last year. Now it's the turn of the wonderful Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda, a place I'd been greatly looking forward to visiting, not least because it would be my first experience of the mighty Nile River. I travelled with the excellent Rockjumper Birding Tours of South Africa. The park (including a couple of adjoining reserves) protects some 5000 square kilometres of country, including rainforest, vast stretches of woodland, the northern section of Lake Albert (across which is the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and some of the Nile.

It exists because of the Tsetse Fly Glossina spp., vicious little grey-and-black-striped, bullet-shaped flies with a wicked bite which is not at all deflected by clothing. More significantly it also carries trypanosome protozoans which make the area uninhabitable to European stock. (Another trypanosome also causes Sleeping Sickness.)
Murchison Falls National Park - location indicated by end of red arrow. The Nile flows in from the east,
enters the northern end of Lake Albert and flows north again without spending much time in the lake.
The falls themselves are on the river east of the lake.
The eponymous falls are the most famous part of the park, and understandably so, but there is no doubt the park would be worth visiting even without them. However, there's good reason to start with them. The river is squeezed through gorges that are not especially high or long, but with a force purported to be the greatest of any such natural system in the world.
The Nile above the falls.

The falls themselves; the pressure and roar are extraordinary.

Gorge below the falls.

The Nile opens out again below the falls.
The handsome Rock Pratincoles Glareola nuchalis spend much of their time on the rock platforms,
among the spray, from where they forage for insects on the wing. When the river rises and the platforms
become submerged, they move somewhere with lower water levels.
North - downstream - of Lake Albert, the Nile opens out to well over 100 metres wide, though narrows to about half that fairly soon. Hippos, crocodiles, antelope, buffalo and numerous birds adorn the banks. Papyrus banks fringe the river.
The Nile downstream of Lake Albert; the foam on the surface is probably still
courtesy of the enormous churning in the falls.

Papyrus beds along the banks of the Nile. Papyrus is a sedge, Cyperus papyrus, which grows to five metres tall and
forms dense riverside herbaceous 'forests' throughout much of Africa. From papyrus (a Greek word of
unknown origin) comes our word 'paper' because of the use of the pith of the plant to make a parchment,
starting with the ancient Egyptians.
Another Greek word for it, bublos, gives us book-referring words such as bibliography and bibliophile.

Hippopotamus on the banks of the Nile.
The extraordinary Shoebill Balaeniceps rex, also seen on the banks of the Nile, a highlight of the visit.
For more on this wonderful and elusive bird, see here.
Vehicles cross the river at Paraa on a ferry which, though effective enough, can best be described as basic. It comprises a floating mesh platform powered by a robust but very smoky motor. Unusually for Africa it runs strictly to schedule; it only runs four times a day and even arriving five minutes late can lead you to be stranded. (However if you are on time and the ferry is full, it will come back for you!)
Paraa vehicle ferry across the Nile, Murchison Falls NP.
This African Pied Wagtail Motacilla aguimp lives by the ferry, even riding on it, to take advantage
insect life disturbed by all the activity.
Warthogs are more robust and less fastidious exploiters of the accumulation of visitors
at the ferry crossing, shamelessly going through the garbage.
There is a range of accommodation in the park; we stayed at Sambiya River Lodge (which is not actually on the river...), in very pleasant self-contained round thatched cabins.
Sambiya River Lodge cabins, above and below.

Lovely wooden beams and spider web motif, Sambiya River Lodge dining room.

Very leafy and grassy grounds, Sambiya River Lodge.
(Though one is cautioned to be on the lookout for buffaloes...)
The entry to the park from Masindi (and ultimately Kampala) is inauspicious and tucked away in an unsignposted maze of rough tracks - I suspect that many visitors fly in.
Entrance to Murchison Falls NP; I would fear that the elephant tusks were real,
except that I don't imagine they'd still be there if so!
This entrance takes us into the Kainyo Pabidi rainforest - part of the extensive Budongo Forest - where there is a basic lodge.
Kainyo Pabidi rainforest, Murchison Falls NP.
We spend a lot of time here looking for the surprisingly drab and skulking Pavel's Illadopsis Illadopsis puveli;
I say surprising because of the assiduousness with which it is sought, but the reason is that in Budongo
is its only occurrence in East Africa.
Most of the park however is dominated by vast open expanses of woodland; big areas of rolling hills are almost treeless.
Acacia-dominated savanna woodland.

Grassland with Oribi Ourebia ourebi.

Elephants and palm trees in the Murchison Falls NP landscape.
And of course we've hardly looked at the rich animal life yet, but I think that had best be left until next time - there's a lot of it!


Tuesday, 19 August 2014

There Be Dragons!

There certainly be! (OK, there certainly are...). Some 350 species of them in fact, found across Africa (and slightly into Europe), Asia and Australia. This family, Agamidae, is a 'sister' family to the iguana family (Iguanidae) of the Neotropics and some of the Pacific and, strangely, Madagascar. It's a funny thing, but this rather odd distribution of the iguanas neatly fits into the gaps left by the dragons; where dragons are, iguanas aren't, and vice versa.
Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
This smallish dragon (ie a young one - adults can be over 50cm long) shows the
characters which immediately distinguish the family. They have strong clawed legs on which
they stand clear of the ground, and have rough, even spiny, scales which don't overlap each other.
The tail is long and whiplike, and doesn't regrow if broken (unlike a skink's for instance).
This Central Bearded Dragon Pogona vitticeps, Windorah, South-west Queensland,
was too cold to run away - the usual defence of dragons - allowing a good view of its spiky scales.

Diporhiphora magna (no common name that I know of), Litchfield NP, south-west of Darwin.
The long whippy dragon tail is very pronounced in this species.
Their family is an old one - indeed, although we regard them as lizards, they (and the iguanas) are less closely related to other lizards than snakes are. One character not visible in the pictures above is the teeth; dragons have acrodont teeth, which means they don't have sockets, but are fused at the base to the surface of the jawbone. It's a common feature in fish and frogs, and isn't a very secure system, as teeth break easily. This doesn't mean they don't work perfectly well, and incautious handling of a wild Beardie has left me quite effectively lacerated on more than one occasion!

Nearly all dragons (and all Australian ones) lay soft-shelled eggs. She buries them - there may be as many as 30 - and leaves the young to burrow out again.
Southern Angle-headed Dragon Hypsilurus spinipes laying eggs in a rainforest track, Lamington NP, Queensland.
I've only been lucky enough to see this event once, and a long time ago, hence the indifferent picture
- a scan of a faded old slide.
As mentioned previously, most dragons can run at astonishing speeds, even rising onto their hind legs to do so. One group of Australian dragons is known as 'bicycle lizards' for this behaviour!
Crested Dragon or Bicycle Lizard Ctenophorus cristatus, west of Norseman, Western Australia.
Note the very long powerful hindlegs for running upright.
There is the hint of the bright brick red on this dragon which will characterise him as breeding begins. This too is typical of many dragons. 
Painted Dragon Ctenophorus pictus, Cape Bauer, South Australia.
The handsome blue flush will spread to his face when breeding starts.
Gippsland (Eastern) Water Dragon Intellagama (formerly Physignathus) lesueurii, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
There is a healthy population of these beauties adorning the gardens; only old males attain these striking colours.
Like many dragons these lizards climb well, but they also swim powerfully, dropping from a branch into
the water if disturbed. (Mind you, this particular population doesn't get disturbed easily - they will come to outside
tables at the restaurants hoping for dropped scraps!)
Rainbow Agama Agama agama, Douala, Cameroon. Only the males attain these superb colours, and only when breeding. At other times they are dull brown, as are females all year round. There is an apparently healthy population
of them on the footpaths and open spaces, including petrol stations, in this huge crowded city.
Blue-headed Tree Agama Acanthocerus atricollis, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
Breeding male above, and female (or possibly non-breeding male) below.

Agamas can be very sociable, and interactions are common.
Agamas in open-air restaurant, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
Gilbert's Dragon or Ta Ta Lizard Amphibolurus gilberti, Bladensburg NP, Queensland.
The curious alternative common name comes from its habit of 'waving' to rivals, as this one is doing,
to indicate that it is in its territory and aware of neighbours.
Like the Ta Ta Lizard, many dragons perch high to watch for both danger and prey - all are carnivores.
Bearded Dragon, Temora, New South Wales.
They can adjust the melanin-bearing cells in the skin to turn almost black to absorb extra sunshine.

Ring-tailed Dragon Ctenophorus caudicinctus, East MacDonnell Ranges, Northern Territory.
Jacky Lizard Amphobolurus muricatus, Mount Tennent, south of Canberra.
A common and very fast-moving small dragon.

Gilbert's Dragon Lophognathus gilberti, Darwin.

Dwarf Bearded Dragon Pogona minor, Lesueur NP, Western Australia.

Tommy Roundhead Diporiphora australis, Mareeba, Queenland, on termite mound.
It is often said that Australia's great lizard diversity is founded on the abundance of termites in arid lands.
One of the most famous dragon lizards is the Frill-necked Lizard Chlamydosaurus kingii of tropical Australia, not to be confused with the Bearded Dragon, though the names are often interchanged.
Frill-necked Lizard, Mareeba Wetlands, northern Queensland.
Spectacular, but not very often seen by visitors as they tend to be only active in the wet season,
when fewer people visit. In the dry winter they spend time in semi-torpor in trees.
And finally, just a couple more arid land dragons.
Spotted Military Dragon Ctenophorus maculatus, Lake Logue NR, Western Australia.

Lined Earless Dragon Tympanocryptis lineata, Bladensburg NP, Queensland.
These heat-lovers can be remarkably well-camouflaged against coloured desert stones.

Thorny Devil Moloch horridus, Desert Park, Alice Springs.
Surely one of the most extraordinary of all dragons; despite appearances, a slow,
harmless ant specialist. More information about this fascinating animal here.
Love your dragons - I certainly do!