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, 24 September 2014

Considering the Lilies: part 1

The other day we were walking in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve on the northern edge of Canberra; for the whole time we surrounded by millions of Early Nancies, low-growing native lilies.
Massed Early Nancies Wurmbea dioca Family Colchicaceae, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
It got me thinking that lilies would be a great topic for a blog post, but the more I thought about it, and after I'd checked up on recent changes in thinking of the place of lilies in the world, I realised that there are actually at least two and probably three postings involved, just because of the numbers of 'lilies'. I use the inverted commas there because the question of what actually is a lily is a very vexed one. 

At one stage the answer seemed easy - everything in the family Liliaceae. But... The family was described by Antoine Jussieu in 1789, and was basically defined as any herb with six roughly equal flower parts, six stamens, an ovary that sits above the flower base, and three sections within the ovary. Unfortunately it soon became obvious that this definition included very many species indeed. In fact despite growing concerns which had begun to be expressed in the mid-19th century as to the validity of the family, by 1980 the definition had actually been broadened and the family included over 300 genera and nearly 5000 species!

Reality kicked in then and people began looking at the real relationships, resulting in a major break-up of the family and the erection of close to 50 new genera and quite a few new families. With new biochemical tools in particular, the work is proceeding and more changes have recently been made and widely accepted. The artificiality of the old family is underlined by the fact that former members have been spread across not just 24 families, but two Orders - in other words many members of the old Liliaceae aren't even moderately related! For the purposes of this blog I'm going to define a 'lily' as anything that has historically been regarded as such, but I'll also explain the current situation for anyone interested as we go.

I'm going to introduce today some of those members which stayed in the order Liliales (which is the smaller of the two), but first, some lilies in history.

You may not have suspected it, but onions and garlic (family Alliaceae) are lilies by this definition. They have been grown around the Mediterranean for at least 5000 years. The Greek historian Herodotus described an inscription on the Pyramid of Cheops detailing the large sums of money spent on onions, garlic and radish (unrelated) for the labourers. Somewhere I read that the first recorded sit-down strike was staged at the Necropolis in Thebes because the onion wage wasn't being paid. Quite right too! 

In the 13th century Florence was a world trading centre; their gold coins, embossed with a lily, were called fiorin d'oro, 'little gold flower', which entered English as 'florin'. Tulips - among the few remaining members of family Liliaceae - came to Austria from Turkey in 1554 and the craze spread throughout Europe. In Holland single bulbs sold for thousands of guilders; Belgian speculators traded at the van Beurse home, hence our word 'bourse' for a stock exchange. 'Paper tulips' were promisory notes, and millions of them circulated. When the government shocked everyone by demanding that the notes had to be honoured, people went bankrupt - and many went off tulips... Another lily, the hyacinth, arrived in Europe via the middle east from the western Asian plains in the mid-16th century; within two hundred years some 3000 varieties had been developed in Holland, of which we now know only around 150.

It's a long time in this post since a picture, a dangerous thing in a blog posting, so here are some lilies of the Order Liliales. The Americas aren't particularly well endowed with native lilies, especially in the south, but one notable central and South American family is Alstroemeriaceae, with just four genera but some 250 species, including some beauties. Two of these genera, Alstromoeria and Bomarea, account for nearly the entire family, each having 100-120 species.
Alstromoeria patagonica, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
This tiny herb is endemic to Patagonia.
Bomarea sp., El Cajas NP, Andes above Cuenca, Ecuador.
Bomarea sp., 4000m high cloud forest, Manu NP, Peru.
In Australia we also have a few members of this order, including the cheerful little Early Nancies I mentioned earlier, in family Colchicaceae.
Wurmbea dioica, Mulligans Flat NR, Canberra.
As the species name implies the species is dioecious - it has separate male and female plants.
Female above, male below.
A less common member of the family locally is also a grassland lily, and also named for a human female!
Milkmaids, Burchardia umbellata, Bigga cemetery, New South Wales.
An umbel is a floral arrangement whereby all the flower stalks arise from a common point,
well illustrated here and again reflecting the species name.
Burchardia rosea, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
A third member of the family Colchicaceae locally is found in wet forests not far to the east of here.
Schelhammera undulata, Lilac Lily, Carrington Falls, New South Wales.
The flower streaks are nectar guides, advertising hoardings for pollinating insects.

Smilacaceae is another Liliales family found in Australia as well as widely elsewhere. The most familiar member in south-eastern Australia is Smilax australis, known unkindly as Lawyer Vine (one of several species so named in fact) because it is prickly and easy to become entangled in!
Smilax australis, Monga NP, New South Wales.
The leaves are most unusual among monocots - mostly herbaceous plants like lilies, orchids and grasses - in having
net-like leaf veins, instead of simple parallel veins.
We'll leave it there for now - there are many more lilies to meet! I must say though that one of the best known quotations about lilies, the famous biblical one, "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin" leaves me baffled. I have never understood that one - are we being exhorted to a life of sloth, hoping for the best?? Oh well, best I stick to what I know a little about.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

On This Day, 18 September: Chile's National Day, featuring two saltos.

On this day in 1810 the Spanish colonial governor of Chile was deposed and replaced by a Council of seven, based in Santiago; this was only the beginning of the end of Spanish rule, but it is marked now as the first of two consecutive Fiestas Patrias, effectively Chile's national days. Chile was my first experience of South America, and as such retains a special place in my heart. My experience of it has so far been limited to the south, though in the next 12 months I plan to rectify that by visiting the Atacama. However it means that a strong part of my impression of Chile is water and in paying a tribute to the country on its special day, I'm going to do so by introducing you to two very special and spectacular saltos - literally a jump, but also meaning waterfall or cascade.

The first is Salto Petrohué in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, inland from the bustling Puerto Montt, on the Petrohué River soon after it flows out of Lago Todos los Santos. The second is much further south, in the sublime Torres del Paine National Park. Salto Grande - the 'big falls' - forms in a slot canyon between Lago Nordenskjöld and Lago Pehoé. 
Location of Salto Petrohué shown (approximately!) by end of red arrow;
that of Salto Grande by end of brown arrow.
The settings of both are superb. 
Looking east along Lago Todos Santos to the Andean spine; the mountains, including Tronodor, are
on the Chilean-Argentinian border. The Petrohué flows west from the right of the photo.
The mountains around Lago Todos Santos are still visible from the saltos, a little downstream.
The top of Salto Petrohué, with mighty Puntiagudo in the background.
(The name simply means 'pointy'.)
From there the water roars down through a narrow slot.
The rocks are laval basalt, very tough but still being gradually worn away.
Below the falls the river runs over shallow bars and through rocky channels, sometimes still white, sometimes relatively peaceful.
Rio Petrohué flowing through cool temperate rainforest downstream of the falls
(above and below).

While the falls are the obvious attraction, the forest itself is well worthy of our attention too, especially if we have an eye to the Gondwanan connections of the plants, a striking aspect to those of us lucky enough to visit from other southern lands.
Notro, Embothrium coccineum, overhanging the Petrohué River.
This member of the family Proteaceae bears a striking resemblance to the
Australian waratahs, Telopea spp., in the same family.
The characteristic blue of the water is due to the presence of fine suspended particles of silt.
Weinmannia trichosperma, family Cunonicacae - another Gondwanan family.
Escallonia rubra; its family, Escallionaceae, is mostly found in South America, with
a smaller focus in Australia.
But let's fly south now, to the second of our saltos to celebrate Chile's day. It too has a spectacular setting, between two of the lakes for which Torres del Paine is famous (among many other things!). 
Lago Nordenskjöld, with the Towers (Torres) behind it.
Not a very Spanish (or Tehuelche!) name, you may well think; it was named for Swedish
geologist and explorer Otto Nordenskjöld, who investigated the area in the 1920s.
Lago Pehoé whipped up by the winds that are typical of the area; I've been nearly knocked off my
feet by them while visiting Salto Grande.

Pehoé is lower than Nordenskjöld, causing the waters to rush into Pehoé with dramatic force.
Upstream of the salto, with the Horns (the Curenos) in the background.

The falls, above and below; the latter shows Lago Pehoé in the background.

Another view of the mighty Cuernos, looking back from Salto Grande.
And, as everywhere, there are plants and animals to admire too, including the ubiquitous Notro.
Notro by the Salto Grande.
Southern House Wren Troglogdytes musculus, Salto Grande. This bird will be instantly familiar to my northern
hemisphere friends, though the Eurasian species has now been separated. Many ornithologists recognise
just one species (T. aedon) from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, but the South Americans disagree.

Male Austral Negrito Lessonia rufa, an equally widespread bird in the south.
It is one of the vast group of South American Tyrant Flycatchers which makes
South American birding such a challenge and a joy to the rest of us.

So, Happy Day Chile, and thanks for sharing your wonderful saltos with us!


Friday, 12 September 2014

Homage to Kingfishers: 2

Last time I had the pleasure of introducing some of the Tree Kingfishers, by far the most numerous of the three kingfisher families as generally recognised. Today I've been looking forward to completing this little alcenid homage by meeting, with you, some members of the other two families, the ones who actually do fish as a key part of their lifestyle. The best-known of these, via the literature, calendars and Christmas cards, is probably the Common Kingfisher Alcedo atthis, found right across Europe, North Africa and most of Asia. However it's been decades since I was in those parts, and I can't offer you any pics - there are some superb shots out there in webland however!

The smaller of the two fishing families is Cerylidae, the Water Kingfishers. (This is not a very helpful name compared with the other one, Alcedinidae, the River Kingfishers, but I wouldn't have wanted to have to come up with anything more useful either!) It comprises just nine species and oddly I have photos of six of them - this is because they comprise all the American kingfishers, which are ubiquitous and evident in South America. It seems that they arose only a few million years ago when an ancestral ceryline crossed from Asia, via the Bering Strait. In the orthodox view this ancestor did not leave any direct descendants in the Old World, though this is certainly not an unheard of occurrence. 

However it has been recently suggested that this ancestral line is represented by the Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis, found across most of sub-Saharan Africa and southern Asia. It is a very handsome bird, without the usual bright kingfisher colours, common and evident on lakes and rivers, perching on branches and reeds, poles and buildings above water; moreover, unlike other kingfishers it greatly increases its hunting range by hovering conspicuously above the surface. Like many kingfishers they draw attention to themselves by constant calling. Less typically they roost in flocks.
Pied Kingfisher, Kazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda (where all these Pied Kingfisher
photos were taken). This is a female, with just one breast band.
Typically, fish are carried back to a perch, battered into stillness and swallowed headfirst so that fins don't catch in the throat.
Part of a sequence, above and below, of bashing the fish then swallowing it.
(This is a male bird, with a second narrow breast band.)
Like many kingfishers, Pieds nest in a burrow in the bank, which they excavate themselves.
Male Pied Kingfisher at the mouth of a nesting burrow.
By one theory the American cousins then divided into two genera. Megaceryle is represented in South America by the Ringed Kingfisher M. torquata, an imposingly big bird found from the Amazon basin to the Strait of Magellan, and north into the southern USA. (Further north it is replaced by the closely related Belted Kingfisher M. alcyon.)
Ringed Kingfisher, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
Despite its size (similar to that of a kookaburra) it's a fishing bird, diving spectacularly into the water.
In this scenario a Megaceryle kingfisher later recrossed the Atlantic to give rise to two Asian-African species, but more recent thinking has the genus arising in Africa and later arriving in the Americas. Either way the African representative, the appropriately named Giant Kingfisher M. maxima, is a most impressive bird, found throughout the non-desert lands of the continent.
Giant Kingfisher, Benoue NP, Cameroon.
This one too, despite its considerable bulk, hurls itself into the water after fish, frogs and crustaceans.
The other American kingfishers - all from the South American tropics - are very similar birds of the genus Chloroceryle, which neatly divide into two species-pairs, one pair with rufous undersides, the other with substantial white below (though males have a broad rufous breast band). In each pair there is a large and a small species, thus avoiding competition.
Male Amazon Kingfisher C. amazona, Cocha Salvador, Manu NP, Peru.
He is a big bird, 30cm long, with no white spotting in the green.

Male Green Kingfisher C. americana, Manu NP, Peru.
He is less than 20cm long.

American Pygmy Kingfisher C. aenea, Yasuní NP, Ecuador.
This scarce and tiny bird is only 13cm long; this one was seen at roost at night above a creek from a canoe.
Its 'pair partner', the Green-and-Rufous Kingfisher, also scarce, is 24cm long.
The third kingfisher family, also specialist fishers, is found throughout most of the world except the Americas. Mostly smaller birds, they are notably short-tailed and typically blue above and rufous or white below.
Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azurea, Barmah Forest, Victoria.
Ceyx, you may recall from last time, was one of the doomed couple who just got too happy for the liking
of the typically grumpy Greek gods, and got turned into birds.
This exquisite bird is found along streams in near-coastal eastern and northern Australia and, as here,
inland along the Murray River.
African Pygmy Kingfisher Ispidina picta, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
A tiny bird, the size of the relatively unrelated American Pygmy Kingfisher. It will sometimes hunt
insects far from water.
Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo (or Corythornis) cristata, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
One of the jewels of Africa, no bigger than the Pygmies, common and widespread in Africa.
Oriental Dwarf (or Rufous-backed) Kingfisher Ceyx erithaca, Gomantong Caves, Sabah.
This little gem is found across much of southern and south-eastern Asia.
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting (here at Sepilok, Sabah) is a little fishing kingfisher
of forest streams and mangroves, found across southern Asian.
So, this is the end of our kingfisher journey; I hope you've enjoyed meeting them as much as I have. Wherever you are, there'll be one or more not too far away. And every one's a pleasure.


[If you'd like to leave a message, I'd love to hear from you. I've changed settings so that you don't have to have an account with Google or anyone else, and you don't have to identify yourself - though I'd love to know who I'm talking to. You only have to prove you're human by copying a number; they've made these much easier to read now than they used to be. I tried it for a while with no restrictions, but got swamped by horrible spammers.
I know that lots of people read this, but very few comment. ]

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Homage to Kingfishers: 1

Kingfishers truly are one of the joys of life, with 90-95 species to be enjoyed in every continent except Antarctica. Moreover they've been brightening the planet for a long time - indeed the fossil record suggests that 60 million years ago kingfishers and their close kin were the dominant birds to be found perching above the landscapes of the Northern Hemisphere. However while both North America and Africa have been suggested as the ancestral kingfisher home, it seems likely, based on the fact that the oldest and most distinctive members of the dynasty are to be found in the south-east Asia to New Guinea area, that they arose there and spread.
This Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus, in Mulligans Flat Nature Reserve, Canberra,
demonstrates widespread kingfisher characteristics. In particular the erect posture, long sharp heavy bill,
three toes forward and one back (like passerines) and bright colours are all recurring themes.
Also in perpetual dispute is whether kingfishers belong to one diverse family or three separate ones, though there is no argument about the three distinct sub-groups. The majority opinion is that the divisions are wide enough to merit family status, and I'm going along with that. These families, in descending order of size, are the Tree Kingfishers, Halcyonidae (approximately 60 species), the River Kingfishers, Alcedinidae (22-24 species) and the Water Kingfishers, Cerylidae (9 species, including all the American ones). (If we accept just one family it has to be called Alcedinidae, as the Common Kingfisher of Europe and Asia, the first to be named scientifically, belongs there.)

And, just before we get to the birds themselves, and to confirm the reputation of kingfisher taxonomists as a disputatious lot, there is also confusion as to which of the groups represents the ancestral kingfishers; while it has always been generally agreed on the basis of physical and behavioural evidence that the Tree Kingfishers are the oldest, and from which the other two families derived, recent biochemical work challenges that and puts the River Kingfishers in the chair of honour. The argument goes on but for now I'll adopt the majority view - which seems to coincide with logic - and stick with the Tree Kingfishers as the originals. Specialist behaviour, such as fishing, has been adopted by a minority of the group and seems likely to have derived secondarily from more generalist forest and woodland hunters of small animals. However the Common Kingfisher happens to be one of the minority and its habits gave the name to the whole group, even though most of them don't fish, or only rarely.

Today I'm going to introduce a few of the Tree Kingfishers, in deference to their numbers and their apparent venerability. Next time we'll meet the others, the fish-lovers. Why not start with the biggest ones, the kookaburras; I'm not sure if I have any African readers but I know they'll bristle at that statement. However while your Giant Kingfisher is a bit longer than the Laughing Kookaburra, the kooka is certainly more massive. 
Laughing Kookaburras Dacelo novaeguineae, Canberra. Highly sociable, they defend territories fiercely against
rival kookaburra clans with the famous territorial laugh and display flights and even physical contact if necessary.
Both of its scientific names are contentious. Dacelo is an anagram of Alcedo, the Common Kingfisher genus; such
levity was regarded at the time as in very poor taste. Novaeguineae is even worse; it isn't found in New Guinea and
Pierre Sonnerat who claimed to have collected it there was apparently being deliberately disingenuous to exaggerate
his travels - he had form, having also claimed to have shot a penguin there!
Laughing Kookaburra, south coast New South Wales. The bill can be used - as here - like a crowbar
to extract grubs from the soil. Most food is collected on the ground, as with most of the family, and ranges from insects and worms to lizards, snakes and mice.
It seems that the kookaburras arose in New Guinea and at some point the Blue-winged Kookaburra entered Australia, where it remains in the tropics, while the Laughing Kookaburra evolved as a separate species and moved south into the temperate forests and woodlands. 
Blue-winged Kookaburras Dacelo leachii (here at Katherine Gorge, Nitmiluk NP, Northern Territory, behave similarly to Laughings,breeding cooperatively with the parents assisted in chick rearing by offspring from previous years,
and sometimes by brothers and sisters. The call has been justifiably described by Graham Pizzey, the author of
the preeminent Australian bird field guide, as "appalling".
The Sacred Kingfisher - featured above - is the common smaller kingfisher of southern and eastern Australia and is also found well into the Pacific and eastern Indonesia. Around here it is strongly migratory; soon we should be hearing its insistent 'ek ek ek' in woodlands, as it returns from far north Queensland and even New Guinea and beyond.
Sacred Kingfisher with frog, Canberra. They eat pretty much any animal suitable to their size.
(Faded old slide - sorry.)
Inland the Sacred Kingfisher is replaced by the similar and closely related Red-backed Kingfisher Todiramphus pyrrhopygius, found throughout the arid inland.
Red-backed Kingfisher, Kings Canyon National Park, central Australia.
From behind (below) we can just see its eponymous back, which is the red of a brick rather than a letter-box.
Unlike Sacreds, which usually nest in tree hollows, Red-backeds generally excavate a burrow in a bank.

Forest Kingfishers Todiramphus macleayii, Darwin, Northern Territory.
This exquisitely blue kingfisher is found commonly across tropical and sub-tropical
northern and eastern Australia.
Still in the same genus the Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris (here on Selingan Island, Sabah)
is a mangrove specialist, scattered from the Middle East to India, then throughout south-east Asia to
tropical Australia and Micronesia.
 Halcyon is a mostly African genus of Tree Kingfishers - and 7 of the 16 African kingfishers species belong to it. There is much mythology surrounding kingfishers - many Polynesians believed that Sacred Kingfishers controlled the waves, hence the English name - and Greek mythology was rife with it. 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, hence Halcyon Days. We'll meet some of these names again next time among the fishing kingfishers.
The Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica is a lovely bird found across western and central Africa,
from primary rainforest (as here, in Budongo Forest, Uganda) to dry savannahs.
As well as the normal kingfisher animal fare, it is known to eat oil palm fruits.
The Grey-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda, is another beauty.
This one is found widely across Africa and undertakes complex movements in different parts of this range.
Woodland Kingfisher Halcyon senegalensis, Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda.
Another with a range right across sub-Saharan Africa, and migrating from the north and south into
the centre of the continent in the dry.

The Striped Kingfisher Halcyon chelicuti, central Cameroon, may not be as smartly dressed as some of its relatives,
and is smaller, but I think it has lots of character. It too has a huge distribution.
One which was until recently included in Halcyon but is now one of three large Asian kingfishers in the new genus Pelargopsis. At nearly 40cms long this is a very striking bird indeed.
Stork-billed Kingfisher P. capensis, Sepilok, Sabah.

I hope I have whetted your appetite for these wonderful birds - back next time to talk about some of their even flashier fishing relatives, from tiny to huge.


[If you'd like to leave a message, I'd love to hear from you. I've changed settings so that you don't have to have an account with Google or anyone else, and you don't have to identify yourself - though I'd love to know who I'm talking to. You only have to prove you're human by copying a number; they've made these much easier to read now than they used to be. I tried it for a while with no restrictions, but got swamped by horrible spammers. I know that lots of people read this, but very few comment. Please?]