Canberra and astrophysics

Have got into a few space related things lately.

First, the Mr Squiggle coin issue exhibition at the Australian Mint. Overseas people would do well to research this iconic Australian tv show of the 60s, noting the sophisticated dialogue: for example, Blackboard’s intellectual contribution was “Hurry up, hurry up” in a scary deep voice, as poor bewildered Mr Squiggle (being a man from the moon) tried to draw his picture (nose pencils were notoriously unreliable back then) under the comforting guidance of Miss Pat.  In more considered moments, he (Blackboard) just says “Hrrmmp.”


Next cab (well rocket) off the rank was a tour of the Mount Stromlo Observatory, in Canberra. The tour was led by the famous astrophysicist and cosmologist, and most entertaining, Dr Bradley Tucker.

The Observatory, one of our proudest government services, was started back in 1911 with the Oddie Telescope, jointly funded by the newly created federal Government and private astronomers. Much to the Government’s surprise, when they offered to part fund the telescope, fully anticipating that the rest would never be raised, the astronomers already had pledges of enough to provide their half. Like most things up there, it was destroyed in the 2003 bushfire. This was the first federal government funded building in the Canberra region.


After the bushfire, the decision was taken to move the telescope function to Coonabarabran, some 700km away, and build more cutting edge facilities on Mt Stromlo. The telescope data still comes back to the mountain for analysis.

There is a laser which operates 24/7 destroying space junk, of which, apparently, there is a shitload. The laser can be seen physically changing position to shoot the next target, and at night time one can see the beam firing in the dark. It doesn’t seek to destroy the object directly, which would lead to millions more items whizzing around the planet at 4000kph. Rather it hits the front of the object, which leads it to stand “upright”, then gravity draws it back into the earth’s atmosphere, which burns it up. Neat what.


Another facility provides GPS, and this about to be upgraded via a new satellite, in the next few months. Extremely accurate positioning will be available.


The new focus is on building and testing satellites. Amazingly satellites are now the size of a standard tissue-paper box. There are vibrating tables, severe heat/cold testing chambers and other testing facilities, all maintained in astoundingly dust free conditions.


Any doubt about how hot the bushfire was is dispelled by the fact that the lead and aluminium melted, 300°C and 650°C respectively.


As in all bushfires, some things somehow escaped, but not much.


Next space related trip was to our Museum of Australian Democracy (better know as old Parliament House).

There was an exhibition about things which happened there at the time of the first lunar landing, in 1969, in which Australian radio telescopes (Honeysuckle Creek, Tidbinbilla and Parkes) played such a key role. Anyone who hasn’t seen The Dish should do so forthwith – a brilliant example of Australian comedy; just remember it was Honeysuckle Creek, not Parkes; and, sorry for serious disillusionment, no they didn’t really play cricket on the telescope dish.

Amongst the oddities were extracts from Hansard, demonstrating the novelty of space things; such as if we get the tv signal from a russian satellite, will it be in russian.

I only recently heard that there is a giant radio-telescope near Canberra – MOST, which stands for Molonglo Observatory Synthesis Telescope. It is of course pretty obvious from that description what it actually does so I will leave it there. I went to an exhibition on the scope in the Queanbeyan Library. It is quite an important installation, and has recently detected strange radio wave signals from way out there.

It consists of two “wings”, each about a kilometre long, with collection and analysis facilities in the middle.


Today, in a variation (sic) on a theme, I went up Mount Stromlo to a series of chamber music concerts. They were part of the Canberra International Music Festival, and featured three world premieres plus some Bach. Luckily some concerts were indoors to enable thawing, or we would have had 200 frozen bodies up there. The two violinists, who asked for volunteers to blow warm air on their hands, were thrilled when it started to sleet and we all “had” to pop inside for the final concert. Great idea though, and, if it had been on any other day of the last few weeks it would have been still and 19°C.



Michael Monaghan

May 2019

Going where no man (well not recently) has been before

IMG_1833Last week I went on a very interesting tour of the Old Parliament House in Canberra. The tour was built around the lunar landing of 1969, and the activities in Australian government concerned with that event.

We heard some astonishing, but not surprising, excerpts from the Hansard – the records of the parliamentary debates. eg Mr Speaker, if we are receiving tv signals of the landing via Russian satellites, will they be in, well, Russian! General laughter based on embarrassed ignorance.

We visited several sites within the building featured in the brilliant lunar landing film “The Dish”, including the use of the Clerk of the Senate’s office to be the Prime Minister’s office, hoping no one notices that the carpet is red, when the PM’s would be green.

A clear highlight was to be able to go onto the roof, which provided a rare opportunity to see behind the iconic statues facing out from the front of the building, as well as other connections.



Michael Monaghan

April 2019



An inspired move in the ACT is to create reserved forests and grasslands right through the territory, to assist migrating birds and small animals, and to preserve our wildlife. Two protected areas are the Sanctuary, at Tidbinbilla in the far south, and Mulligans Flat in the far north.

Mulligans Flat has seen the release, and re-generation, of the Eastern Bettong which had become extinct in these formally prolific parts. Behind the fence, they are secure from cats and foxes (as long as visitors make sure they shut the gate!), and are doing very well. During the day they won’t be seen, but their houses are quite evident. They cut and chomp a “cave” inside grass clumps, as can be seen in this photo.


Also being re-introduced are the Eastern Quoll and the Bush-stone Curlew.

The App is excellent and gives great information about various features of the many walks in the reserve. From this I learnt that there are two basic types of eucalypts – thick barked and smooth. So the red-barked gum (first photo) has a thick bark, which, in the inevitable bushfire, burns slowly so keeps the key workings cooler so they have a better chance of survival. The Brittle Gum (second photo) has a very smooth surface, so the fire doesn’t get a good hold on the tree, hence again the key workings are kept cooler.

After about 150 years, the app told me, the termites finally gain traction in terms of eating the tough fibrous insides of the gum’s branches, and the outer branches start to die. This might also be driven by cataclysmic events such as a super hot fire. Interestingly, according to the App, eucalypts grown in other countries do not suffer the same fate. It is surmised that the termites in Morocco, Spain, Equador et al have not evolved – yet – to be able to eat the very tough eucalypt fibres. In Australia of course, nature being nature, the dead branches drop off or open up to provide housing for birds and small animals.

Gum dying

classic animal home

There are a number of large ant nests, in which the Echidna revel:


I saw my first ever Varied Sitella (in this case of the chrysoptera orange-winged sub species); they are, even within the same sub-species, well, varied – which is just as well or they would have to change the name; they are the next three photos:

Sitella Varied chrysoptera2Sitella, Varied chrysoptera orange winged femSitella, Varied chrysoptera 3

and also first ever Speckled Warblers – the first two are males (blacker line across the side of the head above the eyes) and the one on the ground a female (much lighter line above the eyes).

Warbler, Speckled m2Warbler, Speckled mWarbler, Speckled f

Also spotted was a Flame Robin, which is striking both from the back and the front:

An interesting feature of this area is the old coach road which ran from the belconnen estates to braidwood and sydney. The original track can still be seen here:

old coach roadAs always, one I had a lot of trouble identifying but am pretty sure it is a female Flame Robin.

A lovely spot and a tribute to the Government and the rangers.

Michael Monaghan

April 2019

Photographer gets great support from a birder at Jervis Bay, NSW.

Python, Diamond

So, now I have got your interest, we get on with the main game.

Thanks to Andrew Wood of Illawarra Birding Tours ( I had a great day and a half around Jervis Bay area. Added 6 bird species to my identified species list, bringing it to 191. Also visited some lovely spots. As you will see from the web site, comfortable accommodation is also available in Culburra Beach, which is ideally located for photographers and birders to explore the great variety available around this area.

This Diamond Python wasn’t going anywhere fast, having found a treasure spot in the sun. Just in case, I kept a close eye on the end of the tail, which seemed miles (well several kilometres) from the head.

Amongst the newly sighted species were the Black-Faced Monarch, Eastern Bristlebird, Brown Gerygone, Olive Whistler, Common Bronzewing, Yellow-faced Honeyeater and Brown Thornbill.  The first three are the Brown Gerygone, followed by the Olive Whistler.

Thornbill, Brown

The Eastern Bristlebirds hadn’t read “How to have my photo taken 101”, which involves standing still for a second. However, we did see three, typically darting, half running and half flying, across the path from scrub to scrub.

A useful and surprisingly detailed text is “The Complete Guide to finding the Birds of Australia” by Richard Thomas, Sarah Thomas, David Andrew and Alan McBride.

Also no decent photo of the Brown Thornbill, just one of it rushing to avoid having its photo taken.

The Black-faced Monarch was a fleeting glimpse, attempting to camouflage itself beside an autumn leaf.

Monarch, Black-faced

Eastern Whipbirds are often heard and extremely rarely seen. We got a good look at both the male and female.

There were plenty of honeyeaters, New Holland, White-cheeked, and a first sighting of a Yellow-Faced Honeyeater.

Honey-eater, New HollandHoneyeater, White-cheeked (2)Honeyeater, Yellow-faced (2)

The Common Bronzewing is, well common, but was my first sighting, and was a last find as we headed home.

Bronzewing, Common

There were also many usual suspects, in order below: Australian Pelican, Nankeen Kestrel, Grey Butcherbird, Yellow Robin, Australasian Gannet, White-bellied Sea-eagle, Eastern Spinebill, White-faced Heron, and Hoary Headed Grebe.Australian PelicanKestrel, NankeenButcherbird, Grey

Gannett, Australasian


Heron, White=facedGrebe, Hoary Headed (2)

Always repaying closer inspection, an assortment of ducks revealed a Hardhead (first photo), and Wood Ducks.

Duck, Hardhead

Ducks Wood ducks inc br male in centre; Hardhead m in front; pacific black ducks front right and back left

The two in the water are Hardhead in front, and the Pacific Black, as is the one at back right.

There also was a single Caspian Tern, looking somewhat forlorn amidst strangers.

Tern, Caspian

Finally, a subtle variation were some Silver-eyes, race ‘lateralis’ – Tasmanian based which fly up here for winter.



Silvereye, lateralis (tas race)

Michael Monaghan

April 2019

Up close with Nankeen Night Herons

Since I have only ever seen two individual Nankeen Night Herons before, and they were some considerable distance away, I thought it worth highlighting the excitement of seeing three, all in one huge Elm.  Thanks to a fellow walker who spotted them.

As is usual, they kept very very still. I believe they can sit totally still for hours at a time. They were very keen to observe us too.

The first set are of two birds which were adult but non-breeding.


A while later, we noticed a third bird, which turned out to be a breeding adult. This is evidenced by the twin white plumes from the back of the head.


The light was unusually kind, with a clear blue sky and the sun shining through the massive canopy to give the birds a lovely colour.

Michael Monaghan

March 2019

Jerrabomberra Wetlands not so wet

Everywhere I have been in the last month (except the coast) has been typified by a lack of water. Dams, creeks, wetlands – very little water to be found.

The very low water levels at the Jerrabomberra Wetlands is bringing a bit of a change of behaviour.

This Australian Reed-Warbler was exploring the dry mudflats rather than hiding as usual in the reeds, warbling I guess.

I have not seen both Red-Kneed Dotterells and Black-fronted Dotterells grazing together before.

IMG_1466IMG_1471Paradoxically, the Red-Kneed Dotterells are the ones with the most black on their fronts.

Let’s hope it rains soon.


Michael Monaghan

March 2019


IMG_1201What an extraordinary region. The Grampians are a range of sedimentary uplifts some  300m high. One can only imagine the forces at play.

Firstly though, being settled by Launcestonians, Mechanics Institutes were a precursor to civilisation (Byaduk and Macarthur):


This is the Grampians from my accommodation:

Halls Gap is, somewhat surprisingly, a gap in the Grampians Ranges. It is well seen from this lookout on the Mount Victory/North Grampians road;


Mackenzie Falls are, well deservedly, a highlight of this area.

IMG_1168IMG_1176Along the many walks there were lots of birds to be seen, the highlight seeming to be the male and female Scarlet Robin:


But I was lucky to bump several times into Paul and Laura, and under a single oak tree near the Warnook Weir, Laura showed Sherlock Holmes observation powers to look up to see what had pooped down. I was again lucky to be summoned to identify the strange birds.

At first there seemed to be two Nankeen Night Herons, my favourite bird. Later we found there were in fact three, one breeding male and two others. Perhaps my most amazing bird findings ever. I can’t possibly choose the best photos so this is a selection


IMG_1195IMG_1201IMG_1213IMG_1252IMG_1263IMG_1275The last photo is of the breeding male with the show-tell  feather spur from the back of the neck.

Many of the usual suspects graced the shallows, including this Great Egret pair.

IMG_1288 The Grampians are certainly extraordinary.



And the guests on the lawns at the excellent Halls Gap Valley Lodges included superb fairy wrens (including males losing their breeding blue) rabbits, emus, kangaroos, white browed scrubwrens, white browed babblers (my first sighting), crimson and eastern rosellas, kookaburras and many assertive sulphur-crested cockatoos. The white-browed babblers (my first sighting) are at the end.


IMG_1065IMG_1047The swing got lots of attention from this ‘roo. To borrow from Austentashus: “You can garoo, you can!”

IMG_1064Michael Monaghan

March 2019