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 April 2020

Serengeti Sublime; #1 landscapes and mammals

I suppose every naturalist has a wish list of places we really want to see elsewhere in the world. Mine began to develop at a fairly young age, and is pretty predictable, fuelled by wildlife documentaries (thank you Sir David!!) and books. They include the Gal├ípagos, Amazon basin, Pantanal, Borneo rainforests, Madagascar, Okavango Delta, central African rainforests - and the Serengeti-Ngorongoro Crater-Masai Mara system of Tanzania and Kenya. Over the last decade or so I've been incredibly lucky with this list, and just last year we got to spend some time in the last of them. 

The Serengeti - usually translated from the Masai as meaning 'endless plain' - is a vast park of rolling woodlands and grasslands in northern Tanzania. In 1981 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It covers some 1.5 million hectares but, with the connected parks, this becomes three million hectares of protected land, supporting one of the greatest wildlife concentrations, and thus spectacles, in the world.
This (fairly low resolution) map, courtesy of the excellent Natural World Heritage Sites website,
indicates the location of Serengeti (red) in Tanzania and in Africa.
This map (courtesy Mahlatini) shows the entire Serengeti ecosystem of parks and 
the annual route of the great permanent circular migration of large grazing mammals,
dominated by Blue Wildebeest, following the rains and the grasses.
Blue Wildebeest Connochaetes taurinus and calf, with a glimpse of part of the herd behind.
Figures vary with sources, but UNESCO reports some two million wildebeest, 900,000 Thomson's and Grant's Gazelles,
200,000 Plains Zebras and (relatively!) smaller numbers of other herbivores walk the 1,000km circuit every year.

Inevitably the herds are accompanied by large numbers of carnivores, including
3,500 Spotted Hyenas Crocuta crocuta (according to UNESCO, though other sources
cite figures of twice this). These were part of a larger group which was showing a lot
of interest in the passing herds.
But before introducing more of the park's animals to you, let's set the scene by looking more at the landscapes, which are truly grand, and a very brief history. The Maasai people arrived from South Sudan and northern Kenya in the 18th century, displacing existing inhabitants. They were herders, with cattle being (then and now) fundamental to their culture and economy. Maasai villages are scattered in the Ngorongoro Conservation area (see map above) and cattle, goats and donkeys are herded on the hills there. 

Perhaps surprisingly the first European in the area was the impressive young Austrian explorer and map-maker Oscar Baumann as late as 1892. (He later also became the first European to enter the Ngorongoro Crater and climb Mt Kilimanjaro.) He was followed in 1913 by a very different person, US novelist, spiritualist (he reckoned the spirits sent him the ideas for his books) and enthusiastic slaughterer of wildlife for entertainment, Stewart Edward White. On his first trip he marvelled at the abundance of mammals (or 'game' as he preferred); his great realisation from this wonder was that "no sportsman’s rifle has ever been fired" at them. He hastened to rectify that omission.

The country near Seronera, much as White saw it.
The dominant trees here are Fever Trees Vachellia (Acacia) xanthophloea.
In the following decade he returned with equally enthusiastic friends, and proceeded to wantonly kill over 50 lions just in the area around Seronera, now the park administrative and interpretive headquarters. This amusement became so popular that the British Administration eventually stepped in (presumably to ensure there were still some lions for them to shoot) and declared a 'partial game reserve' - though what 320ha was going to protect is not at all clear.

In the end a full national park was declared in 1951. The Ikoma hunters were moved to the north of the park where they became farmers and are seemingly not too dissatisfied. The Maasai on the other hand were moved to what was promised as good grazing lands, but instead turned out to be hard arid country around Oldupai Gorge to the east. Their situation is not so good, as we observed ourselves. I am not qualified to comment further on this but it would be remiss to ignore this aspect.

Mention should be made of the Grzimeks, German zoologists and conservationists, father and son, Bernard and Michael, who studied and made pioneering documentaries about Serengeti and introduced it to the world. The park, as I mentioned earlier, was declared a World Heritage Site in 1981.

It comprises woodland and grassland; we spent most of our time in the south-east of the park where the short grasses dominate. 
This was taken from the moving vehicle; the wildebeest and hyena photos above probably
give a better idea of the short grass plains.
Acacia thorntree grassy woodland. If you expand the photo by clicking on it you can see
the big herds in the distance.
Fever Trees again; I'm a fan, probably sparked by reading Kipling all those years ago.
(And if you don't recognise the reference, have a look at The Elephant's Child.)
And an important habitat component, though quite a small one in area, are the koppies, huge tumbled piles of igneous rock that rise from the plains.
Koppie with Candelabra Euphorbia C. candelabrum in the foreground.
And spot the Leopard!
To make it easier, here's a closer photo of this magnificent male, resting but very aware of his surroundings. 
Not my first Leopard, but by far my best ever view.
There an estimated 1,000 Leopards in Serengeti.
Interestingly he was sharing the outcrop - more of a small mountain really - with a big male Lion; we found it hard to imagine that they were unaware of each other but they were a couple of hundred metres apart. While Lions can do kill and eat even adult Leopards, they both probably knew that he couldn't get near the Leopard undetected.
Adult male Lion in the sparse shade of a small fig tree.
While we didn't see many lions on this occasion, there are reportedly some 3000 in the park.
This would represent about a third of Tanzania's population, which in turn holds
perhaps half of the world's wild Lions.
Even this wasn't the end of the cats however, including two of the rare and difficult to see ones.
In the end we saw Cheetahs in four parks across Tanzania and Kenya, but none better than this lovely male.
He is one of about 225 Cheetahs in Serengeti.
I'd never seen a Cheetah before, but an even rarer sighting is the smaller long-legged Serval, a hunter of rodents, birds and reptiles in long grass.
Serval Leptailurus serval taking a break from stalking lunch.
Even smaller hunters were out and about too, mostly after insects, spiders, scorpions, rodents and small reptiles.
Dwarf Mongooses Helogale parvula, only about 25cm long, hunt in families.
But of course there are many more herbivores than carnivores in Serengeti, as everywhere. Elephants are evident on the plains.
This was part of a file of 11 Elephants marching calmly but purposefully across the plain,
led as usual by an old cow...
... with an even older one with big tusks, one at an angle, bringing up the rear.
And I know it's absurd, but here is an elephant's closest living (non-elephant) relation - along with manatees and dugongs! OK, they haven't been connected for about 50 million years, but they're still closer to each other than to anything else.

Rock Hyrax Procavia capensis relaxing in the shade on a hot day.
Giraffes - here the Masai subspecies (or maybe even species, see here) - are spread throughout the park.
Masai Giraffes are characterised by 'splintered' spots that extend down the legs.
Their lips and tongue are seemingly impervious to acacia thorns, which can be wicked by our standards.
There are hippos in the waterways, though we didn't see many compared with other mammals, and with other places.
Male hippos can do appalling damage to each other in conflict, but these two weren't very serious -
possibly young males practising.
Antelope are the most conspicuous mammal group in the park, not only because of the huge numbers of wildebeest mentioned earlier. Here are a few more of them.
Topi Damaliscus jimela (sometimes still regarded as a subspecies of Tsessebee D. lunatus).
A big quick antelope found across central east Africa.
Female Waterbuck Kobus ellipsiprymnus; this is the northern subspecies known as Defassa Waterbuck.
While they will readily take to water to avoid predators, it's not otherwise part of their habitat.
Thomson's Gazelle Eudorcas thomsonii, one of two abundant gazelles in Serengeti,
and an important part of Cheetahs' diets.
Bohor Reedbuck Redunca redunca, a small antelope found across central Africa.
Kirk's Dik-dik Madoqua kirkii, a tiny antelope (though the largest dik-dik) widespread in the Serengeti.
This one was seen from the balcony of our lodge room.
Male Vervet Monkey Chlorocebus pygerythrus flaunting his most striking attribute.
An abundant ground-foraging monkey found throughout East Africa and much of South Africa.
A seemingly more demure Vervet, though this one was plotting how to get into our room.
Fortunately we were onto him.
Another appealing feature of our lodge accommodation was the colony of little Wahlberg’s Epauletted Fruit Bats roosting in the low trees in the courtyard.
And I know these last two beauties aren't mammals, but I couldn't very well leave them out, could I!?
Young Leopard Tortoise Stigmochelys pardalis; when it's older its lovely shell will become duller.
A large tortoise found across much of eastern and southern Africa.

Nile Crocodile Crocodylus niloticus (with Three-banded Plover); the Serengeti rivers
run ultimately into Lake Victoria, and I don't doubt that crocodiles move to and from
there on occasions.
So, there's a brief introduction to one of the world's great parks; next time I'll introduce you to some of the numerous and wonderful birds of Serengeti. And when we can travel again, you really should move on from just thinking about going there...

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Thursday, 16 April 2020

Birds and Flowers

As we in the south of the world head into the colder time of the year, the north is welcoming spring. In Australia we are still firmly (and quite properly) restricted in our activities, though mostly not entirely confined to home. None of us can safely enjoy nature to the extent we're used to, but for most of us there's always something. My small contribution is to offer little windows onto various aspects of the natural world and at the moment something that might bring a smile seems called for. Birds and flowers both meet that requirement - in combination I reckon there's a lot of happy distraction.
Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus moluccanus on Coral Tree flower (Erythrina sp.),
near Nowra, southern New South Wales.
[The big blazing pea flowers of this South American tree are a feature of the landscape
round that part of the world (where they are often mistaken for the unrelated
Illawarra Flame Tree Brachychiton acerifolius); they are all hybrids, apparently deriving from
plants growing in New Zealand. Anyway, that's a digression!]
Many parrots chew on flowers, but most of them do so destructively, taking the nectar for energy and the pollen for protein; some may incidentally transfer pollen to other flowers but they're unlikely to be offering much of a service to the plants.
Austral Parakeet Enicognathus ferrugineus feeding on Notro Embothrium coccineumat the Cuevo de Milodon* near Puerto Natales, southern Chile. This is the world's southern-most
parrot, and the beautiful Notro (very like the Australian waratahs and closely related to them)
is widespread in Patagonia.
(*Go to 10th photo in link.)
Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans feeding on Banksia marginata, Australian National University.
As you can see there is nothing delicate about this feeding - the lovely bird is just ripping flowers from the spike.
Mitred Parakeets Psittacara mitratus below Macchu Pichu, Peru.
This seems to be a pea flower, perhaps another Erythrina; unlike the lorikeet above they are dimembering the flowers.
Parrots aren't the only birds that take advantage of good nectar sources without transferring pollen. A group of South American tanagers bears the name flowerpiercer, which says it all! With a sharp, often curve-tipped bill, they stab the base of the flower and 'steal' the nectar without encountering the pollen.

Black-throated Flowerpiercer Diglossa brunneiventris, Chivay,
northern Peruvian Andes. This one was caught in the act of stabbing the flower base.
Glossy Flowerpiercer Diglossa lafresnayii, Yanacocha NP near Quito, Ecuador,
showing its highly specialised piercing bill.
However at some stage the lorikeets began to feed more precisely, pushing past pollen-bearing anthers to get to the nectar and in the process collecting large quantities of pollen on the face feathers and roughened tongue. Or rather, the plants began 'employing' them rather than insects, investing in copious nectar to make the parrots actively seek out the flowers; in return the plant got a larger pollinator which could take far more pollen away, and carry it much further. 

Studies on captive lorikeets showed that Yellow Gum (or Blue Gum depending on where you are) Eucalyptus leucoxylon has flowers in which the pollen is ripe before the flowers can receive pollen, to avoid self-fertilisation. Moreover the filaments which hold the pollen anthers bend over into a dense dome which effectively excludes insects. A single visit by a Rainbow Lorikeet could remove over 2000 pollen grains; when they visited older flowers ready to accept pollen they delivered on average over 120 grains per female stigma. Another strategy adopted by some - perhaps most - bird-focussed flowers is to offer nectar that is both abundant and dilute, so of limited interest to insects.
Musk Lorikeet Glossopsitta concinna, Coles Bay, Tasmania.
This little flock was feeding on a Western Australian street tree,
Red-flowering Gum Corymbia (Eucalyptus) ficifolia.
Red flowers attract birds, while not being very conspicuous to insects, which see best at the other end of the spectrum
(blues to yellows). Remember the Coral Tree flowers too.

Red-collared Lorikeet Trichoglossus rubritorquis in Darwin,
feeding on Umbrella Tree Schefflera actinophylla, a native of northern Australia.

Scaly-breasted Lorikeet Trichoglossus chlorolepidotus, Goondiwindi Botanic Gardens, south Queensland.
Birds are not restricted to red flowers, though they do seek them out.

Varied Lorikeet Psitteuteles versicolor on paperbark melaleuca, Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory.
Nectar specialising is basic to lorikeets; we have just seen evidence of it in three different genera.

Moreover, quite independently a few other parrot groups have become nectar specialists and thus pollinators as well. One of these comprises only the Australian Swift Parrot Lathamus discolor which migrates from its breeding grounds in the Blue Gum forests (E. globulus for this Blue Gum) of Tasmania to the box woodlands of south-eastern Australia.
Swift Parrot on Mount Majura, Canberra. This lovely little parrot is tragically now listed nationally
as Critically Endangered, due to habitat loss in both Tasmania and the mainland, and
unexpected nest depredations by Sugar Gliders introduced from the mainland.
A study showed that the Blue Gums depend heavily on Swift Parrots for pollination. Just one visit to a flower by a Swift Parrot leads on average to more than 75% of the seed set possible for that flower. Single visits by native insect pollinators led to no seed set, and by introduced bees no more than 7%.

Other parrots which are regarded as nectar specialists are the little hanging parrots Loriculus spp. of southern Asia, and the Neotropical genus Brotogeris. 
Plain Parakeet B. tirica in the Atlantic forests near Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Among other birds, three families are regarded as the key nectar specialisers; the Australian honeyeaters, the Neotropical hummingbirds and the African and Asian (and Australian, just) sunbirds. Unsurprisingly all have evolved relatively long slender decurved bills for probing tubular flowers - such flowers exclude most insect pollinators (though not some moths with extravagantly long proboscises). Pollen is carried mostly on forehead feathers - see the dusting on these two birds.

Eastern Spinebill male Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris Australian National Botanic Gardens.
This is the most specialised of Australian honeyeaters, with the longest bill relative to its size.
Hence we'll come back to it shortly.

New Holland Honeyeater Phylidonyris novaehollandiae with Calothamnus sp., Cape le Grande NP,
Western Australia. This is a common and widespread species in heathlands of southern Australia.
Nectar is almost pure sugar, so such specialists must also find another source of protein; pollen provides some, but most prey on insects to supplement their diet. Perhaps also unsurprisingly, but interestingly, there are examples in all three groups where some species have secondarily re-evolved shorter beaks to focus more heavily on insects again.

Allow me to introduce some members of these groups, each of which I am very fond of, though of course I know the honeyeaters best. Like the lorikeets, honeyeaters take up the nectar by capillary action with a rapidly moving tongue.
Banded Honeyeater Cissomela pectoralis; both this and the next bird were feeding in flowering
eucalypts in Nitmiluk (formerly Katherine Gorge) NP, Northern Territory.

Bar-breasted Honeyeater Ramsayornis fasciatus.
The Umbrella Tree flowers that attracted the Red-collared Lorikeet above, also brought in a range of honeyeaters - we watched it all while eating lunch on the verandah of the excellent Darwin Museum, looking out to the Timor Sea. (Though to be honest I was mostly looking upwards.)
Brown Honeyeater Lichmera indistincta, a widespread small honeyeater across most of Australia
except the south-east.
Helmeted Friarbird Philemon buceroides and White-gaped Honeyeater Stomiopera unicolor,
both restricted to the north, and both obviously bigger than the Brown, above.
The friarbirds form a small group of large honeyeaters.
And feeding on the same paperbark as the Varied Lorikeet (above) in Kakadu - and indeed with it - was another friarbird, the Silver-crowned Friarbird Philemon argenticeps.
Another group of large honeyeaters comprises the wattlebirds - named for the red fleshy wattles on the face of the first species encountered, the Red Wattlebird Anthochaera carunculata (some subsequent species inconveniently lacked this feature).
Red Wattlebird on grevillea, Australian National Botanic Gardens.
They don't normally feed on the ground, but will adapt as required.
Little Wattlebird Anthochaera chrysoptera on Banksia marginata, Lower Glenelg NP, Victoria.
The non-wattled wattlebird is common in near-coastal south-eastern Australia.
Western Wattlebird A. lunulata on Banksia speciosa, Esperance, Western Australia.
This one was long lumped with the previous one.

Dusky Honeyeater Myzomela obscura (or Dusky Myzomela, though this use of the genus name is pretty much
unknown in Australia) on a grevillea cultivar in a Darwin garden.
Eastern Spinebill male (above) and females (below),
respectively on a Grevillea sp. (or perhaps Hakea sp.) in a garden near Kyogle in northern NSW,
and an Eremophila sp. in the Australian National Botanic Gardens.

Grey-headed Honeyeater on Grevillea wickhamii, Watarrka NP, central Australia.

Scarlet Honeyeater Myzomela sanguinolenta on bottlebrush, Callistemon sp., Cape Hillsborough NP, Queensland.
A delightful little bird which deserves a better photo than this.
Yellow-faced Honeyeater Caligavis chrysops on another bottlebrush, this one in our Canberra back yard.
And for the record here's a member of one group of honeyeaters - the miners, though they're not the only ones - with short stout beaks to reflect a primarily insect diet.
Bell Miner Manorina melanophrys, Melbourne.
By now you're probably honeyeatered out, so time for some sunbirds; I find these little gems very hard to photograph - they never seem to stay still - so there might be a couple of pics here that I'd not normally impose on you, mostly for the sake of featuring at least one Asian one.

Olive-backed Sunbird Cinnyris jugularis female (above) and pair (below) getting deep into garden flowers
in Cairns, north Queensland. This is Australia's only sunbird, presumably relatively recently arrived,
being found as far north as China.

Eastern Double-collared Sunbird Cinnyris mediocris, Lake Nakuru, Kenya.
This was in a garden, feeding on South American fuchsias. Moreover I'm reliably assured
that this is Fuchsia magellanica from the icy depths of Patagonia; tough plants!
They of course evolved to a partnership with hummingbirds.
And I have to say that this is a most uncomfortable-looking pose.
Beautiful Sunbird Cinnyris pulchella, Serengeti NP, Tanzania.
An especially tiny sunbird, and spectacular.
Immature male Scarlet-chested Sunbird Chalcomitra senegalensis, Serengeti NP, Tanzania.
The mature male is black with a green forehead.
Temminck's Sunbird Aethopyga temminckii, Mount Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
And there is at least one equivalent to the short-billed insectivorous honeyeaters among the sunbirds too.
Ruby-cheeked Sunbird Chalcoparia singalensis, Ai Batang NP, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
Which brings us to our final major nectar-slurping group of birds, the hummingbirds, a huge family mostly from tropical South and Central America. They are stunners, so without further ado here are a few with, of course, flowers. If there are too many you can of course just skip through, but I do hope you've got enough time not to do that! Their hovering abilities are of course legendary.
Eastern Mountaineer Oreonympha nobilis at wild tobacco flowers, Nicotiana sp., Huaycarpay,
southern Peruvian Andes. It is found only in a couple of valleys near Cusco.
Blue-mantled Thornbill Chalcostigma stanleyi, El Cajas NP, southern Ecuador,
at over 4000 metres above sea level.

Blue-tailed Emerald Chlorostilbon mellisugus in the rain at Aguas Verdes private reserve, northern Peru.
(More on this wonderful place here.) As you will see again below, lodges and gardens often
plant these verbenas to attract hummers.
Sapphire-vented Puffleg Eriocnemis luciani at Passiflora flowers,
El Cajas NP (see above).

Green Violetear Colibri thalassinus on wild tobacco, Sacred Valley near Cusco, southern Peru.
(Its taxonomy is a bit fluid at the moment, but this will suffice our needs.)

Oasis Hummingbird female Rhodopis vesper Azapa, northern Chile, a hummer of the desert coastline.

Rufous-crested Coquette female Lophornis delattrei, Aguas Verdes (see above).
Wire-crested Thorntail, male above, and female below, Aguas Verdes again.
This is one of my favourite hummingbirds.
And my final hummingbird is included (without a flower) because it is atypically 'naughty' in not probing the flower as intended, but takes a short cut to the nectar by punching a hole through the flower's base - like the flowerpiercers above.
Geoffroys's Wedge-billed Hummingbird Schistes geoffroyi, Mindo Valley, northern Ecuador.
Note the short sharp bill.
And finally (no, really!) just a couple of more minor examples of other families which partake of nectar - one does so pretty much exclusively but only contains two species, the other has many species but nectar is only taken as a part of some of their diets.
Silvereyes  Zosterops lateralis (here on a grevillea in the Australian National Botanic Gardens)
certainly pollinate flowers, but not as a major part of their life.
Cape Sugarbird Promerops cafer on a heathy plateau north of Cape Town.
One of only two species in its family, it relies heavily on protea flowers.
OK, I really hope you're not fed up with birds and flowers after this post, which became something of an odyssey! Hopefully I was able to entertain and perhaps inform you a little, both of which should be of some help in these strange, challenging times.

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