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, 23 August 2018

Gibraltar Range and Washpool; world heritage parks

This is another in a sporadic series introducing some national parks we visited in north-eastern New South Wales earlier this year. The series began here. Gibralatar Range and Washpool National Parks are contiguous and managed jointly, in the Great Dividing Range. Both are part of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area, a discontinuous mosaic of some 40 parks, mostly in the near-coastal ranges of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, featuring remnant temperate rainforest of types which have their origins firmly in Australia's Gondwanan past. 
Warm temperate Coachwood rainforest (Ceratopetalum apetalum, Family Cunoniaceae),
Coombadjha Creek Nature Walk, Washpool National Park.
Approximate location at the end of the red arrow; both parks are readily accessed
from the Gwydir Highway between Glen Innes and Grafton in the New England highlands.
The Gibraltar Range, prior the building of the highway, was remote and rugged, and much of it supports heathland, in boulder-strewn eucalypt forest and boggy wetlands, so fortunately were not very appealing to those seeking grazing lands. The Gwydir Highway, which climbs over the range and was opened in 1960, enabled ready access and the possibilities for recreation were recognised. 14,000 hectares were declared for the purpose, and with additions a national park was declared in 1967; this was one of the first parks declared under the new National Parks and Wildlife Act of 1967, then ground-breaking legislation. It now protects 25,000 hectares. The Act was improved in 1974 and for a while the state government was a world leader in national parks legislation and practice. Today it must be said that those good days are just a wistful memory.
Forests of Gibraltar Range National Park, from Raspberry Hill Lookout; a rainstorm was clearing.
The history of Washpool, a little to the north, was much more tempestuous. It contains much more rainforest, including stands of the prized Red Cedar Toona ciliata (or australis), which was logged comprehensively wherever it could be accessed in subtropical rainforests, primarily for high quality furniture. By the 1960s cedar was getting scarce, but the industry no longer relied on axes, hand saws and bullock drays, and the wilderness of the Washpool was under immediate threat from the industry, assisted by the NSW Forestry Commission. Widespread community concern was expressed about opening the wilderness to logging, and in response threats were made by townsfolk worried about job losses against National Parks Association members and violence was threatened in the forest. Recommendations of a government advisory body were adopted however and in 1982 it was announced that the Washpool wilderness would be protected, and subsequently declared a Wilderness Area under the Act. World Heritage listing followed. Today the Washpool protects 59,000 hectares of wild country and visitors like us bring money to the region.

For some reason it is not possible, unlike at most NSW park campgrounds, to book a site at Mulligans Campground in Gibraltar Range, and as we happened to turn up on a weekend we were lucky to get a site. The sites here, in open forest, aren't as well separated as at some other grounds and next time we'll stay at nearby Bellbird Campground in Washpool NP (bookings not available here either, but camp sites are more scattered around a rainforest clearing). Nonetheless we enjoyed our stay and the surrounds are lovely. Here are some pictures taken in the vicinity of the campground.
Little Dandahra Creek, above and below, just below the campground.
The granites which dominate much of the park are 250 million years old,
part of the great  New England Batholith.
Here some more, at Barra Nula Cascades, a few minutes walk downstream.
We were here in late April, a bit late for swimming, but in summer the creek offers lots of refreshing options.
Nor are the granites confined to the creek lines.
The dry forest had flowers in it even then in mid-late autumn; in spring I'm sure it would be superb.
Privet-leaved Stringybark Eucalyptus ligustrina over Xanthorrhoea glauca.

New England Blackbutt E. andrewsii, on the walk to Murrumbooee Cascades (see below).
Xanthorrhoea glauca; some huge specimens near camp.
Hairpin Banksia Banksia cunninghamii; there is robust debate (and has been for nearly 200 years) as to whether this
is a full species or a subspecies of B. spinulosa. Either way it's a very handsome plant indeed!
Alpine Boronia B. algida, is found in the higher ranges from Victoria to the Queensland border.
(I'm pretty sure of this one, though I don't normally expect it to flower then.)
Hibbertia villosa, Family Dillenaceae.
Partly in order to experience the rainforest, we did the lovely walk from Mulligans Campground to the Murrumbooee Cascades, which begins along the Little Dandahra Creek in dry forest, then enters the rainforest.
Entering the rainforest - it's a surprisingly abrupt transition, presumably associated with a sheltered slope or gully.
To give some idea of this, here is another view from Raspberry Hill Lookout, which mostly looks over drier forest, but the darker green of rainforest can be seen in the gullies.
One such rainforest gully runs in a 'north-west to south-east' slash in the middle of the photo.
 Here are some more forest scenes along the route.
There are hardly any large Coachwoods along the route; I'm guessing that this section was logged
before being gazetted as park.
Rainforest pool.
An important component of the rainforest understorey here is Walking Stick Palm Linospadix monostachyos, a small palm which thrives in the shade.
As the name suggests, the palm stem was formerly cut to make walking sticks and umbrella handles.
The fruit cascades, above and below, are spectacular in the dim rainforest light.

Ferns of course are prevalent in the rainforest and along the streams.
Big Rough Tree Ferns Cyathea australis.
Strap Fern Blechnum patersonii (I think - advice welcomed).

Hard Water Fern Blechnum wattsii.

Fragrant Climbing Fern Microsorum scandens.

Spreading Fan Fern Sticherus lobatus.

Pouched Coral Fern  Gleichenia dicarpa.

King Ferns Todea barbara; this big fern is up to 3 metres high and is often mistaken for a tree fern.
It is also found in New Zealand and South Africa.
And talking of big old plants, there's nothing lowly about this moss!
With some internal structures not normally found in mosses, analogous to some found in more
modern plants, Dawsonia superba can grow to over 50cm high!
The Murrumbooee Cascades themselves were pretty lethargic, with not much recent rain, but their tranquility among the forest made them well worth the walk.
Granites in Dandahra Creek at Murrumbooee Cascades.
We saw surprisingly little photographable wildlife - much of it was high in the canopy and it was cold and wet for some of the time - but one remarkable little creature made itself very obvious on our camp table. I'd never seen anything like it.
Despite its armoured appearance it was soft to the touch. It turned out to a mealybug, Monophlebulus sp.
(thanks for that Beth!), a slow-moving sap-sacker which sometimes covers itself in a fluffy white waxy
coat, hence also Giant Snowball Mealybug. We were pleased to make its acquaintance!
The drive into the campground passed several of these extensive heathy bogs.
I'm sure that in summer this will be glowing with Christmas Bells Blandfordia spp.
Across the highway, but still in Gibraltar Range NP, is a picnic area and walking track to the impressive Boundary Falls, set down in the rainforest, well worth a visit.
Boundary Falls.

Coachwood forest on the walk to Boundary Falls.
And just up the road is the access (also 2WD) to Washpool National Park, that the National Parks Asssociation and others thought it worth fighting for in the 1980s. We only visited briefly on the way out, but will return to explore it further. The lovely little Coombadjha walking track from the picnic area near Bellbird Camping Area is a delight; as we walked by the beautiful creek of the same name, a lyrebird fired silver bolts of sound at us from up the hill. Above the Coachwood is a forest of massive Sydney Blue Gums Eucalyptus saligna.
Coombadjha Creek.

Mossy logs returning to the soil.

Bracket fungi, helping wood to be recycled through the forest.

Base of an old Sydney Blue Gum just above the rainforest, Washpool NP.
Next time you're in the New England area, please make time to visit these parks; you'll never regret it.

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Thursday, 9 August 2018

Mangroves #3: life above the mud

This post marks the completion of my three-part series on mangroves, one of my favourite habitats, not least because they are so unfamiliar and even unlikely, fluctuating with the tides between land and sea environments. Moreover they are some of the richest habitats on earth, being the cradle of uncountable millions of organisms which begin life feeding on and in the nutrient-rich mangrove muds. While I don't regard that as the best reason to protect them, mangroves are the essential basis of many of humanity's richest fisheries and prawn industries.

The series began here, and you might want to have a look there if you've not already done so, as there is background information that I won't repeat. And the second post featured some seriously cool crabs!

Today I want to introduce some animals that live above the mud, in the mangrove trees themselves. Some virtually never leave the mangroves, to others the mangroves are a very significant part of their lives though they venture beyond them too. Many feed and breed there, some come back every day to roost. 

Quite a few tropical birds are mangrove specialists, including in Australia. Here are a few.

Mangrove Robin Peneoenanthe pulverulenta, Bayview, Darwin. This lovely bird, with a sad whistle,
never leaves the mangroves; it is found in northern Australia and New Guinea.
In addition to insects, it eats small crabs. It is the only member of its genus.
Mangrove Grey Fantail Rhipidura phasiana, Norman River, Karumba, Gulf of Carpentaria, Queensland.
It is closely related to the familiar Grey Fantail, but has a paler grey back, broader wing bars and a shorter tail.
It too rarely leaves the mangroves of northern Australia and southern New Guinea.
This was from a boat trip that I mentioned in the last post, as are the next two species.
White-breasted Whistler Pachycephala lanioides. This is a female, he has a magnificently snowy breast
and throat, separated by a black collar. Another mangrove specialist, found across northern Australia.
Immature male Red-headed Honeyeater Myzomela erythrocephala.  (There is a tendency elsewhere to use Myzomela
as a group name, but fortunately we've resisted that so far in Australia!) This one again lives wherever there
are mangroves throughout far northern Australia and across Torres Strait.
The glorious adult male below, though largely hidden, gives some idea of what this youngster will later look like.

Others, as mentioned, forage to a significant degree in mangroves, but aren't so restricted. The following birds are typical of these. The first two in fact spent time inspecting us as we sat on the platform at the end of the excellent boardwalk at the East Point mangroves in Darwin (see first post in this series for more on this great spot, but I also did a whole post on it, here).
Lemon-bellied Flycatchers Microeca flavigaster, which are actually robins (though a recent attempt
to persuade us to called them flyrobins isn't gaining much traction yet). In the Northern Territory they are
largely mangrove birds, but elsewhere in northern Australia and especially in New Guinea they extend
into other woodland and forest habitats.

Northern Fantail Rhipidura rufiventris; similar comments could be made about this friendly little chap
as per the others, though it's found well beyond the mangroves in the Northern Territory too.
(The early morning light under the canopy wasn't too great.)
Varied Honeyeaters Gavicalis versicolor, Cairns Esplanade. This busy and garrulous honeyeater does spend
most of its time in mangroves, but regularly moves out into nearby coastal vegetation, including in
parks and gardens, as here.
Shining Flycatcher Myiagra alecto, Gunlom, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory (male above, female below,
in a very impressive example of sexual dimorphism). A beautiful bird which can be quite curious,
nearly always near water, either in mangroves or along stream lines.
Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris, Selingan Island, Sabah.
This lovely kingfisher is mostly found in mangroves - in a huge range from north-east Africa to
the Lesser Sundas (Bali, Lombok etc) - but does use other habitats, especially on islands.
We used to think it had an even larger range, to northern Australia and well out into the Pacific, but
recently five species have been split from it, including the Torresian Kingfisher T. sordidus of northern
Australia and New Guinea, which is strongly associated with mangroves - in fact
it's often been known as Mangrove Kingfisher here. Crabs are a specialty!
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. A magnificent bird,
found from India to the Philippines and the Lesser Sundas. A fish and crab specialist,
particularly in mangroves, but it is broad-minded and expands both its habitat and diet beyond that.
Not only birds are mangrove specialists however.
The extraordinary Proboscis Monkey Nasalis larvatus, endemic to Borneo, is mostly dependent on mangroves,
especially their leaves and fruit, though it is also found in riverine forest. Here at Labuk Bay, Sabah.
Proboscis Monkey youngsters at very boisterous play.

Silvered Leaf Monkeys Trachypithecus cristatus with baby (isn't it an amazing colour?!),
Bako NP, Sarawak. These lovely monkeys specialise even more in leaves than the Proboscis do,
and share their coastal, especially mangrove, and riverine forest habitats.

Water Monitor Varanus salvator Klias River Sabah. This big goanna is widespread in south and
south-east Asia, especially in mangroves, but also beyond them.
Some species, which don't otherwise utilise mangroves, nest in them. This is especially true on isolated volcanic islands where other trees may be scarce.
Red-footed Booby Sula sula (white morph) nesting in mangroves, Genovesa, Galápagos.
This was part of a busy colony in the mangroves just behind the beach, below.

 Others just roost there.
Striated Heron Butorides striata (also known as Mangrove Heron) here roosting in mangroves,
Isabela, Galápagos, though in fact they feed there as well when the tide drops.
Papuan Frogmouth Podargus papuensis, at day roost in mangroves, Centennial Lakes, Cairns.
Some of the most dramatic roosting colonies in mangroves are provided by fruit bats, which can number tens of thousands.

A very small part of a huge Little Red Fruit Bat Pteropus scapulatus colony, in mangroves along the waterfront
in Cooktown, north Queensland. By day they sleep (and squabble) and in the evening spread out over the
countryside in search of fruit and nectar.
So, mangroves. I hope you can be as excited by them as I am. And if you're still an agnostic, maybe you could visit some soon and see if that helps. Meantime, thanks for exploring them with me.

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