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, 30 April 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Guayaquil

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

No-one visiting Ecuador is likely to spend much time in Guayaquil for its own sake. It is the country's largest city, crowded and industrial, and home to at least four million people. Moreover it burnt extensively in 1895, so lacks the feeling of age that Quito and Cuenca carry. Nonetheless its location 60km from the coast on the Guayas River, the largest west coast South American river, ensures that there is wildlife, especially birds, to be seen. The riverfront esplanade development known as the Malecon 2000 is a must for anyone visiting Guayaquil. The next four photos were taken along the Malecon.
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron Nyctanassa violacea.These handsome herons roost in trees above the Malecon and feed unconcernedly below the walkways.
Pacific Parrotlet Forpus coelestis.This little delight was photographed from a restaurant table on the Malecon.
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola; despite the name it seems that it's actually a tanager!
I couldn't resist this outrageous clash of colours.
Tropical Kingbird Tyrannus melancholicus.One of the most familiar birds throughout Ecuador (and well beyond) but there's something
special about seeing it backed by city buildings.
But even away from the river, there is wildlife alongside and above the chaotic streets.
These Red-Masked Parakeets Psittacara erythrogenys were investigating and squabbling over this
pipe over the street, presumably considering it a potential nest hollow.
Shamefully this parrot's numbers are in decline due to the demands of the pet trade.

But one of the most startling aspects of Guayaquil is the presence of a large population of Green Iguanas Iguana iguana in Seminario Park, surrounded by busy streets. They are quite unfazed by people, lounging in the trees and coming down to dine on lettuce provided.

On weekends locals crowd in to see them, and the whole thing is quite surreal!

And that's all for this time. I hope you've found it better than nothing! And when in Guayaquil, it really is worth taking a few hours to stroll the Malecon, have lunch there - and of course visit the iguanas.


Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Ecuador's Drier Side

Ecuador's natural values are well-known and for very good reasons; tropical lowland rainforest, Andean cloud forests, alpine páramo above the tree line, and of course the ever magnetic and fabulous Galápagos. But dry deciduous forests, where no rain falls for half the year? Well they certainly exist and support their own suites of plants and animals, but there is a reason you may not be familiar with them - most of them have gone, converted to crops, stock pasture and cities. They grow along the southern near-Pacific coastal strip, and in a land where most of the surface area is mountainous or Amazon rainforest, the flat fertile coastal plains have inevitably attracted intensive agriculture. The rich volcanic soils washed down from the Andes now support crops of bananas, sugar cane, rice, cocoa and cattle. Tiny Ecuador is the world's leading banana producer and exporter, and the eighth largest exporter of cocoa. And, in the last decade the insidious palm oil industry has begun taking up land in the northern sector of the coastal strip. The remnants of the dry forests now represent barely 5% of what they once were.

But despite all this, all is not lost. 
Cerro Blanco Reserve, on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city.
It is a 2500 hectare private reserve, owned by a large cement company and staffed and
researched by volunteers, many of whom are students.
The big deciduous trees are Bottle-trunk Ceibas Ceiba trichistandra.
South of Guayaquil, by the highway to Machala, is the much bigger Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve of 35,000 hectares. The majority is dry forest, but not all; manglares means mangroves in Spanish and the reserve protects 8000 hectares of mangroves, another highly threatened habitat in Ecuador. (Here the burgeoning prawn farming industry is the chief culprit.)
Mangroves and dry forest, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.
There are other small scattered reserves too, such as the wonderful Jocotoco Foundation's Yunguilla Reserve near Cuenca; this 370 hectare reserve was purchased to protect the last known population of the Critically Endangered Pale-headed Brush Finch Atlapetes pallidiceps. Although I've been fortunate enough to have fleeting views of this very rare bird, I'm afraid I can't offer you a photo!
Looking across Yunguilla Reserve.
Due to Jocotoco's efforts, the finch has been downgraded (or upgraded surely!) from Critically Endangered
to Endangered; nonetheless there are still only 250 birds left, all of them here.
What lives in the these forests? Well, rather a lot of species still, despite their decline. Here are some of them. I apologise for some of these photos, but most of the species are scarce and I felt it worth introducing them anyway.
Male Northern Violaceous (or Gartered) Trogon Trogon caligatus Cerro Blanco.Trogons are a delight, especially to those of us who don't normally see them.
They form a tropical Family (and indeed Order) found especially in South America but also
across Africa and Asia.
Saffron Finch Sicalis flaveola Cerro Blanco Reserve. It is now regarded as a tanager;
it is widespread, but is too beautiful not to include here.
Laughing Falcon Herpetotheres cachinnans Cerro Blanco Reserve.
A species not restricted to these dry forests; a snake and lizard specialist.
Tropical Gnatcatcher Polioptila plumbea, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
One of the numerous tyrant-flycatchers, an ancient South American
passerine grouping.
Pacific (or  Peruvian) Pygmy Owl Glaucidium peruanum, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
This tiny owl, often found by following mobbing small birds, is a dry forest specialist, though it has
also adapted to urban living as the forests are cleared.
Streak-headed Woodcreeper Lepidocolaptes souleyetii, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
The woodcreepers are trunk and branch probers, funariids or oven birds, the 'other' big group
of South American sub-oscines, ancient passerines. Most woodcreepers are wet forest birds,
bu this one specialises in dry forests.
White-tailed Jay Cyanocorax mystacalis, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
A scarce species apparently declining further through habitat clearance.
Grey-cheeked Parakeet Brotogeris pyrrhoptera, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
Loss of the dry forest has led to this subtly-hued little parrot being listed as Endangered.
This reserve and Cerro Blanco are two of only four reserves that protect them, including one in Peru.
White-necked Puffbird Notharchus hyperrhynchus Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
Again, most puffbirds live in wetter forests; this one is described as 'rare to uncommon' in Ecuador.
Mantled Howler Monkey Alouatta palliata, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
While common in South America, this species is not at all common further south, and this reserve
is a stronghold for them in Ecuador.
Tegu, Family Teiidae, Cerro Blanco Reserve.
Unidentified skink, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
I love that tail!
Cracker Butterflies Hamadryas sp., Cerro Blanco Reserve, above and below.
Their camouflage is superb.
The name comes from the sound of a displaying male's wings!
Colonial spider web, Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve.|
To my shame I have no idea what these lovely flowers are at Manglares Churute Ecological Reserve,
but I find them too interesting to omit. I'd appreciate any assistance you can give.
I was intrigued too by this epiphytic cactus in the same reserve;
the concept was entirely new to me, but maybe I just don't get out enough...
You probably wouldn't got to Ecuador specifically for the dry forests, but when you do go it would be a great shame to miss them.


Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Have you seen a Casuarina?

This is the latest in an irregular series on some of my favourite trees, of which there is no shortage. The most recent instalment was here, from where you can follow back if you wish.

Sound doesn't usually feature heavily in talking about plants, but casuarinas are different. The inside of a grove of casuarinas whispers; it's like standing surrounded by aeolian harps. 
Belah Casuarina pauper, Gawler Ranges NP, South Australia.
Belah forms woodlands across dry inland Australia; it used to be known as C. cristata,but the species has been split into two, with cristata found from central Queensland
to central western New South Wales.
The reason for the whispering lies in the foliage, which superficially resembles pine needles; indeed people often mistake them for pines. These 'needles' however are branchlets; look closely and you'll see that each branchlet (or cladode technically, for branches which perform a plant's photosynthetic function) is ringed with tiny teeth. These teeth are the remnants of the leaves, presumably reduced to contain water loss in their often arid environment.
Belah cladodes and leaflets, White Dam Conservation Park, South Australia.
If you enlarge the photo the rings of leaflets are quite obvious.
Australia though is only relatively recently a dry continent, so where did drought-resistant casuarinas come from? I think the answer to that lies in their distribution; while Australia is their stronghold, with some 70 of the roughly 100 species, they are found throughout the western Pacific. Seashores are one of the most ferociously droughted habitats, irrespective of rainfall - plants must effectively compete with soil salt for water. (This is a bit crude, but it'll do for our current requirements.) A plant like a casuarina which evolved on the shore would be pre-adapted to living in the dry inland as the country dried out. 
Belah and Bluebush Maireana sedifolia, White Dam Conservation Park, South Australia.
I think this one is interesting because bluebush is a member of the huge saltbush family Chenopodiaceae,
which I suspect also evolved in coastal environments, where some species are still found.
Some species of course have never left the shores. Horsetail Casuarina (or Sheoak - we'll come back to that name in a while) Casuarina equisitefolia is found on beaches from south-east Asia to north-eastern Australia.
Horsetail Casuarina (and male Great Frigatebird!), Lady Elliot Island, Queensland.
Swamp Oak Casuarina glauca, Cullendulla Nature Reserve, New South Wales.
Here it forms an interface with the mangroves on the right; while the mangroves
are flooded with seawater twice daily, the casuarinas are only inundated at very high tides.
They cope with it perfectly well though.
This one has become a serious invasive weed in the Florida Everglades.

We can get a hint from the previous picture (the Horsetail Casuarina) too as to why the great Linnaeus used the name Casuarina when he based the genus on this species; he thought the foliage resembled the hairy-looking plumage of the Cassowary! Personally I think he worked too many late nights...

In the late 1980s the late and highly respected Lawrie Johnson of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, split the hitherto single genus Casuarina into four; two of those genera are relatively small and barely represented in Australia (by one very restricted tropical Queensland species) but Allocasuarina, distinguished most obviously by larger and knobbier fruits, now represents more than half of what were previously Casuarina. Not everyone is happy with this change, but most authorities go along with it. I use 'casuarina' in lower case as a group name for the family.

I mentioned that casuarinas are quite pine-like at first glance, but they are legitimate flowering plants. As they are wind-pollinated however the flowers are fairly inconspicuous. Moreover most species have separate male and female plants (that is, they are dioecious); the rest have separate male and female flowers on the one plants (monoecious).
Scrub Sheoak Allocasuaria distyla female flowers and cones, Morton NP, New South Wales.
Black Sheoak A. littoralis male flowers Nowra, New South Wales.
The name sheoak is of vexed origin. It is widely supposed to be an indication that the timber was regarded by early British settlers here as of inferior quality to that of European oak, but I'm not at all convinced. I believe it is one of the many names of indigenous origin which later became anglicised as the origin was forgotten, and a new back-filling origin created. I have several bases for this belief, all of them of course circumstantial (as is the traditional explanation). For one thing the wood was actually valued quite highly. The Sydney Gazette of 1803 reported that "This wood is allowed to rank in Europe with the mahogany of Jamaica." That wood was very highly prized for furniture in particular. There is some beautiful casuarina ('beef wood') furniture in the National Museum. I point too to the occasionally encountered form shiock, and the existence of the name buloke for some inland species (notably C. luehmanii) - surely too much of a coincidence? Moreover the term he-oak is also found, though there is no suggestion the timber of these species is superior. And I find convincing the evidence of Richard Howitt, who in his book Impressions of Australia Felix in 1845 wrote quite explicitly "Shiac is the native name - vulgarised to she-oak". 

I don't doubt that some readers will be quite sure I'm wrong - and they may be right, though I think we can agree that we'll never be entirely certain.

To wrap up, here are some more casuarinas, which I hope you can enjoy as much as I do.
Desert Oak Allocasuarina decaisneana at sunset, Uluru, central Australia.
More on this wonderful species here.
Allocasuarina huegliana Boyagin Rock, Western Australia.
Drooping Sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata, above and below.
Above, Rosedale, New South Wales.
Below, Freycinet NP, Tasmania.
River Oaks Casuarina cunninghamiana, Deua NP, New South Wales.
This species always grows along near-coastal stream lines, forming riverine forests.
Thanks for bearing with me; I hope you can enjoy a casuarina soon.


Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Kakadu in the Wet

A nasty early cold snap has hit Canberra, and we're thinking wistfully of the tropics. It's also been a wet cold snap, so I'm thinking most specifically of rain in the tropics, and it's only a few weeks since we were in the magnificent Kakadu National Park, in Arnhem Land in the 'Top End' of the Northern Territory. We got very wet there, but it was warm!
Kakadu National Park is indicated by the red arrow, a little east of Darwin
(we live way down in the south-east corner of the continent).
The Tropic of Capricorn is marked, running pretty much across the middle of the map.
January is definitely not tourist season in the Top End; while it's not especially hot - daytime maximum temperatures temperatures rarely vary beyond 32 to 34 degrees centigrade - humidity is usually close to 100% and it's standard for afternoon storms to roll in. But for a naturalist it's rich, the storms are magnificent, and of course there aren't many tourists...

Kakadu is one of the world's great parks, and at 20,000 square kilometres it's the largest national park in Australia (though some reserves in other categories are larger). Its significance has been recognised in its World Heritage Listing; it is one of only four places in Australia listed both for outstanding cultural and natural values. The Bininj Mungguy people and their ancestors have lived here for at least 50,000 years, making them the oldest living culture in the world. 
Burrunggui (more generally known, though incorrectly, as Nourlangie Rock) in woodlands, Kakadu NP.
This site was and is of huge importance to Bininj Mungguy people and contains many significant art sites.
Habitats include vast savannah woodlands, monsoon forest, sandstone escarpment country, coastal habitats and rivers and associated wetlands. Kakadu supports a quarter of Australia's land mammal species and freshwater fish species and more than a third of its bird species. 

Chestnut-quilled Rock-Pigeon Petrophassa rufipennis Burrunggui.
This beautiful sandstone specialist is pretty much restricted to Kakadu.
However a focus for us, in a too-brief visit, was the Cooinda (or Yellow Waters) Billabongs wetland complex, famous for its guided boat tours run by traditional owners (or often by biologist guides trained by them). We actually went out twice ('second time half price' or something, but we didn't need much persuasion), in the early morning and late afternoon. 

This was Gudjewg, the Monsoon Season, which roughly corresponds to January - March. (The Bininj Mungguy traditionally recognise six seasons, based on what nature is doing, and these have been pretty much adopted by whitefellas there too, where European-based concepts of seasons don't mean much!) From our point of view the upside of this was that the boats could leave the river channels and travel across the flood plains; the downside is that with water across the whole vast landscape, birds have scattered with it, and perhaps counter-intuitively the Wet isn't a great time for seeing waterbirds. (Much better near the end of the dry when they are concentrating on diminishing waterholes.)

However we can and will come back for the birds; the experience of gliding through flooded channels and over the plains was mesmerising (though it's not easy to tell where one stops and the other starts). Perhaps the pictures can tell their stories for a while now.
Home Billabong at dawn.

Channel, Cooinda.

Yellow Waters Billabong, where the channel opens out.
Yellow Waters Billabong.

Floodplain reflections, above and below;
in the photo above can be seen some infrastructure associated with a walking track used in The Dry.

While birds, and even crocodiles, which tend to lie under the overhanging vegetation when the water's high, aren't very evident, there are still interesting plants to enjoy - as well there might be, with over 2000 species known from the park.
River Pandanus Pandanus aquaticus, a species always found along streamlines.

Paperbarks Melaleuca spp., growing on the flood plain.

Water Lily Nymphaea violacea, found across northern Australia and in New Guinea.
This is a very important plant to local people, who eat roots, stems and seed heads, either raw or cooked.

Lotus Lily Nelumbo nucifera; also an important plant, for food and medicine, to the Bininj Mungguy.
Unlike the Water Lily however, this one is also found throughout much of Asia.

Native Bamboo Bambusa arnhemica; a Top End endemic and one of only three bamboos native to Australia.

Livistona benthamii, a palm found in the Top End, Queensland and New Guinea,
where it is always associated with waterways and flooding.

Freshwater Mangrove Barringtonia acutangula Family Lecythidaceae.
Found in seasonally flooded wetlands across northern Australia and into Asia.
Previous comments notwithstanding, there are always some birds to be seen.
The world's eight jacana species are always a delight;
the Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea is Austalia's only species,
though it is also found in Indonesia and the Philippines.
Here is a view of the remarkably extended toes which are the key feature of the group
and which enable to them to famously walk on lily pads.
Eastern Great Egret Ardea modesta, in full magnificent breeding flush.
The sky was criss-crossed with skeins of Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus (above and below)
more than I'd ever seen before in one place. I have no idea where they were going to or from though.

White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster, found from India to Australia.
Always magnificent, this one was set off beautifully by the darkening storm clouds behind it.
By now, with sheet lightning blazing and thunder rumbling ever more loudly, it was
time to head for home; a small metal boat on water isn't the best place in such conditions.

Immediately after this photo was taken, it was definitely time to pack the camera away;
the boat had a canopy but the now torrential rain was coming in at 45 degrees.
Until then the front seats had seemed a very good place to be...
It was a great excursion nonetheless, and we'll remember it with both fondness and awe.

Tropics in the Wet? Yes please!