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. 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. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 22 March 2018

Conifers of the South; #2 the kauris, bunyas and podocarps

This is the second and final part of a series which began here; in a broader sense it's part of an intermittent series on 'favourite trees', links to which can be found in part 1. It's probably worth reading part 1 before you read this, as I won't repeat background material on conifers from there.

Today is about the other two conifer families found mostly in the Southern Hemisphere; indeed we often refer to them as Gondwanan, but in this case we'd be wrong to deduce past distributions from their current ones, or assume that they must have arisen in the south because they primarily grow there now. As previously discussed, the families are all very old and were once scattered throughout the world - today's 'Gondwanan' families only survived in the south. Probably the better-known of the families is Araucariaceae, found mostly in New Caledonia, with species in Australia, Malesia (Indonesia, Philippines, New Guinea and peninsular Malaysia), New Zealand, the Pacific and South America.
Bull Kauris Agathis microstachya Lake Barrine, north Queensland.
Like nearly all members of the family this is a rainforest tree, which is a bit of mystery
given the usual narrative of conifers retreating to high latitudes and altitudes in the
face of the spread of flowering plants.
Bull Kauris are found only on the Atherton Tableland, inland from Cairns, but there are two other Australian Agathis species, including Blue Kauri A. atropurpurea with an equally limited range in north Queensland coastal ranges, and Queensland Kauri A. robusta, which has a curious two-part distribution. One population is also on the Atherton Tableland, the other well to the south and on coastal sands on and near Fraser Island.
Queensland Kauri, growing as an emergent on Fraser Island.
Queensland Kauri, Fraser Island; detail of the beautiful bark.
Like all of the family in Australia, this species was heavily logged in earlier times and, while not as threatened
as the other two Australian species, it is hard to find big trees.
Of the 21 living Agathis there are half a dozen Malesian species, mostly from Borneo.
Agathis kinabaluensis Crocker Range, Sabah, Borneo.
This tree is limited to montane rainforest on and near Mount Kinabalu.
Araucaria, the type genus of the family, has around 20 species, 14 of which are endemic to New Caledonia. However it was named from one of the two South American species, A. araucana, from central Chile and nearby Argentina. The name was coined to honour the people (a sub-group of Mapuche) who inhabit the area where the tree is found. The English name of this species is Monkey Puzzle Pine, for the wickedly spiked crowded tough sharp leaves which cover most of the plant.

Monkey Puzzle Pine, Conguillio NP, Chile.
Photo courtesy Wikipedia.
Two mainland Australian Araucaria species are well-known. Bunya Pines A. bidwillii were once widespread in south-east Queensland, but logging and general clearing have fragmented the distribution to a few mountain refuges, especially the Bunya Mountains. You can find more about the place of the pines in those mountains, and their cultural significance, in that posting link.

Emergent Bunya Pines, Bunya Mountains NP.
Here too the pines grow as rainforest emergents - indeed they dominate the forest.

Trunk of an old Bunya Pine. There are stories that the 'chop' marks were the work of
indigenous Bunya nut harvesters, but they seem to be just stories.

Try to ignore the hat and trousers - this photo was taken a VERY long time ago....
The seeds of this enormous cone were greatly valued by local people in pre-European times,
and even by those further away who gathered in the mountains when the cones were ripe.
Another Araucaria also grows in the Bunyas, though Hoop Pine A. cunninghamii has a much wider distribution, from the north of New South Wales, through Queensland to New Guinea. It is readily distinguished from the Bunya Pines, including in its very small cones.
Hoop Pines, Bunya Mountains (above) and Conway NP, tropical Queensland (below).
See how much more 'spiky' is the crown outline compared with the dome of the Bunya Pine.

Hoop Pine trunk, Bunya Mountains, with the 'hoops' from which its name derived.
Another well-known Araucaria is the Norfolk Island Pine, A. heterophylla, endemic to the island between Australia and New Zealand, but planted throughout a lot of the world as a salt-hardy and decorative tree.

Norfolk Island Pine, Culburra, south coast New South Wales.

Norfolk Island Pine (with Western Corella), Augusta, south-west Western Australia.
The family Podocarpaceae is much larger, with some 100 species in 20 genera, though the majority of those are in the genus Podocarpus. It is centred on Australasia, with other concentrations in Malesia and South America. A couple are found in Africa, and some extend into mainland Asia. One important characteristic is the production of a female cone which resembles a berry, coloured and sweetened to encourage animals to distribute the seed.

Mountain Plum Pine Podocarpus lawrencei 'berry', with the green seed attached;
Namadgi National Park, above Canberra. The name means 'foot fruit'.
Pollen-bearing male cones, Mount Ginini, Namadgi NP.
Many species of the genus are rainforest trees, but Mountain Plum Pine, from the high mountains of south-eastern Australia, lives in the alpine and sub-alpine zones, sprawling low over rocks and surviving under the snow in winter. During past glaciations it was left behind by retreating forests and adapted to the new cold and dry regime. It provides very important animal habitat, including to the Endangered Mountain Pygmy Possum Burramys parvus.
Mountain Plum Pine forming a mat over granite boulders, Kosciuszko NP, New South Wales.
 More typical is the so-called Brown Pine P. elatus, of east coast rainforests. 
Brown Pine, Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
The berries will turn purple when the seeds are ready for birds to harvest.
Here is a South American member of the genus; Mañio Macho Podocarpus nubigenus grows further south than any other member of the family, down to 53 degrees south in Chile. 
Podocarpus nubigenus at Puerto Aiguierre in the Chonos Archipelago of southern Chile.
Perhaps the best-known Australian family member is a single-species genus from Tasmania, Huon Pine Lagarostrobos franklinii, famed especially for its glorious timber, much prized by craftspeople. It is now illegal to cut living trees, but fallen ones - which last for centuries - may be collected under strict licensing agreements.

Huon Pine, mature tree overhanging the Huon River (fittingly) above,
and young trees below along the nearby Picton River.
Another Tasmanian endemic Podocarp is the Celery-top Pine Phyllocladus aspleniifolius; other members of the genus are found in New Zealand and Malesia. Its foliage is not at all reminiscent of that of most conifers.

Celery-top Pine foliage, Mount Field NP, southern Tasmania.
Blue Mountains Pine is a dwarf species, with a tiny range and a remarkable habitat. It lives only in a small area of the high Blue Mountains, within the splash zone of sandstone waterfalls. It is the only member of its genus.

Blue Mountains Pine Pherosphaera (formerly Microstrobus) fitzgeraldii, here growing apparently
happily in an artificial waterfall in the National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.
And with that we'll wrap up this brief tour of the southern conifers, with the hope that you were able to find something of interest here.

(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.
And I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!)

Thursday, 15 March 2018

A Brief Walk on Black Mountain; a rain cheque!

The best laid plans etc - a family emergency intervened this week, so the second part of our series on the Southern Hemisphere conifers must wait another week. (And I must prepare for a radio interview this evening on my new book!) Instead here's a very brief report on a walk in which I participated last weekend, on Black Mountain, the hill that looms over central Canberra, part of Canberra Nature Park, dominated by dry sclerophyll forest. 
Part of the walk route, especially dry at the end of summer.
The main trees in this picture are Brittle Gum Eucalyptus mannifera.
The walk was organised by the active community-based Friends of Black Mountain, and led by Dr. Suzi Bond, Canberra's butterfly guru, and author of the recent and excellent Field Guide to the Butterflies of the Australian Capital Territory. As soon we arrived at the top of the mountain we were surrounded by active Imperial Jezebels, 'hill-topping', ie a gathering of displaying males for mating purposes, also known as a lek. They were manically chasing and showing off, impossible for me to photograph, but here's what one looks like sitting still!
Imperial Jezebel Delias harpalyce, National Botanic Gardens, last September.
A couple of others I did manage to photograph - ie they did sit still!
Marbled Xenica Gleitoneura klugii.
Tailed Emperor Charaxes sempronius.I found this one to be especially striking, and it was new for me
(I really am very much a beginner in this game!).
Of course there are always other animals to be seen too.
Young Jacky Lizard Amphibolurus muricatus, sunning on a rock.
This is a common little dragon locally.
Golden Orbweb Spiders Nephila edulis mating.
He's the little one and there's an 80% chance that this will the last thing he does before she eats him...
Another orb web spider wrapping a packed lunch; I think this was another Xenica,
but the whole process took less than 30 seconds, so it was hard to tell!
And on that somewhat macabre note I must leave you for this week; next time things should be back to something slightly closer to normal!
(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.
And I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!)

Thursday, 8 March 2018

Conifers of the South; #1 the cypresses

Another in my sporadic series of favourite trees - which covers quite a number when I start thinking about the concept. The most recent one was here, and you can work back from there if you're so minded.

Some 300 million years ago, in a world without flowers or birds or mammals, the fossil record reports the appearance of the first conifers, woody plants (mostly trees) with seeds born in cones, and no flowers but abundant pollen that was cast to the winds and relied on chance to deposit a few grains on a receptive female cone of the same species. One big advantage of pollen is that the plant is freed from the shackles of having to live near water, as did their predecessors relying on swimming sperm; a pollen grain is a sperm contained in a water-proof coat, though I'm sure you'll appreciate that this is somewhat of a simplification!
Black Cypress Pine Callitris endlicheri, Cooma, southern New South Wales.
This species is monoecious, with female (left) and pollen-bearing male (right) cones;
some species however are dioecious, with separate male and female plants.
The big break for conifers came 245 million years ago, when the Permian-Triassic extinction event knocked out several competing groups, including the 'seed ferns', and opened the landscape for them. Dinosaurs would have munched on them, doubtless triggering the production of harsh and even toxic resins. They dominated the world, which for a while then comprised just one vast continent, Pangaea, for at least 100 million years. However the eventual rise of the flowering plants presented them with strong competition and now their descendants only dominate the landscape in latitudes or altitudes too high for the pollinators on which the flowerers depend. Mind you, this still represents vast areas of the sub-Arctic, right across the northern hemisphere, where the forests of the taiga and their North American equivalents provide a greater carbon sink than all the tropical rainforests.

Pencil Pines Athrotaxis cupressioides, Cradle Mountain NP, Tasmania.
There are now six living families of conifers, only three of which are found in the southern hemisphere, my area of interest. This excludes Pinaceae, the biggest and probably best-known family, comprising pines, cedars, spruces, larches and firs, found only in the north. Of the rest, the largest family and the most widespread is that of the cypresses Cupressaceae, found on every continent. The other two southern families, Araucariacaeae and Podocarpaceae, are solely southern so it would be a reasonable conclusion that they are Gondwanan in origin. 

Reasonable, but wrong. In much earlier times the conifer families were far more widespread; for instance sequoias were found across the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, but now live naturally only in North America (two species) and east Asia (one). The sub-family that comprises King Billy and Pencil Pines grew throughout the Americas but now comprises just two species in western Tasmania. Fitzroya fossils - now represented by just one species, Alerce, in the southern Andes - have been recently found in Tasmania. Not a conifer, but a group of seed plants from the same general era as the conifers, the Gingko G. biloba is now the sole survivor of its entire Order, but fossil relatives are known from across the Northern Hemisphere and, most recently, from Tasmania. I could go on, but you get the picture. We are now seeing just remnants of a formerly much richer and more extensive dynasty - like a few eroded peaks above the water to remind us of a once mighty and continuous mountain range.

Callitris endlicheri almost co-dominating with eucalypts, Goulburn River NP, New South Wales.
The cypress family is strongly represented in Australia by the genus Callitris ('beautiful trio', for the leaf arrangement); there are 13 Australian species and three in New Caledonia. Originally a rainforest genus, it began to diversify around 30 million years ago as the land dried. The family itself however goes far further back than that, into the Triassic, some 240 million years ago in the upheaval following the Permian-Triassic extinction mentioned earlier.

Australian cypresses are highly adapted to life in the arid and semi-arid zones, notably the White Cypress Pine Callitris columellaris. (There is disagreement about this species; a strong body of opinion would split it, limiting C. columellaris to a small coastal strip straddling the NSW-Queensland borders, leaving C. glaucophylla to cover much of the rest of  sub-tropical Australia.) Here are some White Cypresses in the harsh central deserts, where they are generally associated with ranges.
Rim, King's Canyon, central Australia.

Barrarrana Gorge, Arkaroola Ranges, South Australia.

Ormiston Gorge, Western MacDonnell Ranges, central Australia.
Many Callitris species are associated with colourful, especially orange, lichens.

Lichens on Black Cypress Pine, Goulburn River NP.

There are also endemic members of the family in Tasmania (though they were not always restricted to there, as mentioned previously). In particular there are two members of the genus Athrotaxis, with a putative third, A. laxifolia, generally believed to be a hybrid, though conclusive genetic proof was still lacking the last time I read of it. They are slow-growing cool mountain rainforest trees, very susceptible to the increasing burning regimes that are the lot of most Tasmanian forests these days. They are however protected from logging, in and out of reserves. In protected situations such as at Cradle Mountain National Park, there are some magnificently ancient specimens, mostly battered by old lightning strikes.

Pencil Pines A. cupressoides looks, as its species name suggests, very cypress-like. The next three photos were all taken around Dove Lake in Cradle Mountain National Park.
The origin of the cupressoides name ('cypress-like') is very clear here - totally unsurprisingly,
given that it's in the same family.
An old Pencil Pine on the shores of Dove Lake.

Foliage detail, with scale-like leaflets.
King Billy Pine A. selaginoides is sometimes asserted to be named for a nineteenth century indigenous man (needless to say this wasn't his real name) but I've never read a suggestion as to why this should have been so!
King Billy Pine foliage and cones, both of which are larger than those of Pencil Pine.
The species name refers to the this foliage, and its similarity to that of Selaginella, a genus of club mosses (an even more ancient group, not mosses at all).
Selaginella uliginosa, north-eastern Tasmania.
And just for the record, here's a photo of Athrotaxis laxifolia in the Australian National Botanic Gardens, Canberra.

Beyond that there are only four members of the family native to Australia, in two small genera, found only in Tasmania and the far south-west of the continent.

In South America there are just three others, all comprising single-species families. Alerce Fitzroya cupressoides is a magnificent tree of the cool wet montane Valdivian rainforests of the southern Andes. It was named for Captain Robert FitzRoy who captained the famous Beagle expedition of the 1830s, on which Charles Darwin sailed as his companion. (FitzRoy feared suicide, driven by the lonely pressures of command, and the fate of other captains that he knew. Thirty years later, burdened by financial woes and his ever-looming depression, he did indeed take this own life.)

The tree can be huge - Darwin recorded one with a diameter of over 12.5 metres - but intensive logging has rendered big old ones hard to find; it yields superb building timber. Since 1976 it has been completely protected in Chile.
Alerce, Puerto Montt, Chile, above and below.
Big trees in this small reserve are reputed to be 2800 years old.


This superb old Alerce is reputedly 3500 years old;
Alerce Andino NP, southern Chile.
A fascinating remnant of the last glaciation on a beach near Puerto Montt is a dramatic testament to the durability of Alerce. Here are the stumps of Alerce, originally growing well above sea level, drowned when the sea rose with the melting of the ice caps at end of the last glaciation around 15,000 years ago (that was the figure I was given, though I might have expected it to be closer to 10,000 - but still!).
Ancient Alerce stumps at low tide, Puerto Montt.
Another South American cypress has a similar unfortunate story to that of the Alerce. This is Pilgerodendron uviferum, also the sole member of its genus, but found much further south than Alerce, though they overlap at the southern end of Alerce's range. On Tierra del Fuego, at the southern tip of South America, this cypress becomes the world's southern-most conifer. It is known in Chile as Ciprés de las Guaitecas, 'cypress of the Guaitecas Archipelago'. This windswept archipelago runs south from the island of Chiloé near Puerto Montt; together they represent the emergent peaks of the Coastal Range of Chile, which runs into the sea just south of Puerto Montt.

Pilgerodendron uviferum, Puerto Aiguierre, Guaitecas Archipelago. It can grow into a 20 metre high tree,
with a 1.5 metre diameter trunk and produces superb building timber, for which the forests were ruthlessly
plundered. It is now protected by being listed on Appendix 1 of CITES, which deals with species
threatened with extinction at least partly due to trade; the timber may not be exported.
Next time I'll conclude this two part series by talking about the other two southern conifer families, both of which are now found only in the Southern Hemisphere. For now though, I'll leave you with another image of Pencil Pines at Dove Lake in Tasmania; in many ways pure Old Gondwana, though the pines themselves are of a lineage much older even than that.
Pencil Pines in front of Dove Lake and Cradle Mountain, Tasmania.
(And it's worth knowing that Cradle Mountain is the souvenir of one of the most significant events in Australia's story. Around 55 million years ago Antarctica began to 'unzip' from the southern margins of what is now Australia, starting from the west. As the rift opened, vast quantities of subterranean molten material flowed into it, including an estimated 5,000 cubic kilometres beneath Tasmania! The dolerites of Cradle Mountain derived from the final disintegration of Gondwana and the isolation of Australia.)
(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.
And I'd love to receive your comments - it's easy and you don't need to sign in!)

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

My New Book!

Hello again. I don't normally advertise here - especially not for myself - but my new book on birds, Birds in their Habitats; journeys with a naturalist, has just been released, and if you enjoy my blog it occurs to me that you might well enjoy it too. It was a long time in incubation, and covers a fair bit of the Southern Hemisphere, though obviously enough with a strong emphasis on Australia. Here's a link to the chapter contents; they're reasonably detailed so a browse through them might give you a reasonable idea of the contents.

My idea was to introduce you to seven major habitats, and some of the birds I've encountered in them. It's not a book about me, but about the birds, and my idea was to tell stories, with the hope that you'll enjoy the read and at the end of it discover that you've learned things you didn't know - about aspects of ecology, behaviour, evolution and conservation. It's also a bit about the people who study birds and the amazing things they're discovering, and a bit of a delve here and there into the sometimes slightly strange world of the people who watch birds.

Here's what it looks like from the outside.

And here's a link to the publisher's page, with a bit more blurb and the option of ordering if you so choose. However it's also available through other on-line sources and even good old-fashioned bookshops (especially in Australia) if you're so inclined.

And finally as a small bonus a couple of pics from the book, with their captions.
A pair of Waved Albatrosses, in a breeding colony on Española, Galápagos, performs an elaborate bill-clashing bond reinforcement ceremony as one returns from a fishing expedition. Their sole chick is the object of intensive care.

Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra. This bird is preening, running each feather in turn through its bill to clean it and ‘rezip’ the barbules; this is an immense task, which every bird undertakes every day.
Thanks for reading, and if you do choose to buy the book, thank you for that too!