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 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!

Into the remote Kimberley… Part 1

Into the remote Kimberley… Part 1

Wow… Just wow! I have been a little inactive online lately, but at least I have an excuse. I have been so incredibly caught up in actually doing all of the things I should be writing about, so much so that I have had no spare time to report back. 16 hour days, travel etc. No, I’m not complaining at all, but it is about time I filled you all in on the details of what’s been going on.

First of all, there’s the Kimberley. A vast, harsh, rocky range in Australia’s far northwest that is known for being tough and hard to access. It’s a biological hotspot for endemic species. It’s one of the places I have always wanted to see, and this year I finally had the means to get out there and do it. So in March I enlisted Linda, a German biologist to come along and help me explore the eastern edge of the Kimberley, from Kunnunurra on the Western Australian border.

I filled up the car in Darwin, then south at Katherine filled an extra 40L in jerry cans in readiness for the high fuel prices in WA. Much to our later shock, the fuel is often WAY cheaper in the remote Kimberley than Darwin, Wyndham was 15% cheaper in fact!

After 10 hours driving the still wet roads we crossed the customs checkpoint and were both in Western Australia for the first time!

The mission was to photograph the frogs of the region, and simply have a look around. The problem was it was far too late in the season for most of them, as they had all but finished breeding. However we still managed a few, plus a couple of reptiles. Access was severely limited all round due to the high water levels about the place, most roads were still isolated. Most of the time we hung around the Grotto between Kunnunurra and Wyndham, a wonderful rocky escarpment fed by a couple of waterfalls. A day to day account would be far too tedious as it involves loads of backtracking, so I will let the pictures talk…

Kunnunurra – the gateway to the Western Australia

We didn’t see much of this area as we were only passing though…

On the border of the NT/WA we found a bunch of Stonemason toadlets (Uperoleia lithomoda) which are named after their call which sounds like someone chipping a stone. The harsh tap sound hurts the ears at close range.

Once known only from the Barkly tableland in the NT, the Daly Waters Frog (Cyclorana maculosa) has turned up in the Kimberley, treated as a form of the Long Footed Frog (Cyclorana longipes)

This boab looks great in full leaf

Around Kunnunurra the reedbeds were home to Crimson finches.

The Grotto – a slice of escarpment in the savannah

At sunset I photographed this awesome looking dragon which still lacks an ID

Moon setting at camp

The only common gecko was the Kimberley Dtella, Gehyra koira.

The cute little plug tailed gecko was found crossing the Grotto carpark

In the Grotto carpark we saw a couple of Australian Owlet Nightjars (Aegolethes cristatus) sitting around waiting for insects.

At the Grotto, white quilled rock pigeons (Petrophassa albipennis) were common.

The main frog species I wanted at the Grotto was the Staccato or Chattering rock frog (Litoria staccato) but all we found was the very similar Copland’s rock frog (Litoria coplandi) which is common all over the Kimberley and the NT

The carpenter frog (Limnodynastes lignarius) has a call just like someone banging a nail into a long plank of wood. It has huge eardrums too.

Adults are commonly found on rock ledges like this one.

The bilingual froglet gets its name from the two different calls they make, often switching from one to another.

In a soak were a few Northern Toadlets (Uperoleia borealis) calling happily. Looking much like small cane toads to the untrained eye, they are thankfully native.

The Watjulum frog is a common sandstone species, breeding in small flowing soaks and streams. During the breeding season males are bright yellow.

A front view of a pale green Magnificent or Splendid tree frog (Litoria splendida)

The splendid tree frogs were also seen on trees nearby.

The desert or little red tree frog (Litoria rubella) is supposedly an Australia-wide species. Here in the East Kimberley they are distinctive.

The town of Wyndham is surrounded in salt flats. Nice.

Although harsh, the salt flats are full of life, including some very tough fish species, especially gobies that spawn in the hypersaline pools.

 The Gibb River Road – What little we could see

Boab trees are a feature of the Kimberley. Legend says they were once a tall, proud, boastful tree that was punished for being too proud by being upended and replanted upside down.

At sunset they are great to look at. The undergrowth after the wet season made photography hard.

The Gibb was mostly flooded, well too much so for my Outback, but I did get a few sunset shots at a swamp

Fishing the Pentecost River was largely uneventful. This was the limit for the car as it was too deep to cross…

On the Gibb River Road we found this Bandy Bandy (Vermicella intermedia?) next to a creek. This vivid snake is harmless to humans and only eats blind snakes.

Well, that is the best of the Kimberley for this installment. Check out part 2, Bush Blitz. Coming soon!

Bowerbirds – Nature’s very own ‘players’

Bowerbirds – nature’s “players”

Obsession with treasure to the point of insanity, piracy and dirty tactics… It is this attitude that, without a shadow of doubt makes bowerbirds my favourite group of birds.

The spotted catbird is a bowerbird

The spotted catbird, like other catbirds has been seen with bowers but it is generally accepted they don’t normally build one.

Male bowerbirds go to extreme lengths to attract females, unlike anything you would ever see in other groups of bird – they build a bower. So what exactly is a bower? It’s a structure built by the bird specifically to attract females, nothing else. Many observers can confuse these wondrous structures with a sort of a nest, or even a sleeping shelter (in fact several groups of Australian birds do make such things). Male bowerbirds have no need to make a nest, they play absolutely no part in child-rearing to the point of having children with as many females as physically possible. So, they set up a territory and get to work building their Magnum opus.

 

Much like a suburban human rev-head with a customized car, or Hugh Heffner’s mansion the bowerbird’s bower is an extension of himself, an artistic statement to show off who he is, and of course reel the ladies in.

The first type of bower exhibited by the family is, well none at all. Catbirds are found in eastern Australia and the mountains of New Guinea. They are typically green and fairly nondescript. They have been observed with very primitive ‘bowers’ at times, but they are merely a collection of twigs and objects that seem to be carelessly dropped in a spot – they don’t seem to require one at all. Catbirds got their name from the cat-like scream they let out in the dense forests. The species shown is a spotted catbird from northeastern Australia.

Slightly, but barely more advanced is the arena constructed by the tooth-billed bowerbird (Scenopoeetes dentirostris). Named for the tooth-like structures in its beak, this bowerbird is a dull green-brown with a white chest marked with black vertical dashes. Males clear out a section of forest floor, stripping it right down to bare dirt and set out into the forest to collect green leaves. He carefully selects the ones that please his eye the most and place them about on his ‘stage’ and perches on a horizontal branch above it to sing. There is a curious relationship between bowerbird’s plumage and their call. Species with more dull plumage tend to be better songsters. The tooth-billed bowerbird is no exception. Males try to out-sing nearby rivals by imitating other sounds they hear. And they are very good at it, almost as good as the famous lyrebirds of further south.

The satin bowerbird is obsessed with blue

The most common form of bower in Australia is that of the avenue variety. Around six of the ten Australian bowerbird species make this type. It is simply made of two parallel walls, kind of like a skateboarder’s half-pipe, decorated with all sorts of treasures. What exactly constitutes treasure is up to the individual male bowerbird. Male satin bowerbirds (Ptilonorhynchus violaceus) are famous for collecting blue objects, in fact practically anything blue will do just fine. Feathers, clothes pegs (many clothes have been found in the dirt under many washing lines where these birds live!) jewelery, bottle-tops, berries, drinking straws and so on. In fact, he will even chew up blue berries and paint the walls of his bower with the paste!

A male is deciding exactly where this treasure is going to go…

The great bowerbird builds the ‘avenue’ style bower. Notice there is green in the middle, white around it and other colours on the perimeter? A bower is a totally customizeable form of display unlike feathers.

Less obsessed with any one colour are the four species of spotted bowerbird (Chlamydera species), two of which specialize in arid and semi arid parts of Australia. Also building the avenue bower, they are more flexible in colour choice and will use mostly white objects which are more common in the dry zones such as sun bleached bones, quartz stones and mollusc shells. In suburban areas, they will also make use of other colours, in fact the male great bowerbirds (Chlamydera nuchalis) seem to experiment with themes, some individuals going for green, others trying out white décor, and some trying out a layered approach with several colours.

The male watches over the bower… like a hawk, and for good reason.

An even more drastic bower is built by the golden bowerbird (Prionodura newtoniana).One of the smaller species, its bower is huge, the one pictured is almost the size of a queen sized mattress. Living only in high altitude forests, it is the only Australian bowerbird to build the ‘maypole’ style which is more of a fad with the species of New Guinea. A male simply selects two saplings and goes about gathering twigs, stacking them around them to build a big ‘U’ shaped bower. Normally there is a fallen branch between them which acts as further support. In the middle of the bower he places pale moss and flowers he has gathered from around the area in a very well arranged bouquet.

Male bowerbirds are obsessed with their creations, never straying far from them and spending much of their day finely adjusting it, moving a twig here and there, turning over objects to show off the best angle, stepping back to admire the treasure display and modifying it with more treasure. If a male does head off to get some food or more baubles for his bower, rival males will often sneak in to steal treasure and sabotage the bower. The theft of objects does explain the appearance of rainforest snail shells on the floodplains many kilometers away, the same shell must have been acquired by several males from their rivals and passed about the local bowers.

The artist in residence. And this goes… here!

The reason male bowerbirds are so exact with their bowers is because the females are so incredibly choosy. Females will tour the area and look at bower after bower until one impresses her more than the others. If she comes in for a closer look, the male goes into a ritual dance, jumping about and making all sorts of other-worldly noises. If he has a crest he will raise it to show off, often picking up treasures to show to the female individually. If she is happy, she will mate with that male on the spot and likely never see him again – that is until she feels like raising another brood. The nest is built in a tree much like the more ‘standard’ bird nest and the female bowerbird will raise the young unassisted. Bowerbirds flourish in Australia and New Guinea due to the lack of diurnal ground based predators, and with the abundance of food such as figs and fruits the females could easily raise young without a father present.

The massive bower of the golden bowerbird

So that is an introduction to the wonderful world of bowerbirds. Coming soon are more weird and wonderful creatures we share the world with…