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, 19 November 2020

High in the Blue Mountains; Blackheath #2 - plants

In my last post I introduced the lovely Rough Track cabins on the edge of the Blue Mountains National Park, just outside of Blackheath at the top of the mountains. I promised to conclude this brief series with some plants that we've seen around there in a couple of visits - a couple of years ago in mid-summer drought, and very recently in a wet spring. There's a lot going on here at the moment so this one will be basically just a  photo essay of some lovely flowers. 

Most of these photos were taken either within the Rough Tracks property or in the immediate vicinity. Apart from the first picture all were taken in heathy understorey, mostly in dry forest. 

Despite the name Black Wattle (and the fluffy flowers), this inhabitant of wet gullies
is not an acacia but Callicoma serratifolia, a member of the old Gondwanan family Cunoniaceae.
However it was named 'wattle' for the same reason as Australian acacias were. It grew
profusely around the new Sydney colony in the late 18th century, and its stems were
cut and woven into frames ('wattled' to use the old English term), then covered in mud
('daubed') to make walls for basic houses. Sydney's Black Wattle Bay is name for this plant.

Flannel Flower Actinotus helianthi is related to carrots and parsley in the Family Apiaceae.
If you enlarge the picture you'll see lots of small flowers clustered together in the centre,
surrounded by white bracts to attract pollinating insects; it's the same principle
as that adopted by the paper daisies. The bracts are soft and furry - ie flannelly!

Pale Pink Boronia Boronia floribunda; both names are appropriate as the lovely pale
pink flowers are indeed abundant. Both foliage and flowers are scented. It's a funny
thing about the scent of boronia foliage; some people find it pleasant, to
others it can be quite rank.
Peas of course are plentiful (and I've not forgotten I've promised to post a second installment on this very important family to follow this recent post). Here are a couple of representatives.

An 'eggs and bacon' Dillwynia retorta - one of many!

A bush pea Pultenea glabra.
Myrtaceae is another prominent family in any southern Australian bushland, not least because it contains the eucalypts which nearly always dominate. Here are a couple of attractive Myrtaceous shrubs.
Fringe Myrtle Calytrix tetragona is found well beyond the mountains too, but is
always a welcome sight. The flowers (usually pink rather than white, as here)
flaunt long misty stamens...

... but after the petals drop the red sepals are still striking.
This impressive stand was in the Megalong Valley, just down the hill from Blackheath.

Pink Kunzea Kunzea capitata
Family Proteaceae is probably best and most widely known for banksias, grevilleas and hakeas, but here are a couple of others which are integral parts of the Blue Mountains understorey. 
Broad-leaved Drumsticks Isopogon anemonifolius; the 'drumsticks' name refers to the
spherical cones of seeds which form after the numerous flowers drop.

Mountain Devil Lambertia formosa; this name could well refer to the wickedly sharp
leaf tips, but in fact it's for the distinctly devil's head seed cases (below).

This devil looks decidedly grumpy - perhaps because it had been recently burnt.

Goodeniaceae is a medium-sized family of some 400 mostly Australian species, 80% of which are in either Goodenia, Scaevola or Dampiera though I suspect they are often overlooked. Here are a couple of common members of the Blue Mountains understorey.

Goodenia bellidifolia, an erect herb which often flowers profusely after a fire.
See next caption for its name origin.

Blue Dampiera D. stricta, a lovely splash of colour, and named for the botanist-pirate
William Dampier. A lovely juxtaposition with Goodenia whose name honours the
Reverend Samuel Goodenough, Bishop of Carlisle, treasurer of the Linnean Society
and wowser of considerable note.

From here on - at least until we get to the orchids! - we're looking at just one example of each of several families.

Sourbush Choretrum candollei, family Santalaceae is a hemiparasite. That is, while
it photosynthesises (mostly via the stems) to trap its own energy from sunlight
in the form of sugars, it takes water and minerals from the roots of surrounding plants.
The tiny flowers are so abundant that the display is striking.
The fruits of Sourbush (from which it presumably derives its name) are
much larger than the flowers which produce them.

Silky Purple-flag Patersonia sericea, a large iris of the family Iridaceae,
Each flower lasts only a few hours, but many are produced on successive sunny days.

Mitre Weed Mitrasacme pilosa; a not very conspicous herb,
but its four-petalled flowers are distinctive.

Twisted Mat-rush Lomandra obliqua, whose oddly contorted foliage is unmistakeable.
Currently in the family Asparagaceae, though it has been included in the Xanthorrhoea family
and its own family Lomandraceae, among others

Lobelia dentata, a spectacular little flower that it's easy to be anthropomorphic about.

Slender Violet Hybanthus monopetalus, a pretty and delicate little violet which
appears to have only one petal. In reality it's just that the other four petals are very small.

Strap-leaf Bloodroot Haemodorum planifolium, Family Haemodoraceae.
Curiously this is also the kangaroo paw family though the resemblance isn't
immediately obvious. In Australia it is the only genus in the family that isn't
restricted to Western Australia.

Rush Lily Sowerbaea juncea is a somewhat 'scruffy' lily - due to the crowded flower
head - which is found in wet sandy sites in heath.
Which brings us to the orchids, for which my fondness is no secret. To avoid any suggestions of favouritism I'll present them in reverse alphabetical order - and of course it's purely coincidental that I thus leave my two favourites to last...
Veined Sun Orchid Theylmitra venosa. This slightly faded specimen was at the end of its
flowering period towards the end of December. It likes wet feet, in bogs and below cliffs
though this one was by the edge of the track down to Grand Canyon near Rough Tracks cabins.

In late October the distinctive tall stems of Spotted Sun Orchids Thelymitra ixioides
were everywhere, hundreds of them, including around our cabin.
However in the absence of sun this genus of orchids is most loath to open
and it took until almost the end of our stay to find a single partly open flower.
The only (sort of) open Spotted Sun Orchid that we found.
Tall Leek Orchid Prasophyllum elatum - and indeed it is!
This one, which we saw from the car while driving along a bumpy track, was
over a metre high. Many leek orchids flower most strongly following
hot summer fires, and both this species and the next were only found by
us in such situations.

Short-lip Leek Orchid Prasophyllum brevilabre, a much more
modestly proportioned orchid, generally less than 20cm tall. The flowers
are tiny but, being snowy white, are surprisingly conspicuous.

Tiger Orchid Diuris sulphurea (it also goes by several other common names),
a common and widespread orchid (it was a bumper year for them around Canberra too)
which we encountered throughout the high Blue Mountains.

Red Beard Orchid Calochilus paludosus. My affinity for this wonderful orchid will be evident
to anyone who knows me, though my own beard long since faded from red.
It was a good year for these beauties in the mountains too.

And finally, a truly magnificent orchid with an odd name - until you see it, and then how could it be called anything but a Flying Duck?

Caleana major is named for George Caley, an early naturalist-explorer of the
Blue Mountains who worked for Sir Joseph Banks. For those who speak orchidese,
the labellum, which is at the bottom of most orchid flowers - eg the beard in the previous
example - forms the duck's head here. The strap holding it (ie the duck's neck) nods in the
breeze. A male sawfly is attracted by the scent of the flower which mimics that of a
female sawfly in an amorous state, lands on the labellum which snaps shut and
temporarily traps the wasp. In his struggles to back out, he encounters the pollen-bearing
column. The reason for all this detail becomes obvious in the next picture.

We saw the sawfly, genus Lophyrotoma, struggling in the flower but sadly by the time I
retrieved my camera he was out. However he was clearly exhausted by his ordeal and spent
some time sitting on the triggered flower (which would soon reset). The pollinium - a sticky
package of pollen - is seen stuck to his back. It was an exciting moment; I'd never managed
a successful photo of an orchid pollinator before. The fabulous feathery antennae have
a big surface area to boost their sensitivity to the scent of pheromones.

The Blue Mountains are all you've heard - and more if you're interested in natural history, which is a fair assumption given that you're reading this. Go and see for yourself, and you could do a lot worse than to try the Rough Track cabins. Thanks for reading.

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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Thursday, 5 November 2020

High in the Blue Mountains; Blackheath #1

The Blue Mountains loom large, both literally and in the history and mythology of European settlement of the Sydney area. They certainly had cultural importance for many thousands of years before that as well but, as I've noted before, those are not my stories to tell. This post is to introduce to you a little of the area of the high mountains, especially around Blackheath near the western edge of the range. We like Blackheath for its 'village' feel and for being surrounded by forest. The highway to Sydney runs south from Blackheath through a natural landscape to Katoomba of tourist fame (think 'Three Sisters' and constant coachloads of tourists). From there it swings east and descends, with an essentially continuous strip of suburbia flanking it, to the Sydney plains at Penrith. If I'm coming up from Sydney (which is not generally how I approach the mountains) Blackheath is the first time I feel I've left Australia's biggest city. 

We've now stayed twice in a little cabin surrounded by bush, against the Blue Mountains National Park, east of Blackheath on the road to Evans Lookout. The first time was during the drought, in the middle of summer, while the second was very recently with the bush flowering and rain much of the time, courtesy of the La NiƱa phase of the ENSO cycle. This post draws on both those experiences.

As is well known, most of the greater Blue Mountains area burnt in the summer of 2019-20. At least 80% of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area - which comprises a million hectares of mostly national park - was incinerated. It got to within a few hundred metres of 'our' cabin (no, we only rent it) but the area around it was spared. This post will be a two-parter, starting today with some scene-setting - habitats, scenery, some fire recovery - and some (mostly smaller) animals, and concluding next time with a parade of wildflowers. Firstly though, the cabin we now think of as 'home' when we're in the mountains.

It's solid and comfortable, surrounded by bush but just a few minutes drive from
Blackheath shops and cafes. The other (identical) cabin and the owners' home are nearby
but out of sight. Just look up Rough Track Cabins - there are various web sites
with more information, though this is a pretty good place to start.
I don't 'do' ads here, but I'm always happy to let you
know about places that are good to stay in and whose owners are doing the
right thing by the environment.

The forest around it is dominated by Sydney Peppermint Eucalyptus piperita with a lovely heathy understorey and something flowering on just about any day of the year.

This is the view outside the back door.

And this is the little track that runs from near this back door through the forest to a lookout over the Grand Canyon (yes I know, but the Blue Mountains are awash with such names - it's because of the somewhat twee times when they were being renamed in English). Many of the photos in these two postings were taken in the vicinity of the cabin.

The burnt areas can't, and shouldn't, be ignored, but I'm not going to dwell on them. Last summer's fires were unprecedented, certainly in European times, and probably within the last several centuries at least, for their intensity and vast scale - though without a dramatic rethinking of carbon-based fuels they are simply a foretaste of the world we're creating. However fires, including intense summer ones, are integral to most Australian landscapes and thus those landscapes and their living components are well adapted to recovery. 

Looking over recovering dry forest and heathland to the cliffs known as the
Blackheath Walls across the Grose Valley. (ie Blackheath and our cabin are behind those walls.)
This is from the walk to The Walls Lookout which starts from Bells Line of Road.

Xanthorrhoeas (or grass trees) which have regrown from root stock and put up
flower spikes 2-3 metres high in response to the January 2020 fires. Many other
plants, including orchids, are also flowering in such areas.
Saw Banksia B. serrata reshooting from the base after fire. We would normally
expect banksias to die and regrow from seed held in cones on the dead plant,
but nature doesn't feel constrained by our expectations.
In sheltered areas of the mountains, especially in gorges such as the Grand Canyon, there are significant stands of warm temperate rainforest (especially of Coachwood Ceratopetalum apetalum). Entering these can be quite a shock, as they may be only metres from the dry flowery heaths and eucalypt forests but are dim, green, cool and moist. Grand Canyon at Blackheath is one such rainforest patch, but a more easily accessible one is the Coachwood Glen Nature Trail, right by the roadside and well-signposted near the beginning of the Megalong Valley. From Blackheath, simply cross the railway line by the highway in the middle of town, and follow the signs.
Tree Ferns, especially the tall Rough Tree Fern Cyathea australis,
dominate the understorey in places.

Other ferns include the shorter-trunked Smooth Tree Fern Dicksonia antarctica
and various fishbone ferns Blechnum spp.

In the centre of this rainforest picture is an ancient leaning eucalypt,
Brown Barrel Eucalyptus fastigata.

Another important tree of the rainforests is dark rough-barked
Sassafras Doryphora sassafras.

Mossy rocks and banks line stream lines, above and below.

I don't have as many animals photos as you might have expected, but the timing of our visits - in drought and rain respectively - had a lot to do with that. Here are a few that we encountered, most of them around the cabin in summer, representing a range of animal groups.

Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi, a common and widespread
species across southern Australia.

Varied Swordgrass Brown Tisiphone abeona. These were common around the cabin
in summer but I found them to be very flighty and it took some time to get
a non-blurry photo! It relies on various species of swordgrass (actually a sedge,
Gahnia spp., of the Family Cyperaceae) for food for its caterpillars.

This is apparently shaping up to be a bumper season for cicadas in the high mountains, though of course there weren't many calling in the cold wet conditions that prevailed when we were last there - and the drought summer didn't favour them either. However there were plenty of nymph cases on tree trunks as evidence of the mass emergence.

The split in the back of the carapace is evident; from here the adult cicada emerged.

A very handsome Masked Devil Cyclochila australasiae form spreta, pretty
much immobilised by the cold, in a friend's garden in Katoomba. This is a baffling
species which comes in a bewildering array of colour forms, including those
known as Yellow Monday, Chocolate Soldier, Greengrocer and Blue Moon!
An elegantly long-legged fly (resting on our wet car in case you were wondering
about the studio!). Per invaluable input from Susan and Harvey (see Comments below),
and a closer look at another photo which featured its backside, it is clear that this
is a Bristlefly, Family Tachinidae, almost certainly genus Senostoma.

Yellow-striped Hunter Austrogomphus guerini - thanks Steve! The world of
dragonflies is yet another thing I don't know enough about.

Surprisingly few bird pics I'm afraid, though I undertake to compensate for that in other posts.
Jacky Winter Microeca fascinans, a confiding little robin, looking at us looking at orchids,
Megalong Valley.

Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos Zanda funerea, are common in the Blue Mountains.
(This and the two Western Australian white-tailed black-cockatoos have recently
been split off from the genus Calyptorhynchus.)

Gang-gang Cockatoo Callocephalon fimbriatum, a very characterful little
cockatoo of the mountain forests. This is a young male, with grey still
showing through his spiffy red head feathers.
(Oddly, my head's getting greyer as I get older!)

And to finish off, a very engaging little lizard that was busy outside the cabin on our previous visit, including digging into the gravel, either looking for snacks or somewhere suitable to lay eggs.

Mountain Dragon Rankinia diemensis taking a rest from its labours.

And busily digging into the gravel path.
Next time, I'll be back to share some of the wealth of wildflowers we enjoyed on our visits to this superb part of the world - and one which, like so many other parts of regional Australia, needs our support after this grim 12 months or so.

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.

I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!
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
notifications of new postings and I'm losing readership presumably as a result.
You might like to set a calendar alert as a back-up to avoid missing out.
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!