Adventure on Snake Island

Adventure on Snake Island


Lapped by the South China Sea and closer to the Philippines than the nearest city is Kudat, the northernmost town in Sabah, Malaysia. Only a kilometer from the very tip of the island itself is a small island, home to a lighthouse. It’s a tiny island in fact, you can walk around it in three minutes. The shoreline is rocky, with a small sandy beach. The sandstone rises up in the form of a small rocky hill covered in shrubs and vines. By day it is a great place to snorkel, but every night it is invaded by a visitor from the sea.
Just after sunset they appear and make their way up the beach to sleep under rocks and into the scrub to lay eggs.

Phil was ecstatic

Phil Lewis, Rowan Brown and myself had to go there to see the spectacle ourselves. Rowan’s friend Mr Nazlan sells sea shells, literally by the sea shore on the nearby mainland. He happens to have a couple of boats and was more than happy to take us out to the island to stay for the night. So the deal was struck, we were to be heading to the island as soon as the boat could be readied.

With the setting sun we pushed off, the ear-splitting putt-putt of the naked engine – complete with the exhaust exiting as a flickering, blue cone shaped flame destroyed any chance of a quiet journey. Minutes later we crossed the fringing reef and made landfall on the only strip of sand, protected in a small bay. The gear was unloaded and Phil bounced about like a runaway yo-yo, chomping at the bit to explore the island and its nightly visitors. We set up a camera, ready for Phil to see his first sea krait, and Rowan pushed past, and in the background of the frame despite my earlier request not to, casually picked one up before Phil could get a chance to introduce himself on camera and talk about how much he was looking forward to finding his first.

Sea kraits are weird sorts of snakes belonging to the four-species strong subfamily Laticaudinae. Although they are true snakes, and live only in tropical seas they are not, by definition true sea snakes.

The kraits come ashore

True sea snakes belong to a very close subfamily Hydrophinae. Together they are grouped under the cobras-and-allies family Elapidae. But being snakes and living in the sea should designate one as a sea snake, right? Well, not really. You see the sea kraits are amphibious; they also live on land. Land is where they sleep, drink, mate and do something that true sea snakes do not- they lay eggs. True sea snakes give birth at sea, never coming ashore except by accident.

But Phil was soon off at the speed of, well, Phil-on-a-mission and quickly found his first that nobody else had looked at. He was totally in his element, dashing from krait to krait in a blur, like a kid in a candy shop.

As the night wore on, more and more swam up to the shore and crawled up to tuck themselves under a rock or in a crevice. One in particular was doing strange things.

These things were everywhere!

Much larger than most of the others, it had gone beyond the flat, rocky shore and was headed up the near vertical cliff face. Phil and I just had to see what was going on. The assumption was that it was a female looking to lay eggs.

We filmed her as she reached the flat vine forest on top, being incredibly careful not to disturb her.

The female looking for a place to lay eggs

What she did then was remarkable, she very carefully pushed her snout through the leaf litter, obviously looking for somewhere to lay the eggs. Ticks appeared out of the leaves and crawled all over her, attaching between the scales. Phil and I were horrified, but tick concerns would have to wait as there was a sea krait to film. It is possible nobody has filmed a krait laying eggs in the wild before. She was obviously dissatisfied with the ground and moved on, heading into a thicket of vines we could not follow her into.

Stacks on!

Back down on the water’s edge, a writing mass of kraits gave away something bizarre indeed. A heap (literally) of small kraits swarmed over a much larger female, vibrating their heads. It was a mating ball. The poor female was totally helpless under the mass of so many males. One of them was going to be a dad, but I don’t think they, or even she would know who.

The sea around the island is worth a look too, so we took to the water in the dark, with only two dive lights for the three of us. Moray eels, urchins, grouper and squid were among and over the shallow reef, while among a swarm of cubozoids was a remarkable imitation. A squarish body with long trailing tentacles did look kind of dangerous, but a closer look revealed it was a fish. The juvenile diamond trevally grows such incredible fin filaments to imitate a box jellyfish. On a very small juvenile these may be around 10 times or more of the fish’s body length. The presence of the real box jellyfish in the water made us turn and head for shore.

Settling down to sleep on the beach was no easy matter. As soon as I put my head down, curious hermit crabs scuttled over to check me out, climbing over my legs and around my head, casually pinching my ear or elbow at random. I just about dozed off when a thunder clap woke me up.

Kraits are very easy to handle, though incredibly venomous

Rain hammered down in a tropical deluge so we sat around the fire we had made of drift wood against the cliff. Phil has a great way of emphasizing the misery with a realistic sounding gale effect he makes by breathing air through his teeth. It was funny though, this tropical island in the South China Sea, just like something off a movie set was so calm and warm one minute, yet so hostile the very next. Out of the shadows stepped a human figure. A fisherman was escaping the storm, saw the fire and came ashore to scare the hell out of us- or perhaps get some shelter.

Morning came and Mr Nazlan was heard long before he was seen with his barely floating boat. It was time to say goodbye to Snake Island for now…

One night in the Watagans

I don’t know what it is but over the last week I have been haunted by an odd pattern when I go out looking for frogs. It goes something like this:

1 Mixophyes barred frog
1 species of stream “tree frog”
1 species of secretive leaf litter dweller
1 species of gecko, specifically a leaf tail

The eye shine… Could it be…?

Last night was no exception. I drove out to the Watagan NP, just north of Sydney in the northernmost reaches of the massive sandstone block that defines the region. It was almost 10pm by the time I arrived, and I wasted no time in jumping out of the car and switching on the camera. As soon as I had walked the 30 second walk to the creek I noticed bright, possum like eyeshine on the other side. I had a feeling it was coming from the giant barred frog (Mixophyes iteratus) and I turned out to be correct. A lovely handsome frog with big gold eyes and fine barring on the legs it is the most distinctive of all the barred frogs and also the largest. During the course of the night I spotted loads of them, sometimes three under a single tree!

Giant barred frogs are very imposing and very cool

This type of leaf tailed gecko loves rock faces

Walking downstream in search of the other species in the area I managed to spot leaf tailed geckos (Phyllurus platurus) on the rock faces and multitudes of bright glow worms, making the rock faces look like a sky full of blue stars. A small dunnart (a marsupial carnivore that looks like a mouse but is closer to kangaroos) glared down at me from a boulder and bounded off in search of a juicy spider or scorpion to demolish.

Heading back to the dam I heard leaf green tree frogs (Litoria phyllochroa) calling with their distinctive “eeek…chuckle” call. Managing to get close enough to one for a picture was a great end to my search around the dam.

The beautiful leaf green tree frog

The next area was Gap Creek Falls, closer to the entrance of the park. I parked the car and heard a number of frogs croaking in the soggy grass. It took a while but I did manage to uncover one of the culprits. A beautiful red-backed toadlet (Pseudophryne coriacea). I had seen this species before, but not for about 10 years so I was more than happy to photograph it. Under the belly of these frogs is a lovely vivid marbling pattern. They also rarely hop, generally walking instead.

The innocent looking frog with a dark side…

The walk to the falls was partially blocked by fallen trees but as soon as I got around them I noticed the eye shine of a frog half buried. With great delight I moved the leaves and took some pictures. This is a species I wanted to see for a long time. Known as the sandpaper frog (Lechriodus fletcheri) it is rough to touch and has some nasty skin toxins. Touching your eye or mouth after handling one is not a wise move. But this is not odd in itself. The strange thing about this species is the life style of the tadpoles.

The adults spawn in temporary pools in the forest. Food is scarce so when it runs out the tadpoles turn on each other and become hardcore cannibals. Only the strongest make it out of the forest- pool-cannibal-UFC-octagon as sub adults. Talk about a rite of passage!

“So, how was your brother last night?”
“Yeah, he was tasty…”

Time had run out and I had to get back to Sydney, only two hours away. Next time I hope to visit during some rain!

Herping with Phil – Brisbane

Herping with Phil near Brisbane

I left Cairns and soon landed in Brisbane Airport. The sky was clear and the air was cooler and drier than the humid, clingy hot conditions further north in Cairns. A far cry from the major winds and flooding of a week prior. Phil Lewis lives in Brisbane, so we planned to catch up and go out to the forest on a “critter hunt” that night. After navigating the streets and eventually finding the bus stop I was on my way across town, through the seedy zones of Fortitude Valley and out to the house Phil, his partner Keeley and a bunch of others are renting.

Phil was waiting for me with his usual broad smile and “unique” sense of humour and Liverpool sayings. I stuffed down my dinner of sushi rolls. Deciding to save the rest for later, Phil suggested I “lassie band it” to keep the box from opening. What the hell is a “lassie band” anyway?

We were to be meeting up with a friend of Phil’s who was going to drive us out and show us around, but she doesn’t believe in using a mobile phone, even though she has one. And as a consequence her car had broken down and she was stuck out in the hinterland somewhere. However two others, Alex and Mark were coming anyway, so we hitched a ride with them. The destination was to be the area around O’Reilly’s in Lamington NP, to the west of Brisbane. Renowned for its bird life, especially bowerbirds, our goal was to get a look at some of the reptiles and amphibians. My main goal was to find the marsupial frog.

The drive took two hours, the road was unbelievably windy, doubling back on itself constantly. Soon we were at the guest house and drove over to the camp ground where some slightly shocked campers (it was 11pm by this stage) told us there were no streams or waterways within 5 hours walk. Slightly let down, I grabbed a brochure from the information booth and we discovered two tracks nearby that seemed to be what we wanted. Python Rock and Moran Falls were both less than 1.5 hrs return. We figured we would be faster than average anyway.

Saltuarius swaini

Saltuarius swaini, the Border Ranges leaf tailed gecko

The paths were strewn with debris from the storms. Trees had been stripped of foliage,much of it was around our feet as we walked. Branches covered in moss and orchids had smashed on the track in many places but it wasn’t long before I found one of the things I was looking for. Red eyes glared back at me as I approached. Sitting on the track was a leaf tailed gecko (Saltuarius swaini) with another on a tree next to it. Phil was ecstatic. I was pleased too, but not so excited as Phil as I had photographed the near identical northern leaf tailed gecko not three nights prior. This was Phil’s first ever leaf tailed gecko ever.

We continued down the path, spotting several more of these remarkable reptiles. Soon we were at Moran Falls lookout. The water from the heavy rains was still running hard in the streams, but it had fallen enough to look for frogs. After searching a stretch of creek, we found two lovely Pearson’s tree frogs (Litoria pearsoniana) calling with their musical “eeek… cruck” calls from plants overhanging the water. After some quick snaps, I remarked at how wonderful it would be to find a Mixophyes. It would make the night…

Litoria pearsoniana

Pearson’s Tree Frog. A beautiful little frog of mountain streams.

Mixophyes fleayi

A juvenile barred frog

Seconds later I thought I was imagining it when I heard a guttural grunt in a small tributary nearby. I followed it to its source and found a juvenile barred frog (yes, a Mixophyes!) but I was unsure of the exact species. Its eyes were rich orange and its legs were barred like the adult’s. We photographed it right away, and I knew the calls were not coming from the juvenile, so I listened again and heard the call again. I crept closer and tried to imitate it.

“Grunt grunt, cough…” I said to the forest in general.

The frog answered with an agitated grunt. I soon found him buried under the leaf litter, as male Mixophyes tend to do when displaying. Unsure of the species we carefully photographed him. We had our suspicions that it may be the Fleay’s barred frog (Mixophyes fleayi) but I had never really looked into identification of this genus in any real detail until now. It turns out both the juvenile and adult were in fact the Fleay’s barred frog and as such I was very excited. But we had more to explore and time was getting away fast.

Mixophyes fleayi

A lovely Fleay’s barred frog. Look at the shading of the eye…

We made it back to the car and followed the Python Rock trail in the hopes of finding another frog Philorialoveridgei. But it was very windy and dry on this track, so any hope of them calling was soon dashed. It was time to head back to Brisbane. Only three new species for us but it was well worth it!


An evening in the Wet Tropics

I do say “wet tropics” which is the official name that the rainforest block of far northeastern Australia is known as, but on this occasion it was dry. Not to worry, I hired a car from Cairns and headed for the hills around nearby Atherton.

A fairly high altitude town (by Australian standards anyway) it’s mostly farm country but there is a bit of rainforest still around, and my primary area was to be the Crater Lakes area around Lake Eacham and Lake Barrine.

The first stop, Barrine, is a lovely clear lake nestled nicely in the rainforest. It, like Eacham is an old volcanic crater that has filled with water. Not having a suitable lens on hand I didn’t get any pictures, but it wasn’t the lake I was there to see anyway…

Musky Rat Kangaroo – the smallest Kangaroo on earth!

I took the circuit track for a few hundred meters and noticed something rustling about nearby. I carefully peered through the foliage and lo and behold I saw my first ever Musky Rat Kangaroo (Hypsiprymnodon moschatus). These little treasures re-define cool as far as I am concerned, they are a kangaroo, but only the size of a rat! I saw many more as I walked along, they seemed fairly unconcerned most of the time, more absorbed in the task of digging up fungi than caring about my intrusion. Photos were near impossible to get, they were in the densest of undergrowth but I did manage one picture, though not a good one…

Saltuarius cornuta - the northern leaf tailed gecko

Can you see the gecko?

Head detail of Leaf Tailed Gecko

As the sun set I arrived at Lake Eacham, a smaller but still nice crater lake. I headed out from the carpark and almost right away noticed something on a tree trunk. Surprised I could see it at all, I was thrilled at my first ever Leaf Tailed Gecko (Saltuarius cornutus) sitting head-down. These are remarkable creatures, blending in with the tree trunks in a way that makes them practically invisible. They are even flat to minimize shadows. Not closely related but near identical in many ways are the Leaf Tailed Geckos from Madagascar that are similar in almost every particular. During the course of the night I found many more of these, but all around the car park. They are not small either, the total length (including tail) of some of them was around  20cm! Check one on my “most wanted geckos” list…

Carphodactylus laevis - the Chameleon Gecko

Chameleon Gecko! Be careful, they bite if handled…

Crossing the road later on was this gorgeous Chameleon Gecko (Carphodactylus laevis), which coincidentally was number 2 on my most wanted list! Another large gecko with incredibly spindly long legs and a fat tail they too sit on small trees facing the ground to ambush passing prey. I moved him off the road and took some pictures. Later I found another sitting on a sapling. The most remarkable feature of these geckos is the weird tail. When handled roughly (usually they will deal with handlers roughly…) these geckos, like most will drop the tail. This is where it gets weird. The tail twists and jumps about making a squeaking noise! I didn’t want to test this out so I let him be.

Mixophyes schevilli - Northern Barred Frog

At last, the elusive Northern Barred Frog!

But paths had to be explored. Cane toads were all over the place, hopping and crashing through the undergrowth but I noticed some very large eyes staring back at me with a red-purple glow. This was no cane toad, so I headed over and saw my very first Northern Barred Frog! There are three similar species (two new have been assigned) which were once considered one species (Mixophyes schevilli) and this specimen may be the Cogger’s Barred Frog (M. coggeri). Northern Barred Frogs have eluded me on every other Wet Tropics trip which is weird as others tell me they are very common!

Forest dragon juvenile

Further along the path I nearly face-planted into this lovely juvenile Boyd’s Forest Dragon (Hypsilurus boydii). These are relatively common in the tropical forests and adults are very spectacular primitive looking creatures. Photographs of adults still elude me.

A quick look at a waterfall at Wright’s Creek revealed a number of beautiful Green Eyed Tree Frogs (Litoria serrata). Perfectly at home above faster water in the rainforest in ferns and trees these frogs are wonderfully camouflaged and have an oddly quiet knocking call. It’s a wonder females can find males at all, but they seem to as the species is very common.

Litoria serrata, the green eyed tree frog

Lovely Litoria serrata!

Litoria jungguy - Northern Stoney Creek Frog

The Jungguy Frog

All along the creek in trees and on rocks were Jungguy Frogs (Litoria jungguy) which are a species recently split from the Stony Creek Frog (Litoria lesuerii complex). These breed in clear water whether fast moving or still, so long as it is in suitable habitat, usually rainforest. These are very familiar to me and are very similar in so many ways to the Torrent Frogs of Borneo, in the quiet calls, habitats, habits and general appearance.

Next to the car on the road, a loud beeping call was heard. Another familiar species, it was the Ornate Nursery Frog. These are from a group known as Microhylids and all Australian species breed out of water, laying eggs in moist areas that hatch into tiny frogs, totally skipping the tadpole phase. Males often guard clutches of eggs. The Ornate (Cophixalus ornatus) is distinguished by having false eye marks on its lower back.

Cyclodomorpus gerrardii

The odd Pink Tongued Skink

It was now time to head back to Cairns, and on the way down in the dry forest I saw a lizard run off the road, so I stopped the car and went after it. Another one on my “most wanted” list, it is the Pink Tongued Skink (Cyclodomorphus gerrardii). Like a slender, partially arboreal, nocturnal Blue Tongue in appearance and diet, it replaces Blue Tongues (Tiliqua spp) in eastern rainforests. It writhed around and pumped out volumes of poo all over my hands. Yuk! But I managed a few pictures and sent him on his way.

Litoria xanthomera, the Orange Thighed Tree Frog

Orange Thighed Tree Frog

Frogs were calling around a tiny pool next to the road. I managed to find and photograph this lovely Orange Thighed Tree Frog (Litoria xanthomera) before heading back to Cairns. This frog was recognized as being distinct from the very similar Orange Eyed Tree Frog (Litoria chloris) of further south which differs in having brilliant purple thighs.

So in a short night in the dry version of the Wet Tropics wasn’t too bad, disagree?