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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.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Kota Kinabalu, naturally

As mentioned previously, I've recently returned from a somewhat unexpected visit to Malaysian Borneo, and in that previous posting I promised more material from that exciting experience. Here's the first instalment. You might like to follow the link above to the previous posting for some background if you missed it, but it's certainly not essential. 

Kota Kinabalu (pronounced ki-na-BAH-lu) is the capital of Sabah, in north-eastern Borneo. It is a busy - but by no means intimidating by developing nation standards - port city of around half a million.
Sabah occupies the north-eastern corner of Borneo; Kota Kinabalu can be seen on the west coast.
For travellers there are two general accommodation options. You can stay in city centre, near the port, or you can stay near the airport south of the city centre. I did both at different stages. During the trip, which started and ended at KK (to use the familiar name used by many locals) we returned partway through en route to Sarawak, and stayed in the centre, just a block from the waterfront. Even here wildlife was quite good (even aside from the very large and presumably exotic rats which pottered about the wonderful fish market, and the gang of introduced House Crows, the only ones in Borneo, which also loiter thereabouts). House Swifts and Glossy Swiftlets breed on buildings, and there are herons and terns in the port and various passerines in empty land nearby.

My favourite was near the airport, where I stayed at the start and end of the trip, close to the popular Tanjung Aru Beach (tanjung is a cape, and it's always abbreviated to Tg Aru), backed by extensive parklands with the unlikely name of Prince Philip Park. I stayed at the Casuarina Hotel, cheap and pleasant and just a few minutes walk from the beach and park. Just looking out the windows was a good introduction to the local birdlife.
It was a pleasant surprise to be greeted with so many trees.
Each afternoon storms rolled in, but didn't usually last long.
Asian Glossy Starlings Aplonis panayensis from my room balcony.
Huge numbers are everywhere, in town and out of it, seeking fruits.
They are closely related to, and similar in appearance to, the tropical Australian Metallic Starling A. metallica.
Oriental Magpie Robin Copsychus saularis, another widespread bird which has adapted to urban living,
as long as there are open spaces, from India to Java.
Formerly believed to be a thrush, it is now regarded as a flycatcher.

Much more familiar were these elegant White-breasted Woodswallows Artamus leucorynchus,found throughout much of Australia as well as Indonesia and the Philippines.
The beach and park are busy, especially on weekends (when I was there) but very worthwhile for birds in particular. The waterfront is lined with mostly cheap restaurants (and expensive bars) and a constant parade of people. The views though are excellent.
Views south (above) and north along Tg Aru Beach, lined with big casuarinas.
In the photo above the proximity of the airport is evident, just across the bay.

At sunset, at least on weekends, people flock to the beach to watch the sun set
over the islands of Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park.
On the Saturday afternoon I arrived the lawns under the plentiful trees of Prince Philip Park backing the beach were crowded with families and other groups picnicking, but there were still plenty of birds above their heads, though it took a while to see most of the ones alleged to be present. I returned early on the Sunday morning before my flight, and unsurprisingly did better then. The following photos are from a combination of those visits. 

One of the highlights of Tg Aru is the presence of a colony of very rare Blue-naped Parrots Tanygnathus lucionensis, breeding in the hollows of old casuarinas. Formerly common throughout the nearby Philippines and islands between there and Borneo, it is now rare or extinct in much of its range.
Blue-naped Parrot in casuarina. There is actually some debate as to whether the Tg Aru population of this attractive and robust parrot should be regarded as feral or whether it arrived with Cyclone Greg in 1996.

The population, of apparently no more than 50 birds, is seemingly limited by the supply of nesting hollows.
There are some pretty spiffy pigeons too, in addition to the ubiquitous Spotted and Zebra Doves which are often underfoot.
Zebra Dove Geopelia striata, closely related to the Australian Peaceful Dove G. placida; indeed it is only recently that they have been regarded as separate species.
As with the parrot, there is debate as to whether the Bornean Zebra Doves are indigenous or
imported from nearby Indonesian islands.
The status of the beautiful Pink-necked Green Pigeon Treron vernans is not is doubt,
being found naturally in much of south-east Asia.
Can be in quite big flocks, including with other green pigeons.
The Green Imperial Pigeon Ducula aenea is another widespread and very handsome big pigeon,
wandering to follow the fruiting trees.
I initially mistakenly accused the Eurasian Tree Sparrows, which are everywhere, of being another exotic, but in fact their huge natural range stretches from western Europe to Indonesia. We in Australia are used to seeing House Sparrows everywhere, so this was a refreshing change, especially after I realised they were native!
Eurasian Tree Sparrows Passer montanus, really are handsome little birds.
Collared Kingfishers Todiramphus chloris are also common in near-coastal Borneo, but
have a huge range (not continuous) from the middle east to the Pacific.
Unlike in Australia, Bornean Collared Kingfishers are not limited to mangroves and are quite common in towns.
This very pretty little waxbill, Chestnut Munia Lonchura atricapilla, has a large range in
south and south-east Asia, including throughout much of Borneo.
My first sighting of a flock of them at Tg Aru was a treat however.

So, if you've been to KK, I hope this brings back some memories. If not, I hope it encourages you to spend at least a few hours there when you visit Sabah.


Saturday, 25 July 2015

On This Day, 21 July: Belgian National Day

1830 was a restive time in western Europe, with one branch of the French monarchy overthrowing another, and southern parts of the United Netherlands deciding they no longer wished to be quite so united. The ruling Dutch were expelled from these lands, and a constitution was drafted to found the country that we know as Belgium. It might seem a little strange now that the German aristocrat Leopold Saxe-Cobourg-Gotha was invited to become their king - a position he assumed on 21 July - but we in Australia aren't really in a position to say much on such a concept...

To mark the day, I'd like to introduce you, if any introduction is needed, to three 'Belgians' whose names live in the Australian bush as plants; I tried to find animals but to no avail, and I'd love it if you could help me. I use the cautionary inverted commas advisedly, as all three were born before Belgium was, and one died long before it was thought of. 

That man was Rembert Dodoens, a Flemish botanist-doctor of the 16th century, though most of his adult life was spent abroad (or more accurately, outside of the borders of what was to become Belgium). He served as personal physician to the Austrian emperor, and ended his days at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He was immensely influential for decades after his death, with his mighty herbal Cruydeboeck (1554), which was also a plant classification, being translated into French and then English, as A New Herbal, or Historie of Plants. No book of its time other than the bible was translated into so many languages and editions; it is said that it retained its influence for over 200 years. English-Scottish botanist Philip Miller honoured him, well after his death, with a genus of plants. (Linnaeus had apparently already proposed the name but not properly published it, as far as I can gather.)

Dodonaea is in the family Sapindaceae, a genus of around 70 species scattered across the warmer regions of the world, but 60 of them are Australian, where they are found pretty much throughout the country. 
Dodonaea boroniifolia, Tallong, New South Wales.
The papery winged fruits were reminiscent of those of hops, and early European settlers in Australia used
them in brewing. The results were not so impressive as to justify their continued use.
Some of the capsules, including this D. lobulata, Whyalla Conservation Park, South Australia,
are quite striking.

The flowers on the other hand tend to be small and inconspicuous, wind-pollinated
and with separate male and female plants.
D. viscosa, Gawler Ranges NP, South America.
Joseph Decaisne was born much later than Dodoens, in 1807, and spoke French rather than Flemish. He did have in common though that he pursued his career away from his birthplace, in his case in Paris. It was not a straight-forward career; he studied painting, attended medical school and became an apprentice gardener! This led him, by paths too convoluted to follow here, to the Chair of Statistical Agriculture and Professor of Culture at the Paris Museum of Natural History, President of the French Academy of Sciences and Director of the Jardin des Plantes. He was regarded as France’s leading botanist of the time; he never visited Australia, but worked on Australian material provided by French expeditions. The great German-Australian botanist Ferdinand von Mueller named an inland tree for him, one of my very favourites - see here for more about the tree.
Desert Oaks Allocasuarina decaisneana, central Australia.
Chambers Pillar, above:
Uluru at sunset, below.

The third Belgian botanist featured today differs from the others in a very significant way, and a most unusual one for the time - her name was Marie-Anne Libert. Female scientists were very uncommon indeed in the early nineteenth century, and Marie-Anne, born in 1782, was fortunate that her abilities and interests were encouraged by her father. As a young girl she was an avid field naturalist, and taught herself Latin to be able to read more on the topics that most interested her. She became an internationally respected botanist, with an especial interest in liverworts and pathenogenic fungi; she was the first to identify the fungus which causes Potato Blight.

During her life the German botanist Kurt Sprengel named a lovely genus of irises for her. (She also got a genus of fungi, Libertiella, which she might have appreciated even more.) Libertia is found in Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, and South America.
Libertia chilensis (above and below), Laguna Verde near Lago Llanquihue, southern Chile.
(For reasons that evade me I can't find any pics I've taken of the local species, an
omission I must rectify this spring.)

I am of course also very grateful to Belgium for producing what are very arguably the best chocolates and beers in the world, but this is not the place to rhapsodise in that direction....

I can't say "Happy National Day, Belgium" in Flemish, and it would be very churlish to say it only in French, but have a good one, and thanks for sharing Rembert, Joseph and Marie-Anne with us.


Friday, 17 July 2015

Surviving Winter in the Snow Country

It's been pretty bitter round our part of the world of late; at 600 metres above sea level, and at the foot of often snowy mountains, we expect cold winters but somehow this one seems harsher than usual. Or maybe, or course, I'm just getting older... Whichever it is, it got me thinking about what it must be like for those organisms who live up in the nearby mountains, another 1300 or so metres higher than here. (And I'm talking about those organisms who can't retreat to an open fire and mulled wine after a day on the slopes.)
Square Rock Track, Namadgi National Park above Canberra.
There are, it seems to me, two separate major challenges for organisms who live up in those mountains. You must survive the long harsh winter, and then you must be able to grow quickly and reproduce rapidly in the short time available over summer. Today I've been mulling over the first of these imperatives, and have decided I can identify five basic strategies in use up there.

Stiff Upper Lip (or Macho) Strategy; "pretend nothing's happening and just carry on"
An obvious candidate for this one is the Common Wombat Vombatus ursinus. These large solitary burrowing marsupials stay up in their territory all year round. Of course living in a burrow is a big help, but they must still move out and graze on the tough snow grasses and buried tubers virtually every day, ploughing through the snow and digging into it when required.
Common Wombat near Canberra in milder weather. A big male can weigh close to 30kg.
Wombat tracks in the snow, Namadgi National Park.
Smaller vertebrates, surprisingly, can adopt this strategy too however. White-throated Treecreepers and even tiny Brown Thornbills will overwinter, utilising bark crevices which shelter the invertebrates they rely on. 

White-throated Treecreeper Cormobates leucophaea on Snow Gum, Kosciuszko National Park.
But even more surprisingly a few invertebrates can be Stiff Upper Lippers too. The Spotted Alpine Grasshopper Monistria concinna quite unexpectedly can manage a slow crawl at 0 degrees, but makes no attempt to dig in as its relations do. It turns out that it can survive 'normal' winter conditions in the mountains quite well and has been known (presumably in artificial situations) to survive at -4 degrees for 20 days. It does so by synthesising sorbitol in its blood - in a car we'd call this chemical anti-freeze.

Spotted Mountain Grasshopper, Namadgi National Park - this one enjoying summer.
And perhaps the most obvious exponent of this strategy is the mighty Snow Gum Eucalyptus pauciflora, which dominates the high country up to the snow line. 
Snow Gum, Mount Ginini, Namadgi National Park.
This magnificent old character has probably seen 200-300 winters.
Snow Gums, unlike northern hemisphere conifers which live with annual snow loads, are not shaped to shed snow, but allow it to pile up on stiff branches and large leaves. Perhaps they have had less time to evolve specialist adaptation, or perhaps our winters, compared with the far north, are not so harsh that other factors are more significant in shaping the trees.

Stay By the Fire Strategy: "grab a good book and wait until it's all over"
Perhaps counter-intuitively, down at ground level winter isn't really the harshest time of year up in the snow country - that comes in autumn, just before the snows, when the ground is exposed and cold and wet are deadly. Once there is a snow cover it provides an insulating layer, which is even more effective when piled over rocks which provide heat sinks. Below the snow the temperature remains even, and when it is at least 50cm deep it never drops below 0 degrees. At this temperature some small mammals can remain active all year round and maintain a healthy weight. One such is the attractive Broad-toothed Rat Mastacomys fuscus, which maintains runways under the snow right through winter in the sub-alpine bogs.
Broad-toothed Rat.
Photo courtesy Ken Green, NSW Environment and Heritage.
Mountain Plum Pine Podocarpus lawrencei growing over granites, Kosciuszko National Park.
In such a situation the under-snow space is even more extensive and significant.
Woody plants, and many grasses and sedges likewise survive winter under the snow.
Sedges emerging through the snow, Namadgi National Park.
Which brings us to the...
Sleep In Strategy; "set your alarm for spring"
As a result of the relatively balmy under-snow conditions just discussed, very few mammals here actually hibernate. One exception is the only marsupial alpine specialist, the Mountain Pygmy-Possum Burramys parvus which inhabits a tiny area of mountain country above the tree line.
Mountain Pygmy-Possum, courtesy Zoos Victoria.
Echidnas have relatively recently been shown to undergo a partial hibernation in Kosciuszko National Park, going into torpor under the snow for up to six weeks before waking up, going for a wander, then settling down again. I always find it satisfying when nature refuses to stay in the boxes we fashion for it.

The relatively few reptiles which live up in the snow country can only survive winter in a near-frozen state in burrows under rocks and logs; this probably applies to invertebrates such as spiders too.
Southern Water Skink Eulampris heatwolei, Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve.
Survives winter near-frozen.
The Batemans Bay or Grey Nomad Strategy; "clear off down to the coast or up north for winter"
Batemans Bay is a town on the coast not far from Canberra to where large numbers of human Canberrans migrate at all possible opportunities. Huge numbers of bird species, including many honeyeaters, spend summer breeding in the mountains and head north for winter. The short summers bring a bonanza of food in a concentrated burst, attractive to many species who have no interest in spending winter there.
Yellow-faced Honeyeater Lichenostomus chrysops,probably the most numerous of the high country migrants. Ever autumn tens of thousands
of them stream down out of the mountains heading for a warmer coastal winter.
Some other birds, including Laughing Kookaburras, Red Wattlebirds, Olive Whistlers and White-browed Scrub-wrens, seem to follow the snow line up and down as conditions vary.
Olive Whistler Pachycephala olivacea, Kosciuszko NP.
Locally, this somewhat mysterious possessor of an exquisite voice spends summer high
in the Snow Gums; some come down to over-winter in dense vegetation around Canberra, where they are quiet and
not often recorded, while others seem to come down only as far as the snow pushes them.
Millions of Bogong Moths Agrotis infusa also fly down out of the mountains at the end of summer, which they have spent in cool granite crevices high on the peaks. In their case though this is a reverse migration to that of the honeyeaters; they are heading north to breed on the black soil plains of northern New South Wales and Queensland, where it is too hot to spend summer and where they will all die after laying their eggs. Remarkably no moth makes the trip twice - the precise directions to the granite stacks is hard-wired into the DNA of the eggs in the ground.
Bogong Moth, Canberra. This one is resting on a door mat; they travel at night and many
shelter in Canberra homes during a day before moving on again.
Finally, there is the...
Ultimate Cop-out Strategy; "give up and leave the kids to carry on next year"
Many plants such as daisies die back as the snows approach, leaving seeds in the soil for next spring. Some animals, including many insects, do much the same; blowflies for instance lay their eggs into the soil where their larvae survive winter near-frozen.

The very handsome Macleay's Swallowtail Graphium maclyeayanus adopts this strategy at a different stage of its life cycle; in summer and autumn the caterpillars feed on the fiery alkaloids of Mountain Pepper Tasmannia xerophila, then the pupa survives the freezing conditions hanging under a leaf until the adult that represents the next generation emerges in late spring.
Macleay's Swallowtail feeding on Pimelea ligustrina, Namadgi National Park.
Anyway, I hope my anthropomorphic approach to teasing out a pattern in these strategies hasn't put you off too much. I find a bit of fun can help the understanding process. With luck that's how you see it too... Stay warm until next time!


Sunday, 12 July 2015

Unred Robins

I'm going to give way to a bit of hubris here, and assume that you've read my previous posting on Australia's red robins - in which case you'll be full bottle (as we say) on the background of the naming of this very Australian group of insect-eating birds. One thing that I find very curious is that apparently before the scientists cottoned on to the nature of probably the commonest and most familiar robin around Sydney, the lay public seems to have done so. The Eastern Yellow Robin Eopsaltria australis is found in near-coastal south-eastern and eastern Australia right up into the tropics. It is very comfortable around humans and will often approach visitors in the presumed hope that we will stir up insects for it.
Eastern Yellow Robin, Deua National Park, New South Wales.
This is its typical posture, perched sideways on a tree trunk from where it flies down onto prey.
The youngster below, at Nowra, New South Wales, was hardly fledged but still assumed the
correct yellow robin position.

George Shaw, British polymath who received and named specimens from First Fleet surgeon John White, called it Southern Motacilla (ie a pipit). John Latham, pre-eminent British ornithologist of the time, in 1801 called it Southern Flycatcher (much closer, though quite a lots of birds would answer to that description). John Lewin, a natural history artist working in the colony, in 1822 labelled his painting of it Yellow-breasted Thrush. However, when Sir Joseph Banks' somewhat abrasive plant collector George Caley left the colony in 1810 he reported that the colonists were already referring to it as yellow robin. I do wonder how and by whom that astute observation was made, and why it spread so widely well in advance of scientific recognition; that didn't finally come until John Gould's definitive work in 1848.

Even more curiously, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, eminent and competent ornithologists were still doubting that it was a 'real' (Australian) robin. John Leach, a truly leading light of Australian ornithology of the time, placed it with whistlers (family Pachycephalidae) or shrikes. To this end the name shrike-robin was used until the authoritative Royal Australasian Ornithological Union's 1926 Checklist finally put the matter to rest, and declared this lovely little bird a true robin (again, in the Australian sense of the word).
The Eastern Yellow Robin's melodious - though admittedly somewhat persistent - piping is
often the first call heard, pre-dawn, when camping in eastern forests.
Across the nation, three thousand kilometres away in south-western Australia, we find two more members of this genus of robins. Presumably the ancestral yellow robin lived right across southern Australia in moister times; when the climate dried during a past glacial period, and the arid limestone of the Nullarbor Plain isolated the western population, over time it evolved into a robin with a white, instead of yellow, breast. The White-breasted Robin Eopsaltria georgiana lives mostly in tall wet forests, though in the drier northern part of its range it utilises dense coastal scrubs.
White-breasted Robin, Porongorup National Park.
Poor, distant photo, sorry.
The story of the south-western robins doesn't end there though. In a more recent period of softer climate another wave of yellow robins arrived from the east, and in turn they too became isolated. They too evolved into a separate species, the Western Yellow Robin Eopsaltria griseogularis. This retained its yellow breast, but it is separated from the throat by a grey band (hence the scientific name). Perhaps to avoid competition with the White-breasted Robin it tends to be found in drier woodland rather than wet dense vegetation. 
A very wet Western Yellow Robin, Stirling Ranges National Park.
Right across the tropical north of Australia is found another yellow-bellied robin, though this one doesn't even carry 'robin' in its name. It behaves much more like a flycatcher, perching high in the open and chasing insects in the air rather than pouncing down on them. Given this, its name of Lemon-bellied Flycatcher is not surprising.
Lemon-bellied Flycatchers Microeca flavigaster, Darwin.
The sweet up-beat call is a familiar one in the north, and through New Guinea (where the name flyrobin is often used)
to Indonesia.
Throughout most of Australia however the genus Microeca is much better known for another 'non-robin' robin. The Jacky Winter Microeca fascinans is a fairly plain brown, but highly charismatic, robin, also an accomplished aerial insect hunter. The name is generally asserted to refer to its behaviour of cheerfully calling all year round. George Caley, mentioned previously, compared its behaviour to that of the European Robin in closely following anyone wielding a spade, to see that might pop up to its advantage. I can't help wondering however if the call, usually described as saying 'Peter Peter Peter (etc)', couldn't also have been rendered as 'Jacky Winter'?
Jacky Winter, Mathoura, New South Wales River Murray.
The white-edged black tail is diagnostic.
Then there is a range of unred robins in several genera, from Tasmania up to the tropics. 

Probably the most widespread robin of all is the black and white Hooded Robin Melanodryas cucullata, a far cry indeed from the redbreast of Britain for which the group was bestowed its name. It is found right across Australia except for the deepest deserts; only the male is so handsomely pied, with females and youngsters being more muted in tone.
Hooded Robins, male (Mathoura) above,
female (Eulo Bore, south-west Queensland) below.
In Tasmania a common ancestor to the Melanodryas genus was isolated during one of the times Bass Strait was dry land, and evolved into the plain brown Dusky Robin Melanodryas vittata.

A somewhat mysterious species - solely because of its rather impenetrable habitat - is the Mangrove Robin Peneoenanthe pulverulenta, found wherever the mangroves survive across tropical northern Australia and into Indonesia. Many birders - including this one - wait quite a while to see their first one.
Mangrove Robin, Darwin.
The pensively melancholy double whistle carries through the mangroves and can be
infuriatingly difficult to track down.
Another tropical robin - or rather a pair of them - is represented by the very handsome genus Poecilodryas, with White-browed Robin P. superciliosa being found around the tropical Queensland coast  as far west as the north-eastern Gulf of Carpentaria, and the recently separated Buff-sided Robin P. cerviniventris from the western end of the Gulf across the Northern Territory to northern Western Australia. Their territories are usually found in monsoonal vine forest and along vegetated stream lines.
White-browed Robin pair, Cromarty, south of Townsville.
I want to end with a couple of indifferent photos of two of my favourite Australian robins, from very different habitats at opposite ends of the continent. The Grey-headed Robin Heteromyias cinereifrons is a Queensland Wet Tropics endemic, occupying a limited area of mostly montane tropical rainforest from Cooktown south almost to Townsville. It is the only member of its genus in Australia, though there is another in New Guinea. Its measured piping is characteristic of these rich forests, where it spends most of its time on the ground.
Grey-headed Robin, Mount Hypipamee, Atherton Tableland.
Finally the Southern Scrub-robin Drymodes brunneopygia is a member of a very interesting species pair, which each took to very different habitats during times of climate change. The Northern Scrub-robin D. superciliaris lives in Australia only in rainforest at the northern end of Cape York Peninsula in Queensland, though continues across the Torres Strait into New Guinea. The Southern Scrub-robin however lives thousands of kilometres to the south, in the semi-arid mallee shrubland, dominated by multi-stemmed eucalypts, triggered to the growth form by low soil nutrients. 

The Southern Scrub-robin can be infuriatingly elusive in its dense habitat, then can suddenly appear at your feet before moving off again. It is mostly found on the ground, bounding on its long powerful legs.
Southern Scrub-robin, Coorong National Park, South Australia.
I always reckon that if I don't recognise a call in the mallee it's likely to be one of these,
which have a seemingly endless range of call variations.
Most typical however is a sweet carrying 'pseeeee'

So there it is, a brief introduction to a varied and lovely group of Australian birds, found virtually anywhere on the continent. And despite their name, they really are dinkum southerners. I love them.