About Me

My photo
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, 25 January 2017

Nature in a Warming World

Last week there was great excitement in our part of the world when a pair of Tawny Grassbirds Megalurus timoriensis turned up at Jerrabomberra Wetlands, our prime suburban wetland in a city which is now very well-provided with such habitats.
Tawny Grassbird, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra; a newcomer moving south.
This is a notable southern and inland extension of their range from that in the field guides, which is normally regarded as coming to just south of Sydney, some 200km from here and on the coast. Individuals of any species can pop up out of range, especially following unusual weather conditions, but I’m not sure that this is the case here. In the last couple of years (but never before that) there have been at least three reports from Melbourne, on the south coast of Victoria some 600km further south again from here; I would expect that this species, if it were expanding its range, would be more likely to follow the coast rather than move inland. Moreover it is unlikely that they only selected Melbourne and Canberra over all the possible non-urban sites in areas between – it is simply that these are places with lots of bird watchers and I am sure that the bird could, and will, be found in many other places where they used not to be. The Tawny Grassbird is a skulker in dense undergrowth, and I expect (with no expertise) that outside of breeding season it is fairly quiet.

No, I am surmising that this is a response to climate change, pushing or encouraging warmer climate birds further south (as is happening in reverse in the Northern Hemisphere). 

Less than 20 years ago the Pacific Koel Eudynamys orientalis, a big dimorphic parasitic cuckoo which overwinters in Indonesia and New Guinea and breeds in northern and eastern Australia, was a very rare phenomenon indeed in Canberra, though the odd one would occasionally overshoot and lob up here for a while. Within the space of a few years it became a more and more common occurrence, until now it is a part of our urban soundscape (one is calling outside as I write). People have almost even given up writing to the paper to complain about its 24 hour a day strident serenade! They now breed here annually. There is no plausible explanation for this other than climate change. 
Pacific Koel; male (above) and female (below).

Another large cuckoo, the Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae, has a very similar distribution and annual movements. It is still rare in the ACT (ie I’ve never seen one here yet! though a couple of weeks ago I heard one fly raucously by outside) but it too is getting commoner each year, and I judge that they will also be breeding here in years to come. 
Channel-billed Cuckoo, Karumba, north Queensland.
White-headed Pigeons Columba leucomela have steadily extended their range south from the mid-south coast of New South Wales well into Victoria in the past decade or so, though there is no doubt that part of their enablement has been the spread of exotic food trees like Camphor Laurel Cinnamomum camphora and Privet Ligustrum spp. However, the Camphor Laurel in particular is probably also being assisted to move south by the warming – nature is infinitely subtle.
White-headed Pigeon, Nowra, New South Wales south coast.
As we well know however birds are not the only organisms known to be moving in response to a warming world. A wide-ranging CSIRO study in 2010, utilising a broad array of published and unpublished data, showed that at least 45 species of south-east Australian marine fish have exhibited “major distributional shifts” which were almost certainly climate-related. Warmer water fish from both further north and west have moved into formerly cooler Tasmanian waters, inevitably displacing local species. 

Nor is it even just animals. In a remarkable study begun in 2003 in the Manu Biosphere Reserve in the Peruvian Andes east of Cusco US ecologists Miles Silman and Ken Freeley banded and measured 14,000 trees of 1,000 species in 14 plots covering 2,400 metres of altitude. After repeat measurements they discovered that an astonishing 85% of tree genera were moving upslope in response to warming at a rate of 2.5 to 3.5 metres per year. Perhaps the most pertinent aspect of this however is that the authors estimate that this rate would need to double for the trees to keep pace with the observed warming. (The link above will take you only to an abstract unless you're a subscriber; see here for an overview.)

Cloud forest, Manu Biosphere Reserve, in the area that Silman and Freeley are monitoring.
Studies of 175 plant species in six French mountain ranges similarly showed that 118 of them – nearly 70% – had moved at least 18.5 metres (ie 60 feet) up the slope per decade over the twentieth century.

And here of course is the rub; once the Tasmanian cool water fish reach the southern limits of that island (these are coastal waters fish, they can’t just swim out to sea), and the Manu trees reach the treeless puna, the high cold treeless mountain steppes, there is nowhere further to go. It is the same dilemma facing Polar Bears in the Arctic and Mountain Pygmy-Possums on the top of the south-east Australian Alps.

But this isn’t the only observed forced reactions of species; there are numerous data sets concerning changes in phenology characters – that is cyclical, especially annual, events such as breeding and migration. As far back as 2003 a wide-ranging review in the prestigious journal Nature revealed “significant mean advancement of spring events” by 2.3 days per decade. Five years later the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2007 report reported that the arrival of spring had been advanced by up to 5.2 days per decade over the past 30 years. Examples cited ranged from first and last appearance of leaves on Gingkos (G. biloba) in Japan, to butterfly emergence in Britain, to bird migration in Australia. 

Gingko leaves, Canberra.
A wide-ranging Australian review, published in 2013, of 89 studies of 347 plant and animal species showed even stronger responses for plants here than in the Northern Hemisphere; the mean rate of advance across all plant responses (leaf set, fruiting, flowering etc) was 11.3 days per decade! Spring migration departure of birds moved forward by 2.2 days per decade (slower than for the Northern Hemisphere, where it was 3.7 days per decade). I mentioned in a recent post how peak flowering of a dominant sub-alpine shrub in the Brindabella Ranges above Canberra has shifted over the 30 years I’ve been taking people up there from about a week into December to late November.
Leafy Bossiaea B. foliosa, Mount Ginini, Namadgi National Park, near Canberra.
Over the past 30 years I have seen the average peak flowering of this pea shrub advance by nearly two weeks.
One of the problems with this is that, naturally enough, each species has a slightly different response to the changes, so that finely-tuned systems are no longer functioning as they evolved to do. Bird chicks are hatching before their key caterpillar food supply does, migratory birds including hummingbirds are arriving before or after the flowers they pollinate are open. In the high alps of south-eastern Australia the already Endangered Mountain Pygmy-Possum Burramys parvus emerges from its hibernation with the snow melt – which is getting earlier each year. Unfortunately the great Bogong Moth migration to the high cool granite crevices of the alps is not getting earlier, which leaves the hungry emerging possums without a key food source.

There are thousands of such phenological studies available, in full or in abstract, or in third-party reports, out there if you’re interested.

In recent times a third general response has been suggested, and demonstrated. While obviously there are always multiple factors acting on the life and evolution of any given organism, we know that in general body size of a given species is likely to be smaller in populations further from the poles – ie in warmer climes. This is known as Bergmann’s Rule and the basis of it is that a smaller object (be it bird, or ball or human baby) has a proportionately greater surface area than a larger one, and thus loses heat faster. We know this for populations of the same species at different latitudes, but what about the same species at the same latitude as climate changes – ie the environment gets steadily warmer? A treasure trove of such data is held in museum specimens throughout the world.

Janet Gardner of the Australian National University, and colleagues, measured 517 museum skins of eight insect-eating birds, collected over 140 years from 1869 to 2001. Six of the species showed a decrease in size since 1950, four of them being statistically significant. The overall impact for those four bird species is that individuals living now at the latitude of Canberra are the size that members of their species were pre-1950 at the latitude of Brisbane (ie 7 degrees of latitude). This I find very striking. Nor is it simply academic - a change in size of even just 4% (as measured in wing lengths by the study) can affect what a bird eats, and thus what it it competing with and must thus further adapt to.
Birds that are getting smaller as temperatures rise.
Brown Treecreeper Climacteris picumnus, Canberra (above);
White-browed Babbler Pomatostomus superciliosus Shark Bay, Western Australia (below).

Nature, as I have observed before, is never as straightforward as our little brains might like. More recently apparently conflicting results from those of Gardner’s team were obtained from south-west Western Australia for wing-lengths of Ringneck Parrots Barnardius zonarius (‘Twenty-eights’, for their call, as the sub-species is known over there), which had increased by 4-5mm over the past 45 years. Tellingly, birds from further north in the state, and from the Western Australian eastern deserts, where temperatures haven’t risen as much, show no such increase. The change is as significant as those of Gardner’s were, but in the opposite direction. There is no reason to suppose however that all species in all situations will respond identically to similar situations, and the author suggests that the parrots might be growing longer wings to assist in heat dispersal, in accord with Allen’s Rule.  
Twenty-eight Parrot, Cervantes, Western Australia.
Longer wings to stay cool?
Only ten years ago such responses to climate change were only guessed at, and there will be more surprises to come. One such, which has no obvious explanation for now, is the case of the Eurasian Scops Owl Otus scops, which comes in two colour forms, dark-reddish and pale-reddish (and intermediates). Italian museum studies showed that the proportion of dark-red forms increased significantly over the last century. Some of that was due to unknown causes (perhaps an increase in Italian forests over that time, where being darker could be advantageous, suggest the authors) but the rest is apparently down to climate change. At this stage the best explanation is that the gene for dark-red is linked to one that confers an advantage in a warmer world, but so far we can only speculate.
Eurasian Scops Owl, pale-reddish and dark-reddish forms.
Illustration taken from Handbook of the Birds of the World, which refers to them as
grey-brown and rufous-brown morphs.
I am no more interested in arguing about the reality of climate change than I am in debating whether gravity exists or if the sky is blue. It does occur to me though that it would be interesting to hear from someone who has chosen to believe in a fabulous world-wide conspiracy of thousands of scientists, to explain how thousands of species of plants and animals were also persuaded to participate in the deception.
(today I posted a day early, as I'll be away tomorrow)

 (And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)

Thursday, 19 January 2017

The Kinabatangan River #2; on the river

As promised last time, this will be a continuation of (and conclusion to) my introduction to the rich fauna of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. What follows is a combination of two river excursions on the same day, one beginning at dawn, the other in the evening. My only disappointment is that we didn't see any elephants, though people do, not infrequently.

As you can see, the primary forest comes right to the banks of the river.

A delightful creek channel off the main river, into which we ventured.
However, as I suggested last time, this is somewhat misleading, as can be seen in some parts where the veil is particularly thin.
Oil Palms coming down to the river; this break in the generally complete forest corridor along the river
is shameful, but fortunately seems to be an aberration.
Overall though the width of the corridor is a little more than this suggests - as indicated by the view from a tower above the Myne Resort, and by the presence of big mammals (including those elusive elephants). 
It was a very rewarding time on the river for wildlife, as well as the sense of being in the forest. The number and diversity of birds of prey was striking (more impressive than some of these pics, taken from a distance in a moving boat).
Grey-headed Fish Eagle Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus. This species is widespread through south and
south-east Asia, but nowhere common. My excellent Borneo field guide (Phillips) describes it
as 'scarce' there.
White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster; this magnificent bird also has a wide range,
from India through to Australia (it turns up here in Canberra from time to time), but is a much
commoner bird.
And from here I'm afraid the quality of raptor photos drops off somewhat...
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela; another raptor found widely in south and south-east Asia,
though there are suggestions that more than one species is involved.
As its name suggests it specialises in snakes (especially tree snakes), hunting over the forest canopy or,
like this one, sitting and watching for movement.
Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. A true goshawk, mostly of tropical forests,
hunting mammals, birds and reptiles by ambush from cover.
Wallace's Hawk-eagle Nisaetus nanus; crests seem to be de rigueur!
From the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo, there is limited information about this bird's ecology.
Its name commemorates the great 19th evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace.
White-fronted Falconets Microhierax latifrons. I hesitate to even share this distant photo, but it's an interesting
bird, endemic to Sabah. Moreover it's the world's smallest falcon; the falconets comprise a group of five tiny
south-east Asian falcons, and this is the smallest of those.
Unsurprisingly they are insect specialists, especially targetting dragonflies.
Kingfishers featured, as one would expect, including one which has become one of my world favourites.
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis. This is a very striking bird, being nearly 40cm long and beautifully
coloured, found from India to Indonesia and the Philippines, but mostly fairly scarce.
That big bill takes crabs, fish, reptiles, frogs, rodents and young birds.
(Sunlight on the lens!) Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting; a beautiful bird
closely related to the widespread Eurasian Common Kingfisher A. atthis.
And this is Borneo, so Hornbills are a given!
Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros. This extraordinary bird, which can be 120cm long, is surely among
the most striking in the world. Found in low numbers through the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo
and Java, it eats fruit and small animals.

Wrinkled Hornbill Aceros corrugatus, smaller than the previous species but still substantial, and with
a similar range. It relies on large areas of primary forest, and is thus declining throughout most of
its range.
The last bird photo I'm offering is purely on the basis of the subject, not the photo. Storm's Stork Ciconia stormi is close to being the rarest stork in the world; there are fewer than 350 mature birds left, with only 150 in Malaysia, mostly in Borneo. It relies on peat forest and riverine forests, which are being cleared throughout its range. I may not get the chance to take better photos of it.
Storm's Stork, above and below.
The river is also a refuge for Estuarine Crocodiles Crocodylus porosus, and we saw some impressive ones.
Estuarine Crocodiles, above and below.
This ocean-going species is found from India to northern Australia.

And of course there will always be monkeys.
Long-tailed Macaque Macaca fascicularis; successful and ubiquitous throughout its wide south-east Asian range.
Proboscis Monkeys Nasalis larvatus gathering in the evening in a tree with good views of approaching enemies,
preparing to spend the night. For a little more on both these species, see here.
And that pretty much ends our tour, as light is falling. I hope you get to the Kinabatangan River - and if you do, I even hope you get to see the elephants!


 (And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Kinabatangan River #1; a fragile treasure

Malaysian Borneo, which I've talked about before in this blog, is very rich biologically, but its natural areas tend to be fragmented and thus are often relatively poor in larger wildlife. The south-east of Sabah is among the wildest areas, and here the forests of the Kinabatangan River are an important resource and are probably the most readily accessible for visitors.
The arrow indicates the approximate position of the lower Kinabatangan River.
South of there are wilder, more remote rainforest areas such as Danum and Maliau.
I am no expert on the language, but I understand the best approximation to the pronunciation is to
separate the syllables, with no emphasis on any of them - kin-a-bat-an-gan.
At 560km long from source to mouth, the Kinabatangan in Sabah is only a couple of kilometres short of being the longest river in Malaysia (which honour belongs to the Rajang in Sarawak). The rich floodplains at the lower end of the river support remarkable concentrations and diversity of wildlife, thought they are hemmed in by oil palm plantations. That industry does not generally comprehend the concept of ‘enough’ however and until the 1990s the modest ‘protected area’ of just 27,000 hectares was under constant threat of clearing and planting to oil palms. In 2006, following the killing of an elephant, the area was gazetted as Wildlife Sanctuary, which gives it greater security. Essentially however it remains a strip of lowland rainforest along the river, within which wildlife is trapped. Remarkably this area includes 1000 plant species, 250 bird species and fifty mammals, including Asian Elephants, Orangutans, Borneo Gibbons, Proboscis Monkeys, civets and otters. 

We visited last year, and our group stayed at the Myne Resort. This is not an endorsement of Myne over any of the other riverside lodges - it's simply where we were booked into so I can't make meaningful comparison. However it was comfortable and with good wildlife opportunities in and around the grounds; in summary I'd recommend it, while noting that other lodges probably have similar advantages. The real focus of a stay along the river is time on the river itself - and I assume that all the lodges provide boat trips. That will be the subject of my next posting; there is enough to say about the wildlife of the lodge, its gardens and surrounding forests to warrant our full concentration today.

Myne River lodge from the river.

The cabin balcony looking out into the rainforest foliage is an excellent place to spend a hot afternoon
between excursions. The flowerpecker photo below was taken from ours.
Early morning view of the Kinabatangan River from the cabins - it's just there!
We arrived in the evening, and were very impressed by the wealth of geckoes on the walls inside and outside the lodge.
I suspect the geckoes themselves put the sign up - the board was certainly more beneficial to
them than to the insects! (And I'm so impressed that they knew where to put the apostrophe...)

Large Forest Gecko Gekko smithii. Despite its name, this beauty was actually inside the dining room.
Frilly Gecko Hemidactylus craspedotus.
I love the camouflage of this beautiful animal; it seems to work as well on the lodge timber as on a tree.

The gardens and boat wharf are havens for many birds.
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker Dicaeum trigonostigma.
This exquisite little bird spent some time in front of our balcony on a steamy lazy afternoon.
It is found from Java to the Philippines and to Bangladesh.
The Asian (and African) barbets are now recognised as comprising a different family from the American ones; all are fruit-eaters in the same Order as toucans. A couple of species were in the fruiting shrubs by the river early in the morning.
Male Red-throated Barbet Psilopogon mystacophanos. (The female lacks the red throat and has a blue forehead.)
Bornean Brown Barbet Caloramphus fuliginosus.
I do love the insouciant scruffiness of this species, compared with the colourfully immaculate
turn-out of most its relations!
I'm also very fond of the pretty little Velvet-fronted Nuthatches which are very busy foragers on tree trunks and branches - and stumps apparently.
This species is found throughout south-east Asia and Indonesia.
While watching the barbets by the river, this magnificent big bee came along; I think it merits being admired from both ends!
Carpenter Bee Xylocopa sp.; my thanks to Susan (in comments) for setting me right!

Perhaps the star of the gardens however was this impressive owl, which fished along the river and roosted in the trees around the lodge by day.
Buffy Fish Owl Bubo (or Ketupa) ketupu. There is disagreement as to whether the four Asian
fish owls belong in their own genus (Ketupa) or with the eagle-owls (Bubo).
Either way they are not closely related to the four African fishing owls.
This big bird lives primarily on fish, also taking frogs and crabs.
Unlike fish eagles or ospreys they avoid getting their feathers wet while hunting.
The only small disappointment was being unable to sight the gibbons which called from the adjacent forest. We did however do a walk in the hot late morning (after a boat ride) and found some other life in the forest.
Looking down the slope in the forest.
Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris, named for its apparent resemblance to drongoes.
There are three other members of the genus from south and south-east Asia, sometimes lumped as
Asian Drongo-Cuckoo, but that approach is losing favour.
They are brood parasites on a wide range of forest bird species.
Plain (or Least) Pygmy Squirrel Exilisciurus exilis. 
 High in a huge tree, this is a tiny squirrel (apparently the world's smallest), with an entire length of
only 14cm and weighing less than 20 grams. It appears to live on bark and lichen.
Sun Skink Eutropis sp.
This genus of Asian skinks contains some 30 species.
Giant Leaf Hopper, family Cicadellidae (I think!).
A terrible photo of an exquisite animal; a plant hopper nymph,family Flatidae.
Finally we did a night walk, but it was truncated by tropical rain; here are a few things we saw before retreating.
A fascinating grasshopper - love the back legs!
Scutigeran, or Wood Centipede.
If you're of its size, you need to be quick to run away from those legs chasing you!
Malaysian Blue Flycatcher Cyornis turcosus roosting.
The blue is actually quite deep, but is distorted here by the light.
A lot of people visit Malaysian Borneo these days, and it is in many ways a superb destination. Moreover, the more of us who do so, the better the chance that the environment will be protected, especially from the scourge of oil palms. When we go to somewhere like Kinabatangan, we are saying that the place is worth money as it is...


 (And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.)