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, 28 April 2016

Uluru: at the heart of Australia

There are some places that just feel intrinsically special. For me - and very many others - Uluru is such a place. Sometimes when we finally visit a place that we've heard about for so long, the reality doesn't quite match the myth that we've imagined. I steeled myself for Uluru to be like that the first time I visited it, but when the moment came the opposite was true - it was, and is, beyond anything I could have conceived. The vast mass of sandstone looms from the desert, itself a remarkable experience, and something in my heart responds.
From the distance when we first see Uluru by climbing a dune near the Lasseter Highway the rock seems
fairly featureless, but this is an artefact of the distance - we are still tens of kilometres away.
From closer, as in this photo, though still many kilometres distant, the complexity of the monolith becomes obvious.
The red dune on the right is typical of the desert country of central Australia.
Mere numbers don't reflect the sheer vastness of the rock; soaring 385 metres above the desert, three kilometres long and two kilometres wide at its widest point, ten kilometres around. And, like a desert iceberg, most of it is hidden under the sands. Close up the apparently smooth monolith actually contains canyons with rockpools, caves and deeply incised erosion scars.

Uluru is not alone on the plains. Within sight to the west, 25km away, are the domes of Kata Tjuta (for a while known as the Olgas, as Uluru was known as Ayer's Rock); both are part of Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park. 
Kata Tjuta at sunrise, from Uluru.
Despite the different formation and base material (Kata Tjuta is comprised of coarse conglomerates, where the sandstones of Uluru are much finer), they formed at about the same time, some 500 million years ago, from material washing across the plains from mighty eroding mountain ranges to the west and south, though in different alluvial fans. Buried deeply, eventually they became compressed into solid rock, in time forced to the surface by movements in the earth's crust.

Ninety kilometres to the east is Atila (more usually known at Mount Conner); nearly everyone coming to Uluru comes by the Lasseter Highway which passes by Atila, and more than a few think they've found Uluru when they see it. 
Atila from the highway. Unlike the other two mighty rocks it is is on private land and can only be visited
with a contracted tour company; the quality of their guides is unfortunately very much a matter of pot luck.
The three rocks are in a straight line and it used to be supposed that they formed during the same geological event, from the eroding mountain ranges, but sadly for a good story it seems that Atila is much older than the other two, formed by erosion of the surrounding beds as the hard cap just visible in the hazy photo above protected the underlying layers.

The Anangu, as the Pitjantjatjara- and Yankunytjatjara-speaking people refer to themselves (don't panic, just take the names a syllable at a time!), have lived in the centre for tens of thousands of years. To them Uluru is an immensely significant place - 'sacred' would probably be the closest we have to it. It's not my place to tell the stories of a living culture that I can never really understand, but if you're interested there are many of the Anangu Uluru stories on the web, many of them approved by the traditional owners. Other stories cannot be told to outsiders; many of them are restricted to one gender and they will not risk their own men or women seeing stories forbidden to them.
Desert Oak Allocasuarina decaisneana in front of Uluru at sunset.
Europeans arrived to run stock (at rates of one beast to tens of square kilometres) in the late 19th century and the conflicts that characterised the arrival of Europeans in occupied lands throughout Australia ensued. 'Aboriginal Reserves' were set up in the early 1920s to protect the desert people - generally of course on lands not required for other purposes. Indeed in 1958 the 'Ayers Rock - Mount Olga National Park' was excised from the Petermann Aboriginal Reserve to meet growing tourist demands. 

This tourism is a remarkable story in itself; the first visitors arrived at the rock in 1936, twelve years before the first road was built! Tour bus services began soon afterwards; the facilities would be regarded as remarkably primitive today, but people came in numbers. By 1959, just a year after the park declaration, motels at the very foot of the rock, and an airstrip, were being constructed. Already by the early 1970s however, concerns of the Anangu were being heard and plans were in place to removed all accommodation from the immediate vicinity of the rock. The modern town of Yulara, 15km away, was planned to meet tourism needs and the rock-side motels and camp ground had closed by 1984. 
Hawkmoth caterpillar, Family Sphingidae, base of Uluru.

The following year the Australian Government handed back the whole area to the Anangu, but with the condition that they immediately leased it back to the government to be run, in close consultation with them, as a national park. Prime Minister Bob Hawke had promised to abide by a 10-point plan drawn up by the Anangu; these included a ban on climbing the rock, in line with traditional beliefs, but when the lease was signed, this promise was broken. I can't discuss Uluru without mentioning the ongoing controversy over climbing, but I'll come back to that later. In 1987 the park was listed as a World Heritage site.

Many of us first see the rock properly with the sun setting on it - there are extensive dedicated viewing areas for the purpose. One of the extraordinary aspects is how rapidly the colours change; the following series (and I could have imposed many more on you!) was taken over 33 minutes, some only a couple of minutes apart. The red incidentally is due to the iron-bearing minerals in the rock; at the surface they are oxidising (rusting in effect), while within, as seen in some newly-exposed cave surfaces, the rock is grey.
28 minutes before sunset; this is pretty much the colour it appears during the day.

14 minutes to sunset; the colour is intensifying.

Nine minutes to go.

Six minutes to sunset.

The shadow of the horizon is starting to climb up the rock, as the sun slips from sight.

Five minutes after sunset.
At the same time, don't forget to look over your shoulder as the sun sets behind Kata Tjuta too!
Kata Tjuta domes in silhouette (above), and seen
through flowering Spinifex grass Triodia sp. (below) from the Uluru viewing area.
(Both photos taken on the same evening, but a different one from the Uluru series above.)

Sunrise is equally spectacular, but you don't need to see a series for that too!

The sun appearing behind the Desert Oaks (above) and beginning
to warm the rock (below).

I am surprised how few photos I actually have of details of the rock, though I've walked and driven around it several times. Perhaps I've been too busy being enthralled to remember to take shots, though there is also the issue that we're asked not to take pictures in some sections of the walk - again because of the risk that Anangu men or women might inadvertently thereby see things they ought not see.
Tumbled rocks fallen from the slopes.

Crevice in the rock face.

In addition to the Desert Oaks, the major woodland tree is Mulga Acacia aneura - which in fact dominates some 20% of the Australian landscape.
Mulga flowers.
Eremophilas (the 'desert lovers') are among my favourite plant groups, not least because of their tough arid habitats; there's an entire posting on them coming up. And there are some at Uluru, as there are seemingly everywhere inland.
Berrigan, or Long-leaf Emubush E. longifolia, with Uluru as a backdrop.
('Emubush' because of an apparently erroneous belief that the seeds need to pass through an emu to germinate.)

Wills' Desert Fuchsia E. willsii. Fuchsia for a supposed resemblance to the unrelated South American
genus, and Wills for William Wills, who perished with nearly all his comrades on the infamously
badly-planned and led Burke and Wills expedition in 1861.
Again I have remarkably few animal photos from the rock; they are of course present, but are often kept at a distance by noisy tourist groups, and are often familiar species which tend not to draw too much attention from the rock itself. One of the most striking residents is the Black-breasted Buzzard Hamirostra melanosteron, a large raptor of the arid inland. It is the only member of the genus which, far from being related to the true buzzards, may well prove to be a member of an ancient southern sub-group of raptors. 
Black-breasted Buzzard pair at nest near Uluru.
Each year, inexplicably to many of us, thousands of visitors climb the rock, using chains attached to poles hammered into the rock face by a private operator in the early days of the park before there was control over such activities. Many more thousands do not. One very good reason not to do is in the conspicuous sign at the start of the walk. ‘Our traditional law teaches us the proper way to behave. We ask you to respect our law by not climbing Uluru. What visitors call the climb is the traditional route taken by our traditional Mala men on their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance.’ Pretty clear you might say, but many don't see it that way. Anecdotally those who choose to disrespect the wishes of the traditional owners are likely to be Australians who see it as their 'right', though some tourist operators bringing overseas visitors also encourage their clients to do so. 
Part of the climb; the erosion in the rock face alongside the chain is evident.
The steepness of the climb is here evident. Over 30 people have died climbing the rock, most from heart attacks.
The traditional owners feel a responsibility for those deaths, despite asking people to desist.
You can read some people's reasons for ignoring the pleas here and here, but in reality any arguments seem to me irrelevant - it's a matter of the respect due to a host by a guest. Legally and ethically we are on Anangu land and should be bound by courtesy. If I am invited into a stranger's house and they say "this furniture is very old and of great significance to us; we would be grateful if your children didn't climb on it", I would not be interpreting this to mean we could choose to do so anyway, simply because the residents were too polite to ban it outright. And then there is the more specific question of religious respect - it is no secret that I don't share any religious beliefs, but if I choose to take myself to a place of religious significance to somebody else, be it a cathedral or mosque or Uluru, it behoves me to treat it with appropriate courtesy.  

So why don't the Anangu simply ban the climbing? At one level, it's simply not their way of doing things; they prefer to leave it to a guest's sense of decency and, again, respect. At another level it seems that, under the terms of the 1985 lease, they can't do so; only the Federal Government can do that, and successive governments have refused to do so, fearing an electoral backlash perhaps, or maybe for ideological reasons.

In 2010 the new management plan stated that "for visitor safety, cultural and environmental reasons the director and the board will work towards closure of the climb". The criteria that would provide a trigger for permanent closure (any one of them would be sufficient) are when:     
* the board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or
* the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or
* the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.
The first and third seem to imply that a significant number of people only go there to climb (and of course that this should be of over-riding significance), but surveys suggest that only 2% of visitors say they wouldn't go there if they couldn't climb. I would also suggest that the associated publicity would draw at least that number of extra, sympathetic, travellers.

As for the '20% of visitors who climb' criterion, it seems that the number had dropped to that some years ago, and remains at the threshold level, but actual numbers are suspiciously hard to obtain, though no-one is challenging the assertion. So it comes back to politics. Earlier this month, Environment Minister Greg Hunt announced, with no justification offered for yet again ignoring both the management plan and the wishes of the Anangu, that there are "no plans to change current arrangements".

All I can say is, when you visit wonderful Uluru, and please believe me that you must, please don't climb. (Though I realise that anyone who chooses to snub the pleas of the traditional owners are not going to be swayed by me!).

However I don't want to end this piece on one of the most wonderful places on the planet on such a sour note. I have an abiding mind-image of a Black-breasted Buzzard gliding along the mighty red rock face, which I suspect might be one of the last images to fade from my mind when the time comes. Please go as soon as you can; you'll be richer for it.
Black-breasted Buzzard over Uluru.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Have a Hakea

This is the fourth in a sporadic series on plants of the great Gondwanan family Proteaceae; it began here, but it might be easiest to go the most recent instalment, on grevilleas, and follow the links back.

While not nearly as large a genus as the better-known Grevillea, Hakea is still pretty substantial with around 150 species recognised. It is possibly less widely familiar because hakeas have generally been less cultivated; they are often regarded as prickly and not as colourfully bloomed as grevilleas, but neither of those observations are anywhere near universally true, as we shall see. All are Australian.

Corkwood Hakea lorea, Kata Tjuta National Park, central Australia.
Hakeas can be found throughout Australia, but unlike grevilleas they do not grow in rainforests. Many, like the Corkwood above, thrive in the arid lands, but like so many Australian groups their stronghold is the fabulously rich sandy heaths of the south-west of the continent. They grow as shrubs or small trees but, again unlike grevilleas, they tend not to form ground covers. 
Mountain Needlebush H. lissosparma, Ben Lomond NP, Tasmania.
As suggested by these two photos, hakeas can be found almost anywhere.
Curiously the genus was named back in 1797 by German botanist Heinrich Adolph Schrader - 'curiously' because that was very early in the history of naming Australian plants, and the Germans weren't generally involved that early (though there were a number of significant collectors later on). In fact he named it in a book (in Latin) of rare plants grown in Hanover gardens. Of course this just begs the question, which is how did it get there so early? I have no answer to this teaser. The species, Hakea teretifolia, is a fairly common east coast one. Schrader called it Hakea glabra, not realising that British botanist Richard Salisbury had already named it Banksia teretifolia the year before. Salisbury's species name had to take precedence, but when it became clear that it wasn't a banksia, Schrader's genus name was the next in line. He named it for Baron Christian Ludwig von Hake, universally described as a Hanover councillor and patron of science (or botany); there must have been a bit more to him but I can't find any of it. 

The name is usually pronounced Hay-kee-a in English, but I prefer Hah-kee-a, that being how the Baron would have said his name - the question of whether we should name organisms after people is a separate one, but if we're going to do so it seems to make sense to pronounce it like the model's name.

A final note before we talk about the real topic - the plants themselves. It's an interesting phenomenon that botanical taxonomists, at least in Australia, seem keen to expand the concept of a genus as widely as possible so that huge genera comprising several former separate taxa are becoming the norm. Zoologists (eg bird taxonomists) meantime, are going the other way and fine-tuning so that it's more common to find genera being split up to reflect subtler differences. It does seem to me that the latter tells us more about the history of the groups, including the timing of their separation. The point here is that we seem to be moving towards lumping Grevillea in with Hakea (which would mean that all Grevillea would become Hakea, not likely to be a popular move among most of the population!).

The most obvious difference between Grevillea and Hakea is in the fruit; while that of Grevillea is brittle and papery, Hakea fruit is hard, woody and even massive.

Mountain Needlebush fruit, Ben Lomond NP, Tasmania.
Many of these species live in fire-prone heathlands, and protect seeds (just one per fruit) in the massive cases. After the fire has passed, and the ash-bed has cooled, the case opens up and drops the seed into the enriched, unshaded, soil.
Post-wildfire opened hakea cones, Lesueur NP, Western Australia.
But for species which do not grow in areas affected by regular fires, the cases are flimsier and do not rely on a fire's heat to open them.
Small-fruit Hakea H. microcarpa, Namadgi NP above Canberra.
This species grows in high country boggy areas which do not regularly burn.
Leaves can be cyclindrical or narrowly strap-like as in the above examples, or flat and leathery.
H. neurophyllya, Lesueur NP, Western Australia.
Some other Western Australian species have unexpected stem-clasping leaves which surround the flowers; it could be that by trapping 'moats' of dew or rain they are preventing ants from stealing nectar.
Scallops H. cucullata, Twin Creeks Reserve near the Stirling Ranges, Western Australia.
Others are divided and spiky.
Unidentified hakea, Shannon NP, south-western Australia. Any suggestions?
Some of the most extraordinary foliage of all however belongs to the remarkable Royal, or Lantern, Hakea H. victoria, which has a small range centred on the Fitzgerald River NP, southern Western Australia. The plant can be three metres high and has colourful leaves the size of large cabbage leaves, surrounding inconspicuous creamy flowers
Lantern Hakeas in Fitzgerald River NP

The leaves of Lantern Hakea; it is likely that at least part of their function is to attract attention to
the otherwise non-obvious flowers.
Hakea flowers are rarely at the tips of branches, as those of grevilleas usually are. Many are indeed simply white and not very dramatic, with small clusters of flowers, as per the oft-heard bias against them as garden plants.
Harsh Hakea H. prostrata, Torndirrup NP, Western Australia.
Other white-flowered ones can be dramatic however, simply through the masses of flowers.
H. recurva, Paynes Find, inland Western Australia.
 Many others are highly colourful with great cylinders or spheres of clustered flowers.
Grass-leaf Hakea H. francisiana (who thought the leaves were its most prominent feature?!),
Pinkawillinie Conservation Park, South Australia.

H. invaginata, Ballidu, Western Australia.

Grass-leaf Hakea (again - see above comment!) H. multilineata, Goldfields Woodlands NP, Western Australia.
So, there's a brief introduction to a genus which may be unfamiliar to some, especially if you're reading this from overseas, and which will probably never overtake Grevillea for popularity in the garden. But I reckon it deserves more admiration than it gets.

(Remember too that if you put your email address into the 'Follow by Email' box at the top
right of the page, you'll automatically be notified when there's a new posting.
It doesn't give me access to your address.)

Thursday, 14 April 2016

Heights and Depths: Peru's Colca Valley

Colca Canyon is much-publicised as one of the deepest canyons in the world; only the nearby Cotahuasi Canyon is deeper. Colca's deepest point is 3.4 kilometres below the rim, twice the depth of the Grand Canyon. However this is only part of the valley of the Colca River and the section between the historic town of Chivay and the canyon represents a magnificent landscape with lots of wildlife.
The upper Colca Valley and Chivay are indicated by the arrow, in the southern Andes of Peru;
Chivay is at 3,600 metres above sea level, and the rim of the canyon at a similar height.
Whether coming from Arequipa to the south, or from Puno (on Lake Titcaca) to the east, you will see some spectacular Andean scenery, especially when you reach the highest point of the road at Abra Patapampa (abra is a pass). This is seriously high by most standards; at the lookout you are at 4,900 metres above sea level, and even the few steps up to the viewing platform can provide a challenge.
Part of the remarkable vista from Abra Patapampa, looking west.
From the left the volcanoes are Ampato (6300m), Sabancayo (6000m) and Hualca Hualca (6000m).
Some of the cloud is actually volcanic smoke.
Looking back to the east; this is a tough forbidding landscape, formed from volcanic eruptions and mountain uplift.
From here the road descends, but not to anything reminiscent of lowlands! East of Chivay, above the valley, we pass through high swampy plains, bofedales, rich in wildlife, especially waterbirds. The next few photographs were taken from the roadside.
Crested Ducks Lophonetta specularioides; these are old South Americans, the only one of their genus,
lovers of the cold windy expanses of the Andes and Patagonia.

Puna Teal Anas puna, another high Andes specialist.
Yellow-billed Teal Anas flavirostris; this little duck is widespread in the southern part of the continent,
and north up the Andean chain. (Formerly lumped with the Andean Teal, from further north, as Speckled Teal.)

Two other birds of the bofedales are also Andean specialists, with the range centred on southern Peru.
This is the Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi.

Giant Coot Fulica gigantea. To those of us used to fairly diminutive coots, this magnificent bird is a real
eye-opener. 60cm long and weighing up to 2.5kg, the adult can scarcely fly. It rarely deigns to descend below
3,600 metres, and can be found in lakes and swamps up to 6,000 metres above sea level.
Alpacas grazing in the bofedales near Chivay.
The Colca Valley around Chivay has been a human-utilised landscape for thousands of years. Over the last thousand or so years it has been the scene of intensive agriculture, with terracing and irrigation for growing corn, potatoes, quinoa and beans, as well as grazing flocks of Llamas and Alpacas. While the Incas generally get the credit for Andean culture and technology, much of it actually predated them.

Pre-Inca terraces in the Colac Vally in front of Chivay (at the foot of the range in the middle distance);
Volcao Misanti can just be seen on the skyline to the right of it.
In the foreground is the gorge of the river still far from its downstream depth.
Black Metaltail Metallura phoebe on Opuntia Cactus.
Mostly it looks all-black, until light catches the startling throat iridescence.
This magnificent Andean hummingbird was in a garden on the outskirts of Chivay, as
was the subject of the next photo.

Black-throated Flowerpiercer Diglossa brunneiventris.This group of specialised tanagers, as the name and awl-shaped bill suggest, make a living by piercing
the base of flower tubes and stealing the nectar without achieving pollination.
Downstream of Chivay the valley becomes drier, with very different vegetation and wildlife. Bromeliads and cactus become dominants.
Airplants, Tillandsia sp., bromeliads, growing on the road cuttings in no soil at all.
Puya sp, another bromeliad, west of Chivay.
Many Puya species die after flowering, but it seems this is one of the lucky ones.
Cushion Plants Azorella sp. (family Apiaceae), west of Chivay.
These are hard to the touch and immensely hardy; mounds this big could be centuries old.
Curiously, the genus is also found in New Zealand and in Southern Ocean islands to its south.
Canyon Canastero Asthenes pudibunda. The resemblance, in appearance, habitat and behaviour, to
Australian grasswrens is striking, though it is entirely unrelated, being one of the ovenbirds (family Funariidae),
the ancient South American sub-oscine passerines.
Andean Flicker Colaptes rupicola, a large, vocal and almost entirely ground-dwelling woodpecker.
Which brings us to the canyon itself, or at least the section of it with lookouts and walking tracks high above the river (though only a modest 1,200 metres above it here at Cruz del Condor).
Lookout, shelter and walking tracks above Colca Canyon at Cruz del Condor.
 It is a very striking landscape.
Colca Canyon, above and below; while nowhere near the 3,400 metres of the deepest
part of the canyon, the river is 1.2km vertically below us.

Cactus predominates here, and I'm a big fan of cactus in its natural environment (ie not in rockeries or the Australian bush, but that's just me). I hope you don't find this a cactus surfeit; sadly my enthusiasm isn't matched by taxonomic knowledge so any identification assistance will be gladly received.

Puyas are here too, adding to what is a pretty exotic-seeming landscape to those such as I, entirely unfamiliar with it.
Puya sp. above Colca Canyon.
Not all the flowers belong to cactus or bromeliads.
Calceolaria sp. growing from a rock crevice above Colca Canyon.

Cantuta Cantua buxifolia Family Polemoniaceae, above and below.
This is a pretty appropriate place to encounter Peru's national flower!

And of course there are birds, even in the cactuses.
Black-winged Ground Dove Metriopelia melanoptera.
Slender-billed Miner Geositta tenuirostris.This is another of the ovenbirds; as suggested by their name, the miners nest in burrows.
Ash-breasted Sierra-finch Phrygilus plebejus.As with so many South American birds, the sierra-finches turn out to be tanagers.
Tabanid Fly, known as March flies in Australia, horse flies in some other places.
Fortunately (for me, not her) this beauty was unable to get that proboscis through my trouser leg.
However none of these beautiful beasts are what draw most people to Colca Canyon. This is about the only place in Peru where one still has a reasonable chance of seeing the magnificent and huge Andean Condor Vultur gryphus, which has largely gone from most of its formerly vast Andean range, except in Patagonia in the far south. They roost on ledges down in the canyon, but as the air heats up in the morning sun they ride the thermals up until, if we are lucky, they can be seen at eye level. And on that morning we were very lucky, with 17 appearing, many more than an average morning.
To see one condor is a rare privilege; to see them in groups like this is utterly thrilling.

Adult above, and immature below.

Adult females, photos above and below; they lack the male's red facial skin.

This is a wonderful wildlife spectacle, which we watched for a long time before the condors scattered and we walked off into the warming day to enjoy all the other treats that Colca has to offer. When you're in Peru - and I do hope it's on your agenda - please be sure not to miss this beautiful and very exciting valley.