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 April 2021

The Blue Mountains in Autumn

Not too long ago I did a 2-part post on the delights of the upper Blue Mountains, based on stays in summer and spring in the admirable Rough Track Cabins just outside of Blackheath in the upper Blue Mountains. We have just returned from our first Autumn visit there, and things are different enough to warrant a further post on what's happening now. I've made sure that I'm not repeating the same scenes or species, so to get the setting if you're not familiar with it you may wish to look at the previous posts. 

The weather was clear and sunny throughout our stay, not something we can presume in this part of the world, and we visited a series of the famed lookouts over the dramatic sandstone scenery, including some we'd not previously seen. Here are a few of our favourites, starting with the iconic 'Three Sisters' at Katoomba, albeit from a different angle from that usually featured. 

The 'Three Sisters' from Katoomba Falls Lookout.
Note that the supposedly Indigenous origin of the oft-cited 'three sisters' story
is clouded in extreme doubt; it seems much more likely to have been promulgated by
the tourist industry in the early 20th century.
Nonetheless the importance of the formation to local Indigenous people is undoubted.

Here are three panoramic views from different lookouts, but all of which look east across the mighty Grose Valley.

From Govett's Leap; he didn't jump, the term is from Scots lowp or loup, which does refer to
a jump, but in this case (and others in the Blue Mountains) means a waterfall.

From Victoria Falls Lookout (though in fact the falls are quite a walk from here).
As you may have divined, I love sandstone, for its formations and for the rich vegetation it supports.

From Anvil Rock near Perry's Lookdown. Fortunately you can't hear the whining drone which
was hovering above, operated by a couple of visitors. They are increasingly being banned
at national park sites, including much of the Blue Mountains.

This one however looks south from Katoomba Falls Lookout into the Jamison Valley; the Kedumba River, which tumbles over the Katoomba Falls, joins with the Jamison River far below.

And below the cliffs, as you'd expect and as we've alluded to, are waterfalls. This has been a good rainfall summer - in fact extreme at times - after some years of drought. Here are the delightful Witch's Leap Falls (tautology, as we've noted) below Katoomba Falls Lookout.

Looking across to the falls...

... and from below. There are lots of such unfortunate names
in the mountains, dating I suspect from early tourism campaigns.
And the impressive Katoomba Falls themselves, which drop some 150 metres into the Jamison Valley.
There are two segments to the falls which, despite good tracks and proximity to the main
Katoomba tourist drag, is often overlooked by visitors.

The forests below the cliffs contain pockets of Warm Temperate Rainforest, dominated by Coachwood Ceratopetalum apetalum and Sassafras Doryphora sassafras.

Temperate rainforest by Witch's Leap Falls. Some of this rainforest also
contains eucalypts, especially Brown Barrel Eucalyptus fastigata.

 
Old Brown Barrel among Coachwood.

A favourite Blue Mountains rainforest walk of ours is at Coachwood Glen, at the head of the Megalong Valley. I introduced it last time, but any bushwalk is different every time. Also this time, because it's autumn, there were lots of lovely fungi, but we'll meet them soon. A couple of scene-setting shots of the glen.

Old Coachwood roots growing over a mossy boulder.

Vines on Coachwood.
Ferns are an integral part of the rainforest understorey - of pretty much any rainforest in fact.
Below Witch's Leap Falls; Rough Tree Fern Cyathea australis in foreground.

Tender Brake Fern Pteris tremula covering the forest floor at Coachwood Glen.
The majority of the mountains however are clothed in dry forest, with some woodland in open areas like Megalong Valley.

Sunset on the track to Rough Track cabins; the dominant tree here is
Sydney Peppermint Eucalyptus piperita.


Silvertop Ash Eucalyptus sieberi growing along the ridge of Narrow Neck Plateau
which separates the Megalong and Jamison Valleys.

Scribbly Gum E. sclerophylla woodand, Megalong Valley.
These Scribbly Gums really are beautiful trees; this one was growing out of
sandstone at Perry's Lookdown.
And while we're on eucalypts, here are a couple more, both of which have their stronghold in the Blue Mountains as their names suggest.
 
Blue Mountains Mallee Ash E. stricta, in heathy forest near our cabin.

Blue Mountains Ash E. oreades is found in moister situations.
Much of the drier forests and the heathlands were burnt in the appallingly widespread and intense fires of the summer of 2019-20, unprecedented at least in European times. A large majority of the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area was burnt in that conflagration. However the dry forests and heathlands are well-adapted to even intense fire and with a wet year recovery is progressing.
Regenerating burnt forest in the Grose Valley, from Victoria Falls Lookout.

Burnt banksia cones, Narrow Neck Plateau. The seeds dropped into the ash bed a couple
of days after the fire, when the ground had cooled, to start the regeneration cycle

Last spring there was major flowering in the burnt areas, and it continued through summer when we couldn't get there because of COVID in Sydney (for quarantine purposes the Blue Mountains were regarded as part of the Greater Sydney Area). Some was still evident even in April however.

Flannel Flowers Actinotus helianthi in burnt heathland at Perry's Lookdown.
This beautiful sandstone plant flowers occasionally in autumn but we found
it quite regularly in the burnt areas.
However the one thing I very much wanted to see on this trip was another flannel flower, the rare Pink Flannel Flower A forsythii which I'd never seen, and which normally grows only on remote harsh peaks. However this summer there was a mass flowering, presumably from long-buried seed, in readily accessible areas such as Narrow Neck. I'd followed the reports from afar, and was not optimistic that any would be left. My first investigations seemed to support that pessimism.
I found uncountable dried plants that had finished flowering on the bare exposed
Narrow Neck ridge line, but no fresh flowers....
...until I clambered down a slope where a few plants in sheltered situations were still in good flower.
'Delighted' doesn't cover my emotions at this find, one I'd never thought to see.
Just a few more autumn flowers, starting with three common banksias, many of which are autumn-winter flowerers.
Heath Banksia B. ericifolia. Like all banksias the flower spike comprises
hundreds of small flowers, many of which are pollinated by small mammals.

Silver Banksia B. marginata.

Hairpin Banksia B. spinulosa.

The spectacular Mountain Devils Lambertia formosa flower all year round,
though they peak in spring. Like banksias they are in the old Gondwanan family Proteaceae.
The devilish part of the plant is the woody seed case; see the previous post for a photo.

Platysace lanceolata, another summer-autumn flowerer.
And lastly not a flower, but a pretty spectacular plant anyway.
Glowing red bark at the base of Broad-leaved Geebung Persoonia levis, another Proteaceae.
The flaky bark of this small tree has been much prized by craftspeople, to the
detriment of some populations near to Sydney.
And as a I promised earlier, here are some lovely fungi from Coachwood Glen; fungi are a feature of autumn in many areas. It's one of the many fields I'd like to know more about, so if you think I've got any of these wrong, please let me know.
Coral Toothed Fungus Hericium coralloides growing on a dead section of trunk
of a Coachwood.

Turkey Tails Microporus affinis, a bracket fungus, growing on a fallen Coachwood branch.

Bonnets Mycena sp. forming a tiny moss garden on a fallen tree trunk.

Golden Scalycaps Pholiota aurivella growing out of a crevice in a Sassafras.

And this last one is a photo that doesn't deserve to appear in public, but the gorgeous glowing little toadstool does. My apologies to it and you.
Ruby Bonnet Cruentomycena viscidocruenta, a tiny little gem growing in very low light.
But, as you've probably noticed, no animals! I really took hardly any photos of them this time, though not for want of trying. Here's one however that partly compensates.

Sydney Mountain Darner Austroaeschna obscura resting on the path to Perry's Lookdown.
My thanks to Harvey Perkins for the id.

That's all on the Blue Mountains for now, but we'll probably be back. Don't wait though - if you're able to do so, get yourself up there. There's something to enjoy at any time of the year.


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Thursday, 1 April 2021

Augrabies Falls NP; a magnificent South African dryland

I first visited Augrabies Falls, up near the Namibian border in north-western South Africa, back in 2005 and was smitten by it. To the north, in Botswana and Namibia, is the mighty Kalahari Desert. The northern part of South Africa along the Orange River where Augrabies Falls thunders is sometimes known (mostly for tourism purposes) as the 'Green Kalahari', to reflect the irrigation production along the river.

I was travelling alone then but was embarking on the relationship that has come to define the rest of my life, and was determined to share this wild arid land with Lou one day. One of its attractions for me was that it reminded me in many ways of outback Australia, and we both feel passionately about that. Finally, just before COVID changed the world forever and shut down international travel for who knows how long, we managed to get there (and back!). This post is a record of a brief but memorable time there.

The wild wide rocky landscape of Augrabies Falls National Park.

The red arrow marks the approximate position of Augrabies Falls, on the Orange River
some 120km west of the thriving (and not entirely lovable) frontier town of Upington.
The park was declared in 1966 and protects some 50,000 hectares of semi-arid landscape surrounding the Orange River. The focus is the falls which crash 60 metres into a deep gorge which extends for nearly 20kms - and the rock it has chewed away is granite!

I would of course love to show you the full drama of the falls - they were pretty good when I was there in 2005 but that was pre-digital camera days for me - but the area was in severe drought at the time (as was most of Australia) so the falls were a relative trickle.

The falls are accessed by walking tracks and viewing platforms just below the very
comfortable cabin we stayed in. Even in its diminished state the sound of rushing
water could be heard all night, though somewhat muted. The name is an Afrikaans derivative
of the Nama name Akoerebis, meaning 'Place of Great Noise'.
The Nama, who still live in the area and contribute to the park's management, are descendants
of the Khoekhoen (or Khoikhoi) people, nomadic pastoralists who were the original inhabitants of the area, along with the San who were primarily hunters.

Compare this with the photos below, displayed on a board at the information centre, of the same falls during a wet year in 2010!

Downstream are access points to lookouts over the lower reaches of the gorge. Here the river has been temporarily reduced to near-stagnant pools; I don't know how much water is extracted upstream for irrigation.

Echo Corner.

Oranjekom Lookout.
However we were not just here for the water, and as I mentioned earlier the superb arid landscapes drew us right in. There is a series of drives (mostly accessible to non-4WDs, like our little hired vehicle), arranged so that at various points you can take a loop to return. They start with a shallow stream crossing (just shallow enough for us!) where the bushes were always busy with birds. 
A pool in the granite by the track, where birds came to drink.
After that we were in a magnificent arid rocky landscape, where every climb of the road revealed another superb vista. We chose a 66km loop option.



The vegetation is incredibly hardy (as any desert plants must be) with thorny acacias and tough grasses predominating. Succulents are also present (as they are mostly not in Australia), taking advantage of the rare rains to store water.
Slender Milk Bush Euphorbia dregeana; the 'milk' of the name refers to
the caustic milky sap common to most euphorbs.

Probably the most impressive plant of this part of the world however is the striking but endangered Quiver Tree, or Kokerboom, Aloidendron dichotomum in the family Asphodeleceae - a lily family which some of my Australian readers will know for the little Bulbine Lilies Bulbine spp. They are thus one of the few monocots (which are mostly herbs) to form a tree, along with palms.

They can seemingly grow in almost any substrate and are a substantial tree.


This big Kokerboom on the sandy plain is hosting the massive grass nest of
Sociable Weavers Philetairus socius, which breed colonially. We watched them flash in and
out of the nests, but didn't manage a photo unfortunately.
Kokerboom flowers; it's not clear what prompts flowering, but it's obviously not rain.

The most unusual bark of the tree was apparently used by San people for arrow quivers
(they are experts in preparing and using arrow poison), hence the English name.
Beneath the bark is not wood (monocots don't have 'real wood') but spongy tissue
which transports water.
There were gratifying numbers of birds - many of them were around the accommodation and park headquarters, with its enticing shade, plantings and water, but by no means all. The next few were ones we saw by our accommodation, or while sitting on the cafe verandah in the hot early afternoon.
Cape Bunting Emberiza capensis, a dapper little dweller of dry rocky landscapes -
just like Augrabies Falls in fact!

Karoo Scrub Robin Cercotrichas coryphaeus; another dry southern African
specialist. African scrub robins are not all related to the Australian robins (or to
North American ones either) but are Old World flycatchers, like the European Robin.
The English naming of African birds is as confusing as it is in Australia.

Sickle-winged Chat Emarginata sinuata; all the comments about the previous bird
apply to this one too, including its naming. It too is an Old World flycatcher.


Pale-winged Starling Onychognathus nabouroup. This arid land starling has learnt
at Augrabies to hang around the restaurant in hope of handouts or leftovers.


Red-eyed Bulbuls Pycnonotus nigricans are also dryland birds (as you must be to live here)
which readily adapt to human habitations.
Speckled Pigeons Columba guinea are also happy to share our dwelling places, regularly nesting in buildings.
These two were coming for a slightly risky drink at the falls.
Out on the plains and hills birds weren't quite as easy to observe, but they were there. Africa is rich in larks, especially in open country. Coming from a country where there is only one native species, this is a bit of an eye-opener.

Spike-heeled Lark Chersomanes albofasciata, displaying its distinctive 'heels'.

Sabota Lark Calendulauda sabota; sabota is the general word in Tswana (or Setswana),
widely spoken in north-western South Africa, for a lark. 


White-throated Canary Crithagra albogularis. Yes, there are plenty of 'real' wild
canaries out there, including this one from the dry south-west of the continent.
And of course there are plenty of birds of prey out there, waiting for an unwary animal - mammal, reptile, bird or insect, depending on the size of both predator and prey - to make a mistake. Here are a couple that we admired.

Immature Martial Eagle Polemaetus bellicosus on a distant ridge top.These are huge powerful
predators which will hunt hares, hyraxes (see below), small antelope, jackals, large reptiles,
guinea fowl, bustards - pretty well anything in the medium size range.

Pale Chanting Goshawks Melierax canorus feed on smaller prey including mammals, birds,
reptiles, insects and even carrion across dry southern Africa.
Which brings us to some of the other animals; given that we didn't go out at night, we did quite well there too, though reptiles were a bit thin on the ground. Surprisingly this included the famed lizards which swarm around the rocks along the falls walks - they certainly did so around my feet on the previous visit. This time though, doubtless because of the drought, they were few and scattered. Luckily there were still a few though!
Augrabies Flat Lizard Platysaurus broadleyi; the sun wasn't cooperating with this photo (!)
so we can't really appreciate his glorious colours. His remarkable shape, for slipping into
safe rock crevices, is evident however.


Angulate Tortoise Chersina angulata by the road;
this hardy small tortoise is sadly threatened by the illegal pet trade, apparently.
Fortunately not this one, I imagine.
I mentioned hyraxes earlier; these are odd and endearing little characters, most of whom live among rocks - and whose closest (albeit still distant!) relatives are elephants. There are five living species, all in Africa. The most best known of these is the Cape Hyrax Procavia capensis, found widely in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. As we walked along the tracks to the falls, young hyraxes were chasing and tumbling on steep rock faces above a sheer drop to the waters. Not their elders though.
Rock Hyrax dozing on some comfortable granite in the late sun.
There are quite a few mammal predators in the park, up to the size of Leopards, though unsurprisingly we didn't see those. We did enjoy a couple of species of mongoose, which I find delightful.
Small Grey Mongoose Galerella pulverulenta which was cautiously investigating
the situation in bushland alongside the restaurant, after most people had left.

Yellow Mongoose Cynictis penicillata in a now quiet late afternoon picnic ground.
Like the previous species, the Yellow Mongoose is comfortable around humans.
I'm a fan of antelopes (as I am of most wild animals!) and Augrabies hosts a good array, though none more handsome than the big strong Gemsbok, one of six species of desert-loving oryx.
Gemsbok Oryx gazella, at home in the wild rocky landscape of Augrabies Falls.

Red Hartebeest Alcelaphus caama - another big, and generally solitary antelope.

Kalahari Springboks Antidorcas hofmeyri nibbling on a very hard and thorny shrub.
You'd think that going to South Africa might mean automatic springboks, but they're not
quite that easy. In recent times three species have been recognised rather than just one - this one,
an eastern South African species and one from Angola.

Cape Klipspringer Oreotragus oreotragus. This stocky little character is one of my
favourite antelopes, specialising in cliffs and rock outcrops, a sort of African
rock-wallaby. Augrabies is one of the best places to see them, as they are common in the
park, including near the vehicle tracks, and are not fazed by traffic.
New biochemical and genetic tools have now allowed us to recognise 11 klipspringers,
rather than just one!

Finally I was delighted when we came across giraffes in this desert landscape; I'm always delighted by giraffe encounters but this was quite unexpected, as I'd not seen them here previously. Whether this was just chance, or due to increased population or even a recent reintroduction, I can't say. As I say, a delight though.
Southern, or Cape Giraffe Giraffa giraffa.
Not just springboks can defeat the thorny plant protectors; these huge browsers
seemed quite immune to them.

I hadn't really thought of giraffes in a desert, but these certainly seemed at home.

Augrabies Falls is probably not on most travellers' South African 'to do' lists; if you're interested enough to be reading my blog though, I reckon it should definitely be on yours. Especially after a rainy season!

A couple of sunsets, enjoyed from the verandah of our cabin, to finish with.



NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 22 APRIL
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