I had been lucky enough to see the Cape floral show in 2006, but despite my two years of travel around Australia in my student days in the 1970s, I had never made it to the west. So when our friend Rita Shii proposed a driving trip out of Perth to see the wildflowers, I was agog with excitement about it. Rita wanted to head north from the city for a week, so Eileen and I decided to take a preliminary trip in the other direction, south through the great humid karri forests that lie between Perth and Albany. On September 9, 2013, we flew from Malaysia to Perth, picked up a rental car, admired a flower bed filled with cultivated kangaroo paws (Anizoganthus sp., perhaps the southwest's most spectacular specialty), and headed south for a few days' travel before meeting up with Rita.
Our goal was the small but ecologically distinctive humid zone, home to some of the most magnificent forests in Australia. This is the land of the Karri (Eucalyptus diversicolor), the third-tallest tree in the world (after the California Redwood (Sequoia sempervirens) and the Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) of southeastern Australia), and I had long wanted to see it. On our first afternoon we got as far as Bunbury - north of the forest belt, but a good spot for a view of the Indian Ocean.
From Bunbury, we drove down the Southwestern Highway to the Karri Explorer Drive, 86 kilometres of paved and unpaved roads traversing some of the best stands of this once-heavily-logged tree.
Much of this land, though, is now fruit-growing country, which means it is also good country for fruit-destroying parrots. We stopped at a farm for some apples, and had an interesting conversation with the owner, who conducts an ongoing war with the birds. I find it hard to believe that people could object to being visited by two such beautiful creatures as the Australian Ringneck or "Twenty-Eight" Parrot (Barnardius zonarius; the name "twenty-eight" comes from its call) and the multicoloured Red-capped Parrot (Purpureicephalus spurius), a southwestern endemic, both of which I saw shortly after driving up. But then, I'm not a fruit farmer.
The only ones he cannot legally touch are the southwest's three endangered black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus spp.). As if to stress the point, a noisy flock of what were probably Short-billed or Carnaby's Black Cockatoos (C. latirostris) flew directly overhead, interrupting our chat (I say "probably" because they could have been the much rarer Long-billed or Baudin's Black Cockatoo (C. baudinii), an almost identical bird once confused with it).
Further south, the Karri began to appear. First we saw smallish trees in areas of post-logging regrowth, but soon we were driving among increasingly towering giants. They reminded me of giant versions of the gum trees of eastern Australia, their bluish-white trunks straight as Grecian columns, marked with strips of peeling bark.
South of Manjimup, we made our first turn onto the Karri Explorer Drive itself, heading on a looping path to our prime destination, Beedelup National Park. The forest grew more magnificent as we drove. Karri can reach seventy metres in height, and though I doubt that many we saw were that tall the trees we passed were impressive enough.
The otherwise-dark undergrowth was brightened by Prickly Poison (Gastrolobium spinosum), one of Australia's many yellow-flowering pea bushes, here photographed at the Giblett rest stop. The name 'poison' reflects the fact that many Gastrolobium species are highly toxic (of which more in a later post). The tree behind it is, I believe, a Marri (Corymbia calophylla), a eucalypt relative that can reach 80 metres in height. It has been a target for loggers, and its red-brown, lustrous wood is much sought-after.
We eventually reached the park, and followed the attractive 300-metre loop trail to to Beedelup Falls.
I soon noticed a tell-tale sign for any birder - a couple strung with binoculars, or, in the man's case, binoculars, a camera with a large telephoto, and another camera with an impressive microphone. This was too good an opportunity to be missed. They were Ian Tew, a biological technician from the University of Swansea in Wales, and his wife Louise, who had spent most of her teenage years in eastern Australia. Ian and Louise were finishing a month's travel around the southwest.
Minutes after we met, Ian pointed out a brilliant male Red-winged Fairy-Wren (Malurus elegans), a karri forest specialty. It didnt stick around long enough for a decent photo, but I later came across a more cooperative bird. This is a young male, distinguished from the females by its black lores and a trace of irdescent blue feathering beneath its eye. Fairy-Wrens are, as far as I am concerned, irresistible creatures no matter what colour they are.
Meanwhile, a Twenty-Eight Parrot watched casually as I tried to get a photo (the light, I'm afraid, was less than ideal).
A few minutes later Ian spotted another southwestern endemic, a White-breasted Robin (Eopsaltria georgiana), behaving like others of its genus: that is, flitting about in the middle layers of the forest almost to rapidly for us to follow, perching on branches, logs and occasionally on the sides of tree trunks.
We spent the next few hours with Ian and Louise, admiring the forest, watching birds and keeping our eyes out for spring flowers.
Conspicuous in the understorey of the forest were the bright purple flowers of Tree Hovea (Hovea elliptica), a member of the pea family…
I was particularly struck by the odd-looking leaves of the Tassel Flower (Leucopogon verticillatus), though we only saw a few in bloom. Though it doesn't look it (at least to me), this is a member of the heath family (Ericaceae), or rather its southern section, once considered a separate family, Epacridaceae. In fact, it is the tallest member of its group in Western Australia, and though it is difficult to grow it has been exported to Japan for use in flower arrangements.
The fruits of Eucalyptus and its relatives are colloquially known as gumnuts. These distinctive little goblets may be the fruits of a Karri, but I am not entirely sure.
A number of the forest trees sported clumps of parasitic mistletoe. There are some 90 species of mistletoe (Loranthaceae) in Australia. Western Australia boasts the only mistletoe in the world to attain tree size: Nuytsia floribunda, the West Australian Christmas Tree, which parasitizes the surrounding grasses. This, of course, is not it.
Speaking of parasites, we found a rich variety of fungi sprouting from dead logs and branches on the forest floor....
While the trail near the falls was lined with clumps of maidenhair fern (Adiantum aethiopicum), a plant that (unlike so many of flowering plants found here, which are found nowhere else) occurs from Africa to New Zealand.
The karri forest does not boast the masses of spring flowers that we were to see a more open areas, but there was still plenty to look at. The richness of the southwestern Australian flora is so great that the task of identifying photographs, for a non-botanist, can be quite staggering, so - to anyone who knows better reads this and finds mistakes, either here or in later posts about our Western Australia trip - I do hope you will correct me. That said, I believe that this is Blue Squill (Chamaescilla corymbosa), a mamber of the Asparagaceae that occurs across much of southern Australia.
This is one of the many species in the Australian endemic genus Dampieria (Goodeneaceae), possibly the Karri Dampieria (D. hederacea) endemic to these forests (though the leaves don't seem quite right).
Yellow always goes well with blue, in nature as much as in your flower garden, and shrubby growths of Prickly Moses (Acacia pulchella), a common southwestern endemic, made an excellent background for the squills, hoveas and dampierias.
The genus Hakea, though some of the species have become introduced weeds in South Africa, is confined to Australia. 70% of its species, about 100 altogether, are found only in the southwest. Hakea is remarkably variable in shape and leaf form, depending on whether the species you are looking at is in forest, dry woodland, or heath. Humid-forest species like this one tend to have broad leaves, while in drier country the leaves of many Hakeas are reduced to needles. I believe this one to be White-veined Hakea (Hakea ambigua), one of the less odd-looking of the genus (compare it to the weird, highly-local Royal Hakea (H. victoria), a species I failed to see), though the flowers of that species are often whitish instead of yellow. The leaves, though, are very similar.
Yellow Buttercups (Hibbertia hypericoides) is another common southwestern endemic, with a range running inland from the Indian Ocean coast north and south of Perth. It is not what we in the northern hemisphere would call a buttercup; it belongs not to the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) but to the Dilleniaceae, a tropical and Australasian family of about 300 species. Hibbertia is Australasian, with an outlier in Madagascar. Its members are usually called guinea flowers. Hibbertias are low, rather scruffy-looking shrubs. Their flowers are almost always yellow, with characteristic notches at the tips of the petals.
Ian and Louise, who were on the lookout for orchids, nonetheless walked past this little plant. The only reason I recognized it for what it was is because I had previously encountered its cousins in Australia and New Zealand. It may not look like one, but this is, indeed, an orchid.
To be more precise, this is a greenhood or snail orchid, one of the members of the genus Pterostylis (the "ears" or "horns", by the way, are the lateral sepals). There are a good many species in the genus, and I cannot be certain which one this is.
I am comforted, though, by the discovery that experts are in the same boat when it comes to the smaller greenhoods (the "nana" group, otherwise known as slender snail orchids). Even the Western Australian Herbarium's specimen from Beedelup Falls is labelled only as "Pterostylis sp. crinkled leaf (G.J. Keighery 13426)". They don't know what it is either.
We finally said goodbye to Ian and Louise, and continued on our way south through the karri forest on the way to Walpole, a town near Austraelia's southwestern corner that was to be our stop for the night. Anyone driving a rental car in Western Australia is under some pressure to make their nighttime destinations before dark. if you drive after dark in rural Western Australia, insurance won't cover you.
This is the reason. Though many of the smaller native mammals of Western Australia have been almost wiped out by introduced foxes and other animals, the Western Gray Kangaroo (Macropus fuliginosus) is just too big for a fox to handle. They are abundant, at least semi-nocturnal, and find roadside verges an excellent place to graze. Having your car collide with a kangaroo is no joke, and the animals are not seen in the least nervous about road traffic. Eileen snapped this one out the window at close range, and, as you can see, it seemed to regard us with only the most passing interest.