It was getting to that time of year again – time for Rohan Clarke and I to head somewhere to see something amazing. This year I was to fly into Mackay and meet up with him after he had an excellent 3 week holiday with the family while they would fly back to Melbourne and we would drive the car home (while diverting to some interesting sites of course) We had joked last year that we should combine a trip for Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat and Bridled Nail-tailed Wallaby and through academic contacts of Rohan’s things had fallen into place. Permission had been granted to enter Epping Forest National Park to trial thermal camera gear as a survey method – this is the only place that the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat remains in the wild. In addition we also had permission to go to Taunton National Park – this is where the Bridled Nail-tailed Wallaby was “rediscovered” in 1973 when a fencing contractor reported seeing these tiny macropods when they had been considered extinct for 40 years. Around these two cornerstones and a few other targets we planned a trip back to Melbourne.
Despite a few delays in Brisbane I flew into Mackay and landed around 4:30 pm picking up a hire car for the evening – this was my first time back in Mackay since an epic family holiday back in 1982 – I am sure it hadn’t changed a bit! I was checking into my motel while a Red-whiskered Bulbul called outside – a Queensland plastic rarity which was somewhat amusing. Rohan had permission to spend his last night with the family spotlighting (thanks Kate) so we had a cunning plan to go look for Water Mouse (aka False Water Rat) at a site south of Mackay. Needless to say after several hours bashing through mangroves and surrounding grassy swamp areas we dipped. We did find a number of Melomys but were unsure of species. Birds were better with two species of nightjar and a Grass Owl on the way out.
I was up early and headed to the Botanic Garden for an excellent couple of hours of birding. It was great to catch up with birds I had not seen for a couple of years – things like Cotton Pygmy-geese, Jacanas and Yellow Honeyeaters showed I wasn’t in Melbourne anymore. Also of interest was a Platypus snuffling around which I was quite surprised to see here in the middle of town in a coastal location. I returned the car and met up with Rohan and after a quick supermarket shop for supplies we headed out towards Eungella. A Pacific Baza perched beside the road giving excellent views was a nice start – this is a species I had only seen a couple of times previously. I had two realistic bird targets for the trip with the first being White-browed Robin. We stopped at the first likely bit of habitat on the Pioneer River and after a bit of poking round we found a lovely couple of pairs of White-browed Robin in a strip of riparian vegetation between the river and the cane. After spending a bit of time with these it is clear it is my new second favourite robin – after Southern Scrub-robin of course.
From here is was up to the township of Eungella perched on the plateau of the Clarke Range west of Mackay. There is a bird around here called the Eungella Honeyeater which is probably the only Australian species formally described in my lifetime (1983) and restricted to a small area of upland rainforest and surrounds. This range restricted species can be difficult at times to connect with but Elliot Leach had given us his best spot which paid off as soon as we rolled down the hill the appropriate distance! While we made lunch we saw a number of Eungella Honeyeaters calling and returning too and from some flowering in some tall trees. Lifer number two of the trip and thankyou Elliot!! I would have loved to have stayed and explored but time was short and we rolled on to Broken River which must be the easiest place in Australia to see Platypus.
From here we spent some time in Crediton State Forest doing some birding and recce for spotlighting later in the evening. A highlight was the range restricted Peppered-belly broad-tailed gecko (quite a mouthful – but a lovely gecko) After a good meal we did some bat detecting down by a creek picking up Eastern Forest Bat and Little Bentwing Bat. Further up the road we spotlit a number of Central Greater Gliders (Lifer) as well as some very vocal Yellow-bellied Gliders and a Sooty Owl – a pretty good start to the evening! Back to Broken River and Rohan picked up a tiny thermal speck in the top of the canopy which after much contortion was found to be a Broad-toed Feather-tailed Glider (Lifer) which was pretty cool. We found it again as we walked back up the road which showed the thermal camera was probably not missing anything!
From here we moved out through drier areas towards Eungella Dam – during this drive we saw good numbers of Central Greater Glider in habitat that seems unusual including a couple of animals cavorting on the ground in a cow paddock!!! The trees were low and no Southern Greater Glider would be seen dead in such second class habitat! Also of interest were a couple of Rufous Bettong and Sugar Glider as well as a Boobook with an unidentifed Rat prey. When we reached the dam area we parked and went for a walk where we found several Squirrel Gliders in a flowering tree which were clearly larger and bulkier than the Sugar seen earlier. Jono Dashper had said this was a great site for Unadorned Rock-wallaby (Lifer) and so it proved with perhaps half a dozen seen including a mother and joey. They certainly lived up to the Unadorned name…..
Up early we birded around Eungella Dam seeing some nice wetland species as well as an interesting mix of dry and wetter country birds. At one stop we found an unfortunate Squirrel Glider deceased on a barbed wire fence – these must take a terrible toll in this glider rich area. We had vague info that the area towards Nebo was good for Spectacled Hare-wallaby so headed in that direction. A nice group of Squatter Pigeons was a highlight as it was the first time I have seen the southern subspecies. We spent the night spotlighting and thermal camera around Homevale National Park which was an interesting blend of dry woodland and escarpment country only about 20km as the crow flies from Eungella. Hearing Lewin’s and Scarlet Honeyeater calling in seemingly dry country was quite unusual. Highlights of the evening were three Rufous Bettong, a small pack of Dingo and several Barking Owl as well as Spotted Nightjar, Squirrel Glider and a good number of microbats around the camp.
Today was a big day – we were heading to Epping Forest National Park to hopefully see one of the most endangered species in Australia. On the way to Nebo we found recently harvested fields full of 100’s of Brolga and Bustard as well as large flocks of Red-winged Parrot which glowed in the morning sun. A bit further on we flushed a large flock of finches off the side of the road which proved to be Plum-headed Finches – a species I had only seen once previously. We stopped and it proved to be a great location with a conservative estimate of 500 Plum-heads as well as other nice species like Black and Black-chinned Honeyeater, Squatter Pigeon and Little Woodswallow. At Clermont we stopped for lunch and supplies before birding a bit at Hood’s Lagoon which was a nice stop. From here it was onto Epping Forest National Park where we were greeted by the current caretakers – Sandra and Charlotte. Epping Forest National Park was the last place in the world where Northern hairy-nosed wombat occurrs in the wild and was as low as 30 animals in the 1970s. Numbers have increased to more than 200 at Epping and there is a second introduced population but it is still very much endangered. Access to the park is restricted and Rohan had organised through academic contacts over a number of months. There is a fence around the park to keep dingos out and wombats in but it is not a true predator proof fence – cats and foxes would have no problem passing through and indeed we saw several cats and more prints during our visit. The speed limit in Epping is 20 km/h during the day and 5 km/h during the night and it never seems too slow.
The caretakers were amazing with their hospitality and insisted on cooking as dinner. We had a nice evening drive and were very privileged to see our first Northern hairy-nosed wombat sitting outside their burrow in the evening sun. The wombat bolted back into its hole but soon emerged to give us another view. We were stoked and returned for a celebratory drink and an excellent dinner. The caretakers at Epping are all volunteers and do an amazing job checking the fences, looking for signs of predators and protecting the park.
After dinner we headed out for a long night of using the thermal camera and spotlighting. There were many wallabies and kangaroos which were somewhat distracting but at least showed the thermal camera was working. The grass was high but the car-mounted thermal camera cut right through it which showed the value of it as a survey tool. A small signal proved to be a Spectacled Hare-wallaby which was a new very cool macropod for me. It allowed reasonably close views but was a bit skittish but I was happy to get some distant photos. A bit later on we were able to get extremely close to another Hare-wallaby which decided that hunkering down in some grass was good camouflage even when we wandered up right next to it – no wonder they get smashed by foxes in range. It took a while but eventually we picked up a wombat in the thermal and then I was shocked to see one waddle across the middle of the screen not five meters from the car! They were very skittish though and not tolerant of white light at all. Red light was somewhat better but they would still bolt to a hole if they heard or smelt us (several days without a shower and I was probably quite stinky) It was an amazing night – probably saw eight wombats (including a couple thermal only) and at least that many hare-wallabies as well as plenty of other critters and a few night birds.
In the morning we birded a bit and checked out some impressive wombat burrows before we had to head off. A young Black-breasted Buzzard took a bit too much thinking to work out but I blame to lack of sleep. I think it is fair to say we were both somewhat in awe of the experience and very privileged. I did accidentally leave my boots in Epping but I think that was a fair price to pay for such an amazing experience!!