Friday, June 26, 2009

'Whaling' by light aircraft

Last Tuesday (23rd June), a concerned observer reported to Booderee National Park (Jervis Bay) staff that they had just observed a large whale that appeared to be entangled in fishing net. The next morning a helicopter was sent out briefly to track down the whale, without luck. So a few hours later, my dad I boarded a small fixed-wing plane and surveyed the coastline north from Ulladulla to Wollongong. 

We encountered 6 or 7 Humpback Whale pods on their northward migration, consisting of 26-29 individuals. Good looks were obtained of almost all the whales. However, we couldn't find any whales that were entangled or distressed. It is possible that the whale in question had already headed beyond Wollongong by this point, and could have been in the vicinity of Sydney. 

Still, it was an interesting experience, and other than the humpbacks, we saw pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin and Bottlenose Dolphin, as well as a raft of 5 Australian Fur-seals.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Life in Cold Air - Vancouver Island Alpine Special

From July to September 2008, I spent most of my time in the beautiful central mountains of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. As part of a team of 4, we were set to survey alpine peaks for Vancouver Island Marmot, White-tailed Ptarmigan, and rare plants.

The weather was very variable, even though it was the middle of summer. Predicting weather patterns on Vancouver Island is practically impossible, as you can stand on a peak and see snow to the north, sunshine to the east, rain to the south, and impenetrable fog to the west. Weather pretty much determined where we could and could not venture.

Luckily, for the most part, we had the help of a helicopter to keep us mobile, as some of the hikes between mountain were extremely arduous and to our knowledge, had not been attempted before.

Mosquitos were the most abundant species we found, followed closely by Black Bears (Ursus americanus, below, swatting at mosquitos). The bears didn't give us too much trouble, even though we encountered over 40 of them during the summer. A couple of very close run-ins with mothers and cubs kept us on our toes.

The Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis) is Canada's most endangered mammal. They occur in high alpine meadows, and hibernate for about 8 months of the year. During the short time they are active, teams of biologists are out radio-tracking them, trying to identify new individuals and look for pups. The marmot below had at least 2 pups running around it's den.

The species we were really after though, was the White-tailed Ptarmigan (Lagopus leucurus saxatilis). A vulnerable endemic sub-species is found exclusively on Vancouver Island. We surveyed for them in areas where data was lacking, to help conserve habitat that wasn't already protected. The highly-cryptic ptarmigan allow you to almost step on them before they give themselves away. Their plumage varies between seasons, in winter they are all white, and in summer are a mottled reddish/brown/grey colour. The one below was photographed on my last day and is in a transitional state from summer to winter plumage.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Gluepot Reserve, South Australia

This trip may have led me to where I am now. Nathan Waugh, David Marshall and I took off on our first expedition, solely with the purpose of
finding animals, particularly birds. It was December 2002 and we had just completed our last year (Year 12) at Bomaderry High School.

We loaded my parents ute with our camping gear and set off. Our aim was to make it to Bird's Australia's Gluepot Reserve, in South Australia, to find species unique to a plant community known as 'Mallee'.
The first afternoon we made it to Narrandera where we camped in the caravan park near the lake. We went for a drive to some nearby scrub where we picked up the first of many lifers. Blue Bonnet, Brown Treecreeper, Grey-crowned Babbler, Peaceful Dove, Red-capped Robin and earlier, Superb Parrot.

We awoke the next morning, bright-eyed with binoculars around our necks. We started (what was going to be a fantastic day) birding around the caravan park and saw Little Friarbird, Chestnut-rumped Thornbill, Striped Honeyeater, and best of all, Little Bittern (still the only one I've seen). We then headed off across the Hay Plain.

Nathan, having crossed it before, had been talking down the Hay Plain, but Dave and I found it exciting. Willie Willies (small 'twisters' that pick up dirt) were abundant, and the vastness of the landscape was awing. We even managed to find a few species here such as Singing Bushlark, Black-tailed Native-hen, Banded Lapwing, and a Lerista muelleri under a sheet of tin.

In Mildura we stopped by the local sewage treatment works (a favourite destination of all birders!) where we excitedly found our first Freckled and Pink-eared Ducks.

The next day we reached our destination, Gluepot Reserve. Entering the park we found a bunch of new things including Hooded Robin, Varied Sittela, White-browed Babbler, Yellow-plumed Honeyeater, and a White-browed Treecreeper near the 'visitor's centre'. That night, we went night driving for an hour or so, and saw a mouse hopping across the road. We dashed around in circles after, hoping to identify it. However, somehow it got away into the night. We can only assume it was a Bolam's Mouse, although it highly resembled a species of Hopping Mouse, which to our knowledge haven't been recorded in the Reserve.

We set up camp with an early rise scheduled for the next day. We awoke to find that we had all got up, but had left the camp in different directions from each other. Nathan ran into Dave some time later, who said "the button-quail was in the same place" and pointed in a direction. Nathan b-lined straight for it. Unknowingly at the time, Dave had dreamt of seeing a button-quail, and the one he saw that morning was in the exact spot he had dreamt...
We reunited, had breakfast (canned spaghetti on bread), and went for a walk. New birds were plentiful, and we found Brown-headed Honeyeater, Crested Bellbird, Chestnut Quail-thrush, Grey Currawong, Shy Heathwren, Southern Whiteface, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Splendid Fairy-wren, and my 300th bird, Striated Grasswren!

We started lifting logs for herps, but instead found a Western Pygmy-possum, (above right) under a split fallen fence post! This species was only re-discovered in the park in the early 2000's, so it is likely our sighting was one of the first!
Another special find was a Southern Ningaui (a small carnivorous marsupial) under another log (above left).

Our final day at Gluepot (a really hot one) got us views of Chestnut-crowned Babbler, Rainbow Bee-eater, White-fronted Honeyeater and Ctenotus regius (a skink). We also caught a goat that ran across the road on our way out (below).

Returning home, we headed south to Coorong National Park, on the coast of South Australia. Birds along the way included Banded Stilt, Red-necked Avocet, Musk Duck, Blue-billed Duck, Spotted Harrier, Southern Emu-wren, Blue-winged Parrot, Brush Bronzewing, and an adult Malleefowl with an overly-alert newly-emerged chick waiting by the mound!

After zipping back across the Hay Plain (another exceptional crossing, this time having seen 4 Major Mitchell's Cockatoos sitting in saltbush), we visited The Rock Nature Reserve, not far from Wagga Wagga. It was a productive little stop, and Nathan managed to catch a Sand Goanna (Varanus gouldii, top left, below) and tail a huge hissing Lace Monitor (Varanus varius). A Speckled Warbler near the carpark was the final new bird for the trip.

Although only 8 days in total, we became hooked on finding different species, and have since traveled many parts of the world in the quest of finding those that fly, crawl, hop, slither or swim.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bomaderry Creek Regional Park

Today, once the rain stopped, we did the short loop track at Bomaderry Creek Regional Park. This park is found in Bomaderry, to the north of the Shoalhaven River. Bomaderry Creek carves its way through Nowra Sandstone forming a gorge. Rainforest species are found close to the creek, and above the cliffs is a dry open woodland/heath community.
The endangered Bomaderry Zieria (Ziera baeuerlenii, Right) is endemic to Bomaderry Creek. The total population consists of around 150 individuals, but evidence suggests it is no longer capable of reproduction. The shrub grows to around 80cm and produces small pinkish-white flowers between September and October.

Another endangered plant found in Bomaderry Creek Regional Park is the Albatross Mallee (Eucalyptus langleyi, Left). This species is only known from southwest of Nowra, with a population occurring north of the Shoalhaven River at Bomaderry Creek. Plants grow to 6m in height.

The Park supports a high diversity of fauna, and birds can be seen all over the park. This Yellow-tufted Honeyeater (Below) was observed close to the toilet block at the start of the trails.

Other birds frequently observed here include many honeyeaters, Rockwarbler, Glossy Black-Cockatoo, Gang-gang Cockatoo, Spotted Pardalote (Below), Bassian Thrush, Sacred Kingfisher (summer), Dollarbird (summer), and Square-tailed Kite (summer). Today there was a Rose Robin foraging around the weir.
Reptiles I have seen here include Yellow-faced Whipsnake, Eastern Water Dragon, Lesueur's Velvet Gecko, Jacky Lizard and Eastern Water Skink. However, today there was no reptile activity.

Searching for the Broad-headed Snake

Yesterday afternoon Jaime and I went looking for my favourite animal, the endangered Broad-headed Snake (Hoplocephalus bungaroides), in hopes of taking some photos. We went to a patch of escarpment where I had previously encountered one under the first rock I lifted, back in 2002. It was surprisingly a sunny and warm day, and the lack of wind was pleasant. Several small skinks were heard and seen scurrying away.
One of the first reptiles we encountered was a nice adult Lesueur's Velvet Gecko (Oedura lesueurii), the main prey item of the Broad-headed Snake, clinging to the underside of a rock. Jaime, 10 metres away, missed seeing it, as it wriggled into a crevice before she came over, but I guaranteed her we find another.

Shortly after finding the gecko, we found a small, dark, non-descript lizard underneath a rock. It was a Grass Skink (Lampropholis delicata), a very abundant, but interesting little skink nonetheless.

A couple of young Wall Skinks (Cryptoblepharus virgatus) were taking advantage of the sunshine and were running from crevice to crevice. They are small, fast, slender lizards, with two prominent cream stripes running down each side of the back (dorsolateral stripes).

Nearing the end of our search, Jaime lifted a rock which had a juvenile Lesueur's Velvet Gecko clinging to it. She was elated to have finally seen one, as all she was finding under the rocks were rock huntsmans, trilobite-looking cockroaches and ants with golden abdomens.
Unfortunately we couldn't find the elusive and beautiful Broad-headed Snake, but we didn't try lifting some of the 'best' rocks as we didn't want to risk damaging them, or whatever was sleeping underneath.

We heard a few birds calling away while we were there which included several Superb Lyrebirds, Laughing Kookaburra, Noisy Friarbird, Yellow-faced and White-eared Honeyeaters, and White-throated Treecreeper.

Reptiles for the day:
Lesueur's Velvet Gecko (Oedura lesueurii): 3
Wall Skink (Cryptoblepharus virgatus): 2
Grass Skink (Lampropholis delicata): 1