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 November 2018

On the Wave of a Crest #2; more birds with very fancy coiffures

Last time I introduced a range of birds with handsome crests ranging from the outrageous to the understated; all of them also bore names describing or alluding to their headware. Today I'm going to wrap up this mini-series by sharing with you another collection of cranially-adorned beauties, but none of these draw attention to their crests in their names. Last time too I speculated a little on the purpose of such decoration, so I won't reiterate that today. Let's just ogle some more great do's.

For some, a modest but perky little peak is deemed appropriate.
Eastern Whipbird Psophodes olivaceus, Eurobodalla Botanic Gardens, Batemans Bay, New South Wales south coast.
This is an interesting one, because they tend to live in dense understorey vegetation, and communicate by their
famous piercing whip-crack duets. It seems a bit surprising that a visual communication is also required.
Chiming Wedgebill Psophodes occidentalis, Shark Bay, Western Australia.
This arid land bird (one of two almost identical species) has recently been placed in the same
genus as the whipbirds, like the previous species.
Fortunately for us, the two wedgebill species have different ranges and very different calls.
Marvellous Spatuletail Loddigesia mirabilis, Huembo Lodge, north Peru.
Outstanding even among hummingbirds, this spectacular little beauty's most obvious glories are its amazing
pair of outer tail feathers with racket-shaped tips. These can be moved independently of each other, and
feature heavily in its rivetting aerial courtship displays.
Given this, the little purple-blue crest might seem a little superfluous.
The species occupies a tiny area of the eastern slopes of the Andes in Peru, and is listed as Endangered.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt, Darwin. Found across northern Australia and into New Guinea
and Indonesia, this is a megapode, an ancient group of birds which incubate their eggs in huge mounds of decomposing
vegetable matter. I love the jaunty little peaked crown.
Red-necked Woodpecker Campephilus rubricollis, Tambopata Research Centre, southern Peruvian Amazonia.
Another which favours a neat little peak.
Then there are a number of birds which sport a wispier peak; some of these are quite short and erect...
Pied Kingfisher Ceryle rudis Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
This handsome fishing kingfisher is found across Africa and south to south-east Asia.
Given its striking appearance and overt behaviour, the neat little crest might seem a bit unnecessary.
Guanay Cormorant Leucocarbo bougainvillii, Pucusana, Peru.
Like many wispy-crests, this big west coast cormorant tucks its crest away when not required.
We were honoured!
Guira Cuckoo Guira guira, Buenos Aires.
A very sociable cuckoo, so we were surprised to see this one on its own in a very scruffy little city park.
... while some are long and erect.
Cockatiel male Nymphicus hollandicus, Mount Magnet, Western Australia.
This widespread dryland species is the world's smallest cockatoo.
Sadly for them, they are also a very popular cage bird.
Spinifex Pigeon Geophaps plumifera, south-west Queensland.
Another crest-bearer of the desert country. This crest plays a role in the elaborate courting ritual.
Other birds seem to prefer the swept-back look.
Yellow-crowned Night Heron Nyctanassa violacea, Guayaquil, Ecuador; an attractive and widespread species
of the coasts of northern South America, central America and southern North America.
This one is in breeding plumage, when the plumes are even longer; other evidence is in the green lores
(the area in front of the eyes) and reddish legs.
Plumbeous Ibis Theristicus caerulescens, Pantanal, Brazil.
A striking ibis from the east of central South America; I confess to anthropomorphically
thinking that the glaring yellow eye and back-swept crest give it a distinctly raffish look.
Some owls (in the hawk owl, or typical owl, family) have feathered 'horns' or 'ears'- we featured a Great Horned Owl last time. These seem to have nothing to do with hearing, but are presumably for display. Still being anthropomorphic, I do think they go nicely with the very scowly look adopted by many owls.
Stygian Owl Asio stygius, Morro del Calzada Reserve, north-eastern Peru.
A big owl, found scattered from Mexico through the Caribbean to south-eastern Brazil.

Tropical Screech Owl Megascops choliba, Pantanal, Brazil.
A much smaller owl, with smaller horns.
A few birds adorn their heads with structures that aren't composed of feathers.
Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius, Etty Bay near Innisfail, north Queensland.
The striking casque is not, as has long been supposed, a bony structure, but comprises a 'very tough, elastic, foam-like substance firmly fused to the skull', (to quote Handbook of the Birds of the World) covered in tough skin.
It is rigid from front to back, but elastic from side to side.
Its purpose, though often asserted to be for pushing through rainforest, remains unknown,
but an indicator of age and fitness - and thus dominance - is perhaps the most plausible explanation.
Magpie Geese Anseranas semipalmata, near Darwin.
In this case the 'bump' on the head comprises spongy bone; it increases in size with age and is thus
probably also an indicator of dominance. These dramatic waterfowl, common across northern Australia
and southern New Guinea, are not geese or ducks, but the only members of their primitive family which
seems to provide a link between waterfowl and the terrestrial South American screamers.
And now (with drum roll) I want to present my favourite headgear among the birds which are not named for it. In no particular order (well, not very much) - I don't want to upset anybody or anybirdy.
Male Gang-gang Cockatoo Callocephalon fimbriatum, Canberra. A small cockatoo of the wetter forests and subalpine
woodlands of the south-east corner of Australia. In Canberra they are quite common throughout the urban area,
feeding quietly on fruit and seeds, creaking like corks coming out of old-fashioned wine bottles.
Only the males have the red head and outlandishly clownish wispy crest.

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo pair Calyptorhynchus banksii, near Barcaldine, central Queensland.
The male is on the left. Both carry the extreme forward-leaning crest, which the anthropomorphically-inclined
might interpret as reminiscent of an Elvis impersonator.

Red-legged Seriema Cariama cristata, Pantanal, Brazil.
There are two South American species of seriema, the only members of their own Family but also an
entire Order. They are ground-hunters of a range of small animals, sometimes described as ecological
analogs of the unrelated African Secretarybird Sagittarius serpentarius.
I love the fan-shaped crest above the lipstick-red bill.

Male Bare-faced Curassow Crax fasciolata, Pantanal, Brazil.A big cracid (the family of guans and chachalacas)
which mainly feeds on the ground, especially on fallen fruit. She has buffy bars across her wings and back, and shares
his somewhat rococo crest of individual curls, though hers is black and white.

Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin, in the twilight above a rainforest lake, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
Truly one of the most amazing birds on earth, which separated from all others around 65 million years ago,
around the time the other dinosaurs vanished. It is the only bird which can fully digest leaves, using a bacterial
gut factory like a cow. And that spiky crest... Needs its own blog post one day.

Andean Cocks-of-the-Rock Rupicola peruvianus, San Pedro, southern Peru. What can one say about that
wildly bouffant crest (comprising a double row of fluffy feathers) and those yellow teddy bear eyes?
These big cotingas gather in frantic leks to compete by displaying for the favours of females - more on that here.
One of the most wonderful sights in nature  that I have seen - and the head-dress is not the least of it!
I hope that I - or at least this fabulous birds - have made you smile and perhaps think about things, including how you might go about seeing them for yourself. That would be something worth while, for both of us.

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Thursday, 15 November 2018

On the Wave of a Crest; birds with very fancy coiffures

A little while ago we'd been gaping at some particularly impressive bird head adornments, and my muse said "well, why not do a blog on them?". Why not indeed? I do quite a lot of more 'serious' postings, and it doesn't hurt sometimes to just enjoy aspects of this wonderful natural world. Besides, I don't seem to have quite the readership I once did (I'm referring solely to quantity of course, not quality!) and who knows, maybe some fancy feather-styles are just what this blog needs!

According to my count there are some 135 bird species with 'crested' in the name; I was about to check those with 'cristatus' (ie 'crested') in the scientific name, but just in time I recalled how fleeting life really is. Today I'm going to limit myself to birds whose names either contain 'crested' or another reference to their headware.
Rufous-crested Coquette Lophornis delattrei, Waqanki Lodge, northern Peru. Extraordinary.
This hummingbird is mostly an Andean species, with a lowland outlier population in Panama.
Many such adornments are male-specific, and it is generally assumed that they're all about display, the idea being that the bigger and gaudier the display, the more attracted a female will be. Maybe, but we should always ask 'why?' and also remember that there's often more than one answer. This post isn't supposed to be too serious, but a couple of points are still worth making. If she's making a mate choice based purely on what are essentially male-only aesthetics, then we can assume that her sons will also be similarly gorgeous and desirable - but what about her daughters? In such a situation I think it is more that he is effectively saying ‘look, I’m so strong and clever and have such great survival skills that I can afford to carry around this idiotic frippery – even though it makes me more of a target for predators – and those are the characteristics you want for your chicks, sons and daughters’. We can see this taken to extremes with the peacock’s tail, the Irish Elk’s antlers, and the ludicrous wing appendages of some bowerbirds, nightjars and birds of paradise. Most cresties don't go nearly this far however, most of them sporting a more modest crest that can be demurely tucked away and produced on demand.
Another hummingbird, the Wire-crested Thorntail Discosura popelairii, north-eastern Peruvian Andes.
As with the coquette above, this crest is strictly for boys only.
In many crested birds however the female does also has a crest, though often more modest. Perhaps this is a genetic legacy, or perhaps each of the pair (or prospective pair) uses the quality of its mate's crest as a gauge of the other's overall fitness. 
Great Crested Grebes Podiceps cristatus, here at Lake Bindegolly, south central Queensland, are an example of a species
in which both male and female have equal crests, and flaunt them in coordinated ritual displays on the water.
In Sulphur-crested Cockatoos, all adults are equally well-endowed and seem to flare the crest in communication, perhaps a warning, often in association with an ear-assaulting shriek.
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Cacatua galerita, Nowra, New South Wales.
Both sexes of a couple of Australian seed-eating pigeons also have identical crests, and I wonder if here they have a role in allowing members of the flock to keep an eye on their colleagues while all are feeding head-down among the grass clumps.
Crested Pigeon Ocyphaps lophotes. Widely known simply as Cresties, these lovely pigeons were once
birds of the inland, but expanded to the south-east with farmlands, and are now common suburban and coastal birds.
This one was on the roof of our Canberra home.
Here are some more birds whose names specify that they have a crest. As you'll see the prominence of their crests varies greatly.
Southern Crested Caracara Caracara plancus, Torres del Paine NP, southern Chile.
The caracaras are a mostly South American group of falcons which have adopted a most
unfalcon-like ground-scavenging lifestyle.
Long-crested Eagle Lophaetus occipitalis, Uganda. This widespread African scourge of rodents
has a ferocious scowl which is quite undone by its rather ridiculously floppy crest which waves in the breeze.

Crested Coua Coua cristata, Ankarana NP, Madagascar.
The couas are a group of cuckoos endemic to Madagascar.
Crested Owls Lophostrix cristata, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
This dramatic owl is found in lowland rainforest from Mexico to northern South America.
We may suppose that the double crest is for joint display purposes, but we really don't know.
Pale-crested Woodpecker Celeus lugubris, Pantanal, south-west Brazil.
Plush-crested Jay Cyanocorax chrysops, Iguazu Falls, northern Argentina
(the falls are also in Brazil, but this jay wasn't). A fabulous jay, found across
central South America east of the Andes.
Tufted Tit-Tyrant Anairetes parulus, Ushaia NP, Argentine Tierra del Fuego, at the far southern of South America.
This little bird with a big crest has a huge range up the Andes past the equator to Colombia.

Red-crested Cardinal Paroaria coronata, Pantanal, Brazil; like many other South American birds, this is actually
a tanager masquerading as something else (or at least mistaken by us for something else!).
And as suggested earlier, some birds have earned a Crested name with a pretty modest appendage.
Crested Oropendola Psarocolius decumanus, Pantanal, Brazil.
You can just see the wispy crest lying along its neck.
Coal-crested Finch Charitospiza eucosma, Chapada dos GuimarĂ£es NP, south-west Brazil.
A member of the tanager family (again long assumed to be something else),
threatened by the loss of its cerrado habitat, which is being cleared for farmland on a huge scale.
Crested Shrike-tit Falcunculus frontatus, Forbes, New South Wales.
To be fair, this strong-billed little bird can erect its crest to be slightly more conspicuous than this photo suggests.
Grey-crested Cachalote Pseudoseisura unirufa, southern Pantanal, Brazil.
This ovenbird hardly seems to quality as crested but again it can raise its crest to a slightly more
respectable degree than this.
Finally I offer you some birds whose crests are recognised in their names, though without actually using the word 'crested' - topknot, tufted, crowned and horned can all imply the same sort of cranial accoutrement.
Topknot Pigeon Lopholaimus antarcticus, Dorrgio NP, New South Wales.
This striking big rainforest pigeon sports a magnificent front-to-back crest, bright ginger at the back
- unfortunately not so easy to see from below.

White-tufted Grebe Rollandia rolland, Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
Both male and female put on the dramatic pied crest only for breeding season.

Grey Crowned Crane Balearica regulorum, Murchison Falls NP, Uganda;
this beauty is Uganda's national bird. And in case you wondered there is also another
crowned crane, the Black-crowned Crane B. pavonina from further north; and in fact why not?
Why should we and they be denied the pleasure of their company too?
Black Crowned Crane, Waza NP, northern Cameroon.

Hamerkop Scopus umbretta; not much mention of a crest there you might think, but the name
is Afrikaans for 'hammerhead', a clear reference to the over-the-top backswept crest.
Found right across sub-Saharan Africa, this is the only member of its entire Family.

Great Horned Owl Bubo virginianus, El Cajas NP, high in the Andes of southern Ecuador.
A huge owl, also found across most of North America.
And that brings us to an end for today, hopefully leaving you satisfied and sated with crests for now. Not permanently though I trust, as I'll be back next time to finish this exploration of fabulous bird head adornments, looking at a collection of  great crests which failed to grab the attention of those naming them.

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Thursday, 1 November 2018

Shoalhaven Heads Native Botanic Gardens; an unsuspected little gem

It's not often that I 'find' a new native botanic gardens in my (extended) back yard, but I did last week. Lou's parents live in Nowra, in the hinterland of the New South Wales south coast, some 15km from the sea on the Shoalhaven River, and we visit regularly. This time however we were turning off the highway to their place when we saw a very new sign (it had only been up for a week, I now know) pointing to the coast and directing us to Shoalhaven Heads Botanic Gardens. That was an offer I could most certainly not refuse! Shoalhaven Heads is a pleasant little community (though packed in summer) on the north bank of the mouth of the Shoalhaven, and an easy short drive from the highway. You simply take the first road immediately north of the highway towards the coast - Bolong Road, also known as Grand Pacific Drive - and follow the signs to Shoalhaven Heads and the gardens. If you somehow miss the signs, the gardens are on Celia Parade, a quiet little back street just across from the river mouth.
The view from less than 100m from the gardens, looking across the Shoalhaven mouth to the heads.
Though small, the gardens boast two weloming signs, above and below!

I have read that this entrance pergola is based on structure in Pioneer Park, Dorrigo (reason unspecified)
and in time will be covered (as all good pergolas should) in native vines.
I had a chat with a bloke wielding a hand hose - and periodically moving a big sprinkler - who turned out to be an immediate neighbour of the gardens, a moving force in its early days and an ongoing volunteer. Indeed it is evident even to an outsider that this is a community project and volunteers are its engine. He described how 10 years ago the lush gardens were just a bare paddock, through which cars sped on the open-sided road. The only significant native plant was a big old Bangalay Eucalyptus botryoides, which still towers above the plantings. It was originally known as the Curtis Park Arboretum, and only in September 2017 did it adopt its current, perhaps more descriptive, name.
Also in 2017 it joined Botanic Gardens Australia and New Zealand, a body representative of Australasian botanic gardens, especially regional ones.
The 'grandparent' of the gardens, an old Bangaly, or Southern Mahongany.
He described the difficult early days in trying to persuade the local Council that a gardens could be created here, and that they should part with money to help make it happen. Fortunately it did happen, and both Council and State governments have since contributed though, as already noted, the on-ground work comes from dedicated locals. (Indeed this is truly a community precinct, with a Men's Shed, Meals on Wheels and a child care centre as neighbours.)

I was expecting an emphasis on south coast plants, but this is an ambitious project, with plantings from the east coast from the farthest tropics down to the Shoalhaven. One might raise one's eyebrows at this apparent hubris, but my strong opinion is that if someone else is doing the work (especially voluntarily) they can do the job however they please! (Moreover, only a couple of hours down the road is the Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Gardens which fills the south coast specialist role admirably.) And expanding on that theme, across the road is nice little picnic park, which now has a lovely fringing garden of very healthy south Western Australian plants. I understand the plan is to expand this and there is room to do so without impinging on this park's other uses.
A case in point is this Native Frangipani Hymenosporum flavum, Family Pittosporaceae, found from
New Guinea and tropical Queensland to northern NSW.
I have hinted this this is a small botanic garden, and I almost hesitate to tell you how small, lest it put you off, but even having explored it I was surprised when I went to Google Earth to measure it. It is less than 130 by 60 metres, but so well is it designed, with paths winding through dense plantings, that the impression is of a larger space. Signage is excellent; not all plants have these comprehensive signs, but those that have simpler signs are complemented by a well-researched 24-paged A5 brochure available on site.
A couple of sample signs, above and below; all are sponsored, some by local industries,
more by individuals and community groups.

Perhaps now I should just share some images from the gardens with you, with the unabashed aim of encouraging you to go and see for yourself.
A view of the open space in the centre of the gardens.
Mixed Grevillea planting - quite a few cultivars are here, but I return to my previous comment on
volunteers doing the work.
Kentia Palm Howea forsteriana, a Lord Howe Island endemic.
Red Cedar Toona ciliata, a tree found from southern Asia to eastern Australia.
In earlier times stands of the tree were ravaged from all accessible Australian rainforests,
though populations are now recovering well. It's worth remembering that most of the plantings date only from 2010.
Wollemi Pine Wollemia nobilis, an ancient Gondwandan conifer known only from fossils until
a living population was famously found in Wollemi National Park, not far west of Sydney, in 1994.
A nice stand of Xanthorrhoea, or grass trees; more on them here.
Another scarce and localised plant, Hinchinbrook Banksia, B. plagiocarpa. First collected from the Queensland
mainland near Cardwell in the 1860s, it wasn't seen again until 1979 on nearby Hinchinbrook Island, and
named in 1981 by banksia doyen Alex George. The distinctive red velvety new leaves (resembling odd flowers
from a distance) are readily visible here. I'm looking forward to going back in autumn for the
unusual and lovely purple-grey real flowers.

Wedding Bush, Ricinocarpos sp. I missed the sign here, so am not sure if it's the local species
Coastal Rosemary Westringia longifolia; this one is local!
And another spectacular Quenslander Grevillea banksii.Unfortunately this one is now an environmental weed in both Hawaii and Madagascar.
And, almost finally, across the road for a look at the new Western Australian beds.
The picnic park with tables in the background and the main gardens across the road; the WA
plantings so far consist of a strip along the houses to the right of the photo.
A closer view of the bed, with spectacular big Red Kangaroo Paws Anigozanthus rufus.I think the big red flowers above them are Beaufortia, but I was distracted by the paws!
Close-up of the remarkable Red Kangaroo Paw flowers.
Heart-leaf  Flame Pea Chorizema cordatum.
And perhaps that's enough plants for now - you have to see something for yourself. So, I'll finish with another feature of the gardens, some lovely and quirky sculpture.
I particularly like the touch of the sharpener in the foreground.
Fungi feature prominently...

... as do lizards.

Living animals were a bit scarcer, but it was a warm morning and I'm sure another visit could be more rewarding in that department.

Even the toilets are works of art.

Perhaps we're not supposed to notice that the blokes get one to themselves, while women and
people in wheelchairs must share...

This really is a little treasure, and while I'd not expect you to drive from somewhere else for it, there is plenty else to attract you to the Shoalhaven, and if you find yourself in the vicinity you should do yourself and the stewards of Shoahaven Heads Native Botanic Gardens a favour and drop in.

(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.
And I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!)