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.

Friday, 31 December 2021

Farewell to 2021!

This post continues a now well-established tradition of mine of posting on the last day of the year, aiming to offer one photo taken each month of the year as a way of celebrating the year that has gone. Sadly, for the second year in a row, about the only thing to celebrate about 2021 is that it's nearly over. We should never feel like that - life is too transient to wish away, but it's a bit hard to avoid these days. In addition to the obvious COVID pall it's been a very sad one for us in personal ways, but so it has been for many others too. One spin-off of these things is that I took relatively few photos - in other years I've struggled to decide what to leave out, but not this time. However there was only one month where I actually had no photos to choose from, and in that case I've 'borrowed' from a previous month. (My blog, I make the rules! :-) )

The long drought had finally broken in mid-2020, and we swung into the wet La NiƱa phase of the climatic cycle, so it was generally rainy and cool and the bush responded well to it.

Travel was of course very restricted - some of the time we couldn't leave the immediate environs of our suburb - but we managed one trip early in the year to South Australia to attend a family wedding deferred from last year, a couple of fleeting trips to the nearby south coast, one to the Blue Mountains, and a week in western New South Wales when things opened up a bit. As a result more of these than usual were taken in the ACT, mostly close to home. However it was the year that it was, and here's my version of it.

(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.)

JANUARY

Male Gang-gang Cockatoo Callocephalon fimbriatum, Narrabundah Hill, Canberra.
This is our nearest 'reserve', though it's not an official one. I walk there early on summer mornings
in particular and this beauty was the star of one such walk. It is a declining species of the
near-coastal south-eastern ranges and this encounter was a much-needed reminder
that nature exists outside of our concerns. (I'm prone to feeling philosophical
in January, before the year starts to gain pace!)

FEBRUARY

A bee-fly (Comptosia apicalis I think) on a paper daisy Bracteantha bracteata in our garden.
It - ie the garden - is recovering well from the drought and it has given us especial
pleasure and solace this year.

And a second one from February, an Eastern Bristlebird Dasyornis brachypterus,
at Currarong, south coast NSW. This is our favourite coastal destination, on the north
end of Jervis Bay (more about it here), and this bird is nationally Endangered,
with perhaps only 2000 left in coastal heathlands. The Currarong area is a stronghold
and an early morning walk will usually produce a couple, but this is the closest
I've ever been to one, and the only decent photo of one I've ever taken.
A highlight of the year.

MARCH

In March we made our only interstate trip, as mentioned above. On our way back from Adelaide we camped a couple of nights in the wonderful Gluepot Reserve (run by Birds Australia) in the mallee country of South Australia (more on it here). It was still suffering from drought and the special mallee birds weren't much in evidence, but we had it to ourselves and we enjoyed our time.

I like this snap of 'our' gecko, an Eastern Tree Dtella Gehyra versicolor which ventured
out of an empty pipe by the toilet block at night.

APRIL

April was still a window of relative calm and freedom of movement before the doors, quite properly, slammed shut again. We took the opportunity to spend a few days in the Blue Mountains to check the autumn flowers, and as compensation for being prevented from going there for Christmas. But there we made a very exciting discovery.

Pink Flannel Flower Actinotus forsythii, at Narrowneck near Katoomba, Blue Mountains.
I'd never seen this species, though two other Actinotus, including the familiar big white
Flannel Flower A. helianthi, are common. I'd long wanted to see it but didn't have much hope as
it's confined mostly to rugged remote mountains along the Great Dividing Range south
from the Blue Mountains, and flowers only in the summer following a big fire,
and only if it's then rained. I knew they were flowering profusely in summer but
we couldn't get there then, so were very pleased to find a few persisting in
some sheltered sites.

MAY

By May things were starting to shut down but we did some local walks, including one along the Murrumbidgee River at Casuarina Sands, not far from here. In March there had been major flooding across New South Wales, and while the ACT wasn't impacted as far as loss of life or property was concerned, the local rivers well overflowed their banks. We got over 160mm of rain for the month, compared with the long-term average of 54mm and our walk came with some dramatic reminders of this.

A testament to the force of the river a few weeks earlier, metres above the bank. Our route
was strewn with trunks and branches of River Oaks Casuarina cunninghamiana killed by
the fercocious fires of 2003. It was a double reminder of nature's power.

JUNE

June was a very bad month for us at a personal level, and the camera remained in its bag for the duration. Here's one from the Blue Mountains a couple of months earlier to fill the void. 

Golden Scalycap Fungi Pholiota aurivella, Coachwood Glen, Megalong Valley,
Blue Mountains. A memory of a lovely walk in cool temperate Coachwood rainforest.

JULY

Here we managed a much-needed couple of days at the coast. It was a time of quiet reflection and easy walks. We spent some time watching this engaging Echidna in a quiet coastal village street, pottering in people's front yards. It was a delightful interlude.

AUGUST

In August the National Botanic Gardens finally reopened to visitors (they closed and reopened several times) and we'd probably never valued so much the opportunity to stroll there. 

A highlight was watching this magnificent male Satin Bowerbird Ptilonorhynchus violaceus
snacking on the luscious fruits of Lilly Pilly Amena smithii, a common small tree of
coastal rainforest edges.

SEPTEMBER

For what at least seemed like quite a while we couldn't leave our 'region' of Canberra, or exercise with friends. Finally in September, as spring was exploding, we could again walk with another person and I enjoyed a morning walk nearby with my friend Chris, exchanging thoughts and enjoying the views and birds.

Looking across the Molonglo Valley, site of a growing housing development, through a hazy morning
to a hillside glowing with wattle. It seemed like some sort of promise of better days.
It was premature of course!

OCTOBER

Finally in October we could travel without restriction within the ACT (and local parts of New South Wales, but not elsewhere). For some time there had been regular reports of an uncommon visitor to the ACT at Campbell Park across town, and I had been very much hoping that it would wait until I could visit it!

And as you can see, it did. Red-backed Kingfishers Todiramphus pyrrhopygius are
birds of the dry inland and when they turn up here it is usually in a drought,
so not sure what this one's story was, but I was glad it dropped by for a while.
A really lovely bird, especially from this angle!

On the walk out I encountered some Yellow-rumped Thornbills Acanthiza chrysorrhoa
feeding on the track. They are common right across most of the country but are always
welcome in my binoculars. However this one appears here because of its seeming little
dance for the camera, like a child showing off.
(And yes, of course I'm being anthropomorphic!)

NOVEMBER

In November we finally managed to leave Canberra to take a short trip to western New South Wales, specifically to see the River Darling flowing strongly after a string of dry years. It was a welcome escape, though the weather wasn't kind and we didn't see as much as we'd hoped. Nonetheless we were very grateful for the opportunity. The picture I chose for the month isn't one I expected to choose as a memento of the month though.

Caper White Butterflies Belenois java are common across the entire continent except
for the south-west corner, and through the islands well to the north. You wouldn't then
expect me to feature it as a highlight of the year, but we were enthralled by the
experience of driving through whirls of them for hundreds of kilometres on the drive
home. It was impossible to imagine how many millions there were across the landscape.
This female was on a copper burr Scleralaena sp., a saltbush, though it's
not a food plant; the caterpillars live on shrubs of the caper family Capparidaceae.

DECEMBER

In December we again had a few days at Currarong, this time for Lou's special birthday. One day we went to a nearby village to look at a coastal lagoon, then had coffee sitting outside a cafe in a fairly uninspiring row of shops near a busy road. The whole experience changed though when a small flock of Figbirds Sphecotheres vieilloti appeared in a street tree by us and proceeded to sing cheerfully.

This is essentially a bird of the tropics and subtropics, but is scattered
down the coast nearly to Victoria, and is probably extending its range south.
I'm always surprised to see them there though, and this one brightened that
dull little shopping strip no end. It was a good few days, and this was a surprising highlight.
So, this is a version of my year, though to be honest it would have been hard to interpret some months very differently! Next year, maybe...

Thank you for reading, today and through the year - it means a lot to me that you can find something here that is either enjoyable or informative, and preferably both! It's been another tough year, and there is nothing at the moment to suggest that next year will be better, but there is always the natural world to distract us, inspire us and absorb us. I hope you'll join me there at some stage.
NEXT POSTING THURSDAY 20 JANUARY

I love to receive your comments and in future will be notifying you personally by email when a new posting appears, if you'd like me to. All current subscribers have been added to this mailing list and have already been contacted.
This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. 
I promise never to use the list for any other purpose and will never share it.
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Thank you!

Thursday, 16 December 2021

Mount Kenya; wet forests in dry plains

Some five months ago I wrote a post about Shaba National Reserve in northern Kenya, wonderful arid wildlife-rich landscapes reminiscent in some ways of outback Australia. I promised then to offer another post on its neighbouring reserve, Buffalo Springs, and so I shall. But before doing that I'm going to introduce you to (or perhaps remind you of your own time on) magnificent Mount Kenya, a nearby but very different landscape. It is the highest peak in the country, and second only to mighty Kilimanjaro in all of Africa, though it doesn't get the press of Kilimanjaro. 

The volcanic peaks of Mount Kenya, some 5200 metres above sea level and way above the tree line.
The sides are streaked with huge glaciers, which sadly are shrinking fast. Our excellent
South African guide (we also had a Kenyan guide), Gareth Robbins of Rockjumper Tours,
told us that he had never seen it clear of clouds!
In 1849 German missionary-explorer and linguist Johann Krapf became the first European to sight the mountain, and asked its name. It is not entirely clear as to the meaning of what he was told, but he recorded it as both Kenia and Kegnia, which later became Kenya, and was applied to the entire British colony in the following century, and finally to the Republic of Kenya after independence in 1963.

We were only there for two nights and the intervening day, and could easily have spent more time there (as indeed everywhere!), but in that time we saw enough for me to want to share something of the experience with you. 71,000 hectares of the peaks and their flanking forests were declared as national park in 1997 and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Our two-storey wooden lodge was situated in tropical forest 2200 metres above sea level, overlooking an artificial waterhole with suffuse lighting at night.
The waterhole by night (above) and day (below). Cape Buffalo Syncerus caffer came and went
seemingly 24 hours a day.

 
The constant proximity of the buffaloes means that the lodge is fenced,
and there is an armed guard on the gate.
We discovered late in our stay that there is a tunnel from the ground floor to
a viewing room quite close to the waterhole, from where this photo was taken.
Red-billed Oxpeckers Buphagus erythrorynchus were constant attendants of the buffaloes,
removing ticks and other skin parasites.
Also regular at and around the water were smaller numbers of the very handsome antelope, Defassa Waterbuck Kobus defassa. This species, from central and west Africa (this is close to its eastern limit),  has recently been separated from the Ellipsen Waterbuck K. ellipsiprymnus which is found south and east from here.
Defassa Waterbuck male. He is distinguished from the Ellipsen Waterbuck by
the absence of a distinctive white ring around his rump.
Apart from the obvious attraction of the water, the mud seemed to contain chemicals attractive to the antelope, especially the smaller elegant Cape Bushbuck Tragelaphus scriptus.
Female and young Cape Bushbuck. For more on mud-eating in animals, see here.
 
This Spotted Hyena, moping home early in the morning, was not at all enjoying the mud
which by now was not confined to drying pools!
When the mud was dry (the rain came towards the end of our stay, fortunately) it was attractive as a dust bath, especially for the delightful Speckled Mousebirds Colius striatus.
The mousebirds are just six species, confined to Africa, of a whole Order of birds.
Below is a slightly clearer photo of a Speckled Mousebird, taken elsewhere in Kenya.

Lovely Cinnamon-chested Bee-eaters Merops oreobates hunted insects over the waterhole.
Bee-eaters are (yet) another favourite bird group of mine.


However we spent much of our time in the top floor balcony, a magnificent open-sided area which looked over the waterhole towards Mount Kenya on one side, and into the forest canopy on the other three sides.




This male Blue Monkey Cercopithecus mitis seemed to spend his time between the balcony
and the kitchen surrounds, hoping to scrounge food. He had only one hand, perhaps due to a
poacher's snare, but seemed to be doing fine.

From this balcony we enjoyed a range of forest-dwelling birds, though most of them didn't stay long enough to photograph.

Montane (or Mountain) Oriole Oriolus percivali. This special bird is restricted to
a very few mountain rainforests in east and central Africa.

The demure little White-eyed Slaty Flycatcher Melaenornis fischeri
is another specialist of central and eastern African mountain forests.
An afternoon drive in the forest produced two very exciting bigger birds, with excellent views.

Hartlaub's Turaco Tauraco hartlaubi is found almost solely in Kenyan
mountains, and was especially welcome.
Silvery-cheeked Hornbills Bycanistes brevis are more widespread, in tall wet forests
for most of the length of east Africa, but I'd not seen it before this trip. At 80cm long
it's up there with the biggest hornbills, and very impressive indeed.
In more open areas roadside wires are always worth a look too.
Abyssinian Thrushes Turdus abyssinicus are another bird of the north-eastern highlands.

Holub's Golden Weaver Ploceus xanthops lives across much of the southern
half of Africa, often building its big woven grass nests in colonies.
 

The Northern Fiscal Lanius humeralis is a very widespread and familiar species,
a shrike which is often seen watching for prey from powerlines and telephone wires.
Arriving back at the lodge in the near dark, we were greeted by a couple of delightful little Mount Kenya Duikers Cephalophus hooki. These tiny antelopes are found only on Mount Kenya and the nearby Aberdare Range.

Mount Kenya Duiker, a recently recognised species, based on the work of the eminent
Colin Groves of the Australian National University, who sadly died recently.
But our mammal highlight of the stay came that night as we watched from our balcony the rain pouring down, when suddenly a family of Giant Forest Hogs Hylochoerus meinertzhageni appeared from the other side of the clearing. This is a shy species which I'd long wanted to see, and is the world's largest all-wild pig which can be two metres long and weigh a quarter of a tonne. They made their way in the rain around the waterhole and came to a flat area under a soft light almost below us - I suspect that this is a feeding station with which they're familiar, but there was no food that night and they didn't stay long.
Giant Forest Hogs, mother and babies, our farewell treat from Mount Kenya!
When you can eventually go (or go back) to Kenya, of course you'll want to visit the 'classics' such as Amboseli, Maasai Mara and Tsavo, but you really should include Mount Kenya if you possibly can. It's something very different indeed. 

I'll be back here just once more in 2021, to relive our natural history year with one photo from each month - though it won't be easy this year!
NEXT POSTING FRIDAY 31 December
I love to receive your comments and in future will be notifying you personally by email when a new posting appears, if you'd like me to. All current subscribers have been added to this mailing list and have already been contacted.
This will mean one email every three weeks at the current rate of posting. 
I promise never to use the list for any other purpose and will never share it.
Should you wish to be added to it, just send me an email at
calochilus51@internode.on.net.
You can ask to be removed from the list at any time,
or could simply mark an email as Spam, so you won't see future ones.
Thank you!