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, 25 May 2017

Cairns Esplanade

I confess to having a love-hate relationship with Cairns, a busy tourist magnet of 150,000 people in tropical north Queensland, facing the Coral Sea. It is blatantly commercial, especially along the waterfront, which in the dry season is absolutely crowded with visitors including swarms of backpackers booking tours to the Great Barrier Reef and rainforest attractions and tour groups being herded from shop to restaurant to shop. On the other hand I think it has, with Alice Springs (far away in the central deserts), the loveliest setting of any Australian city, between the forested ranges and the sea, and the surrounds are superb. 

One place I always head to when I'm there is the Esplanade, the three kilometre waterfront backed by a strip of lawn (increasingly being swallowed up recreational developments) and facing either the shallow waters of Trinity Bay or, at low tide, vast expanses of glorious mud flats.

Trinity Bay at low tide, looking out to sea from the Esplanade.
Of course it wasn't always thus - when Cairns was founded in 1876 (as a new port to service the Hodgkinson gold field west of Mareeba, up on the tablelands) rainforest came down to the sea and blended into dense mangrove forests. Needless to say, they were not deemed compatible with the needs or aesthetics of the new town. 
Cairns, at the end of the green arrow, at the base of Cape York Peninsula.
Needless also to say, not everyone sees the mudflats though a naturalist's eyes and, despite the fact that many of the visitors are birders, there have been a series of proposals over the years to 'improve' them, including plans to dump huge quantities of sand to make a beach. Indeed at the southern-most end of the waterfront a big development involving a swimming pool complex has been inserted onto the flats, but at least that is adjacent to an area already heavily developed. In any case, I have no intention today of getting involved in such controversies, especially given that - as far as I know - there are no current proposals that would impose on the bay and its rich wildlife.
Looking towards the Esplanade and Trinity Bay, with the ranges leading out to Cape Grafton beyond.
Of course the tides determine when the best time is to visit, and if you can manage to coincide a high rising or falling tide with early morning you are lucky - even from sunrise there are walkers and runners to vibrate your telescope and discourage birds from coming too close to the shoreline, but it gets much more crowded later. The further north you go along the Esplanade, the further you are from the tourist jungle and the quieter is gets. Here are a few of the pleasures I've enjoyed there at various times; unsurprisingly wading birds are front and centre!
Little Egret Egretta garzetta above,
and Intermediate Egret Ardea intermedia below.
All three of these egrets are the same ones you're used to seeing whatever part of the world you live in.
Great Egret Egretta alba.

Red Knots Calidris canutus, above and below.
These are migrants, breeding in the Arctic.

Great Knots Calidris tenuirostris.This was in May, when the birds were definitely due to depart;
the one on the right in particular is starting to show some breeding red on the wing.
Red-necked Stints Calidris ruficollis swarm over the mud like busy little mice.
Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica probing mud with its distinctive upcurved bill.
Australian White Ibis Threskiornis molucca, a common species which has become
a very successful urban species (to the point of intrusiveness!) in recent years.
This one however seems content with a more traditional lifestyle.
Black-fronted Dotterel Elseyornis melanops; this is a bird of the inland waterways across the
entire continent, but is quite rare on the coast.
Caspian Tern Hydroprogne caspia and Gull-billed Terns Gelochelidon nilotica;both are found across much of the world.
Silver Gulls Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae;this little gull is the abundant gull of Australia (extending to New Caldeonia and New Zealand).
Australian Pelicans Pelecanus conspicillatus;this is reputedly the longest bill of any living bird!
Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus.Not primarily a fishing kingfisher, this one was more interested in small crabs.
And speaking of which...

Orange-clawed Fiddler Crab Uca coarctata, above;
unidentified crab below.
The flats teem with tens of thousands of crabs, sifting the mud for food and providing food for hundreds of predators.

But a lot is happening behind us while we're watching the shore too; there are some big trees on the grass at the northern end of the Esplanade and they attract a good share of birdlife.
Brown Honeyeaters Lichmera indistincta, small and pugnacious (possibly they're constantly annoyed by the
dismissive  name we've lumbered them with), are found in most of Australia except the south-east and the harshest deserts.
They readily adapt to urban living and exotic flowers.

Varied Honeyeaters Gavicalis versicolor are active and noisy all along the waterfront.
This is a closely coastal bird, found from Townsville to New Guinea.
White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike Coracina papuensis, found throughout eastern and northern Australia,
but commonest in the tropics. (Neither cuckoo nor shrike of course!)
Immature Metallic Starling Aplonis metallica.These, Australia's only native starlings, breed in big colonies in summer after which most
fly to New Guinea for winter, but some (and perhaps increasing numbers) stay over.
Very poor photo of an adult below - the eyes really are striking!
Another poor shot of a striking bird; this was taken in May 2006 shortly after Cyclone Larry devastated
much of the nearby forest to the south, driving birds such as
Wompoo Fruit-Doves Ptilinopus magnificus north and into town.
But perhaps my favourite visitor to the Esplanade is a diminutive and exquisite little parrot. The Double-eyed Fig Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma is found in rainforest in tropical Queensland (a subtropical subspecies is apparently extinct) and New Guinea. The name refers to patches above the eye of some subspecies.
Double-eyed Fig Parrots, at just 14cm long Australia's smallest parrot, come to the Esplanade
when the native figs there are fruiting.

The Esplanade. It can be exasperating, and it always seems to be under threat, but I reckon you can't say you've really done a thorough job of bird-watching in Australia until you've been there. 

Sunset on the Espalande mud flats.

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Thursday, 18 May 2017

Pitcher Plants: "the most wonderful plant in the world"

OK, Charles Darwin actually said that about another carnivorous plant, the unrelated North American Venus Fly Trap Dionaea muscipula, but I'm sure he'd have held the same high opinion of pitcher plants! Certainly his contemporary, the equally brilliant biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, referred in The Malay Archipelago to the "wonderful Pitcher-plants". And wonderful they certainly are! In fact I hope I'm about to be able to tell you some new stories that will delight you. When I first came across the pitcher plant story - and at regular intervals since - "what?!" and "really?!" came to my lips with embarrassing frequency.
Raffles' Pitcher Plant Nepenthes rafflesiana, near Telupid, Sabah.
There are some 150 species currently recognised in the genus Nepenthes (the sole genus in the family Nepenthaceae), a number which is rising all the time (eg one book on carnivorous plants cited 70 species in 1983, another expert on the genus knew of 135 in 2012*).
N. chaniana, Crocker Range, Sabah (named for Datuk Chan Chiew Lun, prominent Malaysian naturalist)
was only described in 2006.
You will note that all my pitcher pictures here were taken in Malaysian Borneo, but that's not inappropriate as Borneo - along with neighbouring Sumatra and the Philippines - is the world hot spot for them. The seeds are wind-distributed however, and there are also species (albeit only one to three for each) in north Queensland, New Caledonia, India, Sri Lanka and across the Indian Ocean in Madagascar.

Like other carnivorous plants - and there are at least ten groups of them, all unrelated and thus evolved independently to the lifestyle - they live in situations, often boggy, which are low in nutrients, especially nitrogen. For this, meat is a good, albeit unlikely-sounding, solution.

Pitcher plants are climbers, the key element being of course the pitcher, which forms from a tendril extending from the mid-vein of the leaf.
Fanged Pitcher Plant N. bicalcarata, Batang Ai Reservoir, Sarawak,
in the first stages of forming a pitcher from the extended leaf vein.
N. macrovulgaris, near Telupid, Sabah, showing the developed pitcher attached to the
leaf vein.
Fully-formed, it is an erect bulbous structure with waxy internal walls and a slippery lip around the rim, often with downward-pointing ‘teeth’. There is generally an umbrella-like lid to prevent rain from flooding the trap; this lid, like the rim, is generally coloured to attract prey and often also produces nectar for the same purpose.

Fanged Pitcher Plant at Batang Ai (above)
and Slender Pitcher Plant N. gracilis (below) with fully-developed pitchers;
note coloured lids to keep rain out and attract victims.
Common Swamp Pitcher Plant N. mirabilis, near Telupid.
This is the most widespread of all pitcher plants, growing from China to northern Australia.

Overall the pitcher is indeed a deadly trap for small animals. It contains a liquid produced by the plant with a detergent-like surfactant to reduce the surface tension and prevent insects from floating on the surface and potentially taking off again. The liquid also often contains sugars to attract the prey. It used to be said that there are no digestive enzymes in it (such as are employed by sundews for instance) and that the prey simply decomposes naturally by bacterial action, but this thinking has changed, and recent work has revealed up to 30 different digestive proteins in some pitchers. Moreover there are actually also bactericides and fungicides to reduce 'waste' in the digestive vat.  Nutrients are absorbed by glands in the lower part of the pitcher.

In fact it's time to clarify the loose term 'the pitcher', as the plant usually produces two types of pitcher – stout lower pitchers are formed first and sit on the ground, often with flanges to direct ground insects to their doom, while slighter, often more colourful upper pitchers on vines, illustrated above, form as the plant grows, to attract flying insects.

Raffles' Pitcher Plant lower lobe, near Telupid, Sabah.

Close-up of the above lobe, and of N. fusca (Crocker Range, Sabah, below)
showing the nasty down-pointing 'teeth' round the rim which,
with the slippery waxy coating on the inside wall, make it almost impossible for
a victim to climb out.

Fanged Pitcher Plant lower lobe, Crocker Range, Sabah.
(Compare with upper lobe in first picture above.)
N. ampullaria, Batang Ai Reservoir, Sarawak.
The ground can be covered by these deadly little pots; however while this species readily grows
extensive vines, it is most unusual in rarely producing upper pitchers.
The tendrils of the upper pitchers often wrap around stems of other plants for support.
Raffles' Pitcher Plant upper lobe supported by tendril, Bako NP, Sarawak.
Note the colour variations in the colours of pitchers, even within the same species.
As well as a wide range of invertebrates, the larger species are known to kill vertebrates including lizards, rats and reputedly even small monkeys on occasion. Had Wallace know what was going on in the pitchers he may have been less enthusiastic about quenching his thirst from them! Flowers are produced on a long raceme, with separate male and female plants.
N. ampullaria inflorescence, Klias Peat Forest, Sabah.

To my embarrassment I seem not to have recorded which species this belongs to; Crocker Range, Sabah.
But there are even more extraordinary twists to the tale too, based on the fact that many animals have associated themselves with pitcher plants in roles other than that of lunch! A red crab spider Misumenops nepenthicola lives in the pitcher of several lowland species, diving into the brew to hide among the insect corpses at the bottom when threatened. A bubble of air enables them to stay under for 40 minutes. To escape they secure very fine silk safety lines around the edge of the pool, leading out to the lip of the pitcher. However they also take advantage of the pitcher’s other amenities. The female lays her eggs under the lip of the pitcher; even newly hatched spiderlings dive in to escape danger. And they hunt by hiding under the lip, grabbing the plant’s lunch before it falls in, or even going down and (temporarily) ‘rescuing’ it.
Misumenops nepenthicola. Photo by Nepenthes out There.
Remarkably, quite a few other animals live in the pitcher too, including a species of crab. Some of these, such as some mosquito larvae, are Nepenthes specialists, unable to live anywhere else; such animals are known as Nepenthebionts! Others, such as the spider and the crab (Geosesarma malayanum), are often found there but can live elsewhere and are called Nepenthephiles; the crab tends to roam from basal lobe to lobe, sampling the contents.

Ants are common prey items – but not always. Nepenthes bicalcarata actually provides a living space in the enlarged leaf stem for a colony of Campanotus schmitzi to live; the ants scavenge food from the pitcher, and somehow manage to drag it out again, though the climb of 5cm may take 12 hours. (On consideration, spurred by an astute reader's comment, I do wonder if that was an observation of an accident on the ant's part? It doesn't make much energetic sense.)
Fanged Pitcher Plant, Batang Ai Reservoir, Sarawak, showing entry hole to
ant accommodation in tendril.
The nature of the benefit to the plant has long been unclear, though there is some evidence that plants without the ant colony are more susceptible to weevil attack. However more recent work suggests that the ants help break down the prey and return it to the plant in a more digestible form, as scraps and faeces. Rather than dive for the food, I'm pretty sure they mostly hang around the rim of the pitcher, either hauling in what they can reach, or even nabbing it before it gets to the liquid; by eating on the edge of the pitcher, their valuable debris ends up in the plant's system.

Finally, at least three species of pitcher plant endemic to Borneo are remarkable in that they seem to have moved on from a carnivorous lifestyle, to surviving on the dropping of birds and especially tree shrews, or tupaias, attracted to their specialised nectaries. The lid in these species is bent back, not covering the pitcher at all. Among the bristles covering it are nectaries producing a sugary secretion. While feeding on the sugar, the tupaias sit on the pitcher, into which they are encouraged to defecate. Measurements have shown that the dimensions of these pitchers are precisely those required to fit the squatting tupaia. How amazing is that?!

N. lowii, Crocker Range, Sabah; this pitcher is starting to dry out.
Mountain Tree-shrew Tupaia montana finding relief on Nepenthes lowii.
Photo by Chien Lee.
But wait - amazingly there's even more! I am grateful to my friend, artist Peter Marsack, for bringing this one to my attention in response to my posting. A recent (2015) publication has revealed yet another extraordinary pitcher plant story, in parallel vein to the previous one, this time involving bats. Nepenthes hemsleyana lives in coastal northern Sarawak and Brunei, and was described in the early 20th century but subsequently confused with Raffles' Pitcher Plant until very recently. (In 2011 it was redescribed as N. baramensis, but the original name takes precedence, though N. baramensis is used in key books such as Field Guide to the Pitcher Plants of Borneo, see below.)

It has been known for some time that  Hardwicke's Woolly Bat Kerivoula hardwickii roosts in the upper pitchers of the plant, apparently finding a more suitable bedroom in terms of stable microclimate than it does in pitchers of closely related species. But how does it find and recognise these desirable residences? The answer, it has now been revealed, is that the bats can hear them! There is a long concave surface to the back of the pitcher which reflects the bat's sonar from all angles, so the bat can home in and find somewhere to spend the night (ie the day, in their case). This is known as a strategy by a few South American rainforest flowers, but never for a purpose other than pollination and never in the Old World. But why? Same answer as for N. lowii; the bats inevitably defecate in the pitcher, as a result of which the plants need produce less chemicals to make the water a deadly trap, and produces less nectar and scent. It catches fewer insects of less variety than do other pitcher plants - it really only needs them as back-up.

I continue to be delighted by the amazingness of nature, but the unexpected becomes the norm after a while...

I'm sure there are still many more stories about the fabulous pitcher plants still waiting to be told, but I hope these are enough to go on with for today.

(* Gordon Cheers Carnivorous Plants and Stewart McPherson and Alastair Robinson's Field Guide to the Pitcher Plants of Borneo respectively.)

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Thursday, 11 May 2017

Bwindi Impenetrable National Park

Is there a more alluringly-named park in the world? I can't readily imagine it. Moreover it's one that fully lives up to its implied promise - not least, and most famously, for these!

Eastern Mountain Gorillas, Gorilla beringei beringei, mother and 18 month old baby,
Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park.
The fundamental division of gorillas is not, as is often presumed, into Highland and Lowland Gorillas,
but into Eastern and Western Gorillas (G. gorilla), which form two quite separate species.
In turn each has a highland and lowland subspecies.

Young Eastern Mountain Gorilla, Bwindi NP. There are less than 1,000 of these Mountain Gorillas left,
in two populations. One is in Bwindi, in south-west Uganda (map coming up!), the other is in the nearby
Virunga Mountains of Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Rwanda. Lowland Eastern Gorillas are
somewhat more numerous, and perhaps 4,000 of them live in the eastern forests of the DRC.
(Western Gorillas are much more numerous, with probably over 100,000 left,
especially in Republic of Congo (different from DRC) and neighbouring central-west African countries;
they are still highly threatened, by Ebola, poaching and forest clearing.)

Massive male 'silverback' Mountain Gorilla, leader of the family in the above photos.
I described my memorable day spent trekking for these gorillas some time ago; you can read that account here if you are so inclined. I won't repeat the story today; they are an excellent reason, but far from the only one, to visit this park.

Bwindi Impenetrable NP is in the far south-west of Uganda, in the Rwenzori Mountains on the border of DRC and Rwanda. It lies on the edge of the Albertine Rift, a rift valley which is the western arm of the Great Rift Valley, gradually splitting north-eastern Africa from the rest of the continent. The Albertine Rift is biologically very rich, containing many endemic species.
The end of the red arrow indicates the approximate position of the park, adjacent to the DRC and Rwanda.
The forest was first offered some protection in the 1930s when two blocks were designated Crown Forest Reserves (though I'm unclear just what protection that offered). In 1964 (shortly after self-government) it was designated as an animal sanctuary because of the gorillas. Subsequently other blocks have been added, until its current size of 33,000 hectares, and in 1991 it was given the current name and brought under the direct management of the parks service, now known as the Uganda Wildlife Authority. (Sounds good, and mostly it was, but it was very bad for the Batwa pygmy people who were summarily evicted, without compensation. Ironically recent settlers who, unlike the Batwa, had cleared forest for crops, were compensated.)

Gorilla trekking became a major source of income for local people, and in 1993 the park was added to the World Heritage List for its biological values - it supports 120 mammal species, 350 birds and 220 butterflies. Some of the additions to the park enabled the two forested blocks to be linked by a corridor, ‘the Neck’, Kitahurira, a narrow strip of forest linking the northern and southern sections.
Bwindi Impenetrable NP; the red 2 marks the Neck.
The other numbers refer to places I shall mention below.
(Map courtesy African Adventure Company.)
We spent three nights at newly-opened Engagi Lodge at Ruhoma (1 on the map above), then transferred to Ruhija, where the even newer Ruhija Gorilla Lodge (3 above) had just opened, for another two nights.

My room at Engagi Lodge...

... and the view from that verandah to the Rwenzori Mountains, up which we struggled the next day
in search of the gorillas.

Lovely open-air restaurant, Engagi Lodge; it too looks out to the mountains, with the DRC
just across the ridge.
After the exhausting (but thoroughly exhilarating) day following the gorillas, we spent another on the forest tracks around Buhoma.
An enticing place to walk (even when the rain came later in the day).
Off the track the rainforest really was, well, impenetrable! Fortunately the track meant that
penetration was largely unnecessary.

Raffia Palm Raphia sp., boasting the longest leaves in the world -
they can be 20 metres long and three metres across!
L'Hoest's Monkey Cercopithecus lhoesti, Buhoma.
This lovely monkey lives only in these mountain forests around Bwindi, west into the DRC
and south into Rwanda and Burundi, in female-dominated groups. They mostly feed on the ground.
Northern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris reichenowi;a lovely bird, not done justice by this photo.
Cinnamon Bee-eater Merops oreobates, a mountain species found across central Africa.

Chubb's Cisticola Cisticola chubbi, a species associated with the Albertine Rift mountain forests.
While vertebrates were not easy to photograph in the forest, insects, especially butterflies, were prominent.
Dragonfly, family Libellulidae - thanks Susan!
With butterflies however I may have been a bit more successful, though any corrections welcomed.
Butterflies on mammal (civet?) dropping, Buhoma track.
Acraea sp. (take it as read that there's an "I think" after all of these...).

Antanartia sp.

Euriphene sp.

Junonia stygia

Nymphalidae species.

Pieridae species.

Protogoniomorpha (Salamis) temora.

Cymothoe sp.
Butterfly and fly (probably family Sarcophagidae - again thanks Susan).
The drive to Ruhija passes through more superb rainforest in the Neck (2 on the map above).

However this drive also shows how ongoing clearing for small-scale agriculture is pressing hard against the borders of the park.
The park boundary, near Ruhija.
The boundary is marked by a double row of planted eucalypts - any other markers simply
get moved into the forest, which is then cleared up to the new 'boundary'.
Recently cleared rainforest near Ruhija.
And the culprits in all this? No, not multi-national companies clearing forest for profit, but poor, hard-working farmers in the most populous corner of Uganda. There will soon be little forest left here outside of reserves, and it's hard to see what can be done about it.
This strong young woman was swinging the heavy hoe from behind her back to remove weeds.
While we were there she picked up the baby from under a tree, fed him, then tied him onto her back.
Each blow must have jolted right through him, but he quickly went to sleep.
Woman and children, Ruhija. Anything can be carried on your head!
 Ruhija is a small village straggling along a ridge on the park boundary. There are habituated groups of gorillas here too, but we didn't go looking for them.
Ruhija village on sunset.
The new lodge is comfortable, though it doesn't have the views into the park that the Buhoma lodges offer.
Balcony outside the upper rooms.

The lodge from the restaurant balcony - it's quite a climb up.

My room (before I untidied it!).
Our main activity here was an all-day walk down into Mubwindi Swamp (4 on the map above), through more superb rainforest.
Dawn over Bwindi Impenetrable NP at Ruhija.

Rainforest from the ridge above Mubwindi Swamp.
From here we could hear Chimpanzees calling far below.

Mubwindi Swamp from above.
At about 100 hectares, this is by far the largest level area in the entire park!
Mubwindi Swamp from eye level.
The swamp is renowned among birders as a site for the sought-after African Green (Grauer's) Broadbill, a rare Albertine Rift endemic, but we were out of luck that day. All was not in vain however - and a day in tropical rainforest never could be!
Unidentified tree frog, Mubwindi Swamp.
As we climbed out in the gathering darkness, a huge (for a duiker!) Yellow-backed Duiker, seemingly the size of a calf, dashed across the track in front of us, and a party of gorillas crossed soon afterwards. This was a known habituated group, but only for scientific study (ie not tourists).
Evening, on the way home.
When we left to drive south, we took the road south-east from Ruhija, climbing to 2500 metres above sea level, through the bamboo zone, reminiscent of that in the cloud forests of the Andes.
Bamboos, above and below.

Huge flowering daisy bushes were a feature up here.
Bwindi Impenetrable National Park; roll it around in your mouth and then tell me you have no interest in going there. Could you say that with a straight face?

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