Bat photography – The largest of Australia’s microbats

As I sat by a cave entrance in the Kimberley, Western Australia, ghost bats zoomed out into the night sky, as they turned once in the open, their taut wing membranes made the sound of a stunt kite on a tight line. A quick chirp from each one and they vanished into the night. One stayed close, hanging from a nearby tree, scanning the ground for prey.

Without doubt one of the coolest bats in Australia, the ghost bat (Macroderma gigas) is the largest of our microbats. Most microbats are content feeding on insects caught in the air or snatched from vegetation. Not this bat. Only the largest insects will do, and often they want more. Frogs, lizards, mice, other bats and even birds as large as doves are commonly grabbed to be devoured. Prey is taken to a special feeding spot to be consumed. Piles of bones, feathers and assorted bits of prey animals are a sure sign of a feeding spot.

It took me hundreds of kilometers, many nights of observing and several trials that failed before I got the results I wanted. A tiny cave in the Northern Territory was the answer I had been searching for. A welcome tip-off from a friend was all I needed. Once I found the damn thing it all fell into place.

I approached the cave and could hear chirping coming from inside. Despite being ruthless predators, the ghost bat is extremely social. Clumping together in large numbers is how they spend most days, chattering to each other like budgerigars. I decided to hang back and not enter the cave itself as the bats would be disturbed. So I set up my home-made infrared trigger vertically, aiming the five flashes at the beam where I imagined the bats would hit it. I had forgotten to bring batteries for the camera trigger! The idea was to have the bats trigger the camera into a 1 second exposure, then fire the flashes as soon as they hit the second beam. So I was stuck with using only the flash trigger with 5 flash units and a shutter release cable. With the camera set to Bulb, I only had to sit and wait. Holding the shutter open manually until the flashes fired, then starting again. It worked very well, but it was a pain being stuck there with the camera.

First came the leaf nosed bats (Hipposideros ater) in three colour forms; orange, pale and grey. These tiny bats appear very delicate, fluttering around like moths. As I was set up for the much larger ghost bats, these little ones did not take up as much of the frame as I wanted. I just had to wait for the ghost bats and ignore all of the wonderful opportunities for leaf noses. The only images I managed had to be severely cropped…

Dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Brown form of the dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Pale form of the dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Brown form of the dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater) with a pup

Dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Orange form of the Dusky leaf nosed bat (Hipposideros ater)

Ghost Bat (Macroderma gigas)

A Ghost Bat (Macroderma gigas) heads out for the night

At about 7:30, well after dark, the ghost bats began to stir. I could hear thunderous wing beats inside the cave and more chirping than before.

Ghost Bat (Macroderma gigas)Ghost Bat (Macroderma gigas)

Whoosh! The first came rocketing out, chirping as soon as it was in the open. Others from another entrance joined it. The flash had gone off, but the bat was slightly clipped on the image edges. Over the next hour, many more came out and most triggered the flashes. It was a real treat to finally have a proper win with ghost bats. I left them to be and headed home, right after trying to get a last minute shot of some leaf noses which had backed off their activity at the cave entrance.

The journey to high speed bat photography

The journey to high speed bat photography

Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

It was such a sticky October afternoon as the sun went down over the Kimberley. The rocks were still hot to touch and I was covered in bat guano, orange clay and sweat. I wriggled down in a sitting position on the rocks and watched. One by one, bats flew out of the cave as the flash briefly illuminated them. The road to success had taken place over several years but finally, victory was mine. One of my favourite books as a kid was Stephen Dalton’s Caught in Motion, a fantastic book written as a photographic essay on high speed photography of animals. To this day Stephen’s photography is ongoing in this field, and much of his work in the 1980s is still highly regarded, even by modern standards. He worked with a high voltage airgap flash, low ISO transparency film and an old photocell trigger to freeze fast and delicate subjects in flight while retaining incredible depth of field and detail. My journey into high speed wildlife photography began in North Queensland with my first digital SLR in 2006. Every year Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfishers arrive in the region to breed after a long flight from New Guinea. Easy targets, they hollow out termite mounds in which their nests are built. They follow predictable flight paths to and from the nest and become very accustomed to humans, especially along walking tracks. Not only that, but their spectacular red, blue, black and orange colouration is topped off by two long white tail streamers – making them excellent subjects.

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Buff breasted paradise kingfisher in flight. Old, slightly motion blurred image taken with one flash

Setting up to photograph them was not so hard. I only had one flash, a wide angle lens and an industrial infrared sensor to trigger the camera. That was enough; I set up the camera, pre-focused the lens and aimed the sensor and its reflector across the path of the bird. All I had to do was walk away and come back to check on it once in a while. I took many photographs of these birds this way, sometimes they were taking food back for their babies, other times flying out of the nest.

For a few years I put high speed wildlife photography on the back burner, rarely dusting off the gear. Last year, I decided to get back into it to see what I could do. Bats were something I always wanted to photograph in flight but for some reason I spent years thinking about it and never actually putting it into action. Seeing bats flying predictable paths along forest trails, through road culverts and out of caves really got me planning how to actually do it.

It was at my friend Stuie’s place in Cairns that I decided to take bat photography seriously. In his roof are hundreds of mastiff-bats which emerge every night, tumbling out of the roof and flying off into the darkness. Fast, high flying and alert, they are a massive challenge once they get clear of the roost. We set up the reflector and sensor so that they would trigger the camera as they spread their wings after the initial 2m free fall. I used three flashes to try and get the most light in the shortest burst (more on that later). As the camera (Canon EOS 5DIII) takes 56m/s to respond after being triggered there is a little guesswork to be done. A bat flying at a modest 12km/h will move around 18cm (two body lengths) in three dimensions in that time. Many bat species are much faster. This is more than enough to put it out of the frame or well out of focus. Both of these things happened and we ended up with no sharp images. But it was a start.

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Mastiff-bat image. Both this and the one below were heavily cropped, lightened and out of focus. It’s a start though!

Mormopterus beccarii 001

Another shot of the same species

Work got in the way for a while, but I had a chance to try again in the Kimberley region of Western Australia soon enough. Many caves contain colonies of dusky leaf nosed bats, a gorgeous slow flying species that shuttles in and out of the caves for the first hour of darkness. Preferring confined spaces made it easy to try my luck. Armed with four flashes made life a bit easier. I set up the single infrared trigger in the flight path of exiting bats. With their habit of darting about unpredictably, it was hard to get them exactly on the focal plane as the shot was being taken. I did take some on the wide-angle lens, but they were small in the frame and had to be cropped significantly. My 100mm lens got nothing of any worth. It was fun setting up and having them fly around my head as they came and went from the cave, often triggering the camera while I lined it up. It was not ideal though, I needed a better way. How would I get true precision? I needed the flashes to fire exactly when the bat crossed the beam. Since it was dark anyway, I decided I had a huge advantage – unlimited shutter time.

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Dusky leaf nosed bat. Heavily cropped image. I found out that the white belly fur of this species glows green under UV light! Why though? I have no idea.

Some photographers that have tried their hand at bats are using a system that keeps the camera’s shutter open for a long time, but with a second high speed shutter over the front of the lens to keep it dark until a bat crosses a precise beam on the focal plane and in an instant opens the secondary shutter and fires the flashes. It does work but is expensive to buy or make, and bulky. Having the shutter open all of the time must burn batteries up and use loads of shutter cycles not to mention all that power pumping through the sensor must create some hot pixels. I like the system, but decided to go my own way and save some serious money as I went. The idea was to have two beams that are totally separate from each other, one to fire the camera and the other to fire the flashes. A bat would fly through the first vertical beam, triggering the camera into a 1-2 second exposure. The second beam which was less than a meter away would only fire the flash, and the camera was focused on that one. As the flash responds extremely quickly, this would be no problem. So basically by the time the bat reached the flash, the camera would be ready for it. I made up a simple infrared trigger to be used on the flash, but one problem remained. The fastest bats would not trigger the camera long enough. A fast object breaking the beam would be ignored. I needed a way to make it hold the circuit long enough for the camera. A fast, simple solution I found was a capacitor and a second relay. Now even the fastest bat had no chance! The second problem was that of lighting. The faster the object you are trying to photograph, the shorter the flash duration needs to be to freeze it. Speedlights usually have the same level of light output, but the more light is needed, the longer the flash tube is illuminated. At 1/1 power, even a slower bat or bird will be hopelessly blurred. You have to dial the power right down as low as possible. At 1/64 there will still be some noticeable blur on a moderate to fast bat. To get the required power at a bat-stopping 1/128, more than one flash will be needed; the more the merrier. Expect to be using four or more even for close range work.   It was a road culvert near Hall’s Creek, Western Australia that was my chosen test site. There was a sizeable colony of wattled bats (Chalinolobus spp) roosting in abandoned martin nests under the road. I set up beam number 1 about 1m inside the culvert on the floor, aimed at the ceiling where the reflector was taped. At the entrance I placed beam number 2 attached to a master flash. The three other flashes were connected to it by Canon’s optical wireless system. The master was a Canon 580EXII, I had two Yongnuo 600EX-RT units and a single YN 560IV.   The bats poured out of the culvert, constantly flying back in to rest, before flying back out to feed. I stayed all night at this site, camped at the entrance with the flash going off like crazy. I seemed to get more bats triggering the setup while flying in rather than out which meant less images. But those that did fly out and trigger both beams were perfectly in focus and exactly where I wanted them in the frame. I could call success at least on that, but another problem reared its ugly head – poor synchronisation. The master flash would fire at a slightly different time to the others, which weren’t perfectly synced either. So I would have a slight ghost image from the 580EX and a bit of blur from the others not quite firing at the exact same moment. There had to be a slightly better way.

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Chalinolobus sp… This and the following images are all slightly motion blurred from incorrect flash syncing. Getting closer to the goal though!


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It was back in the stone country of the Kimberley that I tried the next experiment, physically wiring the flashes together via the PC SYNC ports. All of the YN 600EX-RT units worked perfectly together but would sulk when any other was added to the group. The Canon 580EXII would fire but suppress the others, while the YN 560IV would not only suppress the others but fire about a dozen times in a fraction of a second. This was not good enough so I had to improvise and quickly make an optical slave unit from a phototransistor for the 580 and 560. Only the three YN 600EX-RT units were connected to the flash trigger directly while I had to trigger the other two units via the improvised slave trigger. It was annoying but after some fiddling around, they all fired in unison with zero blur. It was now time to take this setup to the escarpment.

I cable-tied the flashes to sticks and wired them together and to the flash trigger, placing them either side of my target area, zoomed and aimed perfectly so as not to waste any light at all. With a duration as low as 1/20 000 of a second, all the light from all of the flashes needed to be right on target. The final flash was on the roof aimed down. The first attempt was with my 16-35mm lens. This gave me a good idea of what was flying through and what to expect, though major cropping was required. I missed a single ghost bat that flew too low. The most photographed species was the ubiquitous Dusky Leaf Nose (Hipposideros ater) and a single Orange Leaf Nose (Rhinonicteris aurantia). I needed closer images so the following night I switched to my 100mm f2.8L lens.

It was such a great feeling to watch the bats fly in and out of the cave with the flash going off, checking the photos and seeing the images shown here. Perfect focus, no blur and great composition. Currently I am working on a tutorial on how to build the devices you will need. Very cheap and surprisingly easy!

Common Sheathtail Bat (Taphozous georgianus)

During the shutter’s open time, two Common sheathtail bats flew through the flash beam, making a great double exposure.

Common Sheathtail Bat (Taphozous georgianus)

Common sheathtail bat

Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

Series of Orange leaf nosed bat images (Rhinonicteris aurantia)


Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)
Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

Into the heart of Cape York – part II, the snakes and cuscus

Into the heart of Cape York – part II, the snakes and cuscus

The next morning arrived and Steve appeared. I asked him about getting supplies from the supermarket.

“Yeah… ya might wanna go before nine or ten this morning, or ya might find all o’ the good stuff’ll be gorn. Supplies run out quick, an’ they’re bloody expensive.”

So we headed down to the supermarket and found that it was pretty crowded, it was going to be closed for a few days. To our surprise Les was in the bakery section, serving bread and roast chickens. We chatted quickly and bumped into Nev from the airport. It was like we were already “local”. Lockhart River is an Indigenous community. The supermarket was a hive of activity as everyone was buying supplies for Christmas. Locals worked at the cash registers and staffed the shop. Government incentives are in place to curb unhealthy eating habits in these communities by subsidizing fresh fruits and vegetables. There is a “healthy” section in the refrigerators bordered by a cartoon Elder with his thumbs up and the caption “Big Jim says thumbs up to good tucker”.

With some supplies, we headed out to book the campsite for the next few days. I did it all online with my phone, which was a massive hassle with Queensland Parks and Wildlife who think that everyone has internet all of the time. Lockhart River sort of has it. Well, after doing all of it online, setting up an account, confirming it, setting up payment and car details, for technical reasons it was rejected as I was confirming it so I had a painful conversation with a consultant over the phone. She asked many irrelevant questions including what kind of car we had. Apparently only 4WD vehicles are allowed to the campgrounds. Any car can navigate these roads, even a golf buggy! There are no car restrictions on the road and the campgrounds are only three to twenty metres from the roads anyway. I lied and said the Hilux was a 4WD, even though it wasn’t. With that out of the way, I noticed a storm was looming, so we drove back to Paul’s house.

Phil was clearly loving this adventure. We laughed at how strange the town was, at least compared to the strict rules and regulations in mainstream Australia. Kids as young as ten were scooting around on quad bikes, nobody wore seatbelts, and when I was fuelling up the car the local policeman stepped out of the patrol car in shorts, singlet and sandals.

When we returned to Paul’s, Steve was talking to a massive, dark skinned man, not Indigenous in appearance but more like an Islander, which he turned out to be. From the Solomon Islands, Paul Piva sported tribal tattoos, immense shoulders, arms like tree boughs and a massive smile. Without doubt one of the kindest and friendliest people I have ever met, We shook hands and he welcomed us, but I had business to discuss.

“Mate,” I started “What do you want to do about the car? Want some money, forms…?”

“Nah bro. She’s right, we’ll sort it out later.”

“So, we doing the price on the website?”

“Nah, too expensive” he chuckled. “Anyway, where you mob off to? You can camp here as long as you like. Use the fridge, leave stuff here, it’s all good. I came back late last night, saw you in here, thought nothing of it and went to bed.”

“Off to camp in the forest. Already paid for the site, besides, we want to be in the forest. It’s better for finding the things we are looking for.”

“Suit yourselves. The offer’s still open. You need anything? I can set up a marquee, generator…”

“Don’t worry about it” said Phil. “It’s fine, we have camped in worse. All part of the adventure!” He looked in the direction of the oncoming storm.

We set off in the ute to the nearby rainforest. It was at this point we noticed how unusual it really was. At night it didn’t look all that different to most other tropical rainforests, but by day it showed its true colours. The trees were the most obvious thing; they were very low on average; truly large emergents were rare or absent. Most of the forest was less than ten metres tall from what we could see. It was also very muddy and full of bamboo, but this species had broad leaves and grew in tangled masses rather than straight up. There really wasn’t much forest on the road either, in ten minutes you could easily be out the other side in the heath country. The road itself was also very passable. Although it was dirt, potholes were rare other than at the bridges over the creeks, but even they could easily be passed with a small car. The Iron Range is a very user-friendly place from what we could see.

Because we had a ute with an open tray, there was absolutely no shelter for our worldly goods. We had left some at Paul’s, but the rest such as clothing and tools, charging equipment etcetera had to be carried in waterproof barrels; already the barrels had been drenched with rain, but everything was still dry inside. After some messing about the tent was set up and the airbeds filled.

Something strange caught my attention. A long trill rang out from a tree directly above us. Straining to see its source, I had my suspicions. Eventually I did find it- a small, bright yellow bird with green metallic wings. A yellow billed kingfisher (Syma torotoro) was the only one of ten kingfisher species I had not seen in Australia, and the one with the most restricted distribution in the country. Also found in New Guinea, it is the only Australian kingfisher with a yellow bill, which is serrated. It, like most Australian kingfishers hunts on land, but spends most of its time in the tree tops and is very hard to observe. Even harder to photograph, I could not manage a single useful image of the bird. The pair were occupying a termite nest in preparation for breeding. Like most Australian kingfishers, they gouge a hole in the termite mound and lay their eggs in it, the young will fledge in less than a month. This species prefers to nest high up in arboreal mounds well out of reach of most predators.

As the day went by, we readied ourselves for the night ahead. When Phil and I do the annual herping trip, one thing we do frequently are all-nighters. It is common to be returning as the sun rises. Getting wildlife images does require some real dedication!

Another bird called from deep in the forest, in the direction of the Claudie River. A deep gong like note “Gwarnk!” meant I was hearing one of the Australian birds of paradise, the Trumpet Manucode (Phonygammus keraudrenii). A black bird with an oily purple shine and red eyes, it is a fruit eater; this trip we only heard the one. I had, however glimpsed them in Papua years earlier. Regularly flying overhead were red cheeked parrots (Geoffroyus geoffroyi), a green parrot with reddish heads and a strange, short stumpy tail that makes them look rather incomplete, as if they should have a long tail.

All around the campsite another must-see bird was hard at work. Magnificent riflebirds (Ptiloris magnificus) are also a bird of paradise, famous for their display dance which involves curving the rounded wings up and swinging the head from side to side while calling for females. Females are brown while males are jet black with brilliant iridescence all over and lace like feathers down the sides. Males also make a “plastic bag rustling” sound in flight. The normal call sounds like a person whistling for attention: “Wheeew-wit!”. Imitating the call brought a female out into view, but against the bright sky photography was futile. These birds spend the day prying under loose bark and rotting wood for insects.

Phil badly wanted to find a brown headed snake (Furina tristis). A common species on Cape York, it is venomous yet the venom is poorly understood and can make a victim very uncomfortable. Steve had given us directions for a known spot in town where rubbish has been left lying around. Near there was a spot known for palm cockatoos and the funny little fawn breasted bowerbird, or “Pootchiwoo” as it is known to the local community. This bird was to be a massive nightmare for me in the following days. I found neither bird that day so I joined Phil who was ecstatic about something.

Brown Headed Snake (Furina tristis)

Brown Headed Snake (Furina tristis)

I found one!” he called out.
  I knew what it was without him spelling it out. Almost breathless he told me it was under a piece of roofing metal. So we lifted it back up again and managed some photos of this unusual snake. A member of the cobra family it feeds on small lizards such as skinks and geckos. Also under the sheet metal in other spots were a number of Cape York ground geckos (Nactus eboracensis), with claws instead of pads and white spots over a dark purplish body. It was now twilight, so we headed back to camp.

Nactus eboracensis

Nactus eboracensis

 

Soon enough the night came. The forest was alive with tiny Cape York whistle-frogs (Austrochaperina gracilipes), the repetitive “peep…peep…peep…” call was a pleasant background sound. These tiny frogs were everywhere, and they call from the leaf litter and will move about while calling. They have a great little trick – the eggs do not need water, only moisture. Males entice females to damp leaf litter where they deposit eggs. The male then remains with them until they hatch as miniature frogs – totally skipping the tadpole stage.

Austrochaperina gracilipes 002

Cape York whistle frog (Austrochaperina gracilipes)

 

 

We went on patrol in the car for a couple of hours, almost immediately finding a slatey grey snake (Stegonotus cucullatus) beside the road. These snakes are not venomous, but are extremely unpleasant to handle, exuding a foul smell and biting repeatedly. I caught a similar slatey brown snake in Papua that took over half an hour to stop striking at me and chewing my boot. Snakes from the Stegonotus genus have unusual teeth in the back of the jaws that seem to be for slitting reptile eggs. Normally a very common species, this was the only one we saw.

Slatey Grey Snake (Stegonotus cucullatus)

Slatey Grey Snake (Stegonotus cucullatus)

Dainty Green Tree Frog (Litoria gracilenta)

Dainty Green Tree Frog (Litoria gracilenta)

 

Further on, there was another snake we saw in a low tree. Also very common, we saw a few of these. Brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) are easily identified with the broad head, vertical pupils and distinct loreal scale (meaning there are three scales in a straight line from the back of the nostril to the front of the eye). This one was pretty lively and in order to get the shots I needed with the wide-angle lens, I had to get close. The snake responded by striking and biting down on my stomach through my shirt. It hurt a little and drew blood. Luckily, they are only mildly venomous and rear fanged. I have been bitten by them before with no ill effect.

Brown Tree snake, night tiger (Boiga irregularis)

Brown Tree snake, night tiger (Boiga irregularis)

 

One animal that was extremely common was the large tailed nightjar (Caprimulgus macrourus). We saw plenty on and around the roads, their extremely bright eyeshine giving them away. It was a simple matter to step out of the car and take a picture. Many had young and I wondered how many get run over as they were often less than 30cm from the road. These nocturnal birds sleep by day on the ground, camouflaged in the leaf litter and by night feed on flying insects. The chicks are surprisingly precocious, upon hatching can bite attackers, hide and feed themselves. This bird is widespread through northern Australia and southeast Asia, and can be distinguished from other Australian nightjars by the white tail panels.

Large Tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrourus)

Large Tailed Nightjar (Caprimulgus macrourus)

Union Jack Butterfly (Delias mysis)

Union Jack Butterfly sleeping (Delias mysis)

Rainforest Toadstool

Rainforest Toadstool

Back at camp, I noticed something high up in a mango tree. It was a fluffy white and grey animal about the size of a rabbit. It had a prehensile tail and round looking face. It was none other than a spotted cuscus (Spilocuscus maculata) and yet another example of an animal that normally belongs in New Guinea. Unfortunately it was far too high up for any photographs but it was great to see this beautiful marsupial in its natural habitat peering down at me.

There is a track behind the campsite that goes down to the Claudie River. So we had a quick look around in case a green python might be there. In a weeping fig above us, I noticed another cuscus. This time it was the “rare” cuscus, confusingly named the “Southern common cuscus” (Phalanger mimicus). This species is apparently much harder to find than the spotted, and is also restricted to the far north of Cape York, at least in Australia. It sat dead still while we took photos, but my lens had fogged up badly so the image quality was rather poor.

Southern Common Cuscus (Phalanger mimicus)

Southern Common Cuscus (Phalanger mimicus)

 

But no green pythons. We decided to walk the Claudie track near camp and search the more open forest. Bats zoomed past as we walked, both insect eating microbats and larger fruit eaters like the eastern tubenose. They were all too fast for photographs, but some eyeshine in a low tree got my attention. One of the species I most wanted to see was right in front of me. A giant tree gecko (Pseudothecadactylus australis) had made a poor choice and was cornered on a tree stump. It gave me the full display while Phil was catching up. An open, black mouth and scream like a baby made it the coolest, and creepiest gecko I had ever seen. This genus has three members, the other two are giant cave geckoes found in sandstone country further west. This species is unique in having adhesive pads not only under the feet, but also the tail! Extremely photogenic, it posed perfectly before we left it to continue whatever it was doing. We did see more, though they were generally higher up in the trees.

Giant Tree Gecko (Pseudothecadactylus australis)

With a scream like a baby, large size and adhesive pads under the tail, it is hard not to be slightly creeped out and amazed at the Giant Tree Gecko (Pseudothecadactylus australis)

 

Tree frogs were also ridiculously abundant; every low tree seemed to have at least one in it. But we still needed to find a green python. I made the decision to go for another drive. We were wrecked, it was so tiring scanning the forest for what should have been a common snake. A couple of hours later we had given up. It was now Christmas (on the calendar at least) As we neared camp, I swung into another campground nearby and scanned the trees. My heart almost stopped. I slammed the brakes on and told Phil to have a look around and see what he could find. He saw it too. The brightest yellow I had ever seen in nature had caught my eye. Just above the ground, partly wrapped around a horizontal rattan was a juvenile green python (Morelia viridis). Its head was pointed down and it was in the strike position. There were tiny white spots and dashes, especially along the backbone and top of the head, each had a hint of red around it. Maroon flecks dotted the flanks. The snake was only small, at 30cm or so. This bright yellow (sometimes orange or red) juvenile colour is replaced quickly by the emerald green of adults.

Juvenile Green Python (Morelia viridis)

Juvenile Green Python (Morelia viridis)

 

To say we were excited is a severe understatement. Nothing prepared us for how beautiful this snake was in real life. Photographs could do it no justice, but we did our best in trying. It froze in position; the only movement was it slowly breathing. Never have I found such a photogenic, cooperative snake. It was barely a challenge to take the best snake shots I ever had. We left the python where it was in exactly the same position and went to bed, extremely pleased but also red-eyed and exhausted.

Juvenile Green Python (Morelia viridis)

Juvenile Green Python head detail (Morelia viridis)

 

Quick note: It is very interesting to note the extreme similarities between the green tree python and emerald boa (Corallus caninus) of South America. Both share the green adult colour and yellow/red juvenile phase. Both have similar diets and even rest in the same unusual coils on horizontal branches. In fact they are so similar, a casual observer might have trouble distinguishing one from another. The easiest way to tell them apart at a glance is that the boa has large scales on top of the head.

Into the heart of Cape York part I- Iron Range Frogs

Lockhart River waterfront panorama 2 001-Pano

Lockhart River waterfront panorama

It was a hot November day as we rumbled around a corner on the Cape York Development road on a freshwater fish researching trip. Cape York is the northernmost tip of continental Australia. All part of the state of Queensland, it is largely remote and undeveloped – save for a few small communities and the town of Weipa on its western coast. Weipa was our destination, though driving past the turnoff to the tiny seaside town of Portland Roads via the Iron Range was taunting me, especially considering the good state of the dirt roads at the time. I just had to go there.

It’s a long way from anywhere…

The Iron Range was a US/Australian military stronghold in northern Australia during WWII, though these days it is a region that is out of the way of most travellers. The human population resides in two towns: Portland Roads and Lockhart River, both separated by about 30km of dirt road that winds through a small section of the rainforest.

It was the rainforest that really drew my attention. Far more like the forests of New Guinea than the rest of northern Australia, it is home to several unique species of plant and animal found nowhere else- pretty much the rest of them are otherwise only found in nearby New Guinea. The turnoff was soon lost in the dust of the rear vision mirror, but my plans were just forming.

When we returned to Cairns, I called up Phil Lewis to see what he thought. The original plan we hatched was to fly into Weipa and drive the two and a half hours in a hire car to Lockhart River. Rain seemed unlikely, so the five river crossings should have been pretty easy. I looked into flights direct to Lockhart, and for $750 return we could fly in via small aircraft if the weather got too bad.

As unlikely as it was, a massive rain depression formed and threatened to drown the Cape, so as quickly as I could, I booked us return flights with Skytrans. As for a car, I stumbled upon Lockhart River Car Hire. Paul, the owner was hard to reach but the price of $128/day for a car was pretty unbeatable. With the car finally secured, it was time to say goodbye to my ever tolerant partner Linda and collect Phil at Cairns.

The rain depression was a bit troublesome – planes were going to be grounded on the 24th of December- our flying day as for the next few days it would be too risky to attempt landing. Skytrans called me to say that we would have to fly on the 23rd or else not at all.

So Phil and I packed our bags early and headed for the airport. Thunderclouds loomed in the distance as we took off in a small plane and headed north. Being a small regional carrier, we had to stop at the community of Coen to collect and drop off some passengers (rather like a flying community bus) before passing over the Macillwraith Range (the southern part of the Iron Range type rainforest). The rainforest covered hills were marked by snaking creeks and rivers. A waterfall complete with a large plunge pool slid by below us. The air was obviously humid from the beginning of the rains as steam lifted off the slopes and condensed in clouds.

Soon enough we started to descend. Rainforest gave way to larger rivers and swamps lined in Nypa palms. The rainforest was clearly defined around the edges; it did not fade into the surrounding savannah and heathland but one habitat abruptly became another as if cut out by jagged scissors.

Soon we were walking across the tarmac to the terminal – a wooden shack. That was it – a hut with a small baggage room and a waiting area. It was old, and had been through many re-paintings over the years. It felt like we had left Australia and were somewhere in New Guinea or Melanesia. Not knowing what we were expected to do, we waited around outside and soon enough a grey headed man in a Hilux ute (pickup truck) stopped in front of us with all of the luggage sitting on the tray. It seemed this was the baggage carousel. He stepped out and introduced himself to us as “Nev”.

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This is the airport…

“So… You fellas are the birdos that Paul has been waitin’ for?”

“Birdos?” I replied “Nah, we’re here to look for reptiles and yeah, we were hiring a car off Paul.”

“Righto. Paul sent a fella down yest’day lookin for ya. He was ‘ere for ages but since ya didn’t show, he left the car ‘ere just in case.”

“I emailed ‘im to let ‘im know the flights ‘ad changed and I had never booked one for yesterday.” I replied.

“It’s all good, Paul’s an easy goin’ bloke. It’ll be right. Anyway, if you’re interested how ’bout you just take the car – it’s over there (pointing to a Hilux ute in the carpark) an the keys are in it and it’s ready ta go. I’ll see if Les can take ya out ta meet Steve. He lives in an old abattoir. One of those feel good community projects that never took off, ya know. Anyway he’s as mad as a cut snake. We all call ‘im Snakeman round ‘ere. Good bloke though, knows ‘is stuff. Once ya get ‘im goin’, ya won’t stop ‘im. Anyways, where’s Les?

Nev called to a young, brown, tall and thin man with a shock of black curly hair grown out to an Afro on his head. He would have been in his very early twenties. He was working at the airport, ferrying things back and forth. He stopped what he was doing and walked over. Phil immediately noticed Les was wearing two vastly different shoes, in colour, size and style. One was a white sneaker and it was about three sizes bigger than the other purple one on the other foot. He grinned and shook our hands. Like Nev, he was instantly likeable and very welcoming.

“So Lesley…” began Nev “When ya knock off, you wanna take these fellas out to Steve’s an’ say G’day? When can ya finish?”

“I reckon I could go ’bout now, it’s almost knock off time” replied Les. So he pushed the load on the trolley he was attending into a room and walked over. He stepped into his car and called out to us: “The road is a bit wet, just take it easy and you’ll be right. I can pull ya out if ya get stuck.”

So I picked up the keys from the driver’s seat of our car, fired it up and followed; the gear banging around on the open tray. It didn’t take long and we were on a muddy gravel road, rocking from side to side. The puddles were deep but we managed to scrape and slide through without any real problems. Soon we were at the top of a small rise. A man in his early forties emerged from the run-down and disused abattoir, slightly confused it seemed. Les introduced us and he walked over, shook our hands and showed us around.

Steve was cautious at first, but a genuinely decent guy. He had turned this already ideal reptile habitat into a perfect habitat with sheets of iron laid around thoughtfully, old tyres and fallen timber. It didn’t take us long to find some Nactus geckoes under a sheet; black with small white flecks and clawed, padless toes. Apparently taipans (Australia’s most feared snakes) are often found under the sheets too. Steve loved that fact, and to him it was a sign that he was doing the right thing. But time was short, Phil managed to find a little spotted python (Antaresia maculosa) which was a great start.

Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda)

Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda) at Steve’s place. A popular food with the Indigenous of the area before Europeans came along. It tastes like dry mashed potato.

Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda)

Apparently the nonda fruits on the trees were not always eaten, unripe plums could be picked and ripened in sand pits.

“So, where you stayin’ ta-nite?” asked Steve.

“Dunno, I s’pose we’re going to the national park and camp” I replied.

“Nah, stuff that. Just stay at Paul’s place. He won’t be home for a day or so, ‘sides, he won’t mind anyway.”

“Sure?” said Phil.

“Yeah, for sure. He’s cool, I’ll take ya there.”

“Just another thing…” I added “Paul doesn’t even know we’re here, and we didn’t pay him anything or sign any forms for the car, what do we do?”

“Don’ worry! Paul will sort it out with ya later on. He’s easy going as. Anyway, let’s go.” He turned to Les, “I’ll catch ya later Les.”

Les waved and left ahead of us while Steve drove a larger four wheel drive and we followed. We arrived at a house just out of town with a very large shed. Cars were parked all around it. A house was in the middle of the cleared block of land. Steve led us into the shed and told us we could set up anywhere. He pointed to a series of pictures printed and stuck to a wall. There was a collection of snakes including the brown headed snake (Furina tristis), the coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), whip snakes (Demansia vestigiata) and the snake we had come to see, the green python (Morelia viridis).

“The local mob ‘ere call ‘em the glow snake” mentioned Steve, pointing at a picture of one wrapped around a tree branch “They reckon they glow when they see ‘em in the headlights on the road at night. Bright green so they stand out like dog’s balls!”

“You see many?” asked Phil.

“Yeah mate, whenever I go out pretty much, though some nights I might see a dozen, others I see only one or none. See the young one there? [pointing to a bright yellow one in a picture] Rare as rockin’ horse shit. I seen only two the whole time I’ve been ‘ere. You gotta be lucky for them little ones.”

“You go far for them?” Phil replied.

“Don’ ‘ave to. We find ‘em right across the road in that there bit of forest. Crossing the roads from time to time. Seen a big old dead one a little while back. Some prick ‘ad run over it, poor bugger. Mostly ya see the big scrub pythons, but big uns are getting’ rarer these days. Lots get run over ’cause they are too big to drive round. Take up the entire road! Lots of little ones round three metres or so gettin’ ’bout. Anyway, set up an’ I’ll catch ya in the morn’.”

We felt weird about just setting up in the shed of a guy who we had rented a car from, not paid, never met and who didn’t even know we had arrived – and was not home. But the tent was up in no time and the mosquitoes arrived in earnest, bouncing off the mesh walls.

There was herping to be done. We had come all this way and we were not going to waste a night in the one rainforest I wanted to see the most. Phil was itching to see Australia’s only “true frog”, the wood frog (Hylarana daemeli). This species had eluded us on the last trip to Cairns. Apparently super abundant we had not seen even one. In the days leading up to Phil arriving, I had found plenty of them in the rainforest, and I had shown Phil one beside a stream one night but it was not the full experience. I wanted to see the fringed or growling tree frog (Litoria eucnemis) which is a species otherwise known from New Guinea.

Australian Wood Frog (Papurana daemeli)

Australian Wood Frog (Papurana daemeli)

We had only driven a short distance when I heard the loud, distinctive calls of wood frogs. It is hard to describe, but imagine rubbing a finger on a balloon with one long note and several shorter, lower pitched notes following. They also squeak and chirp, especially while males wrestle. They were all over the drain under the road and in the pools near it. The thing I noticed was the size of them. Those I had seen near Townsville and around Cairns were small in comparison, only around six centimetres. These were very large, even the males were formidable at ten centimetres or so while the females nearby were bigger still. As the males croaked, their vocal sacs either side of the mouth swelled. This sets them apart from all other Australian frogs. As the only member of the Ranidae family that includes the “typical” frogs from around the world to be found in Australia, they are somewhat of a novelty. Phil was ecstatic. A horrible smell filled our nostrils. I thought it might be a dead body, Phil remarked soberly that with the amount of exploring we do that it is “only a matter of time”. We found the culprit. A dead cane toad was covered in black beetles, some were under the skin making it writhe around. Phil was fascinated, I was happy to back away.

As we drove through the forest scanning for snakes, we noticed the frogs were everywhere. But not many species. The familiar frogs of the Wet Tropics nearby to the south were largely missing. Instead, a small number of species filled many niches. On the low branches were green tree frogs (Litoria caerulea) and white lipped tree frogs (Litoria infrafrenata), obviously looking to spear tackle any small insects, frogs, lizards or snakes. Both of these species are massive, the white lipped is the largest tree frog of all, at 150mm snout to vent. The green is only slightly smaller but has a garbage-guts reputation and will try and eat almost anything it can, including said snakes. On the higher branches we saw dainty green tree frogs (Litoria gracilenta), a smaller species with a granular green back, yellow “eyebrows” and vivid orange eyes and legs. The thighs are bright purple or blue. Wood frogs made up the bulk on the ground, as did introduced cane toads. Occasionally we saw marbled marsh frogs (Limnodynastes convexiusculus) and ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum) but otherwise nothing else in the way of frogs. It should be noted that the only two species from that list that are normally in rainforest are the white lipped tree frog and the wood frog. The other species are normally in other, drier habitats. We thought about the massive abundance of so few frog species and determined that it was likely that the larger size of the wood frogs meant less competition. The normal competitors from further south like barred frogs (Mixophyes) and Jungguy frogs (Litoria jungguy) were absent and not to mention, far fewer lizards.

White Lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata)

I already had loads of pictures of the White Lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata) from elsewhere. Still an amazing, massive frog!

Marbled Marshfrog (Limnodynastes convexiusculus)

The Marbled Marshfrog (Limnodynastes convexiusculus) was fairly common, and even calling in rainforest pools. This is not a frog you would normally see in this habitat. They are normally a floodplain species.

Platyplectrum ornatum 034

It was also very strange to see these guys. Ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum) are a species most abundant in sandy river flats and floodplains. What they were doing in a muddy rainforest is anyone’s guess.

The frog I wanted to see came later. We drove past a culvert that drained a swampy part of the forest and was surrounded in a low, broad leaved bamboo. I glimpsed a brown frog on a bamboo branch and slammed on the brakes. It was a growling tree frog, and I couldn’t get near it before it hopped away into the dense bamboo. We stopped and listened. I could hear low, constant growling from a short distance into the swamp. We headed in and found dozens of growling tree frogs calling. A beautiful frog, they have green around the eyes, a light brown body with frilled edges to the legs. A prominent soft spur is on each heel. We spent an hour or so photographing and recording these gorgeous little frogs. I couldn’t help but notice that they were nearly identical to the tapping green eyed frog (Litoria serrata) from the Cairns region. The call and the heel spur are the only diagnostic features. Still, this was my goal in terms of frogs fulfilled.

Growling green eyed tree frog (Litoria eucnemis)

Growling green eyed tree frog (Litoria eucnemis)

The other frog I had really wanted to photograph was a species of rocket frog, known as the bridled frog (Litoria nigrofrenata). We found them without any trouble along the roadsides in the heathland beyond the rainforest. Males were gathered up around puddles calling loudly and were easily found by their eye shine. I must admit, though I really wanted to find this species it was a let down when we did. They are so similar to a related species in the Darwin region, it felt as though I hadn’t ticked off a new species. But in reality, I had.

Bridled Frog (Litoria nigrofrenata)

Bridled Frog (Litoria nigrofrenata)

We patrolled the road, and saw a red 4WD parked with its headlights on. It was unregistered and had no license plate. Phil is a fan of Wolf Creek, and is, to put it bluntly “wary” of strangers in the bush. It was an indigenous family, and I slowed down and leaned out the window, said “hello” and kept driving. My plan was to turn around and come back and ask if everything was OK. We did, and I asked Phil what the bet was they had run out of fuel. We chuckled and pulled over.

I called out “Hey bud, everything OK?”

The Indigenous man answered: “We got a problem with our fuel…”

“You got any fuel?” I asked.

“No.” He seemed let down “We run out.”

“Told you so…” I whispered to Phil.

“Look buddy, we got nothing to tow you with, and we got no can of fuel, so maybe we can drive you to town.” I told him.

He was relieved, so he called to the others in the car to jump on the back. The kids, as if expecting this all along had blankets and mattresses ready and made beds on the tray. There was about eight of them. Their mother and an aunty also joined them in the back while the man climbed on last and stood up, leaning on the roll bar on the roof. Hoping no police were on the roads (unlikely) we continued to look for snakes on and drove slowly towards town. Arriving half an hour later, they disembarked and walked into their house with only a quick thanks and goodbye. It was now well into the morning hours so we headed for bed in Paul’s workshop.

Wet Tropics Underwater Photography 2015-16

After leaving the Kimberley for the start of the monsoon season, it was time to head east again to the Cairns region to photograph the animals of the Wet Tropics. Here are some of the highlights:

Photographing Noah Creek 002Rabbithead cling-gobies

Lugging my underwater kit around was no easy task. It weighs about 15kg, and the rocks around the streams can be steep and slippery. But to photograph cling gobies in their natural habitat, the risks must be taken. The first species I managed to get was the Rabbithead Cling Goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus). A large species, at around 12-15cm it is by far the most difficult to observe and photograph. Flighty and fast, they retreat immediately to rock crevices when disturbed. Females are dull brown, while males in breeding season are brilliant electric blue and black with a red tail outlined in blue. After countless sightings in the fast, rocky waters of Harvey Creek, all of which ended in the fish scooting away as soon as I was anywhere near them I managed great success. I slid like a walrus into one pool to come face to face with two fighting males on a flat rock. They were totally absorbed in their battle and did not notice my intrusion. I was close enough to fill the frame with one of them at a time, though they refused to sit still or both be seen in the open at the same time. I did get some great shots. All other attempts after that failed like the first in all of the streams we tried. They are the hardest of them all…

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus)

Male rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) resting for a moment before continuing the fight with his neighbor

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus)

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) Male displaying

 

Stiphodon cling gobies

Rabbitheads might be the largest, but the jewels of the stream would be the Stiphodons. Found in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Northeastern Australia, there are a number of species. Males are often very bright while females all look relatively similar with black horizontal stripes over a light brown base colour. They get around in small schools scraping algae off the rock surfaces. Later in the wet season, males display bright colours any they spawn, the larvae being washed out to sea before returning to the streams months later.

Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni)

Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni)

The first species this time round was the Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni). Despite being the most widespread Australian cling goby, it is one I have had trouble finding. At Ellis Beach I explored a small stream and found several of these munching away at the algae. I slid the top half of my body in and carefully took this one useful image. Outside breeding season, males become purple and when displaying become electric blue.

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus)

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus). Male

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus)

Red cling goby. Female

Also just outside displaying season were the red cling gobies (Stiphodon rutilaureus) which are found in the lowermost sections of the freshwater streams. Males become brilliant red with blue cheeks when displaying.

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby with white patches

The most common cling goby I see in the Daintree is the Black (Stiphodon atratus). Last trip it was the only species seen. Males look fantastic while displaying. Metallic green cheeks on a dark body with electric blue fin edging they seem to display earlier than the other species.  

Smilosicyopus leprurus

Smilosicyopus leprurus

Smilosicyopus leprurus – carnivorous cling goby

This one was a bit of a surprise, and finding it was a new sighting for the creek I was in. Unlike all of the other cling gobies featured here, this species is a carnivore, taking macro invertebrates. Despite intense searching all through the stream, this is the only individual I found and the best image I could manage.

Other gobies

There are a large variety of other goby species in the Carins region’s freshwater streams. Here are some images with captions…  

Unidentified Redigobius

The spotfin goby (Redigobius biklonatus) is common in the slow leafy sections of creeks near the sea.

Flase Celebes Goby (Glossogobius illinus)

Flase Celebes Gobies (Glossogobius illinus) are the most common of all of the goby species in the coastal streams.

Roman nose goby (Awaous acritosus)

The largest of the gobies, the Roman Nosed (Awaous acritosus) is also extremely shy, darting away quickly. They grow to about 30cm.

Sleepers or Gudgeons

A number of gudgeon species live in the tropical streams of the Cairns area, but can be shy and hard to photograph.  

Brown Sleeper (Eleotris fusca)

What might be a Brown Sleeper (Eleotris fusca) peering out of his boulder home…

Snakehead Gudgeon male (Giurus margaritacea)

Snakehead Gudgeon male (Giurus margaritacea)

Well, that’s the round up of the gudgeon and goby species I found in the Wet Tropics this time around. Next post will be about the other fish species…