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.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Farewell to 2016!

As is my wont, I am going to celebrate my minuscule part in the great drama of 2016 by choosing just one photo from each month of the year - not for their non-existent photographic excellence, but because they remind me of some highlights, large and small, from my year.

Orchard Butterfly Papilio aegeus, inserting its proboscis into the wet soil to take up water and perhaps nutrients.
We were at Rosedale on the New South Wales south coast where we retreat for a couple of weekends a year to relax.
This is a common big butterfly from the entire east coast of Australia and New Guinea, which visits our yard in
inland Canberra fairly regularly. They evolved to feed their larvae on native shrubs of the family Rutaceae,
which pre-adapts them to citrus trees, hence the alternative name of Citrus Butterfly.
I am intrigued by the fact that butterflies' proboscises evolved long before the rise of flowering plants,
presumably for purposes such as this; when flowers came along, butterflies were pre-prepared!
Bull Ant (or Bulldog Ant, or Inch Ant according to my father), Myrmecia sp.
Another insect, and another from the NSW south coast, this time at Currarong where we went to
help celebrate a friend's birthday.
This is a genus of nearly 100 large, primitive Australian ants, with extremely painful stings.
I like this photo because of the reminder that the jaws are pretty impressive too, especially if you're of its
size range. (I also liked the fact that I manged to take the pic without being stung!)
Diamond Python Morelia spilota, a subspecies of the more widespread Carpet Python.
It is found further south than any other python in the world, in southern NSW and (marginally) in Victoria.
This lovely animal, which had recently shed its skin (the eye scales have still not dropped) was relaxing in a pond the back yard of friends in the Kangaroo Valley, north-east of Canberra.

Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillauts, bathing at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra.
To be honest I didn't have a lot of April photos to choose from, but I like the evening light and
the splashy enthusiasm of the bird at its ablutions
Young Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus, Gomantong Caves, Sabah.
It's not very hard to see orangutans in Malaysian Borneo, with rehabilitation centres such as at Sepilok
featuring rescued animals in the process of being returned to the wild.
It is always exciting to see them in the wild even in such situations, but this youngster and its more
circumspect mother were an unexpected bonus, entirely wild and unhabituated animals on the forest
walk into the famous caves. 

Spinifex (Triodia sp.) at sunset, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
I had the good fortune to be invited to assist in a biological survey of this remote and little-known
part of Australia. It was a memorable experience indeed - and as I seem not to have taken any photos
in June (!), I'm going to indulge in a second one from here.
Male Rufous-crowned Emuwren Stipiturus ruficeps, Great Sandy Desert.
I had only seen this tiny bird (reputedly Australia's smallest) once before, and had never
succeeded in laying lens on any of the three species, so was quietly pleased with this stroke of luck.

In August we set out on a five week trip to tropical northern Australia, so I have a real wealth of options for the next two months!
Darwin Woollybutt Eucalyptus miniata, among the sandstone outcrops of the 'Southern Lost City'
in the relatively little known, but very large, Limmen National Park, in the eastern Top End
of the Northern Territory. We did a memorable walk through the stacks and across the plateau.
Baobabs Adansonia gregorii Gregory National Park, western Top End.
I love these splendid old arthritic giants which only come this far east. This is the only baobab
outside of Africa. Deciduous, they lose their leaves in the dry winter months.

Canberra Spider Orchid Caladenia (or Arachnorchis) actensis, Mount Majura, Canberra Nature Park.
This little spider orchid is listed as Critically Endangered at a national level, being found only in a small area
of the lower slopes of the suburban Mt Majura - Mt Ainslie forests.
I was honoured to have been directed to this newly-found population.
Hoverfly (family Syrphidae) on Yam Daisy or Murnong Microseris lanceolata, Aranda Ridge,
Canberra Nature Park. This was a remarkable season for the delightful hoverflies, which seemed to be
everywhere in Canberra and beyond. This picture is also a souvenir of a very pleasant morning flower walk
with good friends Jeanie and David.

Leafy Bossiaea B. foliosa under Snow Gums, Mount Ginini, Namadgi National Park above Canberra.
I can't imagine not going into the mountains near Canberra at least once every December.
Over the past 30 years I've seen the flowering get steadily earlier until these bossiaeas (a pea) now flower
regularly in November, where they used to peak in the first or second week of December.
This year however spring was unusually cold and wet, and flowering was delayed to the tine that
it used to be; I'm sure that next year however things will be back to the new 'normal'. 
And so, that was my year, or at least one version of it. Overall it wasn't a great year for the world, but we've probably been luckier than most, as we have mostly good memories of it. I hope it was OK for you too, and that next year brings us all some joy. Nature can be pretty instrumental in that.


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Thursday, 22 December 2016

A Walk in the Centre; an easy stroll to the old Alice Springs Telegraph Station

Not long ago we were in the beautifully situated, sometimes challenging, Alice Springs in the central deserts of Australia, heading home from a trip to the tropics. I know it fairly well, and Lou lived there for six years, but we still managed to find a new lovely little walk to do before we left. The historic Telegraph Station on the northern edge of town is a popular destination for visitors and locals, to visit the restored and interpreted buildings and surrounds, to picnic on the shady lawns by the Todd River or to walk in the rugged low hills of the Historical Reserve across the river looking for flowers and wildlife. 
Telegraph Station buildings.
Grassy picnic area sloping to the Todd River on the left, shaded by beautiful River Red Gums.
Built in 1872 it was the site of the first European settlement in central Australia, and one of twelve such stations along the route of the revolutionary Overland Telegraph Line linking Darwin and Port Augusta (and ultimately Adelaide and even Perth) across 3,000kms of desert. From Darwin it linked to an underwater cable to Java and thus the world. It was a triumph of nineteenth century engineering, but that's a story for someone else to tell, and many have done so. 

Perhaps most visitors aren't aware of the substantial reserve that includes the station itself; I have read a surprising range of figures for the size of it, ranging from 400 to 2000 hectares! However 445ha seems to be the most convincing figure. Our walk, the Spencers Hill Walk (though it's nice and flat) is a 1.5km stroll each way between the station and the northern edge of the old suburb of East Side (you can find maps for it easily enough). It passes through open woodland between the low red sandstone hills and the Todd River. Actually, let's lay to rest any misconceptions about the Todd at this point! Here's what it usually looks like.
The Todd River at the Telegraph Station.
However that's not always true, and when I was there a couple of months previously it had a substantial amount of (non-flowing) water in it. That was the first time I'd seen it thus, and there was still some left for our visit.
Also at the Telegraph Station. It is said that if you see the Todd with water, you'll come back.
Well, I came back several times before I got the sign that I would do so!
Anyway, the walk - and I confess that this is a busy week, so the rest will be mostly pictures, but I think that's all we need. We started from East Side; here are some scene-setters.
Daisies; it had been an unusually wet season (as per the water in the Todd) and the
understorey flowers were abundant.
Typical rocky hill in the low range which the route passes along.

Ghost Gum Eucalyptus (or Corimbia) aparrerinja.
This glorious tree is one of my favourites, and I've talked about it (including the intriguing name) in some detail before - here, if you're interested. Nonetheless I can't stop taking pictures of it, and here's another.
A particularly magnificent old Ghost Gum along the walk.
The ghost gums dominate, but they certainly don't have it all to themselves.
Cork Tree Hakea lorea; a common central desert tree.

Southern Ironwood Wattle Acacia estrophiolata.A lovely pendulous wattle, with extremely hard timber, in common with other slow-growing desert acacias.
Dead Finish Acacia tetragonophylla.The common name is supposedly a reference to its hardiness - when it dies of drought, there's nothing else left.
Sadly not all is pristine, and not just because of the proximity to town. Buffel Grass Cenchrus ciliaris is one of the great tragedies of central and northern Australia. It grows naturally from east Africa to south Asia, and is believed to have been brought here as stuffing for camel saddles. However there was nothing accidental about its subsequent choking spread across millions of hectares; graziers loved its hardiness and brought in seed. They are still planting it across vast areas, despite its smothering growth and high flammability. It grows in sandy creek beds - once they were fire breaks, but now they act as wicks. The intensity of the fires threatens the River Red Gums.
Wall to wall Buffel Grass along sections of the walk, under River Red Gums.
The only depressing aspect of the walk.
It was late morning when we walked, so not a lot of animals, but we witnessed some drama - or at least a tense stand-off - for some time. We first saw some delightful little Black-footed Rock-Wallabies Petrogale lateralis sitting upright and very alert on the rocks - but not concerned about us.
Female Black-footed Rock-Wallaby with pouch young.

This species is found scattered in arid ranges across central and western Australia.
For more on the fascinating rock-wallabies, see here.
A Euro Macropus robustus, a big tough hill kangaroo, also came from total relaxation to alertness as we approached - but again his unease was not directed at us. He watched us approach but didn't bother to get up, until something in the other direction got his attention.
Judging by the ear, this bloke had seen a scrap or two!

The problem wasn't long in making an appearance.
Dingoes Canis lupus dingo are common in the reserve, and are unfazed by people - several domestic
dogs have been killed by them there while accompanied by their owners.
This one initially focussed on us, but I had the feeling it was more to do with we might have that was
appealling to it than because it was worried about us.
More on them here.
In fact there was a pair, who initially appeared on each side of the Euro, but he wasn't going to back down - he was probably safer up where he was.

The rock-wallabies vanished, presumably into crevices, but with the advantage of awareness they could almost certainly have fled successfully across the rocks. We watched for a while but it seemed to be stalemate and we continued to the telegraph station. When we returned, Euro and Dingoes had moved on, and the rock-wallabies had warily reappeared.

I love a good natural drama, but was glad that this one didn't get any more dramatic than that!

A couple of familiar birds were present, including an old favourite.
Yellow-throated Miner Manorina flavigula on the Telegraph Station lawns, where it
is used to scrounging crumbs.
A flock of Zebra Finches Taeniopygia guttata, always a welcome addition to the day (hence their appearance
here in a very poor photo!), was searching for grass seeds.
The bird star however was a stunning male Splendid Fairy-wren Malurus splendens, a parade of blues. The species is found over much of the inland and the south-west, where they replace the south-eastern Superb Fairy-wren as the common and familiar bush and garden wren.
Impressive as he is, this is only the start of his glory, as he moults into breeding plumage.
Soon his wings, underparts and tail will all be different shades of blues.
Well, that's probably all you've got time for at this time of year, so I'll leave it there, but next time in Alice Springs, make sure you leave a couple of hours for the Spencers Hill walk - who knows what you might see!

I'll be back once more this year, for the now traditional last day of the year photo summary of the year - I hope to see you then.


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Thursday, 15 December 2016

The Old World Monkeys; newcomers

It's been quite some time now since I introduced the wonderful South American monkeys, and I've been intending ever since to balance things by talking about the 'other' monkeys, the ones that stayed behind in Africa and Asia. Now's the time - but first I'd better correct that last sentence!

We know that the South American monkeys left Africa (doubtless unwillingly, and quite likely on more than one occasion) some 35 million years ago, and rafted to South America, and it's logical to suppose that these pioneers were typical of the monkeys we now associate with Africa. However life is rarely that simple. When the raft set out across the Atlantic it would have carried with it small, possibly lemur-like animals. The ancestors of the Old World monkeys and the apes (the catarrhines, for the record) only differentiated from the 'lemur-likes' and bushbabies in Africa around 28-29 million years ago; the split of monkeys from apes occurred about 25 million years ago. This all means that, despite our insistence that apes are not monkeys, the apes and Old World Monkeys form a coherent group, being considerably more closely related to each other than either is to the New World Monkeys. (Sorry, but that's been messing with my head while I've been putting this together, and I might as well share it with you!)

So, what characterises the family Cercopithecidae (ie the Old World Monkeys, or OWM from now on)? The obvious difference between them and the other catarrhines - ie the apes - is the presence of a tail. The most obvious distinction between them and the New World Monkeys (which comprise five families) is that the OWMs have narrow nostrils, close together and often down-pointing, and leathery buttock pads for sitting on; they do not have prehensile (grasping) tails.
Olive Baboon Papio anubis, Murchison Falls NP, Uganda. The narrow nose with down-facing nostrils and
non-grasping tail are evident; the buttock pads are just visible, but see below for a better view.
And no, neither she nor I had anything to do with the bottles! Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
There are some 160 species in the family, found across much of Africa and south and south-east Asia. (Though this is based on recent taxonomic understandings - older texts cite significantly lower numbers.) They are fundamentally divided, quite evenly, into two sub-families, which many would raise to full family status. The division is pretty well characterised by diet; the cheek-pouched monkeys (Cercopithecinae) have a wide diet, but are mostly fruit-eaters, while the leaf monkeys (Colubinae), obviously enough, mostly eat foliage. Both sub-families are represented in Asia and Africa. In turn both are further divided into two tribes, but before you give up in despair, I think I'll just introduce you to some members of the groups, with sub-headings to help us out!

Cheek-pouch Monkeys; baboons, macaques and mangabeys (Papionini)
The two tribes separated about 10 million years ago. This group dominates in sub-Saharan Africa, though is well-represented in Asia by the prominent macaques. Most of the members are solidly-built ground-dwellers, some with short tails.
Chacma Baboon Papio ursinus, Augrabie Falls NP, South Africa.
Aside from the related Drill and Mandrill, this is the largest of all monkeys, weighing up to 40kg.
It is a formidable animal, made more so by living in big ground-foraging groups.
Baboons live across much of Africa; this species is found in the far south, while the Olive Baboon,
featured above, is found across central Africa.
Long-tailed Macaques Macaca fascicularis, Pulau Tiga, Sabah, above and below.
This species is found across south-east Asia and Indonesia, where it can become a close associate with humans.
This can lead to aggressive demands for food. The group comprises females, with a strict hierarchy,
and young animals.

Cheeky youngsters.
Males must leave the group at puberty.
Southern Pig-tailed Macaque Macaca nemestrina, Gomantong, Sabah.
There are 23 species of macaques, including several with short tails.
This species has both male and female hierarchies within the group.
Grey-cheeked Mangabey Lophocebus albigena, Kibale NP, Uganda.
This is a forest monkey from central Africa. There are several males in the group, but none are dominant.
Interestingly, young males are forced to leave the group and join another,
but females live their lives in the group they were born to.
Cheek-pouch Monkeys; guenons (Cercopithecini)
This tribe comprises mostly tree-dwelling, lightly built cheek-pouch monkeys.
Red-tailed Monkeys Cercopithecus ascanius, Mabira Forest, Uganda.
A monkey of the tropical forests of central Africa, where it lives in groups of up 30,
with a dominant male, females and youngsters.
L'Hoest's Monkey Cercopithecus lhoesti, Bwindi Impenetrable NP, Uganda,
a beautiful tree-dwelling monkey of mountain forests in the Congo, Rwanda, Burundi and Uganda.
The female-dominated group contains only one male.
Vervet Monkey Chlorocebus pygerythrus, Entebbe NP, Uganda.
A common and familiar monkey of eastern and southern Africa, which often
comes into conflict with humans by raiding crops.
Patas Monkey Erythrocebus patas, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.
This is an unusually terrestrial monkey for its tribe, living in open, often semi-arid, habitats.
It usually lives in large groups but this female had an injured front leg and was on her own with the baby.
They are reputedly the fastest across the ground of all monkeys.
Northern (or Guinea) Talapoin Miopithecus ogouensis, Sanaga River, Cameroon,
a small riverine forest monkey found from Cameroon south through Equatorial Guinea.
The two talapoin species are the smallest of the Old World Monkeys, weighing little more than a kilogram.
They live in parties of up to 100.
Leaf Monkeys; African colobines (Colobini)
The leaf monkeys have complex chambered stomachs with bacterial colonies for the digestion of leaves. The greatest diversity of leaf monkeys is found in Asia, but 23 species are found across Africa. These comprise the colobus monkeys, striking monkeys which may be the most beautiful of all. Unlike their Asian counterparts they are strictly tree-dwellers and impressive aerialists. 
Guereza Colobus (or Mantled Guereza) Colobus guereza, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
This stunning monkey is found across central Africa from Nigeria to Ethiopia and Tanzania.
As here, they prefer riverside forests, and secondary to primary forest.
They will supplement their leaf diet with fruit on occasion.
Leaf Monkey; Asian colobines (Presybitini)
There are over 50 species of Asian leaf-eating monkeys, including some rare and little-known species, and one of the best-known and most unusual monkeys. We'll start with a couple of less familiar, but very beautiful, members of the tribe.

Maroon Leaf Monkey Presbytis rubicunda, Gomantong, Sabah.
A gloriously-coloured medium-sized monkey from the lowland rainforests of Borneo.
Silvered Leaf Monkey (or Lutung) Trachypithecus cristatus, Labuk Bay, Sabah.
This is a larger monkey than the previous species and uses a different habitat, found along rivers and
in mangroves and eating more and tougher leaves than other species.
They are strongly arboreal, but at Labuk Bay they have been habituated to come to feeding tables,
along with Proboscis Monkeys.
Silvered Leaf Monkeys, Bako NP, Sarawak.
Babies are born bright orange, and fade to adult colour over five months.
As well as Borneo they are found in Sumatra and a small part of peninsular Malaysia.
I'll end with a truly charismatic monkey, the amazing Proboscis Monkey Nasalis larvatus of Borneo, a big leaf-eating mangrove specialist with a huge leaf-digesting gut and the eponymous male nose, which acts as a resonating chamber for his honking display calls.
Male, Labuk Bay, Sabah.
Endemic to Borneo, it is also the only member of its genus.
A male like this can weigh up to 30kg, making it one of the largest Asian monkeys.
They are regular and competent swimmers.
Youngsters playing, Labuk Bay.

Eating mangrove leaves, Bako NP, Sarawak.
This really is a very colourful monkey!
Labuk Bay. Adult males are more cautious, but young animals are good aerialists.
So, a brief introduction to the Old World Monkeys; I hope you've met some and learnt something that you didn't know. As ever though, there's no substitute for seeing them for yourself! Thanks for reading.


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