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 2 – Bush Blitz

Wow. What a year so far!

Our base of operations was Home Valley Station on the Gibb River Road

Only a couple of weeks ago, my invitation was made official to join a team of scientists and researchers in one of the most remote places on earth, the Kimberley of Western Australia. I had two jobs, thanks to Dr Mike Hammer of the Museum and Art Gallery of the NT. Bush Blitz invited me to photograph and film (I mostly got film) the people and discoveries on this trip, as well as help Mike and his counterpart Glenn from Museum WA with fish research. It was a crazy two weeks of enormous days and loads to see and do.

Flying cars… check! Helicopters were our main form of transport. There are no roads most of the time.

A normal day for me was getting up at 0530 and not finishing work until 2230, hardly stopping at all. The days were spent in the field catching animals and photographing/interviewing/filming everyone I possily could, while the nights were spent in our field lab organising media, getting wrap-up footage and photographing any fish and turtles that managed to get back.

Dr Michael Hammer with Kath and Buster looking at specimens

One of the strangest discoveries was made by yours truly. One morning I awoke, stumbled over to the shower block and found in interesting butterfly on the wall. I put it in a jar on the Entomology desk in our makeshift lab. That night at dinner, one of the Entomologists asked who put the butterfly on the desk. Apparently it was a brand new species for WA, the Chrome Awl. A small, fast shiny skipper type butterfly it was a happy accident to find it and the first new butterfly for WA in 10 years! I have no pictures as they promptly made it into a specimen before I had a chance.

The lab was a buzz of activity. Here, scientific photographer Rob Whyte is at work with some specimens to photograph

This post will focus on a bunch of people and location shots. Next up we start on the wildlife.

You can see how remote this country is. No roads or even tracks of any kind over most of it.

Just getting into these places was crazy. Helicopters were the only realistic option, cars might take weeks to find a track into just one of these. By track I mean making one. Walking would take longer. A typical flight would be 50km or more from base.

The gorges were plentiful, spectacular and unexplored. This is the approach to the secret and newly named “Cat’s Eye Pool” named by our pilot Dan.

A HDR image of upper Cat’s Eye Pool. The colours were so intense here that only HDR would do it justice.

This is upper Cat’s Eye Pool. This water was ridiculously pure and only had a few creatures living in it. Leeches, shrimps and insects were plentiful but nothing else was noted.

A HDR view of Cat’s Eye Pool

…However the lower pool was crammed with rainbowfish and mogurndas. Also a croc or two. Didn’t stop us getting in to collect specimens…

Let’s just say that it was all totally worth it. We worked hard to catch the fish in the most unlikely way…

Glenn giving it his all. Despite the unlikely method, we managed to collect a bunch of rainbowfish this way.

The rainbowfish in this pool were of a type new to science. Similar to the Exquisite of Kakadu/Katherine area I will show pictures in the next post. We tried all sorts of methods like coaxing them towards a gillnet, then surrounding a school (which all swam right through it!) before we settled on the “swim at them at full speed with a ridiculously tiny scoop net” which did the job!

Oomooloo Falls, the locality for the mystery turtle, the Kimberley Rock monitor and a great site for the new rainbowfish. However it is FULL of crocodiles, so far only the small Johnson’s Crocodile. I counted 26. Swimming was fun in here…

Obviously there was much more. Oomooloo Falls was a popular spot. In the two excursions there I managed to catch an unusual turtle (see the next post), a Kimberley Rock Monitor and the fish team caught a load of the new rainbowfish. The slightly unnerving thing was the huge number of Johnson’s (freshwater) crocodiles. Though normally harmless they have been known to bite people, sometimes without an obvious reason. I had 26 of them in the water with me (well, I counted 26!) Let’s say it is a little spooky when everyone else flatly refuses to get in with you.

…Well some got in, though reluctantly. This is seine netting the rainbowfish.

Boabs were plentiful in the gorge country

Mike and Glenn electro fishing

Because I was on the “fish team” most of my time was spent with them. We went to some amazing spots like Durack Falls which was a gold mine for endemic grunter species. See the next post for more details.

Durack Falls was a total hotspot for many fish species

The Pentecost estuary was great at sunset. That is the Chamberlain Range

Working with the local Indigenous community was central to our operation. They were fantastic with helping us with everything we asked for, and as a result of Bush Blitz they are aware of a bunch of cultural sites that had been lost to history. They were a fun group, and they came along on many of our activities. I had fun fishing with Aunty Gene and LJ in a gorge. The fishing was so good we had no trouble catching black bream (Western sooty grunter) and archer fish on lures made from bits of plastic bag! Community Day was a time of relaxing and celebrating with them. We spent much of the time sitting around chatting, fishing and playing football.

Meeting with the Traditional Owners was vital. They are just out of frame

On the community day we hung out with the Traditional Owners on the river bank

Catfish are prized on the table in Indigenous communities

The kids had a blast

We had an open day where students from Kunnunurra and Wyndham came over to see botany and zoology work first-hand.

One of the “local” schools sent out students for our open day. Here are some on the hunt for insects

It was great fun. Anyway, stay tuned for the next post on the actual species we found…

Return to Kakadu

After leaving Australia’s East Coast I decided to head back to Australia’s Northern Territory to work in Kakadu once more. It’s a massive national park east of Darwin, and as usual it didn’t disappoint.

The tour began in Litchfield right after the “super moon” event earlier in the week. The usual dry season fires made it look an impressive orange:

During the first night camped out near the Mary River a spotlight search of the campsite revealed a scruffy looking Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides) sitting on a branch scanning the ground below for prey. In the north of Australia they are smaller than their southern brethren and often reddish in color.  Not an owl, but a cousin of the nightjars these birds are very hard to find by day but can be spotted at night as they hunt.

And this is how they got their name…

Couldn’t resist one more picture…

We kicked off the Kakadu part of the journey the following morning with a wildlife cruise by Point Stuart Wilderness Lodge on the Mary River’s Rockhole Billabong. In Northern Australia, a billabong is a stretch of permanent water that remains throughout the dry season. Full of wildlife, it is home to fish, frogs, an impressive list of birds, and of course crocodiles. Both Australian species live here, the Johnson’s (freshwater) and Estuarine (saltwater) and can be easily spotted in and around the water.

Such as this sneaky looking one…

One of the most obvious birds around is the Australian Darter (Anhinga melanogaster) which looks to be designed by a committee with a long snakelike neck, sharp bill and webbed feet. It barely floats so it can dive with ease and hunt fish, spearing them with the bill before returning to the surface to flick them off the bill, catch them in midair to swallow.

An awesome fisherman and he knows it

And a cool lotus flower to top it off

I stopped for a quick look at the East Alligator River at Cahill’s Crossing, the gateway into Arnhemland. A large crocodile patrolled the waters upstream of the crossing. The odd object on his back is likely a GPS tracker installed in a study:

Backpacking croc style

Before sunset, Ubirr rock was our destination. Famous for its sunsets and cave paintings I decided to take the group there late in the afternoon when it’s at its best. I have loads of pictures of the paintings already but it’s this one that I like the most:

It’s not amazing in an artistic sense but it’s what it represents that makes it special. A dog-like animal with a striped rump. There is nothing else it could be that we know of other than a Thylacine. Often unfortunately known as the “Tasmanian tiger” it is a marsupial like kangaroos and koalas, not a tiger at all. Bearing in mind this painting is about as far from Tasmania as you can get without leaving Australia it is remarkable. Around six Thylacine species are known from fossils on mainland Australia, and none remained by the time Europeans settled here. Only in the dingo-free Tasmania did they persist for a time until the last confirmed one was shot in the 1930s. Sightings continue to be reported in Tasmania.

The stone country to the east of Ubirr is home to some rare and endangered plants and animals, many are found nowhere else.

Bushfires lit by the locals burn constantly

Sunset over the floodplains

The end of a day in Kakadu