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, 25 February 2016

An Alphabet of Red Flowers

Quite some time ago now I had fun compiling an alphabet of yellow flowers, and have been promising myself another indulgence some time by doing the same with red ones. Today it's warm enough - 35 degrees in my study at the moment - to discourage me from anything too enthusiastic, so it seems the right time to take this option. I have talked before about red flowers in general, so don't feel the need to be at all analytical today. 

The aim is to offer one species for each letter of the alphabet, based on the genus name if at all possible. If not, I allow myself to used the species name; I think I've only need to take this option a couple of times, one being for Q. Apart from Y (which doesn't appear in Latin), the only letter I've missed is X, which doesn't seem too unreasonable. Where possible I've gone for less familiar plants, though of course that just depends on what you're used to! So, without further ado, and no further commentary, let's get into it.

Mataguanaco Anarthrophyllum desideratum, a spectacular pea, a spiky cushion-bush endemic to
Patagonia, where it inhabits an arid, rocky, cold and windy world.

Bush Pomegranate Balaustion microphyllum, east of Hyden, Western Australia.
A beautiful ground-hugging member of the family Myrtaceae, found in the rich western sand plains.
There are suggestions that it should be moved into the genus Cheynia, but we needn't let that spoil our fun today.
Cantuta Cantua buxifolia, Colca Canyon, Peruvian Andes; family Polemoniaceae.
This is the national flower of Peru, and co-national flower of Bolivia.
Muchison Darwinia Darwinia virescens, Lesueur National Park, north of Perth.
Another Myrtaceae from the northern sandplains of Western Australia - there really are a lot of them,
many of them red! This species is endemic to a very small area.
Epidendrum ardens, Acjanaco Pass cloud forest at 4000 metres above sea level,
Manu National Park, southern Peru.
This lovely orchid is less common than the equally spectacular E. secundum.
Fuchsia ampliata, Yanacocha Reserve near Quito, Ecuador.
This reserve is one of several run by the wonderful Jocotoco Foundation to protect cloud forests in Ecuador.
This spectacular genus in the family Onagraceae is well-known as a garden special in Australia at least, but I
always delight in seeing such plants in the wild. The 110 species are mostly found in South America, with a few
spilling north as far as Mexico, and others scattered across the Pacific to New Zealand.
Flame Lily Gloriosa superba, near Masindi, Uganda.
This dramatic lily (family Colchicaceae) is found across much of Africa and Asia.
Unfortunately, every part of the plant is highly toxic.
Grass-leaf Hakea Hakea francisiana, Pinkawillinie Conservation Park, South Australia.
(I almost had to include this just for the name of the park!)
Found in sands in western South Australia and southern Western Australia.
Isopogon divergens Kalbarri NP, Western Australia.
You may well object that it is actually pink, but those are the buds - the open flowers at the
bottom of the inflorescence are indeed red, I'd submit.
(And my apologies, but this caption and some subsequent ones refuse to appear in
anything but bold, no matter what I do to them! Life is too short to persist fruitlessly...)

Honeysuckle Grevillea Grevillea juncifolia is found widely across the arid inland.
And yes, there is a fair bit of orange here, but J was tricky!

Running Postman Kennedya prostrata, Ulladulla, New South Wales.
This delightfully named sprawling pea is found across much of southern Australia.

Red Leschenaultia Lechenaultia formosa, Stirling Ranges NP, Western Australia.
Beautiful members of the family Goodeniaceae, mostly confined to Western Australia.
The discrepancy between the common name and genus isn't my error on this occasion -
the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown atypically misspelt the name of French botanist Jean-Baptiste Louis Claude Théodore Leschenault de La Tour - and what splendid name it is!

Chilean Mitre Flower Mitraria coccinea (family Gesneriaceae), Isla de Chiloé, Chile.
A beautiful climbing endemic of the Chilean temperate rainforests.

Nemcia rubra, Stirling Ranges NP, Western Australia. This genus of some 40 pea species is
restricted to the south-west; some would incorporate it into Gastrolobium, but that would make
my current task a bit trickier...


Horned Orchid Orthoceras strictum, Canberra. This may be stretching the friendship slightly,
but there aren't many red Os! A most uncommon orchid locally, but found widely in south-eastern Australia (where
it is the only member of the genus), New Guinea, New Zealand and New Caledonia.
Limestone Mintbush Prostanthera calycina, High Cliffs, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
A threatened species, endemic to the limestone sands of Eyre Peninsula.
Grey Mistletoe Amyema quandang, Byrock, New South Wales.
This widespread mistletoe parasitises acacias.
Red Kangaroo Paw Anigozanthus rufus, Stirling Ranges NP, Western Australia.The amazing kangaroo paws surely merit their own posting here one day.
Blood Lily, Scadoxus sp., Mt Cameroon, western Cameroon.
A genus of African lilies in the family Amaryllidaceae.

Thonningia sanguinea, Family Balanophoraceae, Kibale Forest NP, Uganda.
This remarkable plant, the only one of its genus, is found in much of tropical Africa.
It is parasitic, via its tuber, on other plants. The flowering stem emerges from the ground, as here.

Bladderwort, or Fairy Aprons Utricularia multifida, Boyagen Rock, Western Australia.
Yes I know there's not much red here, but U didn't offer many options!
The bladderworts grow in water and are carnivorous, trapping tiny animals in bladder-type traps in the water.

Scarlet Featherflower Verticordia grandis, Gathercole NR, Western Australia.
The featherflowers of WA are some of the loveliest flowers imaginable;
Verticordia means 'heart turner'.

Wickham's Grevillea G. wickhamii, Bladensburg NP, Queensland.
An impressive dryland grevillea found across northern Australia; highly attractive to birds.
Zephyr Lily Zephyranthes sp., Family Amaryllidaceae, below Machu Picchu, Peru.
This is a family of some 70 species from the Americas.

So, our journey is done - I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I have.  


Friday, 19 February 2016

Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. Part 3; the Kazinga Channel

This is the third of a series on this magnificent national park in far western Uganda; the series began here. The Kazinga Channel is a broad natural channel which joins the much smaller Lake George to the east, with enormous Lake Edward (230,000 hectares) to the west. Lake George is technically one of the Rift Valley Great Lakes, but at a mere 25,000 hectares does not qualify for the title! Lake Edward does, but only as the smallest of them. George is higher than Edward and water flows via it from the Rwenzori Mountains to Lake Edward. The bigger lake was for a short and less glorious time of its history known as Lake Idi Amin - it is sometimes referred to as Lake Rutanzige, which I suspect is a much more appropriate local name, but there seems little enthusiasm for its general usage. Lake Edward is divided between Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, with the Congo controlling the majority of it; its shoreline is entirely within national parks. It is believed that the channel results from volcanic activity which filled in much of a formerly vast lake, forming two smaller lakes joined by the current channel, though this may not be all of the story. 

View across the Kazinga Channel; there are some fishing settlements within the park, with people living
in apparent harmony with the wildlife.

Yes, that's a feared African Buffalo Syncerus caffer dozing just behind them! We also saw people swimming
in waters which, as we will see, are heavily populated by hippos and crocodiles...
Sadly, we shall also get to a story which indicates that the coexistence has its limits.
There is a small launch which runs regular trips into the channel from its mouth at the Lake Edward end, below Mweya Lodge - you won't get anywhere near Lake George however, there is far too much to see! (Not to mention the rapids that block the way.) Indeed it was one of the most memorably wildlife-rich boat trips of my life. The concentrations of hippos and buffaloes alone are simply astonishing.

Part of a buffalo herd on a sand spit.
Wallowing is very popular.

Big buffalo bull - an excellent reason to do your wildlife watching from a boat.

Mother and calf.
Hippos and buffaloes happily coexist - there's enough mud to go around, and they're not competing for food.

Mother with apparent twins.
The Nile Crocodile Crocodylus niloticus story in the channel is a fascinating one. Until the 1950s they weren't found at the western end of the channel - it is suggested that this was related to the volcanic event which formed the channel. Then however, people began to cut paths through the forest alongside the channel, and the crocodiles were able to use them to bypass the rapids which had hitherto thwarted them.

Not all mammals seen were associated with the water though - and I'm sure that at the right time of day many others could be seen coming to drink too.
Guereza Colobus Colobus guereza, a truly beautiful monkey, and certainly a favourite of mine.
While they are not directly associated with water, they are generally found in forests near waterways.
They are primarily leaf-eaters.

 This Lioness appeared a couple of hundred metres away and stalked (unsuccessfully) a Warthog.
We were told that there had until recently been a pride of six, but that the villagers had killed four of them,
despite being in a national park.
Warthog Phacochoerus africanus - this one lived to raise its tail another day.
The bird diversity was quite overwhelming, with waterbirds of course predominating. The populations of fish and other aquatic animals in the channel are obviously immense, based on the numbers of fish-eating birds present. 
White-breasted Comorants Phalacrocorax lucidus were particularly abundant; these are sometimes
still regarded as a sub-species of Great Cormorant P. carbo.Above with Pink-backed Pelicans Pelecanus rufescens - another demander of lots of fish -
and below with a young Marabou Stork Leptoptilos crumenifer. This bird was in serious need of some anti-bullying counselling.
There is also a Little Egret Egretta garzetta in the right foreground of the above photo.

Grey Heron Ardea cinerea; this is the same species found throughout Europe and much
of Asia, as well as sub-Saharan Africa where it is a breeding resident.
Squacco Heron Ardeola ralloides.This attractive heron has two sub-species which do quite different things. One breeds in south-eastern Europe and the Middle East, from where it flies south to tropical Africa for winter. The other lives year-round throughout most of
Africa and Madagascar. This bird is in non-breeding plumage.

African Skimmers Rynchops flavirostris, and a couple of Gull-billed Terns Gelochelidon nilotica.The remarkable bill of the skimmer is used open, the extended bottom mandible slicing the water
to snap up fish. The terns probably bred in southern Europe.

The African Fish Eagle Haliaeetus vocifer is another voracious piscivore.
Its species name is appropriate - its ringing yelps, often in chorus, form one of the sounds of Africa for me.
The Fish Eagle isn't the only bird of course which is named for its fish-eating habits, and two kingfishers were common along the channel - the Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis is in fact abundant, as it can be throughout much of Africa and southern Asia.
This fish clearly needed a lot of tenderising!
This is the only member of the genus Ceryle.

The exquisite little Malachite Kingfisher Corythornis cristatus is another common and widespread
African kingfisher. Like the Pied Kingfisher, but unlike the majority of other species,
the Malachite really does eat mostly fish. For more on this apparent contradiction, see here.
The handsome Yellow-billed Stork Mycteria ibis wades for its fish, like the herons.
Like the Spur-winged Lapwing Vanellus spinosus accompanying the stork above, other waterbirds present do not rely on fish.
The Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash - the common and scientific names are intended to reflect its remarkable
and familiar call across sub-Saharan Africa - favours earthworms and snails.
Egyptian Geese Alopochen aegyptiacus, despite the name are found throughout most of Africa
(though in Egypt only along the Nile). The Ancient Egyptians domesticated them, but after the
Persians inadvertently 'liberated' them 2,500 years ago, the knowledge was somehow lost.
The African Black Crake Amaurornis flavirostra is common and widespread, and unlike many other crakes
is not particularly secretive. Nonetheless I've never had better views than at Kazinga.
Water Thick-knees (or Water Dikkop, perhaps slightly more euphonious, though in Afrikaans it means 'thick head'!)  Burhinus vermiculatus are less readily seen, with nocturnal habits and beautiful camouflage.
The thick-knee name comes straight from the species name of the European species; in Australia we've
reverted officially to the folk-name of stone-curlew (though of course they aren't curlews!).
African Jacanas Actophilornis africanus aren't really waders either, but walk on the vegetation,
including on lily pads on hugely extended toes, not visible here.
There'll be a posting here on jacanas one day.
And finally, a bird not directly associated with the water at all.
Yellow-billed Oxpeckers Buphagus africanus taking engorged ticks from a buffalo - though
these have taken time out to squabble, as they do. It seems they're really after the blood from the engorged
ticks and are equally happy keeping wounds open and taking the blood directly.
The two species of oxpeckers, both African, have traditionally been placed with the starlings,
but are now regarded as forming their own family, Buphagidae.

If you go to Queen Elizabeth National Park, you'll of course do this boat trip, but I'd suggest that if you're wavering as to whether to include it in your Uganda trip, Kazinga Channel should just about swing it for you.