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 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…

Ant mimicking bugs suck!

Ant mimicking bugs suck!

Back in 2008 in North Queensland, Australia I stumbled upon a common Green Tree Ant (Oecophylla smaragdina) but this one was not behaving normally, instead of hanging about with its colleagues nearby it was on its own. Looking at it more closely revealed it was not actually an ant at all, rather an ant-mimicking bug! So what’s the difference? Aren’t ants bugs too?

The ant mimicking bug

The fake

Well first of all, the term ‘bug’ is generously applied to practically any animal with more than six jointed legs. In scientific terms, the word ‘bug’ should only be used for insects that have sucking mouthparts, kind of like a straw. They all belong to the group Hemiptera or ‘half winged’ insects. Ants belong to another group, the Hymenoptera or ‘membrane winged’ group. This also includes wasps, bees and the wasp-like Sawflies.

Why imitate an ant?

With that cleared up, what would a bug want to look like an ant for? Well, as you can see, the detail is striking. The colours are exact and the wings even follow the contours of the body, the main difference is the straw-like mouthpart tucked up underneath. The basic advantages to looking like an ant include mostly defence. Many ants taste terrible, the formic acids in their abdomens can be very pungent and most predators ignore them. Also, many ants have a powerful bite and sting which also makes them unappealing. Finally, ants are often found in large numbers, where there is one there is often a whole army nearby.

Green Tree Ant

So the ant-mimicking bug can feed in peace. What does it feed on? Many ant-mimicking bugs like it that imitate other ant species are vegetarian, sucking away at flower buds and fresh shoots. This one might just do the same.

Bugs aren’t the only critters that imitate ants… A whole group of jumping spiders do the same. This is not an ant, but a spider. But wait… Don’t spiders have eight legs rather than the six that insects have? Also, what about the antennae, or feelers that insects have but spiders do not? Well, this spider solves the problem easily, by holding up its front legs to look like antennae. It waves them about just like a real ant! Another problem is that ants have three sections to the body- the head, thorax (middle part) and abdomen (rear section).

Ant-mimicking Jumping Spider

Spiders have just two, the cephalothorax (head and middle) and the abdomen. This spider has an artificial thorax, formed by a little ‘pinch’ half way down.

Unlike the bug above, this ant mimics Spiny Ants from the Polyrachis group. Jumping spiders that imitate ants apparently feed on them, using their disguise to creep up and launch a lightning fast attack on their unsuspecting victims. The disguise also saves them from spider-hunting wasps that seek out spiders, sting them and take the paralysed body back to feed their young.

Because ants are so common, it makes sense to imitate them.

 

Polyrachis ant

A Spiny Ant

The Great Southeastern Road Trip – Washpool

The Washpool is an amazing relict rainforest in the higher country of northern NSW, home to some truly bizarre animals. We spent two nights checking out everything from a deadly snake to a very strange cousin of the spiders- an oplionid and even a most unlikely predator – the strange velvet worm. Frogs of course were the main target and we managed to find one of the most unusual – the marsupial frog – a species that carries its young in pouches!

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So sit back and enjoy!

The rough scaled or Clarence River snake (Tropidechis carinatus) is extremely venomous and feeds on frogs and reptiles.

 

Marsupial frogs (Assa darlingtoni) are remarkable. Only 2cm long, they have two hip pockets that act as pouches for developing young, like a kangaroo! … well sort of.

The beautiful glandular tree frog is becoming rare overall.

Male glandular tree frogs are very variable.