The journey to high speed bat photography

The journey to high speed bat photography

Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

It was such a sticky October afternoon as the sun went down over the Kimberley. The rocks were still hot to touch and I was covered in bat guano, orange clay and sweat. I wriggled down in a sitting position on the rocks and watched. One by one, bats flew out of the cave as the flash briefly illuminated them. The road to success had taken place over several years but finally, victory was mine. One of my favourite books as a kid was Stephen Dalton’s Caught in Motion, a fantastic book written as a photographic essay on high speed photography of animals. To this day Stephen’s photography is ongoing in this field, and much of his work in the 1980s is still highly regarded, even by modern standards. He worked with a high voltage airgap flash, low ISO transparency film and an old photocell trigger to freeze fast and delicate subjects in flight while retaining incredible depth of field and detail. My journey into high speed wildlife photography began in North Queensland with my first digital SLR in 2006. Every year Buff Breasted Paradise Kingfishers arrive in the region to breed after a long flight from New Guinea. Easy targets, they hollow out termite mounds in which their nests are built. They follow predictable flight paths to and from the nest and become very accustomed to humans, especially along walking tracks. Not only that, but their spectacular red, blue, black and orange colouration is topped off by two long white tail streamers – making them excellent subjects.

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Buff breasted paradise kingfisher in flight. Old, slightly motion blurred image taken with one flash

Setting up to photograph them was not so hard. I only had one flash, a wide angle lens and an industrial infrared sensor to trigger the camera. That was enough; I set up the camera, pre-focused the lens and aimed the sensor and its reflector across the path of the bird. All I had to do was walk away and come back to check on it once in a while. I took many photographs of these birds this way, sometimes they were taking food back for their babies, other times flying out of the nest.

For a few years I put high speed wildlife photography on the back burner, rarely dusting off the gear. Last year, I decided to get back into it to see what I could do. Bats were something I always wanted to photograph in flight but for some reason I spent years thinking about it and never actually putting it into action. Seeing bats flying predictable paths along forest trails, through road culverts and out of caves really got me planning how to actually do it.

It was at my friend Stuie’s place in Cairns that I decided to take bat photography seriously. In his roof are hundreds of mastiff-bats which emerge every night, tumbling out of the roof and flying off into the darkness. Fast, high flying and alert, they are a massive challenge once they get clear of the roost. We set up the reflector and sensor so that they would trigger the camera as they spread their wings after the initial 2m free fall. I used three flashes to try and get the most light in the shortest burst (more on that later). As the camera (Canon EOS 5DIII) takes 56m/s to respond after being triggered there is a little guesswork to be done. A bat flying at a modest 12km/h will move around 18cm (two body lengths) in three dimensions in that time. Many bat species are much faster. This is more than enough to put it out of the frame or well out of focus. Both of these things happened and we ended up with no sharp images. But it was a start.

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Mastiff-bat image. Both this and the one below were heavily cropped, lightened and out of focus. It’s a start though!

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Another shot of the same species

Work got in the way for a while, but I had a chance to try again in the Kimberley region of Western Australia soon enough. Many caves contain colonies of dusky leaf nosed bats, a gorgeous slow flying species that shuttles in and out of the caves for the first hour of darkness. Preferring confined spaces made it easy to try my luck. Armed with four flashes made life a bit easier. I set up the single infrared trigger in the flight path of exiting bats. With their habit of darting about unpredictably, it was hard to get them exactly on the focal plane as the shot was being taken. I did take some on the wide-angle lens, but they were small in the frame and had to be cropped significantly. My 100mm lens got nothing of any worth. It was fun setting up and having them fly around my head as they came and went from the cave, often triggering the camera while I lined it up. It was not ideal though, I needed a better way. How would I get true precision? I needed the flashes to fire exactly when the bat crossed the beam. Since it was dark anyway, I decided I had a huge advantage – unlimited shutter time.

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Dusky leaf nosed bat. Heavily cropped image. I found out that the white belly fur of this species glows green under UV light! Why though? I have no idea.

Some photographers that have tried their hand at bats are using a system that keeps the camera’s shutter open for a long time, but with a second high speed shutter over the front of the lens to keep it dark until a bat crosses a precise beam on the focal plane and in an instant opens the secondary shutter and fires the flashes. It does work but is expensive to buy or make, and bulky. Having the shutter open all of the time must burn batteries up and use loads of shutter cycles not to mention all that power pumping through the sensor must create some hot pixels. I like the system, but decided to go my own way and save some serious money as I went. The idea was to have two beams that are totally separate from each other, one to fire the camera and the other to fire the flashes. A bat would fly through the first vertical beam, triggering the camera into a 1-2 second exposure. The second beam which was less than a meter away would only fire the flash, and the camera was focused on that one. As the flash responds extremely quickly, this would be no problem. So basically by the time the bat reached the flash, the camera would be ready for it. I made up a simple infrared trigger to be used on the flash, but one problem remained. The fastest bats would not trigger the camera long enough. A fast object breaking the beam would be ignored. I needed a way to make it hold the circuit long enough for the camera. A fast, simple solution I found was a capacitor and a second relay. Now even the fastest bat had no chance! The second problem was that of lighting. The faster the object you are trying to photograph, the shorter the flash duration needs to be to freeze it. Speedlights usually have the same level of light output, but the more light is needed, the longer the flash tube is illuminated. At 1/1 power, even a slower bat or bird will be hopelessly blurred. You have to dial the power right down as low as possible. At 1/64 there will still be some noticeable blur on a moderate to fast bat. To get the required power at a bat-stopping 1/128, more than one flash will be needed; the more the merrier. Expect to be using four or more even for close range work.   It was a road culvert near Hall’s Creek, Western Australia that was my chosen test site. There was a sizeable colony of wattled bats (Chalinolobus spp) roosting in abandoned martin nests under the road. I set up beam number 1 about 1m inside the culvert on the floor, aimed at the ceiling where the reflector was taped. At the entrance I placed beam number 2 attached to a master flash. The three other flashes were connected to it by Canon’s optical wireless system. The master was a Canon 580EXII, I had two Yongnuo 600EX-RT units and a single YN 560IV.   The bats poured out of the culvert, constantly flying back in to rest, before flying back out to feed. I stayed all night at this site, camped at the entrance with the flash going off like crazy. I seemed to get more bats triggering the setup while flying in rather than out which meant less images. But those that did fly out and trigger both beams were perfectly in focus and exactly where I wanted them in the frame. I could call success at least on that, but another problem reared its ugly head – poor synchronisation. The master flash would fire at a slightly different time to the others, which weren’t perfectly synced either. So I would have a slight ghost image from the 580EX and a bit of blur from the others not quite firing at the exact same moment. There had to be a slightly better way.

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Chalinolobus sp… This and the following images are all slightly motion blurred from incorrect flash syncing. Getting closer to the goal though!


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It was back in the stone country of the Kimberley that I tried the next experiment, physically wiring the flashes together via the PC SYNC ports. All of the YN 600EX-RT units worked perfectly together but would sulk when any other was added to the group. The Canon 580EXII would fire but suppress the others, while the YN 560IV would not only suppress the others but fire about a dozen times in a fraction of a second. This was not good enough so I had to improvise and quickly make an optical slave unit from a phototransistor for the 580 and 560. Only the three YN 600EX-RT units were connected to the flash trigger directly while I had to trigger the other two units via the improvised slave trigger. It was annoying but after some fiddling around, they all fired in unison with zero blur. It was now time to take this setup to the escarpment.

I cable-tied the flashes to sticks and wired them together and to the flash trigger, placing them either side of my target area, zoomed and aimed perfectly so as not to waste any light at all. With a duration as low as 1/20 000 of a second, all the light from all of the flashes needed to be right on target. The final flash was on the roof aimed down. The first attempt was with my 16-35mm lens. This gave me a good idea of what was flying through and what to expect, though major cropping was required. I missed a single ghost bat that flew too low. The most photographed species was the ubiquitous Dusky Leaf Nose (Hipposideros ater) and a single Orange Leaf Nose (Rhinonicteris aurantia). I needed closer images so the following night I switched to my 100mm f2.8L lens.

It was such a great feeling to watch the bats fly in and out of the cave with the flash going off, checking the photos and seeing the images shown here. Perfect focus, no blur and great composition. Currently I am working on a tutorial on how to build the devices you will need. Very cheap and surprisingly easy!

Common Sheathtail Bat (Taphozous georgianus)

During the shutter’s open time, two Common sheathtail bats flew through the flash beam, making a great double exposure.

Common Sheathtail Bat (Taphozous georgianus)

Common sheathtail bat

Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

Series of Orange leaf nosed bat images (Rhinonicteris aurantia)


Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)
Orange leaf nosed bat in flight (Rhinonicteris aurantia)

Into the heart of Cape York part I- Iron Range Frogs

Lockhart River waterfront panorama 2 001-Pano

Lockhart River waterfront panorama

It was a hot November day as we rumbled around a corner on the Cape York Development road on a freshwater fish researching trip. Cape York is the northernmost tip of continental Australia. All part of the state of Queensland, it is largely remote and undeveloped – save for a few small communities and the town of Weipa on its western coast. Weipa was our destination, though driving past the turnoff to the tiny seaside town of Portland Roads via the Iron Range was taunting me, especially considering the good state of the dirt roads at the time. I just had to go there.

It’s a long way from anywhere…

The Iron Range was a US/Australian military stronghold in northern Australia during WWII, though these days it is a region that is out of the way of most travellers. The human population resides in two towns: Portland Roads and Lockhart River, both separated by about 30km of dirt road that winds through a small section of the rainforest.

It was the rainforest that really drew my attention. Far more like the forests of New Guinea than the rest of northern Australia, it is home to several unique species of plant and animal found nowhere else- pretty much the rest of them are otherwise only found in nearby New Guinea. The turnoff was soon lost in the dust of the rear vision mirror, but my plans were just forming.

When we returned to Cairns, I called up Phil Lewis to see what he thought. The original plan we hatched was to fly into Weipa and drive the two and a half hours in a hire car to Lockhart River. Rain seemed unlikely, so the five river crossings should have been pretty easy. I looked into flights direct to Lockhart, and for $750 return we could fly in via small aircraft if the weather got too bad.

As unlikely as it was, a massive rain depression formed and threatened to drown the Cape, so as quickly as I could, I booked us return flights with Skytrans. As for a car, I stumbled upon Lockhart River Car Hire. Paul, the owner was hard to reach but the price of $128/day for a car was pretty unbeatable. With the car finally secured, it was time to say goodbye to my ever tolerant partner Linda and collect Phil at Cairns.

The rain depression was a bit troublesome – planes were going to be grounded on the 24th of December- our flying day as for the next few days it would be too risky to attempt landing. Skytrans called me to say that we would have to fly on the 23rd or else not at all.

So Phil and I packed our bags early and headed for the airport. Thunderclouds loomed in the distance as we took off in a small plane and headed north. Being a small regional carrier, we had to stop at the community of Coen to collect and drop off some passengers (rather like a flying community bus) before passing over the Macillwraith Range (the southern part of the Iron Range type rainforest). The rainforest covered hills were marked by snaking creeks and rivers. A waterfall complete with a large plunge pool slid by below us. The air was obviously humid from the beginning of the rains as steam lifted off the slopes and condensed in clouds.

Soon enough we started to descend. Rainforest gave way to larger rivers and swamps lined in Nypa palms. The rainforest was clearly defined around the edges; it did not fade into the surrounding savannah and heathland but one habitat abruptly became another as if cut out by jagged scissors.

Soon we were walking across the tarmac to the terminal – a wooden shack. That was it – a hut with a small baggage room and a waiting area. It was old, and had been through many re-paintings over the years. It felt like we had left Australia and were somewhere in New Guinea or Melanesia. Not knowing what we were expected to do, we waited around outside and soon enough a grey headed man in a Hilux ute (pickup truck) stopped in front of us with all of the luggage sitting on the tray. It seemed this was the baggage carousel. He stepped out and introduced himself to us as “Nev”.

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This is the airport…

“So… You fellas are the birdos that Paul has been waitin’ for?”

“Birdos?” I replied “Nah, we’re here to look for reptiles and yeah, we were hiring a car off Paul.”

“Righto. Paul sent a fella down yest’day lookin for ya. He was ‘ere for ages but since ya didn’t show, he left the car ‘ere just in case.”

“I emailed ‘im to let ‘im know the flights ‘ad changed and I had never booked one for yesterday.” I replied.

“It’s all good, Paul’s an easy goin’ bloke. It’ll be right. Anyway, if you’re interested how ’bout you just take the car – it’s over there (pointing to a Hilux ute in the carpark) an the keys are in it and it’s ready ta go. I’ll see if Les can take ya out ta meet Steve. He lives in an old abattoir. One of those feel good community projects that never took off, ya know. Anyway he’s as mad as a cut snake. We all call ‘im Snakeman round ‘ere. Good bloke though, knows ‘is stuff. Once ya get ‘im goin’, ya won’t stop ‘im. Anyways, where’s Les?

Nev called to a young, brown, tall and thin man with a shock of black curly hair grown out to an Afro on his head. He would have been in his very early twenties. He was working at the airport, ferrying things back and forth. He stopped what he was doing and walked over. Phil immediately noticed Les was wearing two vastly different shoes, in colour, size and style. One was a white sneaker and it was about three sizes bigger than the other purple one on the other foot. He grinned and shook our hands. Like Nev, he was instantly likeable and very welcoming.

“So Lesley…” began Nev “When ya knock off, you wanna take these fellas out to Steve’s an’ say G’day? When can ya finish?”

“I reckon I could go ’bout now, it’s almost knock off time” replied Les. So he pushed the load on the trolley he was attending into a room and walked over. He stepped into his car and called out to us: “The road is a bit wet, just take it easy and you’ll be right. I can pull ya out if ya get stuck.”

So I picked up the keys from the driver’s seat of our car, fired it up and followed; the gear banging around on the open tray. It didn’t take long and we were on a muddy gravel road, rocking from side to side. The puddles were deep but we managed to scrape and slide through without any real problems. Soon we were at the top of a small rise. A man in his early forties emerged from the run-down and disused abattoir, slightly confused it seemed. Les introduced us and he walked over, shook our hands and showed us around.

Steve was cautious at first, but a genuinely decent guy. He had turned this already ideal reptile habitat into a perfect habitat with sheets of iron laid around thoughtfully, old tyres and fallen timber. It didn’t take us long to find some Nactus geckoes under a sheet; black with small white flecks and clawed, padless toes. Apparently taipans (Australia’s most feared snakes) are often found under the sheets too. Steve loved that fact, and to him it was a sign that he was doing the right thing. But time was short, Phil managed to find a little spotted python (Antaresia maculosa) which was a great start.

Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda)

Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda) at Steve’s place. A popular food with the Indigenous of the area before Europeans came along. It tastes like dry mashed potato.

Nonda Plum (Parinari nonda)

Apparently the nonda fruits on the trees were not always eaten, unripe plums could be picked and ripened in sand pits.

“So, where you stayin’ ta-nite?” asked Steve.

“Dunno, I s’pose we’re going to the national park and camp” I replied.

“Nah, stuff that. Just stay at Paul’s place. He won’t be home for a day or so, ‘sides, he won’t mind anyway.”

“Sure?” said Phil.

“Yeah, for sure. He’s cool, I’ll take ya there.”

“Just another thing…” I added “Paul doesn’t even know we’re here, and we didn’t pay him anything or sign any forms for the car, what do we do?”

“Don’ worry! Paul will sort it out with ya later on. He’s easy going as. Anyway, let’s go.” He turned to Les, “I’ll catch ya later Les.”

Les waved and left ahead of us while Steve drove a larger four wheel drive and we followed. We arrived at a house just out of town with a very large shed. Cars were parked all around it. A house was in the middle of the cleared block of land. Steve led us into the shed and told us we could set up anywhere. He pointed to a series of pictures printed and stuck to a wall. There was a collection of snakes including the brown headed snake (Furina tristis), the coastal taipan (Oxyuranus scutellatus), whip snakes (Demansia vestigiata) and the snake we had come to see, the green python (Morelia viridis).

“The local mob ‘ere call ‘em the glow snake” mentioned Steve, pointing at a picture of one wrapped around a tree branch “They reckon they glow when they see ‘em in the headlights on the road at night. Bright green so they stand out like dog’s balls!”

“You see many?” asked Phil.

“Yeah mate, whenever I go out pretty much, though some nights I might see a dozen, others I see only one or none. See the young one there? [pointing to a bright yellow one in a picture] Rare as rockin’ horse shit. I seen only two the whole time I’ve been ‘ere. You gotta be lucky for them little ones.”

“You go far for them?” Phil replied.

“Don’ ‘ave to. We find ‘em right across the road in that there bit of forest. Crossing the roads from time to time. Seen a big old dead one a little while back. Some prick ‘ad run over it, poor bugger. Mostly ya see the big scrub pythons, but big uns are getting’ rarer these days. Lots get run over ’cause they are too big to drive round. Take up the entire road! Lots of little ones round three metres or so gettin’ ’bout. Anyway, set up an’ I’ll catch ya in the morn’.”

We felt weird about just setting up in the shed of a guy who we had rented a car from, not paid, never met and who didn’t even know we had arrived – and was not home. But the tent was up in no time and the mosquitoes arrived in earnest, bouncing off the mesh walls.

There was herping to be done. We had come all this way and we were not going to waste a night in the one rainforest I wanted to see the most. Phil was itching to see Australia’s only “true frog”, the wood frog (Hylarana daemeli). This species had eluded us on the last trip to Cairns. Apparently super abundant we had not seen even one. In the days leading up to Phil arriving, I had found plenty of them in the rainforest, and I had shown Phil one beside a stream one night but it was not the full experience. I wanted to see the fringed or growling tree frog (Litoria eucnemis) which is a species otherwise known from New Guinea.

Australian Wood Frog (Papurana daemeli)

Australian Wood Frog (Papurana daemeli)

We had only driven a short distance when I heard the loud, distinctive calls of wood frogs. It is hard to describe, but imagine rubbing a finger on a balloon with one long note and several shorter, lower pitched notes following. They also squeak and chirp, especially while males wrestle. They were all over the drain under the road and in the pools near it. The thing I noticed was the size of them. Those I had seen near Townsville and around Cairns were small in comparison, only around six centimetres. These were very large, even the males were formidable at ten centimetres or so while the females nearby were bigger still. As the males croaked, their vocal sacs either side of the mouth swelled. This sets them apart from all other Australian frogs. As the only member of the Ranidae family that includes the “typical” frogs from around the world to be found in Australia, they are somewhat of a novelty. Phil was ecstatic. A horrible smell filled our nostrils. I thought it might be a dead body, Phil remarked soberly that with the amount of exploring we do that it is “only a matter of time”. We found the culprit. A dead cane toad was covered in black beetles, some were under the skin making it writhe around. Phil was fascinated, I was happy to back away.

As we drove through the forest scanning for snakes, we noticed the frogs were everywhere. But not many species. The familiar frogs of the Wet Tropics nearby to the south were largely missing. Instead, a small number of species filled many niches. On the low branches were green tree frogs (Litoria caerulea) and white lipped tree frogs (Litoria infrafrenata), obviously looking to spear tackle any small insects, frogs, lizards or snakes. Both of these species are massive, the white lipped is the largest tree frog of all, at 150mm snout to vent. The green is only slightly smaller but has a garbage-guts reputation and will try and eat almost anything it can, including said snakes. On the higher branches we saw dainty green tree frogs (Litoria gracilenta), a smaller species with a granular green back, yellow “eyebrows” and vivid orange eyes and legs. The thighs are bright purple or blue. Wood frogs made up the bulk on the ground, as did introduced cane toads. Occasionally we saw marbled marsh frogs (Limnodynastes convexiusculus) and ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum) but otherwise nothing else in the way of frogs. It should be noted that the only two species from that list that are normally in rainforest are the white lipped tree frog and the wood frog. The other species are normally in other, drier habitats. We thought about the massive abundance of so few frog species and determined that it was likely that the larger size of the wood frogs meant less competition. The normal competitors from further south like barred frogs (Mixophyes) and Jungguy frogs (Litoria jungguy) were absent and not to mention, far fewer lizards.

White Lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata)

I already had loads of pictures of the White Lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata) from elsewhere. Still an amazing, massive frog!

Marbled Marshfrog (Limnodynastes convexiusculus)

The Marbled Marshfrog (Limnodynastes convexiusculus) was fairly common, and even calling in rainforest pools. This is not a frog you would normally see in this habitat. They are normally a floodplain species.

Platyplectrum ornatum 034

It was also very strange to see these guys. Ornate burrowing frogs (Platyplectrum ornatum) are a species most abundant in sandy river flats and floodplains. What they were doing in a muddy rainforest is anyone’s guess.

The frog I wanted to see came later. We drove past a culvert that drained a swampy part of the forest and was surrounded in a low, broad leaved bamboo. I glimpsed a brown frog on a bamboo branch and slammed on the brakes. It was a growling tree frog, and I couldn’t get near it before it hopped away into the dense bamboo. We stopped and listened. I could hear low, constant growling from a short distance into the swamp. We headed in and found dozens of growling tree frogs calling. A beautiful frog, they have green around the eyes, a light brown body with frilled edges to the legs. A prominent soft spur is on each heel. We spent an hour or so photographing and recording these gorgeous little frogs. I couldn’t help but notice that they were nearly identical to the tapping green eyed frog (Litoria serrata) from the Cairns region. The call and the heel spur are the only diagnostic features. Still, this was my goal in terms of frogs fulfilled.

Growling green eyed tree frog (Litoria eucnemis)

Growling green eyed tree frog (Litoria eucnemis)

The other frog I had really wanted to photograph was a species of rocket frog, known as the bridled frog (Litoria nigrofrenata). We found them without any trouble along the roadsides in the heathland beyond the rainforest. Males were gathered up around puddles calling loudly and were easily found by their eye shine. I must admit, though I really wanted to find this species it was a let down when we did. They are so similar to a related species in the Darwin region, it felt as though I hadn’t ticked off a new species. But in reality, I had.

Bridled Frog (Litoria nigrofrenata)

Bridled Frog (Litoria nigrofrenata)

We patrolled the road, and saw a red 4WD parked with its headlights on. It was unregistered and had no license plate. Phil is a fan of Wolf Creek, and is, to put it bluntly “wary” of strangers in the bush. It was an indigenous family, and I slowed down and leaned out the window, said “hello” and kept driving. My plan was to turn around and come back and ask if everything was OK. We did, and I asked Phil what the bet was they had run out of fuel. We chuckled and pulled over.

I called out “Hey bud, everything OK?”

The Indigenous man answered: “We got a problem with our fuel…”

“You got any fuel?” I asked.

“No.” He seemed let down “We run out.”

“Told you so…” I whispered to Phil.

“Look buddy, we got nothing to tow you with, and we got no can of fuel, so maybe we can drive you to town.” I told him.

He was relieved, so he called to the others in the car to jump on the back. The kids, as if expecting this all along had blankets and mattresses ready and made beds on the tray. There was about eight of them. Their mother and an aunty also joined them in the back while the man climbed on last and stood up, leaning on the roll bar on the roof. Hoping no police were on the roads (unlikely) we continued to look for snakes on and drove slowly towards town. Arriving half an hour later, they disembarked and walked into their house with only a quick thanks and goodbye. It was now well into the morning hours so we headed for bed in Paul’s workshop.

Eisdisco!

Eisdisco!

(sorry, text article)

Well, here I am in Germany, visiting my partner’s parents in what has been described by some as sort of a Judgement Day. I am happy to report that they are great, though there is a bit of a language barrier. For the next few weeks I will be exploring the region, centred around Chemnitz in the former communist East. The first, and one of the more memorable moments in the couple of days I have been here is something Linda casually mentioned as we were walking back from the botanic gardens. Eisdisco! Yes, there is such a thing. I expected the best (?) budget East German DJs combined with the fashions of a region that had broken free of communism – all on a slippery ice surface. I was not disappointed.

With childlike delight I roped Linda, who rolled her eyes at the idea (or possibly my enthusiasm), and her brother Steffen into a night on the ice. On the bus I noticed a man in his early forties with a jawline beard, orange cycling glasses and a sweatband on his head, wearing a blue tracksuit. He looked like a man that frequents Eisdiscos. I relayed my opinion to Steffen who told me it was unlikely.

On arrival, the first order of business was to find some skates that fit me. Luckily they did have EUR51 skates, the largest available.

The atmosphere was building as we awaited the doors to the ice to open. I noticed a familiar face in the crowd – Napoleon Dynamite’s doppelganger. Seriously, this guy was identical. Small circles of coloured lights chased each other over the ice and a disco ball rotated slowly overhead. The doors flung open and we were on the ice as quick as a flash.

This is the moment I should mention that I had only tried ice skating once, and it was 20 years ago. I was terrible at it. This time was no different. People in spiky coloured hairdos zoomed past, the orange glasses guy from the bus (yes I was right!) was also there. The music was exactly as I expected. Classical German music such as Rammstein and Scooter blasted from the speakers as I made my way around the ring.

Owning the Eisdisco

I struggled but managed three laps before my first fall. The boots were a little loose, so we exchanged them for another pair, hoping for size 50. They only had 49, which I couldn’t get my feet into at all. So it was another pair of 51s. Upon returning to the ice, I found much to my horror that the left skate would slide out sideways and not grip the ice at all. Nothing I could do would cause it to grip, so we went back to exchange that too. Instead, the big moustached maintenance man with a tummy that strained against his overalls offered to take the boots and sharpen them. Back on the ice, the problem still made gaining speed difficult. So we returned the boots again. The man fished about and found a final pair of skates. These worked as expected and soon I was back on the ice falling over as usual. It was getting hot in my snow jacket so I opted to wear my shirt and jeans. I was the only person not wearing a jacket, so you can imagine I got a few strange looks.

The night was coming to a close and my feet began to hurt. I was becoming much better at this ice skating thing, but maybe that was just the beer wearing off.

Cassowary bath time!

It’s bath time for this father Cassowary and his baby. We were walking down to a creek in the Daintree in North Queensland and nearly bumped into them. We stepped back a respectful distance and filmed it. There is no sound as others saw us filming and came over to ask questions, so I will have to create the sound for it later.

There are three species of Cassowary, all are found in New Guinea, but one ranges south into Australia – the Southern. It is critically endangered here with small populations and dwindling habitat. Car strikes and dog attacks are further trimming numbers down. The future is not too bright for this amazing bird.

Into the Wet Tropics part IV – back through the Daintree to Tully

On the way back from Black Mountain, the heavy rain brought out a variety of rainforest frogs. Long, drawn out groans belonged to the Dainty Green Tree Frog (Litoria gracilenta). Standing on branches on their tip-toes, they sucked air into their bodies until they looked like they would pop, then with great effort pumped it into their bubble-like vocal sacs. They were tremendously noisy, hundreds gathered around the puddles in the shrubs.

Dainty green tree frog (Litoria gracilenta) calling

Dainty green tree frog (Litoria gracilenta), a beautiful frog found in swamps and drier areas on the edge of rainforest.

Dainty green tree frog (Litoria gracilenta) calling

 

Away from the puddles, in the streams we could hear the shorter, repetitive groans of the Orange Thighed Frog (Litoria xanthomera). On mossy boulders and overhanging branches they gathered in loose groups.

Orange thighed tree frog (Litoria xanthomera)

Orange thighed tree frog (Litoria xanthomera) looking at the camera

In the leaf litter was a frog I had never heard before, a series of short whistles gave them away. Fry’s Frog (Austrochaperina fryi) is a tiny leaf-litter dweller distantly related to the Black Mountain Boulder Frog. Tracking these down is a nightmare. They call infrequently, and when you get close they simply stop. So you must dedicate all of your effort to one individual, waiting for the call, moving closer, waiting again silently until you have the location pinpointed to less than twenty centimeters square. Carefully lift some leaves and you mightfind the frog. Maybe. If not, sit back for ten minutes until it starts again and repeat. I had accumulated many ant and leech bites by the time this frog was found.

Fry's frog (Austrochaperina fryi)

Fry’s frog (Austrochaperina fryi). This tiny species is one of te most cryptic and very hard to find. Like other Australian Microhylids they lay eggs in moist areas that will hatch directly into little frogs.

Just before turning in that night, the rising water flushed a python out of hiding, it turned out to be a small Amethystine or Scrub python (Morelia kinghorni) and it quickly made its way up a branch to a small limb where it bunched up in a ball, safe from the swelling stream. A few photographs later, we settled in for the night, ready for more misery.

Scrub python (Moreleia kinghornii)

Scrub python (Moreleia kinghornii). These harmless snakes have particularly iridescent scales.

The tent was living up to its reputation so far, the water pelted through the roof and sides, splattering on our faces and flooding the floor. Surprisingly, we both soon dozed off, to awake in the following day. The creeks were flowing hard and fast, leaves and branches swirled through the back eddies. Clearly, underwater photography was out so we elected to stay closer to the ferry for the final night and explore the wet roads. For one last time we set up the filthy, soaked tent and mouldy, foul smelling swag in the pouring rain. As night fell, we were treated to a loud frog call. A series of explosive “WHARK” sounds gave the culprit away as a Cogger’s Frog (Mixophyes coggeri). A large ground dwelling rainforest frog, they are very well camouflaged in the heavy leaf litter where they live.

Cogger's barred frog (Mixophyes coggeri)

Cogger’s barred frog (Mixophyes coggeri)

There were loads of other frogs calling. Driving the roads revealed many more Cogger’s Frogs and more Dainty Greens and Orange Thighs. Another pleasant surprise were large numbers of the Giant or White Lipped Tree Frog (Litoria infrafrenata). Possibly the largest of all the tree frogs, this species may reach around 150mm, about as big as a tree frog can effectively get.

Giant [White Lipped] tree frog (Litoria infrafrenata)

Giant [White Lipped] tree frog (Litoria infrafrenata)


Walking a short track revealed a large Boyd’s Forest Dragon (Hypsilurus boydii) on a branch. I had glimpsed adults before, but never had the chance to photograph one. This individual was displeased at being awoken, but sat long enough for a shot before climbing a vertical trunk.

Male Boyd's forest dragon (Hypsilurus boydii)

Male Boyd’s forest dragon (Hypsilurus boydii)

The following day was spent driving back to Cairns to return the hire car. The best news was that Phil’s insurance had come through and they were willing to pay for five nights in a motel with a hire car.

With the Hilux back at the rental yard, we were given a smaller, brand new RAV4. Hardly an off-road vehicle, it would have to do. We were told the deal included unlimited kilometers, so the plan was to test it with a drive south to Tully after leaving the gear in the motel. The gorge is one of my favourite places ever. When I lived in Queensland from 2005-2009, I frequently came here to fish or explore. Phil had been looking forward to it for a long time. When we arrived late in the afternoon, rain had been falling all day and had raised the streams, though they were not the usual clarity as they carried a burden of leaves and tannin. Not overly concerned, we tried photographing tadpoles in the streams and some over/under habitat shots.

Split view Tully stream

Split view Tully stream

Tully stream underwater

Tully stream underwater

 

Phil snorkelling

Phil snorkelling

As night fell, we sat at the large pool next to the campground. Two platypus swam silently along the surface, ducking down to forage. They would surface, grind up whatever they caught and vanish again under the swirling brown water. After dark we clambered up the small roadside streams to try and locate Lacelids and Waterfall Frogs. Both species were in abundance alongside the Common Mistfrog. Overall the forest was fairly quiet, though we did spot a few birds such as a Lesser Sooty Owl and a Papuan Frogmouth, both on road signs. They did not hang around, instead flying back into the forest when approached. On the Misty Mountains road on the other side of the gorge, we did disturb a couple of Tube Nosed Bats and spot a very large Cogger’s Frog before heading back to Cairns. On the way back, we re-visited an the creek Andy and Henry had taken me to near Innisfail. The water had risen and was much clearer. A longfinned eel left the shallows and headed for the deeper water while Phil and I prepared to get in with the camera. It was easier to photograph the small rainbowfish in the dark, though their colours were not so bright.

Eastern Rainbowfish (Melanotaenia splendida splendida)

Eastern Rainbowfish (Melanotaenia splendida splendida)

Cairns rainbowfish (Cairnsicthys rhombosomoides)

Cairns rainbowfish (Cairnsicthys rhombosomoides)

Bullrout (Notesthes robusta)

Bullrout (Notesthes robusta)

As we prepared to get out, I noticed a very large eel in the pool below. I am very uncomfortable with eels at the best of times, but I wanted a good image of one. So Phil stood on the bank and dropped some roast chicken pieces in the water to entice it out. This worked a treat and soon this massive eel was practically in my face. It didn’t sit still so getting a good shot was not easy, but I am happy with some of the images.

Longfinned Eel (Anguilla reinhardtii)

Longfinned Eel (Anguilla reinhardtii)

Longfinned Eel (Anguilla reinhardtii) resting

Another shot from the side

The room stank back at the motel. The smell of the swag had penetrated every nook and cranny, even though we had left it in the bathroom on the tiles. Something had to be done. We tried to contact Henry and Andy to offload it back to them, but in typical Heiner style they kept missing us. The odor was now unbearable. I grabbed it and ran down the hallway to the carpark, followed by something that looked like green smoke. In the carpark, I pulled the mattress out and stuffed the canvas into the washing machine. The mattress was laid out and sprayed with the fire hose. At this point I did not care if anyone was going to challenge me. Black liquid came out of it. I sprinkled some detergent on it, stomping it in with my feet and soaking it again. Four rinses later, the water coming out of it was still heavily discoloured. Eventually it cleared and I hung it out to dry in the carport. The smell lingered in the room for a couple more days, though we cleaned the bathroom from top to bottom. When Henry came to collect it he remarked that “this swag smells a bit funny…” He had no idea