Into the Wet Tropics 1.0

Most people don’t picture Australia as a place of lush tropical rainforests, but it may surprise some of you that there are some small pockets about the place. One of the biggest is the Wet Tropics World Heritage region of far North Queensland. With Cairns in about the middle, and Cooktown to the North and Townsville to the south, it covers only about 1/1000th of Australia’s land mass. So, the plan was to be joined by co-contributor Phil Lewis who was to be driving up from Brisbane- heading out to Cooktown then exploring southwards back to Brisbane over two weeks.

I arrived earlier by a couple of days so I met up with my mates the Heiner brothers. Andy and Henry are about as far from normal as one can get. Great guys they do things rather… differently. For example, I was met at the airport by them in a small sedan with a massive furry mustache attached to the front. Thrift shops are never driven by when a Heiner is in the car. More on that later…

The first destination was the Cascades near Cairns. This is a section of Freshwater Creek that flows between pools and cascading riffles. Setting up the camera, I jumped in to come face to face with loads of Jungle Perch (Kuhlia rupestris) but the water was milky and they kept just out of range. A Macleay’s water snake (Pseudoferania polylepis) was foraging around the boulders. Only having the macro lens at the time, I snapped a head shot.

Macleay's water snake (Pseudoferania polylepis)

The Macleay’s water snake is harmless to humans, eating mostly fish.

Bullrout (Notesthes robusta)

The bullrout is a venomous, well camouflaged scorpion fish

Not far away was a large Bullrout (Notesthes robusta). Bullrouts are also known as Freshwater Stonefish, and, like their marine cousins have sharp venomous spines that can cause intense pain if handled or trodden upon.
Sitting on a rock, it began to swim away. I managed a few photos before it swam in front of a pair of boulders. An enormous eel was residing in there, so big in fact I reckon I could not have fit both my hands around it. I declined to try this experiment. The Daintree was not too far up the road, so we packed up and headed over there.

The Daintree would perhaps be Australia’s most famous rainforest. One of few places on a large landmass where rainforest meets the sea it is home to a bunch of remarkable habitats otherwise found in places like New Guinea and parts of Melanesia. The streams empty right into the sea with little or no estuary in between. This is important for a few species of rather amazing little gobies. The species I wanted to see the most were the Stiphodon cling gobies. Like all freshwater cling gobies, they live in fast flowing coastal streams, scraping algae from the rocks. In the wet season, males become intensely coloured. Pairs spawn in the streams, and newly hatched fry are swept out to sea where they develop before returning to the streams to continue growing to adulthood. In only 1987, Gerald Allen found Australia’s first Stiphodon specimen south of Cairns at Innisfail. For years, no more were found. Recently they were re discovered in many Daintree rivers and a bunch of species were added to the list. Otherwise Stiphodon are far more abundant outside Australia in PNG, Indonesia and Polynesia/Melanesia all the way to Japan.

Walking up one of the creeks, it wasn’t long before I found a heap of Stiphodon atratus – the Black cling goby. Several striped females were grazing from a rock, while males displayed around them. With a black body and purple/blue/green highlights they were amazing to watch. I put on my mask and slipped into the water to photograph them.

Female Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Female Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby displaying (Stiphodon atratus)

Males would claim rocks in the sunlit areas, driving away others. Occasionally they would display to females by hovering with their heads up, showing the electric blue fin and tail margins. Conditions were terrible: low, tannin stained water made photography hard. Silt was easily disturbed and the tannin made everything yellow, throwing the white balance of the camera way out. Significant colour correction was needed to get the white balance to look normal. Also, the tannin robbed the strobes of efficiency, making them fire for much longer, blurring the movement of the fish.

But time was running out. I had to get back and meet Phil in Innisfail as he was soon due to arrive. We met a few hours later and set out for the “Boulders”, a lovely park with clear, fast water flowing through large blocks of granite. It was well and truly dark by then, and the frogs were out in force with the arrival of a small storm. Immediately we heard a heap of Common Mistfrogs (Litoria rheocola) calling earnestly along the creek. But we walked past them and on to the riffles downstream. The first frog I saw was a greenish Waterfall Frog (Litoria nannotis). Only a sub adult, it clung to the granite boulder easily. This species lives almost exclusively in waterfalls, clambering about with extreme ease like a gecko, jumping into the water when threatened.

Waterfall frog (Litoria nannotis)

Green Waterfall frog (Litoria nannotis)

On a nearby boulder, an Australian Lacelid (Litoria dayi) sat, calling with a short, sharp creaking grunt. When we approached, it crouched down, eventually closing its eyes. The name Lacelid comes from the pattern on the lower eyelid, visible only when it is closed.

Australian lacelid (Litoria dayi)

Eyes shut

Australian lacelid (Litoria dayi)

A different individual with eyes open

Australian Lacelids were thought to belong to the New Guinea genus Nyctimystes but recent evidence places them in the “standard” Australian treefrog group Litoria. Either way they are unique little frogs.

Moving along, we dodged massive eels, disturbed a platypus and found a bunch of common mistfrogs calling on the rocks and leaves over the stream. Here they were greenish, those I have seen an hour or so south were more brown.

Common mistfrog (Litoria rheocola)

A common mistfrog showing a greenish colour

It was now time to go, we had a huge morning ahead as we had planned to go to the Daintree again.

The next morning, we awoke at the Heiner house in Innisfail to Andy running around yelling excitedly. Apparently a cassowary was just outside. So I grabbed my camera and we headed out into the rain. Sure enough, a large cassowary was pecking away at the neighbor’s tree. I managed a few photos before it slipped through the trees and into the jungle.

Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)

A suburban Cassowary just outside a house!

Southern Cassowary (Casuarius casuarius)

Head detail of the Cassowary

So we set off in Phil’s car. He had just bought it, no more than 11 days before. While he was in the bank in Innisfail I checked the oil. It was white. Phil had mentioned an overheating problem, and this was the answer. A blown head gasket at least. This is not the kind of thing you drive around on, so we called a tow truck and got a lift to a mechanic in Cairns. So for the rest of the trip we had no access to Phil’s car. A real spanner in the works but the journey was far from over…

… TO BE CONTINUED…

Into the Kimberley 4.0

Hi again everyone.

It’s that time of the year again, the silly season! I hope you’re enjoying Christmas this year, whether or not you celebrate it. Here in the land downunder it’s hot, and in the North especially dry. All many of us here want is loads of rain here in Darwin.

Not to worry, as the city is once again busy with shoppers all trying to drop themselves squarely back into debt once again, I decided to get away and re-visit the Kimberley. In the last three trips to the region a couple of species gave me the slip. This was the time to put that right. And I did.

So with a moment’s notice I jumped in the car and raced south to Katherine and headed down the Victoria Highway to the NT/WA border. Near the highway on the blacksoil plains there is a particularly interesting little frog that calls the area home. Long thought extinct I had to try and find one. The story goes back to the early days of European impact on the area.

In 1971, the Ord River was dammed to create Lake Argyle. Before then, a small frog had been discovered and named by Mike Tyler in 1976 from a preserved specimen taken from the Argyle Downs Homestead years before the dam was made. It seemed too late for the species, as its only known habitat was now flooded by the lake.

And this frog, the Flat Headed Frog (Limnodynastes depressus) was believed to be extinct for many years. During that time, it was reported that a population of the closely related Spotted Grass Frogs (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis) from South Australia had been accidentally introduced in the region. While that was certainly possible, and the species look very alike to a casual observer the Flat Headed Frog was there all along! It’s just that people didn’t seem to notice it until the start of this century.

Storm over Victoria River savannah

The Dry season decided to finish over my campsite.

And it is quite common once you locate the areas it breeds in. A short walk from the highway was a mostly dry swamp on a blacksoil plain. I carried my gear out to it as a thunderstorm boiled and flashed on the horizon. Frog’s eyes were everywhere, reflecting back at me from the headlight. For hours I searched, locating only rocket frogs, various burrowing frogs and Roth’s tree frogs. It wasn’t until I began searching away from the water and in the deep cracking soils that I saw a pair of bright eyes looking at me. Thinking it was just another Snapping Frog, I became quite excited when I could see that it was in fact the frog I was looking for. I’ve been in this situation a few times, finding something thought extinct but recently re-discovered. It’s a great feeling, especially when I read about this very species becoming extinct years ago- losing hope of ever seeing one alive. Yet here it was, very much alive doing its thing like always.

Flat headed frog (Limnodynates depressus)

Flat Headed Frogs are awesome! It had been a long wait and three frustrating attempts until it paid off.

Flat headed frog (Limnodynates depressus)

A lovely female flat headed frog

From that moment on, I began to find more and more of them. Slender females and muscular, heavy males. Most were sitting at the entrances to their soil-crack refuges, and would duck away when I got close. But the icing on the cake was yet to come. Despite the dry, terrible conditions I heard a frog call.

A soft, pulsing “Gruuup” sound with a rising inflection could belong to only one species. I had never heard the call but knew it right away. It took me another hour to finally locate the frog in the hoof print of a cow next to the little puddle of water. It was obscured by dead, flattened grass. I placed the sound recorder right next to it, and aimed the directional microphone at him and sat back. The mosquitoes buzzed around, piercing my arms, neck and face. I have a rule when out looking for frogs- no insect spray. It’s insanely toxic and melts the rubber and plastic on my expensive equipment, not to mention what it does to skin of both humans and amphibians. So I tolerated the biting. I couldn’t slap them either, as it would not only stop the frog calling, but it would interrupt the recording. Soon he began to call, and I had a perfect recording, loud and crystal clear with all the background frogs relatively quiet.

Cascade at the Grotto

The Grotto photographed in March. This time there was no flowing water.

I decided not to cross the WA border, but bedded down in the carpark in my swag, the starry night as my ceiling. This did not last for long. As soon as I dozed off, the sky became pitch black and the wind increased dramatically, soon it was a gale. Rain pelted down and I sought refuge in my car until daybreak. The quarantine officers chuckled when I crossed the border, they saw the whole thing. With genuine pity they let me through. I based myself at Kunnunurra in the lakeside caravan park. A dark room to sleep in was very welcome as I had enjoyed none at all up to this point.

Soon it was afternoon and I headed north to the Grotto, the type locality for the Staccato Frog (Litoria staccato). I had been here several times and not seen one at all, I did spot one in a remote gorge just outside El Questro nearby earlier in the year but not managed a photo as it jumped away. The other reason I was there was for photos of the White Quilled Rock Pigeon (Petrophassa albipennis) which is common here. All I got was a bunch of noisy French backpackers yelling and screaming in the gorge, doing selfie shots with a GoPro on a stick. The pigeons are normally easy to find, but I glimpsed them cowering way over the other side on a rocky ledge well away from the noise. It wasn’t until after dark that the pesky backpackers had left. As they went, the frogs seemed to celebrate, the Copland’s rock frogs (Litoria coplandi) buzzed while the Green Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea) let out cheerful, deep grunts and the Magnificent Tree Frogs (Litoria splendida) made long, drawn out growls. Then all was silent, except for the wooden knocking of the carpenter frogs (Limnodynastes lignarius). I went for these first, many were hopping about on the rock ledges as I descended into the gorge. Males had set up territories in tiny rock pools between boulders on the cliff. Scanning around gave away the presence of dozens of large tree frogs, mostly Green Tree Frogs, but no doubt the odd Magnificent Tree Frog. I looked and looked, finding only the ubiquitous Copland’s rock frog around the pools. There were thousands of them. Eventually I did manage to spot a Staccato frog, but as soon as I pointed the camera at it, it took off into the spinifex, never to be seen again. Magnificent tree frogs were scarce in the easily accessed areas, but one was sitting on a ledge nearby. I risked life and limb swinging myself around over a sheer drop to get to it. It was a poorly marked individual and not worth any risk. I had plenty of photos of poorly marked Magnificents already, but no good shots of the real beauties. This would have to wait.

Carpenter frog (Limnodynastes lignarius)

Carpenter Frogs are easily identified by their massive eardrums.

Ornate burrowing frog (Platyplectrum ornatum)

Roadside puddles had loads of burrowing frog activity. These are Ornate Burrowing Frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum)

Long footed frog

Long Footed Frogs (Cyclorana longipes) were also out in force

On my way back to Kunnunurra, I had a mission. I needed to get one of the fish that was so elusive, the Giant Glassfish (Parambassis gulliveri). Native to a couple of widely separated river systems in Northern Australia, it is a large perchlet growing to near 30cm long. Another species I had read about but not seen. So I drove my car down a massive rock self on the Dunham River to the water’s edge. Grabbing a net I walked along the river looking for these fish on the edge. There were crocodiles everywhere. I got nearly sprayed by one as I rounded a corner and gave it a fright. The water simply erupted sending mud and sand all over the place. I did see three smallish Giant Glassfish but they would not be netted. I was exhausted and checked in at the boat ramp below the Lake Kunnunurra dam wall. A large but sick looking Glassfish moped around in the clear shallow water. I headed back to base and woke up late the next morning.

It was back to the Grotto for another look for the pigeons but the French must have scarred them terribly as they were nowhere to be seen. Lizards raced around, especially some swift dragons. Otherwise it was a waste of time. On the way back I tried to fish for Giant Glassfish with a small lure, as they apparently will take them. Only Tarpon seemed to be biting. I had no real trouble catching them, but no Glassfish. I moved to below the dam wall, casting a tiny metal lure upstream in the swift water. Only grunters and archerfish were in the mood, so I left. That night I was out again. I had been told about another spot for Flat Headed Frogs near the old Ivanhoe crossing. While waiting for dark, I fished with a bunch of Aboriginals. We had a great time, but I can’t believe the way they fish. The crossing is fast water over slippery concrete. It is knee deep and leaves one as a perfect target for a crocodile. If you slip you will end up in the pool below, a couple of meters drop. There is no climbing back, but a 200m swim in fast water to shore is the only option. Large Bull Sharks and lots of big crocodiles frequent this water, but the locals treat it like traffic on the road, they know the danger but shrug it off, drinking and fishing, walking back and forth through this dangerous water like it’s nothing. One bloke was even spearfishing in there. The only fish I could manage was another Tarpon. But the sun set and I was off to the other frogging spot. I brought up the location on my GPS and headed there by road as far as I could. From the satellite it looked like a nice blacksoil lagoon, close to the road. In the wet season this place is closed as there are three major creek crossings. I arrived at the closest point on the road to the spot, and noticed right away that there were no frogs calling there. Plenty were calling in roadside puddles- mostly Snapping Frogs (Cyclorana australis). I did see some eyeshine in the red sand and found a bunch of Wailing Frogs (Cyclorana vagita) – another new species for me. As I approached the lagoon, I noticed it to be bone dry. Flat headed Frogs were abundant however, sitting at the entrances to their soil-crack burrows. The bright moon and clear sky no doubt made them extremely wary, ducking down holes as soon as I was anywhere near.

Wailing frog (Cyclorana vagita)

Wailing Frogs (Cyclorana vagita) were all over this place but I found them nowhere else

I finished there and headed back to the crossing – but the other side. Several crocodiles were waiting to ambush fish in the shallow water but no sign of Giant Glassfish. Under the Lake Kunnunurra dam wall there were loads of them, but all out of reach. Whenever I got near they sank into the deep water. Another spot I had to check was the Black Rockpool, a sheer (dry) waterfall that in the wet season plunges into a sandy and rocky pool. A search around it revealed only a Black Headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus) and a bunch of cane toads. There were Hyrtl’s Catfish and Western Rainbowfish in the pool. A nearby spring was not flowing but the water was full of cane toads.

The last port of call was a rock formation just out of town. I wanted at least one big, healthy and well marked Magnificent Tree Frog. After hours of searching and finding only one thin fluorescent green individual I decided to call it a night. On the way out I spotted some eyeshine. A massive, beautiful Magnificent Tree Frog was just sitting there! This was the specimen I wanted to photograph on all of the other three Kimberley trips. This thing was massive, at least as heavy as any Giant Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata) I had ever seen. I photographed him and left him alone and fell into bed.

Splendid or Magnificent tree frog (Litoria splendida)

The Magnificent Tree Frog I had been waiting for!

The next day was time to leave WA. I headed back via Victoria River and after fishing for Neil’s Grunters (Scortum neilii) with ham and only catching everything else at a crossing, I set up camp at the roadhouse. That night I had a tough time spotlighting. The moon was stupidly bright, but I did manage to find some small normal looking Glassfish back down river. I caught one and much to my surprise it was a juvenile Giant Glassfish! Eight more followed! I got them safely back for some pictures. I’ll be growing them into adults to photograph later.

Juvenile giant glassfish (Parambassis gulliveri)

Juvenile giant glassfish (Parambassis gulliveri)

It was a hard trip, but I did manage to get at least most of the species I had been chasing all year.

Anyway, enjoy Christmas and I look forward to posting some more next year!

Runwildtv.com goes underwater

As you may have noticed, there have been a bunch of underwater images on the site, and there are soon to be a whole lot more.

I have just acquired a nice underwater setup for my Canon EOS 5d III.

- Ikelite 5d III housing

- Zen glass superdome port for wide-angle images

- Ikelite strobes/video lights

With this setup, aquascapes and macro shots are possible. Check out some images from the testing phase:

Maguk split view

Barramundi Gorge, Kakadu

Maguk split view

Barramundi Gorge again

Water plants in Northern Territory

Water plants

Gulf saratoga (Scleropages jardini)

Gulf Saratoga

Arafura file snake underwater (Acrochordus arafurae)

File snake

Blue clawed shrimp (Macrobrachium spinosum)

Blue clawed shrimp or Cherubim

Midgley's Grunter (Pingalla midgleyi)

Midgley’s grunter

Adult Butler's grunter (Syncomistes butleri)

Butler’s grunter

Baby Johnson's crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni)

Baby Johnson’s crocodile

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More wildlife

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… Plenty¬† more to come!

Getting sub aquatic in the freezing cold part III

After the previous night’s failed attempt at getting in the water, Rick and I had decided to attempt a morning dive back at Portsea. Only a minute’s walk from the Dive Victoria Group’s dive shop, we once again dropped into the muddy water at the shore end of the pier. The murk was considerable, visibility improved slightly as we headed for the shallow reef nearby.

Rick under pier

Soon Rick tugged excitedly at one of my fins. I turned around as he jabbed his finger in the direction of three bedraggled looking male sea dragons sitting in a small sandy depression. It was like a divorced weekend dad’s meeting, all of them were missing fins or parts of their tails, yet carrying the unhatched eggs under what was left of their tails – females nowhere in sight. Rick was ecstatic nonetheless, they were his first ever sea dragons. The dragons weren’t so pleased and promptly packed up and moved to another spot to continue whatever they were doing.

Rick and sea dragon

Rick observes a sea dragon

The shallow reef had loads of nooks and crannies, most of them had a resident scaly fin guarding egg masses, but under the deeper ones there were several stingrays, hidden from the surge and sunlight while swarms of bullseyes (Pemphris spp) awaited nightfall to come out and feed. Sponges and bryzoans of all colours carpeted the ceilings.

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The stingrays were tucked right in under the caves. I could not get the camera far enough in…

Bullseye school

Bullseyes under a ceiling of sponges

But there were no cuttlefish to photograph, so we headed for the pier. On a pylon, a beautiful blue and yellow nudibranch (Tamjba verconis) crawled over a red sponge.

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Red sea tulip

Red sea tulip – a sea squirt – also on the pylonn

Red sea star

Red sea stars were common amongst the rubble

Orange biscuit star

Biscuit stars are never in short supply either.

One fish did catch me by surprise, and it was a lucky find. A small fish about 12cm long moved just enough for me to see it. Incredibly well camouflaged, the velvet fish (Aploactisoma milseii) is rarely seen though probably common. I don’t know much about these cool little fish, though they are probably ambush predators.

Velvetfish (Aploactisoma milseii)

The enigmatic velvet fish

So that was about it for the dive. Here’s a seadragon’s head. Just because.

Weedy sea dragon head

Getting sub-aquatic in the freezing cold part II

Well, here we are moving on to part 2 of the Southern diving adventure. My mate Rick came over to have a dive or two, specifically a night dive.

After getting the equipment again from Dive Victoria group we set off to Blairgowrie, just a little way up the Peninsula from Portsea.

It was a longer walk in the howling wind up the pier to the drop-in point towards the end. As soon as we finished the descent I noticed a Pot Bellied Seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis) sitting on the pylon. I chased it around and around until it settled on a clump of weed. But the silt was too much and the seahorse kept turning away. I managed a couple of what I think are sub-standard shots.
Potbellied seahorse (Hippocampus abdominalis)
This dive wasn’t so spectacular, the water was siltier, darker and other than mullet and a few leatherjackets and porcupinefish there was not a great deal about in the way of fish. But there were loads of invertebrates. The blue spotted yellow nudibranch was all over the place, as were sponges, anenomes, ascidians and hermit crabs.

Red hermit crab (Strigopagurus strigimanus)

Red hermit crab (Strigopagurus strigimanus)

White and yellow sea anenome

White and yellow “Poached egg” sea anenome

Red sponge macro

Red sponge macro

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Blue and yellow sea slug (Tamjba verconis)

Ascidians on pylon

Ascidians on pylon. Ascidians or sea squirts are not actually invertebrates!

There were however loads of Southern Goatfish, (Upeneicthys vlamingii) known locally as “red mullet” though are not mullet at all. They feed by feeling about with their chin barbels for food, plunging their heads into the sand when they find something edible. They also feed above the bottom on fish and crustaceans.

Southern goatfish (Upeneicthys vlamingii)

Southern goatfish (Upeneicthys vlamingii) rooting about in the sand.

Mooching about over the bottom was a sparsely spotted stingaree. Not a stingray, stingarees are easily identified by the short tail. They do have a spine on it, and it is every bit as nasty as that of a true stingray. These guys are super common in the shallows of Port Phillip Bay.

Sparsely spotted stingaree (Urolophus paucimaculatus)

Sparsely spotted stingaree (Urolophus paucimaculatus)

For me, the highlight of the dive were the leatherjackets (filefish). The six spined (Meushenia freycineti) was by far the most common, though only juveniles but the coolest is the sponge-mimicking Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus) which, when disturbed curls its tail and does its best imitation of a sponge.

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus) imitating a sponge

Sixspined leatherjacket (Meushenia freycineti)

Sixspined leatherjacket (Meushenia freycineti)

It was getting way too cold, so Rick and I surfaced and walked back to the car in the rain with totally numb feet and hands.

That night we scheduled a night dive, however the wind had changed and strengthened. Trying to gear up at Sorrento was horrible, cold and windy. Touching the wetsuit with my finger sent a cold shock up my arm. Besides, the visibility had dropped significantly anyway.

We agreed to return to Portsea the next day for a final dive…