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.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Farewell to 2017!

Continuing my tradition of recent years, to mark the changeover of years I've selected just one photo from each month of 2017. As ever I don't make any pretences to photographic excellence, but have chosen the pictures because of their associations, and in most cases because they are ones I've not previously used this year in a blog posting.

It's been another busy year with some exciting natural highlights; as I get older I feel increasingly the need to make the most of every month of every year. I hope you can enjoy my selection of 2017 photos, and maybe it can encourage you to think about your own highlights.

A tailed weevil Rhinotia sp. (probably suturalis or brunnea, but I don't know enough to be sure), family Belidae.
I was delighted when I came across this lovely weevil in a bushland area known as Bluett's Block, not far from
where I live in Canberra, as I'd not seen anything like it before, and this is an area I've recently started exploring.
I've learnt that the group tends to specialise in acacias, but beyond that we don't seem to know much about them.

White-lipped Snake Drysdalia coronoides, Yerrabi Track, Namadgi National Park.
This is a lovely little snake, the most cold-adapted in Australia, and one I don't see all that often, though
it's not uncommon in the high country of the Australian Capital Territory (and from New England in northern
New South Wales south to Tasmania). This was a highlight of a most enjoyable summer walk in the
Snow Gums of the southern part of our territory.
Grey Goshawk Accipiter novaehollandiae, Tomakin, south coast New South Wales.
A wet weekend at the coast was greatly enhanced by this magnificent bird - which I'd never
successfully laid lens on before - perched on the powerlines in the pouring rain
by the busy highway.
Golden Orb Weaver Nephila edulis, Duffy, Canberra.
This handsome lady was too busy wrapping up dinner - an unfortunate fly - to notice us watching her
at close range from our balcony; she probably wasn't particularly aware either of the little male spider
in the web by her feet, hoping for some scraps. I loved the way the web glowed golden in the sunlight.
The view south from Cooleman Ridge Nature Reserve.
Another walk, this one in autumn, and much closer to home. In fact Cooleman Ridge is the closest reserve to our house.
The purple hue in the Red Boxes Eucalyptus polyanthemos was the sun's reflection from
 hundreds of thousands of buds ready to survive winter and burst into spring flowers.
The looming hill behind is Mount Tennent, in the far north of Namadgi National Park.
A reminder of how lucky we are to live in the 'bush capital', where everyone lives close to such a reserve.
Rose Robin Petroica rosea, Nowra, southern New South Wales.
At my partner's parents' home on the outskirts of town; this glowing little bird, not a common garden bird,
spent a morning flitting around the lawn and perched on the clothesline. A delight.
Indri Indri indri, the largest of all living lemurs, Antasibe-Mantadia NP, eastern Madagascar.
Tragically, this magnificent animal, which communicates by singing duets, is listed as Critically Endangered;
hopefully this baby will survive with its parents and siblings and in time start its own family.
Spending time with these superb animals early in the trip was a high point of a
thrilling but challenging trip to Madagascar.
Giant Day Gecko Phelusma grandis Ankarana National Park, northern Madagascar.
Madagascar is home to 110 known gecko species, a number rising by the year, 90% of them endemic.
This is more than double the species of Australia, which is some 13 times the size.
One group, representing a third of the island's species, has reverted to diurnal living, with smaller eyes and
often remarkable colours. This one was in the park, but we also had a couple of these jewels in
our cabin at the edge of the park.

Box-leaf Wattle Acacia buxifolia Black Mountain Nature Reserve, Canberra.
This was a disappointing spring for wildflowers in Canberra, with very little rain and almost no orchids, but
it started promisingly, and we can always rely on the wattles! I remember on this early spring day
being filled with the optimistic enthusiasm that spring always brings me.
Inca Tern Larosterna inca, Pucusana, south of Lima, Peru. Restricted to the cold Humboldt Current of
Peru and Chile, it must surely be the most glorious tern in the world. We went south as soon as we got to Peru,
and on the first afternoon did a memorable boat trip round the rocky headlands and islets of this little
fishing village, steeped in seabirds, with the Inca Terns the stars for me.

Jaguar Panthera onca, Three Brothers River, Pantanal, western Brazil.
Surely my wildlife highlight of the year, after a decade of looking for Jaguars in Peru and Ecuador,
when we were able to follow, in a small boat, three adult cubs and their mother as they walked along
the river bank  through the forest, probably hunting caimans.
I'll never forget the moment this big youngster stopped and stared closely at us for a few seconds
before returning to more important issues.
Freckled Duck Stictonetta naevosa, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
Probably Australia's rarest duck, with no close relatives, it nonetheless visits Canberra relatively regularly
in small numbers, especially when it's been dry in its heartlands to the west of here.
I'm always very pleased to see them.
So, that was my 2017 - or rather that's one version of it. As I said at the start, I hope this can prompt you to your own reverie of your natural history year.

Thank you for doing me the honour of reading this, whether you're a regular or you've just come across this. I hope you find your way back to this blog in 2018; meantime, have a happy and exciting start to 2018 - naturally!

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Thursday, 21 December 2017

Christmas Nature

With Christmas imminent, I've put together some totally inconsequential and non-sequiturial Christmas-and-nature-associated images for my penultimate post of 2017. In southern Australia there are several plants commonly called 'Christmas Something' because of their summer flowering. (There is also a lovely-looking Christmas Orchid Calanthe triplicata, found on the eastern Australian coast and far beyond, through south-east Asia and across the Indian Ocean, but I've never had the pleasure.)
New South Wales Christmas Bush Ceratopetalum gummiferum, family Cunoniaceae.
(Actually I think it's more of a tree, but that's just me.)
It is found in rainforest gullies in New South Wales north and south of Sydney.
The flowers are actually small, inconspicuous and white, but after they're pollinated they
disintegrate and the hitherto non-obvious sepals grow and turn red; surely this is associated
with seed distribution, but I can't discover what animal is being attracted.
It really seems that we don't know.
The earliest use of the name Christmas Bush for this plant (according to the Australian National Dictionary) was in 1838 in a series of essays entitled The Australian Sketch Book by 18 year old James Martin, who went on to serve in the NSW parliament, and later as Chief Justice. However as far as I can discover, there are no newspaper references to the name for another nearly 20 years. This is puzzling as Martin had noted that the tree was already becoming scarce near towns due to excessive cutting for domestic use at Christmas time. I found this illustration on the website of the Australian National Botanic Gardens, but when I tried to find the original (in the Sydney Mail of 23 December 1882 as cited on the site) I failed utterly, then or in any December issue. It seems that the reference is incorrect, but I can't do better. 
The description on the web site is: "A boatload of Christmas Bush (Ceratopetalum gummiferum) being rowed towards Sydney for sale in the markets." It's a huge load for just one consignment!
This one really is limited to the state of its name, unlike Victorian Christmas Bush Prostanthera lasianthos, which is found in mountain forests right up through New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory to southern Queensland, and in Tasmania. It's in Family Lamiaceae, which also includes many of the Mediterranean culinary herbs; like them most Prostantheras (also known as mint bushes) have aromatic foliage, presumably to deter munching insects.
'Victorian' Christmas Bush, Namadgi National Park, near Canberra.
It's often explained that the profusely flowering prickly shrub Bursaria spinosa (Family Pittosporaceae) is known as Christmas Bush in Tasmania, but I grew up in Adelaide also calling it that. Unlike the previous two species it grows in dry forests, where there often isn't much else out in mid-summer; it is hugely attractive to native insect pollinators.
Bursaria spinosa (also known as Blackthorn and Sweet or Prickly Bursaria, among other names)
Namadgi National Park.

Fiddler Beetles Eupoecila australasiae enjoying a romantic dinner of Bursaria spinosa pollen,
Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
In Western Australia there is no doubt that Christmas Tree refers to a spectacular endemic tree which produces great golden candles of flowers in December in woodlands and heathlands throughout the south-west. It's a root parasite, in the same family as the mistletoes, Loranthaceae, but rather than take nutrient from just one host, its roots tap into those of numerous other plants in its vicinity.
WA Christmas Tree, Torndirrup NP; unexpectedly this one was flowering in September.
Another well-known eastern Australian 'Christmas' plant is actually a genus of four species of lilies, known as Christmas Bells. They are the sole members of the family Blanfordiaceae. They too were widely harvested as Christmas decorations; now they're cultivated for the purpose.
Blandfordia nobilits, Currarong, south coast New South Wales.
Plants however don't have a monopoly on the Christmas tag. A Christmas Beetle can be any of some 35 Australian big glossy scarab beetles in the genus Anoplognathus, which appear, sometimes in large numbers, browsing on eucalypt foliage around Christmas time. They are very attractive animals indeed.
Anoplognathus montanus (I am almost certain), Canberra.
I don't normally feature dead animals here, but this recently deceased Beetle which I found just outside my study, is too glorious not to enjoy, from two angles! At the time of posting I hadn't been able to identify it - and my friend Suzi Bond has since pointed out that this is because it's not actually a Christmas Beetle, but a Golden Stag Beetle Lamprina aurata. Nonetheless I'll let it stay, because I'm sure I'm not the only one to have made that mistake and it's still very aesthetic and it's Christmas!

There is also an attractive and at times abundant little spider widely known as Jewel Spider, but also often as Christmas Spider, as that's when it makes itself conspicuous. It's a member of the family of orb-weavers, but unlike most of its relations it doesn't eat its web each morning to re-spin at night, but leaves it up permanently. Moreover it is strongly colonial so the conglomeration of webs can be a hazard for bush-walkers! Obviously they don't want great clumsy bipeds (or even quadrupeds) barging through them, so they 'tag' them with little silk tufts to make them more visible.

Christmas or Jewel Spider Austracantha minax, Canberra; it is the only member of its genus.
This is a female, with orange or yellow legs; males have black legs.
Finally, what about 'Christmas' places? Christmas Island would be an obvious one, but I've not been there. A less well-known site is Christmas Rock, just outside the wildflower-lovers' mecca of Wongan Hills in the wheatbelt of north-east of Perth, Western Australia. Let's end this pleasant meander with a stroll around the rock.

Salmon Gum Eucalyptus salmonophloia.

One-sided Bottlebrush Calothamnus quadrifidus, Myrtaceae.

Raspberry Jam Wattle Acacia acuminata, named for the delicious scent of the freshly cut wood
(not that I've ever tried doing so!).

Boronia sp.
Solanum sp.
Pink Candy Orchid Caladenia hirta. I'm not sure about this name, not least because we don't use the term 'candy' in Australia!
And that will do for this piece of frippery. I can only hope you've got some pleasure out of it, and that however you mark Christmas, you'll be able to find time to enjoy some of the natural world too.

I'll see you (I hope) once more this year, for my now traditional last day photo summary of the year.

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Thursday, 14 December 2017

Animals Through Ancient Eyes; southern hemisphere art sites

In Peru recently, primarily looking at natural history, we also saw some remarkable art sites, all centuries old and representing the work of cultures now gone, though some of their descendants certainly live on. All were fascinating, some were truly spectacular, and it occurred to me that it might be interesting to put those photos, and others, together in a post featuring images of animals as depicted by people who were entirely uninfluenced by European art or science. I make no claims to the least scintilla of expertise in anthropology or art - my aim here is simply to share and celebrate some of the images, all from the Southern Hemisphere, all in situ, and all created by people who lived and died before contact with Europeans, that I've been lucky enough to see and enjoy. (Actually in a couple of cases there was slight overlap while the art was still being produced - eg in the Top End of Australia, and the Inca Empire centred on Peru - but the principle stands.) In each case, there is plenty of readily available on-line information on the cultures if you want to explore further.

The post covers three continents (albeit without much depth), and at least half a dozen cultures; in popular writing indigenous Australians are usually referred to as one culture, but I'm not sure how valid that is. It doesn't matter much in this context anyway. 

Undoubtedly the most dramatic animal depictions I've seen, at least in terms of scale, are the famed Nazca Lines of the southern desert hinterland of Peru, which are so vast that they can only be properly appreciated from the air, though some can be recognised from nearby hills. Indeed they were only 'discovered' in the 1930s by commercial pilots. (There are also many geometric shapes, which are even larger.) There is a whole industry based on flying visitors over the remarkable art gallery, with several flights a day, from a surreal modern airport terminal at Pisco which is a vast empty barn, save only for the little Nazca flight desk. It was built in 2015 as a backup to Lima airport, 230km to the north; in its own way it's as mysterious as the Nazca Lines, but I found the lines a lot more interesting and aesthetic. As to how they designed and why they were formed, we don't know, but you can spend a rainy afternoon reading lots of ideas, some fascinating, some profoundly weird.

Spider Monkey. This image is some 95 metres wide; try and imagine how you'd go about 'drawing' the outline
working only at ground level. These animals certainly didn't live in the desert; the nearest ones were
(and are) hundreds of kilometres to the east, in the Amazon forests.
The loss of the top of the tail is symptomatic of damage from tracks and other interference, mostly unintentional - they are simply too vast to recognise from the ground. Access is now strictly forbidden, though recent squatter incursions are also cause for concern. 

The Nazca people apparently lived from 2500 to 1500 years ago. The lines were constructed by moving the red iron oxide surface gravel to expose the pale under-layer. (In the photos, the red has been distorted by the tinted plane windows.) This could only work in a landscape where it virtually never rains, and winds are rare. Here are some more.

Spider, 45 metres long. Its accuracy and complexity astonishes me.
Supposedly a condor, though the proposal that it's a mockingbird is, I think, equally plausible.
One of the largest of the animal geoglyphs, this is a mighty 135 metres long and wide.
Another slightly ambiguous bird; sadly perhaps half has been destroyed. It is generally believed to be a parrot,
which I find convincing, but a pelican has also been suggested.
Another one of uncertain identity, though the long neck has led to it being interpreted as a heron.
It is huge, nearly 300 metres long.
Not much doubt here - this is a beautiful hundred metre-long hummingbird.
This magnificent whale was perhaps my favourite, but maybe only because it was the first one we saw.
I'm uncertain as to the nature of the broad line unfortunately running through the art work.
The Nazca were people to whom the sea was crucial; there is no evidence that they hunted whales,
but they would certainly have seen them from shore, and probably found the occasional one beached.
And plants feature too, though not many.
A complex tree; fortunately the highway just missed it! A service station is almost alongside,
with a viewing platform at the top of the photo, below the road.
The only similar work I've seen (though others certainly exist) are the great geoglyphs of the imposing Atacama Desert in northern Chile, some 800km to the south. Some were made in similar fashion to the Nazca lines, but others comprise polished stones piled on the desert 'canvas'. Overall they cover a much bigger area and mostly occur along east-west trade routes. Individual ones are perhaps smaller than most of the Nazca creations, but they often occur in groups. The tradition seems to have been begun by the Tiwanaku and probably continued by the Incas, but this is uncertain. It is unsurprising that camelids - llamas and alpacas for instance - feature heavily. The ones we saw were placed on hillsides to be visible to anyone passing by.

A whole hillside of  'dug out' geoglyphs near Iquique. In the centre is a large camelid.
To its left may be a Puma.
 Further north, near Arica close to the Peruvian border, are striking forms made by piling rocks.
A whole herd of camelids across the hillside; detail below.

Camelids formed more simply, perhaps by a different culture from the others?
To the left here is a bird, which I suggest could well be a flamingo.
In the north of Peru, on the desert coast, the Moche culture thrived from some 1900 to 1300 years ago. In recent times important work has been done excavating their huge mud-brick pyramids which formed the tombs of rulers. The exquisite sculptures and jewellery which were buried with them are now displayed in museums where photography is forbidden, but the tombs themselves display superb animal art, including remarkably preserved wall paintings and friezes, oft-repeated series made of clay, standing out from the walls. Many of the paintings are of patterns or gods, but not all.
Readily recognisable Andean Condors from the El Brujo complex north-west of Trujillo.
This complex of excavated pyramid tomb and museum is better known as the resting place of
the 'Lady of Cao', an unexpected female ruler.
Much larger is the extensive complex of Chan Chan, near Trujillo, the capital of the Chimú culture (which lasted from 1150 years ago for 600 years until they were subjugated by the Incas) and the largest pre-European city in South America.

The site is being excavated and preserved, but visitors are admitted with supervision. Ocean themes feature heavily, as befits a culture living near a desert coast.

Part of one of the internal walls (with just enough of people to provide scale) above,
and a small part of the excavation, below.


Fish frieze (which continues for some distance).

More seabirds, but I'm less confident of identifying these.
Sealife doesn't entirely dominate however. 
I do like these squirrels, which continue for many tens of metres.
Much further east, high in the Andes, is the mighty walled city of Kuélap, built 1500 years ago on a limestone ridge above the Utcubamba River, 3000 metres above sea level. Many of the structures are still substantially intact, and some stone artwork survives, including this head.
The walls of mighty Kuélap from below.

This bas-relief head is believed to represent a Puma.
I have seen little ancient art in situ in Africa, but one site which made a lasting impression on me was at Twyfelfontein in Damaraland of northern Namibia. Here beautiful engravings have been etched into the sandstone surfaces by generations of San shamans working, as far as I am aware, without metal. They are believed to be 6000 years old, and possibly up to 10,000 years, and it is regarded as among the largest and most significant rock art sites in Africa. These images are scans of slides taken in 2003.
Giraffe - though the depictions are so good that they hardly need explanation.

To the left of this giraffe's forefoot is a rhinoceros, and beyond is probably a herd of zebras.
The Lion however is very curious. With prey in its mouth, it has clearly five toes on each foot, though
a Lion has only four, as the artist would well have known. This is apparently a human (presumably the shaman)
in Lion form. Moreover the tail tip is also in the form of a paw print!

Ostriches and hoof prints, which our local guide confidently said are those of Kudus.

Wildebeest herd, and another giraffe.
Which brings us back to Australia, where indigenous rock art sites are known from across the country. Most, though not all, feature animals, painted with natural pigments, especially clay and ochre, on sheltered walls of caves and overhangs, especially on sandstone. Some may not be photographed for cultural reasons, but many may. Here are a few. In southern Australia the direct cultural line to the old artists has been largely lost, but not in the north, where paintings are often renewed, under strict cultural laws.

South of Canberra, in Namadgi National Park in the mountains, there are some surviving artworks, usually ascribed to Ngunnawal or Ngambri artists. One such, readily accessible, is at Yankee Hat; here the canvas is granite.
The Yankee Hat site under a huge granite overhang, at the foot of a hill overlooking a
broad grassy valley (a natural frost hollow).

Central is a figure which could be either a turtle or Echidna, above a kangaroo,
which is seemingly being harassed by two small Dingoes.

To the right could be a Dingo; the two figures to the left are probably human.
Much of Australia's best-known indigenous art sites however are in the Northern Territory, where culture is alive and well. One such is in central Australia, in Emily Gap/Nthwerrke in the MacDonnell Ranges east of Alice Springs. It represents Yeperenye, part of the 'caterpillar dreaming' of the eastern Arrernte people. (I've put the phrase into parentheses only to indicate that any attempt to translate such complex concepts can only be approximate.)
Some of the 'caterpillar dreaming' art, Emily Gap/Nthwerrke, above and below.

Further north, in the sandstone country, are even better-known sites, with lots of less-famed ones.
Wall art, featuring a kangaroo, in the main gorge, Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) National Park.
Further north still are the wonderful sites of Kakadu National Park, especially at Burrungkuy (long known erroneously as Nourlangie Rock) and Ubirr, land of the Bininj/Mungguy people.
It is inevitable that kangaroos, a key part of many traditional Australian economies, will feature heavily.
This example is at Burrungkuy.
But the most magnificent of the accessible art sites in Kakadu is undoubtedly that at Ubirr, a complex of sandstone sites around one main gallery overlooking the Nadab flood plain of the East Alligator River.
The main art site at Ubirr, from above, looking out over the floodplain.
The floodplain's resources inspire many of the subjects. Most of these paintings are around 2,000 years old, though some have been renewed according to custom. You'll probably get more out of these if you click on them to enlarge.
Stingray; there are apparently several species, not all described, of freshwater stingrays in the rivers.

I'm sure someone more familiar than I with the Top End fish could identify this one.
Barramundi, almost certainly.
It was normal practice for later artists to paint over the work of earlier ones.
I interpret this as a Magpie Goose; both birds and eggs were highly important food sources.
I could offer more, but I think this is enough for one sitting.

As I said at the start, this is way outside of my field of competency, but I trust that simply enjoying some lovely images - ie those of the artists, not mine - has been enough. Thanks for reading this far.

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