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July 3, 2018

Canberra, in the Australian Capital Territory, is known as ‘the bush capital’. Relatively new by city standards, at just over 100 years old, strategic planning saw the protection of significant areas of natural vegetation within the bounds of the city.

Foresight by early town planners has preserved vegetation types in the Canberra region that are now nationally threatened. One of these is a Natural Temperate Grassland community that is relatively common in the Canberra region, so it is too easy to forget the real threats at a national scale. Grasses provide most food for both people and livestock. Natural grasslands around the world have often been highly altered through grazing or other land management practices. Also, grasslands are often preferentially utilised for broad-scale agriculture as there are usually few trees to remove.

Grasslands and the Molonglo River corridor provide rich habitats for a large numbers of animals. These include larger animals such as echidnas, which feed on...

March 22, 2018

March 23 celebrates Australia's most iconic trees - the Eucalypts. While now widely grown around the world, Eucalypts give the Australian bush their own unique smells and textures.

From the colourful bark of alpine snow gums, to the gnarled butts of inland mallees, Eucalypts, or 'gum trees' are their own work of art.

According to Eucalypt expert Dean Nicolle (2018), Australia has over 800 species of Eucalypt, classified in three genera, Angophora (the apple gums; 10 species), Corymbia (the bloodwoods; 92 species) and Eucalyptus (c. 710 species), containing an amazing range of diversity. A small number of species are also found in New Guinea and Timor.

Spectacular species such as the Silver Princess (Eucalyptus caesia) are commonly grown in gardens, but this species is naturally rare, growing on scattered granite rocks in the Western Australian wheatbelt.

A new and rare species, Eucalyptus revelata has just been named from remote ranges in the West Kimberley of Western Australia. It grows w...

January 25, 2018

Opiliaceae is a small family of 39 species related to the mistletoe (Loranthaceae) and sandlewood (Santalaceae) families. They are all parasitic to some degree on other plants. Melientha suavis (phak waan paa) and Champereia manillana (false olive, chemperai) are cultivated as vegetables in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Urobotrya siamensis and Lepionurus sylvestris (lin wei mu shu) are used as local medicines in Thailand and Malaysia (Hiepko, 2008).

Many of the genera and species have reduced floral parts, making interpretation of relationships challenging. New molecular data are enabling these relationships to be re-defined (Nickrent et al. 2010).

Australia has only five species in the Opiliaceae, and three of these are only recently included as the genus Anthobolus (desert broombush) has traditionally been placed in the Santalaceae (Kuijt 2015). The Australian species are in tropical or in arid habitats, including Opilia amentacea (fragrant opilia; left and centre photos below...

January 16, 2018

Often considered pristine, in reality the sparsely populated and isolated Kimberly ‘wilderness’ is already highly altered. While those working in the region know this to be true, quantifying changes to vegetation structure and composition has been difficult due to an absence of critical baseline data.

New collaborative research just published in the Journal of Vegetation Science has utilised soil cores from a lagoon in the remote north-west Kimberley to assess direct landscape changes associated with the arrival of Europeans and particularly the introduction of cattle. For the first time, clear landscape-level vegetation changes have been identified, demonstrating a significant impact on pre-European vegetation. The research was lead by Simon Connor at the University of Melbourne, in collaboration with Larissa Schneider, Jessica Trezise, Susan Rule and Simon Haberle at the Australian National University, Russell Barrett at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, and Atun Zawadzki at the Aust...

November 25, 2017

Normally separated by the Pacific Ocean, Australian honeyeaters do not regularly encounter bromeliads. At the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden on Mount Tomah, west of Sydney in New South Wales, Australia, a New Holland Honeyeater (Phylidonyris novaehollandiae), has discovered a mountain bromeliad, or Blue Puya (Puya alpestris subsp. zoellneri); a member of the Pineapple family, Bromeliaceae.

The Blue Puya is named for its magical blue-green flowers but has only recently been recognised as distinct from the cultivated Puya x berteroniana. It was described as a new subspecies by Georg Zizka and co-authors in the journal Brittonia in 2013. Widely grown in cool-climate botanic gardens, it is native to north and central Chile.

Visiting the Blue Mountains Botanic Garden on a stormy afternoon, we found the gardens shrouded in mist, with thunder rumbling in the distance. It was an enchanting experience for our guests Tom & Jill Woodhouse who were visiting from the UK. Together we dodged showers whi...

July 22, 2017

On a recent tour of Wales, we stopped in at the small town of St David's, in the south-east, to take in a tour that guaranteed sighting of puffins - an enigmatic bird that we had never seen in the feather. We were fortunate to strike a sunny day - never guaranteed in Wales, even in mid-summer. After direction from the town that made it sound like the wharf was three blocks away, half an hour later we emerged from a winding maze of Welsh lanes (barely wide enough in places for our mini Fiat 500, so don't even think about passing!).

A curious wharf, evidently designed to launch rescue boats during fierce winter storms, had us trekking down to the beach, then back up a series of steps before finally descending the boat ramp. A dozen of us sat in pairs in a large zodiac and off we shot across the bay. A flock of gannets had us veering off-course on the hope of finding new porpoise in life - and we did! A small and shy family of porpoises including two young, were chasing a school of fish, t...

July 5, 2016

Spreading along the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney, Woy Woy and its surrounds are an interesting mix of nature and humanity. Three native birds illustrate some of the different ways each have adapted to the other. While this Rainbow Lorikeet (Trichoglossus haematodus) looks like it is lining up for a latte at the local cafe, it has sweeter treats in mind.

Naturally feeding on nectar and pollen from native flowers, supplemented by various native fruits and seeds, it has quickly adapted to the presence of people and an additional range of foods that tempt any sweet-tooth (or beak). Bold by nature, as well as in colour, Rainbow Lorikeets will often become comfortable with approaching people for food at particular locations (such as a balcony feeder, or in this case, a riverside cafe).

 Another well-known bird in the Australian bush, and regular backyard visitor is the Laughing Kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguineae). Known as 'The King of the Bush', the Laughing Kookaburra is the largest member...

June 15, 2016

As the first snow falls on the higher peaks, there is a chill in the air above Talbingo, on the eastern side of the Snowy Mountains in New South Wales. Walking along the Hume-Hovel track, commemorating the route taken by explorers Hamilton Hume and William Hovell while forging a path from Sydney to Melbourne in 1824, flashes of colour peak from the leaf litter.

The leaf litter has been tossed here and there by Lyrebirds, calling loudly from the dense undergrowth. Their identity is given away by their call changing from that of a loud shrike-thrush, to that of a black cockatoo without pause for the change of pitch. Birds and small mammals play an essential role in disturbing leaf litter, increasing the rate of decomposition, and becoming food for fungi. Exposed in the scratchings of brown leaves is a world of colour, a diverse range of fungi.


A stand-out is the brilliant purple of Cortinarius archeri, which grows singly, or in small clusters, with a glossy, sticky cap. A common species b...

April 26, 2016

Unable to enjoy the view, it is worth asking why some plants prefer living on cliffs.

While not many plants occupy cliff faces (and some that do just grow everywhere), a select group of cremnophiles (cliff-dwellers) specialise in this unusual habitat.

While usually a harsh environment, often subject to intense heat, wind and water-stress; once a plant has adapted to this environment, it can be remarkably stable.

The small amount of water captured by a cliff face changes little under fluctuating rainfall patterns. Often, water is actually sourced from rainfall that filters through from plateau tops above the cliff, a quantity that is also relatively stable, given that most water flows away as surface run-off.

Another important factor is the sparse vegetation on cliff faces means fire is excluded, or at least a rare event, so scarce resources don’t need to be allocated to regenerating after a fire.

Cremnophiles are known from many different plant families. While only a small proportion of the...

April 19, 2016

For much of the last two years, one of Canberra’s biggest celebrities has been hanging out in our front yard – Haig Park. His presence has even inspired a new cocktail at the nearby Turner Bowls Club.

Drawn to the city for the fine-dining available in Braddon, this Powerful Owl knows where the action is. Pretty much every pencil pine in Haig Park, numbering in their hundreds, is home to at least one brushtail possum, a favourite snack. Add plentiful galahs, sulphur-crested cockatoos and the odd dove and the banquet is complete.

 

The Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) is Australia’s largest, with a wingspan to 1.3 m, and one of the ten largest owls in the world. But even the biggest are no match for nature, and the owl is forced to move from a beloved oak when the leaves drop off each winter. It takes up residence in a nearby pine, where it has been found resting on most days. For such a large bird, it can be surprisingly hard to spot near the top of the tall trees – remains of dinner often off...

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