Friday, February 20, 2009

Waiting for the Dry

Driving back to Cairns from Cooktown, I called in on a banana farm at Lakeland (~80km west of Cooktown) to enquire about work. I'd heard about this farm from a few people, including workers from there that were out on the weekend swimming and fishing. They employ a big mob of people including lots of backpackers. The long and the short of it is that I'll be heading out there again this weekend to start work! As I said previously, I'll wait until the roads and parks open up north of here then head off - in the meantime I'll make a bit of money and probably do a little travelling on the weekends. So expect to see only the odd post here during this time.

I'll be living in Lakeland, where there is a... ermm... rather limited range of recreational activities. So I've spent some time here in Cairns scouring the second-hand bookstores and Vinnies for reading material. Incidentally, I'm thoroughly enjoying the reading I'm doing - I put time aside to read almost every day. Currently I'm working through four books: The Future Eaters (Tim Flannery), Emma (Jane Austen), Beasts in my Belfry (Gerald Durrell) and selected stories by Henry Lawson. I'm finding Future Eaters to be an immensely interesting and important read. It raises and ties together so many concepts to think about that I actually find quite relevant to the varied ecosystems that I've been spending time in. I keep asking myself why I hadn't already read this book!

Well, I suppose I had better cut to the chase and talk about some animals!

The most interesting thing I've seen recently is the barred frog from the Carbine tablelands - Mixophyes carbinensis. An interesting frog, smaller than M. coggeri and schevilli, and to my eye, coloured quite distinctly too. I found this species in a beautiful little upland stream in the rainforest - the water was filled with the impressively large tadpoles (which are almost black in the daytime and fade to a grey by night). They swam languidly or rested on the clean gravel.

I picked up the eyeshine of a couple of the adults which were sitting on the leaf-litter and was very glad to see them. With this sighting I've now encountered on this trip the entire range of Mixophyes species in Australia - that is M. balbus, fasciolatus, fleayii, iteratus, coggeri, shevilli and carbinensis. They're all beautiful, special frogs.

Curiously, only about 5 km away, heading down the mountain, I came across one of the mottled barred frogs, Mixophyes coggeri. It would be interesting to know whether there's altitudinal separation of these species or whether they actually co-occur (certainly not altogether unreasonable - indeed three Mixophyes species coexist at a single site in the Watagans)

Some of the other things I've encountered include four death adders in one night (Acanthophis praelongusi), elvers (young eels) and shrimp climbing up a waterfall, a couple of beautiful coiled Amethyst pythons sitting beside tracks and the ridiculous spectacle of amplexing Stony Creek Frogs (Litoria wilcoxii/jungguy). It never gets old. See the gallery!

Death Adder

The only other encounter of note was that with a branch sticking out of the bush that I failed to see one night as I navigated around a big washout. I was given the pleasure of changing a tyre with a torn sidewall at night and shelling out for a replacement. It'll be good to get some money in my pockets again from working at Lakeland!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Cooktown Surrounds

The word from Cooktown is that the roads north of here are a bit dodgy, probably *just* passable at the moment, but most of the national parks are actually closed for the rest of the wet anyway. So, seeing as I still really want to see the rest of the tip, I'll probably try to find some work and settle for a couple of months before heading north once again.

I've explored a little around Cooktown and been to some interesting places. I drove out to Trevathan falls and camped the night there; this rates as one of the nicest waterfalls I've visited. I also added to my Quoll count here, seeing my third; this time it was the Northern Quoll, Dasyurus hallucatus. I saw two more individuals out at Black Mountain so they're obviously doing pretty well here!

I also spent an afternoon and a night out at Archer Point which was quite nice. I camped out on a headland, the landscape occasionally lit up by lightning, whilst a welcome breeze blew through my tent.

Down in one of the bays, hordes of soldier crabs moved over the sandflats, and I spent a little time photographing them. They were quite shy, and if followed, the mass of crabs would run away and individuals would corkscrew down into the sand until the entire regiment had disappeared.

I've also wandered around town a little, climbed Grassy Hill, visited the botanic gardens, drove out to Quarantine bay, swum at Annan Gorge... I'm yet to climb 'Mount' Cook though it's on the list of things to do.

Night on Black Mountain

South of Cooktown is a tiny national park called Black Mountain National Park. There are actually two peaks to the 'mountain' of black boulders, with the highway passing between them. The boulders are granite - the remains of a big batholith that has been fractured, weathered and eroded over time - and encrusted with a lichen layer that gives them their black surfaces.

Black Mountain - Volley Country!

Incredibly, in this tiny area, scurrying over the boulders and sheltering within their cracks, are three vertebrates that occur nowhere else - a gecko, a skink and most interesting of the three, a frog.

The Black Mountain Frog, Cophixalus saxatillis is surely one of the most extraordinary animals in the wet tropics. It's a giant amongst the microhylids, with females reaching almost 5 cm long. And as you can see, the colour of these females is just beyond belief. The males are smaller, and less strikingly coloured (the ones I saw all were quite yellow, though I've seen other photos where they are simply mottled brown). [Edit - I suspect that these were just young females rather than males - they're just too yellow]

These frogs live on the edges of the boulder-fields, where there's a bit of vegetation, and I was startled by just how many of the delightful females I saw, festooning the rocks in certain areas. The males were less common for some reason. They are evidently quite good at climbing despite their rather pudgy appearance - I saw a few females climbing on tree branches alongside rocks.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Climbing Mt Sorrow

Whilst at Cape Tribulation, I had to wait for low tide to cross the Bloomfield, so I headed up the Mount Sorrow Ridge trail. Though it's only a 3.5 km walk up to the top, it's a climb of about 680 m and it's another spot where the information signs are basically trying to dissuade you from trying to do the walk at all.

It was a fun walk. I sweated buckets and was soon completely saturated. I reached the top, which is unfortunately a lookout with no shelter from the sun, and it was an unusually clear day, so there wasn't much opportunity to cool down. There was, however, respite from the leeches which had been climbing up my boots in huge numbers for the duration of the climb. Every few steps I had had to stop and flick them off. There were also many, many spider-webs that I continually walked through, and these I also had to remove lest I become encased in a silken sarcaphogas.

On the way down, I ran into another walker about a kilometre from the top. He was exhausted, the sweat pouring off his forehead. I guessed, correctly as it turned out, that he was German. He wanted to know how far it was to go and I told him he had the worst of the climb ahead of him, so he seemed keen to take a break and have a chat. His name, I found out, was Robin.. It transpired that he was a fellow biologist so we talked about some of the things we'd spotted.

"Did you see the goanna on the way up?" I asked. He had.

"Have you seen a Boyd's yet?" He hadn't. I'd seen one the night before, sleeping down near the start of the track.

It was his turn - "Did you see the peppermint stick insects?"

I hadn't seen them. They live on, and eat, Pandanus and I just hadn't been on the look-out for them.

Our conversation drifted to other topics and my eyes strayed off to the side of the track. Just ten metres away, on a buttress root, was perched a Boyd's dragon! I was very pleased to point it out to Robin, and left him to photograph it as I continue down the ridge.

Only a few hundred metres down I came across a pandanus plant, evidently heavily chewed. It didn't take long to find a couple of the Peppermint stick insects that Robin had mentioned. These beautiful insects have a milky defensive secretion which they squirt from nozzles behind their head. It smells, as you may have guessed, like peppermint.

I continued down to the base of the ridge, very satisfied with my pleasingly symmetrical little encounter.

North from Cairns (cont...)

I forgot to mention the frogging! Around Cape Trib I did a bit of walking around at night and managed to find another species new to me. There were heaps of White-lipped Treefrogs calling from the swampy creeks, as well as the odd Mottled Barred Frog (Mixophyes coggeri), Green-eyed Frog (Litoria serrata) and Stoney Creek Frog (Litoria wilcoxi).

I heard a strange sound which, from a distance I thought was perhaps a flying fox complaining somewhere. When I realised it was coming from a creek, I ventured in and found a wood frog, Rana daemeli. This species is the only one in the Ranid family (which includes the European edible frogs) in Australia - another recent migrant from the North.

Apart from the frogs, the other thing of note was another nice Amethyst Python sliding off the boardwalk into the rainforest.

North from Cairns

After Cairns I headed up through Mossman, with a quick trip to Mossman gorge, then up through the Daintree to Cape Tribulation.

This natural beauty of this area is a bit ridiculous, really. The creeks are just perfect. The water is clear as glass, with a clean granite gravel substratum; birds-nest ferns, mosses and palms line the banks.

Similarly the beaches are spectacular. At the high-water mark a diverse range of interesting seeds, pods and bits of driftwood are deposited and I spent quite some time just poking through the strange assortment.

I went on a few little board-walks through the mangroves and there were some strange things there. Mangroves with buttress roots. Mangroves with huge, cannonball-like seed pods. Others with boat-shaped, keeled pods. Mangrove roots that emerge from the mud, do a U-turn then plunge back into the muck. And if one stops and watches, the huge number of crabs silently passing detritus from claw to mouth becomes apparent.

After staying the night at Cape Tribulation, I continued up the Bloomfield track to Cooktown. This road, 4WD only, has several creek crossings as well as a crossing of the Bloomfield river which should only be attempted at low tide when there's not much water flowing. It was an interesting drive and I was lucky that the road was open and the conditions good - the deepest creek crossing would have been about 60 cm; much more than that and I'd be getting pretty nervous.

At the end of the day I pulled into the Home Rule Rainforest Lodge to camp, a nice place on the edge of Cedar Bay National Park.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Bad Boyd's

Boyd's Rainforest Dragons (Hypsilurus boydi) are great. They're just spectacular animals. Quite bizarre and beautiful. I guess they're one of those things that herpers and other nature-nuts such as myself just *have* to see when they're in the Far North.

I'd been only partly satisfied by seeing them at night - and I did this quite frequently. They're just asleep, stretched out and boring, so I'd been keen to see one in the daylight. On a number of occasions, I'd see one or two at night, then go back and have a look in the morning, but never find one. I did see one in the daytime a week or so ago, then went to grab my camera and when I came back the thing had scooted off and couldn't be found.

Just a couple of nights ago I spotted a two at Lake Euramoo, then of course couldn't see a single one the following day.

But it was destined to be a good day for dragons. At Mobo Creek I was doing the short walk when I reached the creek which was flowing over the track a little too enthusiastically for me to continue. As I turned around I spotted a dragon perched on a tree just a couple of metres away so I whipped out the camera and got some shots just as a mosquito landed on its head.

Just a couple of hours later I saw another, this time when I was wondering around at Lake Barrine. Both of these guys were totally fine with me taking photos of them.

To me these dragons are a bit like the green-eyed frogs (Litoria serrata) I suppose. Beauty in a subtle, rather than flashy form. And I can't get bored of seeing them or taking photos. Hope you enjoy them too!

Atherton Tablelands

Just got back from a bit of a trip out west of Cairns on the Atherton Tablelands. I looped out through Kuranda, stayed at Davies Creek, visited Emerald Falls before heading down to another campsite at Lake Tinaroo, then to the lakes Barrine and Eacham, Curtain Fig then headed down the Gillies Highway to camp in the Goldborough Valley.

Davies Creek is a nice area - it's all sparse Eucalypt country and I found myself reminded of Litchfield NP in the Territory. Similarl at Emerald Creek Falls. I thought to myself that it looked like good frilly country so was keeping an eye out even though I wasn't sure they were there and sure enough I spotted one on the road.

These guys (Frilled Dragons) have a very typical, predictable behaviour and the one I came across acted absolutely to-the-book. You can drive right up to them and they show no concern. But the moment you step out of the car they see you as a threat and race off the road. This one hit the grass on the roadside at speed and I thought it was gone for good but I also had my suspicions about a small eucalypt trunk. Sure enough, it had climbed up around the back of the trunk where I couldn't see it, and after a bit of hide-and-seek I got a fairly poor photo of it.

Camping at Lake Tinaroo I did a bit of night-driving to see what I could find. I was pleased to finally find another of the Barred frogs up here, this time Mixophyes schevilli. Distinct from the coggeri that I've been seeing in that the head/back stripe is solid, while mottled in the latter species. Now I only have carbinensis to go and I will have 'collected' them all!

The rest of my tablelands trip was fairly uneventful - the lakes, though beautiful, are very touristy. I wanted to swim around Lake Eacham but I'm not supposed to because of my fresh tattoo. Curtain Fig is pretty cool, so is Cathedral Fig. Did a bit of spotlighting but failed to see a tree-kangaroo, or anything really except for a brush-tailed possum (got me excited for a minute) and the ever-present bandicoots. I hear The Crater is the place to go for spotlighting.


I mentioned that I was supposed to be heading out to Undara on a vertebrate trapping trip. Well, there's been some pretty serious flooding and road closures etcetera so I was waiting to see if that would happen while getting a couple of things done in Cairns.

Some interesting things I did:

 - Got a tattoo. My first one, it's a treefrog climbing up my forearm. I spent a day or so working on the design. You'll see me not-so-subtly showing it off in some self-shot photos from now on!

 - Watched the mudskippers and fiddler crabs from the Esplanade. There were also some things with feathers there.

Mudskipper. These things are HUGE!

Fiddler Crabs

 - Got my air-con fixed.

 - Stayed in a YHA.

I've just learned that the Undara trip is postponed for a few weeks so I'll be heading up further north from here.

Those troublesome microhylids

Microhylids. I have a sort of love/hate relationship going with them at the moment. While they are quite cute, they are also terribly small, hard to find (when they're calling), and hard to identify without knowing the call. I've had some luck finding a few of the little buggers by rolling rocks and logs, so I'll have a go at some IDs.

This one was on Mt Windsor, under a rock. Very nicely coloured! I'm going for Austrochaperina pluvialus, the Rain Whistling Frog.

In the Mt Lewis area. I suspect it was a young one. Luckily the blonde cap, elbows and ankles gives it away as Cophixalus aenigma, the Tapping Nusery-Frog.

Also at Mt Lewis, probably C. aenigma again.

And finally another Austrochaperina... I'm thinking it's either fryi or robusta. Hard to say which, they're very similar species.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Bits and bobs

 - I have a backlog of microhylids to identify. Most of them were found under rocks and logs so it's hard without hearing the calls.

 - Went for a lovely walk yesterday in Barron Gorge National Park. 17 km all up, taking in lots of rainforest which transitioned with wet and even dry schlerophyll forest in a very cool way. A few interesting creek crossings and a great lookout from 'Glacier Rock' which quickly clouded over before I could get a photo. The giant Kauri pines growing beside the track were impressive!

Kauri Pine

 - Leaf-tailed Gecko, Saltuarius cornutus. Nice!

 - My Greek mate Nic Dymistes

 - This is why they call it the Green Eyed Frog (Litoria myola). I'm just a total sucker for these frogs.

Cool critters

Just a couple of quick notes on some animals.

I spent the morning's pit-toilet excursion reading my Menkhorst on Quolls. As 'H' pointed out, the one I saw was not a northern quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), but rather the spotted-tailed or tiger quoll (Dasyurus maculatus). The species has a disjunct distribution - the southern subspecies (maculatus) only comes up to around southern Queensland, while the endangered northern subspecies (gracilis) occurs only in the wet tropics. D. maculata gracilis is smaller and more lightly built than maculata - in line with my experience as the one I saw down at New England was much chunkier than the one up here.

Speaking of mammals, I also have seen a couple of guinea pigs bizzare little macropods, the Musky Rat-Kangaroos. So far haven't had a good look or the chance to get a photo.

I've spent a couple of days near Kuranda at Speewah campsite. The green-eyed frogs near Kuranda are interesting; they're actually in a hybrid zone between two lineages of Litoria serrata, making them a distinct species, Litoria myola. There's not too much difference between the two species. But seeing as I think I was in the right area, and the call sounded more excited than the serrata I've heard, I present you with what I'm going to call Litoria myola!

Litoria myola

The wet tropics, in the wet season

I've been north of Mackay for a couple of weeks now and I thought I'd better record some of my impressions of the wet tropics before I become too used to everything to notice any more.

1. Things that can hurt/bite/sting/scratch/annoy you

This is a HUGE topic up here, I could write a whole post on it. A whole book even! A (no doubt incomplete) list:

 - Lawyer vine - also known as "Wait a while", this rather malicious climbing palm has long tendrils that hang down from its spikey stems. The tendrils are covered with recurved hooks, for some reason. As you walk through the rainforest these tendrils can be quite hard to see. If you do see one in your path it's often at the last moment and you do a matrix-bullet-dodge sort of maneuver. Often you get hooked without realising, and about two steps later you feel the hooks digging into your flesh, or your clothes, bag or hat. You freeze as if you've just walked into a booby-trapped tripwire, then slowly and carefully walk backward those same two steps until you can unhook yourself. Oh, and the leaves are also covered in hooks. Nasty plants.

 - Mosquitoes - Worst down on the lowlands, sometimes there are none at all in the rainforest, which is nice

 - March flies - very common, very annoying in the daylight hours. Surprisingly hard to kill.

 - Sand flies - haven't encountered these too much except down around Airlie Beach.

 - Leeches - these are some of the worst things here in my opinion. I get them a lot from walking and wandering around in the rainforest. Though when they start piercing you can generally feel a prick-like pain, they tend to go for spots where you're already cut, or a leech has got you before, and I tend not to feel these ones so end up with a couple of bloody spots. Though the bite itself isn't that bad, I get lots of swelling the day after and it's damn itchy for days.

 - Ants - Got a lot of bites once when tiny red ants invaded my tent (either in search of dry shelter or to clean up the dead march flies).

 - Spiders - Spiders are so rarely a menace, but yesterday I felt a little sting and felt under my shirt to find a tiny spider that had obviously taken a dislike to me.

 - Ticks - I've only had a couple of larval ticks but these guys leave an irritating itchy lump too.

 - Scrub Itch - Generally under the belt. Itchy.

 - Stinging Tree - Haven't been stung yet but these buggers are like Triffids, always lurking in the bushes next to the walking track or road, waiting for you to stray from the centre of the path... I hear that bad stings last a long time, getting irritated every time you get cold water on the sting site.

 - Bullrout - this is a freshwater stonefish. Not sure how common these are up here in the Far North, but I saw a few down near Mackay. When I was 12 or so I stepped on one. Incredibly painful!

I generally have a gallery of a few of these things somewhere on my body. There's also a plant that can burn you, apparently.

2. The Rainforest

I know, I know. It's a cliche. I almost feel bad for saying it. But... really, the rainforest is fantastic. Apart, of course, from all the things that I've just mentioned above. It's the green. The palms and epiphytes. The insects. The mammals. The birds. The noises. The creeks. The frogs!

3. Rain, and being wet.

This is another 'fact of life' in the wet tropics. You will get wet. Frequently. You will often stay wet. If you wear a rain-jacket to keep the rain off, you'll sweat so much in it that you're pretty well wet anyway. If you're inactive in the pouring rain, especially at altitude, you can get pretty cold so a raincoat is good for keeping the warmth in. If you're walking, you'll likely be pretty wet from sweat and brushing past wet foliage, no matter what you wear. Your shoes and socks will be soaked through most of the time. Everything goes mouldy or at least starts to smell a bit. Or a lot.

4. Rain, and roads

It rains. Roads flood. Roads get closed. Towns get cut off. It's the tropics mate!

5. The *not* Rainforest

I haven't spent too much time on, say, the coast, or the lowlands. Is it all just cane fields? I know that when I'm on the highways down on the coastal strip, I generally just gaze at the cloud-enveloped ranges to the west. One thing I have yet to do is watch some mudskippers, these guys are great fun.

6. The frogs

Have I mentioned the frogs at all? It's fantastic. They're just so revved up!

7. The influences

It's interesting how there are things in nature up here that are very Australian - things with obvious analogues elsewhere in the country. Like the orange-thighed treefrog, Litoria xanthomera, obviously closely related to the red-eyed treefrog, Litoria chloris. But on top of these things are the influences from the north - Papua New Guinean and Indonesian influences. These are the things that are very weird and interesting, like the microhylid frogs, things like the green-eyed frogs (Litoria serrata), tree-kangaroos, cassowaries and the like. I'm sure it's the same with the plants though don't know enough about that.

By no means a definitive list, I'm sure I'll add more as I go!