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.

Saturday, 23 March 2019

Happy National Eucalpyt Day!

You mean you didn't know?! Well I admit that it's hardly a long-established tradition (yet) but on the other hand I didn't invent it. It goes back to someone you may not have heard of either - Norwegian-Australian forester Bjarne Dahl, who came to Australia to work for the Victoria Forests Commission
in 1928 and stayed until his death in 1993, 65 years later. He and two compatriots worked as Forest Assessors (no, I'm not quite sure either, but it involved mapping and measuring trees) and he rapidly became a big fan of eucalypts. He was especially fond of the handsome Silvertop Ash Eucalyptus sieberi.
Silvertop Ash, Barren Grounds Nature Reserve, New South Wales.
In 1945 he started a school to teach other assessors the skills, but later retired and worked for the paper industry as an acquirer of suitable land. He also made money buying and selling land in a private capacity, but on the death of his wife in 1976 he became a recluse. When he died in 1993, aged 95, he left his estate of $2.5 million to the Victorian Forestry Commission to establish a trust for the promotion of eucalypts (though I can't find his exact wording); in the light of many of the Commission's activities some might think this a somewhat surprising decision. Fortunately there obviously were indications of his intents, because in 2007 the Victorian Supreme Court defined the Trust's objectives and structure, enabling the Bjarne Dahl Trust to be set up as an independent entity. 

It describes itself as "a charitable trust that awards grants to support the conservation, education and research of eucalypts." (I'm not entirely sure how one goes about educating eucalypts but it would pedantic and churlish to even ask.) Among the things it has done was to declare in 2014 that 23 March - Bjarne's birthday - would henceforth be celebrated as National Eucalypt Day, which is why you're reading this.

'Eucalypt' refers not just to the genus Eucalyptus, but to the closely related genera Angophora and the relatively recently separated Corymbia (bloodwoods, spotted gums and ghost gums).

I want to spend the rest of this posting simply celebrating eucalypts, as Bjarne would have wished. I'm going to do it in the form of a Eucalypt Alphabet (as I've done previously for red flowers, yellow flowers, white flowers and acacias). However I haven't quite limited myself to just one species per letter as I have done in the past - it was too hard sometimes and I didn't see why we should miss out! In the event, my photos only failed to produce examples of species beginning with x and z, which I don't feel too bad about. I've tried to share some of the diversity of habitats and forms that make the more than 800 species of Australian eucalypts so captivating.  (Six of those species are also found in New Guinea and nearby islands, and another nine are not Australian, found scattered as far as the Philippines, where there is just one species). I've included portraits of eucalypts from every Australian state and territory.

Ghost Gum Corymbia aparrerinja, near Trephina Gorge, East MacDonnell Ranges, Central Australia.
A stunning tree (this one, and the whole species), with a distribution based around the central deserts.
For a whole posting on this, one of my very favourite trees, see here.
'B' is represented here by two species local to Canberra.
Blakely's Red Gum E. blakelyi, northern Australian Capital Territory (ACT). Gums are smooth-barked
eucalypts, and the red gums form a small distinct group. This is one of the signature species of the
grassy woodlands of the slopes west of the Great Dividing Range throughout western NSW and into Victoria.William Faris Blakely was one of the great amateurs, a self-taught botanist who eventually collaborated with
botanical doyen Joseph Maiden of the Sydney Botanic Gardens on a major revision of Eucalyptus.

Apple Box E. bridgesiana, Australian National University. This is an original pre-European
tree, one of a few that have been preserved on the campus. The plated bark is typical of many of
the box eucalypts. It tends to grow where the woodlands meet the edge of the hill forests.
Frederick Bridges worked for the NSW Education Department in the 19th century - but didn't
appear to have much to do with eucalypts...
I just couldn't cut out any this quartet of very different eucalypts, so hopefully you'll understand!
Ancient River Red Gums E. camaldulensis, Burra Gorge, South Australia.
This is the only eucalypt found in every mainland Australian state and territory, mostly on inland
waterways, and is my favourite Australian tree.
For more about it, see this posting.
The other three 'C' eucalypts are much more restricted in distribution.
Nundroo Mallee E. calcareana, Nundroo, far west coast of South Australia.
Mallees represent a multi-stemmed growth form of eucalypt in low nutrient soils
(especially phosphate-deficient ones) whereby the trunk is largely represented by a
woody underground lignotuber and the branches grow as stems. It depends on the situation
and some of the trees in this stand are growing as single stems. This species is limited to the limestone
plains of Eyre Peninsula and west into the edge of the Nullarbor.
Chippendale's Bloodwod Corymbia chippendalei, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
A tough tree, limited to the Western Deserts, where it mostly grows on dunes.
George Chippendale was an eminent botanist who especially loved eucalypts and who also loved
sharing his enthusiasm for native plants by talking to school groups and leading annual wildflower
walks on Canberra's Black Mountain. He was a lovely bloke who died in 2010 and many of us still miss him.

Tasmanian Snow Gum E. coccifera, Mount Field NP, Tasmania.
This spectacular gum is limited to the high mountain forests of southern Tasmania.

Our two 'D' representatives are both seemingly growing straight out of solid rock but in very different habitats in distant parts of the country from each other.
Mountain Gum E. dalrympleana, Tinderry NR, southern NSW. This usually grows as a tall straight tree
in wet mountain forests where it sometimes snows. Richard Dalrymple Hay headed the first conservation
section of the NSW Forestry Department in 1895 and helped draft more modern forestry legislation.

Small-fruited Bloodwood Corymbia dichromophloia, Boodjamulla (Lawn Hill) NP, north-west Queensland.
It grows west from here across northern Australia.
Sand Mallee E. eremophila, Balladonia, central south Western Australia.
A mallee of the semi-arid inland of south-west Australia, striking in flower and bud.
The name means 'desert lover' but there are others with a better claim to that.

Red Bloodwood Corymbia erythrophloia, near Cooktown, north Queensland.
A spectacular tree whose bark sheds in patches, revealing bright rusty red new bark.
It is limited to Queensland, but covers much of the eastern part of the state
west of the coastal ranges.
White Ash E. fraxinoides, Monga NP, south-eastern NSW.
A striking tree of mountain forests of the south-east part of the state, which
seems to grow in tight altitudinal bands.
Hyden Blue Gum E. georgei, north of Norseman, inland southern Western Australia.
It is limited to a few localities in the Goldfields region.
Its name commemorates eminent botanist and banksia expert Alex George.
Scribbly Gum (one of several species) E. haemastoma, central coast NSW.
A moth larva (probably Ogmagraptis sp.) hatches under the bark and burrows, eating, through the
nutritious cambial layer. The tunnel, which is only revealed when the old bark drops off, abruptly
increases in diameter each time the larva sheds its skin and grows.

Gum-barked Coolibah E. intertexta, near Cobar. This handsome tree is widespread in western NSW and
west across South Australia to Port Augusta. A conspicuous and readily identified tree of the wide plains.
Red Tingles E. jacksonii, near Walpole, Nornalup NP, south-west WA.
These are huge trees, up to 75 metres high, with a tiny distribution in the wet forests around Walpole.
These were photographed from a 'treetop walk' through the canopy.
Sidney Jackson was best known as an egg-collector and bird taxidermist in the early 1900s,
 but he had wide natural history interests and collected the type specimen of this tree.
Kondinin Blackbutt E. kondininensis, Kondinin (appropriately!), Goldfields region, southern
inland Western Australia. Another of the numerous eucalypts with a small distribution in this area.

Leichhardt's Yellowjacket Corymbia leichhardtii, west of Charters Towers, north Queensland.
A striking yellowish tree scattered across a wide area of the eastern hinterland of Queensland.
The name honours one of the great names of northern Australian exploration, the German Ludwig Leichhardt
who vanished in 1848 attempting to travel from Moreton Bay (Brisbane) to the Swan River (Perth).
Bushy Yate E. lehmannii, Cape Le Grande NP, southern WA.
An attractive bushy little tree which has been widely cultivated. In the wild it grows along
the central south coast of WA.

There were too many impressive 'M' eucalypts as well to choose just one.
Mottlecah E. macrocarpa, Yandin Lookout, north of Perth. A small tree with huge dramatic
bird-pollinated flowers, from the northern sand plains.
This one was caught just as it was losing its bud cap to reveal the spectacular flower.
It is this bud cap which is the origin of Eucalyptus, meaning 'well covered'.

Spotted Gum Corymbia maculata, Nowra, south coast NSW.
A superb tall coastal forest tree, whose spottiness is due to patchy shedding of the old bark.

Yellow Box E. melliodora, Canberra.
Yes, the photo's a bit of an Australian metaphor, but... Yellow Box is one of the key trees of the grassy woodlands
of the western slopes, growing with E. blakelyi (see above). Often a soaring, spreading straight tree.

Normanton Box E. normantonensis, Lark Quarry near Winton, central Queensland.
This mallee is named for the Gulf of Carpentaria town of Normanton, but in fact grows scattered
in separate populations across Queensland, the Northern Territory and adjacent Western Australia.
Ancient Messmate Stringybark E. obliqua in rainforest, Mount Field NP, Tasmania.
The species name refers to the angled position of the vein across the leaf. There are various, somewhat desperate,
attempts to explain the 'Messmate, but it's safest to say that its origin remains a mystery.
We can say with certainty though that this species has the honour of being the first eucalypt to be scientifically described.
It was collected on James Cook's 1777 visit to Tasmania on Bruny Island, and later described at the British Museum
by French botanist Charles Louis L'Héritier de Brutelle, who coined the genus name Eucalyptus.

Red Mallee E. oleosa, far western South Australia. A common mallee in dry sandy country from south-western NSW
and adjacent Victoria to the Goldfields of Western Australia.
'P' seems to be another auspicious initial for eucalypts - I can't narrow it down beyond four very different trees!
Rose-bud Mallee E. pachyphylla, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia. A very hardy mallee of the
central and western deserts.

Very old Snow Gum E. pauciflora, Kosciuszko NP. The highest altitude eucalypt, whose upper level
forms the tree line in the south-eastern mainland. For an entire post on this wonderful tree, see here.

Bell-fruit Mallee E. preissiana, Stirling Ranges NP, southern WA. A lovely little mallee from
the central south coast of Western Australia. Its name commemorates Johann Preiss who first collected it.

Grey Gum E. punctata, Munghorn Gap NR, central NSW.
A gum often associated with sandstone along the coast and ranges from Jervis Bay
north to the Liverpool Ranges.
White-topped Box E. quadrangulata, Kangaroo Valley, southern NSW.
An impressive tree which grows in small scattered populations north from Bundanoon
to south-east Queensland

Candlebark Gum E. rubida, Kosciuszko NP, south of Canberra.
This cold-loving tree of the tablelands and drier mountain forest of the south-east glows
in late summer as the old bark dries before shedding.
Sydney Blue Gum E. saligna, Mount Clunie NP, far northern NSW.
A magnificent huge wet forest tree which is fast-growing and features in plantations
both here and in South Africa.

Scribbly Gum (another one) E. signata, Coffs Harbour, north coast NSW.
(This one is sometimes subsumed into E. racemosa.)

Gimlet E. salubris east of Norseman.
This stunningly beautiful small tree or mallee with fluted trunk grows in the dry
inland of southern Western Australia.
Desert Bloodwood Corymbia terminalis, Currawinya, south-central Queensland.
A characteristic and attractive tree of the entire dry inland of Australia.

Carbeen, or Moreton Bay Ash E. tessellaris, Charleville, central Queensland.
A very distinctive tree with dark plated bark at the base and smooth white above,
growing from northern NSW to Cape York.

Merritt E. urna, Norseman, Goldfields region, southern inland WA. Yet another tree of the rich woodlands
of southern inland WA; it was separated from the more widespread E. flocktoniae  in 1999.
Smooth-barked Coolibah E. victrix, north of Cue, central WA.
A tree of flood plains and creek lines from the west coast to the central deserts.
'W' has proved a source of frustration and a little embarrassment. I was confident of this one, knowing I had at least one nice pic of the beautiful Wandoo woodlands (E wandoo) east of Perth - but it has mysteriously vanished from my system!! And I have no other 'w' eucalypt so have had to revert to the somewhat desperate and shabby ploy of selecting one on common name - and moreover one growing in captivity! I abase myself.
Wallangarra White Gum E. scoparia, Wagga Wagga Botanic Gardens.
The tree grows naturally in a tiny area of granite outcrops near the town of Wallangarra
on the south-east Queensland-NSW border.
As confessed at the start I can't offer you an 'x' eucalypt, though next time I'm in the Pilbara I'll take a photo of Pilbara Box E. xanthope.

Yalata Mallee E. yalatensis, Nullarbor Plain, South Australia.
A pretty little limestone-loving mallee that grows from Eyre Peninsula in South Australia west
around the coastal fringe of the Nullabor Plain. Yalata is a small settlement in western South Australia.

I do like the sound of Blackbutt Mallee E. zopherophloia from a small area south of Geraldton, WA.

So again, Happy Eucalypt Day - and if you're not reading this on 23 March then I reckon that any day is a good one to celebrate eucalypts. I hope you've met a new one here, or learnt a new factoid to save for an appropriate occasion. More importantly though, please get out and enjoy some real ones!

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Thursday, 14 March 2019

North Queensland's Crater Lakes NP; a special rainforest remnant

We recently spent ten memorable days in tropical north Queensland in the summer Wet Season. Some friends made little pretence of their belief that we were mad, but it was rich and wonderful - and as it turned out, a lot cooler on several days than was our home in 'temperate' Canberra over 2,000km to the south. 

Three of those nights were spent on the Atherton Tableland, whose rich volcanic soils, rainforest timbers, high rainfall and relatively mild climate (compared with the nearby steamy coast 800 metres below) have long attracted European settlers and farmers. (And of course people have lived there for tens of thousands of years before that.) This farming and logging has come at a great cost to the rich upland rainforests of the tableland.
The Atherton Tableland, roughly 50km south-west of Cairns on the coast. The Crater Lakes NP consists of
Lake Barrine and Lake Eacham (unconnected units) at the ends of the red lines above.
Elsewhere on the tableland the tiny Curtain Fig Forest Reserve (yellow) and Mount Hypipamee NP (green)
are the only other areas of conserved forest - all the other forest areas on the map are State Forest
(and thus open to logging). All the cleared land in the rest of the photo was once rainforest.
Crater Lakes National Park - Lake Barrine (north) and Lake Eacham.
Only the forest immediately around the lakes (or some of it anyway) is national park.
For instance the red arrow indicates Chambers Rainforest Lodge where we stayed,
within the forest on the park's edge; as I've mentioned before, I only name specific commercial accommodation
when I believe the owners have a genuine conservation ethos and the experience is exceptional.

Let's start with the view from our little verandah, looking straight into the forest. The following photos were taken from it (and yes, I confess we shared a little of our fruit to encourage the neighbours to drop by). 
As I mentioned, the verandah looks straight into the forest; not all of the cabins do so,
so you might want to make enquiries as to that if you're booking.
Black Butcherbird Melloria quoyi. This butcherbird, recently put into a different genus from all other butcherbirds,
lives and hunts in a range of forest types across northern Australia and New Guinea.

By contrast, the often confiding Grey-headed Robin Heteromyias cinereifrons, is confined to
the rainforests of Queensland's Wet Tropics region.
The Pale-yellow Robin regellasia capito is another rainforest specialist, with one population
in the Wet Tropics and another far to the south in south-east Queensland and north-east New South Wales.

Lewin's Honeyeater Meliphaga lewinii on the other hand is found along most of the east coast of
Australia in denser vegetation, where its 'machine gun' rattling call is familiar.

The Spotted Catbird Ailuroedus maculosus belongs to a genus of possibly primitive rainforest bowerbirds
which do not build display bowers. There are ten species, seven confined to New Guinea, plus the
Black-eared Catbird A. melanotis found in both New Guinea and Cape York Peninsula, and the
Green Catbird A. crassirostris from southern Queensland to the NSW south coast.
The yowling 'cat call' can be hair-raising if you're not expecting it!

Male Victoria's Riflebird Ptiloris paradiseus, one of three Australian riflebirds (which are
birds of paradise) with similar distributions to the three Australian catbirds (above),
reflecting the fragmentation of once-widespread rainforests as the continent dried out.
This one is restricted to the Wet Tropics.
He has wonderful iridescent plumage and his display, on a raised perch, is truly spectacular.
(And it's a bird of which I still don't have a decent photo!)

Musky Rat Kangaroo Hypsiprymnodon moschatus, a very primitive little daytime kangaroo, possibly
resembling the ancestral kangaroo. It is also a Wet Tropics endemic.
For more on this truly fascinating little ancient Australian, see my most recent posting.
After years of seeing them bound out sight with no chance of laying lens on one,
it was both a thrill and a bit surreal to have one pottering about right under our noses.

A walk along the access road (ie away from the crater) led us through mixed forest, with both rainforest elements and some tall wet eucalypt forest.
Flooded Gums Eucalyptus grandis. These magnificent trees are among the tallest of all eucalypts;
one near Bulahdelah (near Newcastle) was measured at 86 metres high.
One of the highlights for us was the feeding station set up near the cabins, with a shelter and benches where people can sit and wait for wildlife to come (or not) to minimal food offerings. In particular a small amount of honey is poured on to a couple of tree trunks to attract some special possums. The trees are floodlit but the animals don't seem perturbed, which is quite counter-intuitive. I first saw this on floodlit waterholes at Etosha NP in Namibia, and it puzzled me then too. I am very dubious about feeding wild animals, but in the three nights we were there the few individuals which came stayed no more than 15 minutes or so, and then went about their main business. None of them came on all three nights.

Sugar Gliders Petaurus breviceps occur right around the north, east and south-east coast
and hinterlands of Australia, and in New Guinea and the Moluccas. They eat nectar, pollen,
invertebrates and the sap of some acacias and eucalypts. To access the sap they will
chew notches in the bark with their sharp front teeth.
The animal on the right, with extended left hind leg, is demonstrating part of its gliding membrane
which stretches from wrist to ankle. With this it can glide up to 50 metres between trees, changing
direction by adjusting one or other membrane, and braking to land upright on the tree trunk.
Another visitor to the tree was even more exciting for us though, as it is restricted to the forests of far north Queensland and New Guinea. The Striped Possum Dactylopsila trivirgata is in the same family as the Sugar Glider, but does not glide.
Striped Possum Dactylopsila trivirgata. This is not a well-understood animal, but it is said to emit an
unpleasant odour, which might indicate a bad taste too and thus explain the warning colouring.
Striped Possums are largely insectivores, and in particular relish wood-boring larvae. They locate them by tapping
on the wood, then chew a hole and use the elongated fourth toe, quite obvious in this photo, to extract
the unlucky grub. It is a remarkable example of parallel evolution with the utterly unrelated big
nocturnal Madagascan lemur, the Aye-aye.
And this lovely huntsman (or huntswoman) was waiting for us on the verandah when we got home.

We of course visited both lakes, including an early morning circumnavigation of Lake Eacham, a pleasant rainforest stroll of three kilometres.

Lake Eacham is truly a lovely little crater lake; both it and Lake Barrine are about 65 metres deep.

Another view. The explosions took place only about 10,000 years ago, and local people tell the stories.
(My mind reels at the idea of a 10,000 year old accurate oral tradition.)
At that stage - late in the last glaciation - the surrounding forest was dry, as told by pollen studies from the lake.

A typical section of the track, most of which is a boardwalk.
At one stage the track passes through the root curtain of this magnificent old strangler fig Ficus virens(though there are several other species which are also stranglers).
A bird has deposited a fig seed on a branch of an unwitting host tree; the germinating seedling sends down aerial
roots which eventually reach the ground and boosts the seedling's growth. The fig takes nothing from the host
but support. It does however eventually kill it - not by strangulation
(hard to imagine what that might mean to a tree!) but by shading out its canopy.
Eventually the host trunk and branches rot, leaving only the free-standing fig.
A couple more trackside glimpses.
Bracket fungi - sorry do better than that! Busy turning wood back to soil.

Bank of Common Maidenhair Fern Adiantum aethiopicum. Despite the scientific name it is not
found in Ethiopia, though it does grow in southern Africa, a testament to the antiquity of ferns.
We visited Lake Barrine late in the afternoon, without time to do a full circuit, but it was nonetheless a rewarding time.
Again a lovely lake rimmed with rainforest, though the rim is sadly thin.

Lake Barrine through the trees.
Lianas, a key component of tropical rainforests. These are plants which use the huge investment of trees in
building vast wooden trunks, to get their own foliage into the sunlight.
Climbing Palms Calamus sp. There are some 400 species of these rattan palms in African, Asian and
Australian rainforests. Their thin stems can be over 100 metres long, and climb with the help of
wicked spines. Their spiny dangling tendrils can make walking in the forest very hazardous.
New growth, before it's gained its chlorophyll; presented here just for aesthetics!
A famous pair of huge Bull Kauris Agaathis microstachya, near the start of the walk; they are nearly 50 metres tall
and estimated to be around a thousand years old. They belong to the old Gondwanan conifer family Araucariaceae.
This beautiful lizard was clinging to a tree trunk near the kauris; we'd been here in winter a couple of times, but never seen one. Another reason to come in summer!
Boyd's Forest Dragaon Lophosaurus boydii, a lightly built lizard but up to half a metre long.
It has a relative in the rainforests of the Queensland - NSW border region.
Spectacled Monarch Symposiachrus trivirgatus; a common rainforest monarch in rainforests north from near
Sydney to southern New Guinea and Indonesian islands to the west.

The Atherton Scrubwren Sericornis keri is not nearly so widespread -
in fact it is endemic to the Wet Tropics rainforests. Unlike the very similar Large-billed Scrubwren
it has a straight (not uptilted) bill and forages on or near the ground.
I've left one of our trip highlights to last, but it's the appropriate place for it, as we saw it on foliage
just above us as we were about to leave Lake Barrine.

Male Cairns Birdwing Ornithoptera euphorion; this is Australia's largest butterfly, with a wingspan of up to 15cm,
and is truly magnificent. It is found from Mackay to Cooktown.
Next time you're up that way - and it doesn't have to be in summer, though you might see more then! - put aside some time for the Crater Lakes. There's more to them than their tiny size might suggest. And if you can spend some nights there, so much the better!

Next time I'm back - on a different day from my usual! - it will be to celebrate National Eucalypt Day! Who knew?

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