Christmas Bells

Christmas Bells
Christmas Bells - Blandfordia nobilis

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Wood Duck Ducklings

This family of Australian Wood Ducks (Chenonetta jubata) is somewhat late, but they have timed their fledging well, as there is water everywhere at present.

As Zoe was driving me through Bowral last weekend I spotted these Wood Ducks close to the road. So we did a "U-ie" (a "U turn") and quietly drove back until we got them in frame.

The road they were beside is Kangaloon Road, a very busy road on the edge of East Bowral. I was genuinely concerned as to their safety. But Zoe told me she saw the family there, late this afternoon. So far, so good.

As usual, the male is standing guard,
on the danger-side of the family group.
Here he is starting to round up the family.
They went round the back of a shrub
to get some shelter from view.
Then I was able to count the number of ducklings.
There are nine ducklings in all.
Dad has the dark head, and Mum is paler.
Mum (now on the left) had decided at this stage
that we had got close enough.
So she is now leading the entire family around the corner,
and out of sight.
Living beside a busy road is dangerous, but the parents are obviously road-aware. Keep safe little guys.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Grevillea acanthifolia

Grevillea acanthifolia is another prickly Grevillea, with a very limited distribution. It is very similar in plant growth to the local Southern Highlands endemic species, Grevillea rivularis (the Carrington Falls Grevillea). G. acanthifolia grows in the far western edges of the Blue Mountains, in the headwaters of the Cox's River, north from Lithgow. It grows on the edges of peat swamps, high in the sandstone ridges above Lithgow. The habitat and plant description is given in the Flora of Australia Online entry.

The over-all plant structure, and leaf and flower structure of this plant is similar to Grevillea raybrownii which I have recently posted about. The flowers (on G. raybrownii) are smaller, but both are "Toothbrush" Grevilleas, but G. raybrownii is creamy, not pink. However, that plant grows on rock shelves high in sandstone gorges, whereas its Lithgow relative grows in wet peat-swamps perched high in the gentle valleys just below the sandstone ridges in the Lithgow area.
This image shows the much-divided (but flattened) leaf structure,
and "toothbrush" flower structure.
Here is a close-up shot of the attractive flowers of this species.

The reason for the descriptive term "toothbrush" Grevillea
is clearly evident.
Here is a shot of an open area of the peat swamp which has been destroyed by drying out, caused by long-wall mining underneath the ridges and the creeks which historically have fed this swamp. The dominant plants have died out. Then off-road vehicle vandals have destroyed the remaining ground-cover plants.
Both forms of habitat destruction are a great pity.

The Coal Mining threat was subject of a weekend regional conference in Lithgow, of the Rivers SOS group, of which I am a member. Our tour of the Cox's River headwaters was part of this Conference.
The denouement of this tour was a visit to one of the marvellous "Pagodas" for which this area north of Lithgow is famous. Fallen cliff-lines are visible in the distance. The damage is recent - caused by Longwall Coal Mining, obviously allowed to approach too close to the clifflines.

So, at the end of this tour, one has to ask if these plants and the other rare plants of the region are threatened by Mining?

I would have to say yes - in all probability. This is because of the impact of Mining on water flows through the rock structure, which alters the natural flow of water which has been the main factor in creating the unique geological structures known as Pagodas; and also in creating the Upland Swamps. Many of the Swamps have been threatened by discharges of highly saline mine water. And the clifflines and pagodas are structurally threatened by cracking and by rock-falls.

Wake up Australia. Value more highly these irreplaceable treasures.

Once our generation has destroyed them there will only be pictures left to tell our Grandchildren what was once here.

Xstrata will not care.
Centennial Coal and their Thai Partners Banpu will not care.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Orange Spider Wasp

Last weekend Kirsten and I found this Orange Spider Wasp (Cryptocheilus bicolor) near Medway. It was a very large, and very busy wasp.

In the two minutes we watched it, the wasp was digging a new hole in the soft sand. It was a process of diving down into the hole; backing out (presumably bringing parcels of sand with it); then diving down the hole again.
Note the older burrow to the right (light coloured sand).
Presumably there is a nest there too.
There are two Orchid leaves just to the left of the burrow.
Only once in those two minutes did the wasp emerge completely from the hole, to walk around a little then resumed its tunnel digging.

She did not have a Spider with her, so presumably she was "planning ahead". But there was great urgency in her activity. so perhaps she had "found" a spider, and was rushing to prepare a burrow, prior to paralysing her prospective prey.I have observed these Wasps with prey in tow, previously, and I know that there is nothing which will distract the Wasp, once she has a Spider to drag to the nest.

Several years ago, at my house, I watched one drag a full-sized Huntsman more than 50 metres, through shrubbery, down a wooden post (from my deck to ground-level); then over rocks, before I lost track of her, in a dense Blackberry shrub.

Here is my old photo of that encounter.
5 March 2008 - at my house.
This Wasp has paralysed the Huntsman Spider (which is several times its own body weight, and with very large leg span). It looks like the Spider is rearing up to strike. In fact it is quite the opposite. The wasp is dragging the Spider (walking in reverse), and the legs of the spider are just catching on grasses, etc, and are lifted up, (more or less accidentally).

Once she arrives at her burrow she will take the live but paralysed spider down the hole and lay her eggs on the Spider. The larvae will hatch out, and proceed to devour the spider.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Tiger Snake near Robertson

This story inevitably involves photos of road-killed animals. However, sometimes this is necessary for educational purposes. And so it is today.

Firstly, let me comment that this year, there is a lot of moisture about in the surrounding countryside, after a relatively wet spring. The amount of growth of plants is pretty remarkable. That also means that especially on flat plateau country, there is a great likelihood of ponds and small "runnels" holding water. That means frogs; and frogs mean snakes - especially in warm weather such as we have had in the last few days.

I have heard various stories of "Brown Snakes" in Robertson since my arrival here. I have never seen such a snake here. I did once see a small, pale (almost sandy-coloured) snake in the Banksia scrub at Carrington Falls, but whatever species it was, it was certainly not a "Brown Snake" (Pseudonaja textilis).

Yesterday, I saw the first "Tiger Snake" (Notechis scutatus) which I have seen in Robertson. It was dead on the road, at Lees Road, off Jamberoo Road. This location is above the top of the Illawarra Escarpment. But it is not as high as Robertson, which sits on a basalt ridge above the sandstone plateau. This snake was in a farming area, open grazing pasture land. There are numerous dams on the farms along this section of road. Snake heaven. I would never stop a Tiger Snake and ask it to pose for a photo. So that necessitates me photographing a dead specimen - when I find one (which is unusual).

This Tiger Snake was a little over a metre long.
Quite substantial, with a noticeably dark head.
In order to complete the set of common local snakes, I am going to show the most common snake of the sandstone plateau below Robertson. This Red-bellied Black Snake was freshly killed when I found it, adjacent to Butler's Swamp on Tourist Road, Kangaloon.

This snake was more than a metre long, and relatively slender.
I have seen much heavier Red-bellies than this one.
The largest Red-belly I have seen was outside the Tourist Road Oval.
It was as thick as my arm. Huge.Its head and throat were in good condition, so I took the opportunity to record the details of the scales and the colour underneath.

Red-bellied Black Snakes are always shiny.
There is just a glint of red visible
as the snake is lying on the ground.
But the shiny black scales are a give-away.
The large scale in the centre of the head is probably diagnostic.
But the rest of the snake is sufficiently diagnostic of itself.
The famous red-belly is seldom visible,
except on a dead specimen.
But this shot shows how beautifully the scales are laid out.
In Robertson itself, this is the most common snake:
the Highlands Copperhead.
This one was very much alive.
I used a long lens to catch this image.
It was more than a metre long.
This species is very variable in the Highlands.
Most that I have seen are a dull slaty grey.
But the face is diagnostic.
The light scales above its lips often give a striped appearance.
Check this previous post of mine about Copperhead Snakes.

As far as the local Copperheads are concerned, the name appears to be a bit of a misnomer. But across its range, this species is very variable.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Flying Duck Orchid Portrait

In response to Martin's comment yesterday on the fact it was the "first time he had seen the Flying Duck remblance", I commented that I had had problems with the dark flowers against a dark background. I went on to say perhaps I ought take a board or other light background with me.

I had an hour and a half to spare, today, so I went back out to Meryla Pass.

Well here is the new image:
(Click to enlarge)
Now that's a real "Flying Duck" Orchid, surely?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Flying Duck Orchids at Meryla Pass

Several days ago I went down the Meryla Pass road, in the Meryla State Forest. I stopped when I got to the Morton National Park - simply because I was going to run out of time and light, if I had kept going. It is great country. However, I did take a single shot of the spectacular Bluff opposite Meryla Pass. You can see why this country is regarded as "Blue Mountains" habitat, albeit lower and further south. Still sandstone, and still spectacular.
This Bluff must be close to the end of "Red Hills Road",
near Fitzroy Falls.
It is overlooking part of the Morton National Park,
with the Shoalhaven River Gorge beyond it.
This country, which I am yearning to access
is inaccessible to most human beings.
Indeed, even the road I was on (which is accessible)
leads to a locked gate.
That is the start of the Northern Section of the Ettrema
Wilderness Area.
The road to Meryla Pass leaves the Nowra Road (the road from Moss Vale to Fitzroy Falls and down through Kangaroo Valley and on to Nowra). There is a small sign saying Meryla Road, and Manchester Square. The first 5 Km take you down a winding road, dropping off the fertile red basalt soil farmlands of Avoca and Werai districts, down into the moist rich farm lands of "Manchester Square". (A most unlikely name for a farming district in Australia - but that's what the district is called. There is no township, just a "locality").

Passing on from Manchester Square two things happen, you leave the bitumen and you enter the Meryla State Forest. You have also driven down onto the Sandstone. That's what I am interested, for its rich flora and fauna habitat.

Nothing says "Classic Sandstone Flora" to me
more than Boronia bushes.
Boronia thujona - close up.
(Edit: In retrospect, I realise the leaflets are smaller
and more rounded
than B. thujona.
It may in fact be
B. microphylla.)
B. thujona is very common at the Barren Grounds.
I have not identified B. microphylla previously.
These plants are growing just on top of rocky outcrops.We are overtopping Bundanoon Creek,
on a small sandstone outcrop.

This is what the small rocky outcrop looks like.
Another of the "typical" shrubs here is the large-flowered pink
Tea-tree - Leptospermum rotundifolium.

Here is a close-up shot of the lovely "Round-leaved Tea-tree"
While I was there, I saw this male Gang-gang Cockatoo
"watching me, watching him".

Click to get a better view of him.
And here are the Flying Duck Orchids (Caleana major)
A veritable flock of them.
They are relatively tall (30 cm on average).
But small flowqers, on thin stems, so at first glance they look
more like a swarm of flying insects than Flying Ducks.
Here is another view.
Two flowers on a single stem (which is a common arrangement).
Now you can see how they earn their name.
Another view.
The bud on top is just unfurling.
the top parts will fold back, as wings.
The lower section, which is green, will turn red
as the flower matures, becoming the "body" of the Flying Duck.
The "head" is the "labellum" of the Orchid,
which at this stage is still inside the flower.
Now we come to the "pointy end" of the story.
The top flower is fully open.
The second (lower) flower has been triggered by an insect
(or stray movement).
The "head" (labellum) snaps shut over the body (column)
hopefully trapping any stray insect inside until it
collects a dob of sticky pollinia on its head or back
(or deposits one from another plant)
thus achieving pollination.
On the lower flower
The head is completely folded down over the Duck's "stomach".
(Click to see it better.)
Here is the "head" and the all important "neck".
The "lamina" (neck) is flexible
and when triggered by the sensation of movement in the flower
the "lamina" snaps shut.
The head bends right down,
closing off the previously open "body" of the flower.
Here is the front on view of the "body" of the Flying Duck Orchid.
The lowest section shows the anther where the pollen is stored.
The head snaps over to completely close off this "body".
The round shape allows room for an insect pollinator
to move around inside the flower,
even when the head snaps closed.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Potato Orchids teach me about Gondwana

Several weeks ago, Colin and Mischa, from Victoria, came up here for the ANOS annual Spring tour of the Southern Highlands. During their visit Mischa reported seeing buds of Potato Orchids in a particular location. Then several days ago, Alan Stephenson sent me an email asking about Potato Orchids. So putting 2 and 2 together, I decided I had to go back and find Mischa's budding Potato Orchids. There is a hidden sub-plot to this, which I would rather not go into. Sorry Mick, but NO HABITAT photos this time. Suffice to say, here are some photos.
For those not familiar with Potato Orchids, they do not look much like conventional Orchids. That's a joke folks - as you would realise by now, "there ain't no such thing"!

These plants have dark brown stems and brownish flowers. Their leaves are reduced to small stem bracts. They lack chlorophyll and survive in a symbiotic relationship with a mycorrhizal fungus. They do not use photosynthesis for energy (food) production. That's why they do not bother to produce green leaves or stems. The name comes from a large rootless rhizome. Strange plants, but not alone in the weird and wonderful world of Orchids. Hyacinth Orchids are another local Orchid with a similar lifestyle.
There are a number of other tropical Orchids which are similarly leafless.

This genus of plants is found in India, Malesia, Australia, New Zealand. It is largely a Gondwanan distribution, but excluding Africa or South America. That's all for now, folks, but I will come back to this distribution.

Lets concentrate on the flowers, for now.
The narrow brown stem is 75 cm tall.
Here is a single flower.
You can actually see the pathetic little "leaf"
just below the lower flower, on the left.
A little shrivelled brown bract.
In terms of identification, this is an important image.
The flower "perianth" tube is about 17mm long.
According to PlantNET, the perianth tube
of Gastrodia procera is 15–20 mm long
whereas for G.sesamoides the perianth tube is only 9–12 mm.
Here is a close-up of the flower.
Gastrodia procera.
The specific epithet means "tall".
This plant was only 75 cm high,
which is within the range of both local species.
So that measurement is inconclusive.
Here is the opening of the flower. PlanNET explains this structure thus: Sepals and lateral petals
fused for most of their length to form a 5-lobed tube.
The yellowish tip is the tip of the labellum which is "free"
(attached only at the base).
The white "lump" (barely visible) is the end of the column.
To get that angle I lifted up one flower, to peer into the narrow opening.

In the interests of science I decided to collect one flower, to dissect it.
This is the "column" of the flower.
It is within the lower half of the flower.
In nature, as you have seen above
the "labellum" is above the column.
So, in nature, it lies "upside down"
You need to understand that the functional parts of the labellum
face the column.
So, this is the labellum turned over so you can see its "bits".
If you go back two images (above) you will realise that the yellow tip
you see is the end of this structure,
but in nature, it lies "face down",
so that the organs are facing the column.
Click to enlarge the image to see the details.
There are ridges, and the edges of the labellum are curled up.
There is a mass of yellow dust, which is referred to as "pseudo-pollen".

If your brain is hurting, just blame the "evolutionists"
Charles Darwin and more recently Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins is famous for his argument for the "Blind Watchmaker".
Prior to those guys we could simply "blame God"
for the existence for such confusing biology.
The good thing about that was
we felt no need to try to "understand" anything.

Sorry, but that does not work for me.
So, we struggle on, trying to make sense of it all.

Or else you can simply marvel at the complexity of Nature.
That works for me.

The reality is that we simply cannot get our heads around
the endless permutations and computations
possible over
some 150 million years
the break-up of the ancient proto-continent of Gondwana.

Source: Animation of Gondwanan break-up

It is generally acknowledged that Australia
has been an independent continent for about 80 million years.
So, with their current distribution, these plants,
or their progenitors

must have been around for much longer than that.

My mind cannot "contain" the evolutionary possibilities
over such vast eras of time.
But when I look at a Potato Orchid,
and ask how long it took for these weird plants to develop;
then, and only then, can I start to get my head around it all.

So, from little things we can learn something huge.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A rare plant: Grevillea raybrownii

Several days ago I went to Medway and found myself in a sandstone gully over there. We are talking about a little township, west of Berrima. This site is close to a working coal mine, which apparently is about to be greatly expanded, with the introduction of longwall mining.

Medway includes one of my favourite places to visit - in search of Orchids and other unusual native plants. There is an old (overgrown) sports reserve - just a couple of acres, on the edge of the village. However, this patch of scrub which I normally visit has been burnt out. It was obviously a deliberate "burn-off" because the edges of the burn were very accurately controlled. Any spring Orchids are gone, but they will be back in future years, (hopefully). The autumn-flowering Orchids may be benefited by the burning. Some people maintain it is a chemical factor (the potash and smoke-water). Personally I think it is the lack of competition from shrubbery and grasses which mostly helps the Orchids. Anyway, it will be interesting to monitor the recovery.

I left the sports reserve and went to another favourite spot of mine. There is a steep gully, and I noticed a high sandstone rock shelf (across the gully) which I had never visited before. On my way across, I found just a few Donkey Orchids (Diuris sulphurea) but these are pretty common in the Southern Highlands. I did not photograph any of these Orchids.

I was hoping to find something unusual in the moss beds which I expected to find on the rocky outcrop. When I climbed up there, I saw a number of Calytrix tetragona plants (same species I had seen in Goulburn last weekend). But no Orchids, alas.

But what on earth is THAT?
As I worked my way back across the creek, I realised
I was looking at a large shrub which I had never seen before.
Prickly leaves, reddish new growth tips, and white flowers.
Within a moment I had worked out it was a Grevillea - a "Toothbrush Grevillea". That name comes from the shape of the inflorescence - the compound structure of many, many flowers.
The next thing I noticed was the compound divided shape of the leaves, and their sharp points. Technically this leaf shape is described as: "bipinnatisect with the secondary lobes often divaricate".
Finally I noticed the fat seed pods with purplish-red stripes along the basic grey-green colour of the outside of the ripe follicles.
These three characteristics immediately reminded me of the Carrington Falls Grevillea. Clearly it was a different species, but closely related. Both grow on sandstone, but this one was growing on an exposed rock shelf, whereas the other species grows close to rivers in wet forest.

So, similarities aside, what was it?

Eventually I tracked down a reference to Grevillea raybrownii in PlantNET. Two days later I found a photograph which helped me confirm the ID of this rare plant. I cannot find any photograph published on the Internet - before this. Is this really a world first? It might just be.

The only photo I have found is in the 3rd edition of Fairley and Moore "Native Plants of the Sydney Region" (which has just been published in September 2010).
It is reported that the pollinator is not known.
Well, there is a small to medium sized black ant here.

The plant was officially named (described) in the botanical journal "Telopea" Vol 5 (4) 1994 by Olde and Marriott.

This plant species is recorded here in "Flora of Australia Online".
NOTE: In case that link does not work for you (it didn't work for me, at first). But if you type in Grevillea raybrownii to this ANBG "Australian Plant Name Portal", then click "Flora of Australia online" - the second "radio button" from the bottom of the list, the desired entry should open for you. You may have to scroll the page sown to find this "Flora of Australia Online" button. But this system does work.

Habitat shot (for Mick).
Rock shelf, with Scribbly Gum and Calytrix scrub.
Gully beyond.
Looking towards far side of valley.

It is interesting to note the herbarium collection specimens examined by Olde and Marriott. The oldest is from 1901 from Berrima, close to where my plant is living. Those specimens would have been filed under Grevillea triternata, and then re-classified following Olde and Marriott's publication in 1994.

"SELECTED SPECIMENS (from 18 examined): NEW SOUTH WALES: Central Coast: Divide between the Nattai River and Allum River, Olsen 2183, 25 Jun 1974 (NSW); West Dapto, Cambage, May 1904 (NSW). Central Tablelands: Berrima, Maiden, Sep 1901 (NSW, MEL 595889); Mandemar Creek track, old road through to Joadja, Stead, 5 Apr 1975 (NSW 136247); Bullio tunnel, Mittagong-Wombeyan Caves Rd, Taylor 366, Goodwin, Bishop & Gunnell, 10 Dec 1984, (NSW, B, CBG, K, PERTH, RSA); 19.2 km NE of Robertson on No.1 fire trail in the catchment area of the Avon Dam, Coveny 848, 24 Feb 1969 (NSW)."

(DJW Note: That is one rare plant which the SCA Environmental Consultants missed in their surveys for the Kangaloon Aquifer. The area described is within the borefield area. Grevillea raybrownii is listed on the Rare or Threatened Plants list (ROTAP) for the Illawarra Region.)

Re the name: Olde and Marriott say: "ETYMOLOGY: The specific epithet honours Mr Raymond Brown (1947-), nurseryman of Bulli, New South Wales, for his contribution to the horticulture of Grevillea; he also first directed our attention to this species."

DJW notes: Ray Brown is credited with the idea to establish the famous Illawarra Grevillea Park, at Bulli (Wollongong Suburb).