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, 24 October 2019

Tough Toucans; anything but clowns!

A quick search of the internet will reveal plenty of anthropomorphic throw-away lines like "it's impossible to take toucans seriously". That could only be written by someone who's never watched wild toucans, stunningly beautiful and clearly intimidating to many of their neighbours. I suspect the authors of such lines are much more familiar with the clownish caricatures of toucans from cartoons and advertising logos.

Yellow-throated (also called Black-mandibled) Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus, Wild Sumaco Lodge, Ecuador. At 60cm long and up to 750 grams, this is one of the largest toucans,
and is found from southern Peru to Central America. This one was about to tuck into the
cluster of long Cecropia fruits behind it - toucans are great fruit eaters.
The colourful plumage, bill and bare facial skin are typical of toucans.

Chestnut-eared Aracari Pteroglossus castanotis, Iguaçu Falls, Brazil.
The aracaris, all in the same genus, are a group of 14 smaller toucans found throughout the Neotropics.
This one is less than half the weight of the previous species and is usually found near water.
There are some 45 species recognised, all in the Family Ramphastidae, found throughout tropical South and Central America, except for the Pacific desert coast. All are solely or mostly rainforest birds, except for the largest and probably most-recognised of them all.
The Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco, here in the northern Pantanal of Brazil, is found in
drier woodlands and savannahs of eastern and central South America. Most toucan
caricatures are based on this magnificent bird, which is also the largest toucan, more
than 60cm long and weighing nearly 900 grams. The remarkable bill is the largest in area,
for body size, of any living bird. It can have an area up to half that of its body surface.
It was this bill (ie the Toco's) that was studied to reveal the surprising role of toucan bills in heat loss - see below.
While we're on Tocos, the Pantanal is probably the best place to see them. This is part of a group
of a dozen or so which gathers outside the kitchen door in the early mornings at Pousada Aguapé
in the southern Pantanal.
All toucans rely on hollows for nesting. While some of the big ones can do some enlarging of soft rotted wood, for the most part those bills aren't useful for such heavy work, though some of the green toucanets, small toucans in the genus Aulacorhynchus, can manage it. Accordingly most need to find a large tree cavity which is either natural or been excavated by someone else.
Plate-billed Mountain Toucan Andigena laminirostris, north-western Ecuadorian Andes, at nesting hollow.
(And this one wouldn't let me get a better angle!)
However, so much of toucan lore is about the bill, unsurprisingly. Obviously one major function is food-gathering. As mentioned, toucans are fundamentally fruit-eaters, targetting a wide range of fruiting trees; as such they are very important vectors of seeds of rainforest trees and climbers.
Yellow-throated Toucan eating Cecropia fruits, Wild Sumaco, Ecuador. This is the bird featured in the first photo above.
(And Wild Sumaco really has one of the best balconies for wildlife viewing that I've ever seen!)
This fondness for fruit also makes toucans regular visitors to feeders throughout much of their range, enabling closer views of wild toucans than we would ever be likely to get otherwise.
Pale-mandibled (or Pale-billed) Aracari Pteroglossus erythropygius, Mirador Rio Blanco,
north-west of Quito, Ecuador. This is a restaurant with huge views over the river valley
and great feeders on the edge of the forest just the other side of the windows.
We can watch the birds at the buffet while we're eating our own lunch!
However most toucans are also fond of some meat in their diet. Many rob nests, both by probing into tree hollows and ripping apart hanging nests such as those of caciques; birds regularly mob them to try to move them on. They will also hunt almost anything they can catch on occasions, from insects to small birds, lizards, frogs, snakes and small mammals. 

As can be seen in some of the photos, including the previous one, many toucans have forward-pointing 'teeth' in the upper mandible. While it is often asserted that the purpose is to rip fruit apart, there appears to be no evidence to support this. Others suggest that they might be to assist in intimidatory postures, such as defending a fruiting tree, or warding off mobbing birds trying to prevent nest robbing, but while these activities certainly occur, there again seems to be no evidence of the bill 'teeth' playing a role in this. The aracaris seem to have the most-developed bill teeth; here are a couple more examples.

Chestnut-eared Aracari, Pousada Arara, northern Pantanal; these are common visitors to feeders.

Collared Aracaris Pteroglossus torquatus (very wet!), Costa Rica. This aracari is found throughout
Central America and adjacent far northern South America. Here the 'teeth' are evident
on the lower mandible too. These birds too were attracted by free bananas at a private feeder.
The bright colours of the bill - evident in some of the photos in this posting - also suggest a role in courtship displays.
However, recent work has shown that another purpose of the bill, and possibly the major one, is to disperse heat, a key problem for any tropical bird, especially a larger one, given that birds don't sweat and have limited bare skin. Toucans have complex blood networks in the bill, which can be opened or closed to control blood flow near the surface, restricting it to conserve heat, increasing it to shed heat. Infrared thermal imaging showed rapid heat transfer from the body to the bill - such as when the bird was about to sleep - and equally rapid 'dumping' of this heat from the bill to the atmosphere. (More recently, acting on this tip-off, other workers have confirmed that hornbills, an unrelated Old World group of big-bills, do exactly the same thing.)

I'm going to end this introduction to the wonderful toucans by featuring more examples of the three groups (representing genera) that we've already met, plus the two that we haven't yet encountered here. I've included a couple of fairly ordinary photos in order to share as many toucan species as possible.

The big 'typical' toucans, such as the Yellow-billed and Toco above, are all in the genus Ramphastos (from which the family is also named). Here are three (or maybe four?) more of them, of the eight generally recognised.
Choco (not to be confused with Toco!) Toucan Ramphastos brevis, Rio Silanch, north-west of Quito, Ecuador.
The Choco is a hugely biodiverse region of western Colombia and Ecuador.

Green-billed (or Red-breasted) Toucan Ramphastos dicolorus, Trilha dos Tucanos Lodge, near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
This lovely toucan is limited to south-eastern Brazil and adjacent Argentina and Paraguay.

Channel-billed Toucan Ramphastos vitellinus, Chapada dos Guimarães NP, south-western Brazil.
This blue-faced beauty (which was being very coy) is limited to north-eastern South America.

The Chestnut-mandibled Toucan, here at Milpe Reserve, north-west of Quito in Ecuador,
is usually regarded as a sub-species of the Yellow-Billed Toucan (see the black-billed form in the
first photo), but some would raise it to full species R. swainsonii.
The aracaris (genus Pteroglossus) form the largest toucan group, with 14 species; as well as the three above, here are four more.
Ivory-billed Aracaris Pteroglossus azara, from the rainforest canopy tower at Sacha Lodge, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
(Distant preening birds with my first digital camera, a bit primitive by today's standards.)
A toucan primarily of the lowland Amazon rainforests.

Lettered Aracari Pteroglossus inscriptus, Chapada dos Guimarães NP, south-western Brazil.
The name refers to the bill markings, not very obvious in this, another distant, photo.
The bird is found from Bolivia to the north Atlantic coast of Brazil.
It is the smallest toucan, less than 30cm long and weighing only 130 grams.

Many-banded Aracari Pteroglossus pluricinctus, another great sighting from the Wild Sumaco balcony in Ecuador
(see above)!  Here at its south-western limits, it extends east across much of northern South America.

I think this Saffron Toucanet Pteroglossus bailloni is one of the loveliest and most striking of all toucans -
it is so different from all the rest. This one also came for the bananas at Trilha dos Tucanos, near Sao Paulo (see
Green-billed Toucan above). It used to be put in its own genus to reflect its 'differentness', but it is
now regarded as an aracari. It is almost endemic to south-eastern Brazil, just sneaking into Argentina and Paraguay.
The mountain toucans are a small genus of four species from the Andean cloud forests. We met Plate-billed earlier from Ecuador; here's another.
Grey-breasted Mountain Toucan Andigena hypoglauca, El Cajas NP, southern Ecuador.
Its range is a narrow strip of the Andes from Colombia to Peru.
There are 11 of the  little green toucanets, genus Aulacorhynchus.
Crimson-rumped Toucanet Aulacorhynchus haematopygus, Mirador Rio Blanco, Ecuador.
(See the Pale-mandibled Aracari above for a little more on this excellent feeder of birds and people!)
Lovely, like all this genus of little treasures; sadly we can't admire its rump here...
Finally there are six of the 'dichromatic toucanets', genus Selenidera. The name refers to the fact that almost alone of the toucans, they have differently coloured sexes (in most of the rest the females have smaller bills, but are otherwise pretty much indistinguishable from their mates).

This handsome pair were among the amazing throngs in front of the Wild Sumaco balcony in the eastern Andean slopes of Ecuador.
Golden-collared (or Red-billed) Toucanets Selenidera reinwardtii, female above and male below;
without prior knowledge, they could easily be mistaken for separate species.

They are found in mostly lower-slope forests around the junction of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.
In fact members of this genus are strongly forest-oriented, so are a good indicator of the health of the forests.
Well that's it for today. I hope this small offering has helped to lift the toucans off the cereal box, stout bottle label and cartoon strip, and back to their special place in the world. They really are much more than just a caricature!

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Thursday, 10 October 2019

North Coast Regional Botanic Garden, Coffs Harbour

In 2018 Australian Geographic magazine surveyed 100 Australian regional botanic gardens, and produced a list of its top ten (though without sharing its criteria). Over the years I've featured such gardens, focussing on those which prioritise native plants. I've shared with you (before they produced their list) AG's number 4, the Olive Pink Botanic Garden in Alice Springs, and number 6, the Eurobodalla Regional Botanic Gardens just south of Batemans Bay on the New South Wales south coast. I'd have sworn I'd also 'done' AG's number 1, the Arid Lands Botanic Garden in Port Augusta (South Australia), but my memory has let me down - I shall rectify that in the near future, along with their number 3, the Flecker Botanic Gardens in Cairns (or at least the broader Cairns Botanic Gardens). 

Today however I want to introduce you to AG's number 2, the excellent North Coast Regional Botanic Garden in Coffs Harbour on the New South Wales north coast. On our last visit, when all these photos were taken, it was cool and overcast, not ideal for photography, but the place is superb, probably more so than the following pics suggest! So welcome to these 'must visit' gardens.
The gardens are right in Coffs Harbour, a very busy and growing city of over 70,000 people
in the sub-tropics, 550km north of Sydney and only 400km south of Brisbane.
While the coast and hinterlands are superb, to be honest we probably wouldn't spend time in Coffs were it not for these gardens. Opened in 1988 they cover 20ha of land, half of which comprises original habitat, eucalypt forest and mangroves, as well of course as the plantings of species both local and from the subtropics of Australia and elsewhere. Five kilometres of tracks wend through the grounds. Let's start with the natural areas.
The gardens are set within an elbow of Coffs Creek, which bounds them on three sides. The creek
is tidal and so supports a healthy mangrove forest which is accessed by boardwalks
and interpreted - as is the rest of the garden - by good interpretive signs.

The two southern Australian mangrove species are present - Grey Mangrove Avicennia marina in the strong tidal zone
and River Mangrove Aegiceras corniculatum further upstream where it is less saline.

This lovely mangrove fringe is part of the Solitary Islands Marine Park,
which extends north from Coffs Harbour along the coast for some 75km.
Little Black Cormorant hanging out its wings to dry - as a professional diver it needs them to get wet to
reduce buoyancy - in the mangroves.
(And if you're interested in mangroves - and surely, aren't we all?! - I've written about them in more detail here (the first of three postings).

I mentioned signage in one of the captions above, and they are really very good; here's an example picked more or less at random.


In the higher parts of the gardens lovely drier forest predominates, with a mixed overstorey of Pink Bloodwoods, Scribbly Gums and Blackbutts.
The site was logged during the 20th century, but certainly not cleared. However there
is a lot of vigorous regrowth in the forests.

The local Scribbly Gum (one of several related species sharing that name) is Eucalyptus signata
(though it is sometimes regarded as a subspecies of E. racemosa.). It grows from south of Newcastle
to southern Queensland (though if included in E. racemosa it extends to southern NSW as well).
Either way it is a striking tree!

Blackbutt E. pilularis (the lean is not typical!) and grass-tree Xanthorrhoea johnsonii.

An ancient Pink Bloodwood E. (or Corymbia) intermedia, estimated to be 500 years old.

Scribbly Gum bark; the scribbles are the work of tiny moth larvae, chewing the nutritious
cambial layer beneath the bark.

There is a healthy and very attractive population of Xanthorrhoea johnsonii in the dry forest understorey.

Fire-sensitive species such as these Gristle Ferns Blechnum cartilagineum thrive in a situation
where fire has been excluded for some time. They do well in drier situations once established.
The gardens site is adjacent to a former rubbish and night soil dump, but was eventually accepted as a recreation reserve in the late 1950s. However members of the community, including Alex Floyd, doyen of Australian rainforest botanists (who featured in the Terania Creek story that I retold recently), pushed for something more. In 1975 the reserve was gazetted for the “purposes of a Botanic Garden”. In 1979 John Wrigley, another eminent botanist and prolific author with Murray Fagg of books on Australian plants, was Curator of the Australian National Botanic Gardens in Canberra. He was engaged (I assume by the Council) to prepare a development plan. When his plan was accepted he was appointed as a consultant to oversee its development and moved to live in Coffs Harbour, where he later remained until his death in 2014. A Friends of the North Coast Regional Botanic Garden group was formed in 1981 and was instrumental in rubbish and weed removal and later development of gardens and paths. Today they are still active in garden maintenance, plant propagation, herbarium work, guiding and fundraising.

At the base of the dry slope the ground is boggy and the natural vegetation is dominated by Broad-leaved Paperbark Melaleuca quinquenervia, though some of the area is incorporated into the planted section.
Broad-leaved Paperbarks over fern plantings, including tree ferns Cyathea sp.
Nearby in this poorly-drained area a palm swamp forest has been recreated, with a boardwalk running through it.
Cabbage Palms Livistona australis and Bangalow Palms Archontophoenix cunninghamiana, both
common in rainforest situations on the east coast, have been planted here.

Understorey species such as Walking Stick Palms Linospadix monostachya (foreground)
are further transforming this section of the gardens.
It was along here that we encountered an utterly insouciant young Grey Fantail bathing in a pool provided by a large dried palm frond.
A young Grey Fantail perched on the edge of the bath, and not at all disturbed by our proximity.
Two species of Elaeocarpus, ancient Gondwanans in the family Elaeocarpaceae, also thrive in this environment, and both have confusing common names! Blueberry Ash E. reticulatus and Blue Fig E. angustifolius also both have pronounced buttresses, even when fairly young. 
Elaeocarpus sp. buttress - I'm not sure which one of the two present this is.
Another significant planting comprises some rare and threatened Australian plants from appropriate climates (though in fact several of them are from the tropics); here are a few.

Veiny Whitewood Atalaya rigida, Family Sapindaceae, found in near-coastal Queensland from Bowen to Gympie.

Daintree Pine Gymnostoma australianum, Family Casuarinaceae (ie the she-oaks), which grows only in a limited area
of the Daintree rainforest in tropical Queensland north of Cairns.

Mount Spurgeon Black Pine Prumnopitys ladei, in the Gondwanan conifer family Podocarpaceae.
This is a very scarce tree in the wild, where it grows scattered between 1000 and 1200 metres above sea level
only on Mount Spurgeon and Mount Lewis on the Atherton Tablelands. It is believed there
are fewer than 1000 mature trees there.
At the edge of the forest picnic areas have been provided, with original forest trees alongside.
Old Blackbutt overseeing one such picnic ground.
Another excellent place for relaxing is by the lovely pond and surrounds right by the entrance.
It's a delight to sit quietly here and watch the world come and go.
For instance, a couple of quintessentially Australian east coast birds came and went while I was there.
This Brush Turkey, one of the old family of mound-builders which incubate their eggs in large compost heaps that
they scrape up with those huge feet, came to drink while I was there.
This male Satin Bowerbird also caught my eye as I sat. I followed him to just outside the gate, and was well-rewarded
for my curiosity.
The bower was magnificent, though there were sadly few natural objects in his collection.

For a while though he was carrying both a peg and a leaf, contemplating where they best fitted.
Unfortunately I'm not sure that the leaf made the cut.
And here he is inspecting - yet again - his very impressive construction. Unhappily for him
no female came by to be impressed while I was there, but since I'm not sure that May
is breeding season even in balmy Coffs Harbour, he may have been just preparing.
So, a very brief introduction to this very lovely gardens, which deserved much more time than the few hours we spent there, and the small sample I've offered you. And it certainly would reward any time you were able to spend there next time you're up that way. Let me know what you think.

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