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, 25 February 2021

Blue Beasts of Happiness #3; anything but feathers!

For the last two postings (starting here) I've introduced some blue birds (including one bluebird) which I hope brought you some happiness in these challenging times. Well they brought some to me, so in the absence of any suggestions to the contrary I'm going to assume that it's worth concluding this bluey series with a post on other animal groups and other blue parts of birds apart from feathers. Like 'blue' feathers virtually of these other blue animals achieve their blueness not by blue pigments, but by some very clever physical properties at the nanoparticle level. (And no I don't really understand the intricacies of it either, but there's plenty more information on that out in webland.) The essence however is that layers of cells (or tiny bubbles in the feathers) are arranged precisely so that blue light only is reflected, and often reinforced to make the effect even stronger. 

However I'm going to start today with a couple of very special examples indeed of blue animals. As I've stressed, there are no known blue pigments in any birds, or in almost any other animals either. But not quite...  Here are two animals from very different groups which, shockingly after all I've said, do have blue chemicals to colour themselves.

Blue Triangle Graphium sarpedo Currarong, south coast New South Wales.
This is one of a very small handful of butterflies worldwide which contains the pigment pterobilin;
a very few others contain blue phorcabilins and sarpedobilins, but that's about it.
All other blue butterflies - and we'll meet some below - just play with physics and our eyes.

Bluebottle, or Portuguese Man o' War, Physalia physalis, beached on the south coast
of New South Wales. They drift on the ocean surface, their float at the mercy of
the winds and currents. Here the mercy gave out and this one died on the beach. Its stinging
tentacles must still be avoided at all costs though! However you're seeing it now
because, like some other marine organisms, it too has genuine blue pigment, in this case
complex combinations of carotenoids (common plant-derived pigments which
many birds, for instance, appropriate to produce red and yellow feathers) with proteins.
And these pale blue crabs may or may not fit this category; some crabs do have blue pigments, and these Soldier Crabs could well do so too.
Soldier Crabs Mictyris longicarpus, south coast New South Wales.

For the rest however we're back to familiar theme of cleverly reflected light. We started with a butterfly so let's meet some others; there are many blue (or part-blue) butterflies and moths to choose from, all of which use precisely aligned two-layered scales which together reflect and reinforce blue light.
Maybe I could have shown fewer butterflies, but you can't really have too many, can you? And I'm sorry that I can't identify all of them - as ever any help will be appreciated.
Blue Pansy Junonia oenone Peyeria, Madagascar.

Unidentified nocturnal moth drawn to the lights of the Tambopata Research Centre,
southern Peruvian Amazonia.

Sucking water from the sand by the Rio Madre de Dios, southern Peru.

At Amazonia Lodge, Manu Biosphere Area, southern Peru.

At Huembo Lodge, north-eastern Andes, Peru.

Brilliant Blue Junonia rhadama Lac Alarobia, Tananarive, Madagascar.

 Blue-banded Eggfly Hypolimnas alimena Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Shining Oak-blue Arhopala micale Cairns Botanic Gardens.

Rajah Brooke Birdwing Trogonoptera brookiana Mount Kinabalu NP, Sabah,
Malaysian Borneo. This magnificent creature is even more spectacular than
it looks from this angle.

Satin-green Forester Pollanisus viridipulverulenta Yeldulknie CP, Eyre Peninsula,
South Australia. This iridescent beauty can be blue or green, depending on the angle.
And iridescence is a topic I'll come back to one day.

Unidentified night moth that came to the lights of Owlet Lodge,
north-eastern Peruvian Andes. I think this one's extraordinary.

Turquoise Emperor Doxocopa laurentia Iguaçu Falls, Brazil.
Blue Tiger Tirumala hamata Bundjalung NP, north coast NSW.

Staying with insects, butterflies and moths aren't the only ones with blue wings, though others (including some dragonflies) tend more towards flashes of blue iridescence, rather than permanent blue.
Carpenter Bee Xlyocopa sp. Gomantong Caves, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.

This dragonfly however, west of Sepilok in Sabah, seems to have solid scales on part of the wings.
In the case of blue in insect bodies, the mechanism seems mostly to involve particles suspended in a waxy layer within the cuticle, above a melanin-darkened background, to reflect and intensify blue light. I have no reason to suppose that any of the blues of the insects that follow don't derive this way, but I don't suppose many of them have been specifically studied either.

Blue Ant Diamma bicolor Orroral Valley, Namadgi National Park, near Canberra.
Despite the name this is a spectacular wingless wasp (which apparently has a
formidable sting). From the shine, this might be a case of iridescence too.

Mountain Grasshopper Acripeza reticulata, Namadgi National Park.
If disturbed she raises her wing covers to expose the dramatic blue and red abdomen;
she wasn't sufficiently worried about me however.

Unidentified grasshopper (by me anyway), Peyeris, Madagascar.

Blue Ringtails (damselflies) Austrolestes annulosus Canberra.

Grasshopper, Mt Kupé, Cameroon. I like the blue side bar; I also thought
it was fairly likely you've not seen this one, given where it was.
Tropical Rockmaster Diphlebia euphoeoides, north Queensland.

Frog skin colours are very complex, with often three layers of different cells in the skin. In the case of blues, iridophores sit above melanin-filled melanophores and reflect blue light back.
Ecuadorian Poison Dart Frog Ameerega bilinguis, Sacha Lodge, Amazonian Ecuador.
Fortunately I'm not likely to be putting anyone at risk by attempting to emulate this local guide, who
seems to have developed a resitance to the potentially lethal toxins carried by the frog.
You're not likely to encounter the frog without such a guide to warn you off.
Reptile scales can have similar structures.
Skink, Manglares Churute NP, Ecuador.
Presumably the blue tail is to attract attention of predators, who are
then left with the tail, but no skink. It's one of the most beautiful
skinks I've ever seen.
In lizards, especially dragons (agamids) where males display with bright colours in mating season, the blues can often be switched on and off by contracting the melanin cells below the light-scattering layers.
Kenyan Rock Agama Agama lionotusm, Tarangire NP, Tanzania.

Blue-headed Tree Agama Acanthocercus atricollis, Queen Elizabeth NP Uganda.

Australian Water Dragon Intellagama lesueurii, National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
The large population of these impressive lizards, quite habituated to people, is
a feature of these magnificent gardens.

And I can find no information on how a creature produces a blue tongue, but I imagine the layer priniciple applies here too.
Eastern Blue-tongued Lizard Tiliqua scincoides, Kakadu NP, Northern Territory.
The bluetongue group comprises the world's largest skinks; the blue tongue is part
of a threat display which, unfortunately for them, relies entirely on bluff.
There are very few examples of true blue in mammals. Among them the face and buttocks of male Mandrills are well-known (though other colours complement them), as are the testicle of Vervet Monkeys Chlorocebus pygerythrus. Sorry to lower the tone, though they are very striking...

Male Vervet Monkey, Serengeti NP, Tanzania. This common ground-feeding
monkey is found throughout east Africa from the Horn to the bottom of South Africa.
Blue skin in mammals follows a now-familiar theme, though the structure comprises an array of collagen fibres over a melanin layer.

Which brings us back to birds, in which bare blue skin is not as uncommon as you might reasonably imagine. Here the collagen fibre layers also are the basis of it, though it must have evolved quite separately from the same system in mammals. A perhaps surprising number of birds display an attractive ring of bare skin around the eye. Here is a selection from a wide array of families (meaning they developed it independently of each other, as well as of mammals) and three continents.

Blue-faced Honeyeater Entomyzon cyanotis preening, Griffith, NSW.

Channel-billed Toucan Ramphastos vitellinus Chapada dos Guimarães, Brazil.

Yellow-throated Toucan Ramphastos ambiguus Wild Sumaco Lodge, north-eastern Andes, Ecuador

Chabet Vanga Leptopterus chabert Itafy, Madagascar.

Hoatzin Opisthocomus hoazin, Manu Bioshere Reserve, Peruvian Amazonia.
This is truly one of the most extraordinary birds in the world, which has had
no close relatives for at least 64 million years - about the time the non-bird
dinosaurs unwillingly left the stage.

Little Corella Cacatua sanguinea, Mutawintji NP, western NSW.

Madagascan Paradise Flycatcher Terpsiphone mutata Ankarana NP, Madagascar.

A few bird species have actual blue eyes, whose blueness is (like mine) due to particles suspended in fluid.
Crested Orependola Psarocolius decumanus Sacha Lodge, Ecuador.
These magnificent birds are large tropical members of the North American
blackbird family.
Blue bills, feet and extensive area of skin are all due to the layered collagen structure, and can be quite dramatic.
Blue-billed Duck Oxyura australis, Canberra. Only the males have this impressive adornment.
Dusky Woodswallow Artamus cyanopterus, Canberra.
This blue bill is not such a striking feature, but worth looking for.

Double-barred Finches Stizoptera bichenovii, Darwin.
Another bird which doesn't flaunt its little blue bill, but it's an attractive accoutrement.
Blue-footed Booby Sula nebouxii, Puerto Ayoras, Galápagos.
Surely one of the most admired bird appendages in the world; they really are amazingly blue.
But I'm going to end with an Australian bird, the mighty Southern Cassowary Casuarius casuarius. Only a tropical bird, and a large one (which doesn't lose as much heat as a smaller one) could afford to dispense with all of its head and neck feathers in order to flaunt a truly dramatic colour display.

Southern Cassowary, Mount Hypipamee National Park, north Queensland.
It's not easy to get a clear photo in its rainforest home but I think this
does justice to its featherless finery.

Well that will do us for blue creatures for a while. I hope it's give you something to smile at, and perhaps ponder over. Keep your eyes out for nature's wonderful blues.

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Thursday, 11 February 2021

Blue Birds of Happiness #2

This post continues from last time, when I introduced the fabulous nature of blue in birds (and most other animals). It's a trick of the light, so to speak. The feathers aren't 'blue' in the sense that red or yellow feathers look like that because they contain red or yellow dyes. Rather the colourless feathers have highly intricate microstructures which reflect blue light only, while absorbing or trapping all other wavelengths. I won't reiterate the details here; you can check it out in last week's post here, where there are also lots more spiffy birds to admire!
Last time I focused on just two bird Orders which seem to have an inordinate number of blue species; this time I'm going to range much more widely, across 15 families, the majority of them being passerines - the songbirds or perching birds which comprise most of those we're likely to be familiar with in our yards. I'm going to go through them by family, just ordering them alphabetically - and unscientifically by common name! Please don't turn away in disgust - the birds are as special and as blue no matter what we call them!
One final observation. On going over these photos, it's striking how often blue is juxtaposed to black. I'm sure an artist could explain to me why this makes it more visible, but I don't need one to tell me that it's a very aesthetic combination!

And with that, let's head off into the blues! Starting with barbets; these actually comprise three related families, in the same Order as toucans, woodpeckers and some less widely familiar families. Each barbet family represents a continent - Asia, Africa and South America. Our representative barbet today is from the Family Megalaimidae, the Asian barbets.
Golden-naped Barbet  Psilopogon pulcherrimu Mt Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
A typical barbet in being chunky and stout-billed, and a fruit-eater; this one is
endemic to Borneo. I love the bright blue forehead and throat.

Cotingas are next, a big family (Cotingidae) of songbirds, part of the huge and ancient New World tyrant flycatcher assemblage - though cotingas are fruit-eaters! They are found throughout South and Central America, and many of them are quite spectacular, not least today's example.
Turquoise Cotinga Cotinga ridgwayi San Isidro, Costa Rica.
This scarce beauty was perched above the police station and, in typical
Costa Rican style, the police amiably drove around us as we set up our
telescope on the road. (I hasten to explain that it was our local guide who did so!)
Crows might seem to be making an unlikely appearance here, since all five of our Australian species are completely black and seemingly indistinguishable. However elsewhere in the world members of the family Corvidae can be brightly coloured indeed. The jays of Eurasia and the Americas are the standouts here, and I can offer a few good blue examples (but not the famous Blue Jay). All of these jays were photographed hanging around settlements, doubtless hoping for (and having learnt to expect) handouts.

Azure Jay Cyanocorax caeruleus, Peruibe, south of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Jays are clever, bold, noisy and often blue, as reflected in their names.

Turquoise Jay Cyanolyca turcosa, Bellavista Lodge, north-east of Quito, Ecuador.
Very much a blue beauty.

Plush-crested Jay Cyanocorax chrysops, Iguazu Falls, Argentina.
I've met several birds which specialise in bright blue eyebrows,
and it always seems to work!

White-throated Magpie-Jay Calocitta formosa, Monteverde, Costa Rica.
This one really caught my attention; it travels in noisy mobs of big birds which are up to 50cm long.

White-tailed Jay Cyanocorax mystacalis, Chaparrí, north-western Peru.
I know it's a poor photo, but it's a stunning bird and not easily seen.
It's endemic to the Tumbesian Region of dry forests, in near-coastal
northern Peru and southern Ecuador.
Cuckoos for the most part aren't very brightly coloured (you need to be discrete if you're going to sneak in and leave an egg in someone's nest, though not all cuckoos are nest parasites) so not many are blue. The anis of the Neotropics aren't parasites but even not bright blue, in the right light they shine with bluish tints in dark plumage. 

Greater Ani Crotophaga major, northern Pantanal, Brazil.
In another light they look black. Another big bird, 50cm long, they
too hang out in big noisy groups and breed communally.
And while I can't offer you the bluebird (of happiness) I can offer you a (very ordinary) picture of one of the two species of fairy-bluebird, family Irenidae, which live in rainforests of south-east Asia.
Asian Fairy-bluebird Irena puella, Bako NP, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.
Regardless of the photo (almost) I couldn't very well leave an actual 'bluebird'
out of this series, could I?

Much more familiar to many of my readers are the fairywrens (family Maluridae) of Australia and New Guinea. Indeed I think I'm safe in asserting that there's nowhere in Australia, including the deserts, which doesn't have a species or two. Males are seasonally gorgeous, females stay sensibly less noticeable all year round. Blue features heavily in all but two of the eight Australian species. Here are three of them.
Superb Fairywren Malurus cyaneus Canberra; this lovely bird is familiar to any
bird-aware person in south-eastern Australia. In fact it features strongly in
polls of  'Australia's most popular bird'. The blues flash in the sun and even
the 'black' is navy blue in the right light.

Splendid Fairywren Malurus splendens, Alice Springs. Unfortunately I was a couple
of weeks early. He was just coming into his breeding splendour - you can just see the
first blue feathers appearing on his back. They'll be covering his whole body soon.

Variegated Fairywren Malurus lamberti, Tomaree NP, central coast NSW.
It's taken me many years to persuade this common but thicket-loving east coast
dweller to sit up for a photo, and it only happened last year.

It's a funny thing that, in Australia at least, many people who wouldn't claim to know a lot about birds confidently name any small bird as a 'finch'. While we have quite a few grass-finches or waxbills in Australia we have no true native finches (family Fringillidae) - in fact Australia is the only unfrozen continent in which finches don't naturally occur. Blue isn't a common colour among finches but I can offer one. (There is actually a Blue Finch in South America, but it's really a tanager... Never mind, South America's like that.)
Violaceous Euphonia Euphonia violacea, Peruibe, south of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Despite its common and scientific names, I reckon those are real blues on its
wings and tail. The stubby bill is typical of the seed-eating finches - only the
euphonias have adapted to an almost exclusively fruit diet.
Herons might seem an unlikely family to be considering here too, though some are certainly a blue-grey colour. However these two small South American herons both, for different reasons, not seen by very many birders, can certainly claim a blue star.
Lava Heron Butorides sundevalli, Galápagos. This heron is only found in the
Galápagos, though some would describe it as a subspecies of Striated Heron. Any birder there
will see it, but it's not an easy destination to reach.

Agami Heron Agamia agami, Napo Lodge, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
A strikingly beautiful heron, but restricted to dense rainforest waterways and not
easy to find. But when you do...!
Hummingbirds are among my very favourite bird groups - which certainly doesn't make me unique! - and while they are often brilliantly coloured it's not always easy to say exactly what colour they are, as their iridescence means they change with the angle. I could still have offered quite a few however, but here are two which qualify, both happening to be Ecuadorian.
Blue-mantled Thornbill Chalcostigma stanleyi, El Cajas NP, southern Andes, Ecuador.
This lovely and fairly modestly attired hummer was at 4000m above sea level. This
is typical of this species, which can live above the tree line.

Violet-bellied Hummingbird Chlorestes julie, Umbrellabird Lodge, southern Ecuador.
Blue or green? Blue or violet? Does it matter in the end? Looks blue enough to me
to include here, and if you're offended by its presence feel free to look away. 😀
From the same part of the world, the wonderful little manakins (Family Pipridae, and not to be confused with mannikins, waxbill finches) are real stars, though they tend to lurk in the forest shadows. Males display spectucularly and many are brightly coloured. Not many display blue though, and unsurprisingly one of these is the Blue (or Swallow-tailed) Manakin Chiroxiphia caudata.
Blue Manakin near Peruibe, south of Sao Paulo, Brazil.
The Old World flycatchers (family Muscicapidae) comprise a huge family of over 300 species, many of which are fairly plain-coloured but many aren't. Here's one such. 
Malaysian blue flycatcher Cyornis turcosus, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo.
This one was roosting at night; in daylight the blue is deeper.
In Australia we tend not to think of starlings as colourful (though our only native species, the green-sheened Metallic Starling of tropical Queensland, is pretty impressive). Elsewhere however there are some truly dramatic starlings, and Africa is something of a hotspot for them. Here are a couple of examples, both from the fabulous Serengeti NP in Tanzania.
Hildbrandt's Starlings Lamprotornis hildebrandti (with the red eyes)
and Superb Starlings Lamprotornis superbus (with white eyes)
taking advantage of the facilities at the entrance gate.

Rüppell's Starling Onychognathus walleri; an impressive
long-tailed starling found in East African grasslands.

Tanagers! Along with hummingbirds surely the standout big bird group of South and Central America. Nearly 400 species in a bewildering cluster of groups - 'bewildering' to professional ornithologists too, as many groups have been moved into and out of tthe family Thraupidae over the years. The dust is probably starting to settle now though. In addition to the tanagers themselves, groups such as various 'finches' and seedeaters (including the Galápagos 'finches'), flowerpiercers, saltators, honeyecreepers, cardinals and dacnises are all part of the family. (On the other hand some 'tanagers' are not, but let's not go there!) And yes, I may have gone a bit over the top here, but which ones would you have left out?
Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera, Trilha dos Tucanos, near
Sao Paulo, Brazil. It is endemic to the rich but endangered Atlantic Forests
of near-coastal Brazil.

Blue-grey Tanager Thraupis episcopus, near Machu Picchu, Peruvian Andes
By contrast with the previous closely-related species, this one is common and widespread
across Central America and northern South America.

Green-headed Tanager Tangara seledon, Trilha dos Tucanos again.
This name perplexes me as much as the bird delights me, but perhaps
you too think that the head is really green. Another one that you'll
have to go to south-eastern Brazil to see.

Masked Tanager Stilpnia nigrocincta, Sacha Lodge, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
I am, with difficulty, able to overcome my aversion to heights to venture up these
rainforest towers for the privilege of seeing canopy animals from above.
This lovely is found throughout much of Amazonia.

Blue-necked Tanager Stilpnia cyanicollis, near Machu Picchu.
I tossed up whether to include this photo and the next couple - I much prefer
not to use photos of birds on feeders - but in the end I decided you'd not
want to miss them. This one has a curious distribution along the tropical
Andes, and separately in the Amazon basin of Brazil.

Speckled Tanager Ixothraupis guttata, central Costa Rica.
A striking bird found south from here to northern South America.
It was on the verandah rail of a simple local open-air restaurant in the mountains.

Blue-winged Mountain Tanager Anisognathus somptuosus, Paz de las Aves, Mindo Valley,
northern Ecuador. A lovely tanager of the Andean forests.

Blue Dacnis Dacnis cayana, Trilha dos Tucanos again. Blue indeed!
And this really is a wonderful place; more about it here.
And our last tanager for today, but I think I'll come back to them for a tanager mini-series at some stage- there are many more of them that we've not seen here yet!
Masked Flowerpiercer Diglossa cyanea, Yanacocha Reserve, north of Quito, Ecuador.
Flowerpiercers are just that; they have sharp hooked beaks to pierce the base of
flowers and steal the nectar. A few of them, including this one, are impressively blue.
There are 18 flowerpiercers, all in the same genus and mostly found in the Andes.
Turacos are spectacular African endemics, 18 species comprising an entire Order. They are unique, seeemingly, for being the only birds to have a green pigment in their feathers. All others have yellow pigment overlaid with blue (and thus looking green) by the light reflection trick we've been talking about here. However some of them do blue quite well too - I lament that my only photo of a Great Blue Turaco is too distant to be of use.
Hartlaub's Turaco Tauraco hartlaubi, Mount Kenya.
A gorgeous bird of the mountain forests of east Africa.
And lastly the Waxbills, more often known as grass finches in Australia (though as mentioned earlier, they are not true finches). The family Estrildidae contains some 140 species of little grass-seed eaters, found across southern Africa and Asia, and throughout Australia. Blue doesn't feature in the family for the most part, except for the parrotfinches (and my only photo is not for public display) and, as you'd expect, for the three species of cordonbleus, in the genus Uraeginthus. Here I can offer you two for the price of one.
Red-cheeked Cordonbleu Uraeginthus bengalus and Blue-capped Cordonbleu
Uraeginthus cyanocephalus,
Serengeti NP. You'll work out which is which.
(The one on the left is a youngster and could be either.)

And that will do us for now I think, before we're all blued out. I'm not sure whether to continue next time with a final instalment of blue skin, scales, beaks, legs, insect wings etc, or go on to something else. I'm happy to take advice or requests, but I won't hold my breath for it!

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

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However, this reminder service is becoming increasingly unreliable and I have
no control over it. I keep hearing of people who are no longer getting
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!