Ghosts of Pelagics past

It has been a long time since I have posted anything. Pretty fair to say I have struggled a bit – first with lockdowns and then a real post Covid funk that has made it somewhat difficult to get motivated. Couple that with a busy work and family life and maintaining a blog has probably fallen well down the priority list. But the time has come – I am back baby! I thought I would ease back in with some of the amazing birds (and blubber) I have seen on pelagics over the past year or so. Despite lockdowns I have managed to get out on a few and have been lucky enough to see some good things.

Cape Petrel

Cape Petrel

We will start back in May last year (2021) where in between lockdowns I was lucky to get down to Eaglehawk Neck for another double header pelagic weekend. We had a good crew together so after a bit of spotlighting and a couple of beers the night before we headed to sea with high expectations. Day one was a really good day at sea with plenty of Pterodromas – White-headed, Soft-plumaged and Providence. There was also a good array of great albatross with both Royals, Snowy and both NZ Wanderers seen which is always nice to pick through. Probably the highlight of the day was a lovely Westland Petrel seen well by all – a few years ago was considered a mega off Australia but does seem a regular off this port in May now.

Westland Petrel

Westland Petrel

Southern Royal Albatross

Southern Royal Albatross

We backed up again the next morning and the omens were good! Beasts had been consumed, beers swilled and a Masked Owl seen while spotlighting the night before. Today was to be very different to the day before and oh so much better, with a distinct cold water tone. Again plenty of great albatross and similar Pterodromas to the day before. Things changed quickly though with Grey Petrels, a couple of Sooty Albatross then a Light-mantled Albatross providing epic views for all on the boat. We were not done with the great birds either with Black-bellied Storm-petrel and more Westland Petrels providing excitement. One of those weekends where I had no new birds but was absolutely epic!

Grey Petrel

Grey Petrel

Light-mantled and friend

Light-mantled and friend

Sooty Albatross

Sooty Albatross

In June and December I was fortunate to get out on boats in East Gippsland to visit the Bass Canyon which is a bit of a new frontier for seabirding in the state. On the first trip we saw good numbers of Providence Petrel which had previously been basically unknown for Victoria. On the next trips we saw good numbers of Bullers Shearwater which again was previously considered very rare in the state. I think in the right time of year both will be shown to be regular in the Bass Canyon. While there were never the numbers of birds as an EHN or Portland pelagic there was still plenty of other variety and potential – things like Cook’s and White-headed Petrel and great albatross.

Providence Petrel

Providence Petrel

Buller's Shearwater

Buller’s Shearwater

Cook's Petrel

Cook’s Petrel

Rolling into the new year and February I was back down at Eaglehawk Neck for probably one of the greatest pelagic weekends of my life (and it will be hard to beat) On the Friday night we had a few beers and rolled out to find a couple of Pygmy-possums – all very respectable and I was quite fresh as we got on the boat the next morning. We had a really good day with plenty of great albatross and the usual suspects including a very high number of 35 Buller’s Shearwaters. But the highlight was surely the numbers of Pterodroma’s – 16 Mottled Petrel, 38 Cook’s Petrel and 57! Gould’s Petrel all heading North to South made for an excellent day.

Gould's Petrel

Gould’s Petrel

White-headed Petrel

White-headed Petrel

Back on the boat on the Sunday we felt that all the proper rituals had been followed but we had no idea how well it was going to pay off. The conditions were extremely benign as we set out with little swell or wind and a fair bit of fog around. Inshore we had a large whale surface a couple of times beside the boat – good views and photos obtained which showed it to be a Sei Whale! A new mammal for me and many on the boat. Early on at the shelf we had a “young” brown Wandering type albatross come towards the boat and a few of us joked we should check if its an Amsterdam…. I took a few shots as it came in and checked the back of the camera…. it had a cutting edge! I quietly mentioned this but did not get as excited as I should have as quite honestly the brain was still trying to process. Eventually everyone got very excited as we realised we probably had an Amsterdam Albatross – a near mythical type of “Wandering” albatross that has perhaps 150 individuals left in the world and only breeds on Amsterdam Island in the southern Indian Ocean. It made a few more passes and many photos were taken. It is perhaps the 3rd or 4th Australian record and everyone was a bit shellshocked!

Amsterdam Albatross

Amsterdam Albatross

Amsterdam Albatross

Amsterdam Albatross

Amsterdam Albatross

Amsterdam Albatross

Sei Whale

Sei Whale

Things started to hot up after this with many petrels passing through with 27 Cook’s, 25 Gould’s and an extraordinary 121 Mottled Petrels seen for the day! There were again many other great albatross seen but despite scanning the Amsterdam never returned. Later in the day Isaac called out an interesting Storm-petrel which turned out to be a New Zealand Storm-petrel – another mega sighting of a species that was thought extinct until 2003. The bird gave several passes which allowed a few shots to confirm ID – perhaps the 4th or 5th Aussie record. As we cruised back into port in very benign conditions Mottled Petrels continued to stream past in great numbers. Just to round off one of the best pelagic days ever we had a distant South Polar Skua chasing terns as we passed the Hippolytes!

Mottled Petrel

Mottled Petrel

New Zealand Storm-petrel

New Zealand Storm-petrel

Into April I crossed the border into the strange land of South Australia for a pelagic out of Port Mac. It was good to catch up with Dave and Sue Harper and I really like the boat – a big couch, good viewing deck and a barbeque for lunch! What is there not to like? We had a really good pleasant day at sea with Humpbacks on the way out and many hungry birds feeding close to the boat. For me the highlight was four Northern Royal Albatross – a species I haven’t seen that often just over the border in Victoria. Looking forward to getting out again in the future – if they will have me!

Northern Royal Albatross

Northern Royal Albatross

Just a taster of what has been seen over the last year or so at sea. More trips coming up soon and I reckon I am in a good place to share. Thanks to Sim and Lucas for letting me get out there and people like Rohan and Dave for organising boats!

New Zealand Storm-petrel

New Zealand Storm-petrel

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

Aprasia action

Last week I jumped away for a couple of nights with Owen Lishmund and Dan Ashdown up to the North-west of Victoria to search for the breeding Ground Cuckoo-shrike and a number of reptile species, in particular the very range restricted in Victoria – De Vis’s Banded Snake (or Mud Adder as I like to call it) We headed off at a respectable hour stopping off at Mount Korong for the fossorial skink Hemiergis decresiensis or Western Three-toed Skink at a site Dan knew and he quickly found one. A new reptile but one that is hard to be too excited about. After a lunch stop at the over-hyped bakery at Wycheproof we hit up Lake Tyrell looking for dragons without much success. Its amazing the development that has been done here for the tourists that come for the salt lake experience – I think I preferred the old rutted tracks and isolation to be honest.

Hemiergis decresiensis

Hemiergis decresiensis

From there we went into the Northern part of Wyperfeld to look for the recently nesting Ground Cuckoo-shrikes – these are normally an extremely rare visitor to Victoria and an even rarer breeder. They were first reported during lockdown in Melbourne which was painful but had stuck around to raise two broods so were still here. We started by seeing two distant adults but then had no fewer than seven birds very close as both broods now mobile and seemingly reasonably curious – very different to how I have seen them elsewhere! This was a new Victorian bird for me and I was a little bit excited! We didn’t want to bother them too much so took a couple of happy snaps in the harsh light of day then left. This was my closest and longest view of the species despite having seen now in every mainland state and the NT previously.

Ground Cuckoo-shrike

Ground Cuckoo-shrike

Ground Cuckoo-shrike

Ground Cuckoo-shrike

Near the edge of Wyperfeld we poked around a couple of bush blocks where Dan again turned up the goods with an Aprasia under a log atop an ant’s nest. Aprasia are small, worm-like members of the Pygopodidae (Legless Lizard) family that feed on and live amongst ant colonies – this one was about the size and thickness of a HB pencil (if that). Owen and Dan were immediately very excited – firstly because we had found an Aprasia which are rarely seen and secondly because if was the rare and range restricted Aprasia aurita or Mallee Worm-lizard which is only known from a handful of locations in Victoria and one in South Australia. Based on atlas records it does look like we found a new site. Only 18 months ago I had never seen a Legless Lizard of any description and now I have seven species under the belt.

Aprasia aurita

Aprasia aurita

Aprasia aurita

Aprasia aurita

We were on a bit of a high as we left towards Mildura but unfortunately I had to euthanize a badly injured Eastern Brown Snake on the road which dampened everything. We picked up supplies (and beer) in Mildura before heading out NW towards a billabong where we were going to search for the snake this evening. De Vis’s Snake was only found in Victoria in the last 20 years and is restricted to the very NW part of the state where it nocturnally hunts frogs. After a good steak and a couple of beers we headed out quickly picking up a couple of gecko species which seemed promising. But an ill cool wind blew up and we searched for many hours without result before retiring to bed. There were a few frogs around but things seemed to go very quiet after an hour or so as the temperature dropped away. We were a bit late rolling out bed as we cruised around on a relaxing day. Starting with a morning coffee and bacon at Cullulleraine we did finally see some live Eastern Brown Snakes and then Eulamprus quoyii or Eastern Water Skink which again only just creeps into Victoria here – this is a big unit and significantly larger than its southern cousins. After poking around along the Murray we went south into Murray-Sunset which was quiet in the heat of the day.

Back at the billabong the evening temperature was significantly higher and as dark fell and we ventured out we felt much more positive with at least 5 bats on detector, geckos up and about and insects teaming. Down around the billabong there were many, many frogs up and about so we thought for sure there must be predators about. But after a number of hours of searching we had to give up again. back at camp we had a couple more beers to commiserate before planning the next visit. Unfortunately the next morning we had to get up and head for home – stopping to bird in a few likely spots on the way home. Mud Adder is now in the same pot as Long-footed Potoroo – time to go try for again ASAP. Still with the Aprasia and Ground Cuckoo-shrike this was a very successful trip and looking forward to heading out with Dan and Owen again soon.

Lymnodynastes fletcheri

Lymnodynastes fletcheri

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

A bucket of bucketlists – Perth to Exmouth – part 1

A couple of years ago Rohan mentioned that George Swann of Kimberley Birdwatching was looking to organise a trip that would involve a visit to Bernier or Dorre Islands that I knew I had to get onboard. These islands are known as one of the last remaining homes and only realistic chance to see up to 5 rare mammals that were once common across much of the mainland before foxes and cats decimated them. Of particular interest to me was the Banded Hare-wallaby which appears to be the last remaining member of an ancient sub-family of macropods and something I had read about as a kid. This species may have persisted on the mainland until the 1960s but Bernier and Dorre are its last wild populations although has now been re-introduced to a number of secure fenced/island locations. When the trip finally came about from Perth to Exmouth via the Abrolhos, deep water canyons and a visit to Bernier Island I booked immediately!

Quokka - Rottnest Island

Quokka – Rottnest Island

I flew into Perth late on a Saturday and took a taxi to my Air BnB in Fremantle – having the obligatory plate of prawns and a few beers. The next morning I was up early and on the first ferry to Rotto as I had never seen a Quokka. On the ferry ride over there was a lovely Bridled Tern flying beside the boat – lifer number one for the trip! On Rotto I immediately saw Quokka upon leaving the wharf area and there were many around the settlement. It was hard to get a picture of these food pigs without a man-made feature in the background. I had plenty of water and sunscreen so decided to hoof it and go for a long walk. The salt lakes were excellent with many birds including large numbers of Banded Stilt and Fairy Tern as well as a few Sanderling – a scope would be handy for the next visit. I was rather upset when a car spooked a flock of Banded Stilt and one clipped a powerline and cartwheeled to the ground dead. There is no reason for these rickety powerlines above ground in such a critical wetland habitat. There were a good number of reptiles out as the day warmed up with King’s Skink being prominent. Encountered many Quokka’s while I walked but they were mostly very skittish – very different to the ones around the settlement. On the south coast I spent a bit of time seawatching with many shearwaters and more Bridled Terns seen. That night I caught up with Rohan for a couple of beers and dinner ahead of the trip.

Ex Banded Stilt

Ex Banded Stilt

Ctenotus fallens

Ctenotus fallens

Up early I walked down to the wharf spreading jocks and socks across Fremantle as my duffle bag had split. It was a good crew of people assembled for the trip who I either knew or knew by reputation. Eventually the boat arrived – the very lovely MV Diversity II – Diversity Charters and we loaded up and set sail. It was an excellent boat with many creature comforts and my cabin mate was the legend Nigel Jackett. Passing Rotto we saw good numbers of Bridled Tern and Shearwaters and as we headed into deeper water the first Noddys of the trip. As we headed into deeper water Great-winged Petrel became more prominent as well as a couple of Grey-faced Petrel which is a good record off this coast. The absolute highlight was a pod of Striped Dolphin which cavorted and bow rode for a bit and was a lifer for many onboard. Later in the evening there was a pod of pilot whales but they were not close enough for ID being in the transition zone between Short-finned and Long-finned. First night on-board I was a bit knackered and retired early.

The next morning we were again all up on the foredeck seeing some good seabirds including our first Lesser Noddies – another lifer and one of the key species for the trip. More Striped Dolphins were cool and a small flock of Roseate Terns flew by which would have been a lifer for me but was not quite tickable – I did not have to worry. We cruised into the southern islands of the Abrolhos group starting at Pelsaert Island – a key seabird nesting site. I had read a lot about this island group over the years but never thought I would be able to visit yet here we were! We went ashore on Pelsaert Island in the afternoon with many highlights including large numbers of nesting Common Noddy and the local subspecies of Pacific Gull. Plenty of Osprey and Sea-eagles, reptiles and other seabirds rounded out the list. Killer views of Roseate Tern sorted that out – another lifer. A number of Australian Sea-lions played in the shallows which seemed out of place in such a warm environment. That night WA boys counted some 51,200 Lesser Noddies coming into land – it was a steady impressive stream. The rest of us had a few drinks and talked some shit.

Common Noddy

Common Noddy

Pacific Gull

Pacific Gull

Roseate Tern

Roseate Tern

Australian Sea-lion

Australian Sea-lion

Next morning we were up early and tendered across further down Pelsaert Island to where the Lesser Noddies nest. They were extremely approachable and are now on my tickled list. Also of interest were Spotless Crakes, waders and many more terns. I really enjoyed just wandering beside these seabird colonies full of noise, smells, life and death. Sea-eagles were a constant presence on these islands and must do very well.

Lesser Noddy

Lesser Noddy

iPhone Lesser Noddies

iPhone Lesser Noddies

From here we cruised north to the next cluster of islands and went ashore at Wooded Island where we wandered around with lighting flashing overhead. Good numbers of terns were a highlight and again that night the boys counted some 39000 Lesser Noddies coming into roost. A bull Sea-lion trying to seduce a female was also of interest. There are very few passerines on these islands with Silveryes, Welcome Swallows and the odd Pipit being about it – not even a stray Singing Honeyeater makes it out here. While we were out the crew caught some squid which was expertly prepared by the chef Danny and was excellent! as were all his meals.

MV Diversity II

MV Diversity II

Give us a kiss

Give us a kiss

Yum!

Yum!

The next morning we headed to the northernmost group of islands in the Abrolhos which are the scene of one of the more gruesome parts of Australian history where the Dutch ship Batavia ran aground back in the 1600s and some of the survivors went on a murderous rampage against the rest of the ships people. We went ashore first at West Wallabi Island and immediately started finding reptiles EVERYWHERE! Every rock and log seemed to have geckos or spiny-tailed lizards and curled up in the rain were carpet pythons at regular intervals. Also everywhere were Tammar Wallabies for which the island is named – a very attractive mid sized wallaby which I had seen previously in SA and WA. The real prize here though was the local “subspecies” of Painted Button-quail – apparently one of the five most likely bird taxon in Australia to go extinct. Good news is we had no issues finding them – there were certainly platelets everywhere. Despite the rain it was an excellent morning exploring and the amount of vertebrate wildlife was impressive. We also got to see Wiebbe Hayes’s fort where he and his men held off Cornelious’s musket wielding murderer’s with sticks and stones. It seems unlikely that this is the original structure.

Painted Button-quail on the move

Painted Button-quail on the move

The fort!

The fort!

Beautiful Carpet Python

Beautiful Carpet Python

After a good feed we went to East Wallabi Island where again there were plenty of Tammar Wallabies and a few Painted Button-quail. Reptiles were again excellent. Amazingly there was full mobile reception on top of the hill so I was able to call home and update the family. It would have been good to spend more time here but its fair to say the Abrolhos definitely were ticked off the bucket list.

Pogona minor

Pogona minor

Tammar Wallaby

Tammar Wallaby

Lerista praepedita

Lerista praepedita

Overnight we headed north into deep water and on towards the ultimate goal of the trip Bernier Island – but that will have to wait for the next installment.

Bridled Tern

Bridled Tern

Sooty Tern Juv

Sooty Tern Juv

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