Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Australia: Coast, Heath, and Rainforest

On April 3, 2011, we followed up our excursion to the Blue Mountains with a trip to the sea.  The coast from Sydney south to Wollongong boasts some spectacular views - here, from the Bald Hill Headland Reserve, a popular take-off point for hang gliders.

 Eileen and Rita pose beside a plaque commemorating a new development since my day - the Sea Cliff Bridge, which isn't really a bridge at all but an elevated bit of highway skirting a coastal cliff.

The coastal highway, besides being scenic in the extreme, provides a number of good vantage points for watching coastal seabirds,

This is an Australian Pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), to my mind the handsomest of the world's pelicans.

The Great Cormorant (Phalacrocorax carbo) is one of the most widespread seabirds in the world, ranging from the eastern coast of North America across Europe and Asia to Australia and New Zealand.

Not a seabird (despite the Tasman Sea in the background) but a Willie-Wagtail - which is not a wagtail either, but a fantail (Rhipidura leucophrys). TThough it is certainly the best-known of its family, it is rather atypical for a fantail; most of the others are forest birds.  Unlike the true wagtails (Motacilla), the Willie-Wagtail wags his tail not up and down, but from side to side.

Not far from the Willie-Wagtail, I found an immature Grey Butcherbird (Cracticus torquatus) sheltering from the sun in the middle of a bush.

On the way north from the Wollongong coast we entered a stretch of coastal heathland, a dense and nearly treeless growth of closely-packed shrubs dominated by a number of species of Banksia.

These are not fruits of a Banksia, but of one of the eucalypts or their relatives (I'm not sure which) - little woody cups, once topped (if this indeed a eucalypt) with the little caps that give Eucalyptus ("well-capped") its name.

I found four species of banksia growing together: Heath Banksia (Banksia ericifolia), with narrow leaves recalling those of the true heaths and heathers and bright orange floral spikes whose show of fall colour makes up,  to some extent, for the absence of autumnal leaf show in the Australian woodlands...

Coast Banksia (Banksia integrifolia), with pale yellow flowers and coarse, toothed leaves....

Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata), named for the silvery sheen on the undersides of its leaves...

....and Old Man Banksia (Banksia serrata), with its grotesque and rather fearsome-looking fruiting spikes, each seeming to sport several mouths (these are the fruits themselves, or follicles, that have opened to release their seeds).  The spikes (or cones, as they are usually called) were "ugly  little, wicked little men" in the mind one of Australia's most famous childrens' writers, Cecilia May Gibbs (1877-1969). 

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Gibbs was the author of a series of tales about, of all things, a pair of animated eucalyptus fruits (the "gumnut babies"), rather revoltingly named Snugglepot and Cuddlepie.  Add arms and legs to Old Man Banksia cones (as shown in this drawing from Gibbs' novel Snugglepot and Cuddlepie) and you have the Big Bad Banksia Men, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie's chief nemeses.  Gibbs' stories are still in print, and have inspired both a ballet and a musical.

Banksias in flower literally drip nectar, a fact not lost on a number of honeyeater species that swarm into the heathland when the cones are in bloom.  This is one of the larger species, the Little Wattlebird (Anthochaera chrysoptera).

Further north, almost on the outskirts of Sydney, is the famous Royal National Park, the world's second oldest (it was gazetted in 1879).   Lady Carrington Drive is a well-known spot for temperate rainforest birds, so although it was already afternoon I couldn't resist the chance for a short stroll before we headed back to town.

There are some magnificent trees along Lady Carrington.  This is one of several smooth-barked eucalypts in the area, but I'm not sure which one.

The undergrowth is carpeted with ferns; I believe this is Trim Shield Fern (Lastreopsis decomposita), a species that spreads by rhizomes and may form large colonies in the rainforest.

There are only two native palms in the Sydney region; this is a young Cabbage Tree Palm (Livistonia australis), a tree that can reach 30 metres in height when mature.

I believe that the white flowers on the right (but not the large leaves on the left) belong to one of the many species of tea-tree (Leptospermum), cousins to the manuka and kanuka of New Zealand.

I am particularly fond of fantails.  The Grey Fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa) is the common forest species in Australia, and is a much more typical representative of its genus than the open-country, largely terrestrial Willie-Wagtail.  Like many (but not all) fantails, it is bold, active and inquisitive, and a pleasure to watch.

Fantails (again, most of them) fan and twitch their tails more or less constantly, often accompanying their fanning by spreading and flicking their wings. This behaviour, oddly, helps them find food.  Here you can see this one apparently displaying to a tree trunk; it is actually trying to startle insects into revealing their hiding places on the bark, so they can be snapped up.  This "flushing behaviour" has evolved a number of times in songbirds; the tropical American redstarts (Myioborus), for example, do the same sort of thing, as does the Pied Monarch (Arses kaupi) of northern Queensland.

For sheer charm, tough, it's hard to beat the fairy-wrens (Maluridae), even when the males are not sporting their brilliant breeding colours.  These are Superb Fairy-Wrens (Malurus cyaneus), the only ones I saw on our trip - though this was once a bird that seemed to inhabit every garden in Sydney.  As with many other small birds, they seem to have been driven out of town (see my earlier post for more on this problem).

Fairy-wrens have a remarkable mating system featuring group living, multiple pairings and intense competition among males (males have, proportionately, among the largest testes - reportedly reaching, together, 25% of their body weight in the breeding season - and highest levels of sperm production in either birds or mammals).  If this interests you it is worth reading the account of the family in the Handbook of the Birds of the World, fortunately available online if you don't own the series.

Near the other end of the songbird size scale is one of Australia's most famous birds (and perhaps the most accomplished and impressive songster and vocal mimic in the bird world), the Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae), and Lady Carrington Drive is a good place to see it.  I startled this one from a patch of leaf litter - perhaps his display ground - and only had time to get off one quick shot before he fled into the bushes.  

The lyrebird, however, had not been alone.  Lyrebirds have relatively enormous feet and are inveterate leaf-scratchers, turning up not only food for themselves but a bonanza of insects for small birds that folow them around.  One species is even called the Pilotbird (Pycnoptilus floccosus) because of its habit of following lyrebirds, much as pilotfishes follow sharks.  This, however, is a White-browed Scrubwren (Sericornis frontalis), and it was not about to relinquish a prime, lyrebird-scratched foraging ground simply because I, a lowly birder, was nearby!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Australia: Blue Mountains

The Blue Mountains, in the hinterland west of Sydney, are not really mountains.  They are the much-dissected remains of the edge of a plateau.  This, of course, doesn't detract one whit from their beauty, and I was very happy indeed when our friend Rita offered to take Eileen and I for a drive into the Blue Mountains National Park on April 2, 2011.

Eileen and Rita decided that I would be best left to my own devices, and so they dropped me off to do a bit of walking on the Braeside Track in the Blue Mountains National Park near Blackheath – my first chance in almost four decades to get back into a bit of real Australian bush. It proved to be a lovely spot, perched on the edge of the plateau, and crossed by a peaceful-looking little stream that, if you follow it far enough, pitches over a sheer cliff to fall as a cascade into the valley below.

The edge of the cliff, in fact, was never far away.

The technical term for this sort of woodland, a woodland dominated by various species of eucalyptus, is "sclerophyll", meaning "hard-leaved". Eucalyptus woodlands are quintessentially Australian, and apparently bothered the dickens out of early European landscape painters. Paintings of the Australian scene done by Europeans in the early 19th century almost invariably substitute perfectly ordinary English woodlands for a treescape dominated by eucalyptus, even if the artists had the real thing right in front of their eyes.  

The spindly, open branches of eucalyptus, bearing their clumps of grace-green, sickle-shaped leaves only at their tips, give the real Blue Mountain landscape the look of a woodland designed by Dr. Seuss.  Homesick Englishmen hated it.  My delight at seeing it again, by contrast, was unbounded.

Above the trees outcrops of Hawkesbury sandstone lined the trail. These are potential homes for one of Australia's most dangerous animals, the Sydney Funnel-web Spider (Atrax robustus), so it doesn't do to go sticking your hand into attractive-looking crevices. I didn't try.

Eucalyptus trees can be divided into broad general categories based on their bark: boxes and stringybarks with their rough, corrugated bark, for example, and the smooth, peeling bark of gums. 

When a gum tree like this one (presumably a Blue Mountains Ash (Eucalyptus oreades)) peels away its bark, the long strips of discarded material collect in the crotches of its limbs. These collections of shed bark provide a unique hunting ground for a number of insect-eating birds, including some honeyeaters that seem to specialize in them, flying from clump to clump without investigating anything in between. One bird, the Crested Shrike-tit (Falcunculus frontatus), doesn't wait for the bark to peel. Instead, it tears fresh strips away from the tree with its heavy, parrot-like beak.

This is the bark of a Scribbly Gum (probably Eucalyptus sclerophylla). The "scribbles" are the burrowings of moth larvae. More specifically, according to Wikipedia, "These zigzag tracks are tunnels made by the larvae of the Scribbly Gum Moth (Ogmograptis scribula) and follow the insect's life cycle. Eggs are laid between layers of old and new bark. The larvae burrow into the new bark and, as the old bark falls away, the trails are revealed. The diameters of the tunnels increase as the larvae grow, and the ends of the tracks are where the larvae stopped to pupate."

More substantial signs of burrowing insects were the sun-baked mounds of termitaria like this one.

Not all the insects remained out of sight; this little butterfly is an Eastern Iris-Skipper (Mesodina halyzia). My thanks to Don Herbison-Evans for confirming my identification, which he said was "pretty good for a northerner"!

Australia is home to a host of wildflowers, and is second only to South Africa in its proliferation of members of the wonderful protea family (Proteaceae).  My visit, in the Austral autumn, was too late to see the most glorious of them all, the Waratah (Telopea speciosissima), but along the Braeside the absence of its flowers was almost made up for by the blooms of its cousin the Mountain Devil (Lambertia formosa) [early botanists thought so too; "speciosissima" means "showiest", but "formosa", a name awarded the Mountain Devil as far back as 1798, means "beautiful"].

The Mountain Devil's unflattering English name refers to its peculiar horned fruits.  It is also called Honey Flower; like many members of its family it is a copious producer of nectar, as this visiting bee would suggest.  It is the only member of its genus in eastern Australia; the other ten Lambertias live in Australia's southwest, the second-richest floral zone in the world after the Cape region in South Africa.

The grevilleas. or silky-oaks, are also members of the Proteaceae.  Therre are a lot more of them: over 350 species.  Only a handful range outside Australia, but some species (and their hybrids and varieties) have become popular garden plants in other parts of the world.  This is Bog Grevillea (Grevillea acanthifolia ssp. acanthifolia).

The best-known, and perhaps the most distinctive, of the Australian Proteaceae are the Banksias, named for the indefatigable eighteenth-century botanist Sir Joseph Banks.  This is Hairpin Banksia (Banksia spinulosa), named for the wiry, hook-shaped style that tips each of the hundreds of flowers in each Banksia "cone".

The myrytle family, Myrtaceae, includes Eucalyptus, and for that reason alone is one of the dominant plant families in Australia.  Some of the trees formerly included in Eucalyptus, the bloodwoods and ghost gums, are now placed in their own genus Corymbia (including the well-known scarlet-flowered species ficifolia, a common ornamental plant).  I believe that these are the flowers of Red Bloodwood (Corymbia gummifera).

Australian heaths (Ericaceae, formerly Epacridaceae) dominate entire landscapes.  This one, Fuchsia Heath (Epacris reclinata), is a haunter of rocky outcrops that is close to being a Blue Mountains endemic.

Australia has some of the world's most peculiar orchids (and that's saying something), including two genera that flower entirely underground.  This one is called Parson's Bands (Eriochilus autumnalis), and if you can find an illustration of an old-time parson in uniform, with his white neck-bands, you will see why.

There are a great many members of the pea family Fabaceae in Australia, and a great many of these have little yellow flowers that look (to my zoologist's eyes) frustratingly alike.  I think this one is  Bossiaea heterophylla.

This appears to be a slightly different pea, its flowers not yet fully open, but I cannot tell which one it is.

This attractive little flower is one (which one?) of the roughly 50-60 species of Tetratheca, an Australian member of the largely tropical and subtropical family Elaeocarpaceae.

This is Slender Riceflower (Pimelea linifolia, Thymelaceae), also known as Queen-of-the-Bush.  Among other things, the bark of this shrub can be processed into thread, the so-called "Bushman's bootlace".

All but one of the many species of Goodenia (Goodeniaceae) are found in Australia-- including this one, of course.

After my walk, Rita took Eileen and I to a nearby lookout point atop a tall sandstone escarpment.

The rock faces along the escarpment grow warm in the sun, and here we found a basking Carpet Python (Morelia spilota) taking advantage of the situation.  The snake was not in the least disturbed by the eager photographers above.

Of course I kept my eyes peeled for birds.  Eileen and Rita are not birders, but I managed to find one species that even a non-birder could appreciate...

The Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans) is common in the mountain forests, and can be remarkably tame (presumably because they expect handouts from the tourists).  This one perched in front of us at almost eye level, and sat there long enough for all of us to see - fulfilling Eileen's three criteria for a bird worth watching even for a non-birder: colourful, cooperative and obvious.

This bird, I'm afraid, would have failed Eileen's colourful criterion, but I was glad to see it anyway.  It is a Brown Thornbill (Acanthiza pusilla), one of a group of confusing little birds once considered to be close to the warblers of Europe and Asia but now known, like so many other of the continent's songbirds, to belong to a purely Australian radiation (my Malaysian readers may know one of its few non-Australasian cousins, the Flyeater (Gerygone sulphurata)).  It is an active, tit-like bird, hunting for insects in the shrubbery.

According to molecular evidence, the most "primitive" of Australia's host of honeyeaters [or the most basal, indicating that they belong on the earliest surviving branch of the family tree] are the two spinebills, one in the east and one in the west.  This is the Eastern Spinebill (Acanthorhynchus tenuirostris), to my mind it one of the prettiest of the family.  Its long bill is ideal for reaching the nectar at the base of long, tubular flowers like the Mountain Devil in the background.

The Golden Whistler (Pachycephala pectoralis) defies the usual convention that brightly-coloured birds tend not to be good singers.  Its clear, ringing whistles from the forest canopy help give the lie to the old canard (from a poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon (1833 - 1870)) that Australia is a land of "songless bright birds".

The voice of the Pied Currawong (Strepera graculina) is hardly what one would call musical, but its cries of currawong! kraha! are among my strongest memories of Australia.  They are, like their cousins the Australian magpies, bold and aggressive birds; this one was clearly looking for a handout.

This little bird peeping out between the branches of a eucalypt may not seem like much to get excited about, but it means a lot to me.  He is a male Red-browed Treecreeper (Climacteris erythrops), and the members of the Australian treecreeper family, Climacteridae - birds not even close to the treecreepers of the Northern Hemisphere, whose nearest relatives may be (of all things) bowerbirds - were the subject of my doctoral research back in the early seventies.  I spent many happy hours following treecreepers around through Australia and (to a limited extent) New Guinea, so coming across one was like a re-encounter with an old friend.

The icing on the cake was that the Red-browed, of the three treecreepers recorded in the Sydney area, was not the one I expected to see.  In my day it was much harder to find than the White-throated (Cormobates leucophaeus) or the Brown (Climacteris picumnus).  Alas, that is no longer the case.  The Brown, a bird of open savanna that I once studied near Greendale, southwest of Sydney, is now extinct in the region.  The Red-browed, a relatively inconspicuous denizen of the mountain forests, has survived.