About Me

My photo

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, 12 January 2017

The Kinabatangan River; a fragile treasure

Malaysian Borneo, which I've talked about before in this blog, is very rich biologically, but its natural areas tend to be fragmented and thus are often relatively poor in larger wildlife. The south-east of Sabah is among the wildest areas, and here the forests of the Kinabatangan River are an important resource and are probably the most readily accessible for visitors.
The arrow indicates the approximate position of the lower Kinabatangan River.
South of there are wilder, more remote rainforest areas such as Danum and Maliau.
I am no expert on the language, but I understand the best approximation to the pronunciation is to
separate the syllables, with no emphasis on any of them - kin-a-bat-an-gan.
At 560km long from source to mouth, the Kinabatangan in Sabah is only a couple of kilometres short of being the longest river in Malaysia (which honour belongs to the Rajang in Sarawak). The rich floodplains at the lower end of the river support remarkable concentrations and diversity of wildlife, thought they are hemmed in by oil palm plantations. That industry does not generally comprehend the concept of ‘enough’ however and until the 1990s the modest ‘protected area’ of just 27,000 hectares was under constant threat of clearing and planting to oil palms. In 2006, following the killing of an elephant, the area was gazetted as Wildlife Sanctuary, which gives it greater security. Essentially however it remains a strip of lowland rainforest along the river, within which wildlife is trapped. Remarkably this area includes 1000 plant species, 250 bird species and fifty mammals, including Asian Elephants, Orangutans, Borneo Gibbons, Proboscis Monkeys, civets and otters. 

We visited last year, and our group stayed at the Myne Resort. This is not an endorsement of Myne over any of the other riverside lodges - it's simply where we were booked into so I can't make meaningful comparison. However it was comfortable and with good wildlife opportunities in and around the grounds; in summary I'd recommend it, while noting that other lodges probably have similar advantages. The real focus of a stay along the river is time on the river itself - and I assume that all the lodges provide boat trips. That will be the subject of my next posting; there is enough to say about the wildlife of the lodge, its gardens and surrounding forests to warrant our full concentration today.

Myne River lodge from the river.

The cabin balcony looking out into the rainforest foliage is an excellent place to spend a hot afternoon
between excursions. The flowerpecker photo below was taken from ours.
Early morning view of the Kinabatangan River from the cabins - it's just there!
We arrived in the evening, and were very impressed by the wealth of geckoes on the walls inside and outside the lodge.
I suspect the geckoes themselves put the sign up - the board was certainly more beneficial to
them than to the insects! (And I'm so impressed that they knew where to put the apostrophe...)

Large Forest Gecko Gekko smithii. Despite its name, this beauty was actually inside the dining room.
Frilly Gecko Hemidactylus craspedotus.
I love the camouflage of this beautiful animal; it seems to work as well on the lodge timber as on a tree.

The gardens and boat wharf are havens for many birds.
Orange-bellied Flowerpecker Dicaeum trigonostigma.
This exquisite little bird spent some time in front of our balcony on a steamy lazy afternoon.
It is found from Java to the Philippines and to Bangladesh.
The Asian (and African) barbets are now recognised as comprising a different family from the American ones; all are fruit-eaters in the same Order as toucans. A couple of species were in the fruiting shrubs by the river early in the morning.
Male Red-throated Barbet Psilopogon mystacophanos. (The female lacks the red throat and has a blue forehead.)
Bornean Brown Barbet Caloramphus fuliginosus.
I do love the insouciant scruffiness of this species, compared with the colourfully immaculate
turn-out of most its relations!
I'm also very fond of the pretty little Velvet-fronted Nuthatches which are very busy foragers on tree trunks and branches - and stumps apparently.
This species is found throughout south-east Asia and Indonesia.
While watching the barbets by the river, this magnificent big bee came along; I think it merits being admired from both ends!
Carpenter Bee Xylocopa sp.; my thanks to Susan (in comments) for setting me right!

Perhaps the star of the gardens however was this impressive owl, which fished along the river and roosted in the trees around the lodge by day.
Buffy Fish Owl Bubo (or Ketupa) ketupu. There is disagreement as to whether the four Asian
fish owls belong in their own genus (Ketupa) or with the eagle-owls (Bubo).
Either way they are not closely related to the four African fishing owls.
This big bird lives primarily on fish, also taking frogs and crabs.
Unlike fish eagles or ospreys they avoid getting their feathers wet while hunting.
The only small disappointment was being unable to sight the gibbons which called from the adjacent forest. We did however do a walk in the hot late morning (after a boat ride) and found some other life in the forest.
Looking down the slope in the forest.
Square-tailed Drongo-Cuckoo Surniculus lugubris, named for its apparent resemblance to drongoes.
There are three other members of the genus from south and south-east Asia, sometimes lumped as
Asian Drongo-Cuckoo, but that approach is losing favour.
They are brood parasites on a wide range of forest bird species.
Plain (or Least) Pygmy Squirrel Exilisciurus exilis. 
 High in a huge tree, this is a tiny squirrel (apparently the world's smallest), with an entire length of
only 14cm and weighing less than 20 grams. It appears to live on bark and lichen.
Sun Skink Eutropis sp.
This genus of Asian skinks contains some 30 species.
Giant Leaf Hopper, family Cicadellidae (I think!).
A terrible photo of an exquisite animal; a plant hopper nymph,family Flatidae.
Finally we did a night walk, but it was truncated by tropical rain; here are a few things we saw before retreating.
A fascinating grasshopper - love the back legs!
Scutigeran, or Wood Centipede.
If you're of its size, you need to be quick to run away from those legs chasing you!
Malaysian Blue Flycatcher Cyornis turcosus roosting.
The blue is actually quite deep, but is distorted here by the light.
A lot of people visit Malaysian Borneo these days, and it is in many ways a superb destination. Moreover, the more of us who do so, the better the chance that the environment will be protected, especially from the scourge of oil palms. When we go to somewhere like Kinabatangan, we are saying that the place is worth money as it is...


 (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.)

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Special Western Myrtles

The family Myrtaceae is one of the most conspicuous families in Australia, and is also well-represented in South America, but is also found, albeit less profusely, throughout much of the rest of the world, including Europe where the Common Myrtle Myrtus communis gave its name to the family.

In Australia Eucalyptus, Callistemon and Leptospermum are the largest genera and the most familiar, but there are some 1500 species and 70 genera here, representing about half of the world's total for both. (I have seen some recent figures suggesting twice the number of species and less genera, but without exploring the basis of this I suspect it represents a current trend in botanical taxonomy towards massive 'lumping', the helpfulness of which in terms of understanding more subtle levels of relationships I've questioned before.)

However the year is just getting into gear and I'm not inclined to be too philosophical or disputatious today. Rather I'd like to introduce and celebrate some Myrtaceous genera which are only (or nearly only) found in Western Australia, famous for its amazingly rich flora and high level of endemics. Some of these beauties may be new to you if you're not familiar with WA, but in any case I hope you enjoy them. To avoid suggestions of favouritism I'm simply going to introduce the genera in alphabetical order; bear in mind that this is nowhere near the full number of such genera. (Bear in mind too that plant taxonomy is a rapidly changing field, and it may be that some of the plants that follow have in recent times been offered different names - you'll readily find them under the names I use here though, and I've tried, as ever, to keep up to date.)

This is a slightly contentious genus to begin with, because though there has traditionally only been one species recognised, there seems to be a growing opinion that a second one, still unnamed, has long been confused with it. The name refers to rays, for the flowers' superficial resemblance to daisies, also reflected in the common names.
Swamp Daisy Actinodium cunninghamii, Stirling Ranges NP.
Albany Daisy A. sp., also from the Stirling Ranges.
I have based my identification on the larger paler flowers, but I'm happy to be corrected, as ever.

Another very small genus, comprising just one species (but see under Cheyniana below). Like the Actinodium, the flowers don't immediately remind an eastern-stater of the family members with which we're familiar.
Native Pomegranate B. pulcherrimum, east of Hyden.
The genus name cames from the Greek for a pomegranate flower.
A larger genus, restricted to the south-west, of some 22 species closely related to the widespread Melaleuca, as well as some similar WA endemic genera. Needless to say there are some who would lump them all into Melaleuca, but this doesn't seem to have gathered much traction. Beaufortia was named by the great Scottish botanist Robert Brown to honour the Duchess of Beaufort, Mary Somerset; she is often described as a botanist, but is better thought of, I believe, as an assiduous horticulturist. She died in 1715, nearly 100 years before Brown's naming.
Pink Bottlebrush B. schauerii, Stirling Ranges NP.
'Bottlebrush' is commonly used for the genus, though it is better-known as the common name for Callistemon
elsewhere in Australia. Johannes Schauer was a German botanist with an interest in Australian plants;
as far as I can tell he named this for himself, which would be a most irregular thing to have done.
Sand or Kalbarri Bottlebrush B. aestiva, Kalbarri NP.
This northern sandplain species also comes in a red form.
(Scan of an old and somewhat faded slide - sorry.)
Probably the largest WA endemic Myrtaceous genus, with some 40 species (but see Verticordia below), generally referred to as one-sided bottlebrushes, netbushes or clawflowers. The claws comprise long red stamens in four or five clusters, protruding from a short tube of sepals; the petals are tiny or absent. Often the flowers appear on one side of the stem. The somewhat unimaginative (though a propos) name simply means 'beautiful bush'.
Calothamnus blepharospermus, Kalbarri NP.
The flower characteristics described above are shown here, along with the typical cylindrical leaves.
blepharospermus means 'eyelash seed'...

Common Netbush Calothamnus quadrifidus, Christmas Rock, east of Perth.
This widespread species is especially known as One-sided Bottlebrush, for the obvious reason.
There are 14 species recognised of this endemic genus, by far the best known of which is Geraldton Wax G. uncinatum, which is widely cultivated on both sides of the Nullabor. They have open teatree-like flowers with waxy petals. The somewhat mysterious name (appended by French botanist René Desfontaines without explanation) apparently refers to the shape of the base of the flower as resembling a bishop's mitre!
Geraldton Wax, Badgingarra NR, with pollinating wasp.
These northern sandplains are their natural habitat.

Another tricky one; the genus was only described in 2009, to incorporate just two species, one formerly placed in Balaustion (see above), the other being an unnamed species formerly described as a Baeckea. (I wouldn't want to be working on the WA Myrtaceae, though it would guarantee a life's work!)

Bush Pomegranate Cheyniana (formerly Balaustion) microphylla, Pindar.
This one is found in a small area of the northern sandplains and is threatened by clearing for agriculture.
A genus of 14 species closely related to Calothamnus. The name means 'solitary' (as in hermit, and ultimately from the word for desert), in apparent reference to the relative few clustered flowers at the tips of branches. They can be a quite prominent part of the heathlands.

E. beaufortioides, Moore River NP, north of Perth.
Orange is not a common colour in Australian plants.
Violet Eremaea V. violacea, Yandin Hill Lookout, north of Perth.
A lovely low sprawling shrub.
A genus of at least 23 species (plus some still unnamed) which have generally been known as myrtles since species were introduced to England in the 1840s, where their resemblance to the European myrtle was noted. Some are widely cultivated for their profuse flowers.

White Myrtle H. angustifolium, John Forrest NP, Darling Ranges.
One might reasonably think this an odd common name, but the flowers start white and darken with age.
This is one of those introduced early to English gardens.
X. xanthopetalum, Moore River NP, north of Perth.
Yellow is an unusual colour for this genus.
Technically I shouldn't be including this here, as in addition to the 100 or so WA species, two are also found in the Northern Territory. However it's too beautiful a plant to exclude on a technicality, it's one of my favourites, and how could I not include a genus whose name means 'heart turner'?! Featherflower is an oft-used common name. Anyway, let's enjoy some to end today's offering.
Scarlet Featherflower V. grandis, Gathercole Nature Reserve near Wongan Hills, above and below.
An especially large-flowered species, quite dramatic.

V. insignis, John Forrest NP. The name, perhaps counter-intuitively, means 'remarkable' or 'decorative'.

Woolly Featherflower V. monadelpha, Kalbarri NP.

V. chrysanthella, near Ravensthorpe.
Despite being widespread this species was only described (by the doyen of WA botanists, Alex George)
in 1991; prior to that it had been confused with the larger V. chrysantha.
And that's probably enough for one day. I hope you've enjoyed these glories as much as I have. But, as ever there's no substitute for going to see them for yourself...


 (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.)

Saturday, 31 December 2016

Farewell to 2016!

As is my wont, I am going to celebrate my minuscule part in the great drama of 2016 by choosing just one photo from each month of the year - not for their non-existent photographic excellence, but because they remind me of some highlights, large and small, from my year.

Orchard Butterfly Papilio aegeus, inserting its proboscis into the wet soil to take up water and perhaps nutrients.
We were at Rosedale on the New South Wales south coast where we retreat for a couple of weekends a year to relax.
This is a common big butterfly from the entire east coast of Australia and New Guinea, which visits our yard in
inland Canberra fairly regularly. They evolved to feed their larvae on native shrubs of the family Rutaceae,
which pre-adapts them to citrus trees, hence the alternative name of Citrus Butterfly.
I am intrigued by the fact that butterflies' proboscises evolved long before the rise of flowering plants,
presumably for purposes such as this; when flowers came along, butterflies were pre-prepared!
Bull Ant (or Bulldog Ant, or Inch Ant according to my father), Myrmecia sp.
Another insect, and another from the NSW south coast, this time at Currarong where we went to
help celebrate a friend's birthday.
This is a genus of nearly 100 large, primitive Australian ants, with extremely painful stings.
I like this photo because of the reminder that the jaws are pretty impressive too, especially if you're of its
size range. (I also liked the fact that I manged to take the pic without being stung!)
Diamond Python Morelia spilota, a subspecies of the more widespread Carpet Python.
It is found further south than any other python in the world, in southern NSW and (marginally) in Victoria.
This lovely animal, which had recently shed its skin (the eye scales have still not dropped) was relaxing in a pond the back yard of friends in the Kangaroo Valley, north-east of Canberra.

Australian Pelican Pelecanus conspicillauts, bathing at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve near Canberra.
To be honest I didn't have a lot of April photos to choose from, but I like the evening light and
the splashy enthusiasm of the bird at its ablutions
Young Bornean Orangutan Pongo pygmaeus, Gomantong Caves, Sabah.
It's not very hard to see orangutans in Malaysian Borneo, with rehabilitation centres such as at Sepilok
featuring rescued animals in the process of being returned to the wild.
It is always exciting to see them in the wild even in such situations, but this youngster and its more
circumspect mother were an unexpected bonus, entirely wild and unhabituated animals on the forest
walk into the famous caves. 

Spinifex (Triodia sp.) at sunset, Great Sandy Desert, Western Australia.
I had the good fortune to be invited to assist in a biological survey of this remote and little-known
part of Australia. It was a memorable experience indeed - and as I seem not to have taken any photos
in June (!), I'm going to indulge in a second one from here.
Male Rufous-crowned Emuwren Stipiturus ruficeps, Great Sandy Desert.
I had only seen this tiny bird (reputedly Australia's smallest) once before, and had never
succeeded in laying lens on any of the three species, so was quietly pleased with this stroke of luck.

In August we set out on a five week trip to tropical northern Australia, so I have a real wealth of options for the next two months!
Darwin Woollybutt Eucalyptus miniata, among the sandstone outcrops of the 'Southern Lost City'
in the relatively little known, but very large, Limmen National Park, in the eastern Top End
of the Northern Territory. We did a memorable walk through the stacks and across the plateau.
Baobabs Adansonia gregorii Gregory National Park, western Top End.
I love these splendid old arthritic giants which only come this far east. This is the only baobab
outside of Africa. Deciduous, they lose their leaves in the dry winter months.

Canberra Spider Orchid Caladenia (or Arachnorchis) actensis, Mount Majura, Canberra Nature Park.
This little spider orchid is listed as Critically Endangered at a national level, being found only in a small area
of the lower slopes of the suburban Mt Majura - Mt Ainslie forests.
I was honoured to have been directed to this newly-found population.
Hoverfly (family Syrphidae) on Yam Daisy or Murnong Microseris lanceolata, Aranda Ridge,
Canberra Nature Park. This was a remarkable season for the delightful hoverflies, which seemed to be
everywhere in Canberra and beyond. This picture is also a souvenir of a very pleasant morning flower walk
with good friends Jeanie and David.

Leafy Bossiaea B. foliosa under Snow Gums, Mount Ginini, Namadgi National Park above Canberra.
I can't imagine not going into the mountains near Canberra at least once every December.
Over the past 30 years I've seen the flowering get steadily earlier until these bossiaeas (a pea) now flower
regularly in November, where they used to peak in the first or second week of December.
This year however spring was unusually cold and wet, and flowering was delayed to the tine that
it used to be; I'm sure that next year however things will be back to the new 'normal'. 
And so, that was my year, or at least one version of it. Overall it wasn't a great year for the world, but we've probably been luckier than most, as we have mostly good memories of it. I hope it was OK for you too, and that next year brings us all some joy. Nature can be pretty instrumental in that.


 (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.)