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, 29 March 2018

Tambopata; essence of Amazonia #1

In southern Peru there are a couple of major options for an Amazon adventure, and who would go to Peru without immersing themselves in the vast lowland rainforest? Well, probably no-one who is reading this at least! Manu is perhaps the better-known of these, but another option is Tambopata, also accessed from the somewhat Wild West river town of Puerto Maldonado. (Most Manu expeditions either start or end here.) I've had the pleasure of both reserves, and am not touting one above the other, but I always like to shine a light on possibly less well-known destinations.

Evening cloud over the rainforest in Tambopata National Reserve.
The reserve lodge, Tambopata Research Centre, is run by Rainforest Expeditions, a private company which supports macaw research (in particular) and local community development by ecotourism. The hundred kilometre river trip - the lodge takes pride in its claim to being one of the most remote in South America - takes a good seven hours, and to fit in with flights and avoid being on the river at night, the journey is broken with a stay at their sister lodge, Refugio Amazonas. (This is nice lodge too, and you could stay just here if short of time, but that would be a pity.)
Puerto Maldonado, a town of 25,0000, marked by the end of the red arrow,
is on the confluence of the  Tambopata and Madre de Dios Rivers.

The location of the Tambopata Research Centre.
This magnificent Amazon basin reserve protects 1.4 million hectares of lowland primary rainforest and savannah in south-eastern Peru. It comprises the vast Bahuaja-Sonene National Park (1.1 million hectares where few visitors are allowed and there are no roads), with the 300,000 hectare Tambopata National Reserve acting as a buffer to the park. The reserve was declared in 1990 after a 13 year process of research and lobbying by scientists and community. The national park was declared in 1996. Within the reserved area are nearly 700 species of birds, over 100 mammal species (including Jaguar and Giant Otter), 120 species of frogs, 70 of reptiles and 1300 species of butterflies! It is regarded as one of the most biodiverse regions on earth. (While some of these figures are lower than those for nearby Manu National Park, which is to the west of Puerto Maldonado, that park extends from the Amazon basin up to 4000 metres above sea level in the Andes; Tambopata is all lowland.)
White-lipped Peccaries Tayassu pecari - this photo of part of the herd was taken from the lodge verandah!
However that photo can be a taster for next time, as today I want to set the scene to some extent, and look a small selection of the vast diversity of invertebrate life that abounds, plus a couple of reptiles and frogs - we need to give them top billing sometimes! The mammals and birds can wait until next posting.

I somehow managed to omit taking photos of the accommodation (probably too busy with the wildlife), but you can get some idea here and here. Rooms are very comfortable and open onto the forest - we watched a mother and baby titi monkey from our 'window' - but are not en suite. That has been a feature of Peruvian Amazon lodges, but it might be changing with newer ones.

The rainforest, naturally, is all around.
Early morning in the forest.
Palms are a feature of Amazonia.
The huge leaves of Mauritia carana are in high demand for roof thatching, because of their longevity - they may not
need replacing for a decade.

The distinctive prop stems of Walking Palms, Socratea sp.
Despite the attractiveness of the story that they allow the palm to perambulate to more desirable sites
by means of shedding roots on one side and growing more on the other, it has no basis in the real world; sorry!
I don't really blame guides who are loth to abandon such a good yarn however.
On the other hand nobody seems to have demonstrated a convincing alternative explanation for the structures either.
The genus was indeed named for the philosopher by German botanist Gustav Karsten, for no evident
reason other than his assumed admiration for Socrates
Richeria obovata (I believe) family Phllyanthaceae.
This is what I noted at the time, though I can't recall my source. I'm not so convinced now,
so any assistance would be gratefully received.
A feature of Tambopata is the proximity of what is claimed to be South America's largest clay lick near to the lodge. To avoid disturbance visitors are kept 150 metres from the closest part of the lick, which makes observation more difficult than some others in the region (eg Blanquillo on the Madre de Dios, west of Puerto Maldonado). This is not a complaint by the way, I fully support any measures that are for the benefit of wildlife. We didn't have a lot of luck either; the first morning the birds only came sporadically - it happens - and heavy overnight rain meant that they didn't come at all the second day.
Collpa Colorado, which is 500 metres long and up to 30 metres high.

After heavy overnight rain the small stream rose impressively and the clay was sodden and unappealing
to its clients. The most plausible explanation I've read for the widespread behaviour, among mammals as
well as parrots, is to compensate for sodium deficiency - birds living near the sea seem not to need it.
I will devote a post to it one day.
Here are some reptiles (some in need of better identification; any assistance gratefully accepted).
I think this one is a teid (ie family Teidae) but that's as far as I can go at present.
Green Anole; anoles are in the iguana family.
Yellow-spotted River Turtles Podocnemis unifilis. (The yellow spots are on their faces.)
Engystomops freibergi, family Leptodactylidae, which has a couple of hundred species throughout
South America and as far north as Mexico.
I love the camouflage of this little frog.
And so to the invertebrates, too few of which, almost needless to say, I am able to identify - if you can, please help, otherwise we can just enjoy them together.

As mentioned previously, Tambopata, like all the Amazon basin, is rich in butterflies.
These two, and the next, with only four visible legs (the other pair is tucked up out of the way)
are in the huge Nymphalidae family (thanks Susan!).

Blue moth - in the dining room, but off the menu.
(As you will see from the backgrounds, several of the photos which follow were taken in the lodge -
hardly surprising given that it is largely open to the forest.)
This unfortunate butterfly however was definitely on the menu, albeit not ours.
It was being attacked by army ants, outliers of the main column (below).
The term army ant refers to any of some 200 species which do not dwell in nests, but move in vast
columns through the forest, scouring it for food and 'camping' (or bivouacking) overnight.

I am unable to say why this katydid did not flee; perhaps she had been stung and paralysed?
(The fine antennae and long sharp ovipositor makes this one a female.)
I have had very little experience with army ants, and was expecting much more panicked flight among
smaller animals than we observed.

The rest of the animals in these photos were well away from the ants, and presumably happier than the last couple!
I was told that this is a dung beetle - it could well be, though I have no way of verifying that.
However I'm pretty sure that it is at least a scarab.
Cicada; I'm not sure about the odd blue tinge - I certainly haven't been fiddling with the colours!
Grasshopper.
Katydid (at night in the forest).

Rainbow Katydid (Vestria sp.?); this is a genus of predators.
Of course this and the ants are far from being the only small predators in the forest.
Praying mantis.
A beautiful spiny spider.
One of the ground-hunting tarantulas.
Always, for me, a highlight of a visit to the Amazon; this was taken on a night walk.
And that will do us for today. Back next time with some of the mammals and birds of Tambopata, among which I'll be much more confident in identification!

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Thursday, 22 March 2018

Conifers of the South; #2 the kauris, bunyas and podocarps

This is the second and final part of a series which began here; in a broader sense it's part of an intermittent series on 'favourite trees', links to which can be found in part 1. It's probably worth reading part 1 before you read this, as I won't repeat background material on conifers from there.

Today is about the other two conifer families found mostly in the Southern Hemisphere; indeed we often refer to them as Gondwanan, but in this case we'd be wrong to deduce past distributions from their current ones, or assume that they must have arisen in the south because they primarily grow there now. As previously discussed, the families are all very old and were once scattered throughout the world - today's 'Gondwanan' families only survived in the south. Probably the better-known of the families is Araucariaceae, found mostly in New Caledonia, with species in Australia, Malesia (Indonesia, Philippines, New Guinea and peninsular Malaysia), New Zealand, the Pacific and South America.
Bull Kauris Agathis microstachya Lake Barrine, north Queensland.
Like nearly all members of the family this is a rainforest tree, which is a bit of mystery
given the usual narrative of conifers retreating to high latitudes and altitudes in the
face of the spread of flowering plants.
Bull Kauris are found only on the Atherton Tableland, inland from Cairns, but there are two other Australian Agathis species, including Blue Kauri A. atropurpurea with an equally limited range in north Queensland coastal ranges, and Queensland Kauri A. robusta, which has a curious two-part distribution. One population is also on the Atherton Tableland, the other well to the south and on coastal sands on and near Fraser Island.
Queensland Kauri, growing as an emergent on Fraser Island.
Queensland Kauri, Fraser Island; detail of the beautiful bark.
Like all of the family in Australia, this species was heavily logged in earlier times and, while not as threatened
as the other two Australian species, it is hard to find big trees.
Of the 21 living Agathis there are half a dozen Malesian species, mostly from Borneo.
Agathis kinabaluensis Crocker Range, Sabah, Borneo.
This tree is limited to montane rainforest on and near Mount Kinabalu.
Araucaria, the type genus of the family, has around 20 species, 14 of which are endemic to New Caledonia. However it was named from one of the two South American species, A. araucana, from central Chile and nearby Argentina. The name was coined to honour the people (a sub-group of Mapuche) who inhabit the area where the tree is found. The English name of this species is Monkey Puzzle Pine, for the wickedly spiked crowded tough sharp leaves which cover most of the plant.

Monkey Puzzle Pine, Conguillio NP, Chile.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Two mainland Australian Araucaria species are well-known. Bunya Pines A. bidwillii were once widespread in south-east Queensland, but logging and general clearing have fragmented the distribution to a few mountain refuges, especially the Bunya Mountains. You can find more about the place of the pines in those mountains, and their cultural significance, in that posting link.

Emergent Bunya Pines, Bunya Mountains NP.
Here too the pines grow as rainforest emergents - indeed they dominate the forest.

Trunk of an old Bunya Pine. There are stories that the 'chop' marks were the work of
indigenous Bunya nut harvesters, but they seem to be just stories.

Try to ignore the hat and trousers - this photo was taken a VERY long time ago....
The seeds of this enormous cone were greatly valued by local people in pre-European times,
and even by those further away who gathered in the mountains when the cones were ripe.
Another Araucaria also grows in the Bunyas, though Hoop Pine A. cunninghamii has a much wider distribution, from the north of New South Wales, through Queensland to New Guinea. It is readily distinguished from the Bunya Pines, including in its very small cones.
Hoop Pines, Bunya Mountains (above) and Conway NP, tropical Queensland (below).
See how much more 'spiky' is the crown outline compared with the dome of the Bunya Pine.

Hoop Pine trunk, Bunya Mountains, with the 'hoops' from which its name derived.
Another well-known Araucaria is the Norfolk Island Pine, A. heterophylla, endemic to the island between Australia and New Zealand, but planted throughout a lot of the world as a salt-hardy and decorative tree.

Norfolk Island Pine, Culburra, south coast New South Wales.

Norfolk Island Pine (with Western Corella), Augusta, south-west Western Australia.
The family Podocarpaceae is much larger, with some 100 species in 20 genera, though the majority of those are in the genus Podocarpus. It is centred on Australasia, with other concentrations in Malesia and South America. A couple are found in Africa, and some extend into mainland Asia. One important characteristic is the production of a female cone which resembles a berry, coloured and sweetened to encourage animals to distribute the seed.

Mountain Plum Pine Podocarpus lawrencei 'berry', with the green seed attached;
Namadgi National Park, above Canberra. The name means 'foot fruit'.
Pollen-bearing male cones, Mount Ginini, Namadgi NP.
Many species of the genus are rainforest trees, but Mountain Plum Pine, from the high mountains of south-eastern Australia, lives in the alpine and sub-alpine zones, sprawling low over rocks and surviving under the snow in winter. During past glaciations it was left behind by retreating forests and adapted to the new cold and dry regime. It provides very important animal habitat, including to the Endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum Burramys parvus.
Mountain Plum Pine forming a mat over granite boulders, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales.
 More typical is the so-called Brown Pine P. elatus, of east coast rainforests. 
Brown Pine, Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
The berries will turn purple when the seeds are ready for birds to harvest.
Here is a South American member of the genus; MaƱio Macho Podocarpus nubigenus grows further south than any other member of the family, down to 53 degrees south in Chile. 
Podocarpus nubigenus at Puerto Aiguierre in the Chonos Archipelago of southern Chile.
Perhaps the best-known Australian family member is a single-species genus from Tasmania, Huon Pine Lagarostrobos franklinii, famed especially for its glorious timber, much prized by craftspeople. It is now illegal to cut living trees, but fallen ones - which last for centuries - may be collected under strict licensing agreements.

Huon Pine, mature tree overhanging the Huon River (fittingly) above,
and young trees below along the nearby Picton River.
 
Another Tasmanian endemic Podocarp is the Celery-top Pine Phyllocladus aspleniifolius; other members of the genus are found in New Zealand and Malesia. Its foliage is not at all reminiscent of that of most conifers.

Celery-top Pine foliage, Mount Field NP, southern Tasmania.
Blue Mountains Pine is a dwarf species, with a tiny range and a remarkable habitat. It lives only in a small area of the high Blue Mountains, within the splash zone of sandstone waterfalls. It is the only member of its genus.

Blue Mountains Pine Pherosphaera (formerly Microstrobus) fitzgeraldii, here growing apparently
happily in an artificial waterfall in the National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
And with that we'll wrap up this brief tour of the southern conifers, with the hope that you were able to find something of interest here.


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