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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.