Leopard Seal – third time is the charm

A couple of times previously this year I have gone chasing a vagrant seal reported on our beaches. The first time was a Leopard Seal near the Cerberus naval base on the Mornington Peninsula which judging by the freshness of the slide mark to the water must have left a mere hour or two before I arrived at dawn. The second time Rohan Clarke and I headed down to Port Fairy to chase a freshly reported Crabeater Seal and again we arrived to spotlighting for slide marks and no seal after it had decamped a few hours before and gave us a chance to generate some unique memes. So when I heard of yet another Leopard Seal (probably the 5th or 6th report this year in Victoria) A quick examination of ALA and other atlas sources show many records for Victoria so they must be a regular visitor. I was up early with Lucas who never needs an excuse for a beach adventure to go and chase. About this time I was pretty sure I was going to be able to photograph yet another rare seal slide mark.

A leopard seal was here - honest!

A leopard seal was here – honest!

And here - spotlighted scrapes of a Crabeater!

And here – spotlighted scrapes of a Crabeater!

After a coffee and a power juice Lucas and I arrived down at a beach on the Mornington Peninsula and jumped out of the car and ran to scan the beach – and nothing! Still there were a couple of areas of rocks in either direction that a seal could be hiding behind and Lucas was keen to play so we wandered down to investigate. Lucas was pretty excited to see his first Hooded Plovers with no fewer than six on the beach. He was off observing the plovers when I wandered past a section of rocks and there was a rather small (at 5-6 feet) but awesome Leopard Seal lying there. At first I saw clouds of flies rise of its unmoving head and I thought we had arrived to a corpse but it eventually stretched and rolled onto its side. I am pretty sure I was less excited than the quoll a couple of weeks ago but Lucas assures me it was abut the same. The animal was very chilled and never raised its head the time we were there. It appeared to be in very good nick for a young animal far from home and a quick snap of its dump showed it may have snagged a Little Penguin or two in the preceding week. We were very privileged to be able to spend some time in the presence of this apex predator although Lucas was distracted by some pretty cool rockpools. The seal appeared to be a young animal in some sort of moult with patchy fur on its face. We got a good 20 minutes alone with the animal until a couple of Rangers turned up who asked us to move even further back before approaching the seal closer than we ever would have.

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Knowing it was time to go we wandered back up the beach indulging in a quick high five before getting into the serious business of exploring the beach washed seaweed and stalking the Hoodies. Lucas has not stopped talking about Leopard Seals since and we had to write it down in his mammal list along with the Hooded Plovers in his birdbook – queue proud Dad.

Leopard Seal poo!

Leopard Seal poo!

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Leopard Seal

Spring time is orchid time in Melbourne

While I generally chase things with a backbone I also have a secret like for a good native orchid. This year they have certainly taken a back seat but today I had a spare couple of hours so headed out to Baluk Willam NCR near Lysterfield for a bit of wander and poke around. Baluk Willam NCR is a fantastic little reserve for our native ground orchids and the friends website is excellent for letting you now what is in flower at the moment – http://fobw.rnr.id.au/ The reserve also occasionally picks up the odd good bird so I also kept an eye and an ear out for any returning spring migrants.

Petalochilus

Petalochilus

I parked at the southern carpark as usual and did the loop where there were plenty of greenhood types out with many of them now past their best – Talls, Cobras, Noddings, Maroonhoods and Mountains all in evidence. Plenty of finger/fairy orchids were out and made quite a nice carpet in places. Plenty of small birds calling including a Brown Thornbill which was doing a nice little bit of mimicry which had me going for a moment.

Pterostylis alpina

Pterostylis alpina

Pterostylis alpina

Pterostylis alpina

Across the road from the carpark is always worth a good going over and here there were good numbers of orchids showing well. There were plenty of Wallflower Orchids – Diuris orientis including some that were nearly completely yellow as well as more greenhoods and two species of Spider Orchid. Plenty of Brownbeaks were starting to show well which are a smart looking orchid that has a bit of a perfume. From here I wandered a big loop around much of the rest of the reserve and didn’t see much else although a couple of competing male Scarlet Robins all puffed up and calling loudly was nice. Nice afternoon out and I have successfully resisted the orchid bug for a bit longer.

Lyperanthus suaveolens

Lyperanthus suaveolens

Diuris orientis

Diuris orientis

Diuris orientis

Diuris orientis

A quick add-on. Today I had a quick visit to Pauline Toner Butterfly Reserve in Eltham to photograph Common Golden Moth orchids – Diuris chryseopsis. There were plenty of them here but most had been smashed by solid rain over the past week but I still managed a few pics.

Diuris chryseopsis

Diuris chryseopsis

Diuris chryseopsis

Diuris chryseopsis

A surprise bat

Last week I met up with mates Geoff Jones of Barra Imaging and Dave Stowe http://www.davidstowe.com.au/ for a quick jaunt up to Powelltown to look for Leadbeater’s Possum and any other Central Highlands targets we could find. Unfortunately it was a school night so I was late out of the city and we did not arrive up in possum country until about 8pm. At the second stop we had a very curious Sooty Owl which trilled continually as we tried to get some clear photos of it but it remained frustratingly high and in the foliage – this was a new Aussie bird for Geoff! Of note were several species of micro bat flying around which were considerably more in evidence than other recent visits – it must be getting warmer. At one stage the Sooty Owl moved to a new tree and a small mammal scampered down the trunk and launched into the air spiraling down – a Feather-tailed Glider! Too far away to see any details but will be back to see if there is a colony in the area.

A bit further up the road we stopped with the wind starting to rise and I almost immediately got onto a nice Leadbeater’s Possum which gave some good looks to Geoff and myself but unfortunately Dave missed it. We poked around here a bit and did not turn up another although did add Ringtail Possum to the evening list. Further along Dave saw what was probably a Leadbeaters Possum at a known site but unfortunately we could not get enough to confirm. A few Bobucks were in evidence but the wind was now getting quite high so we decided that we were flogging a dead horse so headed back down the mountain. We were beetling down the mountain when at one stage I was watching a micro bat flitting around in front of the car when it suddenly veered around and got caught on the aerial of the car. I shouted to stop and we bailed out to watch the death throws of the poor little animal. At the same time a Tyto owl screamed nearby which sounded very like Masked owl. There was a sequence reminiscent of Benny Hill as I tried to collect the now dead bat, photograph it, call in the owl and all the time the wind getting stronger and stronger. In the end we left the owl in the field and headed home but I will be back soon. Later at home I examined and keyed out the poor bat – forearm length and penis shape as well as pelage and face shape indicated this was a Large Forest bat – Vespadelus darlingtoni – a bat I have probably seen thousands of times as it is common in these forests but the first time I have positively identified. All in all a brief but pretty good night – still need to get Dave a Leadbeater’s on the next visit and I did manage to get a surprise bat for the year list.

Large Forest bat

Large Forest bat

Large Forest bat

Large Forest bat

Catching the spotted one

With Simone away in the USA for a couple of weeks I booked a few nights away in Tasmania for a bit of a boy’s getaway. Of course I had a slightly ulterior motive as I still really wanted to see a quoll – I had already spent a few nights in likely areas this year without success so booked a couple of places to hopefully maximize success. Lucas is rather obsessed by carnivores of all shapes and sizes so I had no complaints from him on the plan. The basic plan was to fly into Launceston with a night in the Bridport/Scottsdale area followed by two nights at the Mountain Valley Wilderness Lodge at Loongana on the recommendation of mate Stephen Kaye. The days would be filled with whatever was needed to entertain a very curious five year old. We were up early for an 8:30 am flight and landed in Launceston in near constant drizzle which soon started to clear. We headed first to Cataract Gorge to stretch our legs and here Lucas got his first Tassie endemic with Green Rosellas feeding on the lawn. Also here is a supposedly tickable population of Peafowl – they may have been here for years but they fail my two guys in a ute with shotguns wiping them out in a weekend test. Still its a nice area for a walk and was interesting to see the affects of recent flooding earlier this year – the volume of water through the Gorge must have been incredible!

Dodgy Peafowl at Cataract Gorge

Dodgy Peafowl at Cataract Gorge

After picking up a few supplies we had a pleasant drive across to Scottsdale. I was very happy en-route to hear Lucas tell me “This forest looks great for Masked Owl!” – the boy is learning! At Scottsdale we dropped in to the tourist information centre where Lucas was given an excellent poster on Tasmanian wildlife and sites to see it – tourism in Tasmania is an odd beast but this was one thing they do well. The lady here said that the ponds at the free camping area were good for Platypus so despite it being the middle of the day we wandered down for a look. No luck this time but certainly worth another look at dawn or dusk. We drove the back route C832 to Bridport as reconnaissance for spotlighting later this evening as a number of trip reports on Jon Hall’s seminal website mammalwatching.com mention this as good for Eastern Quoll and Tasmanian Bettong. The habitat on this road looked a perfect mix of woodland, plantation and agricultural land with the requisite huge amount of roadkill. We saw a number of wombats out and about during the day as well as a huge Tasmanian Wedge-tailed Eagle which Lucas was keen to see. Then of course it was a stint at the beach where I unsuccessfully tried to rustle up a vagrant penguin in the rocks while Lucas played in the sand. I had booked an AirBnB option again which was a very nice property with good areas of bush and apparently regularly have platypus in their dams. Lucas and I poked around in the bush where we found our first Echidna although there was no sign of the other monotreme in the dams, probably still too early. We went to the bowling club for an early dinner where I had one of the best steaks I have had in a long while and Lucas had a mountain of flathead tails and chips. Right on dusk we headed out and Lucas promptly fell immediately asleep – it had been a long day. I ended up driving and spotlighting many back roads and paddocks over the next four and a half hours. During this time I saw many, many, many Tasmanian Pademelons and Brush-tailed Possums, at one stage I could spotlight 14 individual possums outside one window of the car. There were also reasonable numbers of Bennett’s Wallabies and Common Wombat and in one place a few Forester Kangaroos. The highlights had to be two Tasmanian Bettong on the edge of a paddock on the C832 which were extremely distinctive after having looked at several bazillion pademelons and wallabies over the proceeding hours and a Morepork which flew in briefly to my bad imitation of its call. But there was no quoll of any type to be had on this evening!

Nice beach at Bridport

Nice beach at Bridport

Up early we headed west stopping anywhere that looked worthwhile. We dropped into Narawntapu National Park late in the morning mostly cause I could say I had been there and for Lucas to play on the beach. We visited the ranger station and paid our dues before walking out to the birdless bird hide and then went to Bakers Beach. Despite it being the middle of the day we saw Forester Kangaroo, Tasmanian Pademelon, Common Wombat and Bennett’s Wallaby – would be good to come back and explore some of the more remote areas after dark. Four Eastern Curlew on the point at Bakers Beach were my first in Tassie – there may have been more there but I did not want to disturb them. After a long session of beach play we headed on and up into the hills towards Loongana. About halfway from Ulverstone I saw my first quoll! Unfortunately it was an ex-quoll having been hit by a car – a beautiful spotted-tailed quoll rather flat (and smelly) beside the road. We decided that the silver lining was that it showed we were coming into good quoll habitat!

An ex-quoll

An ex-quoll

We arrived at the accommodation at Loongana and met Len who gave us a tour. Len was excellent with Lucas answering the incessant questions that only a five year old can dream up. Apparently we were the first guests after a few months closed over winter so he was not sure how we would go with the animals that evening although he had been seeing and hearing devils. We had a bit of an explore before Len took us down to show Lucas his first platypus which fed happily in one of the many pools on the river. Apparently platypus number are down a bit following the floods earlier in the year but with a bit of effort I would think you could get many excellent sightings on this stretch of river. Approaching dark Len wired up some chicken frames and we sat down to watch from the comfort of the cabin with an open fire roaring and a nice cool local beer. Almost immediately I saw a quoll-like creature out of the corner of my eye approaching the bait but unfortunately it was just a tortoise-shell coloured feral cat! Over both nights we were regularly visited by three different cats which hopefully will have a conversation with the end of Len’s rifle barrel in the near future. It wasn’t long after true dark when all the pademelons bolted and in strolled a magnificent Spotted-tailed Quoll which sniffed around a bit before grabbing three bits of chicken and bolting – this was a large animal which I assume is a male. The whole experience took about 45 seconds but Lucas and I were stoked – our first quoll and there were many high fives. About 30 minutes later I spotted the quoll looping around the road again so I gave Lucas the red-light and when it came in to grab more chicken I was able to snag a few photos. The excitement of the day was too much for Lucas who crashed out soon after.

Spotted-tailed Quoll scoffing some chicken

Spotted-tailed Quoll scoffing some chicken

Despite it being early I too was struggling to keep awake with the comfortable couch and warm open fire making it hard to keep my eyes open. A couple of the largest Brush-tailed Possums I have ever seen came in and started chowing down on copious amounts of chicken. A diet of regular protein made them quite impressive animals and when the feral cats again came around they just stood up on their back legs and spread their arms as if to say “come at me”. But even these had to give way and bolt up onto the roof when a dog like critter waddled in – a Tasmanian Devil! There were actually two animals with a large mottled adult coming well into the light and a smaller all dark animal sitting back in the shadows only visible in the red light of my torch. Unfortunately the adult had a very visible facial tumour as many animals at this site apparently do. This insidious disease has now apparently spread across almost the whole state with the Tarkine and Arthur River now infected. Both animals were extremely skittish with the adult grabbing some chicken before bolting off. Twenty minutes later it came back again briefly and I was able to snap a couple of quick shots. Unfortunately around 10:30 pm I am rather embarrassed to say that my watch ended in a snoring heap only to wake up hours later with the meat all gone, fire out, cold and shivering and a sore neck – still it was well worth it!!!

Tasmanian Devil with obvious early stage facial tumour

Tasmanian Devil with obvious early stage facial tumour

We slept in a bit before getting up for a bit of a walk around the property and then heading off to Tasmazia – a crazy maze and miniature village in the middle of no where in Tasmania which Lucas loved. One thing that was apparent was that Flame Robins were back with a vengeance with many hundreds seen in paddocks as we drove around. A visit to Leven Canyon on the way back got Lucas his first Pink Robin with a nice male sitting on an open branch. We picked up a couple of bits of “fresh” roadkill for tonight’s stake out which may or may not have voided the rental agreement on the hire car. Another visit to the river and dinner and we settled down to watch over our staked out roadkill which was supplemented with some extra chicken.

Just a couple of pademelons sleeping in the boot

Just a couple of pademelons sleeping in the boot

It was a quieter start to the night with Lucas crashing out early – I was determined not to suffer the same fate as the previous night so had a number of coffees to keep me going. The feral cats were much bolder than the previous night and would not even react to a tap on the window while stealing chicken. I was sitting stretched out with feet against the window and was surprised when a different quoll to the previous night sauntered in and sniffed at my feet through the glass! A mad grab for camera only startled it and it fled – this was a clearly smaller animal than the previous night. It wasn’t long before the quoll was back sniffing around the carcasses before grabbing a couple of bits of chicken and fleeing. It came back one more time before midnight and me crashing out. I set my alarm for 2am and found that the pademelon corpses had been moved and gnawed at and all the chicken gone which made me suspect devils which was confirmed the next morning. There was no further activity that night.

Spotted-tailed Quoll

Spotted-tailed Quoll

Spotted-tailed Quoll

Spotted-tailed Quoll

Lucas and I left early vowing to return soon – apparently there are caves here that we need to explore! We headed up to Cradle Mountain but we didn’t really have enough time to do it justice so we headed to the excellent breeding facility devils@cradle which has displays and captive breeding programs for the three large marsupial carnivores in Tasmania – Spotted-tailed and Eastern Quolls and Tasmanian Devil. This facility is well worth a visit if you are in the area with all three species seen closeup with good commentary from clearly passionate keepers. Unfortunately we had to then track back to Launceston and a flight home but we are already planning our next trip back for Eastern Quoll and to get Lucas a wild Tassie Devil. Lucas and I can highly recommend the Wilderness Lodges at Loongana for an excellent wildlife experience and were both stoked to see our first wild quolls.

Cradle Mountain is usually covered in cloud

Cradle Mountain is usually covered in cloud

The ubiquitous Tasmanian Pademelon

The ubiquitous Tasmanian Pademelon

An adequate night out

With Simone safely shipped off to Paris, Lucas and I headed down to Seaspray for a few nights with Mum and Dad at the holiday house.The water levels at Seaspray were as low as I have ever seen them and aside from an impressive 500+ Banded Stilt there were no waders of note. I did spend an afternoon and then a few hours spotlighting in Giffard FFR and surrounding areas of Mullungdung State Forest as I had heard tasty rumours of Masked Owl and i was keen to check the swamps for Uperoleia tyleri which had been photographed a couple of years back. However the swamps were bone dry and the forest largely silent after dark with many foxes and three cats being a concern – the only nighttime observation of note were 14 separate wombats (all alive for a change) and the only frog calling was Crinia signifera.

Red-bellied black snake

Red-bellied black snake

After a couple of excellent mornings at the beach with Lucas I had a leave pass so decided to duck off a mere three hours up the coast to Cape Conran for a touch of spotlighting. On the way I stopped at an old favourite, Fairy Dell and while it was in the heat of the day I still had some nice birds including Leaden Flycatcher and Black-faced Monarch. A further brief stop at Cabbage Tree walk added Scarlet Honeyeater and Brush Cuckoo as well as the more usual suspects. I didn’t do any targeted daylight birding in Cape Conran Coastal Park but still managed some nice birds including a couple of Turquoise Parrots on Cabbage Tree Road and a nice pair of very vocal Beautiful Firetails. A work mate was staying at Conran Camp Ground so I dropped in for a few beers and an excellent evening meal. I set off a bit before dusk to drive to my “secret spot” arriving as the Crescent Honeyeaters were Egypting themselves to sleep. The Crescents were still calling as the White-throated Nightjars arced up, bubbling away in the distance – I did have a brief flyby but I had more impressive targets on my mind. Pretty soon a Sooty Owl called and a large female owl landed quite a way back. I could tell she was agitated as she kept looking around and was not really interested in my squeaking and would not come closer for photos. The reason for the agitation became apparent as two Masked Owl called from either side of the location, first hissing and then cackling repeatedly. The Masked Owl that I decided was male flew in cackling and the Sooty Owl immediately decamped, flying off into the night screaming her displeasure – for the remainder of the time I was here she remained perhaps 150 meters away screaming every few minutes – this is a call I rarely hear closer to Melbourne so I assume it is threat related.

Sooty Owl - taken last year in same location

Sooty Owl – taken last year in same location

High above my head I had a second Masked Owl cackling away and I was able to spotlight what I assume was the female circling high above like a seagull. She seemed to be darker than the first bird and eventually she had enough and flew somewhere up the hill where she continued to hiss intermittently for the next half hour. Which left me with the male – he was in for the long haul and continued to cackle repeatedly – any noise would set him off – even me explaining to him what a pretty boy he was and he would cackle repeatedly. I had a good half hour with this magnificent owl as he occasionally changed perches but all the while cackling to me as I first squeaked and then just started talking to him. Eventually I said enough was enough so I bid him adieu – he continued to cackle at me as I got into the car and drove further afield.

Australian Masked Owl

Australian Masked Owl

Australian Masked Owl

Australian Masked Owl

I drove to another site a few kilometers away towards Orbost and lay back on the bonnet of the car and listened for a time until I heard a distant scream. A quick call and I very quickly had two Masked Owl cackling and circling well above my head. They eventually settled well away and continued to hiss but with the scrub being rather thick and already having good shots I moved on. I was also on the lookout for frogs and as I was driving along I heard Litoria nudidigita calling from a roadside wetland so pulled over for a poke around. Almost immediately I heard what I believe to be a Uperoleia calling – here it is likely to be the very rare and range restricted martini which I was very keen to see and photograph. A quick switch to macro lens and I started to poke around – I was sure I could hear two frogs calling. Unfortunately I quickly ended up in the water and despite the heat of the recent days it was dark, dank and very cold and around scrotum deep. The calls of the frog are quite ventriloquil and were calling from deep inside thick vegetation and eventually I had to admit defeat although I will return better prepared and with backup.

I continued to pot around and eventually looped back to the Cabbage Tree Walk where a Boobook and Sooty Owl were calling incessantly. By now the moon was well up and it was past 2 am so I rolled out the swag, quite satisfied that I had had an adequate night.

Masked Owl says goodnight

Masked Owl says goodnight