A Victorian Record of Heleioporus australiacus

Just before the new year dawned Rohan Clarke and I slipped out of Melbourne and headed east into Gippsland for a quick overnight jaunt. We had a couple of targets – Figbird for Rohan’s Vic list and a bit of a long bow looking for the Giant Burrowing Frog (Heleioporus australiacus) in State Forest around the Mitchell River. First stop was Lake Guyatt where a nice list of fifty odd species got things moving including a calling Pacific Koel. From here we headed to Metung birding anywhere that looked likely picking up local rarities like White-browed Woodswallow, Brown Songlark and Blue-billed Duck. Metung was a bit of a bust with no Figbird or interesting pigeons to be seen so we decided to head towards the evening site of State Forest north of Bairnsdale.

Typical habitat – State Forest

We spent the afternoon birding and doing some recce for likely sites for the evening. In addition to the frog we were also keen to look for large forest owls and there seemed to be plenty of decent habitat with mature hollow bearing trees. There was of course plenty of evidence of logging as we were in unprotected State Forest – in some places the logging had gone well into stream systems but I guess in Gippsland its a case of out of site and out of mind. We did get some nice birds including Dollarbird, Leaden Flycatcher, Brush Cuckoo and a favourite of mine – the Gippsland race of Yellow-tufted Honeyeater which was common.

Looking down into the Mitchell River Gorge

There was a fair bit of thunder activity around and it was quite humid but no rain which we thought we would need for the frog to come up. The Giant Burrowing Frog spends most of the year buried underground and is thought to only come up to hunt briefly after rain and only calls a few nights a year. Rohan had looked for this frog on and off for over 20 years so was particularly keen – me…. I am keen to see anything! We ducked into Mitchell River National Park for a bit where Cicadabirds and Brown Gerygones called from down in the gully. Eventually we found a good place on a creek to wait for dark while having an ale or two. On dusk we had plenty of bats flitting around as well as a pair of Hobby which seemed to be out looking for a late meal.

A good place for a beer

A White-throated Nightjar, Greater and Yellow-bellied Gliders, many bats and a cacophony of frogs seemed to kick the night off well! I thought i could smell large forest owls the habitat looked that good! In the distance lightning flashed and there was a rumble of thunder so the portents seemed perfect! Over the next few hours we tried many sites including walking up and down drainage lines without a peep from an owl or a hint of the frog. There were many Sugar Gliders and perhaps 7 bats were recorded on the detector with the highlight being a probable Southern Bent-winged Bat. Eventually is was well past midnight and we had reached the end of the run we had sketched out without any real success. We decided to loop around and try one more drainage line which had been relatively recently burnt before looking for somewhere to make camp. It was past 1am and I decided to leave my camera in the car as we clearly we had no chance. We were perhaps 150 meters from the car when Rohan shouted “I’ve #@!$ing got one!” Shining my torch in his direction I immediately saw strong eyeshine on the ground and ran across to see an amazing fat frog up sitting in a hunting stance! A Giant Burrowing Frog! I had to run back to the car to grab my camera!

Giant Burrowing Frog – Heleioporus australiacus

This would have to be one of the most impressive frogs I have seen and would be conservatively about the size of my fist. The impressive nuptial spines on its forelimbs showed this was a male. Rohan was ecstatic – this frog goes years between reports in Victoria and for a time was thought possibly extinct in the state! We did not touch the frog and let it do its thing. You can see from the dirt on its head that it had recently emerged from underground and even though it was not raining it was clearly humid enough. We searched the surrounding area but did not find any others. It seems likely that the low intensity fire in the area perhaps 6 months earlier made it easier to detect the frog. What had been a decent if slightly disappointing evening was suddenly awesome!

Giant Burrowing Frog – Heleioporus australiacus
Check the spines on the forelimbs!

Still buzzing we eventually found a place to roll out the swags sometime well after 2 am. I must admit I slept through the dawn chorus but we got up and went into Bairnsdale for celebratory egg and bacon roll and coffee. We spent a couple of hours kicking round Macleods Morass for nearly 80 species with perhaps five Lewins Rail and many hundreds of Hardhead flying in sounding like jet engines highlights! Back in Melbourne a little less than 30 hours from leaving – any thoughts of dipping on the Figbird dismissed by an awesome sighting of a mega Victorian frog! The records had been lodged with relevant authorities – hopefully the State Forest it persists in can receive appropriate protection!