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 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…

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!

In the desert…

Well, I have been back and forth from Alice Springs of late, and on the way I have been stopping to check out the wildlife. The word on the street is rain, rain and more rain! The desert is alive! So kick back and enjoy some pictures:

The desert crab (Holthuisana spp) is an amazing collection of species. It lives in burrows in dry creek beds, emerging after heavy rains flood them out. They browse on grass and anything dead that has washed in, and when times are tough will eat each other. The life cycle is unusual, most if not all other crabs have an aquatic stage where the young are free-swimming before settling. The desert crab does not. Young hatch as fully formed crabs in the mother’s burrow after she carries them under her abdomen. One species is currently recognized, but we now know there is a whole complex of un-described species…

Related to the desert crab is this unlikely animal, the shield shrimp, also known as the tadpole shrimp or Triops. These are remarkable, surviving as eggs blown about in the hot, dry dust for years until heavy rains cause them to hatch and grow rapidly, feeding on algae, smaller animals and anything else they can devour. Life is frantic, they only have days to breed before the puddles dry and all of the adults perish. The young will have to wait until the next big rain…

And an underside shot of a triops or shield shrimp, just to freak you out…

This is the Gillen’s or Centralian tree frog, Litoria gilleni. They live in rocky gorges around Alice Springs and are closely related to the Green or White’s tree frog found elsewhere in the country. They call after rain with a slow, deep “cawk…cawk…cawk” sound.

Found in the dry parts of tropical and subtropical Australia is the Stimson’s python (Antaresia stimsoni). A small python it takes frogs, lizards, mammals and birds. This one was at Ellery Creek near Alice Springs.

The most spectacular lizard in Australia’s north is the Frill Neck (Chlamydosaurus kingii) which uses its frill to frighten enemies or rivals. These are common after rain when they descend from the trees.

At the Devil’s Marbles there have been a number of juvenile Merten’s water monitors (Varanus mertensi) hunting desert crabs and tadpoles in the temporary creeks. Well outside their accepted range I have no idea how they got here, but I have never seen them here before…

An unusual monitor (goanna) lizard is the Spiny tailed (Varanus acanthurus) which normally lives in rocky outcrops or buildings but in this case was well out into the mulga woodlands. We found him with his head stuck in a beer can beside the road, so carefully cutting him free I got a picture before he rocketed off through the bush. Now I know how my Aboriginal mate Murray got the term “Runnin’ like a goanna in the spinifex…”

I had stayed at Banka Banka on the Stuart Highway just north of Tennant Creek a bunch of times but heard a new frog call. A burst of four rapid pulses. It didn’t sound far away, but 3km later I finally found the frog. Kneeling down I put my hand on a scorpion. OUCH! But I got some pictures of a frog I had never seen, the Blacksoil Toadlet (Uperoleia trachyderma). It is the size of a thumbnail or smaller.

Also out in force with a peculiar owl-like “whooping” call is the Nicholl’s or desert spadefoot toad. Globular and obese, they sit near ant hills and lap up the ants as they emerge. They are equipped with a nasty toxin they can release when upset. It is milky in colour and extremely sticky.

 

How could you not love this face?

 

Other burrowers have been at it too. The Main’s frog (Cyclorana maini) sounds like a sheep! This one was from Alice Springs.

 

But this one, Cyclorana cultripes, makes a rapid “wahhh.. wahhh…” call

A drying claypan with loads of tadpoles which may never make it…

 

Boo! This is a huge spider from the desert known as the Barking, Whistling or Bird eating spider (Selenocosmia). The names given to it mostly refer to the sound it can apparently make (never heard it) by rubbing the fangs on a special area. Just to make it creepier! It is massive, enough to cover much of your face. And yes, you’re welcome!