Acid trip on Moreton Island 

I am crouching on the edge of a freshwater swamp somewhere in the middle of Moreton Island.

 Wallum Sedge Frog

A Wallum Sedge Frog ( Litoria olongburensis ), only about 3cm long, hides in sedges of an ‘acid’ lake. Its quavering call has been described as ‘somewhat reminiscent of an accelerating motorcycle’. All photographs by R. Ashdown. Click on images for a closer look.

It’s a hot summer evening without a cloud in the sky, but I’m wearing a raincoat and sweating. Peering into a wall of grey sedges, camera in hand, I try to spot a tiny frog. The Wallum Sedge Frogs I seek are not helping me. One calls every now and then, with a sound like a distant accelerating motorcycle, but when I turn in that direction another starts up from somewhere else, confusing me completely. These tiny frogs are perfectly camouflaged and cling to sedges. They’re not the only thing hanging out on the sedges, hence the skin-covering raincoat. Nests of paper wasps abound and I’ve been stung several times on previous attempts to see a frog.

Grey sedges in the acidic waters of a freshwater lake on Moreton Island.

Grey sedges in the acidic waters of a freshwater lake on Moreton Island.

Fellow naturalist and photographer Eric Vanderduys and I had been on a long bushwalk through the centre of the island, exploring this colourful coastal habitat. It was 1998 — in the pre-digital era — where every roll of exposed film held miserable failures and exciting successes, all to be revealed only after an interminable wait for slides to be developed and returned. Like many other naturalists I struggled with primitive flash systems and expensive slide film, all the while becoming ever-more addicted to capturing images of the ‘small world’.

 The late afternoon reflections of paperbark trees in an ephemeral sedge swamp, Moreton Island.

The late afternoon reflections of paperbark trees in an ephemeral sedge swamp, Moreton Island.

A photographic subject we sought on our Moreton Island walk was the ‘acid’ or ‘wallum’ frogs. The term ‘acid’ was applied to a small group of frogs in 1975 by Glen Ingram and Chris Corben (researchers, taxonomists and serious frog legends) in a paper discussing the frogs of North Stradbroke Island.

These frogs, and their tadpoles, thrive in the acidic waters of eastern Australia’s coastal wallum swamps and wet heathlands. The undisturbed swamps and lakes of Moreton and Stradbroke islands are perfect places for ‘acid’ frogs. This is a singular group of amphibians, in a land where our 230 or so species of frogs — such seemingly fragile creatures — reveal all manner of surprising adaptations to the various habitats of our dry continent.

Litoria freycineti, Moreton Island.

In 1838, the vulnerable Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti) was the first frog to be described the genus Litoria, which means ‘beach frog’ in reference to this frog’s coastal distribution. Moreton Island.

 Moreton Island

The acidic waters of a Moreton Island lake are stained brown with tannin from decomposing vegetation.

There are four frogs in the ‘acid’ group — the Wallum Sedge Frog (Litoria olongburensis), the Cooloola Sedge Frog (Litoria cooloolensis), the Wallum Froglet (Crinea tinnula) and the Wallum Rocket Frog (Litoria freycineti).

These little survivors have a lot on their plates. Their preferred habitats are threatened, being cleared or fragmented for residential development. Changes to the hydrology of the ephemeral wetlands found in these coastal ecosystems are caused by groundwater extraction and canal development. Introduced fish, such as Mosquito Fish (Gambusia sp.) feed on frog eggs and tadpoles. As if all this was not enough, the spectre of climate change and its yet-to-be-known effects looms large — a threat I’d not imagined all those years ago while stalking the Wallum Sedge Frog on Moreton Island.

Eighteen Mile Swamp,  Stradbroke Island.

The Eighteen Mile Swamp on Stradbroke Island is perfect habitat for ‘acid’ frogs.

Luckily, some insight is being gained into the lives of acid frogs by researchers from Griffith University, including Dr Katrin Lowe. Dr Lowe has been studying the complex relationships between climate, hydrology and water chemistry and their effects on the Wallum Sedge Frog. Studies on how these frogs respond to environmental conditions, and how they are able to time reproduction in terms of temperature and rainfall, may shed some light on how acid frogs will respond to long term changes in wetlands.

Research by Dr Lowe and her colleagues has also helped inform management of our protected estate, principally national parks, so important for the future of threatened species such as acid frogs. Fires are common in national parks, and the way fire is managed affects the fauna and flora protected within these areas.

Cooloola Sedge Frogs

The rare and threatened Cooloola Sedge Frog is found in coastal melaleuca woodlands, perched lakes and wallum swamps in southern Queensland.

 Cooloola Sedge Frog (<i>Litoria cooloolensis</i>)

Cooloola Sedge Frog (Litoria cooloolensis)

The Griffith University researchers believe that acid frogs are resilient and highly adaptable. They can survive fires by sheltering quickly within the wetter, cooler parts of their habitat, and can breed in fire-altered environments. However, the researchers caution that the long-term resilience of these frogs depends on how wet things are. If it’s drier and hotter they have less chance of surviving fires. Hazard reduction burns are therefore best conducted in these habitats during cooler, wetter periods, when the frogs have a better chance of survival and population recovery.

How will these frogs cope, however, with a drier and hotter climate, when more fires could put entire populations at risk? Long-term monitoring by researchers is important in understanding what is happening with such little-understood species.

Crinea tinnula.

The tiny (<2cm) ground-dwelling Wallum Froglet (Crinea tinnula) is variable in appearance. It is one of six species of the genus Crinea found in Queensland.

Frogs continue to capture my imagination. Armed with more sophisticated (but still temperamental) digital camera gear, I still enjoy messing about in the dark with dodgy flashes and a macro lens. Sometimes I’m talked into photographing far trickier subjects, such as people. While photographing the wedding of two ranger friends recently, the groom’s father remarked that I must enjoy photographing people. “No”, I replied, “frogs, snakes and lizards are my preferred subjects.” I think he feared for the outcome of the wedding album.

And as for my companion on that bushwalk long ago? Eric now works for CSIRO, and in 2012 published his Field Guide to the Frogs of Queensland. I think one of his photographs from our Moreton Island walk, that of a Wallum Rocket Frog, ended up within. Each of Eric’s beautiful images of Queensland’s diverse frogs has a story behind it. I understand a little of the theme that runs throughout the book’s images — that of countless hours spent struggling with head-torches, cameras and flash units in dark, difficult conditions in pursuit of a couple of photographs of ridiculously elusive subjects, complete experts at not being seen, let alone photographed. However, the memories of the search and times spent in such beautiful locations mean that any minor hardships, and wasp stings, are soon forgotten. And,  what could be more rewarding than eventually sharing the results of such endeavours with others in a book, or a blog post?

R. Ashdown and E. Vanderduys, Moreton Island

Frogologists Eric Vanderduys (left) and Robert Ashdown lost on Moreton Island in search of acid frogs, 1998. (Note compass and map – GPS? What’s a GPS?).

Originally written for the Summer 2014 edition of Wildlife Queensland News.

Bottletrees at Highwoods

The Queensland Bottletree, also known as the Narrow-leaf Bottletree or Kurrajong, is a fascinating plant. I’ve admired them deep within the shaded interior of remnant dry vine scrub, standing alone in cleared farmland like ancient sentinels, and lining the streets of Brisbane and Roma.

They are an intriguing tree to a photographer, as their furrowed bark seems to soak up the light and their bright foliage stands out among the drab greens of central Queensland. These images were taken at a friend’s property, Highwoods, on the Darling Downs.

Queensland Bottletree (Brachychiton rupestris). Highview, Darling Downs.

Queensland Bottletrees (Brachychiton rupestris). Highwoods, Darling Downs. This species is found from central Queensland down to northern New South Wales. This is a hardy tree, which tolerates a wide variety of climates and soil types. Queensland Bottletrees have been cultivated in southern Australia for many decades and can be seen as an ornamental plant around the world.

HighView. Martin Ambrose with Rod Hobson and Rob Ashdown. 13_06_2014.

HighView. .

 

Thanks to Martin for the chance to spend some time at Highwoods.

Previous posts on Bottletrees:

Moon Rise, Lake Broadwater

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater is the only large, naturally-occurring freshwater lake on the Darling Downs.

Situated within one of the most intensively cultivated agricultural districts in Queensland, the lake is only about three to four metres deep when full. The lake is a focal point of the 1,212 ha Lake Broadwater Regional Park, an important refuge for wildlife and a much-loved recreational area for locals.

I visited the lake in March this year to see if I could capture some images of the full moon rise. Arriving with time to spare, I wandered the edge of the lake, where ancient Blue Gums (Eucalyptus tereticornis) stand, and absorbed the slow, quiet change of the light as the day drew to a close. As the sun’s light faded, the full moon’s eerie glow soon flooded the scene.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

Lake Broadwater Conservation Park, full-moon rise.

This post is dedicated to the Lake Broadwater Natural History Association.

More information on Lake Broadwater Regional Park

Mulga snakes

This post features some terrific images of Mulga Snakes from western Queensland, all taken by Lindsay Muller.

Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis). All photos by Lindsay Muller.

An intense and wary gaze — Mulga Snake on the move. Photo by Lindsay Muller.

The Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis) is one of seven species of snake in the genus Pseudechis, widely known as the ‘black snakes’. This is an odd name for the group, as just one species is always black.

Spot the Mulga Snake?

Spot the snake? A Mulga Snake, also known as a King Brown, hides beneath the ashes of a recent fire. Photo Lindsay Muller.

The snake emerges from the ashes of a recent fire. Photo Lindsay Muller.

A blur of sudden colour — snake on the move to safer places. Photo Lindsay Muller.

 “The Mulga Snake (Pseudechis australis), also known as the King Brown Snake, is poorly named, as the Mulga (Acacia aneura) forms only part of its vast distribution and individuals are not always brown. This extremely variable snake, ranging from yellowish brown or reddish brown to dark olive, has a reticulated pattern formed by dark-edged scales. It is the largest and most widespread species within the group, occurring across most of mainland Australia except the more humid eastern and southern regions.

A large Mulga Snake putting on a defensive display is an impressive sight. While it is fairly placid and disinclined to bite, if it does so it chews while biting, injecting the greatest venom yield for any Australian snake.”    

—  Gerry Swan and Steve Wilson, What Snake Is That?

I have unfortunately never seen a live Mulga Snake, just haven’t been out west enough I guess. Here’s the closest I’ve come to one — a shed skin on a rock outcrop on the Hood Range in western Queensland. A magic place, made all the more so by the presence of such marvellous reptiles.

Mulga Snake Skin, western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

A shed Mulga Snake skin, western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Another member of the Black Snake family, the more appropriately-named Red-bellied Black Snake (Pseudechis porphyriacus), is surely one of Australia’s most beautifully-coloured animals. It’s my favourite Australian critter (well, after my dog, but she’s not native and she’s not wildlife by any stretch).

After the fire has passed - Red-bellied Black Snake, Lota, Brisbane. Photo R. Ashdown.

Red-bellied Black Snake, Lota, Brisbane. Like Lindsay, I photographed this particular snake after a fire had passed through some bushland. Photo R. Ashdown.

The mistletoe — as Australian as the gum tree

 

Mention mistletoe to most Australians and they seem to think only of the Christmas tradition of kissing under one — that is, under a northern-hemisphere plant (which they have probably never seen). Meanwhile, Australia has at least 90 native species of mistletoe, probably none of which have ever been kissed under in December.

Yelarbon State Forest

Mistletoe flowers, seen here in a eucalypt at Yelarbon State Forest, are a colourful feature of Australian woodlands. Photo Robert Ashdown.

I’ve always found Australian mistletoes colourful and interesting plants, despite the reputation they seem to have as a pest and parasite. Is this reputation deserved? This blog post presents a perspective on these plants by natural historian Rod Hobson, with some notes on recent research by Dr David Watson and images by guest photographers Mike Peisley and Craig Eddie.

Under the Mistletoe — Rod Hobson

This may come as a surprise to many but contrary to popular belief mistletoes are not parasites. Botanists regard mistletoes as ‘hemi-parasites’, that is ‘half-way parasites’. Biologically, a parasite is an organism living in or on another organism (its host) from which the parasite obtains its food. Mistletoes don’t take anything from their host other than sap water and any minerals therein. They have green leaves therefore they have chlorophyll, which means that they are fully photosynthetic and process all their own food. During long droughts mistletoes suffer severely, as they don’t have any of the various means to conserve water that their hosts might possess. This is especially so if the survival strategy of the host includes restricting water flow to its outer branches. This process thus ‘starves’ the mistletoe of this essential commodity and the mistletoe may eventually succumb to this tactic.

The orange of mistletoe stands out against the green of eucalypts at Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

The orange of mistletoe stands out against the green of eucalypts at Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Harlequin Mistletoe

Harlequin Mistletoe (Lysiana exocarpitenuis). Mistletoes not only provide food for many native animals, birds and insects but are also a source of shelter and nesting sites for many species. Several types of honeyeater including wattlebirds and friarbirds have been recorded nesting in mistletoe clumps. There is even a record of the secretive Grey Goshawk (Accipiter novaehollandiae) nesting in mistletoe. Many birds such as the mistletoebird, cuckoo-shrikes, ravens and crows, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, even cassowaries and emus have been observed eating mistletoe. Photo Craig Eddie.

Another popular belief is that mistletoes kill trees. This is not so, as it would take a great many mistletoes to kill a tree and many large trees can be seen doing quite well despite their heavy load of mistletoes. A large number of mistletoes on a tree could well contribute to its decline if the tree was under stress from other factors such as adverse climatic conditions, disease or heavy insect attack. The outer parts of a mistletoe-infected branch will often die though, as upon germination the mistletoe’s anchor (haustorium) enters the water-carrying section (xylem) of its host. Eventually the haustorium may totally block the xylem thereby ‘starving’ the branch’s extremities of water and causing their deaths.

Amylotheca dictyophleba

Many Australian mistletoes are specific to one or a few host plants. The mistletoe Amylotheca dictyophleba (pictured), however, is found on several native rainforest and mixed forest trees. It has also been recorded on introduced trees such as weeping willow, black mulberry, pepperina, camphor laurel, London plane and Liquid amber. Photo Robert Ashdown.

The small and brightly-coloured Mistletoebird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum) is often blamed for spreading mistletoes. It is not the sole culprit however, as over 40 species of Australian birds (especially honeyeaters) are known to eat the mistletoe fruit. Other animals, including the dainty little Feathertail Glider are also very fond of mistletoe.

Mistletoe Bird

Mistletoe mate. The Mistletoe Bird (Dicaeum hirundinaceum), sometimes known as the Mistletoe Flowerpecker. Once I got to know the quiet call of these small but striking birds I was surprised to find them just about everywhere, from my street in the suburbs to the arid mulga-lands of western Queensland. Photo by Mike Peisley.

A Mistletoe Bird swallowing a Mistletoe fruit. Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane. Photo Mike Peisley.

A Mistletoe Bird swallowing a Mistletoe fruit. Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane.  The lives of these birds are inextricably linked with mistletoe. This is the only Australian member of a widespread tropical family of flowerpeckers which feed almost exclusively on the fruits of mistletoes. The seed and its glucose-rich flesh are squeezed within the bill and swallowed. Within 25 to 60 minutes of being swallowed, the seeds are defecated, and are viscid, sticking to almost any surface. Almost all seeds germinate and if they have ended up on a  compatible plant , a new mistletoe plant may establish itself. Photo Mike Peisley.

A female Mistletoe Bird with fruit. The digestive systems of the Mistletoe Bird are adapted to this specialised diet - their stomach has become a simple sac able to digest little else other than a few insects and the alimentary canal facilitates the quick passage of seeds. Photo Mike Peisley.

A female Mistletoe Bird with fruit. The digestive systems of the Mistletoe Bird are adapted to this specialised diet  their stomach has become a simple sac able to digest little else other than a few insects and the alimentary canal facilitates the quick passage of seeds. Photo Mike Peisley.

Mistleltoe bird

Mistletoe bird excreting seed. The germination inhibitor for mistletoe seeds is carbon dioxide within the fleshy fruit that surrounds the seed. Once this is removed the seed can germinate quickly. Photo Mike Peisley.

Germinating mistletoe seeds, Waaje State Forest. Photo R. Ashdown.

Germinating mistletoe seeds, Barakula State Forest. The fused cotyledons make an attachment by their tip, which eventually enter’s the host plant’s vascular system. Photo R. Ashdown.

Australian mistletoes have an ancient Gondwanaland lineage with closely related species found throughout the southern continents, as mistletoe expert Dr Gillian Scott points out in her excellent A Guide to the Mistletoes of Southeastern Australia. Dr Scott, quoting the Australian ornithologist Ken Simpson, also defends the Mistletoebird. According to Ken this bird is a relatively recent arrival in Australia, coming long after the split up of Gondwanaland and the evolution of our mistletoes. Australia has 90 species of mistletoes with about 35 of them found in south-east Queensland. Our mistletoes are contained in two families, the Loranthaceae (74 species) and the Viscaceae (14 species). The Loranthaceae has large colourful flowers and fruits whereas the Viscaceae has tiny flowers and small translucent fruits.

bulloak mistletoe

The Bulloak, or Slender-leafed, Mistletoe (Amyema linophyllum orientale) is one of the many types of mistletoe that are food plants for several species of Australian butterflies. This mistletoe is host to the Wood White (Delias aganippe, the Cooktown Azure (Ogyris aenone), the Amaryllis Azure (Ogyris amaryllis) and the Sydney Azure (Ogyris ianthus). Photo Craig Eddie.

There is still much to be found out about these fascinating plants and new species are still being discovered. As late as 2004 a new mistletoe was described from south-east Queensland. It was named Gillian’s mistletoe (Muellerina flexialabastra) in honour of its discoverer Dr Gillian Scott. It is only known from the Darling Downs and Moreton Districts where it is found on the Hoop Pine (Araucaria cunninghami).

Grey Mistletoe

Extracts from the leaves of the Grey Mistletoe (Amyema quandang) have been shown to be active against laboratory strains of the Gram positive bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (golden staph) and Enterococcus faecalis. Both these bacteria can cause life-threatening infections in humans and are problems in hospital environments. It has been reported that Indigenous people of central Queensland would bruise the leaves of this species in water and drink the water for treatment of fever. Photo Craig Eddie.

Mistletoes are not the demons that popular myth paints them. Rather, they are interesting and colourful members of Australia’s prolific floral wealth. So, please stop worrying about the roses and take time out ‘to smell the mistletoes’.

[This article was originally published in the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service newsletter Bush Telegraph, Summer 2008.]
orange-flowered mistletoe

Orange-flowered Mistletoe (Dendropthoe glabrescens). Mistletoe fruit is high in protein, carbohydrates and lipids. The leaves are high in nitrogen, phosphorous and trace elements. Mistletoes provide food for many native birds, mammals and insects especially during droughts and seasonal scarcity. Photo Craig Eddie.

Research does seem to indicate that mistletoe has become more abundant in woodland areas. Why is this so and is it really a problem? Dr David Watson, a plant biologist from Charles Sturt University in Albury, New South Wales, has undertaken an ambitious 25-year project to learn more about the place of mistletoe in Australia’s environment. 

(Extract from “Misunderstood Mistletoe’ by Abbie Thomas, ABC Science online):

Studying 42 woodland remnants near Albury in New South Wales, Dr Watson removed mistletoe from half of these areas, while the mistletoe of the other areas was left intact. David’s plan was to find out if the presence of mistletoe can influence how many other species live in an area, in particular, bird species. David believes that mistletoe is now ten times more abundant in south-east Australia than it was before white settlement. Mistletoes particularly target trees isolated in paddocks or by the sides of roads, making them all the more obvious to us. However, David has argued that mistletoe ‘infestations’ are a symptom, not a cause of a much bigger problem. Changes in fire frequency and intensity, clearing trees and a reduction in native animals have all contributed. Mistletoe is killed by fire, and many areas are burnt far less often than before. Native animals such as possums, gliders and even koalas eat mistletoe, as do certain butterfly larvae. Once these species disappear from an area, there is nothing to keep the mistletoe in check. “But in the undisturbed bush, it’s an entirely different story,” David says. “The more mistletoes present, the greater the resources available for native animals, making the plants an important indicator of the area’s health.”

Misteltoe plants growing on a eucalypt, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Mistletoe plants growing on a eucalypt, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Preliminary results of his long term experiment suggest that more birds do, in fact, prefer to live where mistletoe is common. Woodland where mistletoe had been left intact had 17 per cent more total bird species, and of 44 woodland birds recorded, almost 70 per cent were more frequently seen in the intact sites than the sites without mistletoe. David says many birds prefer to nest in mistletoe because it provides shade and cover. Mistletoe nesters include the Grey Goshawk, several species of pigeon and dove, honeyeaters, wattlebirds, friarbirds and many others. Quite a number of butterfly larvae also feed on mistletoe, and some caterpillars can completely strip a mistletoe of its leaves in a matter of months, providing another natural check on mistletoe.

The larvae of the Common Jezebel Butterfly feed exclusively on Mistletoe leaves. Photo R. Ashdown.

The larvae of the Common Jezebel Butterfly feed exclusively on Mistletoe leaves. In his book on southern Australian mistletoe species (see below), David Watson lists 23 butterfly species whose larvae depend on mistletoe as a principal food source, plus an extra four species that include mistletoe among the plants they eat. A number of species of moth also have larvae that eat mistletoe. Photo R. Ashdown.

Bird's nest in a Mistletoe plant, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Bird’s nest in a Mistletoe plant, Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Scarlet Honeyeater feeding  on Mistletoe flower nectar, Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane. Photo by Mike Peisley.

Scarlet Honeyeater feeding on Mistletoe flower nectar, Boondall Wetlands, Brisbane. Photo by Mike Peisley.

Brown Honeyeater in search of Mistletoe nectar. Photo Mike Peisley.

Brown Honeyeater in search of Mistletoe nectar. The brightly-coloured tubular corollas attract the bird, while the long stamens are ready to dab pollen on the bird’s forehead. Photo Mike Peisley.

As the biology of mistletoe becomes better understood, biologists are urging that they be managed with an eye on the underlying causes of the problem. One place that did this recently was in the Clare Valley in South Australia where local residents were concerned about mistletoe infestations in local blue gums. They made it their business to learn more about the biology of mistletoes. Although some of the bigger infestations were manually removed, natural animal predators were also encouraged back to the area by fencing off areas and planting trees.

A mistletoe, possibly Pale-leaf Mistletoe (<i>Amyema maidenii</i>), growing in Mulga (<i>Acacia stowardii</i>), Hood Range, far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

A mistletoe, possibly Pale-leaf Mistletoe (Amyema maidenii), growing in Mulga (Acacia stowardii), Hood Range, far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

The same species, closer view. The varied and subtle forms and colours of Australian mistletoe make them fascinating photographic subjects. Photo R. Ashdown.

The same species, closer view. The varied and subtle forms and colours of Australian mistletoe make them fascinating photographic subjects. Photo R. Ashdown.

David says the best way to control mistletoe infestation is by addressing the underlying cause: such as putting up nesting boxes to encourage possums and gliders, control burning of the understorey to kill excess mistletoe, and encouraging regeneration of native plants. But he takes his argument further. Mistletoe, he says, could be a powerful tool in the management of forest plantations of species such as blue gum. At the moment, such plantations are plagued by chewing insects such as beetles, and require huge expenditure on pest control. But if every, say, 100th tree were to be seeded with a mistletoe, these would eventually grow, flower and attract insect-eating birds and possums which would also eat the problem insects, effectively turning a plant pest into a natural pest controller.

Orange-flowered Mistletoe (Dendropthoe glabrescens), Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Orange-flowered Mistletoe (Dendropthoe glabrescens), Sundown National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

Mistletoe growing on Whitewood (<i>Atalaya hemiglauca</i>), far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Mistletoe growing on Whitewood (Atalaya hemiglauca), far western Queensland. Photo R. Ashdown.

Amylotheca dictyophleba, Barakula State Forest. Photo R. Ashdown.

Amylotheca dictyophleba, Barakula State Forest. Photo R. Ashdown.

Links

Unruly scenes in the Botanic Gardens

The Toowoomba Regional Council gardeners took what seemed like a radical step earlier this year when they planted a stack of sunflowers in the city’s Botanic Gardens.

Sunflowers, Queens Park Botanic Gardens 2014.

Being used to seeing neat and ordered rows of flowers, we became entranced by the unruly mob of stunning, large yellow flowers that grew quickly around the central statue. They were a delight to stroll past in all types of weather and fun to photograph.

Sunflowers, Queens Park Botanic Gardens 2014.

Sunflowers, Queens Park Botanic Gardens 2014.

Things became even more fun though when the sunflowers developed full heads of seeds. Native parrots descended in flocks to ravage the nodding flowers, creating even more mess and delightful garden chaos. Tough, boisterous Rainbow Lorikeets and Galahs were joined by quiet and wary King Parrots and the occasional diminutive Scaly-breasted Lorikeet. All were all keen to plunder this unexpected suburban food source.

Rainbow Lorikeets on sunflowers, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens 2014.

Rainbow Lorikeets on sunflowers, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens 2014.

The Rainbow Lorikeets arrive — a gang of noisy, wildly-coloured avian hoodlums. Click on the images below for a closer look.

Invalid Displayed Gallery

I only managed a few late afternoon photo sessions, standing quietly against the flowers, before they expired and the birds moved on. Some other walkers would stop to watch the birds, but most were oblivious to the feeding frenzy going on close by. The usually wary King Parrots would freeze when people got close, their green plumage blending into the green of the sunflowers.

King Parrots

Also known as King Lories, Australian King Parrots (Alisterus scapularis) are large and quite wary parrots. They are sometimes seen flying between the town’s Camphor Laurel trees with heavy wingbeats in their laboured style of travel. However, they are swift and dexterous birds, weaving their way through the trees with surprising grace.  Click on the images below for a larger view.

I sent a few words of encouragement to the radical gardeners, in case they were getting worried by the chaos:

A big thanks to your Botanic Gardens gardeners for brightening the place even further. Just when I think they are a bit too obsessed with neatness they plant sunflowers around the statue in the centre of the Gardens.

Utterly and completely brilliant. First, people marvel over the bright, unruly flowers, then to our astonishment, the seeds of the flowers provide food for at least four species of local native birds— scaly-breasted and rainbow lorikeets, galahs and the beautiful king parrots — for weeks.

Last weekend people from all backgrounds were enjoying the flowers and also watching the birds. To see the huge, magnificently camouflaged (and usually very wary) king parrots quietly sitting on the sunflowers while kids on bikes raced past and walkers strolled within metres of one of our most spectacular species of parrots was most enjoyable.

Bloody marvellous stuff, please pass on my sincerest thanks to the gardeners for providing this epic splash of colour and life for both people and native birds, much appreciated.

King Parrot on sunflower.

Leonie from the Council replied:

Thank you so much for the wonderful photos, we were delighted to receive them and have printed copies to show all the staff.  It is good to see a different theme in an area that is normally very formal and I am sure the gardeners will consider this again as it has proved to be very popular.

King parrot on sunflower, Toowoomba Botanic Gardens.

Juvenile male Australian King Parrot. This image by Harry Ashdown, all others Robert Ashdown.

High summer in the Goomburra rainforest

December 2013 had some of the hottest days on record for this part of the world. Not an ideal time to visit a rainforest, but I head south anyway, driving through sun-blasted, open farmlands until I meet the western foothills of the Great Dividing Range.

Sunlit Tree Ferns (Cyathea sp.) reflected in a quiet pool on Dalrymple Creek. All photos Robert Ashdown.

Sunlit Tree Ferns (Cyathea australis) reflected in a quiet pool on Dalrymple Creek. All photos by Robert Ashdown, taken on an Olympus OM-D EM-5.

Goomburra, within Main Range National Park, is my destination.

The circuit track along Dalrymple Creek heads through wet sclerophyll forest, where giant eucalypts tower above rainforest scrub. At times, the scream of cicadas, known appropriately as Razor Grinders, is almost unbearable — a frenzy of tree-top insect metalworkers. Some recent rain and the hot weather has brought thousands of their nymphs up from their long, dark underground life. Their cast-off ‘skins’ are plastered over tree trunks, while the adult insects are high up in the glorious summer light, males calling females in a non-stop, deafening cacophony. What a dazzling stage of life it must be for an animal that has spent years underground in the cool, dark earth.

The smooth bark of the eucalypts bears evidence of other life, as skinks move across strange circular patterns — the feeding marks of Red Triangle Slugs. While scanning tree trunks I’m soon rewarded with a sighting of a Southern Angle-headed Dragon, clinging to a tree and furiously pretending to be a branch.

< click on any image in this post for a larger view, and use arrow keys to move forward through images or hit ‘escape’ to exit>

A bright, sunny day in rainforest is usually the worst time for a photographer to capture interesting images, as the contrast range between dark shadow and blazing patches of light is beyond the scope of camera sensors, and the resulting photographs never really look like what the eyes saw. However, I’m here to enjoy the walk and in that frame of mind I soon get consumed by the search for intriguing patterns and photographic subjects.

As the Cascades Track winds on and upward, there are window-like glimpses of rainforest slopes above and the multi-hued foliage of emergent trees striving to reach the light. At ground level the sunlit canopy is reflected in pools of water, where another elegant reptile — an Eastern Water Dragon — regards me warily as I traverse its own small patch of paradise. Christmas Orchids flower close to the track, blazes of white among the shadows.

The walk presents an endless kaleidoscope of colours and textures. What more could a photographer hope for?

No place is boring, if you’ve had a good night’s sleep and have a pocket full of unexposed film. — Robert Adams.

I stop at one pool for a break and in the quiet notice all sorts of life. The large tadpoles of Great Barred Frogs move endlessly in the water and a Marsh Snake hunts restlessly for a meal.

I end up spending over an hour stalking Whitewater Rockmasters, one of Queensland’s five species of huge damselflies in the family Diphlebidae. These dazzling insects patrol their small bits of territory, and rather than run all over the place chasing them I set up at one spot to which a large male keeps returning. I could sit and watch these characters all day. 

The Cascades Circuit leads up and out of the cool rainforest, taking me back to my vehicle via open, recently burnt, woodland. Grass Trees have seen it before, masters of surviving fire, and their green and brown skirts add colour to a blackened landscape.

All too soon I’m heading home, windows down and hot air whipping through the car. I’ve visited another world, a place of green shadows and complex life. I will return again, soon, I hope.

The road to Goomburra.

When words become unclear, I shall focus with photographs. When images become inadequate, I shall be content with silence. — Ansel Adams.

Main Range National Park is located on the western part of the Scenic Rim — a spectacular arc of mountains stretching from Mt Mistake to Springbook in south-east Queensland.

Much of the rainforest areas within the park fall within a World Heritage area, known as the Gondwana Rainforest of Australia World Heritage Area. This area conserves more than 1700 species of flowering plants and 500 species of vertebrate animals.

Links

Not just green — frog portraits

I recently caught up with photographer Mike Swan, who was on his way home from a trip west gathering images for a forthcoming field guide to the frogs of Australia. Here are a few images from his far-ranging frog-chasing expeditions.

Giant Banjo Frog (Limnodynastes interioris), Lake Cowal, New South Wales.  Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Giant Banjo Frog (Limnodynastes interioris), Lake Cowal, New South Wales. Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peroni), Healesville, Victoria.  Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Striped Marsh Frog (Limnodynastes peroni), Healesville, Victoria. Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea), Lake Broadwater, Queensland. Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea), Lake Broadwater, Queensland. Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Eastern Snapping Frog (Cyclorana/Litoria novaehollandiae), Glenmorgan, Queensland.  Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Eastern Snapping Frog (Cyclorana/Litoria novaehollandiae), Glenmorgan, Queensland. Photograph courtesy and copyright Mike Swan.

Mike’s a busy bloke  when not out in the bush with a camera he can be found working at Healesville Sanctuary in Melbourne, running an online herpetological bookshop and playing in alt-country band Low Rent.

The Giant Water Lily

The flower is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of all our native plant species.                   Keith Williams, 1979.

With memories still fresh of my water-level encounter with these Giant Water Lilies at Lake Nuga Nuga in 2013, I recently came across some information on these spectacular plants in Native Plants of Queensland, Volume 1 (1979) by Keith Williams.

The four volumes of this title produced by this eminent Queensland naturalist from 1979 to 1999 contain a wealth of information on the State’s plants and their habitats. I’d encountered very little information on this species of plant when writing my earlier blog post on Lake Nuga Nuga

Water lilies are familiar to people, as cultivated varieties are grown in artificial pools. The Giant Water Lily in its native habitat is a spectacular plant. All photographs taken at Lake Nuga Nuga by R. Ashdown.

From Native Plants of Queensland by Keith Williams:

Giant Waterlily Nymphaea gigantea

This species is found in coastal and sub-coastal areas from north Queensland to the southern border. In many places the pest Water Hyacinth has almost, if not completely, eradicated the water lily.

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‘The large flat, floating leaves of the Giant Water Lily have a very prominent, raised network of veins that spread from the junction of the leaf stem on the under surface. The upper surface only is water repellent and a shiny bright green, the under surface is often a very rich purple.’ – Keith Williams.

The Giant Water Lily grows in water of various depths and this varies from the shallow edges of the the quiet waters of the habitat, to water that may be greater than three metres in depth. It has been observed that plants growing in deep water have a tendency to produce larger leaves and flowers than those in shallow water. Many leaves form a single plant and when they reach the surface they may cover an area with a diameter of about four metres.

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The flower is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful of all our native plant species. The flowers may be more than 30 cm in diameter. I have observed them to be larger than a dinner plate. The flowers have a delicate fragrance and have a life of little more than one day.

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As soon as they open in mid-morning the various insects visit them in numbers and pollination is effected very quickly. The stem then bends several times and this pulls the flower under the water, The seed receptacle forms very quickly, and the small black seeds are released finally when the fruit disintegrates. The plants are rooted in soft alluvial muds and the spongy white roots spread outwards from the tuber for long distances in all directions.

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The plant was an important food source for Aborigines, who ate the fresh flowers as well as the seeds. The importance of the plant is evident as the Aboriginal names Arnurna, Yakp-Kalo, Kaooroo, Moi-U, Thindah, Thoolambool, Mille, Thoongoon, Urgullathy and Irrpo all demonstrate. Many of these names referred specifically to parts of the plant.

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Giant Water Lilies only thrive in clear water. Where there is constant heavy turbidity the plants die. Many areas where they were once plentiful have been lost because colloidal clays have entered the ponds and as they remain in constant suspension, they inhibit growth by preventing light reaching submerged parts of the plant.

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Colour forms are found and they may be pure white, white with blue petals, or some have tips of colour on the outside petals, A very beautiful pink form, the Undulla Lily, occurs in a small creek in southern Queensland.

Keith Albert Walter Williams (1916–2003)

With a wide range of natural history interests — fish, both marine and freshwater; birds; insects, particularly butterflies; and native plants, Keith Williams, as well as being a practical, expert naturalist and photographer, was a dedicated member of The Queensland Naturalists’ Club. An astute observer of wildlife, Keith started writing Nature Notes for the Club Newsletter in May 1963 with his note on the Golden Bower Bird, following this with notes on subjects as diverse as koalas, snakes, geckos, and birds such as white faced herons, red-backed wrens and all kinds in between.

His writing was not restricted to informal Nature Notes, for Keith’s magnum opus was Native Plants — Queensland, the first volume of which was published in 1979 and the fourth and final volume in 1999. These four volumes, of over 1,400 pages, have been, and will continue to be, used by many naturalists and aspiring botanists. If he had no other achievements, this work alone would assure Keith Williams of a place in the ‘Naturalists’ Hall of Fame’.

Keith wrote a number of more formal papers for The Queensland Naturalist among which was one on the fishes of North West Island (1969) which, together with the generous giving of his time, helped many members identify the small fishes of the coral reef pools on future trips.

Source: D. Reeves, The Queensland Naturalist, Vol.44, Nos.1–3, 2006

Keith was born in Ipswich, Queensland, in 1916. He was made an Honorary ranger for the protection of Fauna and Flora in Queensland in 1934. He was a foundation member of the Queensland Ornithological Society and was a life member of the Ipswich Photographic Society and the Queensland Naturalists’ Club. In 1993 he was the recipient if the Queensland Natural History Award and in 1998 was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to conservation and the environment, particularly for his contribution to botanical knowledge and the collection of plant specimens.

Some final photos for 2013

A post from the last day of 2013 — another year slips past too quickly.

Despite it being one of the most difficult I can remember in many ways, I was still fortunate to be able to visit a few places, both near and not-so-near, and to be able to photograph some beautiful landscapes and marvellous creatures.

May you have a rewarding, successful and safe 2014.

Rose Robin, Crows Nest National Park.

Rose Robin, Crows Nest National Park. All photographs by Robert Ashdown.

Small Ant Orchid Myrmechila (Chiloglottis) truncata, Crows Nest National Park.

Small Ant Orchid, Crows Nest National Park.

Native Stingless Bees on water-lily, Brisbane Botanical Gardens.

Native Stingless Bees on water-lily, Brisbane Botanical Gardens.

Goomburra National Park.

Goomburra National Park.

Small-leaved Bottle Tree, Salvator Rosa National Park, central Queensland.

Small-leaved Bottle Tree, Salvator Rosa National Park, central Queensland.

The Nogoa River, Salvator Rosa National Park, central Queensland.

The Nogoa River, Salvator Rosa National Park, central Queensland.

Scarlet Percher, Nogoa river, Salvator Rosa national Park, central Queensland.

Scarlet Percher, Nogoa River, Salvator Rosa National Park, central Queensland.

Carnarvon Gorge, Carnarvon National Park.

Carnarvon Gorge, Carnarvon National Park.

Common Grass Blue, backyard, Toowoomba.

Common Grass Blue, backyard, Toowoomba.

Golden Whistler, Crows Nest National Park.

Golden Whistler, Crows Nest National Park.

Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby shaking off rain-drops, Crows Nest National Park.

Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby shaking off rain-drops, Crows Nest National Park.

White-throated Treecreeper, Crows Nest National Park.

White-throated Treecreeper, Crows Nest National Park.

Grey-headed Flying-foxes, The Palms National Park.

Grey-headed Flying-foxes, The Palms National Park.

Whitewater Rockmaster, Goomburra National Park.

Whitewater Rockmaster, Goomburra National Park.

Superb Blue Fairy-wren, Sundown National Park.

Superb Blue Fairy-wren, Sundown National Park.

Red Triangle Slug tracks on eucalypt, Kym and Pete's place.

Red Triangle Slug tracks on eucalypt, Kym and Pete’s place.

Skipper, backyard, Toowoomba.

Skipper, backyard, Toowoomba.

Guest photographs

Here are some wonderful images taken this year by fellow photographers Mike Peisley, Raelene Neilson, Michael Hines and Ross Naumann. All images reproduced with permission and thanks.

Photographing flames

Managing fire is a constant part of a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger’s job in Queensland.

While photography isn’t high on the agenda for those involved in the business of working closely with fire, rangers sometimes capture dramatic images of flames and burning landscapes.

Wildfire at Castle Rock,  Cania Gorge National Park. Photograph Robert Ashdown.

Wildfire at Castle Rock, Cania Gorge National Park. Photograph Robert Ashdown.

Planned burn at Bringalily State Forest. Photograph by Jonathan McDonald.

Planned burn at Bringalily State Forest. Photograph courtesy Jonathan McDonald, QPWS.

Driving to fire at Orkadilla State Forest. Photo by Teresa Brecknell.

Driving to fire at Orkadilla State Forest. Photograph courtesy Teresa Brecknell, QPWS.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service officers working controlled burn, Pine Ridge Conservation Park, 2013. Photo courtesy Josh Hansen, QPWS.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service officers working controlled burn, Pine Ridge Conservation Park, 2013. Photograph courtesy Josh Hansen, QPWS.

Burning log, late afternoon on a planned burn, Bulli State Forest. Photograph courtesy Brett Roberts, QPWS.

The late Bill Morley was a ranger at Carnarvon Gorge National Park for over 15 years. He was also a keen photographer and naturalist, compiling a large slide collection and detailed notes on natural history at the gorge.

I recently undertook some archival scans of Bill’s collection of Kodachrome slides taken during his time at Carnarvon. Included in the collection is a record of a large wildfire event at the Gorge in 1988. The images are impressive — well composed and often taken in difficult conditions — even more so considering that they were taken while fighting the fire with other rangers. In the end, the fires ran for 53 days and burnt out over 80% of the park.

Park overseer Bill Morley (left)  and ranger John Gresty near giant Sydney Blue Gum (Eucalyptus saligna) at Ravensbourne National Park  in the 1950s. This magnificent tree still stands today. Photo courtesy of Doug Gilmore. Thanks to Karen Smith.

Park overseer Bill Morley (left) and ranger John Gresty near a giant Sydney Blue Gum (Eucalyptus saligna) at Ravensbourne National Park in the 1950s. This magnificent tree still stands today. Photo courtesy of Doug Gilmore. Thanks to Karen Smith.

Here is a small selection of Bill’s images of this 1988 wildfire (which I have restored from slides affected by dust and fungus), accompanied by extracts from the notes he subsequently put together for a slideshow on the fire for future park visitors. 

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

What can be done when a wildfire starts in rough country like this? It had been a good season up until the end of September 1988. But, with the coming of October temperatures soared to around 39°C in the shade. Hot winds blew, and humidity dropped, The green grass became brown  and brittle, and the softer plants and shrubs wilted in the relentless heat. 

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

Midday, Sunday 16 October. A lightning strike during a dry storm started a fire in dry grassland and leaf litter on a rocky ridge above Mickey’s Creek gorge, and, although it wasn’t known at the time, another lightning strike from the same dry storm started another fire near the extreme north-east of the park. There would soon be two wildfires in Carnarvon Gorge National park.

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

From vantage points both inside and outside the park, rangers took bearings of fire positions. Contact was made with neighbours and information exchanged on the positions and progress of the fires, Spreading rapidly, the fires in the south-east section dropped down into Mickey’s Creek Gorge, whilst up on the cliff edge, fierce winds caused it to ‘crown’ in the tree-tops in many places. That night, park rangers burnt back along the southern  edge of Mickey’s Creek walking track, to contain the fire front the for the time being.

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph of Bill Morley.

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.   Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

The next day the fire in Mickey’s Creek Gorge was heading eastwards toward the walking track and the fire at the top of the cliffs was spreading fast. Carnarvon Gorge Lodge and Bandana Station grasslands were under threat from advancing flames. Walking tracks in the gorge were now closed to park visitors.

  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

The fire had dropped off the eastern edge of the Goombungie Cliffs, so a back burn from the western edge of the Baloon Cave track was undertaken to neutralise that firefront. Just on dusk, above the cliffs, flames raced up the steep slopes of the Great Divide and hit the top edge of the eastern side of ‘The Ranch’. 

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

Visibility became severely restricted at times, as the Carnarvon ranges were absorbed within a huge blanket of smoke. At times, several palls of black smoke could be seen within the overall greyish-white, markings of the second fire now racing across the south-central section of the Consuelo Tablelands towards Carnarvon Gorge, pushed by strong north-eastern winds.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

The next day, thick palls of black smoke signal that the fire is almost at the edge of Warrumbah Cliffs, immediately behind the national park’s workshop area. Cliff-top winds and updrafts contribute towards fire crowning in the trees along the cliff edge. Back-burns continue throughout the next two days to control the fire’s advance.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

Eight days after the fires began, a few millimetres of rain is recorded, dampening the vegetation and quietening the fires temporarily, but three days after the rain any moisture has evaporated and the fires are whipped up again by steep winds.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

Fire on no fire, it’s business as usual in the camping ground, the people still come. Four large coaches are parked in the coach zone which is filled to capacity. Not many family campers arrive, as campers are discouraged from coming until the fires are out.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

Thirteen days since the fires began, and the floor of the inner gorge is aflame and once again a park ranger is stationed at the Art Gallery, and another at Cathedral Cave. A back burn commences to save the cypress pine board-walk from the approaching flames.

Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

Sixteen days after its birth, fire moves in behind Boolimba Bluff and drops over the edge in many places.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

The remnants of the fires are still going 53 days after their start, when the first good storm occurs, with 75mm of rain. All fire is extinguished in the gorge. Loose soil is washed into creeks and Carnarvon Creek runs a deep chocolate colour, with black ash and charcoal floating on top. A tiny glimpse of the ever-ongoing process of erosion that, over a long time period, changes landscapes.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.  Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

The rains caused the grass roots to sprout  juicy green shoots and the kangaroos and wallabies feasted, and nests are built by birds as new leaves sprout in fire-singed trees and the insect population increases. A dazzling green rebirth follows, until the next fire.

 Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley. Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph by Bill Morley.

 

Lake Nuga Nuga reprised

An article written for the Spring/Summer 2013 edition of Wildlife Queensland news.

A nature photographer could not ask for a more perfect spot — it was one of those rare occasions when everything is just right. I was sitting in a borrowed kayak somewhere in the middle of Lake Nuga Nuga, the largest natural body of water in Queensland’s central highlands.

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A Whistling Kite wheels above the waters of Lake Nuga Nuga. All images R. Ashdown.

I’d paddled out with camera in the early morning, moving through a surreal field of native Giant Water Lilies, their huge pink flowers still closed. I thought I’d just keep paddling about furiously until I found things to photograph, typically impatient to discover something of interest.

The lake, however, was about to remind me once more of the need to just sit, wait, shut-up and look. I eventually stopped paddling and sat quietly, taking it all in and reminding myself to breathe and enjoy the moment. The sounds of morning on the lake rolled over me as the day’s dramas unfolded with the opening of the giant lily flowers.

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The water soon warmed, and small Bony Bream moved to surface, splashing onto the lily pads and catching the attention of Whistling Kites. The birds broke off from preening to make spectacular diving runs into the water, flying off with tiny wriggling silver meals clutched tightly in talons. I’d never been so close these birds and was dazzled by their rich and subtle hues of brown and tan, with eyes burning bright over the desire to catch breakfast.

Other waterbirds also fished around me, cormorants and egrets flying past and into the water next to my small boat. It was as if by sitting still I’d convinced all that I was just another dead tree, many of which are a feature of this lake. I soon discovered that the dead standing trees were not dead at all — flocks of Tree Martins whirled around them and darted inside the hollows of what were clearly multi-story tenements for countless small birds. Once in, they would peer out again, whipping their tiny heads in all directions to catch the action, screaming at each other in tiny voices.

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An Intermediate Egret (centre) jostles for perching space with a Little Pied Cormorant (left) and a White-necked (Pacific) Heron.

What life goes on unnoticed in our wild places when there’s no human around to catch it! What a pleasure to think of the places we have managed to protect and the myriad natural dramas played out by the wildlife that call these places home. Yes, we need parks for people, but these wild places are essential to the lives of species other than human.

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Intermediate Egret on drowned tree.

Lake Nuga Nuga is one of 13 nationally-significant wetlands that fall within the Southern Brigalow Belt bioregion. Unfortunately the lake itself is not national park, however the small but significant Nuga Nuga National Park sits adjacent to the lake and preserves remnant vegetation communities, including Ooline and Bonewood, largely cleared from central Queensland.

One of those who fought hard over decades for the protection of remnant patches of Central Queensland scrub in national parks, such as Nuga Nuga, was Jim Gasteen. A life member of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, Jim travelled extensively throughout four States, surveying areas for inclusion in proposed national parks. Said Jim in the June 1989 edition of Wildlife Australia, “I am convinced that the entire Queensland Central Highlands complex is one of the foremost biological areas in Australia and that the entire ranges should be designated national park and state forest.”

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Jim also wrote, in the March 1984 edition of Wildlife Australia, of a “most remarkable experience at Lake Nuga Nuga.” Jim, his brother and a friend were setting up camp late one afternoon. They soon noticed a small and isolated fledgling cormorant being incessantly dive-bombed by a pair of kites. The tiny bird would submerge, only to be attacked again when surfacing. Things eventually looked final for the small bird. “So intense was this uneven battle that the three of us were on our feet with binoculars, absorbed in the drama and wishing there was something we could do to forestall the inevitable.” Suddenly a group of pelicans, until then fishing nearby, swam toward the cormorant and surrounded it, driving off with snapping beaks the attacks of the kites in the fading light, until the raptors gave up and flew away.

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To the surprise of the observers the pelicans then remained in a tight circle around the small bird, without the slightest movement, looking “like sentinels from another era.” Says Jim, “A change had come over the lake — it was something felt rather than seen, for all that were left now were the stars and our own thoughts. We too remained anchored to the spot. Nobody spoke.

Jim wrote again of this “most remarkable swamp drama” in his book Back to the Bush in 2011 — it was obviously an experience he had not forgotten.

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The Milky Way above Lake Nuga Nuga on a quiet, clear night.

Such are our most memorable nature experiences formed, through being present in a wild place — large or small — and just watching what happens around us.

I’d been sitting in my tiny kayak for almost three hours watching the kites battling over small silver fish morsels, and things were starting to quieten as the day warmed up. The lily flowers were open for business and the water was alive with dragonflies and bees.

As I prepared to head back to shore a strange rushing sound descended and I looked up to see a massive squadron of Pelicans flying low over the lake, accompanied by a motley collection of cormorants. It was the perfect end to a terrific morning. I thought of Jim and reflected on how important our national parks and wild areas are as the crucibles of experiences that we can carry with us for many years.

More spikes — Cunningham’s Skink

Like the Echidna (previous post), the Cunningham’s Skink is another somewhat shy and nervous animal, at least where stumbling photographers are concerned. I photographed this dark specimen in a pile of rocks just outside the ranger’s house at Sundown National Park.

Cunningham's Skink (<i>Egernia cunninghami</i>), Sundown National Park. There are 11 species of Egernia in Queensland, with some being among the largest skinks in the world. They are out usually during the day (diurnal), and bask in semi-concealed sites near the shelter of rocks or hollow logs. They bear live young . Photograph Robert Ashdown.

Cunningham’s Skink (Egernia cunninghami), Sundown National Park. There are 11 species of Egernia in Queensland, with some being among the largest skinks in the world. They are diurnal (usually active during the day), and bask in semi-concealed sites near the shelter of rocks or hollow logs. They bear live young. Photograph Robert Ashdown.

The Echidna — spikes and spurs

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), Carnarvon Gorge. Photograph Robert Ashdown.

Short-beaked Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus), Carnarvon Gorge. Photographs by Robert Ashdown.

I’ve always found Echidnas tricky things to get a decent photograph of. They always seem very wary, burrowing into the earth as soon as you get near one, leaving only a bunch of spines to be photographed.

So, it was a pleasant surprise to at last meet a curious and somewhat confiding Echidna. Lying on the ground in front of the busy mammal, I was soon rewarded with some close-up shots as it trundled up and inspected the camera, even attempting to climb over it.

Echidna

Eye-protection needed – the Echidna climbs over my camera. “A toothless, highly specialised feeder on ants, termites and other soil invertebrates, particularly beetle larvae. Food exposed by powerful digging and tearing into soil or rotten wood with forelimbs, then licked up with long, sticky tongue.” Frank Knight, A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia .

Echidnas, like Platypus, are monotremes — egg-laying mammals. Female Echidnas carry a single egg, and later, the juvenile in a simple pouch on their belly.

Researchers are still discovering new things about these unusual mammals. One of the unique characteristics of monotremes is the spurs on the hind legs of males. In Platypuses the gland attached to the spur increases in size during the breeding season and produces a venom injected into competing males (the venom is highly toxic, causing excruciating pain that can take months to subside in humans). In male Echidnas, spurs are in the same position and the glands also get bigger during the breeding season. However, the spur cannot be erected and there have never been reports of anyone being envenomated by an Echidna.

Trip to Carnarvon Gorge witn project architect.

The purpose of an Echidna’s spur has until now been a bit of a mystery. Researchers from the University of Sydney have recently found that male Echidnas use secretions from their spurs to mark territory during the breeding season. They are unsure whether the mammals are communicating their readiness to mate, or using this to ward off other males.

Genetic studies of the Echidna have revealed that the secretions were once toxic and may have been used for defence millions of years ago. The gradual disappearance of the venom in the spur secretion indicates a that the gland has evolved a new role.

Links:

How the echidna lost its venom (the University of Sydney).

Upper Lockyer Valley Wildlife Calendar

Wildlife of the Upper Lockyer Valley 2014 calendar.

Wildlife of the Upper Lockyer Valley 2014 calendar.

This 2014 calendar was created for the Citizens of the Lockyer Inc., a group working to increase awareness of the rich biodiversity to be found within the Lockyer Valley, just south-east of Toowoomba.

Images, text and design work were donated to the group by Robert Ashdown, Bruce Thomson, Neil Armstrong, Mike Peisley, Catherine Burton, Rob Gratwick, Penny Davies and Jayne Darvell (images), Rod Hobson (text) and Rob and Terttu Mancini, Evergreen Design (design work).

Text Pages from Lockyer Wildlife calendar Rod Hobson. (PDF 344Kb)

Links

The sounds of summer storms

Green Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea) have not been seen too often in our Toowoomba backyard.

However, with the recent heat and storms, a deep resonating croak emanated from the old rainwater tank in our backyard. This is a sound from the summer storms of my childhood.

Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea). Growing up to 16 cm in length, this is a large frog that survives in varied habitats throughout Queensland. These frogs are often found in close association with humans, sometimes taking advantage of the insects attracted by lights.

Green Tree Frog (Litoria caerulea), hanging out in stylish backyard accommodation. This large frog (growing up to 16cm in length) lives in a variety of diverse habitats across Queensland. Often found in close association with humans, they sometimes take advantage of the insects attracted by household lights. All photos R. Ashdown.

Litoria caerulea, Tingalpa, Brisbane.

Green Tree Frog, Tingalpa, Brisbane.

  Litoria caerulea, Tingalpa, Brisbane.

 LINKS

Camera trap candids

Cameras  equipped with infrared triggers, known as ‘camera traps’, are used around the world to obtain information about wildlife and their habitats. Although they sound menacing, these traps do not harm wildlife. They simply capture images of fauna passing by the camera.

Remote cameras are used by rangers with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS)  to collect information about wildlife and ferals in the parks that they manage. Here are a few candid captures from some southern Queensland national parks.

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Thanks to the rangers of QPWS, in particular Andy Coward, who looks after Culgoa Floodplains National Park in western Queensland.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers Andy and Rowena, at a very dry Culgoa Floodplains National park, December 2014.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Rangers Andy and Rowena, at a very dry Culgoa Floodplains National Park, December 2013.

LINKS

In the backyard with a camera phone

I’m not a purist about camera gear, having always enjoyed wringing interesting results out of dodgy bits of gear.

I’m not alone it seems, as retro plastic cameras and mobile phones are the cameras of choice for many these days. Mobile phones were once pretty ordinary as far as taking photos went, but this has rapidly changed. They’re mostly not yet up to the quality a good compact camera, but they’re getting better and if you have them on you then they’ll get used.

Here are some photographs taken locally using my phone.

Australian Painted Lady, backyard, Toowoomba. All photos R. Ashdown.

Australian Painted Lady, backyard, Toowoomba. All photos R. Ashdown.

Common Grass Blues, Toowoomba.

Common Grass Blues, Toowoomba.

 Common Grass Blue drinking from drain, Toowoomba.

Common Grass Blue drinking from drain, Toowoomba.

Girraween National Park.

Girraween National Park.

Common Grass Blues, Toowoomba.

Common Grass Blues, Toowoomba.

Native stingless bees, pine tree, Queens Park, Tooowoomba.

Native stingless bees, pine tree, Queens Park, Tooowoomba.

 Toowoomba Botanical Gardens.

Toowoomba Botanical Gardens.

Green Tree Frog, backyard, Toowoomba.

Green Tree Frog, backyard, Toowoomba.

Giant Spear Lily flowers, Toowoomba Botanical Gardens.

Giant Spear Lily flowers, Toowoomba Botanical Gardens.

LINKS

Koalas — dead and alive

The parade of dead wildlife on our roads seems endless. I’ve become almost numb to it — a sad fact of life in this speed-addicted, car-mad society, something that most people do not even seem to notice anyway. I still stop (carefully) to check things dead on the road or to hurry-up some critter wandering about the asphalt.

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), dead on road, Crows Nest, Queensland. Photo by Robert Ashdown.

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus), dead on road, Crows Nest, Queensland. Photo by Robert Ashdown.

On a recent early-morning drive north of Toowoomba we spotted a koala on the road. I found a safe spot to pull over (quite difficult on our country roads) and checked it out.

It was a large male, unfortunately dead, but still a beautiful animal. Its distinctive koala-smell transported me back to my childhood, standing at the Currumbin Bird Sanctuary at the Gold Coast holding a koala, totally lost in wonder, posing for a photograph with an ear-to-ear grin. I remember my grandmother’s anxiety leading to her being scratched by the one she was holding. There’d probably be an outcry these days and the place would be shut down and the animals all taken out by a SWAT team, but we did not worry too much then about a few scratches from such an animal.

As I was preparing to post this depressing and confronting image, I received by good fortune some great photos of a koala, very much alive and well, taken by Des O’Neill in his Brisbane backyard. So, to balance out the road-kill image, here’s some from Des, and also a lovely  shot from Raelene Neilson, who also has the good fortune to have these beleaguered icons at her place.

Koala, copyright Des O'Neill

How I’d rather see one. Backyard koala, Brisbane. Photos courtesy of Des O’Neill.

Koala, copyright Des O'Neill.

Koala, Copyright Raelene Neilson.

Koala, Geham. Photo courtesy Raelene Neilson

Links

Fifty years of urban ecology

Several of my images, taken at our place in Toowoomba, have accompanied an article by Dr Darryl Jones in the Winter 2013 edition of Wildlife Australia

Urban Ecology (Large)

Many native species have demonstrated extraordinary abilities to adapt quickly to urban landscapes, giving rise to the also dynamic discipline of ‘urban ecology’.

LINKS:

A most formidable owl

A Powerful Owl —Australia’s largest and most, um, powerful owl — photographed at Moggill in Brisbane by Harry Hines, Senior Conservation Officer with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service.

Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) with Ringtailed Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus). Photographed at Moggill by Harry Hines.

Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) with Common Ringtailed Possum (Pseudocheirus peregrinus). Photograph copyright Harry Hines.

Powerful Owl, giant of the continent’s nocturnal birds of prey, epitome of solitude and the voice that expresses as no other the essence and grandeur of the mountain bushlands. — David Fleay.

Links

Wing-tip window art

A spell of warm weather, and the Superb Blue Fairy-wrens rise early to once again wrestle with their reflections in the misty windows of our car.

Sometimes they leave their mark — this time two tiny footprints and the swish of a single delicate wing-tip. An instant smile-making bit of window art.

Superb blue fairy wren

Firetail in the reeds

A Red-browed Finch (Neochmia temporalis) peers at me from a clump of reeds on the edge of Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island National Park.

Red-browed Finch, Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island.

A tenuous grip on life. Red-browed Finch at Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island. Photo R. Ashdown.

I like this photo. It’s technically pretty poor, and composed in a fairly ordinary fashion, but it makes me smile as it brings back memories. Crouching in the sand, oblivious to anything else, all personal worries forgotten — completely in the moment with a camera, peering into reeds through a viewfinder and trying to get a single clear shot of a small bird that just won’t separate itself from the shadows. Suddenly it’s there, checking me out in a fashion most fearless for its size, before darting back into the reeds to join its crew.

Another small moment of life in the wild edges. Here’s to moments shared with little creatures of big personality.

A storm sweeps across Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.

A storm sweeps across Lake McKenzie, Fraser Island National Park. Photo R. Ashdown.