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, 30 January 2020

Remembering Namadgi: celebration of a great park #1

As I write this, Namadgi National Park, which comprises some 45% of the area of the Australian Capital Territory where I live, is burning again. So far it has already consumed some 15,000 hectares of habitat (14% of the park) but in a situation of extreme drought, with two 40+ degree days coming, that won't be the limit of it. Nonetheless I am cautiously optimistic that this time won't be as bad as the cataclysm of January 2003 when 95% of Namadgi burnt, plus some 500 Canberra homes. (I retold the story, from my perspective, here on the tenth anniversary; I won't revisit it now.) My optimism is based on more benign predicted wind conditions, the early attack made possible by the fact that it started in the ACT and was immediately identified (the 2003 fire roared over the range from the west, already a raging monster, completely invincible), and lessons learnt from the past.

[Update, Saturday morning, 1 February. The fire has already doubled in size, spreading south, east and north. So far it has not moved into the high western ranges where it would, I believe, do the most ecological damage.]
Looking north out of the Ororral Valley; the current fire started somewhere near here.
(It was a terrible accident which probably shouldn't have happened, but my interest today is not in laying blame.)
The great granite tors that are a feature of this part of the park are visible on the ridges to the right.
Today I don't want to dwell on what's happened this dreadful summer, and is still happening while our Federal Government is paralysed by denial as to the role of climate warming. We've all been assailed by shock and grief for what's been lost for too long already and our health is doubtless suffering. Today I want to share and celebrate with you some of the glory of this magnificent park, with photos taken from walks and drives we've done over the years. Much of what you see will hopefully remain unburnt at the end of this summer, and the rest will recover in time - remember that all you see here was burnt in 2003. Moreover, apart from the couple of pics of the Orroral Valley (towards the south-east of the red circle in the following map) all the scenes to follow remain unaffected by the fire, at least for now. Another reason for presenting this now is that we will almost certainly not be able to go and see for ourselves this summer.
A somewhat crude map of the Territory (from the Federal Health Department, curiously),
with Namadgi represented by the green area in the west and south, with Canberra to the north-east.
I have added the red circle to indicate the approximate area of the current fire as of 30 January 2020.
The rugged wilderness of the Brindabella Range runs down the western border.
This is the first of three posts I've planned on Namadgi. Today will be just an introduction to the landscapes, with a post each on plants (especially wildflowers), and animals to come. Rather than leave my usual fortnightly gap, I'm going to run them over the next two weeks. 

Let's start with the high Brindabellas (the Brindies to their friends). They represent the northern-most extension of the Australian Alps, and Namadgi is managed cooperatively with the New South Wales (NSW), Victorian and national parks services as the Australian Alps National Parks, a mighty and nearly contiguous wilderness of some 1.6 million hectares and 12 parks and reserves. They together form one of the world's great park systems, though they've been hard hit by fires in recent years.
This is a low-resolution map I'm afraid (courtesy of the Australian Alps NPs web site) but gives an idea of
the extent of the combined alps system; Namadgi is at the northern end of the strip of parks.
It's an easy drive on a good gravel road down the ridgeline on the western border with NSW, as far as Mount Ginini, where there are great views out into Kosciuszko National Park in NSW, and into southern Namadgi. These four views start out to the west, and work round to the south and south-east. In each of them tree skeletons from the 2003 fires are visible.
Across the Snow Gums to the Bogong Peaks in Kosciuszko.

South-west, still looking into Kosciuszko, to Tantangara Reservoir on the Murrumbidgee.
Beyond again, not quite visible at this scale, are the peaks of the Main Range,
including Mount Kosciuszko itself, Australia's highest peak.

Due south along the range to Mount Gingera.
South-east into the Bimberi Wilderness Area of Namadgi, accessible only on foot (though closed this summer
for obvious reasons), including the hump of Mt Namadgi, the highest peak entirely within the ACT.
The vegetation up here is dominated by Snow Gums Eucalyptus pauciflora, tough and resilient.
Snow Gums on Mount Ginini.
In summer the understorey, of shrubby golden peas or snowy white paper daisies, glows in sunshine or cloud.
Leafy Bossiaea Bossiaea foliosa.
Alpine or Hoary Sunrays Leucochrysum alpinum.
Common or Golden Shaggy-Pea Oxylobium ellipticum.
Just below the Snow Gums grow the magnificent Alpine Ash E. delegatensis wet forests. Unlike most other eucalypts these are killed outright by intense fires and regrow from seed in even-aged stands; hence most Alpine Ash in Namadgi now are saplings. However some survived around Bulls Head on the western ridge. Bulls Head was the headquarters of the fire-fighting effort in 2003 until it became too dangerous for fire crews to stay there. Meantime though they were back-burning, which I think explains the survival of mature Alpine Ash nearby, as the subsequent wildfires were somewhat less intense there.
Alpine Ash stand on a sheltered slope near Bulls Head.
Fishbone Fern Blechnum nudum recovering in a moist Alpine Ash gully.
Towards the centre and east of the park the ranges are just as rugged but mostly dominated by granites, forming great tors, rather than the old sedimentary shales of the high Brindabellas, and are interspersed by broad grassy frost-hollow valleys. The access to most of these is via the Boboyan Road which runs south from Tharwa into New South Wales and ultimately to Adaminaby.

One of these of course is the Ororral Valley, currently in the midst of the fire ground; the ridges above the valley are noted for their great granite standing stones. (I'm using 'granite' here in a general lay sense for igneous rocks formed deep underground and revealed by natural erosion; geologists would roll their eyes at my imprecision.)
The tors will still be there, and in time the forests will regenerate yet again.

Further south are other major valleys, including Gudgenby, the site of a historic homestead and an well-preserved Indigenous art site, and Grassy Creek in the far south. The next few photos were taken in the Gudgenby Valley, along the walking track to the Yankee Hat art site.
Granites above Bogong Swamp.

Bogong Creek.
Snow Gum and granites with the hill known as Yankee Hat in the background.
The centres of these valleys were naturally treeless because of cold air drainage,
but settlers cleared outward from the edges of the grasslands to expand grazing.
Yankee Hat art site, above and below.
The granite 'canvas' is huge, and its overhang protects the art.

Grassy Creek valley, near the southern border of the ACT, contains the beautiful Mount Clear Camp Ground above the creek.
Grassy Creek Valley; the delineation between frost hollow and forest is sharp.

Grassy Creek, alongside the camp ground.

Wombat burrow in the creek bank.

Looking east to Mount Clear on the eastern border from the camp ground.
Another view of Mount Clear can be gained from the Shanahans Mountain walk, a little way back up the road to the north. 
Looking from Shanahans Mountain, part of the Booth Range, across Naas Creek Valley to Mount Clear.
Mountain Gum E. dalrympleana among the smaller Snow Gums on Shanahans Mountain.
On the other side of Boboyan Road near the Shanahans Mountain car park is another very rewarding walk, the Yerrabi Track to Boboyan Trig which was designed and constructed by members of the ACT National Parks Asssociation in the early 1980s.
View from Boboyan Trig to the southern border.
Tors below Boboyan Trig.
But all this has shown Namadgi in the warmer months; needless to say it's not always like this! So let me end with a couple of photos from a June walk on the Square Rock Walking Track, in the centre of Namadgi by the Corin Dam Road.

Ah Namadgi, I still hope we can leave you in good condition when we go. I'm not wildly optimistic, but maybe nature can yet adapt to us or even perhaps we can still begin to do the right thing by her. Meantime I hope this post has brought you some happy memories at a time when I think we all need them. Next time, some Namadgi wildflowers from years past, in place of the ones we're missing this season.

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Thursday, 16 January 2020

Talking of Storks

As much of the world is very well aware, Australia has been dominated by unprecedented fires, in extent and intensity, and it's hard to think and talk about anything else. That seems a good reason to offer a blog post on something entirely different - I need a break from the stress and grief of what's happening, as I'm sure do many of you. 

So, why storks? Well, why not? They are among the most impressively imposing and grand birds in the world - 'stately' is often used in describing them - big predators, standing tall and even seemingly menacing at times. 
Saddle-billed Stork Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda. One and a half metres
tall, with a bill 35cm long and a wingspan of well over 2.5 metres, this is a big bird by any standards.
Its long legs are an adaptation to hunting in water and its massive bill can catch big prey; all these
comments are relevant to all storks, to varying degrees.
The staring yellow eyes can give the impression of implacable ferocity, but of course that's just us!
There are 20 species of living storks, in six genera, found throughout the world's tropics and subtropics, with a couple also found in temperate Europe and western Asia. As for the word 'stork', allow me to quote myself from the recent second edition of our book Australian Bird Names; meanings and origins (co-authored with my friend and scholar Jeannie Gray; Jeannie 'did' the Latin names, hence my reference to quoting 'myself' in this instance). "‘Stork’ is an Old English word (from Old German) meaning a stick, applied as a nickname to the nesting storks (White Stork in Britain) which commonly roost on one leg. Lockwood (1984) helpfully noted a secondary meaning in Old German (presumably low Old German!) of penis – which, he claimed, is why storks are said to bring babies." (WB Lockwood's Oxford Dictionary of British Bird Names is a treasure, but is sometimes somewhat speculative.)

Until recently they were included in the same Order as herons and ibis, but are now recognised as having no close relatives and occupy their own Order. 
White Stork Ciconia ciconia, Serengeti NP, Tanazania.
This is the familiar stork of Europe, where it traditionally nests on roofs and chimneys in many
places. After breeding it sensibly migrates to sub-Saharan Africa to avoid the northern winter.
I am in the happy position of being able to offer you 14 of the 20 species today (though a couple, of flying birds, are of dubious quality). 

A good way of introducing the different genera is via their bills, which vary to reflect different feeding strategies. Ciconia (such as the White Stork above) are heavy and straight, and are regarded as the least specialised of stork bills. 
Maguari Stork Ciconia maguari, south Pantanal, western Brazil.
This is the only Ciconia in the Americas and in line with its 'generalised' bill has a broad dietary range,
including fish, crabs, rodents, snakes, insects, worms and bird eggs.

The two Ephippiorhynchus storks - the Saddlebill above, and the Asian and Australian Black-necked Stork E. asiaticus - have massive bills with a slight upslant at the tip, for hunting large prey in shallow water. 
Black-necked Stork swallowing a small python, Fogg Dam near Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia.
Saddle-billed Stork with substantial fish (a catfish I think), Amboseli NP, Kenya.
The South American Jabiru Jabiru mycteria has a similar but even more massive bill.
Jabiru, south Panatanal, Brazil. It was hard to believe that it could swallow the huge fish, but
after a lot of battering and careful alignment, it managed it.
Jabiru, north Pantanal, tossing back unfortunate baby caimans, probably recently hatched, as snacks.
For reasons not at all clear, given the very different appearance and colour of the birds, the name jabiru (which is from the Brazilian Tupi-GuaranĂ­ language) has been widely used - and still is in Australia - for the two Ephippiorhynchus storks, Saddlebilled in Africa and Black-necked in Australia. In fact in the central Queensland town of Longreach streets named after birds abound, including Jabiru for the locally-occurring stork. Unfortunately reliance on an internet search engine uncoupled from basic bird knowledge has there led to this impressive but embarrassing sign.
Nice Jabiru pic - but the South American one. Oops...
Mycteria storks have slender down-curved bills which they use, in analogy with ibis, to probe into mud and water, finding fish, crabs, frogs and aquatic insects by touch, using a dense network of nerve cells in the bill known as the 'bill tip organ'. 
Wood Storks, south Pantanal, above and below.
It's worth noting that the three South American storks, (this, the Jabiru and Maguari, both above)
belong to different genera and thus feed quite differently.
Wood Storks often open their wings while hunting. This was an overcast day and they were foraging
in dense vegetation in a drying wetland, so presumably they weren't trying to shade the water. They may
have been trying to startle prey into revealing itself.
The three Leptoptilos species, the Marabou of Africa and the two Asian Adjutants, have absolutely massive bills; they are primarily carrion eaters and use the bill both for attacking a carcase and fighting off competing scavengers, both birds and mammals.
Marabou Leptoptilos crumenifer, Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda.
Increasingly Marabous are gathering in large numbers at garbage tips.
Chicks are fed on small live prey, which they mostly hunt in dryland situations.
Lastly are the truly remarkable Openbill Storks, Anastomus, one species each from Africa and Asia.
African Openbill Anastomus lamelligerus, Entebbe Botanic Gardens, Uganda.
You can see readily enough the outward curve towards the end of the lower mandible, but not obvious from this
angle is the twist to the side, so that the tips don't meet. Stalked pads at the tip of the upper mandible hold
a big Pila snail against the ground (or underwater mud) while the lower tip stabs past the protecting operculum
to cut the muscle which holds the flesh in the shell. Even more remarkably a narcotic in its saliva
trickles down the bill to assist the process by relaxing the snail.
Nearly all stork pairs are identical, though males are sometimes slightly larger. The sole exception is in the two Ephippiorhynchus species, where the male has dark eyes and the female the glaring yellow.
Black-necked Stork pair, Norman River, Karumba, Gulf of Carpentaria, tropical Queensland.
Female on the left.
Storks, being big birds, are great soarers, using the energy of rising air currents to conserve energy. (And here's where I slip in a couple of very ordinary photos of birds I can't otherwise illustrate.) Unlike herons, storks fly with neck extended.
Black-necked Stork soaring, near Georgetown, north Queensland.

Lesser Adjutant Leptoptilos javanicus, Labuk Bay, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

Storm's Stork Ciconia stormi, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
This is the world's rarest stork (probably less than 500 left, from far southern Thailand to
Sumatra and Borneo) and hard to see, as it forages on the floor of lowland swampy rainforest.
(My excuses for offering such a poor photo.)

Some storks generally nest solitarily, others nearly always nest in colonies. 
Jabiru and chicks, south Pantanal, Brazil. Their enormous nests are often alone, though there
may also be others in the vicinity.

Yellow-billed Storks Mycteria ibis (here breeding in a sprawling colony along the roadside near
Lake Manyara NP, Tanzania) usually breed in colonies. Here a huge Marabou is nesting above them;
they too usually nest in company and it's common for different stork species to nest together.
We haven't met Yellow-bills yet, and they're very attractive so here's a better look at one.

Yellow-billed Stork, with typical slender curved Mycteria bill (plus Spur-winged Lapwing and of course hippo),
Mazinga Channel, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.

While we're on the subject of 'new' storks, here's a couple more that we haven't yet made the acquaintance of today; both are Ciconia, with the straight all-purpose bill.
African Woolly-necked Stork Ciconia microscelis Lake Nakuru NP, Kenya.
This stork has a huge range, across Africa - formerly however it was even vaster,
when it was lumped with a closely related Asian species.

Abdim's Stork Ciconia abdimii, Serengeti NP, Tanzania.
This east African species is the world's smallest stork, standing less than 80cm high
(half the height of the biggest storks) and weighing up to 1.5kg (compared with a Marabou's 8-9kg).
It eats mostly insects.
If you've made your way this far through the world of storks, thank you - I'm glad that presumably you found something here of interest. I find them them worthy of much consideration and admiration; like most of the rest of the natural world I suppose. I look forward to your company again through 2020.
Marabou at dawn, Shaba Nature Reserve, Kenya.
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