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 September 2015

Pisagua; town of ghosts and birds

Pisagua is now a fishing village of only a couple of hundred people on the Atacama Desert coast of northern Chile. Only a century ago however it was one Chile's great ports, hosting internationally famed opera singers; more recently it has been, on three separate occasions, a terrible concentration camp for opponents and victims of extreme right-wing military-style governments.
The approximate position of Pisgaua is indicated by the end of the red arrow, on the sea 40km west of the
Pan American Highway, between the major cities of Iquique and Arica (which is almost on the Peruvian border).
Pisagua huddled against the desert coast, from Punto Pichalo, north of the town.
The waterless tracts hemming it in made it an ideal prison site.
The road to Pisagua from the east, with the camanchaca - the sea mist produced by the
cold onshore Humboldt Current - dominating the skyline.
Pisagua was founded back in the early 17th century as a port associated with major silver mines in Bolivia, but boomed in the 19th century with the rise of the guano-mining industry, when centuries of droppings from vast seabird colonies on the coasts of Chile and Peru were mined and exported as fertiliser.
Guano (from cormorants, boobies, pelicans and terns) on an island off Pisagua.
At this stage Pisagua was in Peru; south of here Bolivia stretched to the sea, with Chile further south again (north to approximately Antofagasta on the map above). After the War of the Pacific, one of the great conflicts of the latter 19th century, in which Chile defeated both of its northern neighbours, Bolivia lost its sea access in 1884 and Chile moved its northern border some 500km further north, well into Peru. Pisagua became, and remains, Chilean.

At around this time Pisagua had become much more significant as the port for the new nitrate-mining industry, exporting vast quantities of nitrate from mines in the desert to the fertiliser and explosives industries of North America and Europe. Indeed, by the beginning of the 20th century it was, with Iquique and Valparaiso, one of the three great ports of Chile. With banks, schools, telegraph offices and railways, and the magnificent Teatro Municipal on the waterfront, its population of nearly 10,000 lived well. Steamships brought fresh food and flowers twice a week. Its decline began with the end of the nitrate boom in the 1920s, and its glory turned very grim as a series of brutal presidents used it as a remote prison camp. In the late 1920s Carlos Ibáñez del Campo dumped gay men there; around 1950 Gabriel Gonzalez Videla did the same with communists; and much more recently the infamous General Pinochet sent very many leftist opponents there. Many of those sent there died or simply vanished.

Today most of the town's buildings, including the theatre, are empty and the attraction is mostly in the abundant wildlife. One 'must-do' activity is the two kilometre walk along a narrow road above the sea, to Punta Pichalo to the north of the town.
Pisagua from a lookout by the road, which can be seen zig-zagging down the steep hillside above the town.
Punta Pichalo is at the right of the picture; the track to it leaves from the hairpin bend
just past the town.
The track to the point; the total lack of vegetation is typical of much of the Atacama.
The effective rainfall for Pisagua is - zero...
The cold Humboldt Current, bringing nutrients up from the ocean depths, is one of the richest parts of the planet, and the world's most productive marine ecosytem. It produces some 20% of the global fish catch (by humans) and the bird and other animal life abounds.

Peruvian Pelicans Pelecanus thagus, above and below.
Formerly considered a sub-species of Brown Pelican, it is now recognised as a full species,
extending south from northern Peru.
South American Sea Lions Otaria flavescens on an islet off Punta Pichalo.
The only member of their genus, they are not closely related to other sea lions.
South American Sea Lions and Inca Terns Larosterna inca.
Inca Terns (below) also comprise a single-species genus, as well as
being arguably the most beautiful term in the world.
With all the activity it was inevitable that there would be dolphins around and
a small pod of Bottlenose Dolphins Tursiops truncatus swam past the point.
Turkey Vultures Cathartes aura constantly patrol the shoreline and sea lion colonies.
However the highlight was an extraordinary conversion of pelicans and cormorants (Guanay and Red-legged) on what must have been a huge school of small fish that moved past the point and out to sea, attracting thousands of birds, and presumably large predatory fish and dolphins too.
The number of small fish to attract this number of birds - and there was a constant stream of cormorants
and pelicans leaving the land to join the feast - must have been in the millions.

Humans have been sharing in this wealth for a long time too, judging by the huge midden on the point.
Shell midden with charcoal, evidence of many cooked meals.
Back in town there is a nice waterfront park with shelters, ideal for lunch - and further wildlife watching.
Neotropical Cormorants Phalacrocorax brasilianus are found throughout South America
and north to the southern US.

Peruvian Pelicans loaf about the port scrounging for scraps.
Band-tailed (or Belcher's) Gull Larus belcheri is readily distinguished from the
more widespread Kelp Gull L. dominicanus by the eponymous black tail band.
Blackish Oystercatcher Haematopus ater; its elegant white legs are highly distinctive.
A pair patrols the rocks in front of the picnic shelters.
And while not many passerines make the seafront their home, one species here does and is rarely found away from the waves.
Chilean Seaside Cinclodes Cinclodes nigrofumosus; the cinclodes form a group of ovenbirds,
one of the two ancient groups of South American passerines.
Most of the 15 or so species are dwellers of the high Andes, but not this one.
Lizards are also not generally found in the spray zone, but the Atacama Lava Lizard Microlophus atacamensis
is at home there; it is common along the Atacama coast.
This one appears to have regrown an amputated tail.
Pisagua is not on the main tourist trails of Chile, but that's no reason not to go there - one might indeed argue the opposite. Its recent past was grim, but we should not forget that such barbarism exists.

And for a naturalist, Pisagua has abundant rewards.


Thursday, 24 September 2015

Colours in Nature: orange - invertebrates

Back from another wonderful trip to South America - you'll be seeing more on that very soon - so this offering is 'live' again. Last time, in looking at some orange reptiles and frogs, I mentioned the class of chemicals known as pterins, which were first discovered as pigments in the wings of Pierid butterflies; the best-known of these are the ubiquitious Cabbage Whites, but there are many yellow, and of course orange ones too. Since then pterins have been found in the wings of many other butterflies, as well as wasps and crustaceans, but it is highly likely that they are the basis of other orange invertebrates too. But we might as well start with some orange butterflies from various places, including right here in Canberra.
Australian Painted Lady (though this one is a male Lady!) Vanessa kershawi,
on Isotoma sp., Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
And I can't really omit a butterfly with Orange in its name, though I reckon it's stretching the definition a tad - not for the first time, as observed in my previous Orange postings.
Orange Bush-brown Mycalesis terminus, Ingham, Queensland.
Both these species are in the huge and colourful family Nymphalidae; despite the history of pterins
I can't actually find a photo of mine depicting an orange Pieridae.
I can offer orange butterflies from Africa and South America too, both of which (if my identification is correct, by no means something to be assumed) are also Nymphalids.
Cymothoe sp., Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda.
This is a genus of some 70 species restricted to the great forests of West and Central Africa.
Heliconius sp., Manu National Park, Peru.
This widespread and diverse neotropical genus advertises its unpalatability - it takes up nasty cyanides
from its food plants - with bright colours. A lot of work has been done on Mullerian Mimicry in this genus,
where many species resemble each other to reinforce the message to predators. Additionally other, perfectly palatable, butterflies also mimic Heliconius for their own protection (known as Batesian Mimicry).
Two Red Flashers Panacea prola, (with a blue friend, hitherto unidentified by me), Manu National Park.
Despite the common name, these look pretty orange to me!
Orange wasps, you may recall, have also been identified as deriving their colour from pterins. Here are a couple of examples.
Spider Wasp, Family Pompilidae, Machu Picchu, Peru.
Like the butterflies, the wings are the orange aspect here; this is not always the case however.
I assume, but do not know, that the orange legs and bodies of many other wasps are also down to pterins.
'Fire Wasp' (local name, for its ferocious sting) Urabamba, Peruvian Andes.
Potter Wasp, Family Vespidae, Kata Tjuta NP, central Australia.
She needs a lot of water to construct the characteristic mud nests.
Another spider-hunter, this time near Winton, western Queensland.
As for other orange insects, I'm not aware of work that has been done to identify the relevant pigments, but it seems likely that pterins are also involved.
Patagonian Bumblebee Bombus dahlbomii Torres Del Paine National Park, Chilean Patagonia.
This magnificent insect - the world's largest bumblebee - is at risk of extinction following the deliberate
introduction of European bumblebees, carrying parasitic protozoans which are fatal to their Patagonian
relatives, though they themselves are immune.
Chrysomelid beetle munching its way through an acacia phyllode,
Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia.
Ladybird Coccinella transversalis, Namadgi NP near Canberra.
Harlequin Bug, Family Scutelleridae, Undara National Park, Queensland.
And lastly, moving away from the bush to the sea, pterins have been identified in orange crustaceans, presumably including this lovely crab.
Male Orange-clawed Fiddler Crab Uca coarctata, Mission Beach, Queensland.
The ludicrously enlarged claw is useless for foraging - the other, small claw does all the food gathering - and is solely
used for signalling superiority, and fighting when bluff fails.
So, that will about do us for our excursion into the orange world. Except that I should come back one day to celebrate some orange flowers - but perhaps not just yet.


Saturday, 12 September 2015

Colours in Nature; orange - other vertebrates

In the last posting we talked about orange in animals, focussing on birds. I raised there the problems of precisely defining orange, and I think that becomes even trickier in mammals. For instance by what colours would you define this antelope and tiger?
Impala Aepyceros melampus, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda

Sumatran Tiger Panthera tigris sumatrae, Adelaide Zoo
(and how I wish I could tell you I'd photographed it in Sumatra!)
I think that both could arguably be described as orange (indeed Wikipedia uses a tiger to illustrate its article on orange) though I'd probably think of them as rusty red/chestnut and will deal with this shade thus in a future posting. 

An important difference between orange pigment in birds and in most other animals is in the nature of the pigments themselves. For instance while mammals certainly absorb carotenoids from their food and metabolise them, few if any mammals use them for colouration. Instead yellows and oranges and rusty tones in mammals (including in red-haired humans) are due to a class of melanins (normally thought of as brown or black) called pheomelanins. These can be synthesised in the body, unlike carotenoids. 

When I started looking into it, I discovered that most of the mammals I'd call orange - as opposed to chestnut etc - are primates. The most obvious of these are Orangutans. (And of course the name comes from Malay, and has nothing to do with 'orange'.)
Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus, with baby, Sepilok, Sabah.
Venezuelan Red Howler Monkeys Alouatta seniculus, Manu NP, Peruvian Amazonia.
Despite the name, this is the common red howler of the western Amazon; three species are now recognised.
Red Leaf Monkey Presbytis rubicunda, Gomantong Caves, Sabah.
This beautiful monkey is restricted to Borneo and nearby islands.
Golden-mantled Tamarin Saguinus tripartitus, Napo Lodge, Yasuní NP, Ecuadorian Amazon.
And maybe that is really gold rather than orange, but I'm not entirely convinced...
This lovely little monkey also has a limited range, in Ecuador and north-eastern Peru,
and Napo Lodge is probably the best place to see it.
Primates don't have the orange mammal certification entirely to themselves though.
Northern Amazon Red Squirrel Sciurus igniventris, Yasuní NP, Ecuador.
In other vertebrates the story is different again. The class of chemicals known as pterins was first described from (orange) butterfly wings, but they have since been discovered in a range of other groups, including reptiles and amphibians (and other invertebrate groups, but we'll visit them next time). Like melanins, but unlike carotenoids, they can be synthesised by animals. 
Poison Dart Frog Ameerega bilinguis, Yasuní NP, Ecuador.
(Do not ever try this; the hand belongs to an indigenous man who's been doing it all his life and
has developed an immunity to the frog's poisons.)
Cinnamon Frog Nyctixalus pictus, Batang Ai NP, Sarawak.
This is a climbing shrub frog of the family Rhacophoridae; and yes you've seen this picture
in a recent post, but it was integral to both that one and this...

Basking Land Iguana Conolophus subcristatus, North Seymour, Galápagos.
Like the frogs, this somnolent fellow almost certainly employs pterins to brighten himself up.
And there we'll leave if for today, returning soon (when I'll be preparing it 'live') to look at orange invertebrates.