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, 31 December 2020

Farewell to 2020!

It's a long time since I was sorely tempted to say 'and good riddance' to a year, but it truly has been a shocker for us all. Here it began as 2019 ended, with so much of eastern Australia (and significant areas elsewhere) burning on a scale and at an intensity unprecedented in European times, and quite possibly ever. In Canberra (and parts of NSW) it continued with savagely destructive hailstorms in late January, following hard on the heels of widespread intensive dust storms over much of inland NSW, product of an extended ferocious drought. 

And then of course COVID-19, which has affected - and continues to affect - every country on earth to varying degrees. Here in Australia, we have been more fortunate than most. This is due both to being an island, and to the efforts of state and territory governments working in rare cooperation. We have also proved to be a population which has by and large done the right thing, despite the costs of doing so and our reputation for being a mob generally uninterested in going along with government strictures. Nonetheless everything has changed for everybody.

Continuing my tradition of recent years (since 2013 in fact), to mark the changeover of years I've selected a photo from each month of 2020. In the past the difficulty has usually been choosing just one picture per month (or even just two on the occasions I allowed myself to stretch a point), but not so for most of this year. Among the places we'd planned at various times to visit, but been prevented by COVID restrictions, are South Australia (we got as far as the Victorian-SA border in March before things imploded), Costa Rica, Queensland and the Blue Mountains for Christmas. Accordingly my choices of photos are much more limited than I'm used to, one result of which is that I've had to post bird pics for instance for successive months, which I try to avoid doing. I hope the journey is still worth your while!
As ever I don't make any pretence to photographic excellence, but have chosen the pictures because of their associations, and in most cases because they are ones I've not previously used this year in a blog posting. Let's embark.
Regent Honeyeater Anthochaera phrygia, Watson woodlands, suburban Canberra.
This is one of the world's rarest birds, with perhaps only 250 adults scattered along
the east coast and hinterland. Formerly abundant, it's not clear exactly why it's seemingly
headed for extinction, but it's a nomad which relies on the threatened temperate woodlands.
It's years since I saw one and this was an encounter both exciting and poignant.    

Eastern Bristlebird Dasyornis brachypterus, Currarong, south coast NSW.
This is another endangered species which we encountered on a morning walk in the
heathland at one of our favourite 'escape places', on the northern end of Beecroft
Peninsula, Jervis Bay. We try to get there at least a couple of times a year and
this was our last pre-COVID visit. Bristlebirds, old Australians, are notoriously
shy, but this pair investigated us on the track, just before oblivious walkers
and accompanying dogs scared them away.
(More on Currarong here.)

At the beginning of the month (pre-COVID here) we visited a friend
at Lake Cargelligo in mid-western NSW. It was very dry still and not
a lot of obvious wildlife but this big Lace Monitor Varanus varius (most of
two metres long) caught our attention, despite trying to be inconspicuous.
Later in the month we set out to attend a family wedding in Adelaide; the COVID clouds were starting to gather, but we'd not yet understood what was coming. Only two days into the trip however border closures were being announced, so we spent a couple of gloriously peaceful and safe days in Lower Glenelg NP in south-western Victoria where we'd booked before turning for home and bunkering down. (More on that park here.)
Among many highlights here was another threatened bird species (though only in NSW, and not nearly as endangered as the earlier two species). 
Olive Whistler Pachycephala olivacea, Lower Glenelg NP.
I almost feel guilty that I took this photo while sitting at our campsite table!
This is a generally uncommon bird (as well as being shy and inconspicuous) scattered in
wetter forest habitats along the east coast.

By now we were largely confined to home except for necessary outings such as
food shopping and exercise. Fortunately a walk around nearby Narrabunda Hill
came into that category. This photo (taken into the sun) of White-winged Choughs
Corcorax melanorhamphos, threatening us with white wings (usually hidden) and
bulging red eyes, is a memento of that time (and one of the very few photos I took in April).
Another local walk, this time at a site known informally as Bluetts Block.
A reminder of the resilience of nature; epicormic growth sprouting from the scorched
trunk of a Broad-leaved Peppermint Eucalyptus dives. The shoots under the bark
of most eucalypts are held in check by a hormonal block until the tree is
defoliated by fire (or insect attack etc), when the block is released and the leaves
sprout to enable photosynthesis until the crown reestablishes itself.



Another reminder of the fires - this time of the vast, near-continuous east coast fires of
December and January. Xanthorrhoeas (or grass trees) sending up post-fire flowering spikes
in Jerrawangala NP near Nowra, south coast NSW.
At this stage we were spending a lot of time travelling to and from Nowra,
assisting with a family move to Canberra. Driving through the devastation
for scores of kilometres was tough, but scenes of recovery like this helped.
Xathorrhoeas often put up these spikes in the
winter or spring after a hot summer burn.

Snow Heath Woollsia pungens, Currarong (see February above if you skipped it!).
Back there for a few days in winter, I was surprised to see an unfamiliar heath plant flowering
along the walk - especially such a striking one. I needed some help but discovered that this heath,
with which I'm familiar but which normally has white flowers, has a population of
bright pink ones centred right on Currarong! I love the constant learning process.

Now was the time we were originally due to be taking a tour to Costa Rica. As compensation we planned a trip to somewhere else warm - Queensland. However two days before we left, that border too slammed shut. We were something of collateral damage - there'd been a flare-up of COVID in Sydney and, though the ACT had been free of cases for weeks, we were included for convenience. By now we couldn't leave NSW so instead we travelled around it - it was a cage, but a big and attractive one. And by now too the drought was finally ending, and we were swinging into the wet La NiƱa phase of the cycle. We'd intended to spend most of our time in the semi-arid western plains, but the rains continually drove us eastward and we eventually spent most of our time along the coast.
Australian Logrunner Orthonyx temminckii, Borganna Nature Reserve near Port Macquarie,
north coast New South Wales. These little rainforest birds live almost exclusively on the
ground where they scrape aside the leaf litter with powerful legs and feet, braced on
spiny tails. I find them to be very wary and I'd never managed to photograph one
until that afternoon. This one was entirely focused on its long struggle with
a determined big centipede and didn't mind (or didn't notice) being approached.

Sydney Waratah Telopea speciosissima, Brisbane Water NP, Central Coast NSW.
Into September now and we were heading south towards home, but the flowers were
starting in earnest. And for me who didn't grow up with them, the spectacular
big heads of waratahs, containing dozens of individual flowers, always enthrall.
Back home, and with hip surgery looming for me, we took a few days off in the Blue Mountains late in October. Vast areas burnt last summer, but not everywhere, and the flowers were again excellent. As a result, so were the insects. I'm slipping in two photos (well three actually, but one's just a supplementary for clarification) for this month.
Masked Devil Cyclochila australasiae form spreta.
I'm a big fan of cicadas and this one - cold and wet, low down and easy to photograph! - is a beauty.
This species come in a bewildering array of colours and patterns, with a variety of names
accordingly. Yellow Monday, Chocolate Soldier, Greengrocer and Blue Moon all
refer to forms of this species.
And after some dry years with few cicadas, they're making up for it this summer!
This is a 'bucket list' photo for me. It's the first time I've managed to get an acceptable photo of
orchid pollination. This sawfly Lophyrotoma sp. has just pollinated a Flying Duck Orchid
Caleana major (unrecognisable in this photo because it's been 'triggered'; see next photo).
He was attracted by the flower's scent which mimics the pheromone of a female sawfly
(actually a wasp relation) and in his exertions the orchid has transferred the sticky
bundle of pollen (the 'pollinia') which he is wearing like a yellow saddle. The fabulous
feathery antennae can detect very low levels of the pheromones (real and fake).
A Flying Duck Orchid in its untriggered state. In the previous photo the 'head' on
a sensitive strap has been snapped downwards to force the sawfly against the
pollen presenter.

Because of the splendid spring this year, I put some effort into trying to track down as many orchid species as I could, especially around Canberra, with some success. I'll report in detail in a forthcoming blog post. This was the last one I saw before I went into hospital, and it gave me quite a degree of satisfaction because it's uncommon and I'd tried several times in a known site without success before a kind hint directed me to this small scattered colony well away from where I'd ever looked for it.
Black-tongue Caladenia C. congesta, Black Mountain, Canberra.
It is delightfully lurid, and the densely warty 'tongue' (or labellum)
is most impressive.
Finally two December photos, marking significant days for me. The first was taken on my first excursion (other than to the physio and doctor!) after getting out of hospital. We did a short slow walk in the National Botanic Gardens, where the butterflies were enjoying summer as much as we were.
Australian Painted Lady Vanessa kershawi on paper daisy, Xerochrysum sp.
This is a very common butterfly, but that's no reason not to admire it each time.
I love that we can see its uncoiled proboscis inserted into a tiny floret to extract
a drop of nectar.

And the other December photo was taken very recently, a couple of days after Christmas. This was another big day for me because it was the first time I'd been in the bush - essential for my well-being - since the operation five weeks previously. We drove (ie Lou drove!) up into the Brindabellas above Canberra; this was also significant because it was the first time we'd up into this very special Canberra back yard all year. As well as COVID issues, most of the park burnt in February, and the rest was closed for much of the year. I took lots of flower and insect photos, albeit somewhat awkwardly, and this one appeals to me.
Silver Snow Daisy Celmisia sp. with a couple of visitors.
I'm cautiously suggesting that the lovely coppery iridescent beetle is Eleale sp.
in the family Cleridae. This genus often visits flowers to eat nectar or pollen.
I hadn't even noticed its neighbour though until I processed the photo (in fact it had
just popped up and wasn't present in a photo taken three seconds earlier). To my
embarrassment, from front on I can't tell whether it's a spider or small grasshopper!

So, that's one version of my year, but even with the relative paucity of photos I could have shown you others. Perhaps I've prompted you to muse too on your year's natural history highlights - that can be a very satisfying and even therapeutic thing to do, especially in such stressful times.

Thank you reading this, and if you're a 'regular' reader I greatly appreciate that support. May 2021 be kinder to us all than 2020 has been, and may we still be able to be comforted and inspired by nature - and in turn may we start being better stewards than we've been in the past.
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, 10 December 2020

Lorikeets; the flash mob

Parrots are surely among the great treats of living in Australia. There are more than forty Australian species in the family Psittaculidae, which collectively cover the entire continent in every habitat. They include some of the most familiar and conspicuous Australian birds, prominent in the big cities, and also some of the rarest, which most of us never see. 

Distinct among these are the seven species of lorikeets; wherever you like in Australia, you are likely to be familiar with at least one or two of them. (To cover myself I should say that that number is technically eight, but the Coconut Lorikeet Trichoglossus haematodus is really a New Guinea bird which visits the Australian Torres Strait Islands.) There are many more species of the sub-group, including the short-tailed lories, in New Guinea and its associated islands.

'Lory' and 'lorikeet' are clearly closely related terms and in fact lory came first, though not used in Australia, from Malay luri, simply referring to a parrot. The 'keet' was added in English as a diminutive (think of parrot and parakeet). It too was first applied to birds from the Malay Peninsula, Indonesia and New Guinea, but was taken up in Australia soon afterwards.                    

Lorikeets are generally small parrots, long-tailed and brilliantly coloured, which feed in the foliage on flowers - both nectar and pollen - and soft fruit. (Except of course for those which have become accustomed to coming to back yard feeders, of which more anon.) They have brush-tipped tongues (like honeyeaters and woodswallows) to harvest pollen and take up nectar by capillary action. Most - and probably all, prior to European settlement - are nomadic, following the blossoms.

Scaly-breasted Lorikeet Trichoglossus chlorolepidotus, Goondiwindi, southern Queensland.

Varied Lorikeet Psitteuteles versicolor, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
Typically of lorikeets, this little tropical species seems just as happy upside down as not.
They have zygodactylous feet - which is to say that the inner two toes point forward and the outer two backwards - which are excellent for clambering around branches. 
This Rainbow Lorikeet Trichoglossus moluccanus demonstrates the feet reasonably well.
It is feeding on an introduced Coral Tree Erythrina x sykesii near Nowra
in southern New South Wales. The big pea flowers of this very widespread tropical and subtropical
genus evolved to be pollinated by birds, including parrots.
(This one however will not be helped by the lorikeet - it is a sterile hybrid which seemingly
arose in New Zealand from species introduced there).

Perhaps these Musk Lorikeets Glossopsitta concinna, at Rosedale on the New South Wales
south coast, show their foot structure to better advantage here.
Like most parrots, lorikeets are hollow nesters, using hollows in both trunks and branch spouts.
Rainbow Lorikeet at nesting hollow in tree, Callum Brae NR, Canberra.
This next one however surprised me. Some other parrots excavate ground termite mounds for nests, and other birds such as kingfishers use tree termite nests which they smash into with their bills at full tilt (ouch). But I wasn't aware of lorikeets digging out such a nest until earlier this year.
Rainbow Lorikeet at excavated aerial termite mound, Port Macquarie, New South Wales.

Let's stay with Rainbow Lorikeets for now, as they are not only the best-known lorikeet, but one of Australia's most recognisable birds. They were the first Australian lorikeet to be scientifically described, from Sydney in 1788.
Rainbow Lorikeets feeding on flowering Xanthorrhoea spike,
Currarong, south coast NSW.
They are present in every Australian state and territory capital except Darwin, where they are replaced by the closely related Red-collared Lorikeet. They have been introduced to Perth and Hobart and are abundant in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, including the inner cities. In Canberra they are just taking hold; we saw them at our place for the first time last year and as shown in the photo above they are starting to breed here. I grew up in Adelaide but hardly ever saw them there - when the Sugar Gums Eucalyptus cladocalyx were flowering in Botanic Park they mysteriously but unfailingly appeared, but I've no idea from where. Now they seem to dominate the skies there.

They are moving inland at a sometimes startling pace too - it seems that every time I travel I encounter them in inland places where I've not previously seen them. They are one of the world's most gorgeous parrots but they are also highly aggressive and fight other species for food sources, and perhaps more significantly for nesting hollows. I love seeing them but am apprehensive about what their arrival might mean for Canberra bird life. 

They readily learn to come to feeders and love big-flowering hybrid native plant species.
Rainbow Lorikeets coming to seed at Broulee, NSW south coast.

Rainbow Lorikeet on bottlebrush, Callistemon sp., Rosedale.
Until recently the Red-collared Lorikeet Trichoglossus rubritorquis, of the northern tropics from the western Queensland border to the Kimberley, was lumped with the Rainbow Lorikeet, but we now recognise it as a separate species.
Red-collared Lorikeet on Umbrella Tree Schefflera actinophylla blossoms, Darwin.
This is a common bird throughout Darwin and the Top End.

Red-collared Lorikeets coming to water at a campground,
Victoria River, East Kimberley, Northern Territory.
The third member of the genus Trichoglossus in Australia (there are another nine species to the north of here) is the Scaly-breasted Lorikeet that we met earlier. This is an altogether more demure bird (at least by lorikeet standards!) than the Rainbows and notably smaller; the two often feed together however. It is found along much of the east coast north of about Sydney (though they have been seen in Canberra and I gather there's a feral population in Melbourne). While feeding it is essentially green except for the red bill and a shoulder flash, but in flight the underwing is also strikingly red-orange.
Scaly-breasted Lorikeet showing its scaly breast and red bill, Mount Molloy,
North Queensland.
Scaly-breasted Lorikeets feeding on street trees, Mullumbimby, northern NSW.
The other four species are considerably smaller and tend to give way to their bigger cousins. Probably the most familiar of these is the Musk Lorikeet Glossopsitta concinna, the only one of its genus. They are common and widespread in south-eastern Australia from Adelaide to north of Brisbane, but I suspect they are often overlooked as they flash overhead, small and green, without the red undersides of the bigger lorikeets. They have adapted well to suburbia (not so much the inner cities) but it is likely they are struggling there against the growing wave of Rainbow Lorikeets. 

I recall, as a boy, them coming (along with Purple-crowned Lorikeets) in flocks to feed on our apricots and peaches as they ripened. Mum always reckoned she was happy to share, but objected to them taking a bite from each fruit to test its ripeness. 

Musk Lorikeet on Eucalyptus ficifolia blossoms (a planted street tree from
Western Australia), Coles Bay Tasmania. The red forehead and cheeks define it.
The genus Parvipsitta ('small parrot') is appropriately named, both species being only about 15cm long. I grew up with Purple-crowned Lorikeets (P. porphyrocephala) - as I said earlier, they visited our Adelaide backyard fruit trees - but I don't often see them these days. They live to the west of here, in woodlands and mallee across southern Australia. In Western Australia they are the only naturally-occurring lorikeet and so utilise the wet forests as well. To experience a flowering Karri forest (E. diversicolor) abuzz with shimmering flocks of Purple-crowneds pollinating in the crowns, is one not to be forgotten.

Unfortunately I have only one very mediocre photo to offer, but in a very minor way it's historic in being one of the very first photos I took with my first digital camera. It was fairly primitive by today's standards, but more importantly I was totally green! They're a lovely little bird and deserve better.
Purple-crowned Lorikeet in flowering street gums (E. fasciculosa), Port Augusta, South Australia.
How I'd love the chance to take that photo now!
The distinctive (and unusual) purple crown can just be seen, though you can't hear
the very distinctive buzzy call.
The other Parvipsitta is the only Australian lorikeet listed as threatened, along with many other southern Australian woodland species. They were only the second Australian lorikeet to be described, just after the Rainbow Lorikeet. The Little Lorikeet P. pusilla (ie 'small little parrot'!) certainly lives up (or down) to its name. Short-tailed, ridiculously quick as the flocks dart into and out of the foliage, they are tiny. It took me until this year to get a photo of them, feeding high in wind-tossed eucalypt flowers on the north-west slopes of NSW. I didn't feel able to properly do this post until I'd got photos of all of them, so was doubly glad to get these.
Little Lorikeets west of Tenterfield, northern New South Wales, above and below.

In flight they can look a bit like Musk Lorikeets, with no red below,
but they are only two thirds the size. The all-red face and green cheeks
are other distinguishing characters.
Finally, one of the most appealing of all lorikeets (which is saying something and is of course very subjective), the Varied Lorikeet of the tropical woodlands west of the Gulf of Carpentaria. It is the only Australian member of its genus, though there are two others in islands to the north. It is small, but a bit bigger than the previous two, and particularly screechy. It is the only small lorikeet in its range, and only the big Red-collared Lorikeet overlaps with it, so there's no chance of mistaking it, even without those fabulous big white goggles! Flocks of them swarm in when the eucalypts are flowering. 

These entertained us for ages in the campground at Gunlom Falls in Kakadu National Park during the hot part of the (when we weren't at the falls).
Varied Lorikeet, Kakadu National Park.
The second photo on this page is probably a better portrait of it, albeit upside down.

Lorikeets, as you will have divined, are among my favourite Australians; a lorikeet day is a good day, and I hope I've been able to introduce you some you may not have yet met. Now that we've just started to be able to travel again, they are another treat to keep your eyes out for!

I think a post right on Christmas is likely to get lost, so my next one will be the last of the year, and feature my traditional New Years Eve round-up of the year with a photo for each month. 

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!