Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Elusive Platypus

As I mentioned in my last post, after leaving the farm I headed down south to Paluma where I volunteered on a JCU project studying platypuses. The researcher, Stephen Kolomyjec, is investigating platypus population genetics - how the platypuses in different areas are related to one another and the extent to which gene flow occurs between areas and that kind of thing.

So I spent a fairly relaxed week staying in Paluma and heading out to Hidden Valley every afternoon or morning to attempt to trap some platypuses. The valley is on the western side of the Paluma range and, because of the rain-shadow effect, is quite dry and covered in open sclerophyll forest. In the afternoons, at certain spots on the Running River, we would put gill and fyke nets in place then sit back and wait, checking the nets regularly. It got quite cold at night (once it got down to 10 degrees C) and I was really feeling it, being acclimatised to a much warmer clime!

Unfortunately my first hand experience didn't amount to much - we only caught a single female in our six nights of trapping! It was great to see and hold that one though. The fur and beak are really quite incredible.

Suspicious of mammals...

I did learn a lot about platypuses through chatting with Stephen, so I'll relate a couple of random facts that I found interesting.

 - There's a gap in the distribution of platypuses between Mackay and Townsville

 - FNQ platypuses are puny compared to their southern relatives - those from Tassie are about three times as heavy!

 - The ear-hole is located right behind the eye

 - Apparently you really don't want to get spurred by the males

 - Body temperature is a cool 32 degrees C, so in the North overheating can be a real problem.

Though the platypuses seemed a bit thin on the ground, the area did seem rich in mammals. Squirrel gliders visiting tree wounds. Bettongs and bandicoots bounding around the undergrowth. Dingos howling in the distance. Some sort of dunnart-like thing. I even saw my second ever feathertailed glider zipping up a tree! And of course the ever-present brushtailed possum.

Reptile wise, it was a bit cold and the only thing of interest was this gecko which I've not identified yet due to laziness:

Pretty though! Frog-wise too it was a bit quiet, just a few common species around.

All in all it was a pleasant if rather uneventful week! After Paluma I headed back to Townsville for a night to meet a friend, then it was back on the road again.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Aaah, the camping life

I was quite sad to leave my temporary home of Lakeland and hit the road again. On the one hand I see so much of unexplored Australia stretching out ahead of me but of course I'd really become close to a lot of people during the weeks I'd worked on the farm. I really started missing them as I drove the long highway.

I had a bit of an adventure soon after leaving - a car had lost control on the highway, skidded and spun and ended up in the ditch beside the road with three mangled tyres. The driver and four passengers were clearly drunk and obviously idiots, but they were 30 km from anywhere at 10:00 pm so I felt I had to give them assistance. First they wanted a jack. Obviously this wouldn't help them much. They then wanted a tow. I said that that would stuff the rims badly. The driver said he didn't care. So I towed their car (which made a horrible noise) on its rims for about 25 km to the nearest roadhouse (closed of course). As luck would have it I saw three snakes on the road as I was towing, but wasn't able to stop to have a look at them. The driver said that if I could give him a jump-start he'd be able to drive slowly on the dirt road from there to the aboriginal community. Another car pulled up, with some mates of theirs, and they all suddenly lost interest in their car and just began having a big old chat. I clipped on the jumper leads, started their car and drove off with barely a 'thank-you' - I was ready for bed and not in the mood to put up with their idiocy any longer. Still, what could I do?

Last night I camped at Davies Creek near Mareeba again and was reminded of the reasons I love the travelling and camping life. I reached the campsite in the late afternoon and had time for a swim in the cold water (rainbowfish, perch, turtles, shrimp) before setting up camp. I ate my dinner and enjoyed a mug of wine on the rock bed next to the creek as it got dark. Bandicoots began bouncing across the clearings and fossicking around the grass hummocks for a feed. I was lucky when another mammal streaked across a clearing to a patch of trees and rocks right next to me where I got a good look at it - a beautiful northern quoll! It regarded me from the shelter of a rock before shooting off across another clear patch to a different area of cover.

I went for a walk up the creek and encountered numerous waterfall frogs (Litoria nannotis) clinging to the cascades. Uperoleia mimula called occasionally from wet areas up the hill. It was a beautiful night and I felt keen to go on experiencing these sorts of things as I contine travelling.

Before I left lakeland I got an email about some volunteer work with platypuses down in the Hidden Valley area near Paluma next week so I've been getting that organised. Should be fun!

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Life in the Bananas

Wow - it's been two months since my last update! I apologise for this, though in my defense I will say that there hasn't been too much going on with me that would be of interest to my readership in general. I'll give a brief summary in any case.

Bob's Lookout near Mount Carbine

As I mentioned, I've been working on a banana farm at Lakeland (about three hours from Cairns or one from Cooktown). This town, where I live, is just a nice little place with a shop, a pub and a caravan park, and is inhabited largely by the foreign backpacker workforce of the farm.

The banana farm is pretty huge - employing about 100 people and with an output of something like 30-40 pallets of cavendish bananas every day (mainly shipped to Perth). My job - the job I did for every hour of the two months I've worked here - has been de-suckering. Bananas throw up lots of 'suckers' (small shoots) around their main shoots, and a plantation left untended would quickly become an impenetrable jungle. The job of the de-suckering team (consisting of about nine people) is to work along each row, armed with narrow spades, and chop out the suckers, leaving one or two in suitable positions at each plant to replace the current stalk following fruiting. It's a fairly tough job, physically, and it takes a bit of experience to get fast and efficient without missing suckers.

All in all I've got fond memories of my stay here - the work itself can be tedious but I have actually really enjoyed the lifestyle. The people here have really made it interesting - so many languages being spoken, different kinds of cooking, stories of diverse lives 'back home'. Most weekends I've driven a bunch of people to Cooktown for shopping and a bit of a swim somewhere on the way back, and we've done bits and pieces of exploring, fishing, swimming, building things, sharing food and opinions. Some people think that this town is boring though I have found my weekends to have been almost exhaustingly full.

A couple of weeks ago I was asked by the local primary school to come in and talk to the kids about frogs and I happily obliged, talking about what makes Australian frogs special, introducing them to some FNQ frogs and telling them a bit about Cane Toads. I was impressed that the kids - about a dozen of various ages - already knew quite a lot about frogs. They all had their own stories which they seemed more interested in than those I was trying to get across, but overall I think it went very well.

There have been some interesting animals in the paddocks too - good numbers of snakes including carpet and spotted pythons as well as some venomous snakes - I had a good look at a brown snake (though I'm not sure if it was a Western or Eastern Brown) that did a great aggressive display with a full-on puffed up throat and rearing s-shaped pose before it climbed a banana tree with surprising agility. I also saw what looked like a black whip snake one day. The most common frog in the fields is of course the cane toad - young toads especially love hanging around rotting bananas and feasting on the insects. Apart from those I've seen stony creek frogs, Ornate burrowing frogs, Green Treefrogs and Red treefrogs.

A few weeks ago when I was driving back from Cairns, I was lucky enough to spot a snake sliding off the road just before sunset. I pulled over and was very glad to see it was a black-headed python. This one must have had a bad day as it was really quite aggressive compared with the others I've found up around Darwin.

I'm hitting the road again this afternoon - I think I might actually head back up to Black Mountain for a night before going back through Cairns and then out to Chillagoe and perhaps Undara. The Cape York parks are set to open up in early May and I'm really looking forward to that leg of my journey.

Wish me luck!