About Me

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I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

The Mighty Baobabs

This is another in my periodic series on favourite trees; the most recent one was here, and you can backtrack from there if you're so inclined. I've been wanting to write something on the wonderful baobabs for some time, but was putting it off until I'd met a few more in Madagascar. In the event happenstance and Madagacar Air conspired to rob us of some of the planned trip a few months ago, so I didn't see as many as I'd hoped, but I think there's still enough here to make a post worth while.
Fony Baobab Adansonia rubrostipa, Ifaty Spiny Forest, south-western Madagascar.
Baobabs are a very distinctive genus of nine species found in Madagascar (six), Africa (two) and north-western Australia (one). Until recently they were placed in the family Bombacaceae, but as seems to the way with botanical taxonomy these days, they have now been swept into the huge and unwieldy family Malvaceae (traditionally the home of hibiscuses and mallows). 

The genus name was bestowed by Linnaeus in 1762, to honour French botanist and polymath Michel Adanson, a year after Adanson published the first description of the tree from his explorations in Senegal, where he spent five years collecting everything imaginable, not only plants and animals but trade items, languages and detailed meteorological observations. His family had migrated from Scotland (no idea - weather perhaps?!) and changed the 'm' in their name to an 'n'. He went on to write a two volume Familles des Plantes in which he sought to form all generic names independently of all known languages, including Greek and Latin; it seems to have been too daunting a task however. He also later wanted a coffin garland to represent all his 58 families. Perhaps more significantly his taxonomy was based on what he interpreted as natural relationships, rather than the rather arbitrary arrangements of Linnaeus' early attempts; in this he was ahead of his time, though echoing the suggestions of Robert Ray, a century earlier. He wrote a Natural History of Senegal, but his publisher went broke and Adanson felt obliged to refund those who'd subscribed; this plunged him into a poverty from which he never emerged and he survived only via a small stipend from the French Academy of Sciences. It didn't stop him spending his life on a truly monumental writing project, which basically seems to have comprised everything known about the entire natural world. He offered to the Academy 27 volumes of principles, followed by 150 volumes listing 40,000 species, a dictionary covering 200,000 words (I find this hard to believe, but the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica vouches for it!), 40,000 illustrations, and 30,000 specimens of plants, fungi and animals. The Academy declined to publish. It is reported that when the prestigious French Institute invited him to join, he had to decline because he couldn't afford to buy appropriate clothes.

OK, probably time to return to the trees...
Australian Baobab A. gregorii, Gregory NP, Northern Territory.
This species is closest to a group of four of the Madagascan baobabs,
including the three species illustrated in this posting.
It is unclear whether the genus arose in Madagascar, now their stronghold, or on the African mainland. It is a relatively young genus, apparently no more than 10 million years old, so its journey between Madagascar and Africa, and to Australia, must have been achieved by seeds floating across the ocean. More recently humans have transported the widespread African Baobab A. digitata to Madagascar and much of the tropics. It is a greatly valued species, used for food - the fruit, dried or fresh, is prized, and both seeds and young leaves are eaten, timber (including for musical instruments and weapons), fibre and firewood.

A. digitata, Darwin Botanic Gardens.
Recently (2012) a second African species was discovered. Named A. kilima, it is found widely in southern
and eastern Africa, where it sometimes co-exists with A. digitata. The species are very similar, but A. digitatais unique in having twice the chromosome complement of all the other species.

Very old African Baobabs - individual trees have been aged at over 1,000 years - in the Kalahari Desert,
Botswana, above and below. Both these pictures are from old scanned slides.

Indigenous Australians make cords from the root bark fibre of A. gregorii, and eat the sap.
Australian Baobab, Gregory NP.
In Australia the name baobab - which was collected by Adanson in Senegal - is often corrupted to 'boab'. 'Bottle tree' is also sometimes used, but this is a confusion with Queensland members of the unrelated genus Brachychiton.

Za Baobab A. za, Ifaty Spiny Forest.
I can't find a reference to the name, but I assume it is a Malagasy word for the tree.
In all the species above, the form of the tree is distinctive. They are 'pachycauls', with thick trunks relative to their height, and few branches, mostly sprouting from the top. They are said to be able to store up to 100,000 litres of water in their trunk (in tissue, not a big internal tank!) to last them between wet seasons. All are deciduous, to assist in water conservation.

Perhaps we could end by just enjoying a few more portraits of these magnificent trees.
Madagascar Baobab A. madagascarensis, Ankarana NP, northern Madagascar.
This is a limestone national park, and this species is closely associated with that rock.

Fony Baobab, Ifaty Spiny Forest.
Za Baobab, Ifaty Spiny Forest.
Sakalava Weaver nests, Ifaty village, south-western Madagascar.
Australian Baobabs, Gregory NP.
In a diary entry from my first trip to the east Kimberley, where I first saw these wonderful trees,
I wrote of the "magnificently grotesque Baobabs.... great corpulent patriarchs, with twisted swollen arthritic limbs".
Hopelessly anthropomorphic, I readily acknowledge. But baobabs tend to have that effect on me, I'm afraid. I love them.

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Thursday, 30 November 2017

Trilha dos Tucanos; toucan track in Brazil's precious Atlantic forest

I've just made my first brief visit to Brazil, and am delighted at the prospect of going back there. The primary purpose was a reconnaissance trip to the fabulous Pantanal, with the aim of taking a group there next year, but having flown into Sao Paulo, our organiser persuaded us to take the time to look at an example of the precious and highly threatened Atlantic forests. I was open to persuasion, as Joan Armatrading so nicely put it. These forests, which stretch along Brazil's east coast and inland to Paraguay in the south, are among the richest and most threatened forests in the world. The World Wildlife Fund regards them as second only to the Amazon lowlands in terms of biodiversity - and this despite the fact that only around 10% of the forests remain (estimates inevitably vary), of an original estimated million square kilometres. Less than 2% of the original forest is protected.
Rich lush Atlantic forest, 700 metres above sea level, some 160km south-west of Sao Paulo,
on the 70 hectare Trilha dos Tucanos private reserve.
Just a couple more figures, before I introduce you to this little corner of it. Some 2200 land vertebrate species live there, roughly 7% of the planet's total. Of these, more than 260 amphibians, some 200 bird species and 160 mammals (including at least 21 out of 27 primates) are endemic to the region, as are more than 6000 of the known 20,000 plant species. 

The drive to it from sprawling, towering Sao Paulo is sobering. Even leaving at 5am when the impressive freeway system is largely empty, the trip took nearly three hours; the return, in a nightmare of traffic, added another hour. Once outside the city the clearing is stark, though forest remnants remain on ridges. A major issue evident as we climbed into the mountains was the extent of forest cleared for eucalypt plantations, for the woodpulp industry. Our guide for the day was genial, knowledgeable Marco, taxi driver and bird guide - and father of a three day old daughter! He was going home that night, after a 17 hour day with us, to resume his home responsibilities...
Marco, excellent driver and guide!
All of course is not gloom, and much is being done - by organisations such as the WWF and Nature Conservancy, as well as Brazilian government entities - to conserve what's left. Trilha dos Tucanos is too small to provide long-term protection on its own, but it supplements the work of adjoining landowners, including a government reserve. 

On our arrival we were greeted with coffee and cake by owners Marco and Patricia, and led to the balcony, where the parade of birds to the feeders made it hard to concentrate on our own gastronomic needs!
View from the deck, with bird feeder in the foreground (where many of the following photos are set)
and a lake and forest beyond.
Here are some, starting with some of the amazing tanagers - probably my favourite South American birds, just after hummingbirds. They don't really need much more from me!

I have used an (E) after the name to indicate species which are endemic to the Atlantic forests, or nearly so; you will see that this symbol dominates.
Green-headed Tanager Tangara seledon  (E).
Ruby-crowned Tanager Tachyphonus coronatus (E).
Only the male has the discreet and lovely ruby crown, which can only be seen when he's facing you.

Female Ruby-crowned Tanager, lovely as well.
Golden-chevroned Tanager Thraupis ornata (E).
Azure-shouldered Tanager Thraupis cyanoptera (E).
Olive-green Tanager Orthogonys chloricterus
Of course there were hummingbirds too (and of course they're not easy to photograph successfully, at least by me!).
Sombre Hummingbird Aphantochroa cirrochloris (E).
The name (pronounced by Marco to rhyme with 'hombre') refers to its plumage,
rather than its demeanour!
Black Jacobin Florisuga fusca (E).
Well OK, those two weren't too bad, but with regard to hummer photos it goes downhill from there...
Black-throated Mango Anthracothorax nigricollis. This one is much more widespread than the others.
Brazilian Ruby Clytolaema rubricauda (E).
I have certainly not done this beauty justice, but you get a faint hint of its splendor
in the flash of the iridescent throat.
But even these weren't the only members of the balcony parade.
Black-throated Grosbeak Saltator fuliginosus (E).
It seems that these American grosbeaks are really tanagers too.
Tanager taxonomists are heroic beings - it's a far easier life for those of us who just watch and enjoy tanagers!

Chestnut-bellied Euphonia Euphonia pectoralis (E).
In a pretty competitive field, I reckon this little beauty may have just about have won the day!
(Euphonias were until recently believed to be tanagers, but current thinking puts them with the
true finches, Fringillidae. See comment above.)
Rufous-bellied Thrush Turdus rufiventris.A widespread and familiar species in much of eastern South America, including towns,
but nonetheless attractive and welcome at any time.
 Small groups of a couple of species of parakeet were present much of the time.
Plain Parakeet Brotogeris tirica (E).
This seems unreasonably contemptuous of a lovely little bird!
Maroon-bellied Parakeet Pyrrhura frontalis (E).
Red-rumped Cacique Cacicus haemorrhous.
The hanging nests of this colonial icterid (North American blackbirds) adorn the tree above the lake,
below the verandah.

Yellow-fronted Woodpecker Melanerpes flavifrons.This exquisite little woodpecker returned several times to the feeder.
Understandably, Marco had some difficulty in prising us away to explore some of the forest tracks, but of course we willingly went in the end (especially with the promise of lunch to follow!).

The forest was of course a delight.

While we didn't see any mammals on our relatively short excursion, they are certainly there.
Tapir prints, embedded since last night's rain!
Here are a couple of the birds we saw - we were impressed, but Marco insisted it was a quiet morning.
Golden-crowned Warbler Basileuterus auricapilla.

Riverbank Warbler Myiothlypis rivularis.Both these warblers are relatively widespread, but both were new to me.

White-eyed Foliage-gleaner Automolus leucophthalmus (E).One of the huge old South American ovenbird family Furnariidae,
many of which glean insects from leaf or bark surfaces.
The highlight of this walk however was undoubtedly the most unexpected (to Marco too) appearance of a mother Brown Tinamou and two chicks at a forest feeder, comprising corn offered on the ground in front of a hide. Tinamous are a fascinating and ancient group, now known to be true ratites (the giant southern flightless birds like emus and ostriches), a realisation which has revolutionised our understanding of the entire group. I've still seen very few, so this was an especial thrill.
Brown Tinamou and chick.
Lunch incidentally, was delicious too...

But one more treat awaited us on the drive out. Just down the road we found an Atlantic Royal Flycatcher Onychorhynchus swainsoni attending a nest. I'd long wanted to see one of the royal flycatchers - their crests, when erected, are spectacular. And now I'd seen two in a matter of a few days, having very recently caught up with the Amazonian species O. coronatus in northern Peru. Neither deigned to flash their crest at me, but I wasn't complaining.
Atlantic Royal Flycatcher; a splendid finale to a splendid day!
I intend going back to Trilha dos Tucanos next year, and this time I'll stay a couple of nights. That will be even better, but our brief taster was pretty delicious too. If you do find yourself in Brazil, you'll of course want to see the Amazon and the Pantanal - but don't forget the Atlantic forests. And this little reserve is a pretty special introduction to them.

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Thursday, 23 November 2017

Bomaderry Regional Park; a Nowra gem

I'm just back from an enthralling but sometimes demanding five weeks in South America (northern Peru and Brazil's Pantanal), and am still trying to catch up at all levels. I haven't been able to start processing my photos yet, so today's post will be about a favourite reserve of mine, but one probably unfamiliar to anyone who doesn't know the New South Wales south coast town of Nowra. Actually Nowra is not really on the coast, but some 13km inland on the Shoalhaven River, and most people know it from driving through along the highway from Sydney to the south. It's fair to say that this impression is of an extended suburban and industrial sprawl of 35,000 people, and is not very enticing.

However, due to close family ties there, I've got to know the Nowra area well, and Bomaderry Creek in North Nowra is a favourite area where I often walk.
There are two obvious habitat types in the reserve, both defined by the underlying sandstone; here
the mighty Sydney Sandstone region, which includes the Blue Mountains, reaches its southern limits.
One is the Bomaderry Creek Gorge (above) which one of the walking tracks follows. This is best
accessed from Narang Road, west of the highway in the Bomaderry section of northern Nowra.

The other is an extensive area of dry eucalypt forest above the gorge, which we often enter from
West Cambewarra Road off Illaroo Road just north of the Shoalhaven River.
Under New South Wales legislation a Regional Reserve is often smaller than a national park (Bomaderry Creek is just 82 hectares) and is available for some recreational purposes not available in national parks. For instance dogs are permitted at Bomaderry Creek (if leashed, of course) but in practice we rarely encounter other walkers, especially in the dry forest areas.

In the circumstances (including my somewhat debilitated state at present!) I think that a simple photo essay will be sufficient to introduce to you the attractions of the reserve, starting with the gorge section.
Bomaderry Creek dominated by Water Gum, or Kanooka, Tristaniopsis laurina.
 Cabbage Palm Livistona australis growing in the creek line.
Down in the gorge it is much cooler and more sheltered than it is up in the forest,
even in summer.
This is especially true of the extensive sandstone shelter which overhangs the track near the end of
the walk (if doing it in the clockwise direction).
The dominant eucalypt is the lovely Spotted Gum Corymbia maculata.

Lithophytic orchids grow on the moist rock walls.
Autumn Bulbophyllum Bulbophyllum (or Adelopetalum) exiguum. The tiny flowers are only 10mm across.

Streaked Rock Orchid Dockrillia (formerly Dendrobium) striolatum.This is an abundant rock orchid, flowering, unlike the previous species, in spring.
Velvet Mint Bush Prostanthera incana, also likes the sheltered conditions of the gorge.
Rock Isotome Isotoma axillaris also likes the rocks, but seeks sunny sites near the top of the gorge.
Which of course leads us up to the open forest, where the most dramatic flowering can be found.
Wombat Berry Eustrephus latifolius is a vine with orange berries - which may be attractive to wombats,
but I'm not aware of it! It's a lily, now placed in the big family Asparagaceae (formerly in Philesiaceae).
Sweet Wattle Acacia suaveolons brightens the bush in winter.
Hairpin Banksia B. spinulosa is another winter bloomer (actually it flowers from autumn to early
spring), which is pollinated largely by small mammals.

Heath-leaf Banksia B. ericifolia, also found mostly in autumn and winter.

Mountain Devil (for the shape of the woody fruit, below) Lambertia formosa on
the other hand flowers for all the year except winter.

Larch-leaf Trigger Plant Stylidium laricifolium; this one has been 'triggered', ie its
style has whipped up to deliver pollen from an insect (or probably collect it in this case).
Milkwort Comesperma ericinum, family Polygalaceae.
Daviesia squarrosa, a locally common prickly pea shrub.
Another spiky one; Silky Hakea H. sericea.
Guinea Flower Hibbertia sp., Family Dillenaceae.
And of course there are orchids, especially in spring and summer; here are a couple.
Spotted Sun Orchid Thelymitra ixioides (and yes, I know this one is spotless!).
Hyacinth Orchid Dipodium variegatum.
A spectacular big orchid, and one of the few to flower after Christmas.
Red Beard Orchid Calochilus paludosus; always a favourite of mine
(though my beard is scarcely red these days...).
And of course there are animals, though given the recent plethora of birds on this blog, I thought I should go light on them today!
Channel-billed Cuckoo Scythrops novaehollandiae fledgling. This chick, belonging to the world's largest cuckoo species,
was probably raised by raven, butcherbird, currawong or raven host parents.

Brown Cuckoo-Dove Macropygia phasianella.
Grey Butcherbird Cracticus torquatus emitting his glorious territorial song.
Southern Water Skink Eulamprus heatwolei; often found along the creek.
Lace Monitor Varanus varius trying not to be noticed; not so easy when you can be two metres long...
I really hope that you have been inspired to drop in to Bomaderry Creek if you're in the area; you might even run into me there...

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