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.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Australia's Bird Families; a brief introduction #1

I'll actually be in South America when this comes on line, but you're reading this courtesy of the magic of blogging... Today is the first day of National Bird Week in Australia, coordinated by Birdlife Australia, our national non-government bird conservation and study organisation. A little while ago I was contacted by Jack from the Aussie Backyard Bird Count, a key activity of Bird Week, to ask if I'd like to theme a blog post to support the activities, and of course I was flattered and happy to cooperate. (You can find out more about both Birdlife Australia and the Count here.)

I've decided to celebrate Australia's birds by introducing just one species from (nearly) every family of native Australian birds - in a few cases I don't have a suitable photograph but you'll meet most of the families here in three postings over the next few weeks. (I'm sure you'll notice the gaps, so I won't point them out!) Time pressures in terms of preparing to go away, and the number of families involved (over 80!) means that the coverage will be rather superficial - just regard this as a celebration of Australian birds. And as ever I make no claims to being a Photographer; my pics are definitely illustrations! The names and the order they appear in is as per the IOC list at the current time (though they are in the process of radically updating the order of Orders, as it were). I have placed some emphasis on rarer or lesser known species, but not at all exclusively.
Order Casuariiformes
Family Casuariidae; emu and cassowaries

Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius, Mount Hypipamee NP, tropical Queensland.
The only Australian cassowary (this and two others occur in New Guinea); they are dark
solitary rainforest dwellers, fruit and carrion eaters, with a distinctive bony helmet.
They are seriously threatened in Australia by habitat loss, dogs and traffic.
Order Anseriformes
Anseranatidae; Magpie Goose
Magpie Geese Anseranas semipalmata, south of Darwin.
A strange Daffy Duck lookalike, the only member of its family, neither goose nor duck, but
apparently something older.
Order Anseriformes
Anatidae; ducks, geese and swans
Green Pygmy Geese Nettapus pulchellus, Kakadu National Park.
No these aren't geese either, but true ducks.
Order Galliformes
Family Megapodidae; mound builders
Australian Brushturkey Alectura lathami, Chichester State Forest, New South Wales.
A fascinating group of old chook relatives, whose chicks are incubated in a huge mound of composting
litter, and must be entirely independent from hatching. The female brushturkey, primarily a rainforest bird,
selects her mate on the quality of his mound, but can only lay in it after mating with him.
Order Procellariiformes
Family Oceanitidae; southern storm petrels
White-bellied Storm Petrel Fregetta grallaria, off Lord Howe Island.
'Mother Carey's Chickens' of sailors' lore; this family has relatively recently been split
from the northern storm petrels. The birds are almost solely seen in the open ocean.
Order Procellariiformes
Family Procellariidae; petrels and shearwaters

Flesh-footed Shearwaters Ardenna carneipes, Balls Pyramid off Lord Howe Island.
Shearwaters are great wanderers of the worlds' oceans, completely at home on the wing,
which probably evolved in the eternal winds of the southern oceans.
Order Podicipediformes
Family Podicipedidae; grebes
Australasian Grebes Tachybaptus novaehollandiae on floating nest, near Canberra.
An ancient world-wide group with no near relatives; heavy-bodied divers for food and safety.
Order Phaethontiformes
Phaethontidae; tropicbirds
Red-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon rubricauda, Lord Howe Island.
Until recently placed with pelicans, frigatebirds, cormorants etc, tropicbirds are now given
their own order. They perform stunning synchronised display flights.
Order Ciconiiformes
Family Ciconiidae; storks

Black-necked Storks Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus, tropical central Queensland;
she has the yellow iris. At present it seems that only storks belong in this order (ie not herons or ibis).
There is debate whether the Australian population represents a species separate from
southern Asian birds.
Order Pelecaniformes
Family Threskiornithidae; ibis and spoonbills
Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra.
He is in full breeding splendour. The world's six spoonbill species are distrubuted
across all continents - but only Australia has two.
Order Pelecaniformes
Family Ardeidae; herons and bitterns

Australasian Bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus, McKellar Wetlands, Canberra.
One of Australia's rarest birds (perhaps 1,000 survive), and possibly our least-known large bird.
When this bird turned up at a suburban wetland three years ago, it was the first reported here in
at least 70 years - no living birder had hitherto seen one here.

Order Pelecaniformes
Family Pelecanidae; pelicans

Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillatus, Camooweal, north-west Queensland; landing.
Not only are wings and feet spread as brakes,but even the beak is open!
The only pelican found here, this species has the longest bill of any living bird.
Order Suliformes
Family Fregatidae; frigatebirds
Great Frigatebird Fregata minor, Lady Elliot Island, Queensland.
Perhaps only swifts are more adapted to an aerial life than the superb long-winged frigatebirds
of the tropical oceans. Famed (or defamed) as pirates of other seabirds' fish,
they actually catch most of their own meals.
Order Suliformes
Family Sulidae; gannets and boobies
Masked Booby Sula dactylatra preening on nest, Lord Howe Island.
Large seabirds which dive into the ocean for fish from considerable heights, aided by a shock-absorbing
layer of sub-dermal cells at the front of the body; they have also dispensed with external nostrils.
Order Suliformes
Family Phalacrocoracidae; cormorants
Black-faced Cormorants Phalacrocorax fuscescens and Pied Cormorants P. varius, Lincoln NP, South Australia.
Australia has five of the world's 40-odd species; Black-faced are exclusively marine, around the southern
coasts, while Pied feed both in the ocean and inland..
Order Suliformes
Family Anhingidae; darters
Male Australian Darter Anhinga novaehollandiae, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
A straight sharp bill and long tail help distinguish darters from cormorants. Both darters and cormorants
get waterlogged while diving - it helps them stay under - and must dry out later.
While cormorants actively chase prey, darters tend to creep along the bottom.
Order Accipitriformes
Family Pandionidae; ospreys
Eastern Osprey pair Pandion cristatus, at nest, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia.
There are now two osprey species recognised; they are the only day-time birds which
live exclusively on fish.
Order Accipitriformes
Family Accipitridae; hawks and eagles
Collared Sparrowhawk Accipiter cirrocephalus (with sparrow), suburban Canberra - our own
back yard in fact. Sparrowhawks and goshawks form a formidable subgroup of this huge family
of carnivorous birds; the three Australian species tend to be bird-hunting specialists.
Order Otidiformes
Family Otidae; bustards
Australian Bustard Ardeotis australis, Winton, central Queensland (and isn't there always a Willie Wagtail?!).
Only one Australian species among the world's 20-plus, which include some of the world's biggest birds.
They are grassland nomads, starting to make a comeback after many decades of over-hunting.
Order Gruiformes
Family Rallidae; rails, crakes, swamphens etc
Lord Howe Island Woodhen Gallirallus sylvestris. Endemic to the island, this flightless rail was on the very
brink of extinction in 1980, with only 15 birds left. Captive breeding and elimination of the feral pigs
has made this a great conservation success story. Any wetland in the world is likely to harbour
at least one species of this family. (They're all banded.)
Order Gruiformes
Family Gruidae; cranes
Young Brolgas Antigone rubicunda, near Clermont, Queensland.
One of two Australian cranes, which are both fairly secure in northern Australia (though Brolgas have beeen
largely eliminated from the south) unlike several northern hemisphere species.
And that's enough for today! Next time I'll finish off the non-passerine orders - I do hope you come back for that. Meantime, enjoy Bird Week - and even more importantly, keep enjoying the birds!!

(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 October 2017

Chameleons; the fascinating ground lions

Chameleons are truly amazing lizards, but until a recent trip to Madagascar I'd had almost no contact with them. Madagascar though is the world centre of chameleondom, and you can't avoid them (in the highly unlikely case that you might want to!). The 85 species – every single one of which is endemic to the island – represent over 40% of the world chameleon total (in an area less than 0.4% of the world’s land area), and more are being described every year. 
Female Jewelled Chameleon Furcifer lateralis, Peyrieras.
(All photos in this posting were taken in Madagascar. The animals at Peyrieras were captive,
in a large aviary - or whatever is the term for the lizard equivalent -
containing natural vegetation; the rest are wild animals.)
Their name comes from Latin for ‘ground lion’, though most are arboreal; I'm at a loss to explain the 'lion' part either, though it may relate to the ornate neck decorations of some species. Chameleons all belong to one family of lizards, within the broader grouping that also includes iguanas and dragons, though they apparently separated from those at least 100 million years ago. It has been suggested that, based on the concentration of species there, they arose in Madagascar and spread, but recent detailed work shows that they most likely evolved in Africa and spread to Madagascar on two separate occasions. 
Male Panther Chameleon Furcifer pardalis crossing the road near Ankarana NP,
in the far north of Madagascar.
Like all lizards and snakes chameleons must shed their skin regularly, to expose a new, larger skin beneath.
Unlike most other vertebrates their skin does not expand as they grow.
They are characterised by gripping feet, a curious rocking gait, protruding eyes which can swivel independently, horns or crests on their head or face, a prehensile tail (in most species), an enormously extendable sticky tongue and of course the capacity to change colour.

The foot arrangement is often described as zygodactylous, but that is inaccurate as it properly refers to four toes, with the outer two opposing the inner two (as in parrots). A chameleon has five toes on each foot, flattened and bound together by skin into bundles of two and three toes, an excellent arrangement for gripping branches.  
Panther Chameleons (male above and female below), Peyrieras,
displaying their distinctive foot structure.

Chameleons have excellent vision (especially for a reptile), seeing in both violet (ie the wavelengths we see) and ultraviolet light. Upper and lower eyelids are fused, and the animal sees through a ‘pinhole’ just large enough to enable the pupil to function. They can focus on an insect up to ten metres away – the best magnification of any reptile. Their independently pivoting and swivelling eyes can allow them to focus on two objects simultaneously and have a 360 degree view of the world, but when hunting they focus together to give binocular vision. 
Oustalet's Chameleon Furcifer oustaleti, Anja Community Reserve, southern Madagascar,
watching us through its 'pinhole' eye.
This huge chameleon, arguably the world's largest (see below) lives in the arid forests of the west and south-west.

Female Panther Chameleon, Ankarana NP; her left eye is looking forward and her right
is focussed out to the side.
The 'horns' are in fact nose extensions covered in scales; mostly a feature of males, they form a key aspect of display and mate selection. 

Big Nose Chameleon Calumma nasuta, Ranomafana NP.

Northern Blue-nosed Chameleon Calumma linota, Amber Mountain NP.
Male Parson's Chameleon Calumma parsonii, Andasibe Mantadia NP.
Rhinoceros Chameleon Furcifer rhinoceratus Peyrieras.
(I am almost sure of this one, but happy to take advice to the contrary.)
Short-horned Chameleon Calumma brevicorne, Analamazaotra Lodge.
The prehensile tail is primarily used as an anchor while the animal is stepping across a gap between branches, but we also observed one hanging apparently lifeless by its tail from a wet cold tree early in the morning; by afternoon it had gone about its business.
This is the same Short-horned Chameleon as in the previous photo, first thing in the morning,
still in the torpor in which it had apparently spent the night.

Female Jewelled Chameleon, Peyrieras; presumably hanging on with tail as well, just in case!
Their tongue can be projected to more than twice the owner’s body length (in smaller species), via a complex muscular arrangement supplemented by an ‘elastic power amplifier’ based on energy stored in elastic collagen. The wet sticky tip grips prey strongly; the explosive extension of the tongue is independent of the surrounding temperature, while pulling it in again is slowed down by low temperatures. Prey mostly comprises insects, but larger species regularly take smaller lizards and even nestlings.
Panther Chameleon, Peyrieras, above and below.
The tongue strike is almost too fast to see, and I am nowhere near good enough to catch it extended!
This is the start of the strike.
And this the aftermath - the grasshopper didn't have a chance!

The colour change is often assumed to be primarily for camouflage, but display to females or rival males or threats, and temperature regulation, are at least as important in many situations. The mechanism has only been understood very recently (2015), and works by a combination of surface pigments and underlying guanine nanocrystal arrays. In relaxed mode these arrays tend to reflect shorter wavelength light (blues and greens) but when they are ‘excited’ the distance between the crystals increases and longer wavelengths (reds and yellows) are reflected. In combination with the surface pigments, which can also be dispersed variably, this can produce a surprising variety of colours and shades. 

Here is a series of individual male Panther Chameleons at Peyrieras; they were more or less in sight of each other, so it is possible they were reacting aggressively, though this is a very variable species.

All Madagascan chameleons are egg-layers, but some species elsewhere give birth to live young. 

Madagascar is home to both the smallest (Brookesia micra, less than 30mm long including tail) and the largest (either Parson’s or Oustalet’s Chameleon, both of which can be more than 650mm long) chameleon species. The tiny pygmy or leaf chameleons of Madagascar (Brookesia), and the pygmy leaf or African leaf chameleons of East Africa (Rhampholeon) spend most of their time foraging for tiny insects including ants among the leaf litter on the forest floor. There are over 30 described Brookesia species, but more are being recognised by the year - not an uncommon situation in Madagascar.
Brown Leaf Chameleon Brookesia superciliaris Ranomafana NP.

Brygoo's Leaf Chameleon Brookesia brygooi, Peyrieras.

Minute Leaf Chameleon Brookesia minima, Peyrieras.

Amber Mountain Leaf Chameleon Brookesia tuberculata.This is an immature animal, but still... The skill of the guide in finding this minute creature in the leaf
litter was amazing. I don't usually photograph animals being held, but there wasn't much choice here,
and her hand does give some idea of the scale.

Oustalet's Chameleon lives in the dry forests of the south-west and west, while Parson's is from the eastern rainforests. It is generally agreed that Parson's (which can be nearly 70cm long and weigh three quarters of a kilogram) is the more massive, while Oustalet's is a little longer but more lightly built.
Male Oustalet's Chameleon Lac Alarobia, Antananarivo.
It's a tough gig being a chameleon, it would seem!

Female Oustalet's crossing the road near Ankarana NP.
Male Parson's Chameleon, Andasibe Mantadia NP.
One huge problem in Madagascar is widespread habitat loss, with little original vegetation left outside reserves; this is especially true of the vast central plateau. Populations of many species are restricted to isolated reserves, and it is often unclear if they always had such limited distributions. The tiny Amber Mountain Leaf Chameleon above lives now only on this wonderful rainforested mountain in the far north, as does this species.
Amber Mountain Chameleon Calumma amber, Amber Mountain NP.
I think that chameleons are just wonderful, and I hope you do too. I hope too that eventually I can see some in other parts of the world.
In a couple of days I'll be in South America, but I've prepared three
postings to appear while I'm away, albeit a bit less frequently than usual.
My aim will be to introduce just one member of (nearly) every Australian
bird family over those three postings, beginning on the first day of
National Bird Week.
(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.)