Wet Tropics Underwater Photography 2015-16

After leaving the Kimberley for the start of the monsoon season, it was time to head east again to the Cairns region to photograph the animals of the Wet Tropics. Here are some of the highlights:

Photographing Noah Creek 002Rabbithead cling-gobies

Lugging my underwater kit around was no easy task. It weighs about 15kg, and the rocks around the streams can be steep and slippery. But to photograph cling gobies in their natural habitat, the risks must be taken. The first species I managed to get was the Rabbithead Cling Goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus). A large species, at around 12-15cm it is by far the most difficult to observe and photograph. Flighty and fast, they retreat immediately to rock crevices when disturbed. Females are dull brown, while males in breeding season are brilliant electric blue and black with a red tail outlined in blue. After countless sightings in the fast, rocky waters of Harvey Creek, all of which ended in the fish scooting away as soon as I was anywhere near them I managed great success. I slid like a walrus into one pool to come face to face with two fighting males on a flat rock. They were totally absorbed in their battle and did not notice my intrusion. I was close enough to fill the frame with one of them at a time, though they refused to sit still or both be seen in the open at the same time. I did get some great shots. All other attempts after that failed like the first in all of the streams we tried. They are the hardest of them all…

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus)

Male rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) resting for a moment before continuing the fight with his neighbor

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus)

Rabbithead cling goby (Sicyopterus lagocephalus) Male displaying

 

Stiphodon cling gobies

Rabbitheads might be the largest, but the jewels of the stream would be the Stiphodons. Found in Southeast Asia, Melanesia and Northeastern Australia, there are a number of species. Males are often very bright while females all look relatively similar with black horizontal stripes over a light brown base colour. They get around in small schools scraping algae off the rock surfaces. Later in the wet season, males display bright colours any they spawn, the larvae being washed out to sea before returning to the streams months later.

Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni)

Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni)

The first species this time round was the Opal Cling goby (Stiphodon semoni). Despite being the most widespread Australian cling goby, it is one I have had trouble finding. At Ellis Beach I explored a small stream and found several of these munching away at the algae. I slid the top half of my body in and carefully took this one useful image. Outside breeding season, males become purple and when displaying become electric blue.

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus)

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus). Male

Red cling goby (Stiphodon rutilaureus)

Red cling goby. Female

Also just outside displaying season were the red cling gobies (Stiphodon rutilaureus) which are found in the lowermost sections of the freshwater streams. Males become brilliant red with blue cheeks when displaying.

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby (Stiphodon atratus)

Male Black cling goby with white patches

The most common cling goby I see in the Daintree is the Black (Stiphodon atratus). Last trip it was the only species seen. Males look fantastic while displaying. Metallic green cheeks on a dark body with electric blue fin edging they seem to display earlier than the other species.  

Smilosicyopus leprurus

Smilosicyopus leprurus

Smilosicyopus leprurus – carnivorous cling goby

This one was a bit of a surprise, and finding it was a new sighting for the creek I was in. Unlike all of the other cling gobies featured here, this species is a carnivore, taking macro invertebrates. Despite intense searching all through the stream, this is the only individual I found and the best image I could manage.

Other gobies

There are a large variety of other goby species in the Carins region’s freshwater streams. Here are some images with captions…  

Unidentified Redigobius

The spotfin goby (Redigobius biklonatus) is common in the slow leafy sections of creeks near the sea.

Flase Celebes Goby (Glossogobius illinus)

Flase Celebes Gobies (Glossogobius illinus) are the most common of all of the goby species in the coastal streams.

Roman nose goby (Awaous acritosus)

The largest of the gobies, the Roman Nosed (Awaous acritosus) is also extremely shy, darting away quickly. They grow to about 30cm.

Sleepers or Gudgeons

A number of gudgeon species live in the tropical streams of the Cairns area, but can be shy and hard to photograph.  

Brown Sleeper (Eleotris fusca)

What might be a Brown Sleeper (Eleotris fusca) peering out of his boulder home…

Snakehead Gudgeon male (Giurus margaritacea)

Snakehead Gudgeon male (Giurus margaritacea)

Well, that’s the round up of the gudgeon and goby species I found in the Wet Tropics this time around. Next post will be about the other fish species…

9 Amazing animals from the cold waters of Southern Australia

 9 Amazing animals from the cold waters of Southern Australia

Well everyone, 2015 has been a rather hectic year. No rest for the wicked, some say. Right after leaving the Wet Tropics, it was straight down south with my favourite biologist and partner Linda for a “meet the family.” Yes, she did very well, but no doubt you’re more interested in what we saw under the sea… More information for each image can be found by following the Flickr link.

9 Dragons of the Sea

Now these little guys are about the most amazing members of the Seahorse and Pipefish family (Sygnathidae). There are three types of Sea Dragon found in Southern Australia, two kinds of Weedy and one kind of Leafy. The common Weedy Seadragon is far more abundant than you may realise. In one snorkelling session I spotted over 40 of them! It does take a trained eye, and they sit at a depth of 3-6m among seagrass and sea nymph beds. Like other seahorses and sea dragons the male is the one that looks after the eggs under his tail until they hatch. This was the first thing we saw on the first day. Not a bad start!

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

The long tubular snout is used to suck up tiny shrimps

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

Weedy sea dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus)

In the sea nymph beds they can be a little tricky to spot…

8 Little Sea Dumplings

Unknown to most people that visit the beach, at night a strange little character emerges from the sand, peering out with big, bulbous eyes.

Dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica)

Dumpling squid emerging from sand (Euprymna tasmanica)

With a coating of sand stuck to their bodies, they switch on a light from an organ within to cancel out their shadows from predators and prey below.

Dumpling squid with sandy coating

Dumpling squid with sandy coating

Dumpling squid with curled tentacles

Dumpling squid with curled tentacles

If disturbed, they become even more adorable.

Dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica)

Dumpling squid (Euprymna tasmanica)

Dumpling or Bobtail squid are relatives of true squid and cuttlefish. Many species are found around the world’s oceans, and they are nocturnal, coming out after dark to hunt shrimps. The sand sticks to their bodies and can be shed in one lump with a spurt of ink if the animal needs to make an escape. The sinking blob of sand must look and smell like the squid and may distract a predator long enough for the little dumpling to jet away to safety. These little critter live only about 3 months. I had to brave the freezing cold water by myself to get these images after dark!

7 Colourful Cowfish

I really don’t know how a six-horned fish with a tiny mouth and psychedelic fingerpaint coating got the name “cowfish” but these Temperate Boxfish are very common on deeper reefs and seagrass beds in southern Victoria.

There are two species, the Shaw’s

Male Shaw's cowfish (Aracana aurita)

Male Shaw’s cowfish (Aracana aurita)

And the Ornate.

Aracana ornata 008

Ornate Cowfish

They get around picking at small invertebrates on the pylons of piers, rocks and reefs. We saw loads of these on the dives and some while snorkeling. Shaw’s were most common on reefs inside Port Phillip Bay and the Ornate was abundant on the seagrass beds around Flinders Pier.

6 Blue Devils

There is no need to explain the reason these fish are the major bucket list species of the Southern Sponge Gardens. At Portsea Hole we saw a number of Blue Devils just hanging around at about the 20m mark. On slack tide they emerge to sit in midwater to feed. Blue Devils grow to about 40cm.

Blue Devil (Paraplesiops meleagris)

Blue Devil (Paraplesiops meleagris)

Paraplesiops meleagris 025

Blue Devil in sponge garden

5 Leatherjackets

Hard sounding fish, no doubt. Leatherjackets are also known as Filefish. Allied to the tropical Triggerfish, they are prolific in Southern Australian waters. They are all carnivores, feeding on worms, jellyfish and anything else that they can scavenge. Like their Triggerfish cousins they have a sharp, barbed spine on the back of the head which makes it hard for predators to swallow them. The skin is usually rough, like sandpaper. Here is an overview of some of the species we saw: Pygmy Leatherjacket

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

Pygmy leatherjacket (Brachaluteres jacksonianus)

The only Gunn’s Leatherjacket I have ever seen

Gunn's leatherjacket (Monacanthus gunnii)

Gunn’s leatherjacket (Monacanthus gunnii)

Bridled Leatherjacket. A small species often seen in huge swarms in warmer weather.

Bridled leatherjacket (Acanthaluteres spilomenlanurus)

Bridled leatherjacket (Acanthaluteres spilomenlanurus)

Female Southern Leatherjacket

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia australis)

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia australis)

The unusual Mosaic Leatherjacket – a juvenile

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

Mosaic leatherjacket (Eubalicthys mosaicus)

Male Southern Leatherjacket

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia freycineti)

Southern leatherjacket (Meuschenia freycineti)

The very distinctive Horseshoe Leatherjacket    

Horseshoe leatherjacket (Meuschenia hippocrepis)

Horseshoe leatherjacket (Meuschenia hippocrepis)

Yellow Striped Leatherjacket

Yellow striped leatherjacket (Meuschenia flavolineata)

Yellow striped leatherjacket (Meuschenia flavolineata)

4 Octopus

Well, the Occies didn’t disappoint either. On every night dive we found them. In the freezing cold, we tried our luck at Mornington Pier. It was blowing a gale from the north which is very bad news for conditions. However we did manage to find a few nice creatures, but the octopus were the real treat. This Southern Keeled Octopus sat patiently for photos before vanishing down a hole in the mud.

Keeled octopus (Octopus berrima)

Keeled octopus (Octopus berrima)

And anywhere we went on the sand on any other night we were rewarded with the Sand Octopus, a species that hides under the sand by day, emerging after dark.

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

They are absolutely everywhere! Especially at Rye. We found them hunting in ankle deep water.

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

Southern sand octopus (Octopus karuna)

Southern sand octopus burying itself

Southern sand octopus burying itself

3 Sealing the deal

What trip to southern waters would be complete would goofing around with the resident seals? These playful mammals are easily found at Chinaman’s Hat in Southern Port Phillip Bay.

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus)

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus) Or Sea Lions?

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus)

 As soon as we arrived they greeted us, leaping into the water and rolling around, stopping to check us out before jetting away at full speed. They were too fast for any good images, but it was a blast.Actually, on second thought they might be Sea Lions. I’ll have to check…

Australian Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus doriferus)

 

2 A lonely cuttle

It was a surprise to only see one Cuttlefish this trip. We were diving at South Channel Fort and I saw him in a little cave. He came out and just sat there, in a miserable looking cuttlefish pose. I did get some cracker shots though. The wide angle lens worked a treat.

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

Giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama)

 

1 Deadly beauty

Without a doubt the most attractive of the octopus is the Blue Ringed. There are several known species, all of which have saliva loaded with a cocktail of toxins that will kill you (after making you completely paralyzed in no time flat) if you handle one and get bitten.

They are shy and retiring creatures, the Southern Blue Ringed has been a major bucket list species for me for a long time. Here are three I found in as many days: This little fella is doing his best not to be seen. They do not like coming into contact with people and usually sneak away quietly.

Camouflaged blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

Camouflaged blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

When disturbed they do change immediately, turning yellow with black blotches. In each blotch is a bright blue ring.

Displaying Blue Ringed Octopus

Displaying Blue Ringed Octopus

This one was spotted on the bottom under Rye Pier late one night. I was the only one in the water as it was too cold for anyone else. This one was so big I thought it was a Keeled Octopus. It was about the size of a tea saucer- far larger than I thought they reached.

Disturbed blue ringed octopus (Hapalochlaena maculosa)

Disturbed blue ringed octopus


Well, that’s about it for now. There is more coming when I get some more spare time, but in the meantime enjoy my Flickr album for more images. (Opens in new window)

 

 

 

Into the Wet Tropics part II

… Continued from Part 1…

So, the car had been towed all the way to a mechanic in Cairns, in fact the only one open for business over the New Year break. A short grey, nervous looking fella he looked Phil and I up and down with pale, almost white eyes. Maybe he was deep in thought or maybe there wasn’t much going on, so we nicknamed him “Ol’ Dead Eyes” which became his name for the rest of the trip. He spoke little, stared lots and accepted the car for a check over. He confirmed our suspicions quickly that it was something wrong with the head. So, we left him and went over to a car hire yard to get what may have been the only 4WD vehicle for hire that weekend.

The paperwork went through and soon we had a 4WD Hilux ute equipped for mining operations with a radio, massive aerial and a yellow strobe light on top. If the need arose we could go frog hunting with a mobile disco. It was hideously expensive, but we had come this far. We had originally budgeted for under $1000 for the trip, but already the costs were well past double that. Not looking good so far…

Jungle Perch (Kuhlia rupestris)

Jungle perch from Emogen Creek

Indonesian marbled eel (Anguilla marmorata)

The uncommon Indonesian marbled eel. This species is incidental in the Wet Tropics, the near identical Longfinned eel is far more common.

Pacific blue eye (Pseudomugil signifer)

A male Pacific Blue Eye

We headed up to the Daintree, checking out the tannin stained creeks on the way. Finally we reached Emogen Creek, the beginning of the Bloomfield Track. The afternoon was spent snorkeling the pools looking for cling gobies and other freshwater fish. This went on well into the evening. Phil and I headed further upstream when I heard him call out in his loud Liverpool accent:

Freshwater moray (Gymnothorax polyuranodon)

Finally! A Freshwater Moray!

“Wooooooah! It’s a Moray. Come check it out” (you have to understand how it sounds when he says things. Think Lister from the TV series Red Dwarf)

There it was, my first ever Freshwater Moray (Gymnothorax polyuranodon). Orange with brown irregular blotches it cautiously watched, mouth slightly open like it had just told a joke and was awaiting a response. I managed to snap a couple of macro shots of its head before it vanished under the riverbank. Further up was a massive freshwater longfinned eel which sank into the thick leaf litter. A small saw shelled turtle (Wollumbinia latisternum) cruised by. I badly wanted a shot of the moray with my wide angle lens to fit the whole animal in, but though we search all night no more came out to play.

Saw shelled turtle (Wollumbinia latisternum)

A small Saw Shelled Turtle

It was now time to set up camp, so we backtracked to a camping spot and set up. It had not rained in three months so far, so who would think it would get wet? Well, as Phil was setting up his new, flash looking popup tent the heavens opened with a roar. Soon the ground was soaked. I unrolled my swag in the tent to be greeted by a green mushroom cloud of fungus spores. This swag was borrowed from the Heiner Brothers and had never been cleaned – and was packed away damp months ago. It was now a penicillin farm. The tent was not waterproof, except the floor which meant no water could escape. Soon we were camped in a kiddie pool in a shower. And I was on a swag that stank of dead cow covered in an alcoholics vomit. This set the scene for the rest of the trip…

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!