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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. I am now 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. 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. As part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past few years.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Ferdinand von Mueller; botanical giant

It's now 120 years since Ferdinand von Mueller, the colossus of 19th century Australian botany, died. And it's high time I paid him some tribute here!

Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich Mueller, in his role as President of the Royal Society of Victoria.
Photo courtesy of Encyclopaedia of Australian Science.
He was born in 1825 in north-western Germany and, though trained as a pharmacist, carried out botanical research at the age of 15, and took his PhD in botany at Kiel aged just 21. (It was normal to combine botany with studies involving medicine, because of the herbal aspects.) He came to Australia for his health – or perhaps that of his sister, who travelled out with him. The Australian climate was probably recommended to him by Johann Preiss, a German naturalist who arrived in Perth in 1838, became a British subject in 1841, and the following year returned to Germany to live... Later, von Mueller was to recognise Preiss's contribution to his life by naming several species for him (but beware, so did many other botanists, especially Germans).

Mueller (as he was then) gained work for a pharmacist in Adelaide, but well before that he began collecting plants, just a few hours after landing.  He explored botanically the Mt Lofty and Flinders Ranges, to which he walked, a distance of nearly 300km.  He became a citizen soon after arriving. He published his findings initially in German scientific journals, then in 1852 in the prestigious journal of the Linnean Society of London; this came to the attention of Sir William Hooker, Director of Kew Gardens.

Coast Mistletoe Muellerina celastroides, Myora, south coast New South Wales.
There is no genus Muellera, because the name was pre-empted by a pea genus named for Danish botanist Otto Mueller.
However there is this genus, named just before von Mueller's death by French botanist Philippe Tieghem.
Restless, despite having obtained eight hectares of land and building a cottage outside of Adelaide, he moved to Victoria to open a pharmacy on the goldfields, but before he could open its doors, was appointed by Governor Latrobe as government botanist on the recommendation of Hooker. This was the first time a colony had made a botanical appointment separate from a botanic gardens, and he held it from 1853 to 1896 when he died. His botanical explorations of his new domain began immediately, and never really stopped. Within nine days of his appointment, he set out in February (often the hottest month of the year) on a 2,400km, four month, tour of the colony, heading north through the Strathbogie and Warby Ranges to Mt Buffalo and Mt Buller in the alps, thence east to Gippsland and home via Wilsons Promontory. 

In November he set out again, and spent five and a half months months travelling to the Grampians in western Victoria, then followed the Murray downstream from the Darling to Albury, continuing into eastern Victoria again. More trips followed, to the alps and Gippsland again; he crossed into New South Wales, arriving at Mt Kosciuszko, Australia's highest peak, on the first day of 1855. Altogether he covered 9,000km of trackless country, mostly alone, collecting thousands of specimens, including 500 species new to the colony. In subsequent decades he made another 15 expeditions to further his already prodigious knowledge of Victoria's flora.
Alpine Gentian Chionogentias (or Gentianella) muelleri, Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales,
above and below. More widely the group is regarded as part of the widespread Gentianella,
but in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory Chionogentias is recognised.
This beautiful alpine species was named only in 1995 by renowned Australian botanist Lawrie Adams
(famous for splitting Eucalyptus, a task unfinished at the time of his death) to honour von Mueller's alpine work.
In the same paper he introduced the genus Chionogentias to separate Australian gentians from ones
elsewhere in the world. Lawrie's work was pioneering and often attracted controversy!


He also explored the Tasmanian highlands, and for two years from 1855, when economic depression caused the retrenchment of many Victorian public servants, he took leave of absence and joined Augustus Gregory's highly significant North Australian Exploring Expedition, which covered much of the tropical north. In the process he collected 800 new plant species. On his return in 1857, he also became Director of the Melbourne Botanic Gardens. Under him the National Herbarium in Melbourne, which he had built, became the centre of Australian botanical studies; in 11 years it increased from 45,000 specimens (mostly his own, which he contributed) to 350,000. His duties also, strangely, included responsibility for the Zoological Society's animals. In 1873 he had to give up the Gardens because influential citizens wanted a 'pretty' gardens, not one arranged scientifically according to plant families, and the government, extraordinarily, dismissed him. This remained a distress to him for the rest of his life, though he retained the position of government botanist.
Yellow Kunzea Kunzea muelleri (above and massed below), Kosciuszko National Park, New South Wales.
Another alpine species commemorating von Mueller, though this one was named long ago,
by George Bentham, his collaborator on the mighty Flora Australiensis (see below).


He was made first president of Victoria's Royal Society, and was very involved in the Acclimatisation Society, now regarded as a pernicious introducer of exotic species. He first introduced Monterey Pine Pinus radiata (now by far the chief softwood plantation species in Australia) and, reputedly at least, spread blackberry on his travels, partly as a source of nutrition for gold miners! With the chemist Joseph Bosisto he experimented on the distillation of essential oils. He also propounded the conservation of forests, though primarily for timber extraction. He helped to organise the Victorian Exploring Expedition (the notoriously doomed Burke and Wills Expedition, though most of its misfortune was of its own making, not that of its organisers), the search for the missing explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, the foundation of the Royal Geographic Society of Australasia, and the scientific exploration of both Antarctica and New Guinea. He was a truly remarkable and dynamic man.
Poison Morning Glory Ipomoea muelleri Family Convulvulaceae, Windorah, south-west Queensland.
Found across much of northern and inland Australia, this scrambler was also named by Bentham
to  honour his collaborator.
He was chief collaborator with English botanist George Bentham for 18 years on the 7-volume Flora Australiensis. This was a gracious act on his part, as it was a project he had much wanted to do himself, and he was of course the most eminently qualified person to do it. However he was a mere colonial, and the power of Kew was too great. He was the sole author of 1000 books and papers (including school textbooks), and 2000 new species, 1000 of which he had discovered himself, including most of the Australian alpine plants we now know. He was also reputed to write up to 3000 letters per year!  Unsurprisingly, he never found time to get married, though he was twice engaged.

The King of Wurtemberg made him a Baron (whence he was entitled to be 'von Mueller'); he became Sir Ferdinand in 1879 and has it been suggested that he is probably the most decorated Australian citizen ever. He died, in harness at age 71, in 1896.
Yellow Stringybark Eucalyptus muelleriana, Kangaroo Valley, New South Wales.
Named by English-born Alfred Howitt in 1891; Howitt was a very impressive self-taught bushman
and explorer, naturalist and anthropologist.
Simple arithmetic on the figures above reveals that von Mueller named 1,000 plant species that other people supplied to him. Next time I want to introduce some of those collectors - some were professionals, others collected as they did their day jobs - who von Mueller thanked by naming plants for them.

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Thursday, 4 August 2016

Colours in Nature; gingery shades 5 - overseas birds

It's turned into something of an odyssey, but here is the final episode in this series celebrating animals with colours we variously refer to as chestnut, ginger, rusty, rufous or copper among others. The series began back here and my most recent posting was the penultimate one. I won't reiterate what I said then about the chemical basis of such colours, but will proceed to introduce you to some more birds which bear them, crossing three continents in the process. As I've mentioned more than once in the course of this journey, I find the richness and subtlety of these shades most appealing indeed. 
Ocellated Tapaculo Acropternis orthonyx, Refugio Paz de los Aves, northern Ecuador.
This is a relatively large and very vocal bird, but normally near impossible to see in the forest.
The patience and skill of Angel Paz in habituating it to come in for food is astonishing.
Wattled Jacana Jacana jacana, near Guayaquil, Ecuador.
The jacanas form a group of eight species, found throughout the world's tropical zones,
which specialise in walking on floating leaves by means of hugely extended toes. This one is found throughout
most of South America east of the Andes, plus this isolated near-coastal population in Ecuador.
This species gave its Tupi name, from Brazil, to the entire group.

Grey-headed Sparrow Passer griseus, Entebbe, Uganda.
An Old World sparrow which has adapted to human habitations like some other family members,
including the next one.
Tree Sparrow Passer montanus, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah.
A sparrow with a huge natural range across Europe and Asia, as well as having been
introduced to North America and Australia (where it is rare and declining).
I like the fact that these two closely related species flaunt their chestnut tones in different places.
Brown Pelican Pelecanus occidentalis, Puerto Ayora, Galápagos.
Cinnamon Flycatcher Pyrrhomyias cinnamomeus, San Isidro Lodge, northern Peru.
A common and widespread little beauty of the forests.
Raffles's Malkoa Rhinortha chlorophaea female, Sepilok, Sabah.
The malkohas form a group of large non-parasitic cuckoos.
Black-throated Flowerpiercer  Diglossa brunneiventris, Chivay, southern Peruvian Andes.
The flowerpiercers are a group of tanagers which use their awl-shaped bill to pierce the base
of tube-flowers to 'steal' nectar without pollinating the flower.
The next two, both kingfishers and quite similar, though in different genera and from different continents, are normally admired for their blue plumage - and quite rightly too - but their rusty undersides are an important part of the striking overall effect.
Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting, Sepilok, Sabah.
A beautiful kingfisher found widely in southern and south-east Asia.

Malachite Kingfisher Corythornis cristatus, Lake Mburo NP, Uganda.
An exquisite little bird found across sub-Saharan Africa.
So far the species features have varying amounts of the chestnut shades, from small highlights to up to half of their bodies; other birds however are virtually wholly coloured thus.
Andean Ruddy Duck Oxyura jamaicensis (above),
and Cinnamon Teal Anas cyanoptera (below),
both males and both on Lake Titicaca, Peru.
In both species the females are much less conspicuous, in mottled browns.
 
In the wonderful Torrent Duck Merganetta armata however, the rusty roles are reversed, with the females wearing it.
Torrent Ducks displaying, Urabamba River, Peruvian Andes.
Males on the left, female on the right.
Rufescent Tiger-Heron Tigrisoma lineatum, YasunĂ­ NP, Ecuadorian Amazonia.
A beautiful heron often seen along streams by visitors travelling by boat.
(And 'rufescent' is a name borne by only three bird species in the world!)
Almost the last, two superficially similar rainforest woodpeckers from opposite sides of the world - and both taken in very poor light conditions, unfortunately.

Cinnamon Woodpecker Celeus loricatus, Rio Silanche Reserve, north-western Ecuador.
Rufous Woodpecker Micropternus brachyurus, Sepilok, Sabah.
This pretty little woodpecker is found right across southern and south-east Asia.
And finally, a very handsome, and very rusty, big South American cuckoo.
Squirrel Cuckoo Piaya cayana, Manu NP, Peru; a lovely and active non-parasitic cuckoo found
from northern Mexico to Uruguay.
I hope you haven't felt I've gone on with this theme for too long, but I felt, apart from anything else, that it was a chance to meet some possibly new birds, and hopefully simply enjoy them.

I'm off again soon, on an extended holiday to tropical Australia, and will leave just a couple of offerings to tide us over until I get back in mid-September. Normal service will resume then!

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Monday, 25 July 2016

Colours in Nature; gingery shades 4 - more Australian birds

A while ago now I started another in my sporadic series on colours in nature, this one on the range of rich red-brown colours which we refer to variously as rufous, copper, chestnut and rusty among others. It was a rewarding lode to mine too, and after three instalments I decided to rest it for a while to look at other aspects of the natural world. I now want to conclude the series with two more offerings on rusty (etc) birds. As you read this I'm helping with bird surveys in the remote Great Sandy Desert of Western Australia, so this is one I prepared earlier, as they say on the cooking shows. 
Radjah Shelduck Tadorna radjah, south of Darwin.
This gorgeous tropical shelduck of northern Australia, New Guinea and some nearby islands I think
well illustrates why I'm so fond of these shades.
In that first posting I limited myself to birds with Chestnut or Rufous in their name, and there were plenty of those; these last two postings will celebrate other birds of essentially the same colours, starting today with some Australian examples. Just to reiterate, the chemicals that make the Radjah Shelduck glow coppery, and make red-headed people 'red', are a class of melanins called phaeomelanins (or pheomelanins). Melanins are produced in the body, unlike some other pigments we've discussed in the past which can only be obtained in food. Combinations of various phaeomelanins and brown or black eumelanins give rise to all the shades we'll be looking at over the next two postings, plus others. Some of the birds which follow are fully bedecked in rich rusty shades, others just sport highlights. And now, let's just enjoy them.

Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt, south of Darwin. It does indeed have splendid
orange feet (and legs) but it's the rusty wings and cap we're noting today.
This small mound-builder (or megapode) incubates its eggs in huge mounds of composting leaf litter.
They are found in tropical Australia, New Guinea and into the Indonesian archipelago.
 
Australasian Grebe Tachybaptus novaehollandiae, Darwin.
I love the chestnut neck patch it dons during breeding.
Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus, Canberra. This attractive crepuscular heron is found throughout
most of Australia and through Melanesia to the Philippines.
‘Nankeen’ derives from Nankin or Nanking, a town in Kiangsu province, China, which gave its name to a widely used cheap yellowish-brown cotton cloth manufactured there, which in turn came to be used for the colour.
This soft pre-dawn light doesn't do proper justice to the intensity of the colour.
This is not the only Australian bird named for this colour association, though the word hasn't been used in any other bird name elsewhere in the world.
Nankeen Kestrel Falco cenchroides, Canberra.
Brahminy Kite Haliastur indus, Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin.
This gloriously-toned raptor of the coast and wetlands is found from sub-tropical Australia to India.
Australian Pratincole Stiltia isabella, Barkly Tablelands, Northern Territory.
I love the rich chestnut patches on the sides, which show well in flight.
This one seemed keener on the bitumen than safety might recommend.
Red-capped Plover (or Dotterel) Charadrius ruficapillus, south coast New South Wales.
This very loose use of  'red' for this shade is more often encountered with regard to mammals
(eg fox, deer or kangaroo).

Grey-crowned Babblers Pomatostomus temporalis, Alice Springs, central Australia.
Only race rubeculus, of northern and central Australia, has the rufous undersides.
White-browed Woodswallow Artamus superciliosus male, Canberra.
Yet another gloriously rusty bird! The woodswallows are not at all related to true swallows, though
they do hunt aerial insects. This one is nomadic across the dry inland, reaching the south-east
(including Canberra) to breed in drought years.
Zebra Finch Taeniopygia guttata, Bourke, New South Wales.
The little chestnut cheek patch is only worn by the male. A ubiquitous little bird found across inland Australia.
Which brings us to the end of my offerings for this week. I'll conclude next time with some overseas birds which share these attractive colours.

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Thursday, 14 July 2016

East Point Reserve, Darwin

From Canberra in winter, lovely tropical Darwin always seems attractive. And so it does today as I write this. If you are fortunate enough to be visiting there some time in the nearish future, and you're interested enough in nature to be reading this blog, you should really aim to put aside at least a couple of hours to visit East Point Reserve. Probably all the locals know it, but it's certainly not on every visitor's schedule, and those who do find their way there are probably looking for the historical aspects associated with World War 2 fortifications. Today however I'd rather try to lure you to its natural charms. Because of its recreational popularity it's easy to find, so I won't try to give you detailed directions here. It's a peninsula that represents the eastern-most point of Darwin Harbour (the west side of the harbour, well outside the city, doesn't appear on the map below).
East Point Reserve, indicated by the red arrow, protruding into the Timor Sea.
As is evident it is well within suburbia, and not far to the north of the city of Darwin.
While it's all interesting, much of it comprises open mowed grassy areas with scattered trees, and the two elements I want to focus on today are the mangrove board walk (as far as I know, still the only such public boardwalk in mangroves in the Northern Territory!), and an extensive area of monsoon forest. 

You reach the mangroves first; pull into the Lake Alexander carpark, near the start of the reserve, and there is a sign to mark the beginning of the walk, which begins through low monsoon forest and coastal scrub before entering the mangroves.
Low monsoon forest on the way to the mangroves; I'll leave an introduction to the habitat until a little
later, when we get to the more substantial area of it.
The strip of mangrove forest grows along the northern shore of the narrow peninsula which we've just walked across from the southern side. There are 11 mangrove species found here, which is not very rich by the standards of larger sites, but impressive nonetheless. The raised aluminium walkway through the tidal section - the tide can rise by more than five metres here - is impressive and makes for an excellent mangrove experience.
Part of the aluminium walkway at low tide; this wide section at the end of the walkway, with benches,
is an excellent place to sit and watch what comes by.
We did just that for quite some time from early morning one day last summer.

The view in the other direction, looking out to the sea through the trees.
The ground is covered with pneumatophores, woody root extensions which protrude from the mud
to enable respiration in a waterlogged environment.
These mangroves are mostly White-flowered Apple Mangrove Sonneratia alba, family Lyrthaceae.
This species has a huge range, from East Africa across southern Asia and Indonesia to the West Pacific.

White-flowered Apple Mangrove flower. It's important to realise that 'mangrove' isn't a taxonomic term;
it can be used for any tree which has adapted to growing in regularly inundated salt-saturated mud of the inter-tidal zone.
In fact in Australia alone there are 41 species of mangrove, representing 19 different families. Some of these
mostly comprise mangroves, others are familiar terrestrial plant families.

Red, or Stilted, Mangrove Rhizophora stylosa, family Rhizophoraceae, found widely in Australia and Indonesia.
This is the other dominant mangrove at East Point, and demonstrates another type of pneumatophore,
the stilt root, which grows down from the stem and then branches, providing both support and respiration function.
I am not going to delve any more deeply into mangrove biology here - it's a fascinating topic which deserves, and will get, its own post one day.

It was a relatively quiet morning for wildlife when we were there, but there's always something, starting as soon as we left the carpark.
The extraordinary Magpie Goose Anseranas semipalmata is common across tropical Australia
and adjacent New Guinea. It is the sole member of an entire family of waterfowl
(ie 'ducks and geese', though it is neither).
Bar-shouldered Doves Geopelia humeralis are also very common, but that's no reason not
to enjoy and share them, especially as I know that many readers come to this blog from elsewhere.
They have an endearing habit of warbling repeatedly in a falsetto voice "let's walk to schoooool".
Rainbow Bee-eaters Merops ornatus against the morning sun.
Our only bee-eater, and an impressive one. They breed in southern Australia and spend
the rest of the year in tropical Australia, New Guinea and nearby Indonesia.
However even in summer there are always some in the north as well.
Male Australasian Figbird Sphecotheres vieilloti. Yet another common northern species, actually an oriole.
This used to be called the Yellow Figbird, to distinguish it from the Green Figbird further south in eastern Australia,
but they are now regarded as races of the same species.
As we sat among the mangroves at the end of the walk a few birds came to investigate.
Northern Fantail Rhipidura rufiventris. Two fantails are among the commonest birds further south,
but this tropical species, while certainly not rare, is less obvious than them.

Lemon-bellied Flycatcher Microeca flavigaster.  A lovely little bird, one of the Australian robins; for that
reason, probably understandably enough, there is a move to resurrect the old name of 'flyrobin', but I'm not
quite ready for that yet.
Not many waders on the mud, but our view was pretty limited. The Common Sandpiper Actitis hypoleucos isn't that common in southern Australia, though more so in the north. This one was snacking on the abundant crabs.
Common Sandpiper with seafood breakfast.
Crabs are of course super-abundant in mangroves, living in burrows and supporting numerous predators,
including this gorgeous blue chap, which I unfortunately can't find a name for. Any help?
Another favourite mud-dweller, the wonderful mudskippers, regarded traditionally as a subfamily
of goby, though recent work suggests they actually comprise several related groups. Their key characteristic is an ability
to spend much of their time out of water, being quite active across the surface of the mud, using their adapted fins.
As long as they remain moist they can breathe through skin and mouth membranes on land,
as well as with gills in water.
Gill slits are tightly closed on  land, and the cavity contains an air bubble.
I like to think of them re-enacting the first vertebrate moves ashore nearly 400 million years ago.

When you can tear yourself away from the peace of the mangrove platform, return to the carpark and drive a little further along the road into the reserve. Just past Peewee Restaurant (and I'm afraid I can't tell you anything else about it, I've always been there too early!) pull into the carpark marked Barbecue Area and cross the road to the track opposite through the monsoon forest. 
Monsoon forest along the track. Monsoon forests grow in the tropics where an intense wet season is
followed by a long dry, which distinguishes them from true rainforest where it can be wet all year round.
They tend to be lower-growing and simpler in biodiversity (though by no means impoverished) than rainforests;
many trees are often deciduous in the dry.
Two special birds in particular can generally be found here. In fact you're likely to encounter Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt pretty much any time from when you enter the forest.
Orange-footed Scrubfowl scratching for food in the leaf litter on the track with its immensely powerful feet.
(Which, I must note, are not more orange than its legs.)
This is one of three Australian megapodes, which incubate eggs in a mound of decomposing litter.
This one alone is found beyond Australia, on nearby islands.
Scrubfowl mound, Darwin; for a relatively small megapode they build an enormous mound.
Pittas are an interesting group of birds, members of the ancient suboscine passerines which predominate in South America but are scarce elsewhere. There are three Australian species - the Noisy Pitta Pitta versicolor of eastern Australia, the Rainbow Pitta P. iris of the Top End and Kimberley, and the Red-bellied Pitta Erythropitta erythrogaster which breeds at the tip of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland in the wet summer, and returns to New Guinea for the rest of the year.

The Rainbow Pitta is not uncommon in monsoon forest around and even in Darwin, and East Point Reserve is a good place for them, though they are shy and can take some finding. They feed on the ground but often call from a high perch. Their call is a constant background at East Point.
Rainbow Pitta, East Point. Truly a beautiful bird.
If East Point isn't already on your 'to do' list when you go to Darwin, it should be. Try and make time for it - you won't regret it.

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