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. For much of my life I have been 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. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. 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.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Lima

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

Lima, the capital of Peru, is a vast throbbing intimidating metropolis on the Pacific. Its growing population of nearly 10 million lives constantly under the influence of the cold Humboldt Current, with almost no rainfall (less than 50mm, mostly in the form of winter morning misty drizzle) and a persistent fog hanging over the metropolis, especially near the sea. In July the city sees on average less than an hour of sunshine a day. The outskirts in many places comprise seriously squalid slums of poor rural Peruvians hoping for work.
Typical fog, courtesy of the Humboldt Current, over the Lima coast.
No, I'm afraid I wouldn't want to live there, but there are always some birds to be seen too.
Eared Dove Zenaida auriculata, Lima.
This is an abundant bird throughout much of South America, and is quite happy in cities including Lima.
Bizarrely to someone from this part of the world, the unfortunate dove supports a major
'sporting' shooting industry in Argentina.

West Peruvian Dove Zenaida meloda, Lima.
Another common urban bird in Lima, also found throughout the Peruvian coastal strip,
overlapping into adjacent Ecuador and Chile.
By the sea to the south of the city is an extensive bleak area of industrial spoil and sometimes polluted swamp land which can be surprisingly rich in birds.
Grey-headed Gulls Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus, Lima coastal marshland.
This pretty little gull has a curious distribution, in both Africa and South America.
The seaside suburb of Miraflores is definitely one of the richer, pleasanter and greener areas of Lima, and some less expected urban birds can be found in its parks.
Amazilia Hummingbird Amazilia amazilia, Miraflores park.
This little bird has proved a ready adapter to urban living.
I loved the fact that it was preening in a Callistemon sp., an Australian bottlebrush. This genus of bushes
is common in Australia where it is also widely planted; it has evolved to bird pollination and I'd
be surprised if hummingbirds didn't also avail themselves of it.
Long-tailed Mockingbird Mimus longicaudatus, Miraflores seaside park.
This is a coastal species from Peru and Ecuador and Miraflores is a noted site for it.
My readers in the Americas will doubtless be amused to hear that this was the
first mockingbird I ever saw.
Unlike some of the other cities featured in this mini-series, Lima has many attractions for tourists, though wildlife isn't usually touted among them. That's no reason not to keep your eyes open while you're there though.

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Thursday, 21 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Puerto Maldonado

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

Puerto Maldonado is not a particularly attractive city, though it is in the Amazon basin of south-east Peru and on the confluence of the Madre de Dios and Tambopata Rivers. But it is a sprawling, dusty (or muddy), aggressively growing frontier town. In the last twenty years it has grown from less than 30,000 people to over 100,000 and it's still expanding rapidly, faster than infrastructure can keep up. It was a logging town but all the readily accessible timber in the immediate vicinity has been cut and last I heard there was only one mill still operating. On the other hand there are reputedly 30,000 small-scale gold miners based there, using mercury to extract the metal, to the great detriment of themselves and the environment. Insidiously too the gas industry has been sniffing around in recent years, as elsewhere in Amazonia, and the government is sympathetic, irrespective of the fact that much the land under exploration is world-class national park, and land supporting indigenous people who don't want to have contact with 'civilisation'. The controversial big bridge across the river at Pto Maldonado, and the associated new Intercontinental Highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, smashing through formerly pristine primary rainforest, are both further causes for concern and facilitators of further growth of the city.
Puerto Maldonado streetscape; this is near the city centre where things are more established,
and in the relative quiet of early morning.
The reason that so many outsiders pour through the airport and waterfront every year however is that Pto Maldonado is the gateway for many tourists to the rivers, parks and lodges of southern Peruvian Amazon basin. And despite all the real problems spelt out above it is still surrounded by rainforest remnants at least, and wildlife is not at all uncommon in the city.

Even the central plaza supports various species, especially before the traffic really gets going.
Curious Ruddy Pigeon Patagioenas subvinace, town centre.
Tropical Pewee Contopus cinereus.Like the Ruddy Pigeon this little monarch flycatcher is widespread but it is always good to see
native birds in the middle of busy cities. It too is at home in the central plaza.
Streaked Flycatcher Myiodynastes maculatus ornamenting a Puerto Maldonado roof line.
Like the pewee it is a member of the huge monarch flycatcher assemblage, a group of the ancient sub-oscine
passerines which elsewhere in the world comprise only a few species, but which dominate in South America.
Palm Tanager Thraupis palmarum.Common and widespread but welcome as a reminder of what was here before the city.
The most remarkable example of wildlife I saw in Puerto Maldonado however was in a tree in the hotel grounds near the river - it was very much a case of 'welcome to Amazonia'!
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth Bradypus variegatus with the city visible behind.
The species is known to adapt to disturbed habitat, but I never expected to see one somewhere this disturbed.
And the fact that she has a baby (visible on her belly) is a good indicator that she's not alone here!
A closer view of the same animal. This really was a thrill.
So, as with the other cities so far featured in this series, you probably wouldn't even go to Puerto Maldonado as a visitor other than as a means to being somewhere else; but if you do, it's definitely worth keeping your eyes open...

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Thursday, 14 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Douala

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

Douala, the largest city in Cameroon with over three million inhabitants, is a complete shock to anyone unfamiliar with cities in the less-developed world. My first diary entry when I was there included these observations: "What an amazing, appalling place – and I’m on the edge of the commercial sector! Vast, throbbing, noisy, frantic, hustling chaos. Footpaths are just bumps at the sides of the roads, useful for parking. The roads are dominated by thousands of seriously clapped-out old yellow Toyota taxis and motos – not a helmet in sight of course and commonly three on board. ... surreal lunacy."


This was the view from my hotel window; early morning, so still fairly quiet.

Typical traffic on the way out of town, above and below.
Note the state of the roads - normal throughout the country.


Birding by a very polluted little wetland on the way out of town.
It's different.
You  won't be surprised to hear that this offering is pretty short on wildlife, though there is probably more than I saw and certainly more than I photographed - there are trees, but I wasn't inclined to take my camera or binoculars with me very often on the crowded streets, and it was raining a fair bit of the time.

One of the most dramatic wildlife spectacles comes in the evening when the Straw-coloured Fruit Bats Eidolon helvum appear. I had excellent views from my hotel window.

They seemed to be coming mostly from the direction of the Wouri River estuary, presumably
roosting in the mangroves.

However there were even some roosting in the few trees in the hotel grounds.

Just two of the numerous bats flying past my window.
They occur across sub-Saharan Africa, but seem to be declining.
In the grounds of the nearby chaotic service station I was astonished to see large colourful lizards zipping about under cars on the oil-slicked asphalt.

Male Common or Rainbow Agama Agama agama in full breeding splendour.
This one was actually in the hotel grounds; as I mentioned I wasn't keen on taking the camera into the streets.
We also ventured into an industrial area near the river for some more birds, though my most abiding memory is of a swelling chorus of song which materialised as a troop of army recruits being exercised through the streets. A couple of Grey Parrots winging overhead assured me I really was in west Africa!
Reichenbach's Sunbird Anabathmis reichenbachii near the Wouri River;
it is found across central-west Africa.
And yes I agree - it would have been a much more desirable photo if it had a beak!
And on that somewhat uninspiring note I'll end here. You certainly won't be going to Douala for the wildlife; indeed you probably won't be going there at all unless en route to somewhere else. Which is in itself a reason to introduce it here, albeit so briefly.

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Thursday, 7 May 2015

City Wildlife Snapshots: Buenos Aires

I'm away for May, accompanying a natural history tour to tropical Queensland.
I don't have time to set up full postings for the time I'll be away, but in the hope
of keeping you, my valued readers, while I'm
absent, I'm going to post a few brief
perspectives - snapshots perhaps - of some wildlife I've come across in cities.
I
often leave my camera behind when I go out in towns, so I can think of many possible subjects
for this series that I can't offer you.
In particular I can't offer a posting on an Australian city!
(My home town of Canberra doesn't count, as it's known as the Bush Capital, and it'd be too easy...)

The capital of Argentina is a dense teeming city of over three million people. One striking aspect of it to visitors used to cities of houses is that the entire city seemingly comprises apartment buildings; it really is densely populated. We recently had the opportunity to spend a couple of days there and despite constantly crowded streets we found little parks where there was wildlife - especially birds - living in the roar of traffic.
Rufous Hornero Furnarius rufus.
This handsome and engaging ovenbird is common in the parks, and has learnt to benefit from human
developments in eastern South America. It has been designated as Argentina's national bird!

Rufous-bellied Thrushes Turdus rufiventris are also quite common.
I'm guessing the somewhat scruffy character below is a young bird, but I'm woefully ignorant of the whole of eastern South America (so far anyway).

 
Picazuro Pigeon Patagioenas picazuro. Despite its resemblance to Feral Pigeons
(also common in BA, as everywhere) this belongs to a separate - though closely related - genus,
to which many familiar South American pigeons belong.
My assumption is that the common name (and the scientific, presumably derived from it) refers to a blue bill.
Guira Cuckoo Guira guira.This was a bird I was particularly keen to see, having seen photos and read about it, but we were surprised
to find one in a particularly small and unsalubrious park. Our surprise was partly due to the fact that
there was just one - this non-parasitic cuckoo is noted for being very sociable, feeding in sometimes
large groups on the ground.
We also watched a pair of American Kestrels preparing to roost on an aerial across the road from our hotel window, but it was too dark for successful photos by then.

Buenos Aires is a beautiful city - though everyone we spoke to immediately warned us to be very careful of thieves - and the architecture, museums, people, food and drink are all highly worthy of exploration. But keep on eye out for the wildlife too.

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