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

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Ibis and Spoonbills; odd-billed oldsters

Whichever continent you live on, you are sharing it with ibis and spoonbills - though only Australia has more than one spoonbill species. There are just six spoonbills in the world, and 29 ibis (though nothing in taxonomy is ever that clear cut and while 29 is generally accepted, there is of course disagreement over the delimitations of some species). While all spoonbills belong to the same genus, the ibis are divided into about 13 genera.

60 million year old ibis fossils from South Africa are identifiable as belonging to two modern genera - that of the African bald ibises, Geronticus, and African and Australian white ibises, Threskiornis.

While the bills differences between the two groups are very obvious and unambiguous, they are actually very closely related and it's not even clear if they represent separate sub-families.
Black-faced Ibis Theristicus melanopis on the rooftop - a common sight - in Puerto Varas,
southern Chile. An ibis bill is long, narrow and distinctly downcurved.
Royal Spoonbill Platalea regia, Jerrabomberra Wetland, Canberra.
This is the typical spoonbill bill, long, broad and straight, with an expanded tip.
'Ibis' is one of the few common English words to come to us from Egyptian (albeit via Latin and Greek). 'Spoonbill' was consciously coined by the great 17th English naturalist John Ray, when he translated Francis Willughby's Ornithologica from Latin in 1678. In doing so he replaced folk names such as shoveller.

Both groups feed with the bill at least partly submerged, in water or mud or even cracks in the grounds; ibis probe while spoonbills constantly sweep the bill from side to side underwater. They can rarely see their prey, but the bill tip and inner surface of the end of the bill are packed with specialised sensors - of at least four types - which respond to a mix of taste and touch, together forming the 'bill tip organ'. When a food item is encountered the bill automatically snaps shut.

For spoonbills in particular the process is generally slow and methodical, like this pair of Yellow-billed Spoonbills Platalea flavipes progressing purposefully in front of one of the hides at Jerrabomberra. They take very small prey and are a large bird, so must forage all day and well into the night.
Spoonbills hunt by kicking up mud and with it small animals as they advance,
then seizing the animals as they sense them.
However recently I was surprised to see a couple of Royal Spoonbills fishing at Jerrabomberra, dashing about in pursuit of the fish, apparently hunting by sight.
You can get a sense of the energetic, almost frantic, pursuit of the fish in these two photos.

All the references I can find refer to very small fish prey, such as mosquito fish Gambusia spp., but the
bird on the left was swallowing something quite sizeable, probably a young European Carp Cyprinus carpio.
There are a couple of further bill adaptations worth mentioning. If you're going to spend much of your time with your bill submerged, you definitely don't want your nostrils perched on the tip of it. Indeed, ibis and spoonbill both have slit-like nostrils at the base of the bill.
This Plumbeous Ibis Theristicus caerulescens, in Brazil's Pantanal, has just had its bill almost
completely buried in the mud, but its nostrils (just visible in front of the eyes -
you may have to click on the picture) were clear.
Moreover the inside edge of the bill of a spoonbill has papillae which are said to act as motion or vibration detectors to assist in locating prey which is presumably away from the bill tip organ. I'm not certain how well-established this assertion is though.
The papillae are quite visible here, though you may again have to click on the photo.
All species have varying amounts of bare skin on the face and even head and neck, again to avoid fouling with mud.
Australian White Ibis Threskiornis molucca, Cairns Esplanade.
Curiously the young of this species has a feathered neck and head, presumably for insulation, but loses the feathers as it forages for itself.
Young Australian White Ibis, Jerrabomberra Wetlands, Canberra, still showing vestiges of its baby neck plumage.
Even younger ibis have straight bills, presumably to facilitate feeding by its parents.
While wading legs would not seem ideal for perching, ibis and spoonbills are regularly found high off the ground in trees, though they tend to move cautiously while so perched.
Yellow-billed Spoonbills, Leeton, New South Wales.
Generally large birds with broad wings, they soar in thermals, especially when migrating or dispersing to seek new water resources.
Straw-necked Ibis Threskiornis spinicollis soaring, Grenfell, New South Wales.
I love the fact that the two birds on the left are carrying out in-flight maintenance.
While in transit they move in long ragged lines or V-shaped flocks.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus moving out from roost to feed at dawn,
Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory.
And perhaps it's time to wrap up this brief summary by introducing some of the species, including those who have already modelled for us.
Royal Spoonbill, Jerrabomberra Wetlands. The long head plumes and coloured face patches are
indications that the bird is breeding. Its range is primarily Australian, but it is also found in New Guinea
and nearby Indonesia. During the 20th century it colonised New Zealand.
Yellow-billed Spoonbill preening, Jerrabomberra Wetlands.
It appears an unlikely tool for the job, but seems to work just fine!
The high nostrils are also very evident.
Found only in Australia, it is more solitary than the Royal, and has a longer, narrower bill.
Glossy Ibis Plegadis falcinellus, Coombs, surburban Canberra.
A relatively small ibis, it is the only member of the family to be found across much of the world.
Australian White and Straw-necked Ibises, Kioloa, south coast New South Wales.
They have been probing the oval for beetle larvae; see the depth of the mud on the Straw-necked's bill.
This species nests in colonies of hundreds of thousands.
Both are found mostly in Australia, extending just into New Guinea and nearby islands.
The White Ibis has adapted well to urban living, scavenging at dumps and picnic tables.
Immature African Sacred Ibis T. aethiopicus, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda (looking a bit intimidated
among hordes of White-breasted Cormorants Phalacrocorax lucidus).
This ibis gave us the name of the group; the ancient Egyptians saw it arrive with the life-giving
Nile floods, and concluded that the birds had brought the water.
Until recently the Australian White Ibis was thought to be in the same species; they are very similar.
American White Ibis Eudocimus albus, Puerto Jeli, Ecuador. This lovely ibis is found around the Gulf of Mexico
and the Caribbean, and the west coasts of Mexico and of Ecuador. It is very closely related to the
Scarlet Ibis E. ruber and there is some interbreeding where they overlap in Colombia and Venezuela.
Bare-faced Ibis Phimosus infuscatus, Pantanal, Brazil.
Found mostly in swamps (though this one didn't know that, standing in a river) it is found widely in
eastern and northern South America. It is alone in its genus.
Black-faced Ibis Theristicus melanopis, Torres del Paine NP, Chilean Patagonia.
This hefty ibis is ubiquitous and common in the south of the continent.
It and the next species form part of a close grouping of three species in a four-species genus.
Buff-necked Ibis T. caudatus, Pantanal, Brazil.
Like the previous species, this one is mainly found in grasslands, where it probes for a range
of invertebrate and small vertebrate prey.
Plumbeous Ibis T. caerulescens, Pantanal.
This slightly manic-looking ibis is more closely related to the previous two than is immediately obvious;
it is also more aquatic than them. It is restricted to south-eastern central South America.
Puna Ibis Plegadis ridgwayi in the high Andes near Chivay, southern Peru.
A close relative of the Glossy Ibis, the Puna Ibis is generally found above 3,500 metres from
central Peru to northern Argentina, but finds its way to the coast on occasions. I've seen it both in Lima
and at Arica on the Atacama Desert coast of northern Chile.
Hadada Ibis Bostrychia hagedash, Queen Elizabeth NP, Uganda.
This striking ibis is one of the voices of sub-Saharan Africa, with its wild trumpeting laugh, often uttered in flight.
(Here's a sample; I'd suggest the third one of the list - click on the arrow at the left end of the row.)
And it is from this voice that both scientific and common names are derived. 
This was the first bird I ever saw in Africa, from the evening window of my airport
hotel in Johannesburg, many years ago now
I hope this brief introduction to an ancient and intriguing group of birds has been of interest - thanks for reading to the end, if indeed you are still reading!

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Thursday, 8 February 2018

Cooktown; a tropical delight

I've not actually featured a town as a blog post topic before, and indeed hadn't intended to do so today. My original intent was to feature the lovely restored botanical garden - and indeed that will be the focus of what follows - but I realised that it would be a pity not to share some of Cooktown's other delights too. People have lived here, doubtless very well too, for tens of thousands of years, but its written history began in June 1770 when Captain James Cook's Endeavour struck an uncharted submerged reef and the crew spent a forced seven weeks ashore carrying out repairs. Cook climbed the hill now known as Grassy Hill Lookout to try to map out an escape route through the shoals - it is still the best introduction to Cooktown.
Late afternoon from Grassy Hill, looking inland up the Endeavour River, surrounded by mangroves, with
the town to the left. Cook named the river for his ship.

Looking out to sea from the same spot; was this the reef that forced Cook ashore?
While they were there, botanists Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander (who doubtless were glad of the involuntary stay) were busy collecting over 200 plant species new to science and Sydney Parkinson made the first life sketches by a British artist of Aboriginal people. Among their scientific specimens was the first Eastern Grey Kangaroo Macropus giganteus known to European science.
So much of history seems to be driven by chance. Cook learnt the word 'kangaroo' (which he rendered
as Kanguru or Kangooroo) from the local Guugu Yimidhirr people. Had the Endeavour sailed past instead
of landing, as they had intended, the next opportunity for English-speakers to learn a local name for the animal
would presumably have been that of the settlers at Sydney eight years later - and we would probably be now
using the word 'patagarang', or something similar.
(This Eastern Grey Kangaroo - or rather two - is not from Cooktown, but Canberra!)
 In case you're not familiar with Cooktown - and I don't expect my overseas readers to be - it is located in far north Queensland, on the Pacific coast, on the east coast of Cape York Peninsula.
Location of Cooktown - well north of the Tropic of Capricorn - at the end of the red arrow in far
north-eastern Australia.
Cooktown has had a tumultuous European history, which began more than a hundred years after Cook's visit, when a settlement known as Cook's Town was established at the mouth of the Endeavour River in 1873 to service the Palmer River goldfields, 120km to the south-west. (The contraction to 'Cooktown' was made official shortly afterwards.) There was soon a substantial Chinese community, some prospecting but many more growing fruit, vegetables and rice and supplying the town and the gold fields; others ran shops. By 1880 Cooktown was home to 4,000 people, with as many more in the surrounding districts. By now the gold fields had been worked out, and the passing trade dropped off, but there were still 27 licensed pubs in town, supplemented by a goodly number of illegal grog shops and several brothels serving alcohol. There were also bakeries, a brewery and a soft drinks factory, dressmakers and milliners, a brickworks, a cabinetmaker, and two newspapers. 

A beautiful 60 hectare botanic gardens was opened in 1878 - more on that anon.

Cooktown begin to shrink as Cairns and Port Douglas to the the south took some of their port trade, but it still survived on the back of more minor gold finds, pearls and the growing cattle industry. By the end of the nineteenth century there were probably only 2000 people living there. A major cyclone in 1907 and a big fire in 1919 caused widespread destruction. Most of the remaining population was evacuated during the Second World War. The indigenous population was forcibly removed, many of the older people being sent to the infamous Palm Island; it was a bad time and place, and many of them didn’t survive the experience. 20,000 Australian and US troops were stationed in town.

After the war people started to return, then in 1949 another cyclone mostly destroyed the town. When the inland rail link to Laura closed in 1961 and the Peninsula Development Road from the south opened up, bypassing Cooktown, the population dropped to just a few hundred. It still refused to die though, and as tourism increased in importance in the 1960s, so the population climbed again. The cyclones stayed away until April 2014, when Ita crossed just north of town, bringing massive flooding, but not too much damage. The permanent population is now around 2,500, massively boosted in winter by tourists. One of the things I like about Cooktown is that it doesn't seem to have compromised its nature too much while catering for visitors; I can only hope that balance is maintained.

I am especially fond of the waterfront, which inevitably features a tribute to the man for whom the town is named.

Other residents of the Esplanade are rather more lively.
Little Red Fruit Bats Pteropus scapulatus, found widely across the Australian near-coastal tropics and
sub-tropics. There was a colony of thousands on the waterfront when I was last there; I assume there still is.
This is the smallest of the 'flying foxes' in mainland Australia.
They are always active and curious, and seemingly very intelligent.
(I have the impression there's a youngster clinging to this one, but I can't quite make it out.)
Lastly, before I get to the main focus of this post, I must mention one lovely little reserve just off the Mulligan Highway, only five kilometres south of Cooktown.
Keating's Lagoon, above and below.
Covering just 47 hectares, the reserve protects lovely wetlands in the Annan River catchment.
Which brings us to the botanic gardens, 60 beautiful hectares set just south of Grassy Hill, between the town and Finch's Bay. 
The Queensland Government provided £200 a year to assist in the gardens’ development in the 1880s –
this was policy at the time! – and a botanist was employed to develop a nursery.

There were two gardeners employed in 1890.
It was called Queens Park and was very formal and British with stone paths, pools and footbridges.
Here is some of the original stonework, restored. Wells were sunk – these are still used now
In the 20th century however it fell into disrepair and became overgrown. In the 1970s it was realised that some 20 plant species survived from the original plantings and in 1984 reconstruction of the gardens began, supported by Commonwealth funding. Today it is magnificent again. One focus is on the plants collected by Banks and Solander nearly 248 years ago (as I write).
Some of the Banks and Solander garden, which is still establishing.
Here are some other features of the gardens.
Part of the cycad garden.

Orchid house - not much flowering when I was last there.

Vanilla Orchid Vanilla sp. with pods.
The cafe deck is not to be missed either....
...likewise the excellently informative visitors' centre, above and below.

One of the highlights for me is the magnificent 6.5 metre long python, carved from the very dense and heavy Cooktown Ironwood Erythrophleum chlorostachys, which I am told is very hard to work with.
The head stands a good metre off the ground.

Cooktown Ironwood, the wood of which was used to carve the botanic gardens python; despite the name
the tree is found across northern Australia. This one was near Georgetown, well to the west of Cooktown.
At a more natural level, a key part of any visit to the Cooktown gardens is the delightful short walk through monsoon forest to Finch Bay.

Views of the lovely track to Finch's Bay through monsoon forest.
Vine forest, or monsoon forest, is a type of rainforest growing in a tropical area with a strong wet season
followed by a long dry season. 'True' rainforest, taller and denser, needs rain all year round,
though at least one season is usually significantly wetter.
Finch Bay, north end above, south below.
Unfortunately I can't determine who Finch was (I'm assuming it's not named for a bird!);
as ever, any help gratefully received.
So, Cooktown. If you've not been there I hope it's on your list - and of course the drive there and the country around are also magnificent. I'd love to think I've encouraged just one more person to go somewhere superb.
Sunset over the Endeavour River, Cooktown.
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