Potoroo success

Probably my most wanted Australian mammal over the past couple of years has been the Long-footed Potoroo – a secretive denizen of remote forest locations in the North-East and far East of Victoria. I have had a couple of attempts to find this over the past couple of years and recently got close but no cigar. Having previously tried in East Gippsland and on hearing of some recent success stories in Northern Victoria I decided to have a crack up there. I was spending a few days in Mount Beauty and my mate Jim Wright was in Bright so we met up and headed out on a bit of an expedition. It was a fair drive through some magnificent country to get to a likely area. Jim has a fully kitted out 4wd which is quite a useful tool in this area.

Potoroo mobile

Potoroo mobile

We arrived in the general area I wanted to explore and did a bit of recce – it was an area of Mountain and Alpine Ash with Snow Gums up high with some very nice old trees in the gullies. It looked as if it had avoided much of the fires over the past 20 years or so. We started spotlighting at about 1200m ASAL on foot right on zero dark thirty and within 10 minutes I had eyeshine on the ground on a small embankment above the road. Lifting binoculars I immediately saw it was a potoroo! We had perhaps 15 seconds of excellent binocular views before the animal melted away silently into the undergrowth. Needless to say I was ecstatic!! The animal was larger and more upright than I remember Long-nosed Potoroo’s being and was also darker – in some ways reminded me more of a Bettong. We did not see the feet on this view but the rest of the animal was seen very well. Further spotlighting in the immediate area got us Yellow-bellied and Sugar Glider and Bush Rat.

We drove a bit and spotlit other areas on foot getting more Yellow-bellied Gliders but not much else. Right on midnight we were thinking of calling it a night and were driving somewhere to setup the swags when we saw an animal on the road which in the distance I took for a Brush-tailed Possum – then it started hopping! We drove up and got excellent views of a large Long-footed Potoroo as it struggled to get up an embankment – its large feet and dark tail very evident. Eventually it made it up the embankment and hopped into the night. All in all a very successful night as we rolled out the swags. Up early and back – it was a very successful jaunt – maybe photos next time.

Potoroo habitat

Potoroo habitat

Potoroo habitat

Potoroo habitat

Some recent action

Like the rest of Melbourne I went through 100+ days of lockdown – stuck working from home and in my 5km radius. I am fortunate to have a job that can be done from home but I definitely miss the office. To keep sane during this time myself and a number of other birders had a bit of a competition to see how many species of birds we could find in that 5km radius. This meant scouring google maps for every little remnant of bush and wetland and I was pretty happy with the 120 odd species I found during the lockdown. While I didn’t win the bird competition I probably did see the most snakes with plenty of Lowland Copperheads out and about. Highlights would have to be the Wandering Whistling-ducks that turned up at Dandenong Valley Wetlands about 4700 meters from home as the duck flies and a number of Swift Parrots in the Springvale cemetery. I also tried my hand at a bit of urban spotlighting in remnant habitat along Dandenong Creek which was a bit of fun. Highlight here were the good numbers of frogs (7 species) – I was somewhat surprised to find Peron’s Tree Frogs and I wonder if they are naturally occurring or have moved in perhaps in firewood or garden supplies.

Wandering Whistling-duck

Wandering Whistling-duck – a very rare Victorian visitor

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

Peron's Tree Frog

Peron’s Tree Frog

Following Dan relaxing the “Ring of Steel” around Melbourne, Rohan and I were straight in the car heading east past Orbost looking for Long-footed Potoroo and other cool things. We spent three nights in the area between Cape Conran and Cann River, much of which had been extensively burnt in last Summer’s fires. In some areas the damage was limited and was already recovering well but in others it was a holocaust with ridge after ridge of trees killed and almost no regrowth noticable. On the first night of spotlighting we drove a long way using thermal camera with a few stops along the way. While we didn’t detect our main target we did find a couple of Sooty Owls in fire affected areas which was a positive sign. During the day we birded around Cape Conran, Marlo and Cabbage Tree with some nice birds like Turquoise Parrot, Sanderling and Wedge-tailed Shearwater recorded. The sweeping fields of post fire grass-tree spikes around Conran were particularly impressive.

Sooty Owl

Sooty Owl

A sea of Xanthorrhoea

A sea of Xanthorrhoea

For the next two nights we narrowed the search and did twice get a probable potoroo on thermal but could not get a sighting which was frustrating. Still over the 3 nights we did get good numbers of Eastern Pygmy-possums and a surprise roosting Painted Button-quail as well as many other cool mammals and frogs. By the end of the third night we were pretty tired but had to get up early to head home, detouring via Lake Tyers and Macleod Morass. We still clocked up 150+ species of bird and a good mammal list and it was really cathartic to be out of lockdown and back into some real nature. While the aftermath of the fire was pretty distressing in places in others the recovery would suggest some good hope for the future.

Good to have a beer from a tap again

Good to have a beer from a tap again

iPhone Painted Button-quail

iPhone Painted Button-quail

iPhone Eastern Pygmy-possum

iPhone Eastern Pygmy-possum

More recently I had an invite to go on a Plains-Wanderer weekend led by Phil Maher with Matt Crawford and Michael Ramsey. I had some family commitments so could only leave after lunch on the Saturday and was rolling into Deniliquin a bit after 4pm. It was a very hot 42 degrees on arrival with a strong wind. After a quick beer at the pub we piled into a couple of 4wd’s and went birding. We stopped at a wetland which was packed with birds and 63 species seen. Later on dusk we arrived at the farm we would be spotlighting at and relaxed with a beer and some snacks. While poking around I was happy to find my first Curl Snake. What followed was one of the best nights of spotlighting I have had in a while. We found 3 male Plains-wanderers and two of them both had two tiny chicks which were very cute. In addition I ended up with three new reptiles – the Curl Snake, Eastern Hooded Scaly-foot and Tessellated Gecko as well as loose change like Little Button-quail and a number of Fat-tailed Dunnarts. All in all a very enjoyable evening and I would highly recommend getting on one of Phil’s tours. I had to leave pretty early the next day and I was back in Melbourne about 26 hours after leaving!

Endangered male Plains-wanderer with chicks

Endangered male Plains-wanderer with chicks

Hooded Scaly-foot

Hooded Scaly-foot

Tessellated Gecko

Tessellated Gecko

Curl Snake

Curl Snake

Record of Leadbeater’s Possum in Bunyip State Park

Introduction

The observations were made in the Eastern part of Bunyip State Park in an area of regrowth Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans) that burnt in Black Saturday in 2009. The site is about 250m above sea level and in the Lawson Creek catchment which eventually flows into Westernport Bay via the Bunyip River.

Bunyip State Park covers 16,600 hectares of various types of wet forest and heathland in the southern fall of the Great Dividing Range about 65km east of Melbourne. It contains a variety of forest types with the Mountain Ash forest largely confined to slopes in the north of the Park. Large parts of the east of the park burnt extensively in 2009 with much of the remainder burning in 2019. The burnt Mountain Ash habitat in the eastern of the park is similar to habitat where Leadbeater’s possum (Gymnobelideus leadbeateri) occurs elsewhere with dead trees and an understory containing various wattle species. While not specifically targeting Leadbeater’s Possum at this site in May 2020 a brief stop did result in a good sighting with Scott Baker and Jim Wright.

Leadbeater's Possum - Bunyip State Park

Leadbeater’s Possum – Bunyip State Park

Observations

On the 15th of May 2020 Scott Baker, Jim Wright and myself (Tim Bawden) headed into the southern part of Tarago State Forest near Jindivick spotlighting in particular targeting Leadbeater’s Possum and large forest owls. The night was particularly successful with Leadbeater’s Possum found in the very south of Tarago State Forest (these records are some of the southernmost since rediscovery in 1961) and Sooty Owls observed along the Tarago River. Later in the evening the group decided to head home through the eastern edge of Bunyip State Park down Forest Road and stopped to check out the range-limited locally endemic Gully Grevillea (Grevillea barklyana). To our surprise we spotted a Leadbeater’s Possum in the very tree we were looking at. Upon leaving the car we pished and were able to call the animal back close enough for photos – another animal was observed close by and was heard drumming. The diagnostic shape and behaviour on both animals leaping through the understory was very evident. There was significant movement on the other side of the road which may have indicated a third animal but this was not confirmed. After a couple of minutes of spotlit observation we left the animals alone and tried two more sites further down with out success. Conditions were a very crisp, still and clear night with no risen moon and a temperature around 3 degrees C. Needless to say I was a little excited as I had tried for a while for this species in Bunyip SP.

Leadbeater's Possum - Bunyip State Park

Leadbeater’s Possum – Bunyip State Park

I was keen to return so a week later I headed back with Rohan Clarke and Scott Baker on the 23rd of May 2020. Unfortunately this night conditions were not ideal with constant drizzle and a SE-E wind and ~20kph winds with a temperature around 8 degrees C – there was no risen moon but would have been irrelevant with total cloud cover and fog throughout. Still we persisted and with a combination of pishing and Rohan’s thermal scope were able to locate a Leadbeater’s Possum approximately 200 meters south of the last sighting in Acacia dealbata. The animal was skittish perhaps due to the conditions but Scott was able to secure a diagnostic photograph. Other sites above and below this one were unsuccessful but conditions were definitely not conducive. Eventually we had to admit defeat and move to more sheltered areas.

Leadbeater's Possum record shot - Scott Baker

Leadbeater’s Possum record shot – Scott Baker

On the 13th of June 2020 I returned with my son Lucas and we managed an hour of spotlighting in the area without success before gale-force winds moved us on. On the 19th of June 2020 Isaac Clarey and I had completed a loop through Tarago State Forest (LBP at 2 sites in State Forest) and spent 2 hours working Forest Road inside Bunyip State Park after midnight without success. Unfortunately Covid-19 has at this stage prevented further visits to the area.

Over the past 5 years I have driven this road many times at night and have stopped regularly to play owl calls without observing anything unusual.

Habitat

Habitat near the site showing fire killed Eucalytpus regnans - notice the uniform relatively small size of these stags

Habitat near the site showing fire killed Eucalytpus regnans – notice the uniform relatively small size of these stags

The area the Bunyip SP sightings occurred in was a small tongue of Mountain Ash in the Lawson Creek catchment that had burnt heavily in Black Saturday in 2009. It appears that this gully may have been logged before declaration of Bunyip State Park with none of the fire killed trees particularly large. No real evidence of large stags visible from the road during daylight visits. The fire appears to be have burnt hot enough to induce stand replacement in the Mountain Ash with many young ~10 year old trees coming through. Interestingly above the road line in the sighting location the forest changes to more stringybark types including Eucalyptus obliqua and Eucalyptus sieberi typical of many other slopes in Bunyip SP. There is a thick understory with abundant Acacia dealbata and Acacia obliquinervia with the odd Acacia melanoxylon and of course the Grevillea barklyana in which the first animal was spotted. The makeup of the understory is very similar to many other locations where I have observed Leadbeater’s Possum previously. Daylight observations of the forest area did not find any obvious denning locations with no large stags located – it is possible that the fire killed trees from 2009 are now cracking enough to provide some cover or there were other undiscovered options.

Typical understory in the area

Typical understory in the area

Other nocturnal mammals seen in the immediate area during recent observations include Sugar Glider (Petaurus breviceps), Bobuck (Trichosurus cunninghami), Feather-tailed Glider (Acrobates sp) and Common Ring-tailed Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus). Nocturnal birds noted were Australian Owlet-nightjar (Aegotheles cristatus) and Australian Boobook (Ninox boobook)- it is noteworthy that in ~10+ nocturnal visits to this area over the past 5 years I have not not located any large forest owls with playback in this area of burnt forest despite them being relatively common nearby. Diurnal birds in the area are typical of similar wet forest areas in the region with notable species including Pilotbird (Pycnoptilus floccosus), Superb Lyrebird (Menura novaehollandiae), Brown Gerygone (Gerygone mouki), Rose Robin (Petroica rosea) and Lewin’s Honeyeater (Meliphaga lewinii).

One  of the largest of the regenerating Mountain Ash in the immediate area

One of the largest of the regenerating Mountain Ash in the immediate area

Significance

The Leadbeater’s Possum is a Critically Endangered possum species restricted to the Central Highlands around Melbourne and is Victoria’s fauna state emblem. It was discovered in 1867 and was only known from five specimens with the last one collected in 1909 and was considered likely extinct as most of the original lowland swamp habitat was drained and cleared for agriculture. In 1961 it was rediscovered by Eric Wilkinson in Ash forests near Cambarville. It has since been found to inhabit an area of perhaps 70 by 80 km from Toolangi in the west, Rubicon in the north, Baw Baw in the east and Tarago in the south – see interactive map. The majority of these records are in ash or snow gum forest with only one small isolated lowland population known at Yellingbo. There are few records in the Westernport Bay catchment since 1961.

In Bunyip State Park itself there are perhaps two previous records of Leadbeater’s Possum. The first by Richard Loyn and Ed McNabb occurred in 1981 on the southern slopes of Mount Beenak in an area on the very edge of the current day park in what was then Gembrook State Forest at an altitude of about 600m. I have searched this area over past few years without result. There is a second record from the 1990’s in the Blue Range on the very northern edge of Bunyip SP (ALA) but it is unclear if this was inside the park boundary – this area contains a lot of regrowth Ash forest and would be worth further investigation. The current observations are approximately 8km ESE of these and are well with the current park boundaries. Probably the closest sightings are the recent ones in the southern portion of Tarago State Forest – before these the species was not well known south of the Tarago River. It is interesting to consider if these recent sightings have moved in following regrowth and opportunity following the Black Saturday fires or have always been in the area. Further searching in the immediate catchment area and other parts of the Bunyip catchment would be worthwhile, particularly in lowland areas which are not dissimilar to the Yellingbo habitat. At this stage Covid restrictions prevent further investigation.

Leadbeater's Possum from nearby Tarago State Forest - note white tail tip

Leadbeater’s Possum from nearby Tarago State Forest – note white tail tip

References

“Atlas of Living Australia – Open Access to Australia’s Biodiversity Data.” Atlas of Living Australia, http://ala.org.au.
“Leadbeater’s Possum Interactive Map.” Leadbeater’s Possum Interactive Map, http://lbp.cerdi.edu.au/possum_map.php.
Lindenmayer, David, et al. Mountain Ash. CSIRO PUBLISHING, 2015.
Loyn, Richard, and E. G. McNabb. “Discovery of Leadbeater’s Possum in Gembrook State Forest.” Victorian Naturalist Vol 99, 1982.
Menkhorst, Peter, and Frank Knight. Field Guide to Mammals of Australia. OUP Australia & New Zealand, 2010.

A bucket of bucketlists – Perth to Exmouth – part 2

Continuing on – we departed the Abrolhos at around 3am so we would be out over deep water on daybreak hoping for pelagic goodies and maybe a cetacean or two. On day break it was wet and that was a theme throughout the day as we rode across the Houtman Canyon and on towards Bernier Island. Lots of promise but nothing particularly unusual for the day with the common tubenoses and terns and a highlight of 3 Long-tailed Jaegers throughout the day. That evening I felt rather claustrophobic around the dinner table and excused myself early and went to bed for a rough night at sea – probably the closest I felt to being seasick but I was fine once I lay down.

Cruising

The morning however dawned calm and flat as we anchored off Dirk Hartog Island for breakfast before going ashore and ascending a near vertical dune to get to the island plateau – this nearly killed my fat arse. Dirk Hartog Island is another bucket list thing with a history of early Dutch exploration of Australia – old Dirk himself nailed a plate to a tree here back in 1616. It is also now a huge area of feral free island that is having species reintroduced from nearby Bernier and Dorre Islands and beyond. We had three key bird targets here with endemic subspecies of Rufous Fieldwren, Southern Emu-wren and White-winged Fairy-wren (the famous Black and White form). The Fieldwren and Emu-wren were easily heard and seen with a little effort in good numbers. The Fairy-wren was more difficult and after walking several kilometers I only found a small group of brown birds. Returning to the pickup rendezvous I found others had similar luck. In the bay there were dolphins and sea turtles and this is definitely a place I would like to come back to.

The road goes ever on

The road goes ever on

Dirk Hartog

Dirk Hartog

A lad with his Can(n)on

A lad with his Can(n)on

Now we headed north for the main prize and the reason I booked on the trip – Bernier Island. It was a very pleasant run with many species of tern and noddies keeping us company as we passed Dorre Island. This pair of islands are famous as they are the last (or near last) remaining homes for a group of species that were once widespread across the mainland. Banded Hare-wallaby, Shark Bay Mouse (this was once known as Alice Springs mouse!!) and Western Barred Bandicoot are only found in the wild on these two islands aside from some reintroductions and Rufous Hare-wallaby and Burrowing Bettong have wild populations on only another couple of islands (and some reintroductions). Dorre Island is off limits to us and I scanned wistfully through binoculars as we cruised past – it was significantly more desolate and barren than I was expecting. We anchored off Bernier Island in a spot many boats visit and camp and I could barely wait for lunch to get ashore. Some lovely dolphins cruised past while we waited.

Dorre Island

Dorre Island

As soon as we went ashore there was a Banded Hare-wallaby on the beach! This is my kind of place! Once we wandered up onto the plateau I picked a line and went for a walk and soon found a Rufous Hare-wallaby and then more. Reptiles were also good with Delma butleri a highlight for me. There were a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles actively hunting Hare-wallabies and with good numbers of bones around they must be pretty successful. One thing that was interesting was the dug over nature of the landscape with burrows and scratchings everywhere – must give a pretty good idea of what much of Australia was like before the advent of broad-scale agriculture and foxes and cats. Fair to say I was in heaven. Later in the evening we had great early success with everyone seeing the five key species – special thanks to Nigel, Stu and Graffy for finding everyone the first Shark Bay Mouse. It was a dumb thing with little fear bounding ungracefully across the turf in and out of vegetation – little doubt why these were an easy snack for ferals.

iPhone Banded Hare-wallaby

iPhone Banded Hare-wallaby

Boodie burrow

Boodie burrow

Western Barred Coot

Western Barred Coot

I was also amazed how small Western Barred Bandicoots were – seemingly not much bigger than a guinea pig and much smaller than our Eastern bandicoot species. These were probably the most wary of the five and would waddle off on approach. Banded Hare-wallaby were particularly numerous near the beach and pretty un-phased as we wandered past- I still had to pinch myself everytime – this was a huge bucketlist animal for me and one of my most wanted globally. I actually saw more Rufous Hare-wallabies during the day than at night but that was probably because I walked further into the flatter areas in the middle of the island. Finally my favourite of the big five was the Boodie or Burrowing Bettong – the little chubbers have so much character and would let out an indignant little squeak if you disturbed one but never went far. Probably my favourite sighting was a mama with a baby in the pouch – 2 sets of eyes staring back at me in the darkness. There were also plenty of geckos and some of the lads found some pythons but it was fur that took priority tonight. Most people went back to the boat but Rohan and I stayed out a while longer absorbing this great place. As I walked around I twice spotlit a long-eared bat perched on some bushes – probably Lesser based on range and there was a small Vespadelus type buzzing me on occasion. There was a sixth key mammal species to see here – Ashy-grey Mouse which also has a patchy distribution on the mainland in SW Australia. Rohan called me on the radio and said he had one – only issue is I had no idea where he was – eventually after huffing and puffing for 10 minutes or so I found him only for the mouse to have disappeared! We split up again and again the radio crackled – another one! Another 10 minutes (by now sweat was pouring from every pore) and I was there and got it. It was rather unconcerned going about its business including feeding. Nearby I found another one showing we may have stumbled on a loose colony or similar. Looking at the known terrestrial mammal list for the islands it seems we may have only missed Rakali! We eventually had a celebratory beer on the beach next to the camping fishermen before heading back to the boat.

Banded Hare-wallaby

Banded Hare-wallaby

Beautiful Boodie

Beautiful Boodie

Nice!

Nice!

Rufous Hare-wallaby

Rufous Hare-wallaby

Still buzzing at breakfast back on the boat as more dolphins cruised past. Unfortunately it was time to head north into deeper water. I was pretty knackered from last night’s escapades so crashed out in the cabin for a bit. Suddenly the shout of “CETACEANS!” came from the bow and I was up camera in hand. They were logging on the surface in the distance dead ahead dropping below the water every now and again with people calling them orcas, then dolphins, then blackfish. Eventually they disappeared for awhile before surfacing beside the boat – ORCAS!!! You could hear them breathing as they cruised unhurriedly along with Bernier Island in the background! Just when I thought Bernier couldn’t get any better. We had an amazing experience as we were able to watch them for perhaps 15 minutes – at one stage all 7-8 animals were swimming line abreast. My one previous sighting of orca was at significant distance off Portland – fair to say this cleansed that sighting. Images have since been sent off to experts and this is part of a known larger pod that specialises in hunting Humpback Whale calves in season with at least 6 of the individuals identified to name. Needless to say I was no longer tired that day….

ORCA!

ORCA!

Nice saddle

Nice saddle

Orcas with Bernier in background

Orcas with Bernier in background

More orcas

More orcas

Alas all good things have to come to an end with the Orca heading off around the northern tip of Bernier. As we headed north into deeper water we started to see our first sea snakes and more sea turtles as well as the now usual terns and wedgies. A Red-tailed Tropicbird provided some excitement as did a Streaked Shearwater and some Bottlenose Dolphins bow riding and carrying on. In the evening there was a Bulwer’s Petrel which would be new for me but I just didn’t get enough on it to tick. Then another one but again I wasn’t happy. I was a little stressed but then we had two at once fly right past the back of the boat showing all the necessary ID features and there were a couple of high fives! We kept watching til right on dusk and then went and had another awesome meal and rather too many celebratory whiskies.

Not behd, good soize

Not behd, good soize

A few drinks

A few drinks

Today was the final day at sea where we would visit Cloates and Cape Range Canyons and get into real deep water in the hope of some mega pelagic birds and beaked whales – one can always be hopeful. We spent most of the day on deck with some good birds but long periods of quiet. Highlights included many Bulwer’s Petrel, both Lesser and Greater Frigatebirds (the latter being a rarity off this coast), Red-tailed Tropicbird and Long-tailed Jaeger. Imagine being on a boat so stable you could use a spotting scope for much of the day. We berleyed up for a period of time with no luck but a couple of the boys hooked into some Dolphinfish which provided some excitement. Right on dusk a pod of Spinner Dolphins rounded out the day and boat trip nicely. A special call out must go to Nigel Jackett and George Swann who steadfastly logged every bird and other animal (except for flying fish) for the whole trip. Nigel alone shared over 50 eBird lists with others on the boat – legendary effort. That night a number of us stayed up rather late drinking whiskey and other beverages – been a good trip! It was very rock and roll as we came into Exmouth overnight – fair to say I may have wished for a drink or two less.

Just using a spotting scope on a boat as you do....

Just using a spotting scope on a boat as you do….

We were in Exmouth a day early as the itinerary had run that way so I organised a hire car. After a good coffee and bakery run Rohan and I went exploring the very cool Cape Range National Park with its deep gorges and rugged dry creek lines. It was very warm and quiet during the afternoon but we did waddle up a mountain to a cave where we found my first Common Sheathtails roosting. Later we checked out the sewage ponds for a reasonable range of species before checking into accommodation. That night we spotlit up on the range which was very quiet before heading down the hill which was much more exciting with perhaps 7 species of geckos seen as well as a Mulga Snake, some pythons and Spinifex Hopping-mice. As we crawled back into town late Rohan leaped from the car for a North-western Shovel-nosed Snake – a very cute little elapid – new and very cool!

Common Sheathtail

Common Sheathtail

Cape Range

Cape Range

Brachyurophis approximans

Brachyurophis approximans

Next morning I was up early and out to Mangrove Bay where I had two new bird targets – Mangrove Grey Fantail and Dusky Gerygone _ I had clearly done my homework well as I found at least half a dozen of each within 5 minutes of the carpark – two more lifers! It was a very birdie site with many waders on the mudflats. From here I trundled down to Yardie Creek where I was able to show some tourists the Black-flanked Rock-wallabies which were common. A couple of stops on the way back before hitting up the micro-brewery in town while I checked emails and looked at some photos. Exmouth if a very cool, laid back town with dingoes, emus and perenties in town just a normal part of life. Tim Faulkner gave me a call and invited me out for a night of chasing reptiles and other critters with Obie and Liz so after stocking up we were off. An excellent night with many critters seen including a pile of new geckos, some snakes and best of all a Stripe-faced Dunnart. Exact quote from Tim – “we are going to get Bawden a dunnart up here” and sure enough we did! Very cute and bitey. The rest of the crew were more excited by a jewelled gecko they had tried very hard to find previously just sitting in the road. Orange-naped Snake rounded out a cool night although my first blind snake was dead on the road just out of town. The sheer numbers of knob-tailed geckos seen across two nights was incredible. thanks for an awesome night out!

Black-flanked Rock-wallaby

Black-flanked Rock-wallaby

This is snek!

This is snek!

Giant gecko!

Giant gecko!

Orange-naped Snake

Orange-naped Snake

Unfortunately then it was back to Melbourne. This is just a snippet of what we got up to – left out many things – seriously one of the best trips I have done. 6 new birds, 11 new mammals and 20+ new reptiles and a whole pile of bucket list locations ticked off. Special thanks to George and Rohan for organising/guiding, the boat crew for doing an awesome job with us miscreants and to Tim, Liz, Scott, Brad, Ian, Arthur. Kathy, John, Stewart, John and Nigel for being excellent companions. Finally thanks to Lucas and Simone for letting me go and being very supportive. 11/10 would recommend this trip and would do again – the rashes, scratches and sunburn all forgotten!

Another iPhone hare-wallaby

Another iPhone hare-wallaby

One more Boodie for luck

One more Boodie for luck

Litoria spenceri – a frog expedition

Those of you who read my posts (this one is a few weeks late) would know I am a great supporter of the formation of a Great Forest Park in the Central Highlands around Melbourne. I have spent many nights out observing, recording and photographing some of the key species that make these forest home including Leadbeater’s Possum and Sooty Owl. One species that is considered a key endangered species found in the proposed area that I had not seen is the Spotted Tree Frog – Litoria spenceri. This endangered frog was never common and has declined and disappeared in many of its rocky mountain stream habitats due to a combination of Chytrid fungus, habitat degradation and potentially competition from introduced trout. A friend had suggested a few areas it was worth a try for this species so Scott Baker and I decided to go for a look. I think it is fair to say that I was unaware of just how much it had declined in other parts of its range ahead of this mini expedition. We picked up another friend Susan Myers and headed up to the Rubicon State Forest near Eildon for a bit of late afternoon birding and exploration.

Litoria spenceri - habitat

Litoria spenceri – habitat

Litoria spenceri - habitat

Litoria spenceri – habitat

It was a lovely area of state forest bordering Eildon National Park with a nice mixed understory and decent canopy. A baby Tiger Snake was a good distraction as we setup camp and feasted on a Ploughman’s dinner with a couple of beers. On dark we wandered up the road and almost immediately heard a Litoria spenceri calling from the creek below. These creeks are regularly fished by trout fishermen so it was relatively easy to get down to the river for a look. Very quickly we found a frog perched up on a rock in the stream which was found to be a Spotted Tree Frog! great success and only 10 minutes of looking. This frog jumped in the water and swam strongly away but soon after we found another which allowed a number of photos. Aware of the threat of Chytrid fungus we at no time handled or got close to the frogs photographing them in situ. We spent the next couple of hours wandering up and down some streams and rivers and found perhaps a half a dozen frogs and heard more.

Spotted Tree Frog - Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog – Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog - Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog – Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog - Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog – Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog - Litoria spenceri

Spotted Tree Frog – Litoria spenceri

These are beautiful little frogs with a very cool range of colours although were often hard to spot calling from thick vegetation. Further spotlighting away from the rivers produced a range of common forest bat species, three glider species (Yellow-bellied, Greater and Sugar) and several Boobook owls. We ended up clocking off relatively early for a spotlighting night after a few more beers and a chat. Up early the next morning we did a bit of birding – of interest we heard the frogs calling in a number places from the road during the day. A very successful expedition in 24 hours door to door. It was only after returning home I realised just how rare this frog now is but seems to be persisting quite well in this area which is close to roads and well visited by trout fishermen. Yet another reason to declare these forest a Great Forest Park #GFNP

Rubicon State Forest

Rubicon State Forest

A few recent sightings

Been a bit quiet on the posting front of late so thought I would put up a few recent sightings of note to try and get things moving again.

A couple of weeks ago I had a spare night so hit up Scott and we headed up the Hume looking for some furry critters and perhaps a frog or two. It has been raining heavily all day but the skies cleared as we arrived right on dusk in the Avenel district. We poked around a couple of farm dams before spotlighting along remnant roadside vegetation. This area has been largely cleared for farming but there are still mature trees along the roadside edges. Almost as soon as we started we spotlighting we found a Brush-tailed Phascogale – one of the main targets up here. It was down near the ground and ran up a small tree where it froze against the trunk and would not move allowing us some great photo opportunities.

Brush-tailed Phascogale

Brush-tailed Phascogale

Brush-tailed Phascogale

Brush-tailed Phascogale

Moving on we found another couple of Phascogale and then the second main target for the night with a lovely Squirrel Glider down low feeding on sap. These gliders are endangered in Victoria with arguably less in the state than Leadbeater’s Possum. This animal allowed some good views and a quick photo or two before scooting up the tree. Victorian Squirrel Gliders have an amazingly bushy tail and are very distinctive.

Squirrel Glider

Squirrel Glider

Across the rest of the evening we found a couple more Phascogale and another Squirrel Glider. As it had been raining there were many, many Banjo Frogs up and about but nothing more interesting. A final excellent sighting was a Phascogale hunting along branches, snuffling into nooks and crevices looking for insects. All in all a good night!

Brush-tailed Phascogale

Brush-tailed Phascogale

Last weekend I went down to Dandenong Valley Wetlands which is a bit of my local weekend patch – I got there for a walk and a bit of birdwatching. Saw over 60 species of birds with a highlight being a couple of Rufous Songlarks which were new for me for the site. It was a warm day so I saw a number of Lowland Copperheads, a couple of which gave some good photo opps as they went about their business. They were quite warm and a bit feisty when their tails were tweaked.

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

Lowland Copperhead

A close encounter with the Plains Wanderer

Over the past few years I have spent a number of nights waddling across the grasslands that comprise part of Terrick Terrick National Park with Scott Baker and others looking for Plains Wanderer and other threatened species of the area with little luck. At best it has been a good opportunity to have a few beers with mates and a bit of exercise – aside from a few button-quails and barn owls had rarely seen anything of note. The Plains Wanderer is a critically endangered bird that looks superficially like a quail but is more closely related to waders and is a monotypic member of its own family Pedionomidae. The Terricks for many years were considered a stronghold for the species but in recent years it has been largely absent. It seems to prefer a habitat just short of drought conditions with sparse rather than thick grass. A couple of months back I got a message from Owen Lishmund that he had found a Plains Wanderer in the Terricks but was unfortunately away so couldn’t race up – following that more people found more birds so was almost frothing at the bit when I finally got a chance to head up again with Scott Baker for a look.

We headed up late afternoon and of course dropped into Mitiamo Store for a couple of Jill’s famous steak sandwiches which I can highly recommend. Arriving at our chosen paddock a bit after dark we wolfed down the steak sandwich, cracked a can and headed out spotlighting. Within a few minutes I spotlit another member of the threatened community of the area – a Fat-tailed Dunnart. I have seen these in NSW, SA and the NT but was a first record in Victoria for me. These are little, savage members of the Dasyurid family that take a toll on local insects, arthropods and vertebrates. I really like how it stood up on hind legs like a little Quoll when checking me out before scampering down a hole. This was one of a dozen I saw for the night which was great considering I had seen a grand total of zero in previous nights up here – it seemed a good omen.

Fat-tailed Dunnart

Fat-tailed Dunnart

After only twenty minutes and a couple of flushed Pipits, I put up a bird. I immediately knew from its long trailing legs it was a Plains Wanderer! It took a few moments to locate as it was so well camouflaged but I did a little dance as I realised it was a lovely young male bird. We spent a couple of minutes photographing before leaving it alone – it was sitting so still and reliant on its disguise I think i could easily have picked it up. I was pretty stoked and what an amazing, unique and tiny little bird! We continued on in this and another paddock and despite finding more dunnarts and a large number of dunnarts that was the only PW for the night – we walked over 20km for the night. Since then I have heard that other surveys in the same area have found more birds so hopefully there is an increase in Victoria. With the Plains Wanderer out of the way I now need to go and find a Scrubbird – my last endemic family in Aus.

Plains Wanderer

Plains Wanderer

Plains Wanderer

Plains Wanderer

Plains Wanderer

Plains Wanderer

Scott and I eventually camped in the park and did a bit of birding and herping in the morning before having a bacon and egg roll at Jill’s in Mitiamo and heading home – a very successful night!

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!