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, 30 November 2016

On This Day, 30 November: Scottish National Day

National days have a very eclectic mix of raisons d'être, with some having apparently fairly nebulous significance. I'm afraid one may see Scotland's National Day, Saint Andrew's Day on 30 November, as being in this category. I feel that I can make the observation as one whose father was born there - my grandfather, a World War One soldier, prisoner of war and survivor, was an electrician in the coal mines, and brought his family out to Adelaide in 1928. 

The connection to Scotland of Andrew, one of the apostles is, at best, vague. It is claimed that a couple of relics associated with him found their way to Scotland, but the two surviving manuscripts, as I understand it, are now in Paris and London. It is said that in 832AD King Óengus mac Fergusa of the Picts (in what is now Scotland) won a battle against the southern Angles after doing a prayer deal with Saint Andrew in which he undertook to make St A the patron saint of Scotland (though Scotland didn't strictly exist at the time), if St A gave him victory. St A kept his side of the bargain, and it's not at all clear what King Óengus did in return. It was only in 2006 that the Scottish parliament officially declared 30 November a bank holiday - but a sort of voluntary one, in that banks only close, and give their employees a holiday, if they feel like it. Moreover, far from having a monopoly on him, Scotland must share Andrew's patron saint favours with Barbados, Greece, Romania, Russia and the Ukraine, as well as assorted towns and regions.

All of which is not very relevant to our main purpose today, which is to celebrate the various Scots whose names are commemorated in the names of Australian plants!

Some of them I've acknowledged before in their own right, so I won't retell their stories here but will refer you to the original posting if you're interested. Perhaps the greatest of them was the remarkable botanist Robert Brown, who sailed with Matthew Flinders on the Investigator, a major scientific expedition beginning in 1801.
Purple Enamel Orchid Elythranthera brunonis, Two Peoples Bay, Western Australia.
'Brunonis' is Latin for brown, and appears for Robert in quite a few Australian names.
It was named by the Austrian botanist Stephan Endlicher in 1839 as Glossodia brunonis,
and the current genus was erected for it by great Western Australian botanist Alex George in 1963.

Charles Fraser, horticulturalist and botanist, was appointed Colonial Botanist of New South Wales by Governor Lachlan Macquarie.
Kapok flowers, Cochlospermum fraseri, family Bixaceae, Timber Creek, Northern Territory.
A common tree of the central and western Australian tropics, it was named to honour Fraser
by French botanist Jules Planchon.
Another Scottish Charles, Charles Moore, was also appointed New South Wales Colonial Botanist, in 1848. 
Macrozamia moorei near Springsure, central Queensland, where it has a very small range.
It was named by the towering figure of late 19th century Australian botany, Ferdinand von Mueller to honour
Moore, who had a strong interest in cycads, in 1881 while Moore was still alive to appreciate the compliment.
And sadly, not all Scots have been universally admired; one such as was the self-aggrandising pioneer of the Murray River steam paddleboat trade, Francis Cadell, who von Mueller also honoured, in this case with a whole genus.
Ooline Cadellia pentastylis, Family Surianaceae, Tregole National Park,
inland south-east Queensland near Morven.
This is another species of limited distribution, the only one of its genus.
But now it's time to meet some Scots whose names appear on Australian plants and who I haven't previously introduced here.

Peter Good was a young man of whom we know sadly little, other than that he was born in Scotland, and worked as a gardener for Earl Wemyss. He was selected by Kew to go to India to bring back a plant collection assembled by the botanist Christopher Smith. On his return he was appointed a foreman at Kew, from where Robert Brown appointed him as assistant on the Investigator expedition. One of his major roles was keeping living plant collections on board, to avoid the problems of getting dried specimens through the tropics. Like many others he contracted dysentery in Timor but continued collecting until he died and was buried with naval honours in Sydney.
Goodia lotifolia, Tallaganda National Park, east of Canberra.
The genus was named for Peter Good by controversial English botanist Richard Salisbury.
(Some of the story of his controversy can be found here.)
A much more highly ranked Scot was John Clements Wickham who served under Lieutenant Phillip Parker King during the first of the British South American Marine Surveys, and was then Second-in-Command of the Beagle during Darwin’s famous voyage. He was responsible for maintaining order in the cramped on-board spaces, and Darwin (known on board as ‘the flycatcher’) and his specimens were a cause of much angst to Wickham, who referred to them as a ‘damn beastly bedvilment’. In fact he told Darwin that ‘if I were skipper I would have you and all your damn mess out of the place’. Darwin on the other hand wrote to his father that Wickham was ‘a glorious fellow’ and it was Wickham who named a bay Port Darwin; later the city took its name from it. In the late 1830s Wickham was back, now in command of the Beagle, charting the Bass Strait Islands and those still uncharted sections of the north-western coasts. His health was ruined, and he left the navy to work as police magistrate at Moreton Bay. When Queensland gained independence in 1860 he retired to the south of France. A more lasting reward was the naming of a widespread and beautiful tropical grevillea for him, by Swiss botanist Carl Meissner.

Grevillea wickhamii (and Grey-headed Honeyeater Ptilotula keartlandi), Kings Canyon, central Australia.
Across the country, Scot James Drummond was appointed to the (honorary!) position of Government Naturalist for the Swan River Colony in its earliest days. He was somewhat desperate, having been made redundant from his post as curator of Cork Botanic Gardens when the British Government withdrew funding, and was led to believe that if a public gardens was to be opened, he could expect a paid job. It didn't end any more happily than you might expect, but he did acquire some land grants and was able to sell plant specimens. Governor Stirling did appoint him as paid Superintendent of the Government Garden, but then the Colonial Office abolished the position of Government Naturalist! He spent most of the rest of his days tending his garden and vines, and collecting for British botanist and entrepreneur James Mangles.
Drummondita hassellii, family Rutaceae, Merredin, WA.
James' brother Thomas was a nurseryman who collected in North America.
This genus commemorates them both – the I is a latinised form of J for James, and the T for Thomas!
The responsible party for this creativity was Irish botanist William Harvey.
Cephalipterum drummondii, Mount Magnet, inland WA.
This one was specifically named for James Drummond.
Thomas Mitchell was born in Stirlingshire in 1792 and joined the British army, fighting in the Spanish Peninsula wars, attaining the rank of major and becoming a surveyor and draughtsman. In 1827 he arrived in Sydney to become Deputy Surveyor-General  to John Oxley; when Oxley died the next year he got the top job, which he held until he died in 1855. His explorations were vital to the growing understanding of the colony. In 1831 he explored in north-western NSW, and reported that all the rivers flowed into the Darling. On other expeditions he followed the Darling from Bourke; the Lachlan to the Murrumbidgee; through western Queensland to try to find the route to Port Essington – he always had a profound belief in a river he called the Kindur, which he was sure would take him all the way to the northern sea; and the famous 'Australia Felix' journey in western Victoria. He wrote astutely and even sympathetically of Aboriginal culture, but his expeditions were involved in several fatal skirmishes. He collected natural history specimens as he went; on the western Victorian trip he took 100 sheep for food, and the shepherd was also the plant collector, which seems to be an unfortunate combination. Mitchell died after contracting pneumonia while surveying the road down the Clyde Mountain.

Native Orange Capparis mitchellii, Lake Broadwater, south-east Queensland.
Named for Mitchell by English botanist John Linley.
Our final Scot, Patrick Murray, Baron of Livingston, not only never visited Australia but could not have done so - he died well before the first English-speaker set foot on the continent. He had a famous garden, and after his early death in 1671 his huge plant collection was transferred to Edinburgh where it formed the nucleus of the Edinburgh Botanic Garden. Much later his countryman Robert Brown named the genus palm genus Livistona for him (or at least for his title, though it's unclear what happened to the 'ng'!).
Livistona rigida, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park, north-west Queensland.
Which is about all I've got for you today. I'm very grateful to Scotland for, in small part at least, making me what I am. And I'm grateful for the many significant contributions that Scots have made to Australia, not least botanically. If you're a Scot, have a happy national day - even if you find it's not a holiday for you...


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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Wildsumaco Continued; away from the lodge

In my last posting I ran out of time before finishing my introduction to Wilsumaco, the truly superb new  conservation-oriented lodge on the eastern Andean slopes of northern Ecuador. I waxed enthusiastic on the immediate surrounds of the lodge itself, but didn't manage to leave its immediate vicinity! That can now be rectified in a fairly brief posting. 

We came to Wildsumaco from the west - not from Quito itself, but from the much closer (and higher) San Isidro Lodge, which is also worthy of its own post in the not too distant future. This is the direction from which most visitors are likely to arrive, but you could also come from the east, leaving Coca after a stay in the Amazon basin. Before we even reached the lodge we stopped at a set of feeders off the road at the edge of the forest, where we saw some species that we didn't later see from the lodge verandah. Inevitably some of these photos were taken on the feeders - sorry about that!
Violet-headed Hummingbird Klais guimeti, another eastern slopes specialist in the Andes,
but curiously also found at lower elevations in central America and Venezuela.
Gould's Jewelfront Heliodoxa aurescens; like some of the species mentioned in the previous post,
this is primarily a lowland bird which has only recently been recorded at this altitude (1500 metres above sea level)
at Wildsumaco, presumably because people weren't looking here prior to the lodge's existence.
Green Hermit Phaethornis guy, another species which doesn't find its way to the Pacific side of the Andes,
though its range extends from central America to Peru.
I find the hermits especially hard to photograph, as they don't seem to land where they're photographable!
One hazard of watching feeders is that it can hard to remember to look up or down as well, and one should!
The seemingly weightless Swallow-tailed Kite Elanoides forficatus must be one of the loveliest birds of prey.
It is a widespread resident in the northern half of South America; a population in the south-east of the US
migrates south to join the southern birds after breeding.
This magnificent caterpillar was doubtless destined to become an equally  magnificent butterfly or moth
- there are plenty around - but I can't begin to suggest what that might be.
The extensive lodge driveway and the road past the gate provide excellent birding opportunities too, but another highlight was accompanying guide Byron down into the forest to look for trickier options. The forest itself is of course beautiful.

Creek above, and cloud forest below, along the forest track.

Bromeliad flower. Bromeliads are a feature of the Andean cloud forests, with more than 4500 species
in Ecuador alone, at densities which can exceed 100,000 plants per hectare.
Some glowing leaves.
Like other lodges, Wildsumaco has begun habituating wild antpittas, infamously difficult birds to see normally, and Byron was an expert in calling them up.
Byron calling up Plain-backed Antpitta Grallaria haplonota, which has a breathy fluting series of notes.
Plain-backed Antpitta - not much light or time, so apologies for the poor photo.
It's the only one I've ever seen though!
He also conjured up Ochre-breasted Antpitta, which I had previously seen in Peru at Paz de las Aves - I never mind seeing a bird, especially one this elusive, more than once however!
Ochre-breasted Antpitta Grallaricula flavirostris, Wildsumaco.
Other prized birds are much less easy to photograph, so bear with me if you will - I worked hard for these miserable shots, believe it or not!
White-crowned Manakin Dixiphia pipra. In my defence, this is a tiny bird, hard to approach in the dim
light of the forest understorey, and jet black.
The males form small loose leks, just in earshot of each other, where they display to attract females' attention.
Blackish Antbird Cercomacroides nigrescens; like any antbirds this one is shy and cryptic in the dense
understorey. If this photo is memorable for anything (and OK, it's really not!),
it's for being the only antbird I've ever managed to lay lens on!
So, a brief introduction to a special, exciting, and utterly enjoyable place. I hope you can find your way there some day.


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Thursday, 17 November 2016

Wildsumaco; a gem of Ecuador's wild east

It's been quite a few posts - a record number in fact - since IF Talking Naturally has ventured overseas. While I have no qualms about featuring my home country disproportionately, it's time to raise my horizons a little, and return to one of my favourite countries (of which I have quite a few).
Dawn on Antisana Volcano from the deck of Wildsumaco Lodge.
Ecuador, as has often been remarked both here and elsewhere, is an extraordinary destination for a naturalist; probably nowhere in the world is such biological wealth crammed into such a small area. It's fair to say that the focus of most visitors is on the cloud forests of the north-west slopes of the Andes (especially the wonderful Mindo Valley), on the Amazon basin, and of course on the near-mythical Galápagos. However the eastern slopes of the Andes offer equal riches, and being isolated from the western cloud forests by the treeless snowy high peaks and ridges of the range, have many species unique to the area. Ecuador has a good record of protecting its natural treasures, but it is not a rich country and clearing continues. As elsewhere in South America, private conservation trusts and philanthropic companies have been set up to help fill the gap between existing public reserves and the need for more. One such is the small group of people from Sweden and the US who have bought an area of mid-level forest (1500 metres above sea level) on the slopes of Sumaco Volcano for preservation. They have built a research station and to help pay for it, and to widen understanding of the area's values and needs, have recently built a lovely lodge on a ridge that had previously been cleared. 

I don't often feature private establishments here, but when I've done so it's because I believe they deserve it for what they're doing for the world, and because I believe that you would benefit from knowing about them.

The arrow indicates the approximate position of Wildsumaco Lodge on the eastern slopes of the Andes.

More detailed map of the lodge's location; this one is taken from Wildsumaco's web page;
in the circumstance I'm assuming they won't mind too much!
It's fair to say that you could spend your entire time at Wildsumaco on the magnificent deck looking out across the cloud forest to the Andes, and in particular to mighty Volcán Antisana some 60 kilometres away to the north-west, back towards Quito. At 5,700 metres above sea level, it is the fourth highest peak in Ecuador.
There are not many better reasons for getting up early than discovering what the view to Antisana's like today -
and every day is different. Sometimes the clouds entirely wreath it, other times they are draped
diaphonously over it, as in the photo at the top of the posting, and just sometimes they stay off it completely,
at least for a while.
As the sun rises higher, it's time to pay attention to what's going on closer to hand, and there is a lot of deck to patrol to keep an eye on things.

As can be seen from these photos there is a lot of animal-attracting vegetation close to hand, as well as some of the most productive hummingbird feeders in Ecuador. Here is some of the wildlife I was privileged to see from this most wonderful balcony.
Many-spotted Hummingbird Taphrospilus hypostictus. This one is an eastern slopes specialist, found in a disjunct narrow band south from northern Ecuador.

Rufous-vented Whitetip Urosticte ruficrissa, likewise restricted to the eastern slopes, from Colombia to Peru.

Sparkling Violetear Colibri coruscans,a much more widespread Andean species, but always very welcome!

Brown Violetear Colibri delphinae; a seemingly relatively dull-coloured violetear,
until the sun catches its iridescent patches. Sadly no sun in this pic...
It is found on both slopes of the Andes, and across northern South America and the Caribbean.
Before the widespread advent of feeders, it wasn't often seen by visitors.
I try to avoid using pics of hummers on feeders where possible, but sometimes they're the only ones I can get and the birds are far too lovely to exclude on that basis!
Golden-tailed Sapphire Chrysuronia oenone is very much a case in point;
a very widespread hummer, but what a bird!
Black-throated Brilliant Heliodoxa schreibersii, here at about its uppermost limits.
Unlike most of the hummingbirds seen at Wildsumaco, this one is found down in the Amazonian lowlands.
While the hummingbirds will always be star turns they are far from the only breathtaking visitors to be seen from the Wildsumaco deck. A troop of Rio Napo, or Graell's, Tamarins Saguinus graellsi comes in to accept bananas offered via a pulley system in a tree at eye level to the deck.
Rio Napo Tamarin has been split off from the already restricted-range Black-naped Tamarin,
though as is so often the way this is not universally accepted.
Other delights come for naturally occurring treats,especially the finger-shaped fruit of Cecropia trees.
Black-mandibled (or Yellow-throated) Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus.Another magnificent bird, up to 60cm long, restricted to the eastern Andean slopes.

Many-banded Aracari Pteroglossus pluricinctus is primarily a lowland species,
found here well above its normally expected altitude.
Aracari is the name used for the toucans of this genus, which are smaller than the previous species.
Golden-collared (or Red-billed) Toucanet Selenidera reinwardtii, female above, male below.
This species is much smaller again than the aracari.
Much the same comments can be made about the distribution of this species.
Perhaps it is simply that, before the construction of Wildsumaco,
few observers came to these forests to record their presence.

It is in a cloud forest however, and sometimes the curtain is drawn across the Wildsumaco views.
You can see from the white verandah post that this is - or would be - much the same view
as the one shown earlier in this post.
At this time it can be appropriate to withdraw into the comforts of the large room which backs the deck; this is not a great hardship.
Dining room above (not in the cloud!) and bar below.
There are also some lovely quilts (not tapestries - thanks Susan!) on the walls.

Andean Cock-of-the-Rock

Inca Jays.

And this one, to my shame, has me baffled (though I'm sure it's just me).
I'm pretty sure it's a crake (Grey-breasted perhaps?) but any suggestions gratefully received.
I'm very far from an expert on Ecuador's vast array of bird species!
And as at any rainforest lodge, the morning produces a wonderful array of insects drawn to the lights overnight (at least until the birds find them!). Here is an array of delightful moths and a katydid, none of which I'm even going to attempt to identify - they're worth admiring for their own sakes though.

And at that point my time has elapsed for today, so I'll have to finish this with a shorter posting, of the area beyond the lodge, next time. I'll come back next week and do that slightly earlier than I otherwise would have. I hope I've caught your attention sufficiently for you to have marked down Wildsumaco as "must visit" for your next Ecuador trip. It deserves it.


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