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 September 2020

On Babblers; (or babbling on)

Babblers are surely among the most engaging of Australian birds, loud, rollicking highly communal larrikins, streaming across the ground between shrubs in the semi-arid scrublands. At night they pile into big stick sleeping nests and in the morning they tumble out like the impossible number of circus clowns from a small car. 

White-browed Babbler Pomatostomus superciliosus, Cocoparra NP,
mid-western New South Wales. The strong legs for bounding across the ground,
conspicuous eyebrow and sturdy down-curved bill are all characteristic of the group.

Until quite recently, perhaps until the early 1980s, it was assumed that our babblers were in the same family as the Old World Babblers; in fact Timiilidae was, for much of the 20th century, used as a big grab-bag in which to stuff a whole range of 'difficult' bird groups.

The Old World Babblers as then understood are found across Africa and southern Asia.

Chestnut-rumped Babbler Stachyris maculata, Bako NP, Sarawak, Borneo.

However modern DNA work has shaken the whole babbling world upside down, and the once-huge Timaliidae family is a mere shadow of its former self, being divided into five families. Many of the babblers and their close allies are now in the family Leiothrichidae, which has nearly 150 species. Here are some of its members, some called babblers, others bearing other names but still understood as 'babblers'.

Black-lored Babbler Turdoides sharpie, Tarangire NP, Tanzania.

Northern Pied Babbler Turdoides hypoleuca, Thika, Kenya.

Chestnut-hooded Laughing-thrush Pterorhinus treacheri, Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Borneo.


Rufous Chatterer Argya rubiginosa, Buffalo Springs Nature Reserve, northern Kenya

Meanwhile however, back in Australia it was being realised by around 1980 that 'our' babblers, far from being a colonial offshoot of a widespread northern family, were in fact ancient Australians, totally unrelated to the 'other' babblers. It had been a shock when it was announced that Australian treecreepers were perhaps as old as, or older than, the lyrebirds; now it is proposed that the babblers could be even older. 

Enough of the family tree though, let's just meet the babblers (and from now on by 'babblers', I mean only the Australian ones). There are four species in Australia, all in the genus Pomatostomus, and a fifth found only in New Guinea. Two of them have huge ranges across Australia. The White-browed Babbler which we met earlier is more southern, while the Grey-crowned Babbler P. temporalis is found right across the tropics (and to a limited extent across the Torres Strait on the nearest section of the New Guinea coast). In addition it follows the woodlands deep into the south-eastern interior. The other two - of which more anon - have more limited, though still substantial, ranges.

All live in groups of up to 20, feeding in a scattered flock but keeping together when they move on. They will search litter and low shrubs for invertebrates, often probing bark. 

Grey-crowned Babblers P. temporalis foraging;
on the ground in Alice Springs above,
in low bushes at Longreach Waterhole, Northern Territory, below.

All are strongly - and probably solely - cooperative breeders with a dominant pair supported by both male and female helpers. (This is a bit unusual, in that in most cooperative breeders allow only male helpers.) The helpers are mostly siblings or adult offspring of the dominant pair. Without them, breeding success is very low.

As mentioned, babblers are incorrigible avachats (if you're not Australian and unfamiliar with the term, just sound it out by syllable - you'll get it). Grey-crowneds are especially vociferous and the bellowed YA-HOO back and forth chorus (technically 'antiphonal duetting') between dominant male and female echoes through the woodlands. Here is a selection of their calls; the third is a good introduction. Click the arrow at the start of the row; sometimes you have to click it more than once. 

This is a bold and familiar species (which is not true of all babblers), often found in close proximity to station homesteads. For this reason they have attracted possibly the greatest number of vernacular names of any Australian species. In our book (Australian Bird Names; origins and meanings, CSIRO Publishing, second edition 2019) Jeannie Gray and I list the following alternative names that we know to have been used in print. Temporal or Three-banded Pomatorhinus, Temporal Babbler, Apostlebird, Twelve Apostles, Happy Family, Barker, Cackler, Quackie, Cur-Cur, Catbird, Dog Bird, Chatterer, Grey-crowned Chatterer, Red-breasted Babbler, Rufous-breasted Chatterer, Yahoo, Pine Bird, Happy Jack, Fussy, Hopper, Hopping Dick, Hopping Jumper, Codlin-Moth-Eater. For a discussion of each of these you'll have to have a look at the book I'm afraid! Note though that Apostlebird is more usually used for an unrelated inland cooperative breeder.

There are two clearly different colour races of Grey-crowned Babbler; in central and northern Australia is the rufous-breasted form, subspecies rubeculus...

Rufous-breasted form, Alice Springs.

... while elsewhere the 'nominate' form temporalis is white beneath except for the belly.

Southern, white-chested form, Lake Cargelligo, central western New South Wales.

The species itself is readily identified; it is larger than the others and the narrow grey crown is sometimes almost crowded out by the hugely flaring eyebrows. When it flies the rufous panels in the wings are obvious. And it yahoos...

Grey-crowned Babbler, Longreach Waterhole, Northern Territory.
The eyebrows almost meet in the middle.
White-browed Babblers have a huge range across southern Australia, mostly south of the tropics, from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean and south to the Southern Ocean. They are found in habitats from drier forests and woodlands to the arid plains. They are smaller and 'neater' than Grey-crowned and while inevitably chatty, are not quite as noisy though their chattering can become hysterical. See here for many examples; the first one is good for the wild chattering, while the third clearly shows the characteristic 'clucking'. The eyebrows are much narrower than those of the Grey-crowned, and the evident crown is dark not pale grey. They are white beneath, down to the legs, and there are no obvious wing panels when they fly.
White-browed Babbler, Shark Bay, Western Australia.
The third species, Hall's Babbler, went unnoticed for a long time due to its passing similarity to White-browed Babbler, but it really is surprising that no-one had noticed it until 1963! That was when one was 'collected' during the first of the five controversial Harold Hall Australian Expeditions on behalf of the British Museum during the 1960s. Hall was Melbourne-born but British-educated, and used his wealth to assist museum research. The controversy stemmed from the quite unambiguous aims of the expeditions, which were to shoot very large numbers of Australian birds, to replenish museum stocks after they'd sold off a couple of major collections to the US. South-west Queensland, where the first specimen had hitherto lived, remains its most-cited location, but it ranges well north and east from here, and south into New South Wales as far as Mutawintji NP north-east of Broken Hill. It favours dry acacia woodlands, often tall and especially Mulga Acacia aneura.
Hall's Babblers P. hallii, Idalia NP, central southern Queensland.
Compare them with the White-browed photo above. The eyebrows are much broader
and the crown consequently narrow, and most obviously there is a sharp dividing
across the breast between white throat/upper breast, and lower breast/belly.
They aren't particularly shy, but they don't appreciate being pushed too hard; if you go too quickly towards them they are likely to flee. And you can very easily get lost following babblers in tall Mulga woodland!

Finally, the most distinctive and possibly the most attractive of the quartet. Chestnut-crowned Babblers P. ruficeps live in dry, often sparsely-vegetated areas in the western Murray-Darling system and the Lake Eyre Basin.
Chestnut-crowned Babbler, near Broken Hill. The distance of this photo reinforces my
belief that this is the hardest babbler to approach. They seem to flee before you
can get as close to them as to the others - and even that's often not easy.
Nonetheless the key features are evident here - the two white wing bars, unique among
babblers, and the rich chestnut crown. They can't really be mistaken.

Babblers to me are one of the delights of any trip inland. The first ones, flying off the road or streaming alongside the car in roadside vegetation, are a welcome affirmation that we really are finally heading west and north again. 

And their cheerful larrikinism is definitely appealing; of course we might expect that (if we were shamelessly anthropomorphic) given that they are perhaps the most ancient of Australian songbirds.

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Thursday, 10 September 2020

Currarong; the top of Beecroft

We're now back from a wander around New South Wales; like pretty much everyone in Australia (and indeed most of the world) we're in a COVID-induced cage at the moment, but NSW is a big and diverse cage and we're better off than many. My Amboseli posts that I left for you didn't raise a lot of interest, so this time I'll offer you somewhere nearer to home (but there'll more from Africa and South America in the future!).
The village of Currarong is one of my partner Lou's very favourite places, and we go there for a coastal break at least a couple of times a year. Here's a taste of what it's about - bays and lovely heathlands.
A typical view from one of the walks through bushland to the east of the village;
see map below, where the dense vegetation is clear.
Currarong is at the northern end of Beecroft Peninsula, which encloses Jervis Bay, a much better known part of the world. These maps might help.
The general location of Jervis Bay, on the south coast of New South Wales,
is indicated by the red arrow.

Currarong is clearly marked (twice, courtesy of Google Maps!)
at the top of Beecroft Peninsula, which is mostly controlled by the
navy and, despite its nominal designation as a reserve is used as a firing range,
so access is limited to weekends.
Accordingly, despite it being a spectacular part of the world,
very few of the photos in this blog were taken there.
Most of the rest of this post is in the form of a photo-essay to share some of the many pleasures the area has brought us. Most people go there for the sea, so I'll start with some coastal memories.
A classic view across the ocean bay (ie not Jervis Bay) from Currarong north-west to
Mount Coolangatta near the mouth of the Shoalhaven River.
It was named for Alexander Berry's property, established in the 1820s at its foot,
which he based on a local name. He in turn also named his ship for it,
which was later wrecked in southern Queensland, where the better-known
town of Coolangatta later took its name.
Common Bottle-nosed Dolphins Tursiops truncatus are regular visitors off the beach.

There are some very nice sandy beaches (see the last photo below) which are mostly taken over by human visitors, but there are other inhabitants there too, many of them much less conspicuous.
Amphipods comprise a huge order of crustaceans, which are prominent in just about any wet
environment - including beaches. Comparing this one's size to the grains of sand, it's not hard
to see why we mostly overlook them.
Ghost Crab Ocypode cordimanus; I think I've got that right.

Mostly the beach crabs disappear down their burrows when we approach; the tracks give an
idea of how busy this home is!
One of the reasons for the crabs' caution. Silver Gull Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae;
by far our most abundant gull, and the only one in most of the country.
It is not uncommon to see one with a missing leg (they seem to manage quite well however).
Abandoned fishing lines are probably to blame for some of these injuries, as are predatory fish
attacking from below.

Rocky platforms are also significant coastal features.
Rock platform, northern Beecroft Peninsula.
These are very important habitats for a wide range of plants and animals.

Great and Little Black Cormorants (and a Silver Gull) loafing and drying
out on a shelf off the beach.
I most look forward on any visit to Currarong however to the walks in the always beautiful and busy heathlands and low forest which surround the village. These can easily be accessed on foot from pretty much anywhere, though the best walks start from the short road running east of the village along the northern edge of Beecroft Peninsula to access beach carparks.

Banksia shrubland dominates much of it.
Typical scenery along one of the sandy walking tracks.
Coastal Banksia B. integrifolia is the dominant species.
True to its name, Coastal Banksia grows right down to the sea.

Swamp Banksia B. paludosa is lower-growing and doesn't mind wet feet.
 In extensive areas the banksia woodland opens out into low coastal heathland.
Coastal heath is a very rich habitat, especially for wildflowers.
Here a few other plants that have caught my eye over the years.
Port Jackson Mallee Eucalyptus obstans is at its southern-most limits at Jervis Bay;
it grows north along the coast to the northern suburbs of Sydney.
Tassel-rush, or Plume Rush Baloskion tetraphyllum subsp. meiostachyum.
Thanks Casey!
Coast Wattle (though it has a lot of other names in its extensive range) Acacia longifolia is dominant in
many coastal habitats in south-eastern Australia.
Jervis Bay Grevillea G. macleayana is found almost only in this area, where it flowers in spring.
It used to be included in G. barklyana, but that species is now only recognised
from a small area east of Melbourne.

Wallum Heath Epacris pulchella
(Thanks again Casey. Memo - must get a better picture.)
Villous Mintbush Prostanthera densa is a Threatened Species which grows only on a few
sites between Jervis Bay and Nelson Bay near Gosford. The population next to Currarong seems
to the only one south of Sydney however.

Coastal Rosemary Westringia fruticosa, on the hand, is a widespread and familiar coastal
plant, including on exposed cliff faces.

Christmas Bells Blandfordia nobilis are truly a bush favourite in summer.
Snow Heath Woollsia pungens, a name which might seems surprising. Indeed it took me a while to
recognise this one when I first saw it in July this year - we're not usually there at that time.
The penny dropped when I finally learnt that there is a red population of this normally white-flowered
species just on Beecroft Peninsula.
And finally some animals, of which of course there are many, most of which are unnoticed by the majority of the commuters through the bush to the beaches.

Bull Ant Myrmecia sp. One that's certainly worth noticing; a sting from one of these
magnificent insects is guaranteed to ruin your whole day!
A cicada which I've been hitherto unable to identify; I'm hoping someone might be able to help.
This is a small animal that people do tend to notice in summer, when the orb spider webs
seems to be almost continuous between bushes along the main track.
Some people might be alarmed by them, but as long as we stay on the track where we belong
there should be no interactions between our species.
A close-up of one of the big females with her carefully wrapped larder alongside.
A cautious male, tiny in comparison, is trying his luck just above her. He will almost certainly
not survive the tryst if he is successful in it.
This spider wasp was busily digging out her burrow to receive a paralysed spider (with her egg laid on it)
at the edge of the track as passersby tramped obliviously past, fortunately missing her.
The shadow shows that it was reasonably early in the day.
She's in the Family Pompilidae, and I'd hazard a guess at Sphictostethus.
With help from some generous readers I now know that this is a Splendid Ochre Skipper
Trapezites
symmomus. Thanks for your assistance.
Varied Swordgrass Brown Tisiphone abeona.
Jacky Lizards Amphibolurus muricatus are small dragons which skitter off the paths in summer as we approach...

... as do the Yellow-bellied Water-skinks Eulamprus heatwolei.
And finally the birds of course; here are just a couple from the very familiar to the considerably less so.
Laughing Kookaburras Dacelo novaeguineae are common in Currarong, as almost everywhere.
Despite the species name it does not occur in New Guinea (though the Blue-winged Kookaburra does).
We've stayed in various accommodations around the village. One was quite a way from the water but had
a panoramic view from the balcony. From it we watched this distant family proclaim its ownership of its
suburban territory.
Rainbow Lorikeets Trichoglossus moluccanus are also ubiquitous, but I liked the pose of these two
on the magnificent grass-tree flowering spike Xanthorrhoea sp.

White-cheeked Honeyeaters Phylidonyris niger are moderately common in the heathlands, though
are heavily outnumbered by the similar New Holland Honeyeaters.
Further north however the White-cheekeds rule.
Finally a bird I'd never satisfactorily photographed until this year. The three species of bristlebirds are ancient Australians which are champion skulkers in dense vegetation, including the heaths around Currarong. This was one of a very curious pair.
Eastern Bristlebird Dasyornis brachypterus, an Endangered Species which can readily be heard
and sometimes even seen around Currarong.
Our darkest time at Currarong was at the end of last year when most of eastern Australia (and some of the rest of it) was ablaze. We were there in the last days of 2019 and it was a time of stress and grief.
Morning sun through the smoke, 29 December 2019.
Such days will come again, but meantime I prefer to remember Currarong as a place of refuge, where we've spent many happy hours. We hope there are many more to come.
Sunset at Currarong.
NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 24 SEPTEMBER.
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