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, 28 January 2021

Blue Birds of Happiness #1

Many years ago I did a sporadic series on colours in nature. I have no intention of reprinting those now, but I'm assuming that even if you were reading this blog way back then (and I know some of you were) you won't remember much about it. Moreover I've got lots of photos that I didn't have then that might be of interest. Basically though it feels like a time when simple immersion in and appreciation of nature seems like a good thing to be doing. Hence for the next couple of posts at least we'll be wallowing in blue birds - or at least birds which flaunt some blue. 

Hyacinth Macaw Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus, south Pantanal, Brazil.
In the sun this huge bird is almost as blue as is imaingable!

Why blue? The glib answer is 'why not?', and perhaps looking at the photo above that's enough. In 2015 however YouGov, a British market research company, polled residents of 10 countries on four continents (including Australia) and in each case reported that blue was comfortably the favourite colour of the populace. What that might mean is a subject for another day (and another place than here!) but it's as good a basis as any to start with. Blue is also on of the most strikingly conspicuous colours; birds wear it to be seen.

An oft-repeated assertion I came across when doing some refresher reading for this post is that blue is rare in nature. It isn't, even apart from the sky and ocean, but it's certainly not as ubiquitous as other colours such as green. And remarkably, among land-dwelling animals it seems increasingly likely that only a few butterfly species can actually manufacture blue pigments. All other animals, including all vertebrates, which make themselves look blue do so by playing sophisticated tricks with physics. We see blue (or red or yellow etc) because light of the wavelength we call blue (or red or yellow) is reflected from the surface we're looking at. If it looks blue it's because all other wavelengths are absorbed by it. 

Azure Kingfisher Ceyx azureus, Barmah, Murray River, Victoria.
The rusty flanks really are that colour, based on various melanins.
The blue feathers however have no actual colouration. Instead they have minute 'bubbles'
(probably about one thousandth the diameter of a hair) which allow longer wavelengths,
such as reds and yellows, to pass through and not escape again. However they are just the right
size to reflect blue light, and only blue light, to bounce back into our eyes.


The principal is known as Tyndall scattering after 19th century Irish-born British physicist John Tyndall who described it; the effect is often seen with very fine particles suspended in liquid, such as silt in rushing streams or the iris of a blue eye.
Salto Grande, Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
The wonderfully blue streams and lakes here are due to Tyndall scattering
of tiny rock particles ground to flour by glaciers.
Similar sized particles (though not of rock!) float in liquid to make my eyes look blue.
I know it seems a long stretch to equate this to the kingfisher's plumage,
but then again Physics was the low point of my university career.

Time to just let the birds show off I think, but one brief observation first. It's unclear to me why the range of feather shades to follow, from almost black to bright pale sky colour, can all be lumped as 'blue'. Maybe I need to consult an artist.

It seems to me that two Orders of birds have specialised in being blue more than any others - and we've already met them both above. One of course is the parrots, the other a less obviously uniform group, the Order Coraciiformes, which includes kingfishers, rollers, bee-eaters, the motmots of tropical South and Central America, and the tiny Caribbean todies. Their focus on blue is such that I'm going to devote the rest of this blog to them, and next time introduce a selection of  'all the rest'. 

Some of them, like the Hyacinth Macaw and the Azure Kingfisher above, are  mostly blue, while others use their 'blue bubbles' more selectively, preferring subtle splashes or highlights of blue. It seems to me that parrots are more likely to feature blue accents or hints, while the coraciids, especially the kingfishers, are more likely to go all out, but there are no rules about this. I'm going to start with some where blue is the main colour, and work towards some more subtle wearers of it. Prepare for an initial kingfisher blue tsunami! And don't forget to note the ranges of blues being worn; I wish I had names for them all, but you may be more successful in labelling them. (And while I didn't plan it, the first four pictures represent four continents.)

Amazon Kingfishers Chloroceryle amazona live along streams in most of
South America and in North America as far as southern Mexico.

Blue-breasted Kingfisher Halcyon malimbica, Budongo Forest Uganda.
Not always easy to see in shady tropical African forests.

Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
Another dweller of shady tropical forests, but this one is a dedicated fisher.

Buff-breasted Paradise Kingfisher Tanysiptera sylvia, Julatten, north Queensland.
Bluer than it looks here, in rainforest shadow.  A stunning bird which alone
makes it worth going to Queensland in the unfashionable summer wet season,
when it comes south from New Guinea to breed.

Collared Kingfisher Todiramphus chloris, Selingan Island, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
This mangrove specialist is found across southern Asia; the Australian birds formerly
included in this species are now known as Torresian Kingfisher Todiramphus sordidus.

Forest Kingfisher Todiramphus macleayii, Darwin, Northern Territory.
This little non-fishing kingfisher is one of the bluest birds I know.

Sacred Kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus, Namadgi NP near Canberra.
A lovely and common annual breeding migrant to southern Australia, this one
was high in the mountains recently, more so than I'd expect.
(The species was apparently regarded as sacred in some Pacific islands.)

Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis, Sepilok, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
One of the most impressive kingfishers there is! Maybe I should do a post one day
on red bills. Found sparsely in India and south-east Asia.

Andean Motmot Momotus aequatorialis, near Machu Picchu, southern Peru.
Motmots form another small family in the Coraciiformes and most
show at least some blue. They wave their tail from side to side, seemingly
to signal to a potential predator that they've been spotted - hence in Spanish
El Reloj, the clock, like a pendulum.

Blue and Yellow Macaws Ara ararauna, northern Pantanal, Brazil.
This is an excellent example of contrasting blue with another colour for maximum visibility.

Blue wings and/or tails are good too. They are very visible in flight, but also when perched, from side-on or behind. The Australian rosellas, a group of large familiar parrots, opt for this.

Pale-headed Rosella Platycercus adscitus, near Georgetown, central north Queensland.
A bird of mostly drier north-eastern Australia.

Crimson Rosella Platycercus elegans on our Canberra balcony.
A very familiar bird indeed in the south-east, including commonly in town.
A reminder; if you took a couple of feathers (with permission of course!) and soaked them
in a solvent, the red would come out but the blue would be unaffected. If you were to
crush the feathers with a hammer, the red would still be red, but the blue would turn
to a dirty white, as the bubbles burst.

Eastern Rosella Platycercus eximius, Canberra.
A woodland rosella which, unusually, lives alongside Crimson Rosellas in Canberra,
where we have created habitats that suit both. Truly a very lovely bird indeed.

Grey-headed Kingfisher Halcyon leucocephala, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
A pretty but relatively understated kingfisher found across much of Africa.

Blue-winged Kookaburra Dacelo leachii, Darwin.
This is female - the male has a bright blue tail as well, presumably the
better to show off with.

Lilac-breasted Roller Coracias caudatus Tarangire NP Tanzania.
The rollers are another family of coraciids, represented in Australia by the
Dollarbird. They are all attractive but few can match this beauty; the different shades
of blue on the wings/tail and back is a nice touch. It is the
national bird of Kenya, but is found across much of eastern and southern Africa.


Even a little splash of blue in the wings is worthwhile it seems. 

Blaze-winged Parakeet Pyrrhura devillei, southern Pantanal.
This pretty little parrot is only found in the Pantanal and its immediate surrounds.

 Blue heads are good for front-on recognition.

Blue-headed Parrots Pionus menstruus, Blanquillo clay like, Amazonian Peru.
This small parrot is found throughout the Amazon basin.

Red-collared Lorikeet Trichoglossus rubritorquis, Darwin.
This raucous lorikeet replaces the more widespread Rainbow Lorikeet
in north-western tropical woodlands. (More on lorikeets here.)

I wouldn't normally show you a picture as ordinary as this, but it's a very special bird indeed, which I feel privileged to have seen. And it's a very blue head! The ground rollers form a small family of coraciids, which are endemic to Madagascar.

 

Pitta-like Ground Roller Atelornis pittoides, Ranomafana NP, Madagascar.
Unfortunately this is as much of itself as it was prepared to show.

But even a small daub of blue on or around the head is of value too apparently.

Blue-naped Parrot Tanygnathus lucionensis Tg Aru Beach, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah,
Malaysian Borneo. A chunky parrot with blue nape and back. This population has
apparently been introduced from the nearby Philippines.

Turquoise-fronted Amazon Amazona aestiva, Emas NP, south-western Brazil.
A locally common parrot of the open plains. A very blue forehead!

Double-eyed Fig Parrot Cyclopsitta diophthalma Cairns Foreshore.
At 14cm this is Australia's smallest parrot (it is also found in New Guinea and
associated islands). I love the juxtaposition of sky blue forehead with the brilliant red,
plus the touch of darker blue on the cheek.

And what about these eyebrows!

Little Bee-eaters Merops pusillus, Amboseli NP, Kenya.
A little splash of blue on the rump is a bold statement too (well, maybe but it clearly has a purpose).

Striped Kingfisher Halcyon chelicuti Lake Nakuru Kenya.
This demurely clad little kingfisher (apart from the rump of course)
occurs throughout most of wooded Africa.

Rainbow Bee-eater Merops ornatus, Fraser Island, Queensland.
Despite the name this sole Australian bee-eater isn't as rainbow-coloured as
some other species. It is beautiful though, especially that opalescent rump.
However it's worth a view of another aspect.

Rainbow Bee-eater, Darwin. Love that glorious pale blue strip below the black eye-line,
and the other below the black throat stripe, possessed by only about 30% of males.
Exquisite. The long tail streamers, which get increasingly tatty as the season progresses,
also reveal this as a male.
And a few species specialise in a blue throat.

Blue-throated Bee-eater Merops viridis, Bako NP, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
Unfortunately I couldn't get any closer and the spectacular contrasting red crown
isn't really visible.

It seems odd, given our professed liking for blue, that we also use it in English to mean depressed. I trust that this post can have had the opposite effect on you - it's lifted me. I'm looking forward to meeting some more blue birds next time, and I hope you are too.

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 11 FEBRUARY.
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
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Thursday, 14 January 2021

A Splendidly Orchidy Spring!

This southern spring just ended (in Australia we use the Meteorological definition, which means spring runs from 1 September to 30 November) has truly been a splendid one. After three years of intense El Niño-driven drought, La Niña rolled into Australia, the rains finally came and the bush responded dramatically. Plants, especially herbs which had not even bothered to flower for the previous dry springs, made up for lost time by flowering prolifically, and the insects responded. 

A few of thousands of Waxlip Orchids Caladenia (or Glossodia) major,
Black Mountain, Canberra.

 
Massed Thin-clubbed Spider (or Mantis) Orchids Caladenia atrovespa,
Black Mountain.

I responded in my own way (though unlike the insects I didn't try to land on any orchids), by making an effort to get out and find as many orchids as I could. I'm passionate about native orchids, and have been starved in recent times! Here then are the orchids I found, 37 species of them, though my search ended in late November when I had my hip operation, so I missed most of the local mountain species. We've done just one trip into the mountains since then, in late December when I was confined to the roadside. 

Except where I've specified all these orchids were seen in the ACT, in or close to Canberra. I've put the dates when I first saw the species to give an idea of how the season unrolled, but I'll introduce the orchids in genera (species groups) to make comparisons easier. Finally, orchid taxonomy has been notoriously tumultuous in the past decade or so, though the dust is now settling. The bold (and seemingly well-supported) move to break some huge Australian orchid genera into more manageable - and more importantly, more informative - smaller genera has been thoroughly rebuffed. With some regrets, I've here gone along with this orthodoxy, while indicating where some other names are used by current guides (most notably the recent and excellent Field Guide to Orchids of the Southern Tablelands of NSW including the ACT by Jean Egan et al). 

Blue Fingers Caladenia caerulea, Black Mountain 27 September;
reliably the first spring orchid to appear round here.

Dusky Fingers Caladenia fuscata, Black Mountain 27 September;
follows soon after the Blue Fingers.

Another Dusky Fingers, to indicate the colour range it presents.

Pink Fingers Caladenia carnea, Gungahlin Hill, 28 September.
One of the commonest and most widespread Australian orchids,
found from north Queensland to Tasmania and the Eyre Peninsula.
I'm always glad to encounter them.

Brown Caps (a somewhat puzzling name) Caladenia ustulata, Gungahlin Hill, 28 September.
The first of three quite similar, strongly hooded, white caladenias to appear locally.
(The dorsal sepal bends tightly over the flower, compared with the relatively erect sepal
in the previous species.)

Waxlip Orchid Caladenia (but hitherto Glossodia) major, Black Mountain 27 September.
A very handsome and familar orchid, which in a good year (as last spring was)
can appear in vast numbers.

Lemon Caps (hmm) Caladenia cucullata, Black Mountain 5 October.

Musky Caps Caladenia moschata, Black Mountain 20 October.
And it really does have a sweet musky scent if the day is warm.

Mountain Caps Caladenia alpina, Tinderry Nature Reserve,
40km south of Canberra. A pretty little Caladenia from higher altitudes.

Pink Caps Caladenia congesta, Black Mountain, 6 November.
Perhaps my favourite of the 'caps', an uncommon orchid which
I'd not seen for some years, and this was a new site for it for me.
Another quite distinctive groups of orchids, commonly known as spider orchids for their long slender flower parts, have been reincorporated into Caladenia, but they are so different from the caps that I'll group them separately for this introduction. The first one I found this spring was a very special one indeed.
Canberra Spider Orchid Caladenia actensis, Mount Majura, 2 October.
This diminutive spider is restricted to this one part of the ACT, and is nationally listed
as Critically Endangered. Fortunately (or perhaps not) it is very hard to see; I have
searched for some time within a few metres of a colony before noticing them.
The name suffix 'ensis' refers to a locality; in this case the locality is the ACT -  very cute.

Thin-clubbed Spider (or Mantis) Orchid Caladenia atrovespa,
Black Mountain, 8 October. This is the common spider orchid locally,
and this spring it was abundant in places. The brown warty 'clubs' on the
tips of the sepals exude pseudo-pheromones to attract male thinnine wasps
who mistake the flower for a female wasp and in the struggle transfer pollen.

Brown-clubbed Spider Orchid Caladenia parva (the ACT plants were formerly included
in C. phaeoclavia), Mount Tennent (just south of Canberra), 9 October.
I grew up referring to species of Diuris as 'donkey orchids', though that name seems to be out of favour these days; 'doubletail', the translation of Diuris, is preferred, along with a range of other mostly animal names. 
 
Black Mountain Donkey (or Leopard) Orchid Diuris nigromontana, Black Mountain,
27 September, is restricted to the ACT and is mostly only found on Black Mountain sandstone.
The name is another cute piece of Latin playfulness - it is based on 'black mountain'!

 
Leopard Orchid or Doubletail Diuris pardina, Gungahlin Hill, 28 September.

Golden Moths Diuris chryseopsis, Gungahlin Hill, 29 September.
A grassland species which can form colonies of hundreds or even thousands.


Tiger (or Hornet) Orchid Diuris sulphurea, Black Mountain 8 October.
This big bright donkey is very common throughout the south-east coast and hinterland.
Maybe that's why I seemed not to try very hard to get a good photo of it this spring!

Large Golden Moth Diuris amabilis, near Bungendore (approximately 30km ENE
of Canberra), 19 October. A grassland species which I'd not seen before (thanks Jeannie!).

Late Leopard Orchid Diuris semilunulata, Tinderry NR, 1 November.
Canberra records of this species refer to D. nigromontana or D. pardina.
This species is found in the ACT ranges however.
Another large orchid genus which was divided into smaller genera is the greenhoods, Pterostylis. Atpically, Jean Egan et al in their recent NSW Southern Tablelands guide (see above) have opted to retain the division of Pterostylis, and I do wonder if they have been advised of more forthcoming upheavals. 
Black-tip Greenhood Pterostylis or Hymenochilus bicolor, Black Mountain, 27 September.
The small flowers are only about 10mm long and are easily overlooked
in their grassy understorey habitat.

Midget Greenhood Pterostylis or Hymenochilus muticus, Mount Tennent, 9 October.
No more midget than its immediate relatives, but still tiny.

Needle-point Rustyhood Pterostylis or Oligochaetochilus aciculiformis, Black Mountain,
5 October. This one is part of a loose colony growing on the verge of a busy carpark;
I doubt that many people are aware of them though. Other species are really quite rusty.

Southern Hooked Rustyhood Pterostylis or Oligochaetochilus hamatus,
Mount Tennent, 9 October. A striking orchid if examined closely.
These last four greenhoods are found in relatively dry situations, often rocky in the case of the last two, but most of them are typical of moist areas, including the next three.
Nodding Greenhood Pterostylis nutans, Black Mountain, 10 October.
This self-effacing little greenhood is found in colonies from north Queensland to Tasmania
and South Australia. (It is also found in a couple of New Zealand localities, but
it seems not to be native to there.)

Maroonhood Pterostylis pedunculata, Woods Reserve, 11 October.
That afternoon we also saw thousands along one of the wet forest walking tracks
in Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve. It is very common in wetter parts of
south-eastern Australia.

Montane Leafy Greenhood Bunochilus montanus, Tidbinbilla NR, 11 October.

The bearded orchids (Calochilus) are, as you might guess from my profile pic, flowers for whom I have both fondness and even affinity! The wonderfully hirsute labellum (which is a petal much modified to form a landing platform for pollinating insects) attracts male scollid wasps which attempt to mate with it. However if the wasps don't oblige, it seems that all Calochilus will self-pollinate rather than waste the flowering season. I only managed a couple of species this spring, as I missed the later season ones which flowered when I was indisposed.
Purple Beard Orchid Calochilus platychilus, Black Mountain, 8 October.
This one also had a good season this spring; it flowers quite early in the season.

Red or Strap Beard Orchid Calochilus paludosus, upper Blue Mountains, 28 October..
Here it was common, but in the ACT it occurs at only one site.
 
The leek orchids were until recently all regarded as in the genus Prasophyllum, but in recent times many have been shifted to Paraprasophyllum - needless to say this is not universally accepted! Unusually among orchids they offer a good nectar reward to pollinators, and advertise it with strong sweet scents. Many will only flower in ground that has been burnt in the previous summer; this was true of both species we saw in the Blue Mountains in late October.
Short-lip Leek Orchid Paraprasophyllum brevilabre, Black Mountain, 10 October.
This damp side of the mountain had not burnt in recent times, and there
was only on flowering stem present.

Short-lip Leek Orchid, Blackheath, Blue Mountains; I include this duplicate photo
because the stem colour was quite different from the Black Mountain one I'd found
earlier (above). It's also a better photo!

Tall Leek Orchid Prasophyllum elatum, Blackheath. And at well over a metre high,
it is tall indeed! We had no trouble spotting it from the car as we drove along
a bush track. Remarkably this orchid grows in every Australian state
(but not the ACT or Northern Territory).

Tarengo Leek Orchid Paraprasophyllum petilum, northern ACT, 12 October.
This is a grassland species which is listed natonally as Endangered; it is known
from only one site in the ACT and a couple in nearby NSW.
It is not easy to find growing among tall grasses.

It is fair to say that onion orchids don't attract as much attention as most other, more colourful and obvious genera. The flowers are green, tiny - less than 5mm long, perched on a (relatively) large green ovary. There are numerous of these on a spike, and at least one species is known to be pollinated by ants, attracted by nectar. They are not easy to distinguish from each other either; there are only three species recognised locally (though work is ongoing) - here they are.
Common Onion Orchid Microtis unifolia, near Bungendore, 19 October.

Slender Onion Orchid M. parviflora, Black Mountain, 10 November.

Sweet, or Alpine, Onion Orchid M. oblonga, Namadgi National Park,
above Canberra. I 'found' this on our recent mountain excursion, when I awkwardly
leaned on a bank to take a (one-handed) photo of something else, and almost put my hand on it.
I hadn't previously seen this one.
Sun Orchids Thelymitra are generally much more visible - but only if there's enough sun (or at least warmth) to encourage them to open! 
Slender Sun Orchid Thelymitra pauciflora, Gungahlin Hill NR, Canberra, 22 October.
This is one of the commonest sun orchids locally.
On our Blue Mountains visit it was wet, windy and cold most of the time, so while we saw hundreds of sun orchid spikes, the flowers stayed stubbornly closed, except for this single one on a rare almost-sunny afternoon.
Spotted Sun Orchid Thelymitra ixioides.
Our cabin was surrounded by the spikes of buds, but not a one of them showed its face.
However our Blue Mountains trip did produce lots of one of our favourite orchids, the extraordinary Flying Duck, Caleana major.
Flying Duck Orchid - and really, what else could you call it?! Walls Lookout Walk, 27 October.
They grow in colonies, especially among sandstone rocks, but also in the forest on sandy soils.
There was such a colony growing along the entrance track to our cabin, and it was there, as we were leaving for home, that we saw something I'd not managed to photograph before. A male sawfly was struggling to escape the flower, in the course of which the duck's 'head' had snapped down to trap him temporarily while the bundle of pollen (the pollinium) stuck to his back. I missed photographing the struggle but managed to snap him as he rested on the flower to regather his energy before flying off.
Male sawfly Lophyrotoma sp. on triggered Flying Duck. The pollinium looks like a yellow saddle.
The incredible feathery antennae are very sensitive to the scent of both his intended (a female sawfly) and the counterfeit one produced by the flower. (And my apologies if you've seen this photo
recently on my blog page, but I couldn't leave it out of this post!)

Finally, on our most recent trip, to the mountains, we saw our first hyacinth orchid of the season - they are generally summer flowering. This was growing up the slope, so it's a telephoto shot, but fit for purpose. The hyacinths (Dipodium) are technically mycoheterotrophic (!), which is to say they gain nutrition by an association of their roots with underground fungi. Hence they are generally leafless and stems are often black - no need for cholorphyll as they don't photosynthesise.
Rosy Hyacinth Orchid Dipodium roseum, Namadgi NP.
This is a striking orchid, with a metre high flowering stem.
And that was it for our 2020 orchid season. I'd like to have been able to find more, but it was still pretty satisfying. If the rest of summer and autumn plays out as I hope I'll be making another posting to supplement this one something in late autumn. Thanks for sharing these wondeful plants with me!

NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 28 JANUARY.
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.
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Alternatively, if you'd like to send me an email (to calochilus51@internode.on.net)
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