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. 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, 19 January 2017

The Kinabatangan River #2; on the river

As promised last time, this will be a continuation of (and conclusion to) my introduction to the rich fauna of the Kinabatangan River in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. What follows is a combination of two river excursions on the same day, one beginning at dawn, the other in the evening. My only disappointment is that we didn't see any elephants, though people do, not infrequently.

As you can see, the primary forest comes right to the banks of the river.


A delightful creek channel off the main river, into which we ventured.
However, as I suggested last time, this is somewhat misleading, as can be seen in some parts where the veil is particularly thin.
Oil Palms coming down to the river; this break in the generally complete forest corridor along the river
is shameful, but fortunately seems to be an aberration.
Overall though the width of the corridor is a little more than this suggests - as indicated by the view from a tower above the Myne Resort, and by the presence of big mammals (including those elusive elephants). 
It was a very rewarding time on the river for wildlife, as well as the sense of being in the forest. The number and diversity of birds of prey was striking (more impressive than some of these pics, taken from a distance in a moving boat).
Grey-headed Fish Eagle Ichthyophaga ichthyaetus. This species is widespread through south and
south-east Asia, but nowhere common. My excellent Borneo field guide (Phillips) describes it
as 'scarce' there.
White-bellied Sea Eagle Haliaeetus leucogaster; this magnificent bird also has a wide range,
from India through to Australia (it turns up here in Canberra from time to time), but is a much
commoner bird.
And from here I'm afraid the quality of raptor photos drops off somewhat...
Crested Serpent Eagle Spilornis cheela; another raptor found widely in south and south-east Asia,
though there are suggestions that more than one species is involved.
As its name suggests it specialises in snakes (especially tree snakes), hunting over the forest canopy or,
like this one, sitting and watching for movement.
Crested Goshawk Accipiter trivirgatus. A true goshawk, mostly of tropical forests,
hunting mammals, birds and reptiles by ambush from cover.
Wallace's Hawk-eagle Nisaetus nanus; crests seem to be de rigueur!
From the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo, there is limited information about this bird's ecology.
Its name commemorates the great 19th evolutionary biologist Alfred Russel Wallace.
White-fronted Falconets Microhierax latifrons. I hesitate to even share this distant photo, but it's an interesting
bird, endemic to Sabah. Moreover it's the world's smallest falcon; the falconets comprise a group of five tiny
south-east Asian falcons, and this is the smallest of those.
Unsurprisingly they are insect specialists, especially targetting dragonflies.
Kingfishers featured, as one would expect, including one which has become one of my world favourites.
Stork-billed Kingfisher Pelargopsis capensis. This is a very striking bird, being nearly 40cm long and beautifully
coloured, found from India to Indonesia and the Philippines, but mostly fairly scarce.
That big bill takes crabs, fish, reptiles, frogs, rodents and young birds.
(Sunlight on the lens!) Blue-eared Kingfisher Alcedo meninting; a beautiful bird
closely related to the widespread Eurasian Common Kingfisher A. atthis.
And this is Borneo, so Hornbills are a given!
Rhinoceros Hornbill Buceros rhinoceros. This extraordinary bird, which can be 120cm long, is surely among
the most striking in the world. Found in low numbers through the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, Borneo
and Java, it eats fruit and small animals.

Wrinkled Hornbill Aceros corrugatus, smaller than the previous species but still substantial, and with
a similar range. It relies on large areas of primary forest, and is thus declining throughout most of
its range.
The last bird photo I'm offering is purely on the basis of the subject, not the photo. Storm's Stork Ciconia stormi is close to being the rarest stork in the world; there are fewer than 350 mature birds left, with only 150 in Malaysia, mostly in Borneo. It relies on peat forest and riverine forests, which are being cleared throughout its range. I may not get the chance to take better photos of it.
Storm's Stork, above and below.
 
The river is also a refuge for Estuarine Crocodiles Crocodylus porosus, and we saw some impressive ones.
Estuarine Crocodiles, above and below.
This ocean-going species is found from India to northern Australia.


And of course there will always be monkeys.
Long-tailed Macaque Macaca fascicularis; successful and ubiquitous throughout its wide south-east Asian range.
Proboscis Monkeys Nasalis larvatus gathering in the evening in a tree with good views of approaching enemies,
preparing to spend the night. For a little more on both these species, see here.
And that pretty much ends our tour, as light is falling. I hope you get to the Kinabatangan River - and if you do, I even hope you get to see the elephants!

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Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Kinabatangan River #1; 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...

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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.)

      Actinodium
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.

      Balaustion
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.
      Beaufortia
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.)
      Calothamnus
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.
      Chamaelaucium
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.

      Cheyniana
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.
      Eremaea
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.
       Hypocalymma
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.
      Verticordia
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...

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