Saturday, 28 June 2014


On a brief trip to Cairns and the Atherton Tablelands earlier this month, I held hopes of seeking out several species of bird I had not yet seen, and that had eluded me on two previous trips to the region over the past decade. These included the Southern Cassowary, Chowchilla, and White-browed Robin as good to reasonable chances; and Great-billed Heron, Pale-vented Bush-hen, and Lesser Sooty Owl as less likely targets.

Unfortunately, the weather didn't live up to expectations of beautiful one day and perfect the next, and indeed, once the rain set in at the end of our first day it didn't stop until well after we were on the plane back to an only slightly more wintery Canberra.

This meant the Chowchillas that are resident in the rainforests around the accommodation we had in Kuranda went to ground (pun intended, sadly) and were not heard at all so could not be tracked down; nor was the local Lesser Sooty Owl calling; and I wasn't prepared to subject the hire car to the dirt (mud?) roads I had in mind for searching for the White-browed Robins. 

The end result was that I ended up getting to see only one of my key target birds. But it is a magnificent bird! 

So because there aren't many photos to show for my efforts, I've resorted, rather pathetically, to showing several bits of photos in a kind of jigsaw puzzle build-up to the finale. And even that is still only part of the bird - the conditions were so dark and wet that only flash photography was possible and this presented its own problems.


massive feet.

Exposed and hairy...

ear hole in an unlikely pale blue face.

Flaccid, pendulous...

Wattles hanging grotesquely from a neck...

itself carunculated in gaudy orange, crimson and cobalt.

This is Missy, the people-habituated female cassowary that visits Cassowary House just outside of Kuranda in Far North Queensland.

Although well accustomed to people, and expectant of daily handouts of fruit, Missy is a wild bird who comes and goes as she pleases. She approached me to within about 1 metre on occasion, a slightly daunting prospect given their reputed aggressive nature and ability to disembowel with a single rake of their massive claws. 

But she was ever the 'lady' and it was a privilege to see such an amazing and endangered bird up so close and personal. And my apologies for calling her 'Mama Cass' until I discovered the name Missy had nomenclatural precedence. 

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Magnificent Mushroom

Way, way back in 1976, in my A-Level biology class at school in Singapore, I first heard of a peculiar type of fungus, the name of which, Phallus impudicus, says it all (Phallus, well…; and impudicus meaning shameless or immodest). Its common name is somewhat less explicit but just as appropriate - the Common Stinkhorn.

A few years later, while an undergrad at university in Canberra, I bought a book titled The Sex Life of Plants, by Alec Bristow (Cassell Australia, 1978) for which the frontispiece (if not the dust-jacket!) is a very suggestive drawing of Phallus impudicus below the flower of a species from the pea family called Clitoria ternatea.

The frontispiece from The Sex Life of Plants by Alec Bristow.

Ever since, I have wanted to see in the wild any of the Phallus species. Not purely for any puerile titillative reasons you understand, but because of their remarkable structure, and because I have a general interest in fungi along with so many other things in nature.

Well, it has finally happened! While in Cairns last weekend, I saw two specimens of a related species, Phallus indusiatus, which if anything is more incredible in structure than P. impudicus. [indusiatus is from the Latin meaning 'wearing an undergarment'.] They were thrusting from the mulch around the bushes in the immaculately manicured gardens of the motel/resort we were staying at, just metres from the door of our unit.

Phallus indusiatus, the Bridal Veil Mushroom, is also known variously as the Veiled Lady, Long Net Stinkhorn, Crinoline Stinkhorn, Basket Stinkhorn, and Bamboo Mushroom.

P. indusiatus is one of around 30 species in the genus Phallus, the stinkhorns, in the family Phallaceae. They are generally of tropical distribution, with several species occurring in Australia. P. indusiatus is widely distributed and has been found in Africa (Zaire, Congo, Nigeria and Uganda), South and Central America (Brazil, Guyana, Venezuela, Tobago, Costa Rica), Mexico, Asia (Japan, southern China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia and Indonesia), and in Australia. Most species, however, are more restricted in range than this.

They are called stinkhorns because, unlike most mushrooms that shed spores into the air for dispersal, these produce a sticky spore mass on their conical tip which produces a strong carrion-like odor. This attracts insects, particularly flies, which then help disperse the mushroom’s spores.

Flies, in this case a sarcophagid fly, are attracted by the putrescent odor produced by the slimy spore mass of Phallus indusiatus.

And for anyone wondering – yes they are edible! And no, I didn’t try it. They are apparently rich in protein, carbohydrates and dietary fibre, and are used in Chinese cuisine, particularly stir-fries and chicken soup. They are now grown commercially and are also used in Chinese medicine, containing various bioactive compounds as well as having antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.

Wikipedia has lots of interesting information, including on culinary aspects, folklore, chemistry and so on, and is well worth a  read: