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, 22 October 2020

Peas that Please #1; mostly local

The pea family Fabaceae (formerly Papilionaceae for the supposed butterfly resemblance of the flowers) is one of the largest in the world, with over 12,000 species; more than a thousand of these are native to Australia. (And for the purposes of this blog I am going to use the more traditional definition of the family, and not include all the wattles (family Mimosaceae) and sennas, cassias etc (family Caesalpinaceae), as is often done today.)

The family name incidentally is something of an anomaly. The modern convention is to name a family after the first genus in that family to have been described. It's a sensible and seemingly fool-proof rule, or so it would seem. However... The first pea to be scientifically described was the Broad Bean, called Faba faba by the great Linnaeus; it was the only member of the genus. So far so good - but again, however... Later research showed that it in fact belonged in the large genus Vicia, so Vicia faba it became, leaving Faba as a non-genus - but still the type genus of the Family and the basis of its name! I'll move along now.

Native peas are found from the coast to the tops of the highest ranges, and from rainforest to desert dunes. 

Green Birdflower Crotolaria cunninghamii, growing on a red sand dune
in the Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.

Bush Pea Pultenea sp. growing in heathland by the sea,
Tomaree NP, central coast NSW.

Narrow-leaved Bitterpea Daviesia mimosoides under the misty Snow Gums
in the Australian Alps, Namadgi National Park, Australian Capital Territory.

They may grow as trees, shrubs or modest herbs. The flowers may be almost any colour or size, but their structure makes almost any pea flower instantly recognisable.

Leafy Bossiaea B. foliosa flower, a typical pea.
It has five petals, dominated by a large erect standard.
Below that is a pair of projecting wings, and beneath them, often
hidden by them, is another pair of petals fused to form the keel.
In most Australian peas the stamens are exposed by a pollinating insect when
it presses the wings and keel down out of the way.

Another feature common to all peas (but not unique to them) is the development of seeds in a pod. The pod may be long, like those of edible green peas and beans...

Silver Bush Sophora tomentosa, Port Macquarie; this is a threatened
species, growing north along the coast from here into Queensland.

... but many are not.

Golden Shaggy-Pea Oxylobium ellipticum, Namadgi National Park.
The new pods are egg-shaped and distinctly shaggy!

Broad-leaved Bitterpea Daviesia latifolia, Carrington Falls, southern NSW.
In this large and familiar genus, the pods are triangular.
For the remainder of this post I'll simply introduce some of the commonest native peas growing in the ACT - in a not-too-distant sequel I'll do the same for a range of wonderful pea plants from other parts of Australia. For the most part I'll simply bring them on in alphabetical order, to avoid accusations of favouritism.

Dusky Scurfpea Cullen microcephalum (until recently known as Psoralea adscendens)
Namadgi National Park. A sprawling ground-cover often found growing on
mountain management tracks.

Narrow-leaved Bitterpea Daviesia mimosoides (above and below) is found
from the hills around Canberra up into the Snow Gums.
It is a vigorous post-fire sprouter.

Broom (or Gorseleaf) Bitterpea Daviesia ulicifolia also grows at all
altitudes in the ACT; this one was high in the ranges. It is a much smaller
(and pricklier!) bush than Narrow-leaved Bitterpea.

Showy (or Silky) Parrot-Pea Dillwynia sericea is a common understorey
plant in the hills of Canberra. This one too has egg-shaped pods.

Small-leaved Parrot-Pea Dillwynia phylicoides (formerly regarded as a subspecies of D. retorta),
Black Mountain. This genus has a very broad standard, leading to the useful little
mnemonic 'Dillwynias are wingier'.

Wedgepea Gompholobium huegelii is a very striking large-flowered
pea which blooms in summer when not many other flowers are about.

False Sarparilla seems a most unsatisfactory name for such a magnificent
sign of spring (above and below); we can always call it Hardenbergia violacea
of course. Like all peas it has root nodules of nitrogen-fixing bacteria - plants
themselves can't extract the essential nitrogen from the air - so it can, and
does, often grow in the most inhospitable-looking sites, on rocky
road-cuttings, quarries and bare soil.

Hardenbergia is a vigorous trailer, and will climb into nearby bushes.

Creeping Hovea Hovea heterophylla, Black Mountain. Another purple pea,
this small herb is one of the first wildflowers locally to appear after winter.

Australian Indigo Indigofera australis is a familiar spindly shrub
in the Canberra hills and ranges, here on Black Mountain.
Other members of the genus, elsewhere in the world, are the source
of the dye indigo, from the leaves; originally it was imported to Europe from India,
from Indigofera tinctoria.

Spectacular mass flowering of Australian Indigo on Gungahlin Hill in Canberra.

Common (or Golden) Shaggy-Pea Oxlyobium ellipticum grows high in the ranges
- here on Mount Ginini in Namadgi NP - but also at lower altitudes.
It is a tall shrub and provides an impressive flowering spectacle in early summer.

Alpine Shaggy-pea Podolobium alpestre (which used to be included in the previous genus)
is mostly only found at high altitudes and is a lower shrub than Common Shaggy-Pea.
Heathy Bush-Pea Pultenea procumbens is a common low shrub in Canberra
Nature Park and the lower slopes of the ranges.

And here I've broken the alphabetic listing and abandoned objectivity, to leave one of my favourites to last. Leafy Bossiaea is not of itself an especially striking shrub, though the small clear yellow flowers are very pretty, but in a good flowering year it carpets the mountain floor under the Snow Gums and stains distant mountain sides yellow. I love it.

The slopes of Mount Gingera stained yellow (through some mist) by Bossiaea;
from the top of  Mount Ginini, Namadgi NP

Leafy Bossiaea B. foliosa, Mount Ginini, Namadgi National Park.
But as you've probably divined, I'm pretty fond of peas in general, and look forward to bringing you some more in the nearish future.
 
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Thursday, 8 October 2020

Mutawintji National Park; a dryland beauty

Very recently we hastily put together a trip to western New South Wales, to replace our original plan of taking people to Costa Rica, which of course we abandoned some time ago. We were first going to replace it with a private trip to tropical Queensland - but it in turn closed its borders a couple of days before our departure. Even in NSW we were thwarted by the rains in the semi-arid lands, which closed all parks and dirt roads across a huge swathe of the state - but we were able to enjoy a few days and nights in a magnificent reserve in far western New South Wales, 120km north-east of the regional centre of Broken Hill. Meet Mutawintji National Park, if you don't already know it.

Evening light on the Bynguano Range, which dominates most of Mutawintji,
across a plain of Mulga Acacia aneura.

Approximate location of Mutawintji, at the end of the red arrow.

This is an ancient landscape - as indeed is Australia in general. The Bynguano Range comprises 400 million year old seabed and river sandstones and other sedimentaries.

Typical sandstone ridges and outcrops in Mutawintji.

Both these ridges support Mulga, and on the lower one White Cypress Pine
Callitris columellaris is also evident. 

White Cypress Pine.

As anywhere inland River Red Gums Eucalyptus camaldulensis mark the stream lines, which are thus easy to determine from a distance as they meander across the plains.

River Red Gums in the late afternoon, following an ephemeral creek
line along the base of the ridge.
 
And because you can't have too many pictures of Mulga...
 
.... or Red Gums.
 
Gleaming in the rain.

Much of the park is inaccessible to visitors because of its great cultural significance to the local Indigenous people, including highly significant rock art, but a 'must do' walk is the one to and along Mutawintji Gorge. Here there is available rock art, and it is also a good place to enjoy the geology at close range. 
Mutawintji Gorge.

Hand stencils under a rock overhang along the side of the gorge.
Such sites are scattered in the gorge, and we are left to find them for ourselves.

Near to the park camp ground is a shorter walk to Homestead Gorge, where the art sites are protected and interpreted.

Part of the large Homestead Gorge art site shelter, and a couple of details below.



The land was of course occupied for tens of thousands of years, and the sheltered ranges and gorges with permanent water holes would have been very highly valued, especially in dry times. The first European grazier arrived in 1874, and soon after that the Mutawintji lands were being constantly crossed by travellers between the mines of Broken Hill and White Cliffs. The remains of an inn can still be seen by the road in the park. As far back as 1927 the Barrier Field Naturalists Club successfully lobbied for the gazettal of a Reserve for the Preservation of Caves, Native Fauna and Flora and Aboriginal Carvings and Drawings (!). The management trust comprised members of the club and representatives of Mootwingie property (this was the name of the park for many names too, until finally amended to better match the correct pronunciation). Needless to say no members of the Aboriginal traditional owners were invited.
 
This old River Red Gum in the creek just below Mutawintji Gorge certainly
predates any European presence in the area.

In 1966 the manager of adjacent Wertago Station (to the north-east) suggested that land be investigated for future conservation - and a subsequent study found NSW's only population of Yellow-footed Rock Wallabies! In a series of acquisitions Mootwingie National Park (as it began its life) achieved its current size, of 69,000 hectares, in 1983. (However in 2019 it was announced that a 59,000ha State Conservation Area would be added to abut the reserve.) The exclusion of the traditional owners boiled over in 1983, in response to vandalism of rock art sites, including removal of art for commercial purposes. Members of the Western Region Aboriginal Land Council - including park rangers - blockaded the entrance for four days to coincide with Broken Hill's centenary celebrations. The attention thus garnered led not only to the closure of the Historic Site (including most of the key art sites) except with approved guides, but to the crucial involvement of the owners in park management decisions. It also had ramifications in other areas of the state and beyond.
 
The camp ground is extensive, and backs onto a dry creek bed with an adjacent riverine forest. The area has been severely droughted for some years (as has most of south-eastern Australia) and many of the younger red gums are dead or dying. That situation is now changing incidentally, as a La Niña system has now formed and has begun bringing bands of rain to our own area, and well inland as well. 
 
Our camp with the stressed Red Gums just behind; as I'll
be showing you in a moment, these trees were busy with birds beginning to breed.

White-winged Choughs Corcorax melanorhamphos treated our camp
for what it is - a part of their own territory. Their nest, containing three
chicks, was almost over our tent but our presence disturbed them
about as much as this picture suggests.

Two of the chicks waiting for the next feed, being partly shaded by the adult's wing.
Choughs, along with Apostlebirds, comprise the mud-nester family Corcoracidae.
In addition to the magnificent big pisé nests, they are characterised by their
highly developed co-operative breeding behaviour, where all members of the
group assist with raising the young.
 
The nest of the Apostlebirds Struthidea cinerea was across the river and not readily photographable among the foliage, but they too readily foraged through the camp.

This was on the last morning, when the rain had begun.
 
Parrots and cockatoos however comprised the most obvious and colourful group of birds present; most of the following photos were taken in and around the camp ground. The stars were perhaps the lovely little Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus which chattered and flashed all around us, setting up territories for breeding. Sadly too many people think of them as only clockwork toys or caged lonely prisoners, but they are sparklingly beautiful little parrots, highly evolved to life in the deserts.
The bird on the right is an adult male, keen to breed, as shown by his
bright blue ceres (the fleshy covering to the top of his bill).

Here two males are trying to impress the female between them.

And she's made her choice...

Mulga Parrots Psephotellus varius, feeding quietly on the ground, are surely one of Australia's most beautiful birds.

This is the more brightly coloured male; how many colours can you reasonably
put on one small bird? They brighten the landscapes of much of inland Australia.
Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus represent another inland parrot species (actually the
world's smallest cockatoo) that has the misfortune to be a popular cage bird.
In fact they are, after the Budgie, the world's most-caged pet bird.
Flocks were busy throughout the park; most of these are males, with yellow heads.

Pink Cockatoo Lophochroa leadbeateri, very arguably the most beautiful of all
the world's cockatoos. (They have long been called Major Mitchell's Cockatoo
for the early 19th century military man and explorer who rhapsodically brought them to the
world's attention. Now however there is a strong and justifiable move away from that,
given his responsibility for a massacre of local Indigenous people near the
modern site of Robinvale on the Murray in 1835. This is a an important issue
for many modern Indigenous inhabitants of the area.)

Little Corellas Cacatua sanguinea are much more familiar, having spread south-eastwards
in recent years. They are also attractive and engaging small cockies, sometimes
forming huge flocks.
 
After that glamour it might seem a bit of an anti-climax to introduce a couple of arguably plainer species, but they all deserve our admiration.
Peaceful Doves Geopelia placida are common but inconspicuous little doves
especially in the Red Gums; their soporific 'toodle-oo' call is the backdrop to
many a restful afternoon along the inland rivers and creek lines.

Tree Martins Petrochelidon nigricans are found throughout virtually the whole
continent (though are migratory in the far south-east), breeding in tree hollows.

It was cool and windy while we were there, so there weren't many reptiles or even insects evident; sadly feral goats, the scourge of inland ranges, were in evidence.

 For the rest, my faunal offerings are pretty sparse!

Euro Macropus robustus, a common stocky hill kangaroo of the ranges
throughout inland Australia.

Yellow Admiral Vanessa itea in the sheltered sun trap of Mutawintji Gorge.
 
In stark contrast to the very parched land around Broken Hill, Mutawintji had obviously had some rain in the recent past, reflected not only by bird breeding activity but in some magnificent wildflower displays. The best of the annuals were along the base of the ridges on the walk to Mutawintji Gorge, but flowering shrubs were scattered throughout. Daisies always seem to feature in massed inland flowering displays.
Many-stemmed (or Woolly-headed) Burr Daisy Calotis multicaulis;
massed above, and closer up, below.


Purple (or Blue) Burr Daisy Calotis cuneifolia
one of the many burr-forming daisies known as bindi-eye.

Soft Billy Buttons Pycnosorus pleiocephalus.
But daisies aren't the only stars of massed flowering; the various Ptilotus species (Family Amaranthaceae, widely known as mulla mullas, or lamb's tails, foxtails and pussy tails) do the job pretty well too!
Pink Mulla Mullas Ptilotus exaltatus covering a stony hillside
(this is just a small section of it).

Silver-tails Ptilotus obovatus were present but not as abundant.

Hairy-pod Cress Harmsiodoxa blennodioides, in the mustard family (hence the four-
petalled flowers) is another that can cover the countryside, but wasn't doing
so on this occasioin.

Cut-leafed Goodenia pinnatifida, a more solitary little herb.
Under the gums by the camp-ground a very tall herb was flowering profusely.
Australian Hollyhock Lavatera plebeia, growing at
least a couple of metres high.
Flower below, making it clear it's in the hibisicus family, Malvaceae.

And high among my favourite plant groups - even up there with orchids and banksias! - are the eremophilas, the 'desert lovers' according to their name. Both the species we found in flower are common and widespread in inland Australia, but I never tire of them.
Tar Bush Eremophila glabra.

Emu Bush E. longifolia; this is also sometimes used as a group name
as emus are certainly fond of the fruit though there seems little basis
to the claim that they need to pass through an emu to germinate.


Well that's probably more than enough to get through at one sitting, but I hope I've encouraged you to add Mutawintji to your travel plans. It's a special place that deserves your attention, and you'd never be sorry for a few days spent in its delights.

Let's end with another glimpse of Mutwintji Gorge Waterhole (which will certainly have more water in it now) and a few more Mulgas and a rain-gleaming River Red Gum in the camp ground.



POST SCRIPT: On our last night there it started raining and continued into the morning. When it stopped we checked the status of the roads and found they were still open. (In that country driving on 'closed' roads is an offence punishable by severe fines; quite rightly too, as it can do great damage to clay roads.) In the event they probably should have been closed but by the time we discovered that it was too late. It took us some six hours to cover the 160km to White Cliffs, sliding and spinning for much of the way, alternately dragged sideways and anchored by the trailer. Here is how it was on arrival at White Cliffs. Can you spot the two 20-litre water containers?!


NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 22 OCTOBER.
And remember that you can get a reminder when the next post appears by putting your email address in the Follow by Email box in the top right of this screen.

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However, this reminder service is becoming increasingly unreliable and I have
no control over it. I keep hearing of people who are no longer getting
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Alternatively, if you'd like to send me an email (to calochilus51@internode.on.net)
I can put together a mailing list to send out whenever a post goes up;
I guarantee never to use your address for any other purpose.

Thank you!