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 January 2018

Sturt's Desert Pea; a desert glory

I've been running an intermittent series on favourite trees for some time now, and was going to offer another today, but decided on a whim to instead introduce my favourite flower - so without further verbage, if you don't know it already, please meet....
.... Sturt's Desert Pea Swainsona formosa, growing here near Broken Hill, far western New South Wales.
This stunning sprawling creeper grows in desert country from the north-west coast
of Australia across to central New South Wales.
Driving through vast outback landscapes at 100kph, the glowing red and black flowers beam from the roadside and grab your attention from the periphery of your vision. They've been doing that for a long time, and surely since long before European settlement of the continent, but they're also associated with several prominent European explorers, beginning in 1699. That was when the remarkable pirate-cum-naturalist William Dampier in the Roebuck (provided by the British government) landed at what is now the Dampier Archipelago in the far north-west, having spent four days at Shark Bay. Here he described in his Voyage to New Holland, &c. (the title goes on for three paragraphs, as was standard) "a sort of creeping vine that runs along the ground.... and the blossom like a bean blossom, but much larger, and of a deep red colour, looking very beautiful". (I've dispensed with his randomly scattered capitals. For more on Dampier, I'd recommend Diana and Michael Preston's A Pirate of Exquisite Mind.)

In the same area (apparently King Bay) the great botanist-explorer Allan Cunningham also collected the plant again in March 1818, in his circumnavigational exploration with Philip Parker King in the Mermaid, though curiously his journal doesn't refer to it; I am relying on Ida Lee's excellent account.

However it is Charles Sturt with whom we always associate the plant, through its common name. It was he who brought it to public attention in his 1848 book Narrative of an Expedition into Central Australia, where he came upon it near the Darling River in western New South Wales. My understanding that he then between what is now Kinchega National Park and Broken Hill. "... we saw that beautiful flower the Clianthus formosa, in splendid blossom on the plains. It was growing amidst barrenness and decay, but its long runners were covered with flowers that gave a crimson tint to the ground." The first recorded use of the name Sturt's Pea that I can find is in the South Australian Register in March 1858, in a report of the Auburn Show.
Arid Lands Botanic Gardens, Port Augusta, South Australia.
The harshness of its habitat is pretty evident here!
Which brings us to the name, and this is not the only plant to have a vexed and tangled taxonomic history. I'm not entirely satisfied that I've fully understood it, but this is an attempt to summarise, without incorporating all the options used over the years. In 1832 the Don brothers George and David, Scottish botanists, rather cheekily coined the genus Donia for it, calling it Donia formosa; it's definitely Not Done to name something for yourself, but they claimed they were honouring their father. There seems to have been little furore, as the name disappeared just three years later when Allan Cunningham described it (presumably unaware of the Dons' work) as Clianthus dampieri. It was generally agreed that he was correct in including it in the New Zealand genus Clianthus, where it remained until 1990, but incorrect in not using Don's species name, formosus. (For a reason well beyond my ken, the species name is attributed to George alone.) Other names were used and discarded, until in 1990 Sydney botanist Joy Thompson asserted that it wasn't after all closely related to the New Zealand species and moved it to the largely Australian genus Swainsona

I have to say that it doesn't look like other Swainsona, but that is neither here nor there when it comes to relationships.
Swainsona galegifolia, near Merriwa, New South Wales.
In 1999 the great Western Australian botanist and iconoclast Alex George agreed that the desert pea is one of a kind and coined the lovely name Willdampia for it. Over in the east taxonomists were aghast - I heard one declaim that the name would be used "over her dead body". Fortunately it didn't come to that, and perhaps unfortunately George's creativity was consigned to history.

To be honest the flower doesn't initially even resemble a pea very much, so the question of whether it looks like a Swainsona is probably rather moot.
The flowers rise in clusters, several to a stalk, vertically from the spreading stems with grey furry
pinnate leaves. The most striking feature is the black-blue glossy 'boss' which grows from the standard,
the big single petal which looms over most pea flowers (see the previous photo).
In the desert pea though, the standard has effectively turned inside out, with the boss projecting forward.
Presumably this is to increase its visibility to pollinating birds. And here's another oddity... I can find not a single reference to anyone observing a bird visiting a wild Sturt's Desert Pea, though all agree it happens. The only pollinating reference I have is to New Holland Honeyeaters (which would not encounter the pea in the wild) visiting flowers in an open-sided greenhouse, where they received pollen on their bellies. A similar desert pea flower - in being red and growing at ground level - is the Upside Down Plant Leptosema chambersii. In the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia recently I repeatedly found the flowering plants surrounded by bird footprints - honeyeaters and woodswallows were the most likely sources, but neither I nor any of my companions on the expedition ever saw the birds responsible. The tracks only appeared around this species in flower.
Upside Down Plants surrounded by numerous bird tracks, Great Sandy Desert.
Often Sturt's Desert Pea occurs in small patches, but after good rains it can spread across the sandy countryside, or cover rocky hillsides.
Roadside wildflowers in far northern South Australia in September 2016.
Although Sturt's Desert Pea grows naturally in every mainland state and territory except Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, it was South Australia which in 1961 adopted the species as its official state floral emblem. 

As for me, it's always an exciting day when we come across this superb flower while driving or walking in the outback.

And if you come knocking on our door - and if you're in the area, please do so! - this is what will greet you.

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Thursday, 18 January 2018

Brazil's Amazing Pantanal; an introduction. Part 2.

This, as promised, concludes the introduction to the extraordinary Panatanal, a vast seasonal wetland, claimed to be the world's largest (it is said to be ten times larger than the Everglades, and 15 times the size of the Okavango Delta). If you missed the first instalment, you might like to check it before you read on, as it contains some potentially useful background which I won't reiterate here. There I also introduced the major dryland habitats and a few of their inhabitants; here I'll dip a metaphorical toe into the Pantanal's water - swamps and waterways.

Perhaps one of the key characters in all these waters is the Yacaré Caiman Caiman yacare, previously regarded as a sub-species of Spectacled Caiman C. crocodilus. The Pantanal population, estimated at perhaps 35 million and growing, probably represents the largest concentration of crocodilians in the world. It was not always thus however; until as recently as 1990 they were hunted relentlessly for the fashionable shoe trade, with at least a million a year being killed in the Pantanal through the 1980s, when legislation largely halted the trade. One of the world's smaller crocodilians, with males rarely exceeding 2.5 metres in length, they can be encountered almost anywhere there is water.
Caimans by a stream, Pousada Piuval.

Crossing the entrance road, Pousada Alegre.

With wickedly sharp teeth and powerful jaws they are formidable hunters; while they do take small Capybaras
and birds, they are essentially fish eaters, and the tonnage of Pantanal fish consumed by them annually
must be extraordinary. In turn they are important prey of Jaguars, and smaller caiman are taken by anacondas.
Caiman with large fish (the loud crunching of scales and bones was macabre!), near Porto Jofre.
As mentioned previously, most of the Pantanal plains flood annually, but we were there at the beginning of the wet season, when temporary pools and swamps were scattered everywhere; herons and other waders could be found anywhere across the landscape, in wet paddocks as well as in permanent swamps and along rivers. We'll start with some birds of the wet open country. Many of these were new to us, a thrilling experience; here are some that we enjoyed meeting, starting with the magnificent Jabiru, surely one of the Pantanal birds for most visitors.
Jabiru Jabiru mycteria, Pousada Piuval.
In Australia the name has long been used colloquially for another - and it must be said, quite dissimilar -
stork, the Black-necked Stork
Ephippiorhynchus asiaticus, for reasons not entirely clear,
though it seems to have been introduced in the Australian context by the sometimes erratic but eminent
English ornithologist John Latham.
'Jabiru' comes from the Tupi–Guarani language group of Brazil.
Jabiru nest, with two large chicks, by the Transpantaneira roadside.
The Jabiru is not the only stork present however; the Wood Stork Mycteria americana is widespread in the Pantanal, and in much of northern South America, and into southern North America.

Wood Storks feeding by the highway.

Whistling Heron Syrigma sibilatrix, Pousada Piuval. This is a somewhat unusual and lovely heron,
with no close relations. We mostly saw it singly.
The handsome big Cocoi Heron Ardea cocoi is probably the commonest heron seen;
here panting in the heat along the river near Porto Joffre.
Unlike the Whistling Heron, which is found only in central east and part of the far north of South America,
the Cocoi can be found almost everywhere in the continent.
Capped Heron Pilherodius pileatus, another single-species genus of heron.
Although it is found across most of the northern part of the continent, we know
surprisingly little about it.
Rufescent Tiger Heron Tigrisoma lineatum, Pousada Arara.
One of three tiger herons, whose relationships to other herons are uncertain.
Plumbeous Ibis Theristicus caerulescens, Pousada Piuval, a large and frankly somewhat manic-looking ibis,
regularly encountered. Traditionally regarded as 'on its own', it is now included in the same
genus as the next species.
Buff-necked Ibis Theristicus caudatus, Pousada Piuval.
Bare-faced Ibis Phimosus infuscatus, Pixaim River.
The only member of its genus, this one was on the river bank, but it is more typically
a bird of open country.
The three species of screamers form a Family of big primitive South American waterbirds, thought to be allied to the equally primitive Magpie Goose of Australia and New Guinea. Southern Screamers Chauna torquata can pop up anywhere in Pantanal wetlands.
Southern Screamer, Porto Joffre area.
They have been widely domesticated as guard birds, where their far-carrying honking shriek
warns of strangers' approach. Here are some samples of what you get from a Guard Southern Screamer
- the first example is as good as any.
I am always surprised at how relatively few ducks (both numbers and diversity) I see in South American tropical wetlands, but there are some present in the Pantanal. Perhaps most interesting are the wild Muscovy Ducks, domesticated by South American cultures long before the advent of Europeans, who took them back to Europe where they joined domestic ducks based on Mallards (an entirely different genus). While the two birds can be forced to interbreed, around half of the eggs are infertile, and the hybrids which do hatch are almost invariably sterile, as we'd expect. Two species of whistling ducks are also present, but are not particularly common.
Male Muscovy Duck Cairina moschata, Pousada Alegre.

Black-bellied Whistling Ducks Dendrocygna autumnalis (the two in the centre, with pink bills),
and White-faced Whistling Ducks D. viduata, Pixaim River.
The latter species, curiously, is found not only across most of South America, but also of Africa -
and they are not even regarded as separate sub-species!
A much more common bird of the wet grasslands and temporary wetlands surprised me - I have mostly before seen Limpkins in rainforest.
Limpkin Aramus guarauna, Pousada Piuval.
This specialist in big apple snails may superficially resemble a heron or ibis, but in fact it is
the only living member of its entire Family.
Then there are more permanent swamps and lagoons, with structured vegetation and generally present all year round (bearing in mind that, as always with nature, there are not really any sharply-defined boundaries in defining such things).
Alongside the Transpantaneira Highway.

Pousada Alegre; here we saw something very special indeed.
We heard the whistling and splashing before we emerged from the fringing forest to see one of South America's largest and most threatened mammals - one that we've now had the immense privilege of seeing in three countries.
Giant Otter family Pteronura brasiliensis. These huge otters can be up to 1.8 metres long and weigh up to 30kg,
though much larger animals were reported before the days of intense hunting for fur across their northern
Amazon basin range brought them to the edge of extinction. Even now there are probably only 5000 left,
though some claim that estimate is way too high.
They are always alert and curious, rearing up in the water to inspect intruders.
With continuing habitat fragmentation from riverside logging in the Amazon, the Pantanal
may be one of their last hopes.
However there is another otter present, about which we know so little that we can't even say whether it too is threatened, which means it could well be.
This Neotropical Otter Lontra longicaudis was fishing in a lagoon right by the Transpantaneira -
good spotting thanks Juan! Though a lot smaller than their giant relatives, a big male can still weigh 15kg.
They are in fact much less dependent on big permanent water bodies than are Giant Otters,
and can be seen crossing open country between hunting grounds.
Another water-dependent mammal which can even more readily be found in open country is far larger still. When I say 'readily', in reality this only regularly true in the Pantanal.
South American (or Brazilian) Tapir Tapirus terrestris, entrance road, Pousada Alegre.
It browses on shrubbery using its mobile snout, and feeds on aquatic vegetation.
The most massive South American land mammal by a long way, it can weigh up to a quarter of a tonne.
Another large mammal is far easier to see (in fact it is impossible to miss!) in the Pantanal. The Capybara Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris is the world's largest rodent, weighing regularly over 60kg and living in large groups. It is strongly associated with water and readily swims and dives, but mostly feeds on land. It is a staple prey - along with caimans - of the Jaguar.
Capybara grazing, Pousada Piuval; its ancestors (which also gave rise to viscachas and guinea pigs),
apparently rafted across the Atlantic from Africa some 45 million years ago.

Capybaras are totally at home in the water, be it shallow temporary pools, permanent swamps, lakes or rivers.

Yet another large mammal can be found splashing through shallow water and reedbeds around swamps, and swims strongly, aided by large spreading hoofs. The Marsh Deer Blastocerus dichotomus can be two metres long, and has sadly disappeared from much of its former range, but can still be readily seen in the Pantanal.
Marsh Deer, male above, Pousada Alegre;
female below, along the highway.

Birds are generally more catholic in their habitat requirements, but some are much more likely to be found around permanent water bodies than in wet open country.
Sunbittern Eurypyga helias, Pousada Piuval.
Only the apparent relationship with the equally enigmatic Kagu of New Caledonia keeps both these birds from being
members of a very rarified club indeed - that comprising birds being the only ones in their entire Order.
Giant Antshrike male Batara cinerea, Pousada Alegre.
This, the largest of all the antbirds, is also one of the easier members of this exasperating group to see -
hence my unusual success here in getting a recognisable photo of one of them!
And finally on swamps, one of the most exciting potential sightings - which in the Pantanal is saying something - lives in and near them;  we were lucky enough to find a big one crossing the Transpantaneira as we were driving out.
Yellow Anacondas Eunectes notaeus can grow to 4 metres long; while not as massive as Green Anacondas
E. murinus, it is still an impressive animal, as this one certainly was.
Which brings us to the rivers and associated gallery forests. We spent a bit of time on the Pixhaim River and in the associated gallery forest, which was rewarding, and much more on the rivers (especially on the Cuiabá and associated tributaries around the area known as Three Brothers) out of Porto Joffre.
Gallery Forest by the Pixaim River. This is where last week's photo of the Cream-coloured Woodpecker
was taken; perhaps I should have saved it for now, but it seemed more sensible to keep the woodpeckers together.
Male Blue-crowned Trogon Trogon curucui, Pixaim River.
I love trogons, and this one is quite widespread, but always welcome!
Black-collared Hawk Busarellus nigricollis, Pixaim River.
This is a very handsome hawk, always around water in the lowlands east of the Andes in northern South America.
However the highlight of this boat trip on the Pixaim was undoubtedly a rare sighting of a notoriously shy and cryptic rainforest bittern known as the Zigzag Heron Zebrilus undulatus, which was patiently coaxed into view, though always in deep shadow of the rainforest foliage. This is the best I could do, but even so it's better than I've ever managed before!
Zigzag Heron, Pixaim River.
Further south, out of Porto Joffre where the highway ends, we spent many hours travelling the maze of rivers, with one main goal, which didn't stop us enjoying other delights on route, especially after our primary aim had been achieved!
Gallery Forest, Cuiabá River.

Female Green Kingfisher Chloroceryle americana.
Yellow-billed Tern and chick. This pretty little tern is widespread on the inland waterways of the continent.

Black Skimmer Rynchops niger.There are three closely related species of the remarkable skimmers (this one and one each in Africa andsouthern Asia), in the gull and tern family, which use their extraordinary bill to
skim the surface of the water (lower mandible only) to snap up small animals by touch.
Pied Plover Hoploxypterus cayanus; this species too is found across much of northern South America,
but is nowhere common and is regarded as rare in Brazil.
Unlike the tern above, it uses the coast as well as inland rivers.
Western Osprey Pandion haliaetus. Previously only one osprey species was recognised, but this
has now been split in two, with this one found everywhere except Australia and nearby islands.
Western Osprey flying. The two ospreys are the only diurnal birds of prey to live exclusively on fish,
in both marine and freshwater environs.
Boat-billed Heron Cochlearius cochlearius is another hard to see (not least because it's nocturnal)
and thus much-prized heron; I count it a good day when I see one.
This southern sub-species is the palest, and very different in colour from ones I've seen in Peru and Ecuador.
What we most wanted to see however was a mammal. Not this one, though it was pretty good too!
Male Black Howler Monkey Alouatta caraya. Howlers are the biggest of the New World monkeys,
and to me their rushing roars are the sound of the Amazon. This species was new to me.
Probably most people who go to the Pantanal do so with the prospect of seeing a Jaguar looming largest in their minds. Mine too I must admit; I've tried and failed for a decade now in appropriate habitat in the Amazon basin in both Peru and Ecuador. The Pantanal however is the world hotspot for Jaguar sightings, and there are some very skilled Jaguar-finding guides and boat operators. (There are unfortunately also others, like the one who sat near us in his boat, talking loudly about matters of inconsequence and sharing beers with his equally loud clients, while the magnificent cat lay in the shade nearby!)

The first sighting we had will stay with me forever. We'd pretty much given up for the day when our excellent boatman noticed, out of the corner of his eye, a head in the water by the bank, partly hidden by a branch. We watched enthralled as the animal scrambled up the bank and into the forest. We'd have been happy with that, but he knew exactly where to go to intercept them (not just one, as it turned out) as they followed the river bank, probably hunting caimans. And within minutes of us pulling up round a couple of river bends, a Jaguar appeared just where he'd predicted.
The first quick glimpse in a gap along the bank. There turned out to be four Jaguars - a mother and three near-adult
youngsters - of which we'd just managed to see the last after the other three had already swum the river
and disappeared into the forest.We'd been so lucky, and other glimpses followed.
Then, pure gold (or rather something much more precious). One stopped right out in the open and stared right at us for several seconds; it was mesmerising and eternally memorable. Not least was it memorable because we had these superb animals all to ourselves, something that doesn't often happen in this part of the world, with radios and cooperating guides.
One of the 'best' photos I'll ever take - not for its technical excellence, I don't kid myself about that,
but for the memory it will always evoke of a moment beyond special.
We went back to our remote riverside lodge euphoric. We weren't quite finished with Jaguars however; next day, thanks to a call from another guide, we found ourselves sitting in a small enclosed lagoon while a big male lounged in the shade, studiously ignoring us (ie four or five boatloads of visitors, including the noisy and incomprehensibly apparently uninterested tourists and guide mentioned earlier). We however were enthralled for an hour. It didn't matter that he wasn't doing anything; he might have done so at any minute, but more importantly lying still and keeping cool is what Jaguars do do on a hot afternoon.
A Jaguar just whiling away a hot afternoon and being himself; ie enthralling and magnificent.
This Pantanal narrative must end there; there is nothing I could say that wouldn't be an anticlimax after that. But the place is all you've ever heard and seen about it, and far more. If you care about nature, and can possibly get there, please do so.

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