Percival’s Portrait

head of white ibis


May I present, with thanks and apologies to the artists, curators and judges of the Percival Portraits exhibitions at Riverway and the Perc Tucker Gallery, Percival?

I spotted him on the bank of Ross River just below the Pinnacles Gallery while I was musing on the exhibition I had just seen: many wonderful photographs and a wide varity of approaches to portraiture but a strangely narrow range of … species.

Homo sapiens without exception.

Dull, really – even though Homo sap is my own species (and no, I won’t get side-tracked into whether we really deserve the “sapiens”).

Furthermore, if the whole concept of the portrait is to depict a person, then surely it is another example of our mildly unhealthy habit of thinking of people as somehow separate from the rest of the animal kingdom, the rest of the natural world.

And there was this handsome gentleman, posing for his portrait as though he knew what I was thinking …

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Rainbow Bee-eaters in the city

Birds against the sky

Rainbow Bee-eaters arriving for the night

Rainbow Bee-eaters, Merops ornatus, are amongst our prettiest birds and I always look out for them hunting on the Town Common or in parklands beside Ross River – even, occasionally, in my own garden. I know they nest in holes in sandy river banks but I never thought about where or how they might spend the nights outside of the nesting season until one of my readers sent me an email asking whether I knew about them roosting in a “huge aggregation” beside Ross Creek in the city. I hadn’t known, of course, and was quite surprised by both the communal roosting and the inner urban location.

birds on bare twigs

Gathering to roost

It took me a week to find an opportunity to see for myself. The location was a narrow fringe of trees at the edge of Ross Creek, on the South Townsville side (in front of the Telstra building), and when I arrived half an hour before sunset the birds were already beginning to fly in. Numbers built up steadily over the next 45 minutes, most of them in one wattle tree but a few in nearby mangroves. As the evening grew darker and cooler they huddled closer together and deeper inside the tree, making an accurate estimate of numbers impossible; 50 or 100 might be a fair guess, and more may still have been arriving when I left.

birds in foliage

Rainbow Bee-eaters amidst the leaves. How many can you see?

A bit of time on the net revealed that the communal roosting behaviour is well known and the urban location not too unusual. In a study of their roosting habits around Darwin by Bellis and Profke, for instance, we read,

While breeding, Rainbow Bee-eaters tend to roost in pairs or in their nest (Fry 1984). Non-breeding birds, however, roost in trees in colonies of 30 or more birds (Warham 1957; Kloot and Easton 1983; Garnett 1985; Saffer and Calver 1997). Birds travel to the roost from their foraging grounds between 15 to 60 minutes prior to sunset, eventually settle down before dark and leave at dawn the following morning (Lord 1933; Warham 1957; Kloot and Easton 1983).

Bellis and Profke counted up to 300 birds in one roost, while Graeme Chapman (also in NT) estimated 1,000 at one Mataranka site. (His page is worth visiting for his wonderful photos, too.)

Rainbow Lorikeets share this roosting behaviour and are such a common sight around the city at nightfall that I automatically assume that a flock of greenish birds heading for a tree at dusk is a flock of lorikeets. I will look more carefully in future!

birds in tree

Settling down …

groups of birds perching together

Rainbow Bee-eaters snuggled together in the foliage

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William Catton: Overshoot and Bottleneck

This article began from a comment by Chris Korda on Unforced Variations for June 2014, one of RealClimate’s monthly open discussion threads (treasure troves of environmental information, as I have said before). Here’s the heart of what Korda posted:

I recently discovered the father of human ecology …William R. Catton. His classic book “Overshoot” seethes with innovation … Ever since we discovered oil we’ve been having a wild party, like yeast in a bottle, but now that the cheap good stuff is gone, our “exuberance” (reflexive optimism) increasingly seems like a bad joke.

Another point he makes is that the consequences were mostly unexpected. In the 1950s if you went around saying that people shouldn’t build cars and highways and suburbs because burning fossil fuels would change the atmosphere and the weather and cause flooding and a hothouse world, nobody would have believed you. They would have laughed, or given you a lobotomy.

It’s easy to blame people for being exuberant, but our optimism was forged during the seventeenth century when the resources of New World were seemingly inexhaustible and our population was relatively small.

Catton is still with us, and he makes these points and many others in a recent interview.

I will return to that interview in a moment, but introduce Overshoot first:

The core message in Overshoot is that, “… our lifestyles, mores, institutions, patterns of interaction, values, and expectations are shaped by a cultural heritage that was formed in a time when carrying capacity exceeded the human load. A cultural heritage can outlast the conditions that produced it. That carrying capacity surplus is gone now, eroded both by population increase and immense technological enlargement of per capita resource appetites and environmental impacts. Human life is now being lived in an era of deepening carrying capacity deficit. All of the familiar aspects of human societal life are under compelling pressure to change in this new era when the load increasingly exceeds the carrying capacities of many local regions—and of a finite planet. Social disorganization, friction, demoralization, and conflict will escalate.”

(Those are Catton’s words, quoted in the wikipedia article about him)

Catton’s follow-up book is Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse (2009). There’s a good review of it on The Oil Drum by George Mobus who usually blogs on the fraught interaction of society and environment at Question Everything. Usefully, Mobus begins by mentioning earlier books with similar themes. He continues thus:

In the sequel [to Overshoot], Bottleneck: Humanity’s Impending Impasse, [Catton] drops the part about we can evade the worst. The subtitle says it all. Now he concludes that it is already too late to mend our ways and somehow avoid the collapse of civilization. …

Catton’s arguments for why this is the most likely outcome for humanity boil down to something I have written about in my blog for several years now. It is the rate of change that matters as much as the degree or magnitude of change when it comes to shocking a population. If we look at the rate of climate change due to anthropogenic forcing, or the rate at which our fossil fuel energy sources are depleting, or the rate of aquifer depletion, or the rate of population increase, or the rate of consumption increase per capita in the developed and developing worlds, or… You get the picture. We are changing the world in ways unfavorable to human survivability more rapidly than we can either adapt or mitigate. And we have already passed the point of no return.

The interview mentioned by Chris Korda on RealClimate is concerned primarily with Bottleneck and seems worthwhile but I have to admit that I haven’t seen all 50 minutes of it (just because I prefer text to speech – I read faster than people talk, and it uses less bandwidth too). Here’s the link for those who don’t share my bias:

My own feeling is that Catton tends to be too negative but that his views are more realistic than the mainstream assumption that Business As Usual is still desirable and feasible. That makes him a useful guide. However, we must remember not to fall into the trap of negativity, since believing that we can’t make a difference becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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Glorious midwinter weather

Saturday was the shortest day of the year, at (officially) 10 hours 58 minutes and 19 seconds, and the weather was perfect: blue skies, no wind to speak of, and a top of 26C after an overnight low of 15. Sunrise was at 6.45, sunset at 5.44, and we had 10.1 hours of sunshine in between according to the BoM.

Today was much the same, and my burst of gardening was primarily an excuse to stay outdoors. So was my prowl around the garden with the camera, so the fact that the birds were not very co-operative, staying well hidden in the foliage like the honeyeater below, didn’t bother me too much.

brown bird in red-flowering shrub

White-gaped Honeyeater

History may record that winter this year was the week of June 10 - 17, a period in which we had 45mm of rain and a couple of days with no sunshine at all (and we ran the booster of our solar hot water system for longer than we have done for months).

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A walk around Many Peaks Range

Island under backlit clouds

Magnetic Island from the Shelly Cove track

Late last month I went for a walk on the Town Common with the Wildlife Queensland people, the third or fourth time in six months that I’ve joined them on a field trip. I know the Common reasonably well (e.g. click here for posts about previous visits) but this walk took us to a section I had never visited, the seaward side of the Many Peaks Range on the Northern edge of the Common (click here for a map if you don’t know the area). WQ has already posted a good description of the walk on the branch blog so I will just add photos.

Open woodland between Many Peaks Range and Shelly Beach

Open woodland between Many Peaks Range and Shelly Beach

There were wonderful views across to Maggie from the familiar track from the Quarantine Station to Shelly Cove with low sun (it was an 8 a.m. start) striking through clouds and mist, and I paused several times for photos.

Once we got around the Eastern end of the range  the views opened up again; there’s quite an area of woodland, some of it swampy, and mangroves between the sandy beaches and the seaward side of the range. After quite a bit of relatively level walking we followed the track around the shoulder of the last hill in the range to look down on the claypans between the range and the mouth of the Bohle River. A little further on, the track passes close to a fair-sized tidal creek which runs into the Bohle (map). I didn’t see any crocodile warning signs but that doesn’t mean they are not sometimes around!

Claypans at the Western end of the Many Peaks Range, near Bald Rock

Claypans at the Western end of the Many Peaks Range, near Bald Rock

Mangrove Creek at foot of Many Peaks Range

Mangrove Creek at the foot of Many Peaks Range

The walking was all very easy from here on, along the level, well-formed track which runs past Bald Rock and Tegoora Rock to the park at Pallarenda beach where we began. The total distance was somewhere between 15 and 20km, depending on which signs you believed. That is far longer than most of the WQ field trips but the weather was perfect and no-one complained about the effort.

black and white birds in swamp

Magpie Geese near Tegoora Rock, on the inland side of the range

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