Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Australia: The View from Bluff Knoll

Bluff Knoll surprised me.  Australia has many wonderful things, but spectacular mountain scenery normally isn't one of them.  True, Bluff Knoll, though the heighest point in the Stirling Ranges (and, indeed, in southwestern Australia), isn't exactly Mount Everest: at its height it only reaches 1,099 metres, but then elevation isn't everything. When we pulled into the carpark on September 12, 2013, I was struck by its rugged beauty.

People come to Bluff Knoll for the view, and it's worth it for that alone.  They also come to hike the trail to the summit, but it was too late in the afternoon for us to do that (and as we are neither of us mountaineers, you may take that as an excuse if you like).

As we arrived, in fact, most of the day visitors were just leaving, and perhaps (as Eileen was quick to point out to me) being alone up here might not be the best idea.

Nonetheless, this was simply too beautiful an area not to linger in for a while.

Though we couldn't (or didn't) consider the trail to the summit a real possibility, I couldn't help venturing onto a bit of it.  I think the expression on my face shows how glad I was that I did: besides being scenically beautiful, the trail launched me almost immediately into a spectacular garden. I had to bring Eileen (who was otherwise content to admire the view from the carpark) to see it: our pictures, believe me, don't do it justice.

The Stirlings form one of the botanical hotspots of a region already super-rich in plant life.  Over 1500 species of plant grow here, and as the range is an isolated one most of its plants grow nowhere else.  What I didn't know at the time was that the Stirling flora is not only unique but endangered, under threat from dieback, a disease spread by the soil mould Phytophthora cinnamomi.  Dieback can be spread with soil carried on hiker's boots, so it may be that (although dieback is a growing problem through much of the southwest) the Stirlings are suffering from their own popularity.

Black Gin (Kingia australis)

Black Gin (Kingia australis)
Dominating the mountain heathland were some most peculiar-looking plants -  tall pompoms that I first took for grass trees (Xanthorrhoea), common enough plants in the Australian landscape.

Black Gin (Kingia australis)

Black Gin (Kingia australis)
Instead, though, of the single tall flowering spike of a grass tree, these were surmounted by a handful of drumstick-like flower stalks.  They reminded me, rather incongruously, of upside-down versions of the hanging balls of a pawnshop. The analogy to drumsticks is a reasonable one:  this is Black Gin (Kingia australis), a giant member of the same small southwest Australian family, Dasypogonaceae, as the plant actually known as Drumsticks (Dasypogon bromeliifolius) that I had seen earlier along the coast.  It is a very strange plant indeed; to survive in the poor soils where it grows it sends roots into its own old leaf bases, where they draw nutrients to feed its younger growth.  Kingia literally eats itself.

Gravel Bottlebrush (Beaufortia decussata)

Gravel Bottlebrush (Beaufortia decussata)

Gravel Bottlebrush (Beaufortia decussata)
Kingia was not the only weird-looking plant in the vicinity.  Gravel Bottlebrush (Beaufortia decussata) belongs to a purely southwestern genus related to paperbarks (Melaleuca) and the widely-planted bottlebrushes of the genus Callistemon.  This species is confined to the Stirlings and the jarrah forests near Albany.  It has, according to photographs, attractive drooping clusters of red flowers, but the ones I saw did not appear to be in bloom.

Beaufortia anisandra
Beaufortia anisandra, another local species of the jarrah forest and the Stirlings, was in flower at Bluff Knoll.  Instead of drooping, its flowers stand erect, giving a bit of the appearance of a punk hairdo.

Banksia (Dryandra) sp
This is clearly a dryandra of sorts (Banksia sp.), but without the flower heads showing I am not at all sure which one.

Sweet-scented Hakea (Hakea cf ambigua)
This is a little easier: a hakea, presumably Sweet-scented Hakea (Hakea ambigua).

Allocasuarina sp
The she-oaks (Casuarinaceae) may look like some sort of cedar, but they are actually flowering plants.  The things that look like conifer needles are actally stems; the true leaves are tiny tooth-like structures surrounding each stem node.  This is a species of Allocasuarina.

Drummond's Wattle (Acacia drummondii)

Drummond's Wattle (Acacia drummondii)
There are hundreds of species of Acacia in Australia, and identifying any one from a photograph (especially when it is obviously past its peak of flowering) is probably foolhardy.  Nonetheless, this may be Drummond's Wattle (Acacia drummondii).

'paper flower'
This one really has me stumped.  I t looks very distinctive, but I cannot find it in any of my guides, and the best I could do was a photo of the same plant on a travel blog, labelled only as a "paper flower".  Google that, and you'll get a lot of images of flowers made out of paper.  Help!

Southern Cross (Xanthosia rotundifolia)
Southern Cross (Xanthosia rotundifolia)
Southern Cross (Xanthosia rotundifolia)
This is a lot easier: Southern Cross (Xanthosia rotundifolia), one of the most distinctive southwestern flowers (or, to be precise, inflorescences).  There are a number of species in Xanthosia, not all of which are showy; this one is only found in the Albany region, including the Stirlings.  We'll meet one of its northern cousins in a later posting.

Boronia spathulata
Boronia is an attractive genus of Australian flowers in the rue and citrus family (Rutaceae).  Their flowers, with four petals instead of the more usual five, make them easy to spot, but identifying them to species may be trickier.  I at first took this for Aniseed Boronia (Boronia crenulata), but it looks more (based on photos) like Boronia spathulata.  Or maybe it's another Boronia altogether; there are lots of them.

Dampieria sp
This is a species of Dampieria, but again I'm not sure which one.

Red Ink Sundew (Drosera erythrorhiza)
This is certainly a sundew, its hairy, sticky leaves poised to trap unwary insects.  It looks like Red Ink Sundew (Drosera erythrorhiza), but
I can't be sure.  Australia is particularly rich in sundews, with over half of the over 150 known species worldwide.  They come in a variety of shapes and sizes that can be quite startling to a northerner; back home in Ontario, we have only three of them.

By now the light was beginning to fade.  There was still time for us to watch the changing views, but we didn't want to reach our night-time stop to late (nor did we want to bump into a wandering kangaroo).  It was time to move on.

Our destination was the Stirling Range Retreat on the northern edge of the National Park.  It's a charming place (and for a mere AUS$1,700,000 it can apparently be yours).  We settled into our cabin, but there was still enough time for a brief stroll around the campground before dark.

The retreat sits in a bit of wandoo woodland, named for its dominant tree, the Wandoo (Eucalyptus wandoo) - quite unlike the mountain heath of Bluff Knoll, and rich in wildflowers of its own.

Flame pea (Chorizema rhombeum or C uncinatum)
Here were a variety of different peas.  This is, I presume, a sort of flame pea: Chorizema rhombeum or C. uncinatum, perhaps?

Gompholobium cf ovatum
This is, i think, Gompholobium ovatum...

Poison (Gastrolobium cf parviflorum)
...and this, with similar flowers but very different leaves, is probably a Poison (Gastrolobium parviflorum), named for its load of toxic chemicals.

Gompholobium polymorphum
This one was actually labelled, so I can say with some confidence that it is Gompholobium polymorphum.

Asteraceae sp
This is clearly a sort of daisy (Asteraceae), but I have no idea which one.

Bristly Cottonheads (Conostylis setigera)
Bristly Cottonheads (Conostylis setigera) is a common southwestern flower, a member of the kangaroo paw family (Haemadoraceae).

Cowslip Orchid (Caladenia flava)
Cowslip Orchid (Caladenia flava)
To my surprise, one of the commonest flowers around the campsite was an orchid.  Cowslip Orchid (Caladenia flava), so named, I presume, because its yellow flowers vaguely recall the quite unrelated Cowslip (Primula veris) of the British Isles, is a widespread southwestern orchid that we were to meet frequently on our travels, but this was my first encounter with it.

  There were birds around the campsite too: the ubiquitous Twenty-eight Parrot or Australian ringneck (Barnardius zonarius)....

Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica)
Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica)
...and a few songbirds raising their voices in an evening chorus.  This is a Grey Shrike-thrush (Colluricincla harmonica), named by early ornithologists who failed to realize that this was neither a shrike nor a thrush, but a member of the Australasian whistler family (Pachycephalidae)...

Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata)
... and this is one of the larger (and noisier) southwestern honeyeaters, the Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata).  Red Wattlebirds live in eastern Australia as well, but they seem more abundant, and dominant, here.  The name comes from the fleshy red wattle behind its cheek.

By now it was getting to dark to see, and we were both tired at the end of a long day.  Eileen, who enjoys photographing clouds and sunsets, snapped this lovely final view before we turned in for the night; I'll take up the tale, with more wanderings around the retreat, in my next post.

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