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.

Monday, 31 December 2018

Farewell to 2018!

Continuing my tradition of recent years, to mark the changeover of years I've selected just one photo from each month of 2018. As ever I don't make any pretences to photographic excellence, but have chosen the pictures because of their associations, and in most cases because they are ones I've not previously used this year in a blog posting. 

It's been another good year for us, including a couple of weeks camping in national parks in north-eastern New South Wales and a trip to Brazil, featuring the Atlantic forests and the superb Pantanal. Both these trips feature here, unsurprisingly, but most of the following pictures were in fact taken in and around Canberra, including a couple in our back yard.

Grey-headed Fruit Bat Pteropus poliocephalus, mother and baby, Commonwealth Park, Canberra.
This big fruit bat is found along the east coast of Australia, south of the tropics. In recent years a colony has
established itself every summer in Commonwealth Park by Lake Burley Griffin, usually a place busy with
people and events. This large youngster would not let its mother relax, constantly wriggling and
exploring its surrounds - including, as here, sticking its tongue into her eye or ear!
Pacific (sometimes called Australian) Koel Eudynamys orientalis chick being fed by its foster parent,
a Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata, very near our home in suburban Duffy.
The wattlebird is a large honeyeater, but is dwarfed by the voracious chick. The koel is a big cuckoo
which breeds in northern and eastern Australia and winters in eastern Indonesia and New Guinea and
associated islands. It has begun to breed in Canberra over the last decade or so, aided by a warming world
and the naivety of Red Wattlebirds, which have moved north up the coast and only encountered
koels in the Sydney area during the 1970s.

Orb Web (or Orb-weaving) Spiders Eriphora sp., Black Mountain Nature Reserve, Canberra.
He's the little one, and he seems to have persuaded her to let him get close enough for success.
However he must now make a choice. If he maintains contact with her for more than about 5 seconds
his chance of impregnating her improves; however it almost guarantees that she will eat him.
Tricky.... (I was actually on an excursion to learn more about butterflies, so didn't see how this ended.)

Coachwood rainforest Ceratopetalum apetalum, Family Cunoniaceae, Washpool NP, north-eastern New South Wales.
This beautiful 59,000 hectare park in the wet ranges is part of the
Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area.
It includes major tracts of warm temperate rainforest such as this, which were saved by vigorous community responses
in the 1970s to proposals to log much of the area; it was gazetted in 1982. We greatly enjoyed our stay there.

Carpet Python Morelia spilota, Nightcap NP, north-eastern New South Wales.
This magnificent snake shared our campsite at Nightcap - we noticed it dozing, and digesting,
on the grass down-slope of our tent when we returned from a walk. The bulge to the left of its head
marks the last resting place of its lunch, quite likely a wallaby or bandicoot.
(This did not stop it from later snapping up an incautious mouse which ventured too close that evening!)
This is a common python in much of Australia outside the western deserts (though it has declined in the south-east).
Male Spotted Pardalote Pardalotus punctatus, outside our Canberra bedroom window.
From my study I heard it tapping on the window as it flew repeatedly to it to retrieve minute insects.
These are common birds, but tiny (less than 10cm long) and often among foliage, so it was a treat to
be able to watch it from such close range.
Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
July was a fairly quiet month for photographs for me, but I'm happy to feature this little nocturnal insect hunter
catching some morning sun in the mouth of its hollow in a Western Scribbly Gum Eucalyptus rossii.Not much more than 20xm long, it is found throughout Australia and in southern New Guinea, where there are
another 8 species, all rainforest dwellers. (There is also one each in the Moluccas and New Caledonia.)

Platypus Ornithorhynchus anatinus, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra.
It is always a thrill to watch this astonishing egg-laying mammal in the wild, lying on the surface
between rolling dives to hunt worms, shrimps and insect larvae on the bottom, using remarkable
sensors which can detect the electrical impulses associated with their muscular contractions.
Often shy and hard to watch, there are some areas where they are accustomed to people and seemingly
largely oblivious of us; the fenced Sanctuary at Tidbinbilla is such a place.

Giant Anteater Myrmecophaga tridactyla, Pousada Aguapé, southern Pantanal, western Brazil.
This is an animal I have wanted to see since discovering it via a David Attenborough black and white
movie at school a very long time ago... Ancient South Americans with no relations anywhere else, they
come from the same stock as sloths and armadillos. In the Pantanal, a vast area of woodlands, grasslands
and ephemeral wetlands on the borders of Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, they live alongside cattle
on some of the properties which own and manage the land. Pousada Aguapé is notable among these.
One of the year's major highlights for me.

Giant Otter Pteronura brasiliensis, Cuiabá River, northern Pantanal.
It was hard to decide between this spectacular animal and a Jaguar for October, but I featured a Jaguar
last year in the equivalent posting - and, perhaps surprisingly, there are far fewer Giant Otters than
Jaguars left in the wild. I have been lucky enough to see the huge otters (up to 1.8m long and weighing as much
as 35kg) in the Amazon basin of both Ecuador and Peru, but have never had such an extended view of one out of water.
As a result I had never been able to admire the beautifully adapted flattened tail.
There were Jaguars around, and she was very alert and nervous, but not of us.

Yellow-faced Honeyeater Caligavis chrysops on bottlebrush Callistemon sp., in our suburban back yard in Canberra.
This is a very common migratory honeyeater locally, but most of them continue through the suburbs and up into
the mountains for summer; it had been some years since I've recorded one in our yard. This one however - joined
later by a couple of colleagues - found the bottlebrushes in flower and stayed to enjoy them for a couple of weeks
until they'd finished. We in turn enjoyed its activities from our balcony every evening.
Varied Sittella Daphoenositta chrysoptera, Mount Ainslie Nature Reserve, Canberra.
There are several races of Sittella right acrosss Australia, so variable that for a long time they were described as
separate species; now only one is recognised, plus one in New Guinea, the only members of their family.
Highly sociable, they extract insects from bark crevices with the upturned bill, working down the trunk
then flying as a flock to the next tree. I've found them very hard to photograph in the past - they are never still -
so I was delighted to finally catch this one, and showing its beautiful and characteristic orange wing bars.
So, that's one version at least of my year. Perhaps I've prompted you to muse too on your year's natural history highlights - that can be a very satisfying process. 

Thank you reading this, and for reading during the year if you're a 'regular' reader - I greatly appreciate that. May 2019 bring you lots of natural pleasures and surprises, and I look forward to sharing some with you. 

(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.
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Thursday, 13 December 2018

Red and Green; the colours of Christmas

Red and green, juxtaposed, have become closely associated with Christmas, I suspect because of the widespread European use of holly foliage and berries as decorations. While there have been modern religious interpretations of its significance, its use as midwinter festive decor predates such religions. While earlier religions also apparently found mystical significance in the sprays, I think it's fair to suppose that the original attraction of holly berries as decorations was simply that there wasn't much else to use in the depths of harsh northern winters! Those debates aren't really the purview of this blog however, and as this is my last posting before Christmas I thought I'd keep it light and just celebrate some co-occurrences of these strongly contrasting colours in nature - and of course it is no coincidence that red berries appear among green leaves, which emphasise their colour.

Staying briefly with the holly theme, we'll start with some red berries in green foliage.
Sweet Pittosporum P. undulatum, Nowra, New South Wales.
A common rainforest edge tree, this gets us off to a pretty good start.
 Cyathodes petiolaris, Family Ericaceae, Mount Field NP, Tasmania.
However, lovely as the berries are, this heath is hinting at a problem for my purposes - the foliage of
very many non-rainforest Australian plants tends not to be very green...
This Quandong Santalum acuminatum, in western New South Wales, is a case in point.
Lovely glossy red berries though!
Red flowers in green foliage offers us a few more options, though shiny dark green foliage to set the flowers off is still a bit hard to find. Here are a few that meet the tougher criteria though, I reckon.

Correa pulchella, Coffins Bay NP, South Australia.
A South Australian endemic, widely cultivated for obvious reasons.

Mountain Grevillea G. alpina, Black Mountain NR, Canberra.
As glossy as most berries!

Running Postman Kennedia prostrata, Ulladulla, New South Wales.

Waratah Telopea speciosisssima, Budderoo NP, southern New South Wales.
Understandably the state emblem, the cone of red flowers is supported by huge red bracts to attract vertebrate pollinators.

Tar Bush Eremophila glabra, northern Flinders Ranges, South Australia.
The eremophilas - 'desert lovers' - are among my very favourite Australian plants, up there
with orchids and banksias. They thrive and bloom in the harshest situations.
Notro Embothrium coccinum, Lago Llanquihue, southern Chile.
I didn't want to be accused of excessive parochialism and this glorious South American
relative of the waratahs always delights me and reminds me of our common Gondwanan history.
Which leads me to a few other South America red-and-green glories too.
Escallonia rubra, Petrohue, near Puerto Monte, southern Chile.
Fuchsia ampliata, Yanacocha Reserve near Quito, Ecuador.
I love seeing 'garden plants' in their natural setting, and fuchsias are always exciting.
Mutisia sp., from the cloud forests of Manu NP, southern Peru.
One of about 60 showy species in this daisy genus, all from the Andes.

Chilean Mitre Flower Mitraria coccinea, family Gesneriaceae, again near Puerto Montt, Chile.
A vigorous climber of the cool Chilean rainforests, cultivated elsewhere in similarly cold wet climates.
And lastly I'm going to feature possibly my favourite flower of all - just because I can! (Even though its desert-adapted leaves don't at all meet the 'glossy green' criterion...)
Sturt's Desert Pea Swainsona formosa, near Broken Hill in arid rocky western New South Wales.
A delight to the eye at any time of year! (And one which I featured in its own post at the beginning of this year.)
But plants aren't the only organisms to feature a juxtaposition of red and green of course - quite a few birds do so with some success (from our subjective and anthropomorphic viewpoint of course, as they don't need our approbation). Unquestionably parrots are preeminent among these, but they don't have it all to themselves.

Most birds are seemingly content to sport a modest splash or two of red among the green - and after all it is an expensive affectation, as we have previously discussed (in fact that was quite a long time ago!).
Blaze-winged Parakeet Pyrrhura devillei, southern Pantanal, Brazil.
This parrot is only found in the Pantanal (in Paraguay and Boliva, as well as Brazil).
(There is nothing devilish about it by the way - it was named for 19th century French naturalist
and collector Emile Deville.)

Maroon-bellied Parakeet Pyrrhura frontalis, Trilha dos Tucanos private reserve, near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
A close relation of the previous species from the Atlantic forests of southern Brazil and neighbouring countries.
Double-eyed Fig Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma, Cairns, North Queensland.
A tiny short-tailed rainforest parrot (Australia's smallest in fact); in some races cheek patches sort of
resemble extra eyes. Very sort of...
Mulga Parrot Psephotellus varius male near Cue, inland central Western Australia.
A lovely little parrot from right across inland Australia, though not just in the mulga (vast woodlands
dominated by Acacia aneura.) To make sure of being noticed, it has small red splashes on both crown and belly.

Musk Lorikeet Glossopsitta concinna feeding on street trees (Western Australian Red-flowering Gum Corymbia ficifolia)
in Coles Bay, Tasmania. The red mask is very obvious and is probably at least partly for flock contact.
Red-masked Parakeets Psittacara erythrogenys squabbling over a possible nest site in busy industrial
Guayaquil in southern Ecuador. This is a species in decline, primarily because of the trade in wild-caught
birds in Ecuador and Peru for domestic and US pet markets.
Australian Ringneck Barnardius zonarius, Cocoparra NP, New South Wales.
A very discreet little red forehead.
Superb Parrot Polytelis swainsonii male, Mulligans Flat NR, north Canberra.
Again, a small red band, but very distinctive against the green (and yellow, in this case).
A threatened species which migrates from its wintering grounds in the valleys of the Gwydir
and Namoi in northern New South Wales (cotton country) to breed in the woodlands
north of Canberra. Both habitats are problematic for it (via chemicals and clearing respectively).
White-eyed Parakeet Psittacara leucophthalmus southern Pantanal, Brazil; a widespread species
whose red speckles on head and neck are somewhat arbitrarily scattered.

Red-capped Parrot Purpureicephalus spurius, Albany, Western Australia. This very colourful big parrot
is endemic to that state, and is the only member of its genus. The elongated top mandible is for hooking
out tiny seeds from the big woody fruits of Marri Corymbia calophylla.Again we see red both on the head and below (this time on flanks and vent).
Red-winged Parrot pair, near Georgetown, north central Queensland.
The male's red wings are striking, but she too displays just a splash of red there.
And perhaps it's now time to give some non-parrots some air time!
Golden-headed Quetzal Pharomachrus auriceps, Mindo Valley, north-west of Quito, Ecuador.
This is a superb member of the generally spectacular trogon family.
Masked Trogon Trogon personatus, Tandanyapa Valley, just east of Mindo.
This one was inspecting the lodge compost heap, so was not showing its red undersides to best advantage.
Red-crowned Barbet Psilopogon rafflesii, Bako NP, Sarawak.
The Asian barbets are now regarded as in a different family from both the African and South American barbets.
Just the crown is red on the mostly green bird, but it stands out.

Red-throated Bee-eater Merops bulocki, Benoué NP, central Cameroon.
A beautiful bird - as bee-eaters are! - found across most of tropical Africa.
It wears its red on its throat rather than its crown.
Some of the fruit pigeons can be pretty colourful too.
Wompoo Fruit-Dove Ptilinopus magnificus, Cairns, north Queensland.
Truly magnificent, and named for its measured bell-like guttural call. One could argue that its breast
is more purple than red, but it would be a shame not to enjoy it on that account!
This was taken in 2006, just after Cyclone Larry caused immense destruction to buildings
and rainforest in the region, and many forest birds sought refuge in Cairns, which was relatively undamaged.
Pink-necked Green Pigeon Treron vernans Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
I admit it (even the name's a giveaway) it's not very red, and the green's pretty pale too -
bit it's time for some positive discrimination after all those gorgeous parrots!
Brazilian Ruby Clytolaema rubricauda near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Surprisingly few hummingbirds have red plumage, and even in this one (only found in Brazil)
it only catches - and flashes - the light at the right angle.
But it doesn't have to be the feathers that are red, as long as the red structure is surrounded by green. Bills can do the job pretty well too and while we're on hummingbirds...
Rufous-tailed Hummingbird Amazilia tzacatl, Mindo Valley, north-western Ecuador.
The nearly straight red bill is black-tipped.
And needless to say a couple of parrots feature here too.
Blue-naped Parrot Tanygnathus lucionensis, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
This is part of an apparently feral population of a Philippines species
(though the Philippines are close to Sabah).

Scaly-breasted Lorikeet Trichoglossus chlorolepidotus, Mullumbimby, northern New South Wales.
This is a lovely parrot of the tropics and subtropics of the east coast of Australia, and its bright
red bill is far from the least of its attractions.
Olive-backed Oriole Oriolus sagittatus, Nowra, New South Wales.
As well as the bill (which is redder than it appears here) the eye is also red on a green
- albeit not very bright green - face.
Finally a few birds - all parrots as it happens - where the red is a real feature, rather than just a highlight. Naturally in each case the red is contrasted with adjacent green plumage.
Red-and-Green Macaws Ara chloropterus, Blanquillo clay lick, southern Peru.
While the wings appear more blue than green, there is a definite green band between the red and blue.
Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius, Canberra.
It might not seem a lot of red, but it dominates this gorgeous woodland bird, which regularly comes into the suburbs.
Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus moluccanus, Emerald, Queensland. An abundant east coast parrot
which is expanding its range. It has many colours, but the red breast - and bill - are standouts.

Australian King Parrot Alisterus scapularis, Canberra. This is surely one of the most strikingly dramatic
of all the red and green brigade, and is a common backyard bird in Canberra - lucky us!
As far as colours go, it's Christmas all year round when the King Parrots are about.
And with that - which I hope has brought you a smile or so - I will close this celebration of green and red and leave you to continue your preparations for, or enjoyment of, Christmas (depending on when you read this), whatever it means to you. 

I shall be back just once more this year, when I bring you my traditional review of the year by selecting just one photo taken in each month of 2018. I hope to see you then!

(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!)