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.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #4 - pink glow from the west

Continuing with a celebration of pink flowers - see my last posting for the start of it, including some thoughts on the nature of pinkness in flowers. On going through my pictures I was struck by how many of my pink flower shots were from Western Australia, though I expect that the reason is simply that the south-west is one of the most botanically diverse areas in the world and I've got lots of pics of western flowers in general! I think they can speak for themselves, with the help of their captions.
Schoenia cassinianus Pindar. (Pindar is a small wheat town in the mid-north, 450km north of Perth,
in a dry area famed for its wildflowers.)
A spectacular daisy of the dry mid-north, though unlike many of the species which follow,
this one is not limited to Western Australia.
Pityrodia (or Dasmyalla in some recent thinking) terminalis, Family Lamiaceae (or Chloanthaceae), Pindar.
A glorious group, mostly bird-pollinated.
Bridal Rainbow (!) Drosera macrantha Droseraceae, Leeuwin Naturaliste NP, far south-west.
The sundews are insect-trapping and -digesting plants; this dramatic one is a vigorous climber.
Yellow-eyed Flame Pea Chorizema dicksonii, John Forrest NP, Darling Ranges near Perth.
Painted Lady Gompholobium scabrum, Two Peoples Bay, near Albany.
I'd intended to only include one example from each family, but I really couldn't bear
to leave out either of these superb pink peas, each so different from what most of us are used to!
(They also illustrate the different colours included in 'pink'!)
Snakebush Hemiandra pungens, Family Lamiaceae, Pinnacles NP, north of Perth.
I have no idea of the origin of the common name; the genus, closely related to Prostanthera,
is entirely restricted to Western Australia.
Pink Bottlebrush Beaufortia schaueri, Family Myrtaceae, Stirling Ranges NP.
A widespread brilliant shrub in gravelly soils.
Wiry Honeymyrtle Melaleuca nematophylla, Kalbarri NP.
Again I've allowed two species from one family to creep in, but my memory of these huge bushes
blazing pink was too strong to resist.
Actually I'm going to devote an entire posting to the WA members of Myrtaceae one day
- there are so many remarkable ones.
Grass-leaf Hakea Hakea multilineata, Family Proteaceae, Goldfields Track east of Hyden.
I could also have included some pink grevilleas from this family, but some restraint seemed in order...
Beaked Triggerplant Stylidium adnatum Family Stylidiaceae, Woody Island, Esperance.
The remarkable triggerplants have a pollination mechanism which involves a fused male-female structure
held back against the stem by liquid tension, released explosively by the contact of an insect to deliver pollen
forcefully to its body, or to collect pollen it's carrying. More on this one day too.
Coastal Banjine Pimelea ferruginea Family Thymeliaceae, Woody Island, Espereance.
Eastern species ('rice flowers') are all white; this one grows on
coastal dunes and headlands right around the south-west coast.
Pink Milkmaids Burchardia rosea Family Colchicaceae, Kalbarri NP.
A superb pink lily growing in winter-wet sand in heathlands in the mid-north.
And here we'll leave the wondrous west for now; next time I'll conclude this series with a look at some pink orchids.

Note that by the time you read this I'll be in Patagonia (this is 'one I prepared earlier');
this means that I won't be able to respond to any comments you care to make until I get back.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #3 - flowers

Unlike the pink situation with animals, I am almost overwhelmed with choice for pink flowers to share with you. I was going to prune severely and just offer one posting but further thought suggested that we can afford to indulge ourselves and wallow in their beauty for three whole postings!

A couple of years ago a rather silly (though science-based) argument was waged on line based on the premise that pink isn't really a colour (because it's not on the light spectrum, ie in the rainbow). This seems like an argument for someone with too much spare time - ie not me! - but I have a reason in this context for wondering just what pink is. You see, most of the flowers I'll be showcasing in this and forthcoming postings are insect pollinated. As a non-artist if I wanted to create pink from basic paints I'd just combine red with white. However insects don't see well at the red end of the spectrum - their strength is at the blue-violet end, and well beyond into what we poor limited creatures have to vaguely lump as 'ultra-violet'. So what's going on with all these pink flowers? I think the answer lies in other definitions of pink - magenta for instance (which is sometimes used interchangably with pink) is defined as being between red and blue, or violet-red. Presumably the insects (many of which have much better colour resolution than we do) are responding to the violet part of the reflected light; why the red element is so often included is a question worth exploring, but it's beyond me I'm afraid.

We do know that most of them are due to a class of pigments called anthocyanins.

Meantime, let's just enjoy a pink parade.

Pigface Carpobrotus rossii Family Aizoaceae, Lincoln NP, South Australia.
Here the pink 'petals' are in fact sterile stamens, or staminodes.
Gomphrena canescens Family Amaranthaceae, Litchfield NP, south-west of Darwin.
The floor of this tropical woodland was carpeted with pink.
Poison Morning Glory Ipomoea muelleri, Family Convolvulaceae, south-west Queensland.
There are some 40 Australian members of this huge genus which includes sweet potatoes.
River Rose Bauera rubioides Family Cunoniaceae (or Baueraceae), Bundanoon, New South Wales.
A common and lovely shrub along streamlines in sandstone country.
Blueberry Ash Elaeocarpus reticulatus Family Elaeocarpaceae, Meroo NP, New South Wales, a tree of rainforests and wet gullies in moist eucalypt forests of the east coast of Australia.
An ancient Gondwanan family, with members also in Madagascar and South America.
Coopernookia barbata Family Goodeniaceae, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
The odd genus name comes from the small town of Coopernook in northern New South Wales.
Until 1968 it was included in the large genus Goodenia.
Sturt's Desert Rose Gossypium sturtianum Family Malvaceae, Alice Springs, central Australia.
This beautiful member of the cotton family is the floral emblem of the Northern Territory.
Eremophila miniata Family Myoporaceae (or more recently, often included in Scrophulariaceae),
Norseman, Western Australia.
The Eremophilas ('desert lovers') include some of my very favourite flowers and it was not easy choosing just one!
This species comes in both white and pink.
Pale Pink Boronia Boronia floribunda Family Rutacaeae, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
There are many richer pink boronias to choose from but I love the delicacy of this one.
See here for an account of the young Italian for whom it was named.
Eyebright Euphrasia caudata Family Scrophulariaceae, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales
The eyebrights, named because a concoction was believed to relieve eye inflammation in Europe, have curious
round-the-world distributions at similar latitudes in both hemispheres. They are partially parasitic on the roots
of other plants, so are nearly impossible to cultivate.

Black-eyed Susan Tetratheca thymifolia Family Tremandraceae, Bundanoon, New South Wales.
Named confusingly because the 'other' black-eyed susans from elsewhere in the world are all yellow, as far as I know;
maybe the name just arose spontaneously here?
Collaea sp. Family Fabaceae, Machu Picchu, Peru.
One of a genus of somewhere between 9 and 17 pea species from across South America.

Passiflora trifolia Family Passifloraceae, Sacsayhuaman, Peru.
And with this lovely passionfruit from the Sacred Valley, we'll close this chapter of our tribute to pink flowers.
Note that by the time you read this I'll be in Patagonia (this is 'one I prepared earlier');
this means that I won't be able to respond to any comments you care to make until I get back.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Thinking Pinkly #2 - other animals

This topic, another in my intermittent series on colours in nature, began here, with birds. After an interruption last week I'm continuing it now by looking at other pink animals - though I've spent more time looking for them than at them! It is an uncommon colour it among animals (though of course there are more examples than the few I can show you here); again it may be that if you're going to go to the trouble of synthesising carotenoids you might as well go for stand-out reds rather than a paler version. Moreover most mammals have notably limited colour vision relative to most other animals; only apes, old world monkeys (and a few new world ones) and some marsupials have trichromate vision, meaning for instance that they can distinguish red and green. Birds, reptiles, frogs, many fish and invertebrates can do much better than us. There's limited point in being colourful if you can't see the colours, so most mammals are relatively restrained in their hues. In coming postings, by contrast, we'll be seeing a wealth of pink flowers - their pollinators are colour-acute insects and birds.

Sea Horse, Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin.
I'm not an underwater photographer, so I can't offer you examples of the pinkness that adorn many other fish.
One thing that surprised me in going through my photo files was the general lack of pink in the butterflies I've photographed on three continents; in fact, this one from Uganda was the only example I could come up with.
Butterfly (any suggestions welcomed, as usual!) Buhoma, Bwindi Impenetrable National Park,
south-western Uganda.
My only other offerings are all reptiles. Perhaps the most discussed pink reptile of recent years is the Pink Land Iguana Conolophus marthae, a critically endangered species only recognised in 2009 as genetically distinct from the more widespread Galápagos Land Iguana C. subcristatus; it is limited to the upper slopes of Volcan Wolf at the north end of Isabela in the western Galápagos where only 100 individuals live. Understandably visitors are forbidden so I can't offer you a picture of my own.
Pink Land Iguana, courtesy Animals Wiki.
However a cousin of the Pink Land Iguana, from the island of Española in the far south-east of the archipelago, is also distinctly pink. The isolated population of Marine Iguanas here is probably the most spectacular in the Galápagos.
Male Española Marine Iguanas Amblyrhynchus cristatus venustissimus.
 My other examples, from a couple of other lizard families, are Australian.
Blotched Blue-tongue Lizard Tiliqua nigrolutea, Namadgi National Park, above Canberra.
A member of a small group of large aberrant skinks, this species is limited to higher altitudes here in
the more northern part of its range; further south it tends to lack the distinctive pink blotches and
is found down to sea level.
Wedge-snout Ctenotus Ctenotus brooksi, Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park, central Australia
- a more typical skink (and lunch, a beetle).
The pink-brown coloration here is an obvious camouflage adaptation on desert sands.
Cooktown Ring-tailed Gecko Cyrtodactylus tuberculatus, Cooktown, North Queensland.
This one belies its name because it has previously shed its tail, probably escaping a predator. The replacement
is rarely as fancy. Recent work based at the University of Queensland has identified five species of

Cyrtodactylus in Australia where previously only one was recognised.
OK, if you're strongly into pink you may well be dissatisfied after this offering, but please bear with me - I promise a plethora of serious pink in coming postings!

Note that by the time you read this I'll be in Patagonia (this is 'one I prepared earlier');
this means that I won't be able to comment on any comments you care to make until I get back.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Australian National Botanic Gardens Revisited; exciting developments

I introduced our National Botanic Gardens, to me the pick of our national institutions, early last year in a couple of postings, beginning here. At around that time an exciting and ambitious plan was put into execution to develop a 'Red Centre' garden, featuring plants and landforms of the central deserts. This was an apparently outrageous proposition in a city 600 metres above sea level and hundreds of kilometres to the south-east (ie towards the south pole) of the region being modelled, and with heavy acidic clay soils. But the Gardens horticulturalists seemingly have help from Hogwarts (or an Australian equivalent) and are able to grow anything, no matter how preposterous the idea - a rainforest gully for instance, including tropical trees, in a city where winter temperatures can drop to minus 10 degrees centigrade, and droughts and 40 plus degree summer days are the norm. 

To provide suitable habitat 900 tonnes of red sand, 800 tonnes of rock and 380 tonnes of brown sand were accessed from various sources (again, none of them from the desert!).
Early days in the development of the Red Centre garden, from February 2013. The red granites were laid, and soil dug
out to be replaced with sand. The mature eight metre high Red Cabbage Palm Livistona mariae on the left was brought by
semi-trailer from Queensland (not from the wild!).
I have delayed writing about the Red Centre garden until now, to give it time to get established. In truth it might seem a bit slow in parts, for the reasons suggested above, and the low nutrient sandy soils introduced for verisimilitude. Nonetheless I think it's looking great, and will get even better as time goes on. I took a series of photos 12 months ago and retook them just now, to allow comparison of progress.
November 2013 above, and November 2014 below.
The spinifex (or porcupine grass Triodia sp.) rings have grown beautifully;
they are vital habitat in the arid lands for a wide variety of small animals,
and dominate more than 20% of Australia's area!


November 2013 above, and November 2014 below.
Again the growth, this time of shrubs, is impressive.

November 2013 above, and November 2014 below.
Again the shrubs are doing well, and while the soil may look bare, it's important
to remember that many desert plains die back after flowering, and regrow from seeds
or underground structures after the next rains.

November 2013 above, and November 2014 below.
Here the growth is less evident, but it has definitely come on.
The disc in the centre is a beautiful embossed indigenous art-inspired sculpture.
These shots were taken from the raised viewing platform visible at the top left of the
first pair of photos above.

Another feature is this ephemeral sandy creek bed, planted with River Red Gums Eucalyptus camaldulensis.
I love this red sand dune too - it's bigger than it looks here. The flowering grevillea on it is
labelled as G. albiflora, but as the name suggests that has white flowers. Though I hesitate to contradict
the gardens botanists, it does look more to me like Sandhill Grevillea G. stenobotrya.(Any comments welcomed, though I'm about to go away for a while and may not be able to respond until late next month.)
A closer view of the palm - now looking a lot happier than it did soon after being transplanted - with
a family of young palms in front of it.

More verisimilitude - a termite mound (with flowering Solanums behind).
I don't assume that the mound is inhabited though...
And finally, a delightfully quirky addition, probably mostly intended for kids, though I don't accept that it's all theirs!
Thorny Devil Moloch horridus. This rendition is beautifully biologically accurate, though a couple of orders of magnitude bigger than the original which, despite the fearsome name, is a slow gentle little predator of ants.
(I acknowledge that the ants may have another view.)
Before I leave this however, I want to mention briefly another Gardens innovation which only opened yesterday - a daisy garden! (Bear in mind that these gardens feature solely native plants.)
I am interested that they have come out and backed Asteraceae as the biggest plant family;
I'd thought that the jury was still out on the on-going contest between daisies and orchids,
but I'll happily concede this one.
Just a couple of shots, which I'll repeat also in the future to allow comparison of development.
Already pretty impressive, and I gather that much of the planting was done by gardens volunteers.

Spectacular Swan River Daisies Brachyscombe iberidifolia from Western Australia.
If you're in the area, now or in the future, do yourself a big favour and drop by! In these seemingly bleak times in Australia, this is something we really can be proud of.

Next time I'll resume the pink theme begun last time - in fact it's going to be an all-pink December!