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, 27 October 2016

Housekeeping; updating some earlier postings

This may be of little interest to anybody, but I find constantly that people are visiting older postings, so I skim through them a couple of times a year and update as required. Mostly this means replacing pictures with better ones, or adding to postings as more pics become available.

Here, in a posting on tree kingfishers, I've added photos of Collared and Stork-billed Kingfishers, and a better one of Blue-winged Kookaburra. Links to images (without captions) here and here and here.

 Here, in a posting on fishing kingfishers, I've added a photo of Blue-eared Kingfisher. Link to image (without caption) here.

Here, in a posting on camouflage, I've added a photo of a superbly camouflaged Common Gliding Dragon. Link to image (without caption) here.

Here, in a posting on Australian robins, I've added a photo of a Buff-sided Robin. Link to image (without caption) here.

Here, in a posting on soaring birds, I've added photo of a Little Eagle, and replaced photos of Australian Pelicans and Black-necked Stork with better ones. Links to images (without captions) here and here and here.

Here, in a posting on fruit doves (etc), I've added a photo of a Rose-crowned Fruit-Dove. Link to image (without caption) here.

Here, in a posting on the (then) honeyeater genus Lichenostomus, I have had to do some rewriting following major taxonomic changes. I have explained and commented, and inserted the new genus names as appropriate for anyone interested. Moreover I have added a photo of Yellow-tinted Honeyeater, and replaced the one of Singing Honeyeater. Links to images (without captions) here and here.

Found Nowhere Else! Some Australian state endemics.

I've had it in the back of my mind for a while to feature some plants and animals which are endemic (ie found nowhere else), not just to Australia - that would be a bit too easy - but to just one Australian state or territory. Now seems like as good a time as any, so let's travel round the country and meet a few of these relatively restricted organisms.

Some jurisdictions were easy - the south-west of Western Australia and the island state of Tasmania have been isolated from the rest of Australia for some time, so endemism is widespread there. Others were a bit trickier, but I've got examples from every jurisdiction, including the tiny Australian Capital Territory where I live. The real embarrassment is only being able to provide one example from Victoria, the nearest state (other than New South Wales, which surrounds us here) to our home. In the last decade I've spent less time there than anywhere else in Australia - I really must remedy that!

If you're not familiar with the layout of Australia, here it is with the states and territories marked on it.  

OK, this isn't intended to be very deep, so let's start, beginning in the heartland of Australian endemism, the south-west of Western Australia.


Quokkas Setonix brachyurus, Rottnest Island; they have no close relatives.
These small macropods (kangaroos and wallabies) were widespread on the south-west mainland,
but predation by foxes and cats has almost eliminated them from there.
On some islands, most famously the tourist destination of Rottnest, they thrive.
(The Dutch navigator Willem de Vlamingh named the island for them in 1696,
the name meaning "rats' nest"!)
There are 16 endemic WA bird species, mostly in the south-west. Some are members of east-west species pairs, obviously derived from a single population when the south-west was isolated by aridity.
Red-eared Firetail Stagnopleura oculata, Albany.
There are two firetail species across the country in the south-east,
with the Beautiful Firetail S. bella probably the most similar.
Other WA endemics have no close relatives and have presumably been separated for a long time.
Red-capped Parrot Purpureicephalus spurius, Albany.
A truly spectacular bird, the only one of its genus, which uses its long upper mandible to extract seeds
from the big capsules of Marri Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) calophylla.
Motorbike Frog Litoria moorei, Margaret River.
Named for the truly amazing call, complete with gear changes!

As for endemic plants - well, the south-west alone has nearly 6,000 endemic species, so selection is pretty arbitrary! Here are three, selected more or less at random.
Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Two Peoples Bay. A spectacularly shiny orchid.
Red and Green Kangaroo Paw Anigozanthus manglesii, Perth.
This extraordinary plant is the state floral emblem.
Bird-pollinated, the anthers brush the bird's forehead as it probes the base for nectar.
West Australian Christmas Bush Nuytsia floribunda, Torndirrup NP.
A mistletoe growing as a tree, parasitising the roots of adjacent plants.
The genus name is for Dutchman Pieter Nuyts, who as a high official in the Dutch East India Company
accompanied one of the very first European explorations of the southern Australian coast in 1626.
He later became Dutch ambassador to Japan, and governor of Formosa (now Taiwan).
We'll continue around the country clockwise, so next stop...


Many species extend their range across much of northern Australia, so endemics aren't quite so easy to find here, but there certainly are some. Some are associated with the great sandstone escarpments of Kakadu National Park, east of Darwin on the map above.
Chestnut-quilled Rock Pigeon Petrophassa rufipennis, Burrunggui (formerly known erroneously as Nourlangie Rock).
Pretty much endemic to Kakadu National Park!

There are other NT endemics however, not tied to the sandstone.
Hooded Parrot Psephotus dissimilis, Pine Creek.
This woodland parrot is restricted to woodlands of the Top End.
Among endemic NT plants is Australia's only native bamboo species. 
Bambusa arnhemica, Kakadu National Park.
And the Territory's endemics are not limited to the tropics either. The desert ranges to the south also harbour some plants found nowhere else.
MacDonnell Ranges Cycad Macrozamia macdonnellii, Palm Valley, central Australia.
Isolated in the MacDonnell Ranges and their outliers by the drying of the continent, this species
is listed as threatened under national legislation.
Continuing east, we get to the biologically rich state of....

Here the focus of endemism is on the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area, centred on Cairns in the tropical north. The rainforests in particular here support many endemic species.
Spotted Catbird Ailuroedus maculosus, Atherton Tablelands.
This is a 'recent' endemic, in that until recently it was regarded as part of a species that extended to New Guinea.
It has now been split off as a species in its own right, with the New Guinea species now known as
Black-eared Catbird A. melanotis.
(However this species is also found in far north Queensland, so Australia now
finds itself the proud possessor of three catbird species!)
Wet Tropics endemics can also be readily found among mammals, reptiles and plants.
Lumholtz's Tree Kangaroo Dendrolagus lumholtzi, Atherton Tableland -
it is in fact endemic to this high rich volcanic soil tableland.
(Awful photo, sorry! It's the only one I've got.)
Cooktown Ring-tailed Gecko Cyrtodactylus tuberculatus, near Cooktown.
Like the catbird above, this gecko was once regarded as part of a species that extended into New Guinea,
but herpetologists now recognise five Australian members of the genus, none of them found in New Guinea.
This one apparently lost its ringed tail, and the one that replaced it is unadorned.

Bull Kauri Agathis microstachya, Atherton Tableland, to which it, like the tree kangaroos,
is pretty well limited. This conifer is a member of the old Gondwanan family Araucariaceae.
Queensland is a big state however, and the Wet Tropics don't have a total monopoly on endemics.
Yellow Honeyeater Stomiopera (until recently Lichenostomus) flava, Ingham.
(It is on an African Tulip Tree, not endemic, not even native to Australia!)
This honeyeater is found across far north Queensland in woodlands and along watercourses.
Leichhardt's Yellow Jacket Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) leichhardtii, west of Charters Towers.
This drier woodland tree of north and central Queensland commemorates the Prussian scientist-explorer
Ludwig Leichhardt who became something of a national hero for his exploring feats in Queensland
and the Northern Territory before vanishing in a somewhat rash attempt to find a route from
south-east Queensland to Perth, in 1848

South now, to...

This state (NSW from now on) doesn't have isolated extremities like WA and Queensland do, so endemics aren't so prevalent, especially among animals. There is just one NSW bird endemic, the Rock Warbler (or Origma) Origma solitaria.
Rock Warbler, Morton National Park. This bird, the only one of its genus, is a resident of the
Sydney Sandstone, based on the Blue Mountains.
There are certainly endemic plants in NSW, including its magnificent state emblem.
New South Wales Waratah Telopea speciosissima, Budderoo NP.
A truly superb member of the family Proteaceae, the head comprising dozens of red flowers surrounded
by red bracts to make them even more appealing to pollinating birds.
Still a common part of near-coastal heathlands, though illegal cutting of the flowers near
population centres has been damaging.
Buttercup Doubletail Diuris aequalis, near Bungendore.
This lovely donkey orchid (for the flower shape, like a donkey's face) is limited to inland south-east NSW;
it is listed as threatened under both state and national legislation.
Before we leave NSW, we must pause in the Australian Capital Territory, which you can see as a tiny jurisdiction around Canberra, labelled ACT, in the far south-east of NSW on the map above. It's biologically part of the NSW southern highlands, but we do have a couple of plants not found across the nearby border. Here's one.
Canberra Spider Orchid Caladenia actensis, Canberra Nature Park;
'actensis' means 'from ACT' ie Australian Capital Territory! It is known from only a couple of populations
on Mounts Majura and Ainslie on the edge of Canberra, covering no more than half a hectare.
It is listed nationally as Critically Endangered.
South now to ...
This is a small state with no endemic bird species, though it has some other endemic animals. I've not spent much meaningful time there since I had a digital camera (!) so with apologies to my Victorian friends, I present this miserly proffering.
Grampians Bossiaea B. rosmarinifolia, Grampians (Gariwerd) NP.
This range in western Australia boasts one of the best wildflower displays in south-eastern Australia;
this species is one of several limited to the range.
With more confidence I now cross the Bass Strait, to where endemics are rife, including 12 birds.


Tasmanian Scrubwren Sericornis humilis, Freycinet NP.
Tasmania hasn't been isolated for as long as south-western Australia has, and nearly all the Tasmanian
endemics are closely related to a mainland species. In this case, the mainland 'cousin species' is the familiar
White-browed Scrubwren.
Spotted Skink Niveoscincus ocellatus, Binalong Bay.
This is a rock-preferring endemic skink of northern and eastern Tasmania.
Tasmanian Pademelons Thylogale billardierii, Narawntapu NP.
(I freely admit that I'm cheating somewhat here, as they used to occur on the mainland until
the early 20th  century so are not strictly endemic to Tasmania, though they're found nowhere else  now.
They are very photogenic though...)
There are plenty of endemic Tasmanian plants to choose from, and I'm opted for just a couple.
Pandani Richea pandanifolia, Mount Field NP.
This is a heath (family Ericaceae, though not everyone here agrees with lumping the Australian heaths,
until recently Epacridaceae, into this largely Old World family), and purportedly the world's
largest heath plant. It can grow to over ten metres tall.
Pencil Pines Arthrotaxis cupressoides, family Cupressaceae, Dove Lake, Cradle Mountain NP.
There are several endemic Tasmanian conifers, associated with rainforests and heathlands.
Which finally leads us back to the mainland, and west again, to my former home state of...


Here too there is just one endemic bird species, which I finally saw recently (and which may have been, even if subconsciously, the trigger for this posting); virtually all South Australia's land borders are in deserts which continue across the continent, and their inhabitants follow the arid lands far afield.

Chestnut-breasted Whiteface Aphelocephala pectoralis, south of Coober Pedy;
a very small rusty-coloured bird in a very large rusty-coloured landscape.
It's taken me decades to take this poor photograph, so I hope you can be forgiving of it.
Endemic plants are found in South Australia too, often on the peninsulas that project into the Southern Ocean; the dry lands to the north of these peninsulas isolate organisms in their moister southern sectors.
Limestone Mintbush Prostanthera calycina, High Cliffs, is endemic to Eyre Peninsula
where it is mostly found growing on limestone. It is listed nationally as Vulnerable to extinction..
Winter Spider Orchid Caladenia (or Arachnorchis) brumalis, Wanilla Conservation Park, Eyre Peninsula.
This species too is associated with limestone (there's a lot of it in that part of the world!), and is listed
under state and national legislation as threatened. It is found on all three of the major peninsulas.
So that completes our odyssey - many kilometres, not so many species out of all the ones I could have chosen. If you've seen all these you've seen quite a bit of the country; if not yet, then hopefully it can provide another small reason for planning your next trip!

Next time, as promised, I'll complete the series on the Great Sandy Desert by introducing some of the many flowering shrubs that were on show recently.


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Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Great Sandy Desert: #3, trees and herbs

This was to be the last in this series based on my recent experiences in the remote and relatively little-known Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia (which began here) but I've realised that I've got quite a large number of plant photos - I was there in a rare good season, when a lot of plants were flowering after substantial rains. I could of course just make a limited selection, which is what I'd probably do normally, but because few of my readers will probably have an opportunity to go there, and most of the plants will thus be unfamiliar, I've decided to introduce them pretty comprehensively, in two postings. In deference to those with less interest in the topic I'll take a break from the series next week, and talk about something entirely different, before coming back to finish by talking about some desert shrubs in a fortnight.

(And before going on, if you read the last posting, on animals of the desert, you might be interested in looking at the unexpected solution to the mysterious mud pellets surrounding the burrows in the salt of Lake Mackay!)

In the first posting, while introducing the landscape, I featured some key trees that help define in it various places - Mulga, Desert Oak, Desert Paperbark, Ghost Gums and Desert Bloodwoods. I won't revisit them today, but there were other trees, mostly low-growing, which appeared from time to time. There were quite a few acacias, as there are pretty much anywhere in Australia, but most were shrubs which will have their moment next time, but in addition to the Mulga, a couple of acacia trees occurred fairly frequently, though generally growing alone. 

Black Gidgee Acacia pruinocarpa is a striking desert tree, whose distribution is centred on
the Great Sandy Desert.

The distinctive large leathery foliage of Black Gidgee.
Wirewood A. coriacea (often referred to confusingly as Desert Oak) has thin leathery phyllodes, and grows across the tropical inland.

A small clump of Wirewood growing on a spinifex plain.

Wirewood foliage and flowers; central desert people eat the seeds whole, and as flour.
Whitewood Atalaya hemiglauca, family Sapindaceae, is another widespread and very attractive dry country tree.
Whitewood is an excellent shade tree in country where shade is in short supply;
I remember some good camps in its shelter.
Lolly Bush Clerodendrum floribundum Family Verbenaceae is a small tree found right
across northern Australia, in wetter as well as arid zones.
Despite the name and the attractive-looking fruit, they are not edible.
Desert Poplar Codonocarpus cotonifolius Family Gyrostemonaceae is more familiar
in southern arid lands, though there are also outliers to the west of the Great Sandy.
In addition to the Desert Bloodwood, which is often found on the dunes, there are a couple of mallee species of eucalypt (low-growing and multi-stemmed, so technically really shrubs) growing, often in some profusion, on the plains.

Eucalyptus (or Corymbia) deserticola - ie 'desert dwelling' - is found scattered
across the more northern deserts of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
The distinctive fruit and leaves of E. deserticola. Like some other eucalypts, it retains its
juvenile leaves, which are opposite and clasp around the stem.
Red-bud Mallee Eucalyptus pachyphylla (definitely more a shrub than tree!), another
specialist of the central deserts, at its western limits in the Great Sandy.
Below its large and conspicuous fruit; you can still see traces of the bright red
that characterises its buds and confers its common name.

I've introduced the Proteaceous genus Hakea before in an earlier blog; a couple of species thrive in the arid sandiness of the central deserts.
Fork-leaved Corkwood Hakea divaricata, above and below.
Another central desert specialist.

Corkwood Hakea lorea, above and below.
The corkiness of the bark (not really the wood) is evident above.

Time now to look down, at some of the flowering herbs (or ground-covering shrubs, I'm not going to be too pedantic about it).
A parakeelya Calandrinia stagnensis Family Portulacaceae.
I'm almost sure of the species, but less sure of the name origin. The '-ensis' suffix indicates a place,
but the type locality is listed as 'Ross's waterhole, Macumba River', in northern South Australia,
which leaves me baffled. If you have an insight to this one I'd be interested.
Blue Pincushion Brunonia australis, the only member of the family Brunoniaceae (though some would now
lump it into Goodeniaceae). This pretty herb has an amazing distribution, from the forests of the south-east
and south-west, through woodlands to the central and western deserts.
Desert Pepperflower Diplopeltis stuartii Family Sapindaceae, above and below.
Technically a shrub, but really...
Interesting for a couple of reasons. It is one of the few colourfully-flowered members of the
family, many of which (like the hop-bushes, Dodonea)  are wind-pollinated.
It is also one of the few plants named for the doyen of desert explorers, John McDouall Stuart, who collected it.
There were a couple of species of Goodenia, only one of which I could name.
Goodenia centralis, as the name suggests, of the central (and western) deserts.

This Goodenia, above and below, I can't find in any of my books. Advice welcomed!

Desert Snow, or Snow Flakes Macgregoria racemigera Family Celastraceae somewhat surprisingly (formerly Stackhousiaceae) growing near the shores of the salty Lake Mackay. Thanks for this one Bevan (see below).

Again my thanks to Bevan (comments below) for solving this mystery.
It's one I'd never heard of, a Peplidium sp., family Phrymaceae (likewise!).

But it's probably best for my self-esteem to end with a couple that I am reasonably confident about!
Horse Mulla Mulla Ptilotus schwartzii Family Amaranthaceae.
Mulla mulla is the name of the group, which can form vast expanses of flowers at times, but
I can't shed any light on the significance of 'horse'.
Wilhelm Schwartz founded Hermansburg Mission, now Ntaria community, in central Australia.

A samphire, Tecticornia verrucosa. It is apparently a source of edible seeds prized by desert Aboriginal people.
And that will do for today, I think. When we return to the desert we'll look at some of the beautiful flowering shrubs but, as I mentioned earlier, we'll have a week's break first, to do something quite different.


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