A riverside ramble


Damselfly resting on a creeper on the ground.

Yesterday afternoon’s beautiful weather persuaded me to leave my useful-but-tedious work for an hour or two to ride to Aplin’s Weir, leave the bike under a tree and walk upstream between the bike path and the water (still on the Mundingburra side of the river). It’s quite a wide, rich zone in that stretch of Ross River’s parkland, with a broad backwater, swampy areas and an unmade walking track under mature trees – a bit of everything for the local wildlife and (therefore) for a casual naturalist/photographer like myself. I came home relaxed and with a good haul of photos. I have started with an insect so I will continue with invertebrates before getting to the birds.

Purple dragonfly perching on a tangle of dead creepers

Purple dragonfly perching on a tangle of dead creepers

These gorgeous purple dragonflies, Rhyothemis princeps, were abundant in sunlit spots along the path, and I saw quite a few smaller blue dragonflies as well as damselfllies like the one at the top of the page.

brown butterfly on dead leaves

A Bush-brown butterfly well disguised in the leaf litter

blue-black butterflies

Blue Tigers in deep shade

Butterflies were also abundant. Smaller species like this Orange Bush Brown (“Bush Brown” is a family name; there is also a “Dingy Bush Brown”) and the bright Grass Yellows (Eurema species) were flitting about at shin height, with Crows (Euploea) and others at head height and above. I walked through one large aggregation of Blue Tigers (Tirumala hamata) over-wintering in the kind of moist, shady area they like, and was reminded of a similar group of Crows I found on the Town Common at this time of year in 2012 – see this photo on Flickr. There were far more than I caught in my photo, by the way – they were scattered over a few square metres.

long-legged fly on leaf


This cranefly is not the species I’m most familiar with, the Tiger Cranefly (Nephrotoma australasiae) but one of the other 700-odd (!) species in the family Tipulidae. It’s just a little larger than the Tiger Cranefly, meaning it has a body length of about 15mm and a leg span of perhaps 60 – 80 mm. I didn’t see as many birds as I had expected but enjoyed watching the Jacana foraging on the backwater. I have not zoomed in on it in the photo below because I wanted to show just how mucky its preferred habitat can be: near-stagnant water full of rotting lilies and other plants, algae and all sorts of things we would generally not want to wade around in or (if we had feet like a jacana) on. It’s full of highly nutritious food, though, and that counts for a lot.

small brown bird on weedy lagoon

Comb-crested Jacana foraging on the backwater

Other birds sighted on the walk were a Brown Honeyeater, a Pied Cormorant on the river, Welcome Swallows hunting over the water and a Forest Kingfisher looking for a late-afernoon snack:

kingfisher on paperbark branch

Forest Kingfisher

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Facing the Fallout: Naoto Kan in Townsville

flyer for Kan's Australian tour
Naoto Kan, who was Prime Minister of Japan when the tsunami struck in March 2011 and knocked out the Fukushima nuclear power plant, visited Townsville last week on his Australian tour. His theme was that nuclear energy is inherently, unavoidably, dangerous and that we should learn from the near-catastrophe three years ago and pursue renewables instead.

There was nothing new in his message but it was especially sobering when heard directly from the man who was ultimately in charge of handling the Fukushima crisis. His own change of heart about nuclear power came, by his own account, with the realisation that the whole of Tokyo – 50 million people – may have had to be evacuated and that such an undertaking would have led to the end of Japan as a functioning society. In the event, the worst was averted but the reality was still grim: thousands evacuated, families broken up, farms destroyed for years to come, and a damage-control project which is still in progress and, by some accounts, still in dire trouble (e.g. CBSNew Scientist, The Guardian)

The Townsville Bulletin interviewed Mr Kan while he was in town (click here to see their article) and ABC News covered his meeting with indigenous people near the Ranger mine and spoke to him about the Australian uranium trade; SBS also covered his visit.

After Mr Kan spoke to his attentive Townsville audience, local people took the lectern to talk about the nearby Ben Lomond uranium mine and why re-opening it was such a bad idea. Bill Laing, Managing Director of Laing Exploration Pty Ltd, Townsville-based international mining consulting company, presented an expert overview of the mining technology and concentrating process, with special attention to the risks in relation to the Burdekin River catchment; David Sewell of CAMBL then spoke about the political side of things.

The audience didn’t need much convincing, actually: common sense and common local knowledge are enough to tell us that a tailings dam 50km from Townsville is clearly very risky in the light of our frequent cyclones and the regular problems with Ranger mine’s dam (and the nickel refinery’s tailings dam at Yabulu, for that matter). The fact that any leaked radioactive material will be carried down Keelbottom Creek into the Burdekin, the main water supply for Charters Towers and the backup water supply for Townsville, merely adds weight to the obvious conclusion that the mine should never re-open.

NQCC was the host for the event and was supported by CAMBL, Citizens Against Mining Ben Lomond. NQCC has a uranium mining page here and will no doubt have more to say on these issues, as will CAMBL.

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Two nature photography competitions


Winter sky from Ross River estuary, with Mount Elliot on the horizon

Friends and family have alerted recently me to two photography competitions which they thought I might like to enter. They were right, and the photo above is one of two that I’ve submitted to The Wild Beauty of Weather, the competition sponsored by ABC Science (the other is from the series of misty Magnetic Island views I took during the Wildlife Queensland walk around Many Peaks in May).

The other competition is more local: the Museum of Tropical Queensland’s Backyard Safari Photography Competition. It opened in June and doesn’t close until the end of October so there’s still plenty of time for everyone to enter. Entry is free (at is it for the ABC competition) and you don’t even have to win a prize to get a little kudos, since entries nominated by the judges will be exhibited during December 2014 and January 2015.

And I do encourage everyone to enter (although by doing so I must be reducing my chances of winning) because looking critically at our photographs to choose the best of them is valuable in developing our photographic skills. It can also be an excuse for an enjoyable ramble through the archives; most of the shots on my shortlist for the Backyard Safari have already appeared, as you might expect, on this blog, e.g. Percival, or on my Flickr photostream and looking through them has brought back many pleasant memories.

Oh, and the competition can be an excuse for a day-trip somewhere special to get that photo we’ve always dreamed of … too bad about weeding the lawn.

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Growing coriander in Townsville

Herbs are rewarding to grow in our backyard gardens because they are best when fresh, are used frequently and are only needed in small quantities. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to be self-sufficient in basil, parsley (except in the wet season), rosemary, lemongrass (we have enough to give away – just ask!) and so on. Coriander, however, has been a problem: in our climate, it “bolts” – that is, goes very rapidly to seed and then dies. That’s doubly frustrating because it is an essential flavour in Asian cooking and, when bought by the bunch, it doesn’t keep well.

whte flowers and feathery leaves

Flowers and top foliage of Coriander

Just to be clear, this is the ordinary Coriander I’m talking about (from wikipedia):

Coriander (Coriandrum sativum), also known as cilantro, Chinese parsley or dhania, is an annual herb in the family Apiaceae. Coriander is native to regions spanning from southern Europe and North Africa to southwestern Asia. It is a soft plant growing to 50 cm (20 in) tall. The leaves are variable in shape, broadly lobed at the base of the plant, and slender and feathery higher on the flowering stems.
Cilantro is the Spanish word for coriander, also deriving from coriandrum. It is the common term in North America for coriander leaves, due to their extensive use in Mexican cuisine.

thistle-like plant

Sawtooth Coriander with flower stalk

A few months ago we found an alternative, which we bought in a pot labelled “Sawtooth Coriander (Eryngium foetidum)” and planted out in the garden. Its appearance doesn’t suggest any relationship with coriander but crushing a leaf puts the connection beyond doubt: the aroma is exactly the same. The common names recognise the connection, too: Sawtooth Coriander,  Thai Coriander, Pointed Cilantro or  Thorny Coriander. The only tricky one is “Culantro”, just one letter away from “Cilantro”.

Botanically they are both in the family Apiaceae (which I guess is how they came to share the genes for these particular aromatic oils) but not in the same  genus. Wikipedia says:

E. foetidum is widely used in seasoning and marinating in the Caribbean, particularly in Panama, Puerto Rico … and in Peru’s Amazon regions. It is also used extensively in Thailand, India, Vietnam, Laos, and other parts of Asia as a culinary herb. It dries well, retaining good color and flavor, making it valuable in the dried herb industry. It is sometimes used as a substitute for cilantro (coriander in British English), but it has a much stronger taste.

A couple of weeks ago our plant put up a flower stalk, seen in the photo above, making it even more thistle-like than it had been. The flowers are like minuscule pineapples nestled in rosettes of extremely spiky leaves:

green flower

Sawtooth Coriander flower

The cultivation notes that came with our pot said “remove flower stalks when forming” and we did remove them once we realised what they were. The notes also gave another common name for the herb: Perennial Coriander. So far, so good!

spiky flowers

Sawtooth Coriander – “flower spike” acquires a new meaning

Just for completeness, there is also a third herb which is sometimes known as coriander. As far as I know I have never seen it here in Townsville and it might not be called coriander here anyway. Here’s wikipedia’s description:

Persicaria odorata, the Vietnamese coriander, is a herb whose leaves are used in Southeast Asian cooking. Other English names for the herb include Vietnamese mint, Vietnamese cilantro, Cambodian mint and hot mint. The Vietnamese name is rau ram, while in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore it is called daun kesum or daun laksa (laksa leaf).

It’s in a different family (buckwheat or knotweed family) and looks quite different from either of the other two – more like a grass – as you will see if you click on the wikipedia link.

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Sacred Kingfishers

blue-green bird on powerline

Sacred Kingfisher, Todiramphus sanctus, on a favourite vantage point

I have seen Sacred Kingfishers perching on my neighbours’ power-line on several occasions in the last few weeks. It’s a good spot for perch-and-swoop predators because it has such a clear field of view (our own power-line is not so good because it runs between trees) and I have repeatedly seen Rainbow Bee-eaters there too.

The photo above is recent but the one below is much older. I came across it while looking for something else and thought it was worth sharing, even at this late date, to show just how small these gorgeous birds are.

Sacred Kingfisher cradled in hands

A bird in the hand … is better off than a bird in the cat’s grasp

This shot was taken by my camera in 2009 but those are my hands holding the bird so I must have asked my son to pick up the camera. The back-story is, as the caption implies, that the bird was rescued in the nick of time from the grip of our cat and released a few minutes later with no significant injuries.

Sadly, other birds (and reptiles) have not always been so lucky and I have to admit to conflicting emotions around the practice of keeping cats as pets, a topic I may return to on another occasion.

By the way, both birds are definitely Sacred Kingfishers in spite of the rather different green-blue coloration, since this is the only species with a buff spot (rather than a white one) above the eye. Slaters Field Guide says females are “duller and more green” than the male so these two are probably male (top) and female. Six weeks ago we saw both Sacred and Forest Kingfishers on a Wildlife Queensland walk on the Town Common. The photo (not mine) on the WQ report on the walk shows two Forest Kingfishers.

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