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, 26 November 2015

Tinderry Temptations

I guess we all know of a place - an alluring road we pass the end of, or a walking track we mean to explore, or a sign to a lookout - with which we're familiar to the extent of promising ourselves we'll go there some time. One such to the south of Canberra is a mountain range passed weekly by probably hundreds of people heading along the Monaro Highway to or from the snow, or the far south coast of New South Wales, or eastern Victoria. The Tinderries are a rugged range east of the highway, accessed from Michelago, some 50km south of Canberra.
The Tinderries from the west. The exposed granitic faces are obvious, and are even more so since
an intense bushfire swept through them in December 2009.
In direct sun or after rain they gleam, catching the attention of cars from the highway some 10km away.
Yes, just 10km, but very few people take the trouble to follow the good-quality all-weather gravel Tinderry Road east from Michelago through the paddocks bearing remnant woodland trees, to climb into the forests of the ranges. You should some time, you know.
Looking back to the west from the Tinderries to the Clear and Booth Ranges in the
southern Australian Capital Territory.
The highway traverses the plain in the middle distance - really not very far!
The granites (and as a non-geologist I'm using the term very loosely, I know) date from vast intrusions of molten material from deep down some 400 million years ago. They dominate the range.
Huge granite slabs like this emerge from the forest.

Mostly however they appear on the hilltops, as huge sheets and tors.

Exposed granitic caps like this have interesting plants and are well worth exploring.
Many are remote and require serious walking; others, including this one, are readily accessible
from the roadside.
The Tinderry Nature Reserve, declared in 1981, has since expanded to 14,000 hectares, all of which is to the north of the Tinderry Road. This road, the only vehicle access to the higher parts of the range, passes through a small extent of Timber Reserve, then private (though currently unfenced) land. To date this land has been managed pretty sympathetically - ie minimally - but on a very recent visit I noticed a couple of For Sale signs by the road (including by the magnificent outcrop in the previous picture), one of my favourite spots in the range. I await developments (hopefully not literally!) with some trepidation. 

The higher parts of the range support the easternmost outliers of sub-alpine forest and woodland vegetation, dominated by Mountain Gums Eucalyptus dalrympleana with Snow Gums E. pauciflora even higher up. (The highest point, Mount Tinderry, is over 1600 metres above sea level - the highest point of the Tinderry Road is 1280 metres.)
Mountain Gums forming a sub-alpine woodland.

Tough! A Mountain Gum seemingly growing out of sheer granite.
Note the wind in the leaves - this is typical of the higher open spaces.
Further down the mountains, the rain shadow to the west produced dry sclerophyll forest of a type widespread in the lower ranges of the region. There is good access to one part of the nature reserve in this section - returning along the Tinderry Road towards Michelago, turn right (north) onto the Burra Road. Some 10km along, in the far north-west of the reserve, there is a parks sign and gate on the right. You'll have to climb through the fence, but at least it's not barbed wire!
Open grassy dry eucalypt forest of Scribbly Gum E. rossii and Red Stringybark E. macrorhynchalow (800 metres asl) in the dry western slopes of Tinderry Nature Reserve.
One of the most significant plants in the range is the wattle Acacia costiniana (named for eminent alpine botanist, ecologist and conservationist Alec Costin, who at 90 is still, as at 2015, going strong). It is limited to the Tinderries (I'm almost certain, though one source has it further afield) where almost none of the population is in the reserve - most is just to the south, especially on granite outcrops including the one featured above.
Acacia costiniana; the phyllodes are very distinctive. It can form dense colonies among the granite.
The range is worth visiting at any time, but spring (which extends well into November at the higher levels) produces an excellent wildflower display. Here is some evidence for this claim! (And this really is just a selection of what I could have offered you.)

Austral Bugle Ajuga australis Family Lamiaceae.
Mountain Boronia B. algida Family Rutaceae.
Several species of boronia are common in the sandstone to the east, but there are very few this far inland.
Common Star-hair Astrotricha ledifolia Family Araliaceae; a large shrub
with many small flowers.
Common Fringe Myrtle Calytrix tetragona Family Myrtaceae.
Another shrub that thrives among the rocks.
Long-leaf Wax Flower Philotheca (Eriostemon) myoporoides Family Rutaceae.
This beautiful shrub is common in gardens, but not so easy to find in the wild.
Another that loves growing among the boulders.
Peas are abundant, here as seemingly everywhere.
Silky Parrot Pea Dillwynia sericea.
Common Shaggy Pea Oxylobium ellipticum.

Heathy Bush Pea Pultenea procumbens.
I'm getting a bit carried away here, so maybe just some herbs to end the floral menu.
Mountain Violet Viola betonicifolia.

Prickly Starwort Stellaria pungens Family Caryophyllaceae - which includes carnations.

Milkwort Comesperma ericinum Family Polygalaceae.
But of course I can't really end without an orchid.
Mountain Golden Moths Diuris lanceolata.
As for animals - well of course, though I don't seem to have many, which may be as well given how long this posting is becoming. Four very different animals to end on.
Spotted Grass Frog Limnodynastes tasmaniensis.This, and some friends, were using a nice cool moist something (I can't now recall what it was!) sunk into the
ground at the edge of the dry forest.

Green Scarab Beetles Diphucephala sp. on Silver Wattle Acacia dealbata.A very common beetle in the mountains regionally.
Magpie Moth Nyctemera amicus; my thanks to Susan for pointing me to an identification for this one (below).
Love the antennae.
Dusky Woodswallow Artamus cyanopterus with chicks.
This nest is in a hollow spout, a typical site for this species.
(And I'm sure she's more interested in her chicks than she appears!)
OK, the Tinderries - if you don't live in Canberra, or visit regularly, this may be of limited interest to you. But if you are one of those who drives regularly by them and wonders what's there - wonder no more! And next time, maybe you can detour...


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Those South American 'Geese'

For me at least, one of the highlights of a visit to the far south of South America - loosely known as Patagonia, incorporating the southern extremities of Chile and Argentina - is the presence across the landscape of flocks of big geese. I well recall my first visit to Patagonia, getting a hire car early on Sunday morning and heading out of Punta Arenas to drive along the Strait of Magellan - an amazing experience in itself. I was concentrating on driving on the 'wrong' side of the road for the first time when I suddenly saw a flock of Upland Geese in a wet paddock near the road and risked a rapid U-turn. In the event I needn't have - the next flock was only just down the road, and the next soon after that, and so on. But I was rapt.
Upland Geese Chloephaga picta near Punta Arenas.
This species is dramatically sexually dimorphic; males are black and white with black legs,
while females are rusty brown with orange legs.
This dimorphism doesn't end there either - the males come in two forms, which can be seen in the same flock.
The barred morph has densely black-barred breast and belly. It is commonest around
the Strait of Magellan, including on Tierra del Fuego.
This one was on Isla Magdalena, which is a Chilean island in the famous strait.

The white-breasted form becomes commoner further north - this is in
Torres del Paine National Park.
OK, back to the indicator in the title that these aren't really geese - and they're not, despite the protestations of my good friend Jorge from Chiloé! They are in the same sub-group as the shelducks - whether this is the tribe Tadornini or the slightly more prestigious sub-family Tadorninae is a debate I'll leave for those with more information and more time than I.

There are four members of the genus Chloephaga, all from the cold wind-swept south. All are essentially vegetarian, concentrating - with one interesting exception - on stems and seed heads of grasses and sedges; it is suspected that they are important vectors of these seeds. 

The exception is the surprising Kelp Goose C. hybrida, which lives right in the sea spray, on the often stormy rocky shores and shingle beaches of Patagonia. It does so because it lives almost exclusively on sea weeds (though grazes on grass when breeding on freshwater lakes). 
Kelp Goose pair, Puñuhuil, Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
Another strongly dimorphic species - again the male is much paler.
These are very handsome birds - like all their group - and deserve to be admired from closer up too.
Kelp Geese on Isla Magdalena, Strait of Magellan.
Female above, male below.

The other two members of the genus have identical sexes (except for a minor size difference). Ashy-headed Geese C. poliocephala are relatively common, but nowhere near as readily seen as the abundant Upland Geese. In addition to being less numerous, they are birds of forest clearings in the cold Nothofagus rainforests, so less likely to be seen from vehicles crossing the landscape.
Ashy-headed Geese, Ushaia National Park, Argentinian Tierra del Fuego.
The last Chloephaga species is very scarce indeed on the mainland, where it seems that less than a thousand Ruddy-headed Geese survive; they are still abundant in the Falklands however, despite heavy persecution from farmers. I've only seen them once, on the shores of the Strait of Magellan east of Punta Arenas, and have no really acceptable pictures; this one will have to do I'm afraid!
Ruddy-headed Goose C. poliocephala in the foreground.
(Behind it is a male Kelp Goose and two Crested Ducks Lophonetta specularioides.)
Finally there are two other South American geese (I don't think I need to continue with the apostrophes, which will only make them feel judged - they didn't claim to be anything at all!), both found much further north. They form a separate genus in the shelduck group, though the Andean Goose has only recently (and not unanimously) been moved from Chloephaga .

Andean Geese Neochen melanoptera live in the high Andes - never normally below 3300 metres above sea level (except when exceptional snows force them lower) - from central Chile to central Peru and adjacent Argentina. They are a big bird, weighing up to 3.5 kilograms. A haemoglobin mutation has enabled exceptional oxygen carrying ability, to help them at the high altitudes.
Andean Geese in a bofedale - a high mountain wetland - in the Aguada Blanca National Reserve, southern Peru.
Andean Goslings at the same site.
They lay up to ten eggs in a nest on the ground.
Just one member of this group prefers the heat of the tropical lowlands. The Orinoco Goose is found along streams throughout much of the northern Amazon basin, though it is loath to actually take to the water. It is rarely common; indeed in Peru it is listed as Critically Endangered. Both Neochen geese, like their southern relatives, are vegetarian grazers.
Orinoco Goose, Manu National Park, Amazonian Peru.
They don't have the cachet of Jaguars, Condors, macaws or toucans, but I reckon the South American geese (or 'geese') are a special little part of that wonderful continent.

BACK ON THURSDAY (26 November)

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Housekeeping; updating some earlier postings

This may be of little interest to anybody, but I find constantly that people are visiting older postings, so I skim through them a couple of times a year and update as required. Mostly this means replacing pictures with better ones, or adding to postings as more pics become available.

Here, in the perennially popular posting on Wildlife of Machu Picchu, I've added four more photos of different organisms. Links to images (without captions) here, here and here.
Here, in a posting on millipedes, I've added three photos from Borneo. Links to images (without captions) here, here and here.
Here, in a posting on flightless birds, I've added a photo of the Titicaca Grebe. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on colubrid snakes, I've added two photos, from Borneo and Queensland. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on the Lichenostomus honeyeaters, I've added a photo of Varied Honeyeaters. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on South American flamingoes, I've added a photo of Andean Flamingo. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on camouflage in vertebrates, I've added a photo of a very camouflaged Peruvian frog. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on camouflage in invertebrates, I've added a photo of a near-invisible Bornean ghost crab. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on botanist Charles Moore, I've added a photo of Citronella moorei. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on dragon lizards, I've added a photo of a Frill-necked Lizard. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on kingfishers, I've added a photo of Oriental Dwarf Kingfisher. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on bottle trees and kurrajongs, I've added photos of vine scrub and deciduous bottle trees. Link to images (without captions) here and here.
Here, in a posting on kangaroos, I've added a photo of a Whiptail Wallaby. Link to image (without caption) here.
Here, in a posting on Australian robins, I've added a photo of a male Rose Robin. Link to image (without caption) here.

Living Rainbows; animal iridescence

[This posting originally appeared on 13 June 2015, but while trying to update it with the addition of three extra photos, it inexplicably and totally disappeared! With the gratefully received help of David Nash I've retrieved it - and added the extra pictures.]

This is another in the sporadic series on colour in nature. You can find the most recent one here and trace it back therefrom. However for this particular installment you might also like to cast a glance at the first posting on blue in nature; the reason for this is that iridescent colours - where parts of an animal appear to shine, and even to change colour with a slight change of viewing angle - are formed in somewhat similar ways to blue (and combinations of blue, such as give yellow and purple). The colours have nothing to do with pigments, but are down to structures in the feather or skin of the animal, which reflect certain wavelengths.

However while non-iridescent blue for instance is always the same blue from any angle, iridescent structures give varying colours and rely on layers of cells that have different light-reflecting or refracting properties. We see the different colours by looking at different angles, and seeing light coming from the different surfaces. Moreover subtle aspects of these adjacent layers can cause effects to be reinforced or neutralised. Iridescence relies crucially on a reflecting base layer of melanin, or the light just keeps going through. 

An oil layer on water produces similar effects, with light reflecting back from the bottom surface and the top one, creating a rainbow effect as light wavelengths suppress or reinforce each other. (The word is based on Greek iris, a rainbow.)

For a more thorough analysis of the basis of the phenomenon in nature, this is a very comprehensive review.
Iridescent speculum in the wing of the Australian Pacific Black Duck Anas superciliosus.The photos above and below were of the same bird, taken just seconds apart.

It seems that iridescence can be used by species to convey information about the individual which includes sex, age, fitness as a mate, fitness to defend territory against an intruder and even species identification for very similar species. It may also play a role in camouflage (breaking up outlines, or in underwater situations), scare or confuse predators, for instance by making it hard to judge the exact distance to the prey, or by alternately flashing and hiding wing patterns in flight. Blues, purples, greens and bronze dominate iridescent colours.

But for the rest of today, let's just enjoy some examples of iridescence in bird feathers - leaving aside for now just one very important family which employs iridescence so comprehensively that they warrant their own posting next time. Let's continue with ducks, which are significant employers of the technique, on heads and backs as well as in wing speculums.
Feral Mallard Anas platyrhynchos, Canberra.
Chiloé Wigeons Anas sibilatrix, Puerto Natales, Chile.
The male is on the right.
Male Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata, Manu NP, Peru.
Even in the dull rainforest light which is my excuse for a poor photo, the iridescent back gleams.

Mandarin Duck Aix galericulata, Taronga Park Zoo, Sydney.
The most widespread ibis in the world is the iridescent Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, but it is not the only iridescent ibis. 
Glossy Ibis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash, Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda.
A very familiar African bird, named for its compellingly loud call.
Austral Parakeet Enicognathus ferrugineus, Cuevo del Milodon, southern Chile.
The lightly iridescent head of this parrot is found further south than any other parrot's,
to very tip of South America.
Pigeons also feature impressive iridescence, mostly in the wings in Australia at least.
Common Bronzewing Phaps chalcoptera, Canberra.A very common bird, including in urban situations, across most of Australia.
Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes, displaying in central Australia.
Another very common and familiar bird which probably thereby often fails to receive the admiration it deserves
(though this one wasn't interested in human admirers!).
Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera, central Australia.
The similarity of the display of these two species is striking.
Squatter Pigeon Geophaps scripta, Mareeba, Queensland.
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis, found across southern and south-east Asia,
here at Sepilok, Sabah. Many starlings are gloriously iridescent.
Common Starling Sturnus vulgaris, Canberra.
An unwelcome exotic here, but the green to purple iridescence of the breast is still striking.
Greater Blue-eared Glossy Starling Lamprotornis chalybaeus, one of the
many stunningly iridescent African starlings.
Ethiopian Swallows Hirundo aethiopica, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
Many swallows show such iridescence.
The green iridescent sheen of the wing covers of the male Great Frigatebird Fregata minor is one feature that distinguishes it from similar species. Here on Genovesa, Galápagos.
Leaden Flycatcher male Myiagra rubecula, Canberra.
This familiar bird catching the light took me by surprise; in most lights it's a more sombre and well, leaden colour.

Malachite Kingfisher Alcedo cristata, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
Kingfishers also commonly display iridescence, but I especially love the highlights of this one.
Masked Flowerpiercer Diglossa cyanea, Yanacocha Reserver, Ecuador.
These lovely birds 'cheat' by stabbing the base of a flower to steal nectar without
offering pollination services.
Shining Bronze-Cuckoo Chrysococcyx lucidus, Canberra, one of the world's smallest cuckoos.
All bronze-cuckoos have the strikingly iridescent wings.
Superb Fairy-wren Malurus cyaneus, Canberra.
One of south-east Australia's most familiar and loved birds whose iridescence
is often not recognised - until the sun catches them and 'flash'!
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird (or just Rubycheek) Chalcoparia singalensis, Batang Ai NP, Sarawak.
Many sunbirds are strikingly iridescent.
Olive-backed Sunbirds Cinnyris jugularis, Cairns, Queensland.
This species, Australia's only sunbird, is presumably a recent arrival, being also found through southern Asia.

I hope this has brightened up your day a little, as preparing it has mine.