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.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Colours in Nature; gingery shades 4 - more Australian birds

A while ago now I started another in my sporadic series on colours in nature, this one on the range of rich red-brown colours which we refer to variously as rufous, copper, chestnut and rusty among others. It was a rewarding lode to mine too, and after three instalments I decided to rest it for a while to look at other aspects of the natural world. I now want to conclude the series with two more offerings on rusty (etc) birds. As you read this I'm helping with bird surveys in the remote Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, so this is one I prepared earlier, as they say on the cooking shows. 
Radjah Shelduck Tadorna radjah, south of Darwin.
This gorgeous tropical shelduck of northern Australia, New Guinea and some nearby islands I think
well illustrates why I'm so fond of these shades.
In that first posting I limited myself to birds with Chestnut or Rufous in their name, and there were plenty of those; these last two postings will celebrate other birds of essentially the same colours, starting today with some Australian examples. Just to reiterate, the chemicals that make the Radjah Shelduck glow coppery, and make red-headed people 'red', are a class of melanins called phaeomelanins (or pheomelanins). Melanins are produced in the body, unlike some other pigments we've discussed in the past which can only be obtained in food. Combinations of various phaeomelanins and brown or black eumelanins give rise to all the shades we'll be looking at over the next two postings, plus others. Some of the birds which follow are fully bedecked in rich rusty shades, others just sport highlights. And now, let's just enjoy them.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt, south of Darwin. It does indeed have splendid
orange feet (and legs) but it's the rusty wings and cap we're noting today.
This small mound-builder (or megapode) incubates its eggs in huge mounds of composting leaf litter.
They are found in tropical Australia, New Guinea and into the Indonesian archipelago.
Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae, Darwin.
I love the chestnut neck patch it dons during breeding.
Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus, Canberra. This attractive crepuscular heron is found throughout
most of Australia and through Melanesia to the Philippines.
‘Nankeen’ derives from Nankin or Nanking, a town in Kiangsu province, China, which gave its name to a widely used cheap yellowish-brown cotton cloth manufactured there, which in turn came to be used for the colour.
This soft pre-dawn light doesn't do proper justice to the intensity of the colour.
This is not the only Australian bird named for this colour association, though the word hasn't been used in any other bird name elsewhere in the world.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides, Canberra.
Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus, Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin.
This gloriously-toned raptor of the coast and wetlands is found from sub-tropical Australia to India.
Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella, Barkly Tablelands, Northern Territory.
I love the rich chestnut patches on the sides, which show well in flight.
This one seemed keener on the bitumen than safety might recommend.
Red-capped Plover (or Dotterel) Charadrius ruficapillus, south coast New South Wales.
This very loose use of  'red' for this shade is more often encountered with regard to mammals
(eg fox, deer or kangaroo).

Grey-crowned Babblers Pomatostomus temporalis, Alice Springs, central Australia.
Only race rubeculus, of northern and central Australia, has the rufous undersides.
White-browed Woodswallow Artamus superciliosus male, Canberra.
Yet another gloriously rusty bird! The woodswallows are not at all related to true swallows, though
they do hunt aerial insects. This one is nomadic across the dry inland, reaching the south-east
(including Canberra) to breed in drought years.
Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata, Bourke, New South Wales.
The little chestnut cheek patch is only worn by the male. A ubiquitous little bird found across inland Australia.
Which brings us to the end of my offerings for this week. I'll conclude next time with some overseas birds which share these attractive colours.

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

East Point Reserve, Darwin

From Canberra in winter, lovely tropical Darwin always seems attractive. And so it does today as I write this. If you are fortunate enough to be visiting there some time in the nearish future, and you're interested enough in nature to be reading this blog, you should really aim to put aside at least a couple of hours to visit East Point Reserve. Probably all the locals know it, but it's certainly not on every visitor's schedule, and those who do find their way there are probably looking for the historical aspects associated with World War 2 fortifications. Today however I'd rather try to lure you to its natural charms. Because of its recreational popularity it's easy to find, so I won't try to give you detailed directions here. It's a peninsula that represents the eastern-most point of Darwin Harbour (the west side of the harbour, well outside the city, doesn't appear on the map below).
East Point Reserve, indicated by the red arrow, protruding into the Timor Sea.
As is evident it is well within suburbia, and not far to the north of the city of Darwin.
While it's all interesting, much of it comprises open mowed grassy areas with scattered trees, and the two elements I want to focus on today are the mangrove board walk (as far as I know, still the only such public boardwalk in mangroves in the Northern Territory!), and an extensive area of monsoon forest. 

You reach the mangroves first; pull into the Lake Alexander carpark, near the start of the reserve, and there is a sign to mark the beginning of the walk, which begins through low monsoon forest and coastal scrub before entering the mangroves.
Low monsoon forest on the way to the mangroves; I'll leave an introduction to the habitat until a little
later, when we get to the more substantial area of it.
The strip of mangrove forest grows along the northern shore of the narrow peninsula which we've just walked across from the southern side. There are 11 mangrove species found here, which is not very rich by the standards of larger sites, but impressive nonetheless. The raised aluminium walkway through the tidal section - the tide can rise by more than five metres here - is impressive and makes for an excellent mangrove experience.
Part of the aluminium walkway at low tide; this wide section at the end of the walkway, with benches,
is an excellent place to sit and watch what comes by.
We did just that for quite some time from early morning one day last summer.

The view in the other direction, looking out to the sea through the trees.
The ground is covered with pneumatophores, woody root extensions which protrude from the mud
to enable respiration in a waterlogged environment.
These mangroves are mostly White-flowered Apple Mangrove Sonneratia alba, family Lyrthaceae.
This species has a huge range, from East Africa across southern Asia and Indonesia to the West Pacific.

White-flowered Apple Mangrove flower. It's important to realise that 'mangrove' isn't a taxonomic term;
it can be used for any tree which has adapted to growing in regularly inundated salt-saturated mud of the inter-tidal zone.
In fact in Australia alone there are 41 species of mangrove, representing 19 different families. Some of these
mostly comprise mangroves, others are familiar terrestrial plant families.

Red, or Stilted, Mangrove Rhizophora stylosa, family Rhizophoraceae, found widely in Australia and Indonesia.
This is the other dominant mangrove at East Point, and demonstrates another type of pneumatophore,
the stilt root, which grows down from the stem and then branches, providing both support and respiration function.
I am not going to delve any more deeply into mangrove biology here - it's a fascinating topic which deserves, and will get, its own post one day.

It was a relatively quiet morning for wildlife when we were there, but there's always something, starting as soon as we left the carpark.
The extraordinary Magpie Goose Anseranas semipalmata is common across tropical Australia
and adjacent New Guinea. It is the sole member of an entire family of waterfowl
(ie 'ducks and geese', though it is neither).
Bar-shouldered Doves Geopelia humeralis are also very common, but that's no reason not
to enjoy and share them, especially as I know that many readers come to this blog from elsewhere.
They have an endearing habit of warbling repeatedly in a falsetto voice "let's walk to schoooool".
Rainbow Bee-eaters Merops ornatus against the morning sun.
Our only bee-eater, and an impressive one. They breed in southern Australia and spend
the rest of the year in tropical Australia, New Guinea and nearby Indonesia.
However even in summer there are always some in the north as well.
Male Australasian Figbird Sphecotheres vieilloti. Yet another common northern species, actually an oriole.
This used to be called the Yellow Figbird, to distinguish it from the Green Figbird further south in eastern Australia,
but they are now regarded as races of the same species.
As we sat among the mangroves at the end of the walk a few birds came to investigate.
Northern Fantail Rhipidura rufiventris. Two fantails are among the commonest birds further south,
but this tropical species, while certainly not rare, is less obvious than them.

Lemon-bellied Flycatcher Microeca flavigaster.  A lovely little bird, one of the Australian robins; for that
reason, probably understandably enough, there is a move to resurrect the old name of 'flyrobin', but I'm not
quite ready for that yet.
Not many waders on the mud, but our view was pretty limited. The Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos isn't that common in southern Australia, though more so in the north. This one was snacking on the abundant crabs.
Common Sandpiper with seafood breakfast.
Crabs are of course super-abundant in mangroves, living in burrows and supporting numerous predators,
including this gorgeous blue chap, which I unfortunately can't find a name for. Any help?
Another favourite mud-dweller, the wonderful mudskippers, regarded traditionally as a subfamily
of goby, though recent work suggests they actually comprise several related groups. Their key characteristic is an ability
to spend much of their time out of water, being quite active across the surface of the mud, using their adapted fins.
As long as they remain moist they can breathe through skin and mouth membranes on land,
as well as with gills in water.
Gill slits are tightly closed on  land, and the cavity contains an air bubble.
I like to think of them re-enacting the first vertebrate moves ashore nearly 400 million years ago.

When you can tear yourself away from the peace of the mangrove platform, return to the carpark and drive a little further along the road into the reserve. Just past Peewee Restaurant (and I'm afraid I can't tell you anything else about it, I've always been there too early!) pull into the carpark marked Barbecue Area and cross the road to the track opposite through the monsoon forest. 
Monsoon forest along the track. Monsoon forests grow in the tropics where an intense wet season is
followed by a long dry, which distinguishes them from true rainforest where it can be wet all year round.
They tend to be lower-growing and simpler in biodiversity (though by no means impoverished) than rainforests;
many trees are often deciduous in the dry.
Two special birds in particular can generally be found here. In fact you're likely to encounter Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt pretty much any time from when you enter the forest.
Orange-footed Scrubfowl scratching for food in the leaf litter on the track with its immensely powerful feet.
(Which, I must note, are not more orange than its legs.)
This is one of three Australian megapodes, which incubate eggs in a mound of decomposing litter.
This one alone is found beyond Australia, on nearby islands.
Scrubfowl mound, Darwin; for a relatively small megapode they build an enormous mound.
Pittas are an interesting group of birds, members of the ancient suboscine passerines which predominate in South America but are scarce elsewhere. There are three Australian species - the Noisy Pitta Pitta versicolor of eastern Australia, the Rainbow Pitta P. iris of the Top End and Kimberley, and the Red-bellied Pitta Erythropitta erythrogaster which breeds at the tip of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland in the wet summer, and returns to New Guinea for the rest of the year.

The Rainbow Pitta is not uncommon in monsoon forest around and even in Darwin, and East Point Reserve is a good place for them, though they are shy and can take some finding. They feed on the ground but often call from a high perch. Their call is a constant background at East Point.
Rainbow Pitta, East Point. Truly a beautiful bird.
If East Point isn't already on your 'to do' list when you go to Darwin, it should be. Try and make time for it - you won't regret it.

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Wednesday, 6 July 2016

On This Day 6 July 1781: Stamford Raffles Born

I could almost as well have posted this yesterday, as Raffles died on 5 July 1826, a day short of his 45th birthday.

You may well be wondering however why I would be including a posting on a British administrator and empire-builder in south-east Asia and, most famously, founder of Singapore, in a natural history blog. The fact is that, while most of the readily available on-line biographies ignore it or simply mention it in passing, he was a naturalist to his core and corresponded with and was admired by luminaries such as Sir Joseph Banks and the great botanist Robert Brown. 
Bronze statue of Sir Stamford Raffles, by Thomas Woolner, formerly overlooking Singapore Harbour.
(It has since been replaced by a copy.)
Courtesy of George Landow.
It is hard to get a firm handle on the true story of Raffles - Nadia Wright for instance makes a strong case for his story and achievements having grown in stature after his death, though her article does seem to try a trifle hard to downgrade every aspect of his life. The real point seems to be however that for the most part the hagiographies were written well after his death, and obviously not by him, apparently to satisfy a Victorian desire for heroes of the Empire.

Very briefly, because it's not my primary interest today, he was sent in 1805 by the British East India Company as assistant secretary to the governor of Penang. He had already begun learning Malay, as was expected, and this and his apparent abilities led to him being appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Java after the 1811 British invasion expelled the French who had temporarily supplanted the Dutch colonial rulers during the Napoleonic Wars. His use of both force and skilful manipulation of local politics to pacify Java typified his subsequent career. He returned to England to face down accusations of financial mismanagement, and there published The History of Java; overall his return was a good move, resulting in a knighthood and the governorship of Bencoolen, a colony (albeit a somewhat obscure one) on the west coast of Sumatra. Vigorous social and economic reforms followed, and he had some influence on the eventual 1824 Dutch-English treaty which divided up the region. His own and others' researches led him to the Dutch-free island we now know as Singapore and organised a series of treaties with local authorities, giving effective control to the East India Company. He established schools and churches, and a European town. In fact he spent more time in Sumatra than Singapore, but his influence was considerable. In 1824 he returned to England, already suffering from the brain tumour that was to kill him just two years later. Meantime however he co-founded, with chemist Sir Humphry Davy (of miner's safety lamp fame), London Zoo at Regent's Park, and was the first president of the London Zoological Society.

OK, that's the sketch, and if you're interested in the details there's plenty out there (though the Wikipedia article is often confusing and generally poorly written). What about Raffles the naturalist? It was his passion, and he wasn't just a dilettante - he scientifically described species, as well as compiling vast collections to send to Britain. 
Long-tailed (Crab-eating) Macaque baby Macaca fascicularis, Sabah.
Raffles named this species Simia fascicularis in 1821; it was later moved to the genus Macaca
but retains his species name.
Eastern Crimson Sunbird, Sepilok, Sabah, named Certhia (now Aethopyga)
siparaja by Raffles in 1822.
'Siparaja' apparently means an army general in Malay, applied to a related species.
[Much of what follows is based on this article, but you may have to log in to jstor to access it. It's an article by John Bastin in the Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society (1990)
Vol. 63, No. 2 (259) pp. 1-25.]

When his natural history interests are mentioned, it is often asserted that they were sparked by his relationship with the US naturalist Thomas Horsfield, who he met while he was in Java. More of Horsfield anon, but we know that Raffles was systematically employing natural history specimen collectors in Penang prior to that. He had a lifelong love of gardening and (perhaps less admirably from a modern perspective) kept an extensive menagerie and aviary in Sumatra, though many of these animals were gifts from local rulers with whom he was negotiating. In a letter in 1820 he proclaimed that natural history was (apart from religion, he felt compelled to record) "perhaps the most rational and innocent enjoyment that Mind can possess on Earth". After the founding of Singapore, when he was somewhat sidelined back in Sumatra, he proclaimed in another letter that, when not engaged in administration, his time was "principally devoted to natural history".

Thomas Horsfield was a medical doctor who came to Java while Raffles was Lieutenant-Governor there, primarily to indulge his passion for natural history, especially botany.  There is no doubt that while Horsfield didn't trigger Raffles' interests, he certainly influenced the younger man. In return Raffles gave Horsfield all the official support he needed, and Horsfield obtained for him a significant collection of plants, insects, animals and birds for the British East India Company Museum in London. This led to Sir Joseph Banks himself requesting Horsfield's assistance in obtaining botanical specimens; it was a mutually most beneficial relationship. 

Immature Horsfield's Bushlark Mirafra javanica, near Canberra.
John Gould named the species in Australia in 1848 to honour Horsfield, who had named the genus in Java,
that species being (unsurprisingly) M. javanica. The Australian birds bore the name horsfieldii
until the 20th century, when they were subsumed to a subspecies of Horsfield's Javan bird.
There is no doubt that during Raffles' time back in England in 1816-17 the Horsfield collections received by Banks and described by Robert Brown were of great benefit to Raffles' reputation too in the scientific world, though Banks praised lavishly Raffles in his own right for his knowledge.

Back in Sumatra he was joined briefly by Horsfield, who was on his way to England to work for the British East India Company Museum, but Raffles' natural history partner now was Dr Joseph Arnold, who Raffles had engaged as his personal doctor, but who was also an enthusiastic botanist. (Arnold had sailed twice to Australia as ship's surgeon, the second time as the first surgeon-superintendent of a convict ship.) Tragically he died of an unspecified fever after only four months with Raffles, but before doing so was instrumental in Raffles' greatest fame to botanical fame - the discovery (in company with Raffles and his wife) of the extraordinary genus of plants which came to be named after him.
Rafflesia keithii flower, Poring, Sabah.
There are 28 species in the genus, the only member of its family. All live in south-east Asia, Indonesia
and the Philippines. They are totally parasitic, living entirely within the stem of vines of the genus Tetrastiga,
in the grape family. Uniquely in botany, at least one species has no trace of chloroplasts, the plant cell organelles which contain chlorophyll and perform photosynthesis, thus challenging our very concept of what a plant is!
The plant comprises solely fungus-like threads within the vine, with no stems, leaves or roots.
Flowers appear sporadically, but are remarkable - this species has flowers nearly a metre across and weighing up to
10kg. The blotched reddish colour and putrid scent attract blowflies, which act as pollinators.

Raffliesia keithii bud emerging from the soil, from an underground vine stem. This species is endemic to Sabah.
Arnold didn't live to describe his discovery; that honour fell to Robert Brown, who handled it very senstitively. He called the genus Rafflesia, on the basis, which was probably correct, that it is what Arnold would have done, and gave the species the name arnoldi. Unfortunately for Arnold's memory popular history tends to give credit for its discovery to Raffles alone, though he made no such claims. The Dowager Empress of Russia was so excited to read Brown's account that she sent him a diamond and topaz ring to express her enthusiasm! Decades later, shortly before his own death, Brown sent the ring to Lady Raffles, now widowed.

In time Raffles replaced Arnold with a young Scottish surgeon, Dr William Jack, who proved a very capable botanist indeed and contributed hugely to our knowledge of the plants of the area. His publications were praised at the highest levels in Britain. Tragically he died of tuberculosis after four years with Raffles, aged just 27, and to add to the tragedy two years later most of his specimens and paperwork were destroyed by fire. 
Raffles' Pitcherplant Nepenthes rafflesiana, Sabah.
This was named for Raffles by William Jack, who collected the specimen in Singapore, though
it is also found in Sumatra, Borneo and some smaller islands.
Raffles also engaged two French zoologists, Pierre Diard and Alfred Duvaucel, but after a promising start things ended badly when the British regional government in Calcutta refused to honour Raffles' financial promises to them. It does not seem to reflect well on Raffles though that after an intense argument he expelled them, but seized their substantial zoological collections. One might wonder if their nationality was a factor, though his developing chronic headaches wouldn't have helped. His reputation certainly benefited from being able to send their collections to London, accompanied by a 'Descriptive Catalogue' under his name. It seems that he felt uncomfortable about the process however, as he devoted quite some space in the catalogue to justifying his seizure of the Frenchmens' specimens.
Raffles's Malhoa Rhinortha chlorophaea, Sepilok, Sabah.
Female above, male below.
This lovely cuckoo pair (which would not sit still for a photo!) was named (as Cuculus chlorophaeus)
by Raffles in Sumatra; in addition to there and Borneo it is found in peninsular Malaysia.

Things continued to go badly for him. Three of his children died, his health was suffering and he seems to have felt keenly the loss of Jack. A huge collection of his specimens from Singapore and Sumatra, up to 3,000 natural history drawings commissioned by him from Chinese artists, and many live animals, were destroyed in a shipboard fire. Stoically he replaced what he could in the 10 weeks he had before his own departure. The same resolution enabled him to spend months back in England, despite deteriorating health and increasingly ferocious headaches, unpacking and sorting 174 large cases of materials that he'd sent back over the years.

Shortly before his death he became inaugural president of the Zoological Society of London, with Thomas Horsfield as Assistant Secretary. Land was obtained at Regent's Park, and plans were well developed, but Raffles didn't live to see it open.

That's sad, but so is the fact that his considerable achievements in contributing to early understandings of south-east Asian natural history are mostly entirely overlooked now, as he is remembered simply, and simplistically, as the 'founder of Singapore'. I hope that in a small way I can contribute to rectifying that wrong.
Red-crowned Barbet Psilopogon rafflesii, Bako NP, Sarawak.
This lovely fruit-eater was named for Raffles by the French zoologist René Lesson 13 years after Raffles' death.
The Asian barbets are now placed in a separate family from both the African and South American ones.