Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jewel in the Iron Range Crown

There's a well-known element of Iron Range that I haven't yet mentioned and I'm not talking about the birds. Those herpetologically inclined will have noticed its absence. I'm alluding to what is surely one of the most beautiful snakes in Australia, if not the most. May I present the Green Python, Morelia viridis.

I spent a lot of time searching for these snakes and was duly rewarded. I'm sure the mini-wet I had helped, as I'm told they aren't nearly as active or visible in the dry season. I don't want to write too much about how I had success finding several individuals because as I understand it there's a significant problem with the poaching of these animals for the illegal pet market. What I will do is put an unreasonably large number of photos here because... really they are spectacular, incredible animals and I couldn't get tired of photographing them or even just going out and finding them to gaze at.

They have a distinctive way of resting in coils on branches and books will tell you they eat largely birds and are largely arboreal however I found most individuals either on the ground or just above it, in poses that suggested they were after terrestrial prey, perhaps the numerous rats that scurried around on the leaf litter. Interestingly, although I found individuals that were predictably in the same place on a few subsequent nights, I couldn't find them in the day time. I suspect that they either hide in dense undergrowth or go high up trees to 'hang out' in the day time.

It's an incredible green colour. Just stupidly bright green. At night they're visible from a long way away simply because they're the brightest things around. The ordinary rainforest greens dull into greys in comparison with this snake.

One remarkable aspect of the Green Python's biology is that for the first three years of its life, the young snake is not green with a white stripe, but yellow with pale, maroon-edged blotches. After seeing a few adults, I was really keen to see one of these juveniles, but when night followed night with no success, I became resigned to the fact that I could only be so lucky. I contemplated the fact that my standards were now stupidly high as I drove back towards my bed, after midnight. I saw a snake on the road ahead of me and thought I must be dreaming. There was the most beautiful, utterly perfect snake making its way across the mud.

Like the adult, the colour is just ridiculously bright. I took a lot of photos of this snake. When I awoke the next morning I went out to where I'd seen it and managed to locate it again, resting in that distinctive pose in the undergrowth. I proceeded to take a lot more photos. Over the next couple of days it only moved a couple of metres.


When I told people I would be heading to Iron Range I joked that I was going there to see a green python and a cuscus. Little did I know how fortunate I'd be and that I would actually see these things and many more. The park has a lot to offer the naturalist and to be honest I personally would be happy spending more time there.

Frogging Iron Range

I was, as I say, very lucky in Iron Range. The skies opened up, unseasonally, and dumped a good amount of rain while I was in the park, creating a mini-wet season just for me. Normally, considering that the park is closed for the duration of the wet season, it would be pretty hard to be there when frogs are active. And also luckily, I managed to get across the Pascoe River before the big rains that might make that crossing impassible.

Whilst wandering around by a creek I heard a noise that sounded a lot like one of the whistling microhylid frogs. After only a couple of minutes' searching, I found it and confirmed that it was indeed the Cape York Nursery Frog, Austrochaperina gracilipes. Nice little guy and I was to frequently hear its call piercing the night air throughout my stay.

I happened to also find the Bridled frog, Litoria nigrofrenata, whilst cruising the roads. This guy actually occurs through many of the areas I've already traversed in the wet tropics but strangely I've never managed to locate one until now.

Whilst a common and widespread frog, the Dainty Green Treefrog, Litoria gracilenta, seems to show quite a bit of variation over its range. I was surprised by the (to my eyes at least) very distinct looking 'version' of this frog that I came across numerous times in Iron Range.

However, my final frog discovery was to be the most exciting. When I was stopped by the side of the road for some reason I happened to hear a low croaking growl coming from a nearby temporary stream that had filled with water after a particularly hard downpour. A short search revealed it to be the northern species of Green Eyed Frog, Litoria eucnemis. If you've been reading for some time you'll remember the southern species Litoria serrata from down in the rainforests between Cape Tribulation and Townsville. Though the two species look practically identical, the call is distinct and a fair gap separates the populations.

It was great to see some really nice frogs after a bit of a 'dry' spell!

Iron Range - Arrival

Iron Range. Chances are, if you're interested in any sort of animal in Australia, be it birds, frogs, reptiles, mammals, butterflies... you've heard of Iron Range. It's a sort of Mecca for Australian naturalists. It's home to the weird and the wonderful: in particular relatively recent immigrants to Australia from North of the continent, things that are restricted to just a tiny area (Iron and McIlwraith ranges, generally) of the continent - and there are an impressive number of these things.

Though it's a relatively small park, it contains the largest expanse of lowland rainforest in Australia. What was more surprising to me as I entered the park from the west was the heath - yep, genuine heath - not what I was expecting. If it wasn't for the strange sight of termite mounds emerging from the stunted vegetation, I could almost have been somewhere around Sydney.

Soon after leaving the heath I was in the aforementioned tall rainforest. Bizzarre. I was to spend six nights in this rainforest and have the luck to spot and get to know a heap of amazing animals.

After a short drive through the rainforest I spotted the first of these 'Iron Range Species' that I've mentioned - the Canopy Monitor, Varanus keithhornei. Impressively slender with a long, prehensile tail, this monitor species spends much of its time in the tops of trees and I was granted a display of its agility as it climbed from the treetrunk where I spotted it, up a liana and into the thin branches of the canopy.

Spotlighting that night I saw two individuals of the Spotted Cuscus - one of two cuscus species in the park. Check out the amazing tail!

I also caught a bit of eyeshine from a tree in a section of wet-sclerophyll forest which turned out to be yet another endemic - the Giant Tree Gecko (Pseudothecadactylus australis), a remarkable large gecko with adhesive pads on its tail.

Of course Iron Range is also home to many species with wide distributions and I saw a couple of common things too like Common Treesnakes (Dendrelaphis punctulatus) and Brown Treesnakes (Boiga irregularis) and a couple of beautiful Amethyst Pythons (Morelia amethistina):

I was feeling darn lucky but the best was yet to come...

Lakefield fishing adventures

Hi folks!

I'm in Weipa at the mo, and as the last two weeks have been packed with excitement, I thought I'd try to write a bit about it all for my faithful readers.

A quick summary before I begin in detail - after heading to Cooktown I did a bit of exploring through Lakefield NP - travelling out through the Battle Camp road before turning north, just east of Laura. The top half of Lakefield was still closed when I went through there, so I had to go back down to the main road to continue northward. The next excitement was Iron Range, where I spent more than a week doing a lot of spotlighting and seeing some awesome stuff. But more on that later.

Lakefield was a bit of a strange park, to me. It's like a big fishing adventure park. If you see a car that doesn't have a boat on its roofracks, it's probably towing one. Practically every waterhole or deep river has at least one campsite along its banks, and I'm told the park is almost booked out all through the dry season. It's Queensland's second biggest national park, and it has one walk in it. A 4 km walk. And though I tried to find this track, it didn't appear to exist (understandably really, as the park had only just opened and it probably hadn't been cleared since the wet season).

I enjoyed my time there though. The billabongs and rivers are idyllic and I saw a bit of wildlife.

In brief, a few photos:

Spotted Python, Antaresia maculosa

Yellow-spotted Monitor, Varanus panoptes - these guys were very common and evidently had little problem with the abundant cane toads

Very nice campsite at the junction of the Laura and Normanby Rivers in Lakefield

Ammonite? Nautilus?

Hand-caught Cherubin

Dinner - a delicious delicious Cherubin

Merten's Water Monitor, Varanus mertensii

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Reef

I spent a day out on the reef on a snorkelling cruise. We visited a couple of spots out at Opal Reef, about 1.5 hours out from Port Douglas.

It was, in a word, awesome. I had a fantastic time. I'm not going to try to describe it, my words would simply pale in comparison to the reality.

If you haven't seen the reef, you must. Do it. I actually wasn't expecting a lot, but truly, it was unforgettable.

Cape York time!

Caves to Coast

After Undara I took a shortcut on a bumpy track north from Mt Garnet through to just east of Chillagoe. Like Undara, the Chillagoe-Mungana region is famous for its caves too, though they're of a completely different type - limestone.

I spent a couple of pleasant hours exploring the public caves (Pompeii and Bauhinia) which featured a couple of tight sqeezes and were surprisingly quite interesting, though of course it's always heartbreaking to see cave vandalism in any form.

I had things to do and while the area featured some magnificent limestone structures, I didn't really see a lot to recommend the region, so after a bit of spotting around the caves and rocks at nightfall, I jumped back in the car and pointed it in the direction of Cairns.

Random fact: Echidnas invariably make a lot of noise, rustling through the leaf litter and undergrowth, making one very excited with the possibilites. Then it turns out to be just an echidna.

Swimming the Lava tubes

From Townsville I drove north then crossed the ranges west of Ingham on the Mt Fox - Lava Plains road. Quite an interesting drive, surprisingly dry country and savannah. I made camp at a nice little spot beside the Burdekin River - at this point it was only a fraction of the size of the mighty river it would become. I threw my yabby trap in the water and had enough for a good feed before long. There were areas of what looked like recent lava flows beside the river, and trees here and there had broken up the surface like pavement.

The night was a very cold one and with the combination of the dew-fall on the outside and the condensation inside the tent, I had a surprising amount of drying-off to do in the morning.

My next stop was not far off - Undara. Famous of course for its lava tubes. I'll provide a brief explanation for those not in the know. Quite recently - between about 8 million and 200,000 years ago - the area around Undara underwent quite a lot of volcanic activity as the crust stretched thin. One of the final volcanoes at this time was the Undara volcano, which oozed great quantities of lava. This lava would have followed a river bed and cooled and solidified around the edges and on top, while lava in the centre, insulated, could continue to flow. Eventually as the flow ran out (over 20 years or so), the molten lava would have just flowed out and away, leaving a tunnel. This tunnel is now the 'lava tube' system. Here and there, the tube roof has collapsed, allowing access to a number of separate tunnels.

Undara Lodge and the Savannah guides run tours which are the only way to visit the tubes, which are in a National park without public access. So I took a tour.

The diversity in habitat in the area means there is a good variety of species. The valley where the tube runs is a haven for dry rainforest in a sea of savannah. Rock wallabies enjoy the cool interior of tubes. Tree-snakes and pythons are regularly seen around the entrances when bat maternity colonies form.

One lucky thing about the timing of my visit was that the caves were flooded. This has only happened three times since the seventies. We actually got to swim in the waist-high water down through the black tunnels - a very cool experience.

I saw quite a bit of wildlife while at Undara - there are lots of macropods in the park, and I saw grey kangaroos, euros and antillopine wallaroos, the Mareeba rock wallaby, whiptailed wallabies and bettongs. I spotted a golden tree-snake on the tour too. I did a bit of frogging down at the flooded swamp and some spot-lighting on the rocky bluff, near the Lodge, but didn't turn up anything too exciting, just a pretty young brown treesnake that I regret not photographing.

Golden Treesnake, Dendrelaphis punctulatus