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, 20 February 2020

Remembering Namadgi: celebration of a great park #4 bigger animals

We have now got to the final instalment of this celebration of a great park, Namadgi, which is Canberra's back yard. Sadly it has been grievously burnt in the past few weeks, but the fire is effectively out now and recovery has begun. I had hoped to get permission to accompany parks staff into the area to report to you, as I did in 2003, but it seems this is not going to happen. Meantime the park, including the unburnt areas, is going to remain closed for an indefinite period. If you've just found this series, you might like to go back to the start for background that may be of interest.

Today we're going to enjoy some of the bigger animals - the vertebrates (mammals, birds and reptiles - I don't have any Namadgi frogs or fish to offer you, unfortunately).
Male Eastern Grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus); young males sparring, Gudgenby Valley.
This valley is in the central east of the park, mostly treeless (a combination of frost hollow and clearing
by 19th and early 20th century settlers) and hugely attractive to big mobs of roos. It burnt, but I'm
assuming that they will recolonise as the grass regrows with the rain.
A small part of the mob we passed through on an autumn walk a couple of years ago.
They're not the only macropods in the park of course, though the others don't normally gather socially. (For a lot more on macropods - kangaroos, wallabies and their kin - see here.)
This was the largest collection of normally solitary Red-necked Wallabies Macropus rufogriseus that I recall seeing.
They'd come to feed one morning on the grass at Bulls Head picnic area in the high Brindabellas.
Reptiles are easy to see on any summer walk (assuming it's warm of course, never to be presumed in the Alps). Skinks are the most likely reptiles to be seen; most are small and quick, but one giant skink is a special attraction.
Blotched Bluetongue Tiliqua nigrolutea by the Mount Franklin Road. This lovely lizard is truly a giant
among skinks, growing to 45cm long and weighing in excess of a kilo. In Tasmania it is found at
sea level, but as we go north on the mainland it is found at higher altitudes.
(More on bluetongues here.)
Black Rock Skink Egernia saxatilis on granites along the Yerrabi Track, in the south of the park
by the Boboyan Road. Much smaller than the bluetongues, it can still get to 25cm long. It lives in
rock crevices and can gather in big numbers in suitable habitat, such as the great granite
tors above the Orroral Valley.

Highland Water Skinks Eulamprus tympanum are found high in the northern Brindabellas, including
here at Bulls Head. They are common on logs or rocks, and often near water - this one wasn't though.

Grass Skink Lamprophilus guitchenoti, Rendezvous Creek walk.
This common little skink (only 90mm long) is found at all altitudes in the ACT.
Snakes are not uncommon, but mostly shy and rarely encountered. In summer though Highland Copperheads are likely to be out on the roads on sunny days.
Highland Copperhead Austrelaps ramsayi crossing the Mount Franklin Road. This is a venomous snake, but
easy-natured and eager to get away. It specialises in high mountain living (it is rarely found below 700m above seal level), so can function at temperatures which would immobilise most other snakes. Its main culinary interest is frogs,
though it doesn't mind small mammals, lizards or snakes if they're available.

White-lipped Snakes Drysdalia coronoides (here on the Yerrabi Track) are even more tolerant of the cold
than Highland Copperheads, living above the snow line in Kosciuszko National Park.
They are remarkably variable in colour (I love this reddish form) but the white lip is constant.
Rarely exceeding 40cm in length, they focus on skinks and frogs.
Which brings us to birds, which are of course a conspicuous part of any landscape. I shouldn't be surprised to realise how many of the following bird pics were taken in the lovely little woodland patch immediately behind the Namadgi Visitor Information Centre - it's after all one of my favourite birding sites in the ACT. Unfortunately it too is closed to the public at present; I understand why most of the park needs to be inaccessible at the moment, but this one I find a little puzzling. It's on the northern fringe of the park not far from the suburbs, with easy access, and thus escape in emergency. It wouldn't seem to be hazardous on days that weren't high fire risk, and wouldn't put strain on parks staff. However, they have enough to think about at present. 

The next eight pictures were all taken there on various visits, mostly in the early mornings.
Grey Currawong Strepera versicolor. This is not a common bird in the ACT, though it is perhaps occasionally
overlooked among the far more abundant Pied Currawongs. Its ashy plumage and ringing calls, sometimes
like metal on metal, are very distinctive though.

Leaden Flycatchers Myiagra rubecula (female above, male below) at their next in a tree fork,
as is characteristic of the species. Its harsh froggy calls and clear whistles are sounds of
the woodlands in summer; in winter it migrates north again.

Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus with dragonfly, a staple of their diet, being large and nutritious.
Another migrant which arrives here to breed over summer, though it excavates burrows in banks.
Speckled Warblers Pyrrholaemus sagittatus on the other hand are sedentary, staying in the territory
all year round. Like other woodland species they are threatened by the loss of habitat, and listed
as Vulnerable in surrounding New South Wales (though somewhat mystifyingly not in the ACT).
This one was very busily collecting next-building material...

... as was this Spotted Pardalote Pardalotus punctatus, an abundant tiny bird which lives by gleaning
tiny animals from the foliage. It is common from the Snow Gums to the suburbs.
The exquisite little White-throated Gerygone Gerygone olivacea is another summer breeding migrant.
It has one of the most beautiful calls in the bush, a repeated falling silver leaf of sound.
Sometimes it can be maddeningly elusive, at other times it is totally confiding

White-throated Treecreepers Cormobates leucophaea are on the other hand present all year round, working
from the base of the tree up the trunk, then flying down to the next one.
Its incessant clear piping calls make it relatively easy to track down.
Another good woodland birding area in Namadgi is further south along the Boboyan Road, around the Glendale works depot and along the Old Boboyan Road in the nearby Gudgenby Valley (where the roos above were). The fires went right through there, but I have no idea how intensely, or how patchy or otherwise it was. In general I'd expect woodland to recover reasonably well (as it did after 2003).

Given the overall state of woodlands, it's to be expected that several species reliant on woodland are listed as Threatened; the first two species below are in that category.

Male Scarlet Robin Petroica boodang; there are not many sites in the ACT these days where we can fairly
reliably see these brilliant little insect-eaters.
Diamond Firetail Stagonopleura guttata; a delightful little grass-finch, to which this photo certainly doesn't do justice.
Common Bronzewing Phaps chalcoptera, a common pigeon from Canberra to the high Brindabellas.
This one was sunning on a rock outcrop in the Gudgenby Valley.
Immature Fuscous Honeyeater Ptilotula fusca; not common in the ACT in general, but
this area is a hotspot for it. Adults have a black bill and a black and yellow cheek stripe.
An even younger White-naped Honeyeater Melithreptus lunatus, just out of the nest.
It is a long way from gaining its smart black cap and red eye-ring; this is not really
a woodland bird and I'd more expect to see it in the wet forests of the ranges.
The last three Namadgi birds featured here are found high up in the Snow Gums in summer, though at least two move downslope with the snows.
Female Spotted Quail-thrush Cinclosoma punctatum, Mount Franklin Road. Some claim that these are hard to
see, but if you drive slowly through the Snow Gums and look ahead you're very likely to see a pair
scurrying off ahead of you. We don't seem to know a lot about their movements but there is some evidence
that they stay in the high country all year round.
A very young Australian Raven Corvus coronoides perched on a Snow Gum.
Note the grey (not white) eyes, the short tail and short bill with coloured gape,
which helps the parents aim food appropriately!
And lastly, perhaps the bird of the high Brindabellas in summer, the dashing Flame Robin Petroica phoenicea.This male is carrying food to the nest, hidden in a bank. Compare his orange-red to the post-box red
of the Scarlet Robin above; also note that his red goes right up to his beak,without the black bib of the Scarlet.
In winter the Namadgi Flame Robins descend to open country around Canberra.
So that's it for our tribute to wonderful Namadgi. Hopefully those responsible will relent and let us back to this grand peaceful landscape earlier than planned; many of us need that. Meantime I hope this series can help tide us over until that date comes.

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Thursday, 13 February 2020

Remembering Namadgi: celebration of a great park #3 little animals

This was to be the finale in my weekly series both celebrating this wonderful park that is Canberra's back yard and contemplating its setbacks in the great fire which has burnt out just over 80% of it. In the event I found I had too many animal pics to impose on you in one posting, so I've divided this post into two to make a whole month of Namadgi nostalgia, and things to look forward to as the unburnt sections reopen and the rest recovers. 

The series began here; if you missed it you might like to go back to get the back-story - to Namadgi and to this series. The desperately needed rains came on Sunday night, and have continued sporadically since then. As a result the fire, while not extinguished, is contained and not expected to burn further north along the range. The unburnt 20% is important, as it contains the northern high Snow Gum woodlands and sphagnum bogs which burnt very severely in 2003 and could have ill-afforded to burn again so soon. It also includes important wet forests which likewise could well have been damaged long-term by another intense burn in less than 20 years. For now let's concentrate on that good news while we await a detailed analysis of the rest.

Male Splendid Ghost Moth Aenetus ligniveren, high Brindabellas.
A spectacular animal, this one is the only one I've seen. The larvae tunnel into the trunk of the host plant,
and come out at night to feed, not on leaves but the bark.
As hinted by this picture, today we are going to focus on the numerous small animals of Namadgi, the invertebrates - mostly insects, but also some spiders and even a worm. And every one is worthy of our attention and respect. They are too easy to overlook and by doing so we miss out on a big and special world; moreover our lack of interest places the overall world at greater risk, because they play a major role in it. Anyway, enough of that, let's for now just celebrate them.

Butterflies and moths feature heavily today, because they are a significant and conspicuous part of any natural system. Here are some more.
Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi Mount Ginini (above) and Mount Franklin (below).
This familiar and common butterfly is the Australian 'sister' of a world-wide species.
Australian Painted Ladies on Alpine Sunray Leucochrysum alpinum Mt Franklin.
Its larvae feed mostly on everlasting daisies in the high country.
Crimson Tiger Moth Spilosoma (or Ardices) curvata, Mount Franklin.
A striking moth about which not a lot seems to be known - and if you do, please let me know.

Male Shouldered Brown Heteronympha penelope, Yerrabi Track, far south-east Namadgi.
Another common and widespread species - those tend to be the only butterflies I can find and identify!
Its larvae feed on native grasses, hiding in the clumps in the daytime and coming out at night.

Silver Xenica Oreixenica lathoniella, Yerrabi Track. This one is found only in the higher parts of the ACT.
Its larvae too munch on native grasses.
And now I'm going to do something embarrassing and put up four photos that I can't identify. These attractive caterpillars shouldn't be ignored because of my shortcomings however - and I'm also hoping that someone might come to my rescue! (Yes, someone did - thanks Steve Holliday!)
Munching on a Brachyscome daisy on Mount Ginini.
Family Noctuidae.

A superbly camouflaged caterpillar on a Snow Gum stem, Mount Franklin.
It will become a Gum Snout Moth Entometa sp, (Family Lasiocampidae)

For this one and the next I had no idea at all, but Steve tells me it is a Rose Anthelid Chenuala heliaspis (Family Anthelidae). It does indeed turn into a rosy-coloured moth, though only the males gave the tint.
I doubted that it was eating this tough Snow Gum leaf, but I now learn that it could well have been.
Perhaps it was disconcerted by the little red mites infesting it.
Yerrabi Track; not even Steve could help with this one, though he suggests also Family Anthelidae.
For the rest, several groups are represented here by a couple of pictures each, though they certainly deserve wider coverage! Starting with a couple of grasshoppers; this is primarily a dry country group, but is well-represented in the alps too.
Mountain Katydid Acripeza reticulata, Yerrabi Track. This striking grasshopper (which doesn't hop!)
is scattered through eastern Australian forests, but is mainly reported from the alps.
The dumpy female, here, is flightless; he has wings and is a more conventional grasshopper shape.
Both rely on camouflage, which as you can see is very good, but if really concerned they raise the wing covers
to reveal the brilliant warning colours, as this one is doing.
They also exude irritants and toxins, so the warning is not just bluff.
Spotted Mountain Grasshopper Monistria concinna, Mount Ginini.
This is among the very few grasshopper species with an 'extended life cycle', which means they can
pause their development when the seasons change and go into diapause (or 'suspended animation')
until next summer. It may take some years to go through a cycle which most grasshoppers achieve in one year.
Here are some beetles - which of course are more abundant than this suggests.
Long-nosed Net-winged Beetles Porrostoma rhipidium, Family Lycidae.
Another colourful animal which is advertising that "I am highly toxic, don't eat me".
Various unrelated and unprotected beetles, moths and flies mimic it to gain protection.
I do like this picture. Green Scarab Beetle Diphucephala sp. and a flower spider sharing a daisy.
Would the beetle fall off in shock if it looked down, or is it confident in its armour to protect it?
These beetles can be abundant in summer in the high country, feeding mostly on the flowers
of Leafy Bossiaea, B. foliosa.
Unidentified Weevil, high Brindabellas. I love the fact that there are nearly 100,000 species of weevil
so far described. This is just one Family of beetles; all vertebrates (fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals)
together account for less than 70,000 species in almost 1,000 Families!
And I have no idea about this beetle, but I like its face...
A couple of Bugs (no, not just 'bugs', but members of the Order Hemiptera).
Southern Mountain Squeaker Atrapsalta furcilla. A small cicada which clicks and buzzes.

One of the shield bugs; the Pimelea probably regards it as up to no good.
We have a few different Hymenopterans - the wasps, bees, ants and sawflies.
Bull Ant Myrmecia sp. with Honey Bee; Bull Ants are primitive Australians with a ferocious sting.
They live in colonies but tend to hunt and forage alone.
Blue Ant Diamma bicolor Orroral Valley. This spectacular animal is actually a large wingless
parasitic wasp. It hunts only mole crickets, which it paralyses and then lays its egg on the
inert body underground, a food source for the emerging larvae.
I am told that its sting is well worth avoiding.
Unidentified flower wasp on Purple Eyebright Euphrasia collina.

Sawfly Larvae (or 'Spitfires') on Snow Gum leaves on Mount Franklim, above and below.
These remarkable animals eat the toxic eucalypt leaves and store the toxins in sacs
on their back for their own protection. After feeding they move down the tree in a column
and pupate underground. The adults are small wasp-like animals.

If disturbed, Sawflies tap their hard heads on the leaf to warn their siblings of danger.
A couple of flies.

Common Hoverfly Melangyna viridiceps, Family Syrphidae, on daisy.
(My thanks to Susan, see Comments below, for this and the next two identifications.)
These quick little hoverers are abundant summer pollinators
in the high country (and of course at lower altitudes too).

A fly I didn't recognise, but which I am told is probably Senostoma sp., Family Tachinidae.
Even without that it was worth meeting, but it's satisfying to know a little more about it.
And this one fooled and embarrassed me, who thought it was what it looks like - a praying mantis -
seen on the Mount Franklin Road. Susan (below) tells me that it's actually a mantis fly, Family Mantispidae.
Despite the name, they are actually Lacewings (Neuroptera). Steve Holliday thinks this one may be
Ditaxis meridiei, which is known from the Victorian and New South Wales high country, but not hitherto
reported from the ACT. They don't mimic mantises, but hunt the same way, with barbed front legs.
And finally a couple more representatives of major insect groups, the promised worm and a couple of spiders (additional to the flower spider above).
Southern Tigertail Eusynthemis guttata. A dragonfly which specialises in high country streams.

An earth worm, almost certainly a native, unlike the ones in our gardens.
I think another flower spider, Family Thomisidae.

Wolf Spider, Family Lycosidae. These are common in the high country, living in burrows
and emerging to attack passing prey when their silken trap lines are touched.
So, a wide-ranging cast of wonderful dwellers of Namadgi, mostly in the Brindabellas. I hope you've enjoyed the post as much as I've enjoyed putting it together.
Next time we really will conclude this series with some larger animals - vertebrates. And at least I'll be able to name all those! Thanks for your company.

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