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, 27 January 2016

Tyto Wetlands: Ingham's highlight

Ingham is a sugar town in tropical Queensland, and a place where you'd probably not choose to spend a lot of time on your way to more salubrious spots further north. You won't find it hard however to get a decent meal and a coffee there, with over 50% of the population claiming Italian heritage. It's 17km from the sea and sitting in a sea of sugar cane, which rarely makes for environmental benefit or a particularly lovely landscape, though that of course is subjective. Nonetheless, if at all possible you should make an effort to spend a night there on your travels, for just one reason.
Tyto Wetlands comprise some 120 hectares of restored swamp and woodland on
the very edge of town - see the light towers in the background. There are many kilometres of
walking tracks, with hides and raised viewpoints. It is not a gazetted nature reserve, but
seems to be a project of the Hinchinbrook Shire Council - though I'd welcome further information.
With two metres of rain a year, there is generally water present!

Anyone who reads these postings regularly will know that I have a well-developed penchant for pottering around wetlands, and this is an excellent place to potter! It is on the southern edge of town, well away from the busy town centre but still in the suburbs, west of the highway.

As you walk into the complex, initially past the football training fields, the locals will inspect you.
Agile Wallabies Macropus agilis, above, and big male below.
(Most of these photos were taken in the evening or early morning, so the light is muted.)
This is the common wallaby of open country and woodlands across tropical Australia.

There is a mix of open water and reedbeds - inevitably water birds are a feature.
Cotton Pygmy-geese Nettapus coromandelianus, male on the right.
These delightful little ducks are not geese at all, but are generally, though somewhat reluctantly,
placed with the 'perching ducks' - itself probably not a 'real' grouping.
The species is found throughout south and south-east Asia.
Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia.Another common species and widespread beyond Australia, but too aesthetic - especially in the context
of the water lilies - not to include.
Wandering Whistling Ducks Dendrocygna arcuata (very early morning!).
Another which is found beyond Australia into the islands to the north.
In Australia at least it doesn't actually wander as much as does our other whistling duck,
the Plumed, but it does seem to move around the islands.

Magpie Goose Anseranas semipalmata, the only member of its family, and apparently
descended from a very early split from the main line of ducks and geese.
These are found commonly in the Australian tropics, but I am always captivated by them
(but then, I'm not trying to grow rice!)

As mentioned earlier however, the site does not just comprise swampland. Trees and shrubs are scattered throughout, and many land birds use them.
More views, above and below, across Tyto Wetlands.

Female Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii; the male has a blue tail and dark eyes.
This big tropical kingfisher feeds on a range of invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals.
My favourite Australian bird field guide, that of the late Graham Pizzey, memorably describes
the call as 'appalling'. (He does go on to elaborate, but that's an excellent start!)

Crimson Finches Neochmia phaeton are found across much of the tropical north,
generally near water and in tall grassy vegetation.

Rufous-throated Honeyeater Conopophila rufogularis.This inconspicuous little honeyeater is also generaly found near water. Unlike several
of the previous species it is endemic to Australia.
Even weeds can attract birds though (which is not a reason to plant them - the birds like native plants just as much!) One such is the attractive but highly invasive African Tulip Tree Spathodea campanulata, family Bignoniaceae, originally from sub-Saharan tropical and sub-tropical Africa from Ghana to Ethiopia and Zambia, but widely planted in north Queensland, to the detriment of the environment - they are highly invasive and can choke out gullies and waterways. There are moves to eliminate them from wild areas and it is possible that these specimens have been by now removed from Tyto.

Helmeted Friarbird Philemon buceroides in African Tulip Tree.
A large and raucous tropical honeyeaer.

The Yellow Honeyeater Lichenostomus flavus (in the same tree) is found only in tropical Queensland.
Birds aren't the only animals flying around of course; the dragonflies didn't cooperate with my photographic efforts, but this elegant butterfly did.

Orange Bush Brown Butterfly Mycalesis terminus, family Nymphalidae. Her interest in the grass stem is not necessarily
simply as a resting place - she lays her eggs almost exclusively on grasses.
Having said that, one bird really is the star of the reserve - indeed it gave the wetland its name. Tyto is the barn owl genus, and Eastern Grass Owls T. longimembris live in the reedbeds of this wetland. There is even a viewing point dedicated to searching for them when they take flight at dusk.
Owl-viewing platform, Tyto Wetlands.
 Here are a couple of views from the platform.

Maybe you can make out the grass owl that I missed on my most recent visit.

Either way, that's just another excellent reason to stop in next time you're driving to or from Cairns or points further north. My thanks to all those who have worked to restore, and maintain, Tyto into the world-class wetland that it is today.


Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Glorious Grevilleas

In recent times I've begun a sporadic series on the old Gondwanan family Proteaceae, with emphasis on the Australian ones. The most recent one was on Banksias, which you can see here if you missed it. (I actually fear I'm tempting fate by even mentioning that posting, let alone linking to it. On that occasion, for the first time I failed to post on the promised date, due to the appearance of an unexpected White-winged Black Tern in Canberra. I duly completed the post the next day, and in less than 24 hours I was in the hospital emergency department; however it is quite likely the three events were unrelated so I'll take a chance...)
Fern-leaf Grevillea Grevillea pteridifolia, Normanton, Gulf Country, north Queensland.
A magnificent species, found across tropical Australia - as we shall see, not all grevilleas have flowers in spikes.
This was one of the first grevilleas collected by science; Banks took specimens while Captain Cook's Endeavour
was being repaired after striking the Great Barrier Reef where Cooktown now stands in tropical Queensland.
Grevillea is one of the most-cultivated genera in Australia, especially due to numerous cultivars. The name of the genus, along with others of the family, was the subject of one the most vitriolic botanical scandals of the 19th century. In 1809 the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown, who had sailed on the Investigator expedition with Matthew Flinders and spent years collecting Australian plants, presented to the Linnaean Society of London a landmark paper on the family Proteaceae, which he was in the process of preparing for publication. Among the audience on the day was botanist Richard Salisbury; he was Honorary Secretary of the Horticultural Society, but proved himself not at all honorable. 

A little later that year Joseph Knight, gardener to the plant dealer George Hibbert, published a snappily-titled paper called On the cultivation of the plants belonging to the natural order of Proteeae. However, only 13 pages were dedicated to his cultivation tips; the other 100 comprised a detailed plagiarisation by Salisbury of Brown's names. He didn't use his name and Knight got the 'credit' for the stolen names. However everyone knew it was Salisbury's work and he was widely ostracised and people stubbornly referred the names to Brown when he formally published them in 1810. Brown's task was made even easier when Knight/Salisbury misspelt Grevillea as Grevillia! Finally, a century later, the botanical world introduced the concept of Conserved Names, which enabled them to put aside the strict rules if there was good reason to do so. Today Grevillea is officially described as R. Br. [ie Robert Brown] ex Knight. 
White Grevillea G. parallela, Undara National Park, inland north Queensland.
This is another of the species collected at Cooktown.
The early history of grevilleas (bearing in mind that the name itself didn't appear until 1810) is confusing - to me, anyway! It seems that Banks and Solander collected some grevilleas at Botany Bay in 1770, including what we now know as Grevillea mucronulata. Later they collected three more in north Queensland (see the captions above). However the first three grevilleas to be cultivated in England before 1800 were none of these, and were apparently sent to Banks and some nurserymen by William Paterson, an army officer whose passion was plants.
Silky Grevillea Grevillea sericea, Goulburn River NP, New South Wales.
This was one of the three species received, grown and named in England in the 1790s.
However, the type species - the first one to be formally named - is a relatively obscure species from around the southern Blue Mountains, G. apleniifolia, not named until 1809! The answer, as I understand it, is that it was described by Knight (fronting for Salisbury), as the first species described as Grevillea. The genus name honours Charles Francis Greville, a friend of Banks and with him a member of the delightfully named Society of Dilettanti (whose passion was the art of ancient Greece and Rome). Greville was a keen gardener, growing tropical species under glass. He had a very close relationship with Emma Hart, who later progressed to being Lord Nelson's lover, but he had no discernible relationship with Australia or grevilleas.

And with that, perhaps we should talk about some plants.... There are some 360 species of Grevillea, of which only 7 are found beyond Australia (in New Guinea, New Caledonia and Sulawesi). Around half of these are found in south-western Australia, one of the world's great botanical hot spots. Most are shrubs, but there are both trees and ground covers. 
Beefwood Grevillea striata, Maryvale Road, central Australia.
This is a substantial tree of the central deserts.
Foliage may be simple or compound, relatively soft or hard and spiky.
Grevillea bipinnatidifida John Forrest NP, near Perth, Western Australia.

Grevillea barklayana, Ulladulla, south coastal New South Wales.

Grevillea armigera Reynoldson Flora Reserve, south-western Western Australia.
Flowers are paired, but as they are in racemes this is not always obvious. Unusually, the pollen-bearing anthers are attached to the inside of the floral tube; the styles are initially trapped inside the tube, with the stigma in contact with the pollen. When the flowers open as the tube segments fold back, the style springs out to present the pollen. Shortly afterwards it becomes a pollen receptor, the only role it plays in most plants.
Honeysuckle Grevillea G. juncifolia, central Australia, above;
Comb-leaf Grevillea G. pectinata, Salmon Gums, Western Australia, below.
In both we can clearly see the older flowers with extended styles, while in unopened flowers the
styles are still trapped within the tube.
Mostly in racemes the older flowers are at the base (as above) as the tip continues to grow,
but there is no such evident pattern in the photo below.

Sometimes the racemes are short with relatively few flowers.
Grevillea alpina, Micalong Falls west of Canberra.

Rusty Grevillea, or (my favourite) Seven Dwarfs Grevillea G. floribunda,Goobang NP, New South Wales.
Elongated racemes may be 'toothbrush' types, with the flowers all on one side, or bottlebrush type with the flowers all round the stem.
Grevillea cageana, Southern Cross, inland southern Western Australia, above;
Grevillea excelsior,
Hyden-Norseman Road, similar area, below.
These are both toothbrush types; see also several examples above.

Grevillea candelabroides, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
'Like a candelabra' is an excellent description in the species name!
This, and the next two, are examples of bottlebrush-type racemes.
Grevillea paradoxa, Ballidu, south-western Western Australia.

Grevillea petrophiloides, Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
A few species, with small white flowers, are insect-pollinated, but most rely on birds.
Grevillea biternata, Gawler Ranges NP, South Australia.
See also the Common Crow butterfly on the G. parallela in the photo above.
Dusky Honeyeater Myzomela obscura, on Grevillea cultivar, Darwin.
Grey-headed Honeyeater Lichenostomus keartlandi) on Grevillea wickhamii,Kings Canyon, central Australia.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief visit to the wonderful world of grevilleas as much as I have; my thanks for your company. Perhaps just a few more to finish with...
Desert Grevillea G. eriostacha Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
A magnificent sight when flowering on red sand dunes.
Woolly Grevillea G. lanigera, Namadgi National Park, near Canberra.
A low shrub growing beneath the Snow Gums.
Grevillea pinaster, South Beekeepers Nature Reserve, south-west Western Australia.
Sandhill Grevillea G. stenobotrya, near Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Another beautiful desert grevillea of the red sand dunes.


Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Aguas Verdes; another good news bird ecotourism story

Some time ago, I told the remarkable story of Angel Paz and his cloud forest property Paz de las Aves on the western slopes of the Andes in northern Ecuador. I won't retell his story here - please trust me that it's worth reading if you're interested in the concept and haven't come across his story.

Today I want to tell you about a very recent such enterprise further south on the other side of the Andes and across the border, on the eastern slopes in northern Peru. Norbil Becerra is a carpenter who was intending to turn his small family-owned patch of rainforest just outside of the little town of Aguas Verdes (not to be confused with the town of the same name on the Ecuadorian border) into a coffee plantation, which is the fate of much of the cloud forest around there. At 1500 metres above sea level these forests have a mix of upper and lower elevation species.
Aguas Verdes is not a wealthy town, and it is unsurprising that Norbil's efforts have met with local
opposition and even derision. But as the number of visitors and their money continues to rise, that
may change. (We arrived in a tremendous downpour; we were invited in to the simple open downstairs room
to have a cup of tea while we waited. The pig above trotted in while we were there, but was
only passing through to the back yard.)
Instead, inspired by what he saw at nearby Huembo Lodge (of which more in a forthcoming posting here), he turned his talents to building a viewing platform facing an array of hummingbird feeders. At Huembo he saw the extraordinary Marvellous Spatuletail (see under September in that link) - his first ever hummingbird - and like many before him he was hooked.
Norbil's viewing platform is spacious and impressive, looking not only at feeders but
at plantings of selected flowering plants, chosen to attract both hummingbirds and butterflies.
Feeders (look carefully!) in the shade behind the flowering Verbena hedge.
Norbil's patience and determination were remarkable - it took seven months for the recalcitrant hummers to find the feeders, but he persisted in putting cleaning and refilling the feeders, in the face of great pressure to be sensible, to clear and plant coffee. And in the end they came, and now, just a year or so later, visitors are coming too. We did, last September, and felt hugely rewarded for our walk through streets still running with rainwater and then along a road for a kilometre out of town; fortunately the white sands under the forest drain the storm waters away efficiently.
Blue-fronted Lancebill Doryfera johannae.
This lovely hummer has a remarkably straight bill; it is scarce, though widely-distributed.

Fork-tailed Woodnymph Thalurania furcata, another widespread and truly gloriously
iridescent hummingbird.
Golden-tailed Sapphire Chrysuronia oenone; really, I run out of superlatives for hummers...
This one is found throughout the northern Andes.
Many-spotted Hummingbird Taphrospilus hypostictus, limited to the lower eastern slopes of
the northern Andes.
For me though, the highlight was the truly amazing Wire-crested Thorntail Discosura popelairii. This was not the first time I'd seen it but it was by far the best view I've had, and the only chance I've had to take a moderately acceptable photograph.
Wire-crested Thorntail male at Verbena.
Birdlife International describes it as "generally rare"; Cornell Lab of Ornithology refers to it as "stunning".
It is one of the most enthralling birds I've ever had the privilege of meeting.
I mentioned the butterflies - I can't offer you names (and would be delighted if you could help out) but hopefully you can still enjoy a couple of them in anonymity. 

However Norbil didn't stop there. Much more recently he built a nearby raised hide within the forest, and equipped it with a simple but ingenious mechanism to deliver corn to the forest floor in front of the viewing windows.
Norbil's hide for viewing almost mythically shy and hard-to-see birds of the cloud forest floor.
The corn is delivered though the pipe on the left to the ground below the viewing slots (below).
The bird framed by the viewing slot above is one I'd almost given up hope of seeing - a tinamou! Moreover, not one, but two species wandered in to offer us extended views. Tinamous belong to the ratites, the great flightless Gondwanan birds (ostriches, emus, rheas etc), but unlike their larger relatives they can still fly weakly.

This Cinereous Tinamou Crypturellus cinereus came in early, and others later followed.
It is widespread across northern South America but, like other tinamous, is very secretive.
Later it was joined by a Little Tinamou Crypturellus soui, likewise rarely seen normally.
Little Tinamou, another Aguas Verdes thrill.
Another hard to see resident of the forest interior which came to visit was the pretty little Orange-billed Sparrow Arremon aurantiirostris.
Orange-billed Sparrow, another new species for me.
Grey-necked Wood Rail Aramides cajaneus, perhaps not as hard to see as some of the
others, but hard to imagine a view as spectacular as this one!
White-tipped Dove Leptotila verreauxi.A large and widespread forest species, but not normally easy to approach.
When you're in northern Peru - which is entirely different from the more visited south of the country - there are several reasons to visit this wonderful innovation at Aguas Verdes, not the least of which is to do yourself a favour. But supporting people like Norbil and what he stands for is probably even more important.