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, 28 June 2018

Sepilok; an oasis in the oil palms #2

Last time I introduced the Sepilok area in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Bornea. With this post I'm continuing that series, but with a fairly brief post, relating to the surrounds of the Rainforest Discovery Centre, which is immediately adjacent to the Orang Utan and Sun Bear rehabilitation centres. 

This is primarily a schools education centre, but the public are welcome. It comprises an excellent interpretive centre and walking tracks through both labelled plantings of rainforest species and primary rainforest. One such walk circles a lake and climbs, via a boardwalk, to a canopy-level viewing tower. Flowering plants around the carpark support a good population of sunbirds. My photos on the whole were disappointing, and some are really not usable, but rather than ignoring the centre I've opted for this short photo essay, covering at least three visits there over two years. 

The forest itself is superb, especially as experienced from the boardwalk and viewing tower. Here are some views of it.

I really can't get enough of tropical rainforest!
The dipterocarps are members of the family Dipterocarpaceae, nearly 600 species of rainforest trees found throughout the tropical forests South America, Africa and Asia, but Borneo is their hotspot. There, you have a very good chance of getting it right by identifying a rainforest tree as a dipterocarp!
Parashorea sp., Dipterocarpaceae, Rainforest Discovery Centre.
Cauliflory on Sterculia megistophylla, Family Malvaceae (formerly in a smaller family, Sterculiaceae,
but in common with the current ways of botanical taxonomy it has been engulfed into a massive megafamily,
with arguably a loss of nuanced information).  Cauliflory ('stem flowering') seems to be a method of offering
flowers and fruit to pollinators and dispersers, though its advantages are not always obvious.
Adenanthera pavonina, a pea family tree, whose flowers are normally way above our heads;
this one was alongside the elevated boardwalk. Parts of the plant have been widely used in traditional
medicine, and there appears to be a fairly sound pharmacological basis to this.
Obviously there are birds present, but as is often the way in rainforests it is not always easy to photograph them. (Still less easy to do so well, though I'd like to be able to have my time there over with my current camera.)
Grey-cheeked Bulbul Alophoixus tephrogenys (at least I'm almost sure of the species, though a bit more
light would have been good). I do tend to  have trouble with bulbuls I'm afraid.
Ashy Tailorbird Orthotomus ruficeps, a common busy little Bornean bird, so named because it constructs
its remarkable nest by sewing the edges of a large leaf together, punching holes and drawing spider web
or plant fibre through them to hold it together.
Female Orange-backed Woodpecker Reinwardtipicus validus. This is a fairly big woodpecker,
and the only one of its genus. He is more colourful.
Eastern Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja. I almost left this photo out, but he is very handsome...
Lower down are reptiles.
Skink Mabuya (or Eutropis) multifasciata.
Malayan Box Terrapin Cuora amboinensis.
But perhaps the most impressive animal we saw there was a mammal, for which we waited until near dark. The following photos give the impression of more light than was actually present - I used a very high ISO and balanced the camera on the boardwalk railing for a very slow shot in torch light. I'd never seen any of the 'flying' squirrels previously, and this one was magnificent. Our guides knew their day-roost hollow, so we just waited for them to emerge.
Giant Red Flying Squirrel Petaurista petaurista.The 'giant' part of the name is not used lightly;
head and body are over 40cm long and the tail longer still.

Giant Red Flying Squirrel against the moon.
After a few minutes it turned towards us and glided directly overhead into the forest, at least 100 metres in the air. It was an impressive finale.

I'll be back next time to complete this celebration of the wildlife of Sepilok.
Sunset over the forest, Rainforest Disovery Centre, Sepilok.
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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Sepilok; an oasis in the oil palms #1

Sepilok is a leafy settlement a little to the west of Sandakan, which is the second largest city of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. The Orang Utan Rehabilitation Centre and adjacent Sun Bear Conservation Centre are major tourist attractions - but I'm pleased to say that this is definitely not the reason for their existence. 

Primary rainforest comes right to the edge of town, which is really pretty special.
Primary rainforest along the track to the rehabilitation centre ,which is within easy walk of
some of the best accommodation in Sepilok.
Once you drive out of  town however, in almost any direction, you realise that the appearance of being in an expanse of rainforest is a facade; the Kabili-Sepilok Forest Reserve, which contains the two centres and partially surrounds Sepilok, comprises less than 4,500 hectares. And on the edges the ever-expanding oil palm plantations are pressing hard.
Just a few minutes drive to the west of Sepilok, the landscape seems to comprise a vast monoculture of oil palms.
But I haven't yet showed you where I'm talking about.
Sepilok is approximately at the end of the red arrow, south-east of Kota Kinabalu ('KK') and Mount Kinabalu,
near the east coast of Sabah.
This post is not meant to be one of unremitting gloom, so let's instead focus on the delights of Sepilok, while always being aware of the threats looming over tropical rainforests everywhere.

It's probably fair to say that most visitors to Sepilok don't do much more than drive into to town from Sandakan or KK, walk along the tracks to see the rehabilitation process, hopefully appreciate the animals and the work that's being done, then drive away again. I think that's unfortunate, because this is a very rewarding destination in itself for lovers of wildlife. So much so in fact that I'm going to spread this account over three posts, to do proper justice to it.

Today I'm not even going to get to the rehab centres yet. I'm going to concentrate instead firstly on the gardens of town, and especially of the lovely garden lodge where we stayed - Sepilok Jungle Resort for the record, but it seems to be fairly typical of others in the immediate vicinity. I'll follow with a fairly brief introduction to the nearby Rainforest Discovery Centre, set in the forest itself, and conclude with the rehabilitation centres.

(A disclaimer; I wasn't particularly happy with the camera I had on both these trips. On the other hand I can clearly hear my mother commenting that a poor worker always blames his tools!)

Here are a coupe of glimpses of the lodge grounds.

Part of the lengthy walkway from the rooms to the dining room.

The grounds, from the above walkway.

The view from the dining room deck.
Bird life in and around the lodge grounds was pretty impressive.
Asian Glossy Starling Aplonis panayensis; this species is widespread and common, but I come from a country
with only one native starling (similar to this one, but restricted to tropical coastal Queensland), plus a couple
of very damaging exotics, so I'm predisposed to liking (and even envying) others' native starlings!
Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis (actually one of the Old World Flycatchers). Another ubiquitous
species in Borneo and beyond, but another I'm fond of. I think I just caught this one as it moved, rather than exhibiting
any particular behaviour (since there was no direct sun it would be hard to come up with an explanation anyway!).
Some of the best birding was to be had from the restaurant balcony, with the extensive pond below and vegetation, including flowers and fruits, immediately in front of us. (And of course it would have been rude to occupy the seats without purchasing a drink.)

Yellow-rumped Flowerpecker Prionochilus xanthopygius. Flowerpeckers are lovely birds belonging to a Family
of some 45 species from south and south-east Asia, and represented in Australia by the Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundinaceum. This is the better picture, but the slightly fuzzy one below better shows its colours.
And speaking of substandard photos, here's another, but justified by its subject, which is both beautiful and very interesting.
Black-and-Red Broadbill Cymbirhynchus macrorhynchos. The broadbills are a group of 15 African and Asian
passerines belonging to a predominantly South American basic subgroup of passerines, the Suboscines.
The group dominates in South America, but outside there the broadbills are joined only by the pittas and the four Madagascan asities. (The New Zealand wrens, of which only one species survives, are now regarded as so ancient
that they form a third subdivision of passerines.)
I find sunbirds a serious challenge to photograph (a challenge which I usually fail, needless to say), but this one cooperated.
Red-throated Sunbird Anthreptes rhodolaemus.I wish I could have shown you her gorgeous mate too, but you'll just have to look him up!
The hanging feeders, which weren't as popular as the flowers this time, did attract other visitors though.
Prevost's Squirrel  Callosciurus prevostii. This one was a mystery for a while - the illustrations in the guides have
dazzling white sides - until I discovered that the north-eastern Borneo race does not... The distinctive rufous
undersides didn't show up up in the dull late afternoon light - they are quite visible however in this
(otherwise forgettable) flash photo.
Perhaps the star of the balcony however was a regular visitor to the pond.
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting. Again widespread in south-east Asia, this little beauty
is one of the fishing kingfishers.
It wasn't always sunny though over the pond incidentally, this being the tropics!

Another kingfisher, which I was lucky enough to get close views of from the walkway, possibly even overshadowed the delightful little Blue-eared however, at least in my mind, mostly because it is so different from any other kingfisher I've ever seen.
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis. Despite being one of the tree-kingfishers, mostly
woodland hunters, this magnificent species spends a lot of time fishing, as this one was.
It is found from India to the Philippines and the Lesser Sundas near Timor.
There was plenty to see elsewhere in the grounds too of course, by night as well as day, though our night walk wasn't as productive as we'd hoped. These two lovelies were pretty much the sole reward for our torchlight stroll. I have no idea as to their identity beyond the obvious, so any assistance gladly accepted, as ever.

Early mornings were more productive, though a lot of the activity was happening frenetically and high in the flowering trees, beyond the capacity of my camera at the time. This is as close to a showable photo as I could get of the numerous sunbirds present.
Crimson Sunbird Aethopyga siparaja. They really are exquisite.
(The species name, by the by, is from a Malay word for an army general!)
Little Green Pigeon Treron olax. Yes, it is little and green and high up!
It was enthusiastically tucking into the figs around it.
Another non-prize-winning pic, but of a very rare bird that unexpectedly flew overhead.
Storm's Stork Ciconia stormi is the world's rarest stork (a dubious distinction it shares with the Greater Adjutant),
with an estimated maximum population of less than 500 scattered in southern Thailand, mainland Malaysia,
Sumatra and Borneo. Ongoing loss of its lowland riverine rainforest and peat forest is to blame.
And lastly for today, one of the most magnificent birds I know - this one was actually in the gardens of the lodge across the road.
Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros, always a thrill and an astonishment.
The function of the incredible casque is uncertain, but it must be significant, as in some
species it can account for 10% of the bird's whole body weight.
Hopefully I've managed to whet your appetite for Sepilok, but don't go until I've talked about the Rainforest Discovery Centre in a briefer post next time. 

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Thursday, 14 June 2018

Bundjalung National Park; great name, great park

Recently we undertook a very pleasant meander through a series of national parks in north-eastern New South Wales (NSW hereafter), not much more than a good day's drive from home, exploring both the wet forest hinterland (including elements of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area) and the coastal heaths and forests. In the process we visited some 27 national parks, though most of these were of course fairly fleetingly; we saw it as a reconnaissance for future exploration. In others however we camped for a couple of nights, including Bundjalung, which I'd like to introduce to you today. In forthcoming postings I'll present a couple of the rainforest parks.
Black Rock Beach, Bundjalung NP, immediately behind the campground of the same name where we stayed.
More about the unusually coloured rock formations shortly.
Today the fairly modestly-sized 21,000 hectare Bundjalung, together with the smaller Broadwater NP to the north and the larger Yuraygir NP to the south, protects a substantial stretch of coastline, well over 100km long (though they are not quite contiguous). If you've driven along the north coast you'll know that much of it comprises a ribbon development of resorts, retirement complexes and giant bananas, so protected coast and the vegetation behind it is a very valuable asset indeed.
Bundjalung National Park, at the end of the red arrow, is on the far north coast of NSW,
not far from the Queensland border. It protects 37km of wild coastline, between Evans Head and the
mouth of the Evans River in the north, and Iluka and the Clarence River mouth in the south.
Black Rock campground, in the centre of the park, is larger than we feel comfortable with. (Well, to be truthful we'd much rather camp somewhere remote enough so there's no evidence of other people at all. That can often be managed inland in Australia, but is unrealistic and probably elitist near the populous coast, especially in national parks.) Furthermore we made the mistake of being there on a weekend when it was particularly busy. However the campground is well-designed, so that individual sites are tucked into bays in coastal shrubland, giving fairly good privacy from neighbours. There are basic toilets, though probably insufficient for a busy weekend, good information boards and walking tracks leading from the camp. (There is also a campground at Woody Head at the southern end of the park, but seems more like a resort/caravan park, and not somewhere we'd ever choose to stay. It seems to have been tendered out.) 
Part of our camp site, looking outward to the road. The clothesline is a nice and unexpected touch,
but was probably a bit superfluous given the double fence line along three sides of the site!
The nearest neighbours were out of sight behind the shrubbery to the left.
The system for determining which parks in NSW charge entrance fees ($8 per vehicle per day, when applicable) seems utterly random. You do pay at Bundjalung for instance, which offers minimal visitor facilities, but do not at Dorrigo (on the edge of the tableland not far away), which has extensive and excellent facilities. Camping (which at Bundjalung must be pre-booked) is another $24 a night for two people. I don't blame the parks service for this at all - they are constant pressure from government to make parks 'pay for themselves' and there is ever-decreasing government support for them, financially and politically.

OK, back to the park itself! This isn't pretending to be an overall coverage of the park - I can only comment on the areas we saw - but it should give you a reasonable overview. Firstly of course there's the beach, all 37k of it.
Black Rock Beach again. The eponymous black rocks, 'coffee rocks', were laid down in a rich swamp
during the Pleistocene (ie the past 1.6 million years). The silty material, rich in dark organic particles,
was later compressed into soft rock by developing sand dunes.
Behind the dunes are swathes of lovely heathland, alight with banksia flower when we were there.
Heathland near the campground.
Wallum Banksia B. aemula; wallum is an indigenous word from south-east Queensland,
used now to describe the coastal heathland habitat. It is found from just north of
Sydney to Fraser Island.

Coastal Banksia B. integrifolia is found along the entire east coast; we also saw a form
growing to a fair-sized tree in mountain rainforests.

Heath-leafed Banksia B. ericifolia grows along much of the NSW coast in sandy soils.
Guinea Flower Hibbertia sp., family Dillenaceae.
Both this species and the next belong to extensive genera, and I couldn't get them down to a species.
Goodenia sp., Family Goodeniaceae.
Another significant habitat, though less extensive, is that dominated by paperbarks, especially Broad-leaved Paperbark Melaleuca quinquenervia. These forests grow mostly along streamlines and in boggy areas that are regularly inundated.
Broad-leafed Paperbark along Jerusalem Creek, on a walking track near the camp.
And in the far south of the park, around Iluka, is a most unexpected habitat indeed, for here, growing on sand, is a rare and precious remnant of littoral (ie coastal) warm temperate rainforest.
Warm temperate littoral rainforest, Iluka.
In 1964 the government was preparing to allow sand miners (a scourge of coastal conservation in Australia
at the time, notably on Fraser Island) to destroy this remnant, often described as the best remaining example in NSW.
Community reaction was intense and the government backed off. In 1976 Iluka Nature Reserve was gazetted.
In 1980 the much bigger Bundjalung NP was declared to complement it; this was a relative golden age of conservation
and park declaration in NSW. (Relative certainly to today, better described as a rusting scrap metal age...)

Lianas in the sandy understorey.

The canopy trees are primarily Riberry Syzygium luehmannii and
Broad-leafed Lilly Pilly Syzygium (formerly Acmena) hemilamprum.

Strangler Fig Ficus watkisoniana.
The busyness of the campground and surrounds certainly mitigated against optimal wildlife viewing, but there was a still a range of animals to be seen in the immediate vicinity of our camp.
White-cheeked Honeyeater Phylidonyris niger in early pre-sunrise light, surveying her domain.
These heath specialists are ubiquitous in the heaths of central eastern Australia. They also have two
discrete far-flung populations, one in the heaths of south-western Australia, and one in wet mountain
forests of tropical north Queensland.
Any east coast campground is likely to have a coterie of big Lace Monitors Varanus varius patrolling
in the hope of hand-outs or scavenging opportunities. Black Rock is no exception.

One of the camp goannas showing off his/her forked tongue with which they constantly 'taste' the air
to assess the environment. For more on these fascinating big lizards, see here.
These much smaller but much more dangerous animals were right in our camp site,
requiring us to be very wary indeed. The sting of Bull Ants Myrmecia spp. is excruciating.
They are among the most primitive of ants; in Australia at least more modern ants have 'disarmed',
losing their chemical weapons. Perhaps we could learn from them.
A much more benign visitor dropped by very late on our last evening there, as the light was going.
Swamp Wallaby Wallabia bicolor.
However our best wildlife viewing came in a small patch of paperbarks along the Jerusalem Creek walking track, not far from camp. It was bustling!
The scene of the action! This was mid-morning too, well outside the expected peak time of activity.
Here are some of the animals (mostly birds) which kept our heads spinning.
A very curious female Mistletoebird Dicaeum hirundicum, one of several in the area.

The males were a bit more circumspect; this one is performing his crucial ecological role of
distributing mistletoe seeds to other sites on tree branches.
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike Coracina novaehollandiae; a widespread and common enough
bird, but when was that a barrier to enjoying one? And who knows, this may have been
one I saw in Canberra before it migrated north for winter. And all the same comments
could be made about the next bird too.
Noisy Friarbird Philemon corniculatus, a big (and yes, noisy) honeyeater.
The pale scallops on the back tell us that this is a young bird, from last spring's nesting.
This honeyeater on the other hand is one we don't see in Canberra.
 White-throated Honeyeaters Melithreptus albogularis are found north from about here and
right across tropical northern Australia.
Male Rufous Whistler Pachycephala rufiventris; this one too is a summer breeding migrant to Canberra.
The one that gave me the most satisfaction out of this lovely little flock was however on the ground. I have never managed to lay lens on a Brown Quail Coturnix ypsilophora before, though I've glimpsed them many times (usually vanishing like little dumpy rockets). This pair however were extraordinarily obliging.
And when you see them well like these, they really are a very beautifully marked little bird.
And in between, we were able to enjoy a most beautiful butterfly, one with which I was not familiar.
Blue Tiger Tirumala hamata; it too was much more accommodating than I've learnt to expect butterflies to be.
We came back late in the afternoon to indulge ourselves in some more birds and whatever else was about - and of course the entire grove was deserted. Bird-watching can be like life sometimes.

I'll talk about a couple of the other parks we spent time in too, in the not too distant future, but meantime I hope I've persuaded you that Bundjalung is definitely worth a day or so of your time.

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