Road tripping – South West WA: part 1

We were back on the road together at last, heading south along the West Australia coastline. There’s no better feeling then eight days of exploring ahead of you! Mitch’s flight arrived around 3pm so it was our goal to go for a snorkel at Coral Bay (about an hour and a half southwest of Exmouth) then sleep at Carnarvon, a bit further down the road. Along the way there were a few spits of rain, and small perenties (goannas) on the road. They were an orange-brown to match the desert sand. More and more termite mounds were popping up in the low scrub as we travelled south. At Coral Bay there was a lot of cloud, the first I’d seen in weeks. It was super humid so we walked down to the bay to see what the water looked like. A legless lizard in the centre of the sandy path gave me a fright, reminding me of the snake the night before. The tide was very low so we decided to give it a miss and keep going to Carnarvon. Two and a half hours later, we arrived just as it was getting dark.

We’d already spent a week seeing the sights along this stretch of coast so had planned a 10-hour driving day to cover some ground. This would get us south of Perth so we could spend our time exploring the south west part of WA. The bush changed along the way, with shrubs getting taller then disappearing to salt flats then turning into trees, finally trees! A few dead roos at the start had wedge tailed eagles feeding on them, surrounded by loitering crows. The eagles are such big birds, with wings spread they are bigger than the roos they’re feeding on. Goats were everywhere in pairs or small groups, some with kids alongside. They came in browns, blacks and whites with multicoloured splotches, small upturned fluffy tails and huge backwards curving horns on their head. The kids were cute to see even though they are a pest. Onwards we drove, podcasts and music helping us concentrate as the hours passed. The goats dropped off, the trees continued getting taller. We left the straight, flat road behind and wound our way towards Perth.

After spending the night at our new base in Rockingham, about an hour south of Perth, we were up early. With snacks and water packed we set off to explore Yalgorup National Park, on the coast about an hour’s drive south. Named the Place of Lakes in the local Indigenous dialect, Yalgorup has 10 lakes in the area. We visited Preston Lake first, the enticing photo showed hundreds of black swans serenely sitting on the water. From October to March the swans arrive here in high numbers to feed on the musk grasses. The sign dashed our hopes of a swim (the lakes are just for birds) but we could still do the 5km walk. It wound through bushland, with 10-metre-tall Tuart trees shading the track. This is a species of eucalypt found only along the coast from here to Jurien Bay (just north of Perth).

We walked along the sandy management track for a long time, not seeing much. At last we came to a 300-metre detour to the bird hide, finally a glimpse of the lake! Disappointingly there were no birds on the water, or in the air, or even near the bird hide for that matter. On the shore over 200 metres away some plovers were running around but not a single swan was present, I guess they decided not to visit this year. Back on the trail we saw wrens flitting around in the bush. We froze, they grew brave enough to land on the path 10 metres away. I took a photo and zoomed in. They were blue all over, splendid fairy wrens! You can’t imagine how excited I was to see a new wren species!!! The male’s entire bodies are a bright, fluorescent blue yet when they flit into the bush they can disappear from sight in seconds.

This face says leave me alone I’m tired

Walking on we found a shingleback sunbaking in the leaflitter on the side of the path. Cicadas hummed in the trees around us while large, orange butterflies floated serenely over our heads. Their wings were backlit by the sun and seemed to glow against the cloudless blue sky. Back at the car we sat at a picnic table surround by bush with only the noise of cicadas and the odd ute leaving the nearby camping spot. It was a really peaceful place for a snack.

A short drive took us the next walk. We went out on a very small boardwalk to view the thrombolites. These were growing in the freshwater of Lake Clifton and looked very similar to the stromatolites we saw at Hamelin Pool on our previous trip. Except these were rounder, almost perfectly circular rocks about 30-50 cm high in shallow water. An interpretive sign showed the internal structures were different, thrombolites existed first and have clumps of photosynthetic cells. Stromatolites evolved later and had a layered structure, like an onion. Thrombolites produce their own food because they host photosynthetic algae which converts sunlight into food energy, similar to a coral. They aren’t much to look at though, so we didn’t spend much time in full sun watching the rocks.

The Thrombolites looked like they went on for ever

We did the Lakeside Loop walk which promised an easy 5km return stroll through scrub where you could spot long-necked turtles in the lake. It turned out to be a 7 kilometre walk mostly in full sun. It was at this point we started to wonder about some of the guidance material. We were walking along a dirt path, not quite wide enough for two people with long grass and spiky bush on either side. Over the path were the webs and bright yellow patterned bodies of small spiders. They were everywhere, Mitch had to keep ducking so he didn’t end up with a spider on his hat. While they were small, around the size of a five cent piece they were numerous. I stopped and counted 36 in one web complex on a tree on the side of the path. Some webs also contained golden orb spiders. These were much bigger and ran very fast if you leaned near one for a look, making you jump back quickly. An interpretive sign on the side of the track identified the little brightly coloured arachnids as Christmas spiders. Their hardened carapaces allow them rest to in the centre of webs in direct sunlight, while tolerating the withering heat. Worryingly, there was no information on whether or not they were venomous.

That’s a whole lot of nope…
…especially given every black dot is a spider

We saw filtered glimpses of the lake to our left, about 30 metres away, but never got any closer. After walking for 4 kms we looked at the track notes again and found we’d made a wrong turn. Heading back we quickly found the fork and took the path to the right. It looped us back to the carpark, Mitch still ducking and weaving amongst the hundreds of spiders. I’m not sure where these mysterious turtles were hidden! We saw two young emus and their dad ahead of us on the path. They put their heads down and ran quickly in the opposite direction along the path, bodies shaking like giant feather dusters. I felt sorry for scaring them in the heat. Back at the car we stopped to eat a sandwich. A black spider crawled onto my leg from the picnic table, making lunch after that a hasty affair.

Our second day in Rockingham was spent at Penguin Island, only 700 metres offshore. A ferry putted us across in five minutes. It was a perfectly flat, calm day with not a cloud in the sky. This island is home to the largest population of little penguins in WA. Being daytime though it was highly unlikely we would see one because they would be out fishing. They return to the island at dusk, long after the last ferry leaves for the day. The waters surrounding Penguin Island are part of the Shoalwater Islands Marine Park so we’d packed our snorkelling gear. Penguin Island is tiny, only 12.5 hectares with a boardwalk that loops around the island. You can walk this in about 20 minutes if you don’t stop to look at anything, but there were so many distractions!

At the first beach we saw an odd shape resting in the shallows. We headed off the boardwalk and onto the sand to investigate. A male sea lion had hauled out to rest in the sheltered bay. He had his eyes closed, nose pointed up and was enjoying the sunshine. Soon children were walking in front of me, asking their mum if they could get close. Her advice to the kids showed she was clearly no expert in marine mammals, “oh you can go closer, if you get too close he’ll just do a little growl at you”. Out they waded towards the 100+ kilogram wild animal. We decided to leave them to it (natural selection and all that) and headed back to the boardwalk.

We passed caves in the rocky headland sprawled along the beach. There were limestone arches and an unnaturally squared door frame. An interpretive sign filled us in (we like signs), Paul Seaforth McKenzie squatted on Penguin Island from 1914, living in one of the caves. In 1918 the island was gazetted a reserve, and McKenzie was given a lease on the island. He acted as island caretaker and host, establishing a food store and rooms in the caves and rudimentary houses before welcoming tourists until his lease ended in 1926. We wondered what drove him to this remote place, possible escaping the war (or the wife and five children he’d left behind in New Zealand).

Seems both cosy and uncomfortable all at once

Onwards up the path, you can’t help but notice the bridled terns. These birds are everywhere, wheeling above us in the sky, heading out to sea, sitting sedately on the boardwalk stairs and not caring as you walk past. These birds are smaller than your average magpie, white with grey wings and a black cap that connects to a black band running through each eye. The island has that seabird smell, a mix of guano and fish, but this isn’t overwhelming and most of the time you don’t even notice it. The sound of the terns is fantastic, males were trying to impress females with squeaks and contorted bodies, wings lifted out sideways, neck extended, yellow beak pointing towards the ground. Others were calling their chicks, small grey fluffballs hidden beneath bushes or under the boardwalk.

Mmmm breakfast…. regurgitated squid! my favourite!

At the lookout we could see the pelican colony. Pelicans come here to breed but we couldn’t get close because a pair had decided to nest next to the higher lookout point, closing off the path. We had to appreciate them through our telephoto lenses instead. About 500 pelicans breed on the island, they all seemed to enjoy sitting together in the sun. Occasionally one will glide back in after fishing, throat pouch swollen with food. On the west side of the island we discovered the crested terns returning to feed their chicks. The chicks were scattered over the shore, some sitting in the seaweed, others falling asleep near the water’s edge.

FISH!

Each tern flying in with a fish in its beak made a repetitive cry to summon its chick. Watching them for a while it became apparent this was not a peaceful place to be a seabird. Other half-grown terns surrounded younger chicks, trying to steal food from the incoming parent. This caused the chicks to run and hide, so when the parent flew in to where it had last been there was no chick there. Multiple fly-bys ensued, sometimes with other terns chasing the parent to steal its fish. Eventually when the parent on the ground kept the teenage birds at bay, the chick was seen by the incoming parent and finally had a meal stuffed into its beak, bird parenting teamwork at its best.

One successful, if somewhat blood smeared, parent after making a delivery to it’s huddled chick

We spotted a sooty oystercatcher, running around on the rock platform feeding. Pigeons flew past, making a strange addition to an island covered in seabirds. This brought the total to six bird species. Young seagulls looked similar to the tern chicks with brown-flecked grey wings and white tummies. The black crests of half-grown terns were blowing up in the breeze, making them look comical. One flew in with a small fish, as if proud to show the other adolescents it’s catch.

See I can fish!

After many photos and over an hour of bird watching we made it up to the lookout which had 360 degree views. Looking to shore we could see the city of Rockingham, behind us the Indian Ocean stretched into the distance. The water was dark blue, closer to the island it changed to green with patches of seaweed and seagrass beds just below the surface. We set off back to the west side to explore underwater. Walking past the grassy, shaded picnic area we saw a buff banded rail. This small, brown quail like bird was splashing around in a shallow water dish.

We came full circle back to where the sea lion had been resting in the bay, he’d wisely vacated his spot, giving the beach back to the tourists. It was a sheltered spot and looked like the perfect place for a snorkel. There were some rocks jutting out of the water with more birds on them so we headed in that direction. The tide was low leaving less than 30 cm of water between us and the seagrass we were floating over. Small brown fish swam in schools, terns and pelican flew overhead. Reaching the rock, we found two types of cormorants basking in the sun, wings outstretched to dry them. This brought our total up to 10 bird species that we’d seen in one day. There is a discovery centre where orphaned penguins are kept and fed in shows for tourists, we didn’t feel like seeing that after exploring the island ourselves and seeing so much wild bird behaviour. Back on the ferry, the ride home flashed by, we piled off, happy with our day exploring Penguin Island.

We started our last morning in Rockingham with a walk at Cape Peron. Even though it was an overcast day and a bit windy it was nice to be out somewhere new. We started by walking around the headland and down onto the beach. Big brown, jelly like lumps were strewn along the tideline. These were as big as half a cushion. Looking closer we could see small antennae-like pieces poking out near one end. These must be sea hares! The parts sticking out would be the rhinophores. Looking in the rockpools at the end of the beach we saw three more brown sea hares and two small yellow ones that would fit into your palm. Thankfully these were alive, not rolling in the wash on the edge of shore.

Further on we walked through coastal scrub winding into small offshoot paths to look over headlands and out to a funny mushroom shaped rock that seemed to hang over the ocean. Larger rockpools dotted the shore below the cliff we were standing on and we could see the shallower rock platform spreading offshore. It looked like a good snorkelling spot. Walking further around we found old gun emplacements and a lookout with signs that talked about barricades in the water, the remains of which could still be seen today. At the last bunker it started raining so we scurried back to the car. Time to leave Rockingham and see what we could find further south.

Exploring Ningaloo- week 9 (last week!)

Today marks the start of the last week of my internship. I was up at 5am to go look for turtles at Five Mile, hoping to see some hatchlings. A cyclone was building further to the north, it wasn’t expected to hit Exmouth but was driving increased humidity here. Just getting out of the car left me covered in sweat. There was only one turtle in my favourite rockpool, doing its best rock impersonation. I walked all the way to the totem which marks the end of the section, but saw no signs of a hatchling emergence other than old tracks. A Rufous fieldwren was hopping around in the dunes, from one clump of grass to the next.  I walked back down the beach, past the carpark and continued towards Trisel hoping to see something. I didn’t see any turtle tracks or turtles but there was a blue and white kingfisher flying from rock to rock. Looking it up in my bird books later, we identified it as a juvenile sacred kingfisher because of its brown tufted belly and brown-white brow colouring. It found a crab and seemed to struggle to swallow it whole, banging the crab on a rock as if to squash it down. It’s surprising seeing these two birds on the beach after only ever seeing seagulls here before.

Photo captured a wren midair as it hops in the sand dunes. Backlit sand grains are flying in every direction
A kingfisher sits on a rock trying to swallow a crab that fills its beak

The day only got hotter and sweatier from there. We dropped the volunteers off at the airport then spent the rest of the day cleaning the Turtle Bus. After vacuuming, pressure washing, wiping down every surface and window it looked better but I don’t think all of the sand will ever come out. The next day was also focused on maintenance. We unrolled all 16 swags, to check for any repairs needed or missing parts. We moved on to washing all the backpacks taken monitoring every day. So much sand came out when I shook them, but also rubbish and bits of fishing line as the volunteers like to clean up the beaches they work on. Washing them turned the water brown very quickly, at least it was so hot they should dry fast.

Landscape scene looking back towards the road from the beach car park, sea mist turned everything a shade of grey

I was up and out on the beach again on Wednesday. It was really muggy and the sea mist was so thick it looked like a layer of fog over the landscape, turning the world grey. There were no turtles on the rock platform at Five Mile which was a real surprise, the first time this season. There were barely any tracks either. Further along the beach I noticed a group of seagulls down near the water. There was seaweed and debris everywhere, shells, broken urchins, bits of sponges, even a lobster antenna. Then I noticed one seagull had something white in its beak and was being chased by the other gulls. Walking closer I noticed there were white things scattered everywhere among the seaweed. They were broken turtle eggs! They were all fresh, there were no signs of yolk or blood, no yellow aging on them from being in the sun. My best guess is a turtle released eggs into the water and they’ve washed up so the seagulls have had a party. I counted 36 shell fragments (the larger pieces that looked like most of an egg) before stopping. There were 50 seagulls around looking content and well fed.

turtle egg broken on the beach like a flower with its petals falling apart
Broken white turtle egg shells scattered among the seaweed and rocks

Back home I put in a full day behind the computer. Editing photos, writing a new Standard Operating Procedure with recommendations for next season’s intern, preparing all my photos for the articles I’d written and finishing off interview captions, before sending it all on to the NTP coordinator. I ended the day back at Five Mile hoping to see some hatchlings around sunset. I walked up the beach and found a seat near a clump of spinifex where I could watch over the whole beach. The other direction was a blaze of light from the setting sun. It was slightly cooler, a turtle head popped up to breathe just offshore. It was a nice place to watch the sun go down. I read my friends blog on a handicraft market she’d visited in Pakistan, feeling even more remote on my beach. It was almost dark as I headed back to the car, no hatchlings tonight.

Thursday. My last full day here, so I was out at Five Mile. Again, there wasn’t much turtle action to see. The high tide had seeped most of the way up the beach to the edge of the dunes so only tracks above that hadn’t been washed away. No turtles on the rock platform or beach. I walked to the totem then beyond, looking at urchins, one had its Aristotle’s lantern clearly intact. Wet chocolate cowries the size of 10 cent pieces littered the shoreline, glistening in the early morning sun. Pied oystercatchers hurried off when I approached. Seagulls pecked at urchins and stood quietly.

A seagull eating a sea urchin in a shallow rock pool
Three ruddy turnstones and a sanderling share a rockpool

I went to say goodbye to the osprey at Tantabiddi. For the first time there were none on the nest. A single bird out of the family of five stood on a pole in the carpark. It stretched its wings upward then sat calling as I took some photos. It eventually flew off, much smoother than any flights I’d seen around Christmas. The fledglings had grown up during my time here. Making the most of my last day I went to Lakeside for a snorkel. There was an osprey perched on the sanctuary post, just like the first time I’d come. In the water it was hard swimming out, I kept getting pushed sideways by the current. Grey drummer were everywhere, feeding near the surface on clumps of floating algae. They were moving much faster than I’d seen them do before. Even though it was a bit murky I saw two species of clownfish, some angelfish, wrasse and a school of different surgeonfish species.

Onwards I drove for one last snorkel at Turquoise Drift. The Rufous fieldwren (I think!) I’d seen many times in the carpark flew under my car as I opened the door, new bugs! The water was its normal vivid turquoise colour and so inviting. A bit murky again in the water yet the fish seemed active. I saw a few new fish species I still couldn’t name, that list seems endless even after nine weeks! Driving the long road back into town I reflected on how much I wouldn’t miss this long drive…just all the places hidden along it.

close up of a grey chiton on a rock with its mantle extended around its oval shaped body

The farewell dinner was at a local restaurant. While the food was okay the real highlight was a brown snake moving around the outside seating area. A bamboo fence was stopping it from easily escaping so it just kept slithering along the fence. A chef came out to shoo it off with a broom but five minutes later it was back on the opposite side of the courtyard. One of the rangers at dinner with us called it a Gwardar, identifying it as the poisonous western brown snake. I wonder if he was here for the chicken with seasonal veg too? We all kept still and lifted our feet up until it had been shooed even further away. Before dessert we were given thank you presents and cards, it was finally sinking in that our time here was ending.

Friday was a whirlwind of busy-ness for me. I cleaned the dirt and sand off my hire car in the morning before scheduling all the NTP posts for the next month and entering a photo competition. It was sad handing in my key to the office and saying goodbyes. This took much longer than you might think, leaving me scurrying into the apartment at 12:30 to eat and pack everything in an hour and a half. This included the fun Tetris game of getting it all to fit into the car while leaving room for Mitch’s bags. At last I was packed, said goodbye to the other team leaders and had dropped my key at reception. I was off to the airport at last! Mitch’s plane touched the runway but was being pushed by a westerly crosswind so it took off again. Everyone in the terminal was left wondering what happened. Almost ten minutes later we heard the plane approaching again. We crowded around the windows to see it land safely, but on two wheels. Watching the people file off the plane and down the stairs I spotted Mitch’s Akubra bobbing along. I finally got the hug I’d been waiting three weeks for! After picking up his bag and bundling him into the car we were off. Goodbye Ningaloo you were incredible, now it’s time for the next adventure!!!

…—…—…

Since finishing the program I’ve heard some interesting figures from the NTP coordinator. In total during the peak season (four weeks) we counted 1,227 turtle nests across the three different species (green, loggerhead and hawksbill). This reflects a quiet season as the average total number of nests since 2002 is usually around 1,913. I’m not sure how many false crawls were recorded but it was always much higher than the number of successful nests. As usual the majority of nests were made by green turtles (71%) followed by loggerheads (25%) and hawksbills (4%). This puts into context just how special it was for me to see a hawksbill laying!

The opportunity to spend over two months as a Multimedia and Communications Intern was an experience I won’t forget for many reasons. Every day I had the chance to walk along a beach taking photos and collecting stories to promote the program. This taste of another field has left me wanting more and will keep me motivated to forge a career in science communication so maybe one day I will be getting paid to do something I love. This is the only internship of its kind in Australia where someone can practice their science communication skills in a real-world setting. It was definitely pivotal in making up my mind about a career change so I can only hope more opportunities like this will be created. The autonomy I had to learn about the program then communicate it with the public is a unique freedom I won’t get anywhere else. It left me feeling like I had contributed something significant to turtle conservation at Ningaloo.

I also had the chance to immerse myself in a new and very different place. Exmouth is a fantastic town to call home, even for a short time. The locals are friendly and welcoming. If you ever get the chance be sure to say hello to Jess at Ningaloo Bulk Foods who set up her shop to give people the opportunity to reduce waste, especially single use plastics (she also makes the world’s best peanut butter, a tasty souvenir). I had a blast exploring the area, above and below water and meeting all the creatures that call Ningaloo home. While I’ll probably never be able to name all the fish it has been fun to try! My brain is still overwhelmed by the experience and processing everything I’ve taken in as I write these posts weeks later. If you are considering joining the Ningaloo Turtle Program or doing some other science-based volunteer work all I can do is encourage you. This program relies on volunteers to function, while funding from sponsors provides a rental bus and accommodation and food allowances for team leaders there is no money to pay for people to do the actual work. Although getting paid to spend a few hours walking up the beach each morning is a marine scientist’s dream that just isn’t going to happen unless funding for science increases exponentially (hey, a girl can dream!). I’d encourage everyone to make the most of volunteer opportunities to do things they never otherwise would, how else would I get to spend two months at Ningaloo taking photos?! Finally, I’d like to thank the Ningaloo Turtle Program and all the staff at Exmouth Parks and Wildlife for an incredible summer!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 7

I headed out to Bungelup remote camp for the night, driving through a wind driven sandstorm. Red dust was flying across the road in a cloud and swirling above the ground. It was so windy, rattling past at 35-55kms an hour. It shook the car when I stopped. Arriving at camp the stationed team said they had barely slept the night before. I set up my swag then joined everyone reading, slipping into the very cruisy Bungelup routine. The remote camp has been set up to allow monitoring of the beaches here, which are part of one of the largest loggerhead turtle rookeries in the Eastern Indian Ocean Basin. I was here to brush up on everything I needed to know about running the remote camp before running one in 4 days’ time.

Two camp chairs sit between swags under the sun shade at Bungelup. Books and waterbottles at the ready.
The accomodations, while basic, are immensely relaxing at Bungalup

We made pizza for dinner in the BBQ and played uno, it was too windy to consider anything else. In my swag it was as if someone had left a light on, the moon was shining straight in. I zipped my swag up further. The wind was relentless. The trees and bushes around us shook all night long. My swag wobbled, the wind blew through it making me huddle further into my sleeping bag. I woke at 4am, when we said we might go looking for turtles coming to nest on the high tide. No one else moved. At 5.30 I heard movement and put my jumper on, ready to go monitoring. The tracks had almost been blown away.

Weird sculptures in the sand like a mini city of skyscrapers were left behind from a failed nesting attempt

Even the turtles didn’t want to come out last night. Along five kilometres of beach we only had two nests and one false crawl. Back at camp we had a quick breakfast, packed up and headed home. I hoped the Bungelup trip I would lead in a few days would have better weather.

Photo taken of the camp at night, which sits between the white ute and two casuarina trees that tower overhead. The night sky is blue and littered with little white spots - stars.

Back in town the next day the wind had died down. I went walking from Hunter’s to Mauritius. Along the way I saw a turtle digging a body pit in the side of a sand dune. I watched her for a while, thinking her head was towards the dune because of the direction she was flicking sand. She moved a lot. Her whole shell kind of wobbled side to side then she’d do a flick then another wobble then flick the other flipper. This went on for some time. It was close to 7am but she was shaded by the dune so maybe she didn’t know how late it was. Then her head popped up in the dune at the opposite end to where I thought. She’d been flicking sand over her head with her back flippers. Could turtle’s need a few years to practice what we assume are intuitive skills? This one certainly hadn’t read the how-to-nest manual.

A turtle heaves herself out of a hole she has dug in the side of a dune. Ready for nesting attempt number two.

That afternoon around sunset we all went looking for hatchlings at Five Mile. We walked up the beach then had to stop because a Hawksbill turtle was dragging herself out of the water. It was broad daylight and still quite hot, but off she went. Halfway up to the dunes she positioned herself parallel to the water and began digging a body pit. We crept up behind her when she began scooping out her egg chamber. She alternated using her back flippers to scoop a handful of sand out of the chamber, and dump it next to the hole. Her flippers were so dextrous, it reminded me of someone using their hands to scoop up free cherries at Christmas. She moved over the hole and began laying eggs.

Back view of a hawksbill turtle as she digs her egg chamber. Her flipper is in midair, flicking sand back over her head.
Close up of the rear flippers and shell of a hawksbill turtle. The sand below them is smooth where she has patted it down over her eggs.

We couldn’t see them but her body moved back and forth each time an egg came out. Finally she began covering, patting sand down on the eggs with her back flippers so skillfully. We slipped back as she began to camouflage the nest. This meant she was using her front flippers again to create a drag mark along the beach. The aim of this is to confuse predators because all the extra digging hides where the eggs are buried. Job done she headed back out to sea, the sun still hadn’t set. Hawksbill turtles are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN redlist. It was incredible to finally see a Hawksbill, in full daylight, and nesting too!

Side view of a hawksbill turtle on the beach. Her head is lifted in the air as she squints at the camera. Her pointed beak and face are a pale yellow colour.

The next was a very busy day. I finally got to monitor Burrows to Jurabi Point. This is the last section on the North West Cape completed by the leader that drives the bus. There were six nests and seven false crawls, all from green turtles. I’d been running a photo competition for all NTP volunteers (local and external) to enter. This was to encourage sharing photos, telling stories about their experience and collecting relevant images for the program to use in the future. Today was judging day, it was great to look through and pick winners. Once packed I headed to the ute where my two Bungelup volunteers had already started stowing their things. It took an hour to drive out, it was very windy all the way. Once settled in we spent the afternoon reading. A butcherbird sat on the fence and sang through its repertoire of bird noises including magpie, galah flying away, wren chirp and I think rosella. I used the camp stove to make veggie burritos followed by hot chocolate. After dinner we went out on the beach to look for loggerheads nesting but only found more wind and sand. The moon was about three quarters full so we didn’t need torches to find our way back to camp.

Bungelup camp in all its glory. We are looking at hte only building with the two rooms side by side. Both doors are open so we can see inside to the tubs of food and radio equipment on the right. The room on the left has sinks and is the washroom. A blue esky props the right side door open while the left leans on an old leaning BBQ.
All the amenities you could ever need
A butcherbird sits among the branches of a leafless tree. The whole image is in shades of grey. The bird has its beak slightly open in mid song.

I woke up a lot from the wind during the night. Monitoring the northern two sections we only had one nest and seven false loggerhead crawls. There were a tracks where it was obvious the turtle was missing a flipper, perhaps it had done multiple false crawls in the same night. Other turtles had been making sandcastles. After breakky we headed to Osprey Bay for a snorkel despite the wind. It’s a beautiful bay, with a campground sprawled along the coast beside it. We went in near the small boat ramp which is just an area of sand that cuts a path between the rocks lining the water’s edge. I saw a green turtle swimming along, convict surgeonfish picking algae off her shell, flippers and neck. Picasso triggerfish were everywhere, looking bluer than normal in the shallow water. They ducked into holes in the rock, which were full of tiny orange fish. There was no reef here, it was mostly algae, seagrass and tiny tufts of coral. I spent the afternoon back at Bungalup reading and writing until I cooked a curry. While we were eating a male dingo trotted along the road behind camp. It sniffed a bush, marked its territory then went back out along the road. I got up and closed the gate but it didn’t come back again.

This image shows a volunteer walking behind the dunes to give perspective on how far a turtle has crawled up the beach. The tracks stretch off into the horizon.

Our last morning at Bungelup saw more tracks action, four nests and 18 false crawls. It seemed like the turtles were all going further into the dunes to avoid the wind. One track went off the beach into the dunes about 40 metres back before looping around on itself and coming back the same way. We saw an osprey sitting on a rock on the beach eating a fish, but it quickly left as we approached. Walking back, we came across a brown snake in the middle of the beach. It seemed angry about our presence, curling into an S shape and rearing its head up. We backed away instantly but it moved around tasting the air with its tongue as if to work out where we’d gone. We went around behind the dunes to get past, the fact there was no antivenom in Exmouth running through my head. We found we were only 15 metres from the turnoff back to camp. After breakky we packed up and headed back to town, such a relaxing couple of days even with the wind and unfriendly snake!

Sunlit dunes, the ripples in the sand show the path the wind has left from the night before.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 6

This morning at Five Mile was magical. When I was trying to work out where the first two overlapping tracks went I saw sand spraying into the air. Looked again. Yup, it couldn’t be the wind making it do that. Then I heard the noise, kind of like a dry scraping thump. A turtle was nesting! I gave her plenty of space and saw two more turtles behind her, one on the rock platform between the sand and ocean, another making her way down the beach. We watched the other turtle make its way past the one lying on the platform. As soon as she got to the rockpool nearby she started swimming around, did a loop and swam up to the other one as if to check on it. Then she continued out over the rocks into a deeper pool where she swam around while I continued checking tracks.

Side view of a turtle on the beach, sand pours off her head and raised front right flipper

The nesting turtle was still flicking sand everywhere but then began making her way out of the hole she was in. She must have been covering her eggs. I watched her make her way down the beach. There was sand across one of her eyes and the salty excretion dripping down her face was also covered in sand. She moved onto the rocks. They were high and jagged so she had to climb up and over them. She crawled slowly up and over. Slowing down on the flat stretch, she seemed to catch her breathe. She went straight towards the ocean and disappeared over the lip of rocks into the sea.

A turtle among sharp rocks, flippers pulling her forward
A turtle stops on the rock platform to take a breath
Wave goodbye - back view of a turtle as it tips over the edge of the rock platform into the ocean, flippers flicking water up

I had my own section to monitor on Monday, from Hunters to Mauritius. It was really nice just walking alone along the beach. There were a few fishermen at the start of my section, yelling to each other and breaking the morning peace. Otherwise I had the beach to myself, only 3 nests and 3 false crawls along the 2.5 kilometre section. This was very quiet as I found out later the next section along had 24 turtle tracks recorded. Reaching the end I was still overwhelmed by flies. They were relentless. Sitting on the sand I tried to bury my head between my knees with my arms over my head, it kept all but one off my face. I went for a swim but they seemed to follow me, even the water wasn’t safe!  Back on the beach I watched the water. Everyone who did this stretch knew a loggerhead frequented the shore here. As if on cue she popped up to take a breath. Loggerheads are not as elegant looking as other turtles. They have black around their eyes and a large jaw for crushing their invertebrate prey. This combines to give them a big headed, eye-bulging appearance.

view of a broken sea urchin on the sand, white Aristotle's lantern (mouth parts) in the centre in perfect condition
Beach finds – Aristotle’s lantern in a sea urchin

Woodside Energy is the major sponsor for the Ningaloo Turtle Program this year. They have sent two representatives up to learn about the program. This is a good photo opportunity to post about on the NTP pages. There’s no room on the bus so I drove myself out to meet them at the end section. Along the way I saw a pack of five dingoes around a kangaroo carcass on the side of the road. Most of them ran off as I slowed my car down, pulling up on the opposite side of the road. One male continued to feed. Flies were everywhere, it kept stopping to snap at them. Shooting through the window I watched as another dingo joined it. This second dingo was a young female, only half the size of the male. The smaller one pulled at the kangaroo’s tail. They fed side by side for a bit, then the male started pulling out the kangaroo’s leg bones, cracking into its thigh. The smaller one decided to grab the spine and pull it from the body at the same time. Flies were all over it’s face. The male ran off behind my car and into the low scrub. The bush is short but thick, so he quickly disappeared. The smaller one continued feeding then did the same thing. What an incredible start to the morning!

Two dingoes pick at a kangaroo carcass, orange ion the early morning light
Two dingoes are head down, tail up in the carcass
The smaller female dingo looks back at me over her shoulder, the bushes and her rimmed by golden morning light

We went up to the lighthouse to watch the last sunset of the year, and the decade. There was a lot of haze on the horizon and otherwise a clear sky. It eventually went golden then the sun turned into an orange ball and drifted into the haze, turning into funny shapes, becoming square then just a smudge. We went down to Hunters beach and walked along it looking for hatchlings but saw none, just got sandy feet. Walking to my room later, I saw a flock of corellas fly over, white bodies contrasting starkly against the black sky.

The start of new year’s day, I could hear the usual corellas moving about as I got up at 5am. Heading out early I didn’t see any wildlife along the way apart from three bustards at the Lakeside turnoff. It was already windy there so I moved on to Turquoise Bay and did a walk around the bay. It was so calm. I saw a shark fin while sitting on the rocks at the northern end, staring at the sea and thinking about how full the last decade had been and how much I’d done that I never thought I would. It didn’t have a black tip, just a silver fin so I wasn’t sure what kind it was. I forced myself into the water at turquoise drift. The wind was coming up stronger, making the surface choppy and there was already a strong current so I didn’t stay in long. A blue spotted lagoon ray was feeding, kicking up clouds of sand with its movements. It allowed me to take a few photos then swam off, flapping its body over the coral.

A brown stingray covered in blue polka dots glides over the ocean floor

On the section Jacobsz South to Wobiri I came across a turtle still covering her eggs. In doing so she’d almost completely buried herself in her secondary body pit. There was sand all over her shell and head, you just saw the occasional flick of sand, sometimes a flipper. I waited for over twenty minutes and she was still covering the eggs, I waited some more. Eventually she’d covered them to her liking and dragged herself out of the hole this in itself took some time. Turtles must have extremely strong pectoral muscles because they only use their front flippers to pull themselves along. I’ve seen them heave themselves over rocks, down the beach and where they’ve gone up steep sand dunes I struggled to walk up myself. Turtles constantly amaze me with their strength and stubborn determination to nest and get back to sea.

Side view of a turtle as it moves down the beach, it's shell and head are heaped in sand
Portrait of the same turtle, sand is everywhere even piled around her eye and on top of her head

Sand poured off her but there was still a layer on her shell and head as she began crawling down the beach. Luckily she didn’t have far to go, it was starting to get hot. There were no rocks to cross either so she made her way back into the water quite quickly (for a turtle). Once her flippers were underwater a wave broke over her shell washing off the sand and leaving only patterned shell. She started flapping her flippers wildly to swim away. She poked her head above the water and snorted a jet of water from her nostrils. Walking back up towards the carpark I spotted a shovel nosed ray in the shallows. There can’t be a better start to the day then a walk on the beach at Ningaloo during nesting season.

Back view as the turtle disappears into the wash, a wave hits her shell washing the sand away

Exploring Ningaloo – week 5

Since Mitch and his parents arrived only two days ago it feels like a week has passed, we’ve fit so much in. The first afternoon I took them to Bundegi for a snorkel under the boat ramp. There were only a few schools of fish at first, then I saw a giant shovelnose ray. He quickly swam off across the bay though with his entourage of remoras. Looking in the shadows we found our first stonefish. A big reddish brown fellow, with a massive head, its body tapering like a teardrop from the large head and downturned mouth. It has the weirdest way of moving, instead of swimming it hops along the bottom. Knowing how it moved we could follow its strange hopping trail along the sandy bottom, winding its way from the base of a pylon into a discarded concrete cylinder. Somewhere along the way we picked up a juvenile trevally. This little yellow fish was about the size of my pinky, bright yellow with black vertical stripes. It had a large eye so when it slowed down I could clearly see it looking up at me as if to work out what I was. The little fish stayed with us no matter how fast we swam and when we hung around in the shallows would try to swim in the shade we cast.

A stonefish sits on the sandy bottom under the boat ramp. he looks unimpressed with his large, downturned mouth.
The little yellow trevally hovers beneath my hands, held together out in front as I snorkel. The water looks green.

The next day we were up early to head out into the park. Along the road we saw plenty of bustards. Stopping at Tantabiddi boat ramp to show them the osprey we were rewarded with one in the nest and another soon landing. We saw the parent osprey flying in carrying a surgeonfish and give it to the fledgling on the nest. A squabble of flapping wings and piercing cries quickly broke out over this new morsel, before a flurry of heavy wing beats. One flew off holding a damselfish that must have been delivered earlier. Not bad for a first day with the osprey!

Mitch: Watching this was incredible, but the opportunity to capture it was even better. I was lucky enough to be using a 70-200mm lens with a 1.7x teleconverter on my D850 body. This combination allowed me to fill the frame with the ospreys. It’s safe to say without the teleconverter these images just wouldn’t be as close. I’d be relying on a heavy crop to fill the frame. Not necessarily a problem with the resolution you can get out of the 850 but still potentially limiting. When shooting I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. The rest was time, patience and a bit of luck.

Continuing on we saw a dingo, more bustards and even snakes crossing the road, possibly pythons, they were very shiny and black. They also moved like lightning, so a quick glimpse was all we got. A black snake on a black road in 35 degrees makes for a very fast reptile. Yardie Creek is literally the end of the road as you need to go through water to cross it. Here we went for a walk along the top of the gorge overlooking the creek. More osprey were hanging around near the Yardie Creek tour boat. We could see the cliffs on the opposite side of the creek. They were red and perpendicular to the creek. A row of oysters grew straight at the waters edge, kept even by the tide. We saw black flanked rock wallabies in amongst the bushes, fossilised coral imprints were everywhere in the rocks. At a particularly steep downward section we turned back, a swim was calling us.

I took them to the Turquoise drift, it was cold but nice and clear again. We saw some sharks a black tip and a white tip. They always seem to be heading out in the northern section of the reef just before the rip. Mitch’s parents saw a turtle and there were the usual suspects of reef fish. I also saw a nudibranch swimming on the sand as if it had just been knocked off its perch. Next stop was Lakeside. It was very choppy but we had a nice quick swim with a few more sharks. One seemed to be circling its patch of reef. The osprey was on the sanctuary marker and today there were about five blue spot lagoon rays in the shallows where you walk onto the beach. The rays were skittish quickly taking off if you stepped into the water to get a closer look.

Another morning found us back at the ospreys. One fledgling was on the nest, another tried to fly in but the wind was so strong it couldn’t land, settling on a nearby post instead. The parent brought a fish and the one on the nest was all excited, flapping its wings and screeching as she flew closer. Another fledgling sat on a pole head into the wind down by the boat ramp. It was quite fluffed up and looked very unimpressed with the weather. Yet another osprey was sitting on a dead branch on the opposite side of a small lake next to the carpark. That makes five, so the two parents and three fledglings, what a good crop of young!

Lakeside was less choppy than the previous day and definitely worth it. A large grouper was resting next to a coral bommie, blue fish swam above it near the coral. A green turtle about 20-30 years old swam up, she was happy to hang out with us and take a few breaths before swimming on. Further along we saw a black tip. I was filming it when mitch went to duck dive and it suddenly shot up to the surface then away into the distance. I don’t think it had noticed Mitch was there. Out best guess is the shark thought the large shape moving above it was a much bigger predator. Heading off again I failed to film the blue spot stingrays resting in the shallows, they just didn’t want me close to them.

Christmas Eve was spent running around food shopping and preparing bulk salads for the 20 person lunch we were holding on Christmas day. Christmas morning was fairly relaxed, we set up gazebos, organised the tables and chairs and decorated with tinsel and lights. Lunch went down well, even if it was over 40 degrees and very humid. We went for a swim at Bundegi to cool off afterwards. The school of fish under the boat ramp seemed thicker than last time and swirled around the pylons endlessly. We followed a giant shovelnose ray away from the boat ramp across the sandy bay, it had three juvenile trevally with it. I wondered if one was our friend from the other day. We swam out to the white buoy about halfway across the bay and found a yellow sponge and fragments of algae covered coral.

Mitch and I went to watch the sunset at Hunters Beach. It was a nice night, we saw turtles mating near the shore and a few pop up for breath. The sun set to our right instead of over the ocean behind us, confusing my sense of direction. Afterwards we went for a walk along the beach and I showed Mitch turtle tracks in the sand. He loved watching the ghost crabs in the wash. Some would bury themselves under the sand others would be hit by waves and go tumbling. There was a new moon so no turtles were coming up to nest where we were. We headed to Surf Beach to look for more and saw an owlet nightjar on the road. It’s huge eyes fluoresced under the cars headlights before it quickly blasted off into the night. There were no turtles nesting at Surf Beach either.

Boxing Day I was monitoring Five Mile to Five Mile North and took everyone with me. Halfway along we saw a turtle heading back out to sea along the rock platform. It always amazes me how tough and leathery their flippers must be as they drag themselves over the sharp, rocky surface. She didn’t nest just a false crawl. No one was happy to hear that after seeing how much effort she must have put in to drag herself up the dunes, dig a body pit then crawl back across the rock platform. It was a lot of energy expended for no reward.

Mitch: Taking photos of a turtle dragging itself back into the water was always going to be a new experience. What I wasn’t ready for is realising they manage to lift their upper bodies up off the ground on their front flippers! There was no secret for capturing her hard slog down the beach, it was all about taking the time to watch her and understand how she moved. This includes the moment she found a rockpool deep enough for her head and decided plonking her face in and ignoring the world was a good idea. Not something I’ll forget anytime soon.

We went out for a snorkel at oyster stacks, there weren’t as many fish as other times I’d been and it was quite cold water for 9.30 in the morning! It wasn’t as clear as usual either and there wasn’t as much frenzied fish feeding. We spent most of our time finning hard against a surging current as the waves pushed us towards the sharp coral beneath us. We headed to Lakeside next which offered a little more sanctuary from the surge, but the same roaring current. Seeing a huge grouper under the coral, a turtle happy to have us swim near her made the leg burning swim worthwhile. We still ended up sucked down the length of the beach by the rushing water. On leaving we ran into the NTP group, all standing under their gazebo on the beach applying sunscreen. We told them about the current then were off to say goodbye to the ospreys.

Breakfast on their last day in Exmouth at Social Society was a large affair (the meals that is). I ordered avocado toast and it came piled high with pepitas, feta and a poached egg. After dropping everyone at the airport the car temperature gauge read 50 degrees as if to remind me it definitely gets hot here. I headed back to the office to catch up on a few things and found a book on turtles with lots of pictures, perfect for me and a slow afternoon. After grocery shopping my fridge was full again. I settled down with a mango smoothie to read the turtle book and get used to being by myself once more.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 3

I walked Jacobsz South to Wobiri today to record tracks. I was dropped off on the side of Yardie Creek Road with another lady to walk 500 metres along a soft, sandy 4wd track to the beach. We saw emu and dingo footprints and chatted along the way. She had moved here recently from North Dakota USA, which is close to Canada, leaving their snow clothes in storage. Her husband had begun working at the solar observatory in Exmouth. This facility is staffed by a mix of Bureau of Meteorology observers and US defence force personnel. They observe and monitor things like solar flares which are really important for GPS. I guess if you owned any satellites you’d want to keep an eye out for blasts from the sun that could destroy them. This observatory is one of only a dozen or so in the world. I’d never even heard of it before coming to Exmouth.

Down on the beach we headed in opposite directions. I soon came upon a green turtle track surrounded by dingo pawprints. There were no human footprints other than mine on the beach. Following the turtle track up into the dunes, the dingo pawprints covered the track, there were three different sized paw marks in the sand. The turtle had dug one body pit then left, maybe the dingoes had disturbed her nesting. No other turtles nested on the beach that night, one had done a quick u-turn as soon as it emerged from the water. Makes me think the dingoes were hanging around on the beach all night.

Dingo paw prints and turtle tracks cross over in this image looking up the sand
Two dingoes and a turtle are walking up a beach…

After monitoring we began preparing for the external volunteer welcome BBQ. There were 12 external volunteers travelling to Exmouth from all over Australia to help out with the Ningaloo Turtle Program’s intensive monitoring period. We welcomed them with burgers followed by fruit salad and ice cream then they were off to bed after their day of travel. The group are a good mix of people, with different ages and backgrounds (not just science graduates). I’m looking forward to getting to know them over the next five weeks.

For the volunteer’s first day of beach training, I headed out with them to take some photos. We walked Five Mile to Five Mile North, which is the only site where you return to the same carpark, where we’d left the bus. It was chaos in turtle tracks. There were emerges and returns overlapping along the section, we had a loggerhead track which looked like a hawksbill, a real hawksbill track and nest which was difficult to tell apart from a false crawl. A false crawl is when a turtle comes up the beach and either walks straight back to the water or begins digging a hole then abandons it without nesting. We use our judgement based on the evidence to determine if we think a turtle has nested successfully. The only way to be certain is to have someone on every beach, each night, watching every turtle. This is clearly not possible or realistic, so we base our assessment on the presence of an escarpment (sand bank formed by when the turtle digs a primary body pit), misting (sand thrown over the emerge track when the turtle digs), uprooted vegetation and the texture of the sand (if you stand on a real nest you sink quickly, though not enough to damage the eggs).

The poor vollies were a bit overwhelmed after being thrown in the deep end with this beach, hopefully tomorrow’s will be a little easier. We got a call over the radio from Heather, a WA Parks and Wildlife officer, leading the other group. She was down on Mauritius and had a clear loggerhead track and nest to show them. She also had a nest that had been predated by dingoes. She’d covered most of it over but there were still fresh curled up pieces of eggshell and yolk drying in the sun. Digging up nests is a learnt behaviour for dingoes, it is not an instinct for them to dig up nests they learn it from seeing other dingoes do it. In this situation the turtle had not done much to cover this nest so we assumed the dingoes had found the turtle while she was laying. If Dingoes had learnt to dig up nests we’d be seeing many more predation events across the beaches we monitor, so far this was the first one recorded this season.

Turtle egg shells are scattered in the dug out nest of a green turtle
All that remains following a dingo’s breakfast

This week also saw us taking all the external volunteers and meeting some locals at Bungelup camp. We spent a sweaty morning loading the trailer and back of two utes with all our swags and cooking equipment, even a portable fridge. Our first stop was the Milyering visitor centre so the volunteers could hire snorkel gear and check the place out. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimens and found objects like sea urchin tests and birds nests complete with eggs. It gave me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, which was hard to comprehend when nothing was out during most of the day.

Next stop was Sandy Bay for a swim. Another sheltered bay with aqua water and amazingly white sand. No coral here but a few people saw a turtle, we also watched a dingo walk along the beach in the distance. Back on the bus we arrived just after the trailer with all the swags and set up camp. We all shared a rock to bang the tent pegs into the ground (later finding the mallets). Sunset was spent at the beach while the pasta cooked. Dinner went down well, after helping with all the washing up I stayed for the very competitive trivia night.

Seven swags are set up together amongst the bushes, the sun sets behind them
Swag city Bungelup
Sunset at Bungelup beach, the sand is golden and the beach is covered with footprints.
Bungelup beach at sunset – waiting for the turtles to come up

We were on the beach before breakfast looking at loggerhead tracks. We saw dolphins, they were jumping sideways out of the water and looked quite frisky. Ghost crabs ran into the water and were tumbled around in the wash. I headed back early to help cook pancakes for breakky and pack up.

A dolphin sticks its head vertically out of the water, eye looking directly at the camera
A sandy track leads from the middle right of the photo back across the frame and curves out of sight behind the spinifex and low scrub. You can just make a ridge line out in the distance.
Road out of the remote camp

Back on the road we stopped in at Turquoise Bay for a snorkel, it was the clearest I’d ever seen it. I had a reef shark swim past and saw three adult angelfish in one little patch. They were all different species from the small, navy keyhole angelfish to the larger blue and sixband angelfishes. I’ve loved angelfish ever since seeing a juvenile one on my first open water dive. The juveniles are completely different colours to the adults. The emperor juvenile I saw all those years ago was dark blue with neon blue and white lines forming concentric circles and spots. It’s adult form has yellow and blue horizontal stripes, like a circus outfit. I’ll keep an eye out for juvenile angelfish at Ningaloo, they would be amazing to see again. It was a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon and all the volunteers loved getting out to see the reef.

By Friday, training was over for the volunteers and they all passed their assessments. We celebrated by getting a heap of pizzas. Sunday night we went out to mark off all the old tracks ready to begin fresh on Monday for four weeks of daily monitoring. After dropping everyone off I parked the bus and walked a kilometre along a sandy four wheel drive track to the beach. It was full of rocks then soft sand, there was no easy place to walk, no wonder the bus couldn’t come in here. Once at the beach I drew my line from the totem pole down to the high tide mark and started walking. It was only 1.5 kilometres but there were a lot of tracks. The high tide had come up most of the beach so the tracks were all in the dunes in soft sand. As I turned around to walk back the sun had already started sinking. I walked as fast as I could. There was a turtle beginning to drag herself out of the water I gave her a wide berth, walking up into the dunes to get around. The sun set during the drive but luckily I got everyone home before dark. We were ready to get to work!

Image of the sunset over the ocean, there are no clouds but the sky is gold and orange, this light is reflected in the sand in the foreground, the waves almost look black as the light fades

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth – Part 2

Kalbarri to Exmouth

The next day was free to explore Kalbarri National Park. The park is huge, it took us a half hour drive from town to reach the first walk called Nature’s Window. Yellow tailed black cockatoos were eating banksia seeds in the trees on the side of the road. When we tried to approach closer on foot they flew off, making their melancholy echoing call. We were one of the first cars in the carpark, it was only 7am but we were here early to beat the heat. Heading downhill the concrete path soon turned to rock as we followed the rim of a gorge. To our left you could see over the cliffs to the u-shaped bend of the Murchison River. The river far below us traced its way along the bottom of the gorge. Tiny black dots moved around on the sand. Putting my camera to my eye and zooming my telephoto as far as it could go, I found they were goats drinking at the water’s edge.

Pools of water sitting on yellow sand at the bottom of Murchison gorge, a layered red sedimentary wall.
Murchison Gorge in Kalbarri National Park
A blue green river winding through a red walled gorge
An undercut rock in the Murchison River

Following the path around a rock wall, using natural stepping stones carved out of it by wind and water we came to Nature’s Window. The window itself is a sedimentary arch with a hole in the middle of it through which you can see the gorge and the river. There is a small platform of rock on one side where other tourists were standing taking photos of each other. We walked around them and continued down the rock and along the path. We were on the track for the Murchison Gorge loop walk which takes 3-4 hours and loops down into the gorge, along the river and back up. As we are walking along the gorge rim, we have to be mindful of where we step, to either side is an incredible view but also a long drop. We reach a sign that tells us if we haven’t made it to this point before 7.30am do not attempt the Loop walk. We had no plans to spend that long out in the heat, already carrying 2 litres of water each for our short stroll. In the gorge it can be 10 degrees hotter than on the rim, where it was already climbing towards 40 degrees by 9am.

We walked a little further and found a shaded spot to eat our snack. Wrens teased us from nearby pushes with their high-pitched squeaks but we couldn’t spot them. A kestrel soared gracefully overhead, landing on a nearby rock outcrop. From its landing spot it could sit in the shade and look out over the entire gorge.

A small kestrel perched on the edge of a red gorge wall
A Nankeen Kestrel perched on the edge of the Murchison Gorge

I wonder what it thinks of the view? Probably couldn’t care less as it sees it every day! We were impressed though, the river below was a deep green, contrasting with the yellow sand of the riverbed and the orange rocks that form the sides of the gorge. Low green scrub was dotted through the sand, as were the tracks of animals that come in for a drink. From our height we could only make out the three toed emu prints.

Two sets of footprints on yellow sand
Goats and emu tracks

The bushes continue to grow in the rocky gorge country but don’t give much shade giving an empty feeling to the place. We were getting very hot and head back to the car, on our way into the carpark we pass by the ‘intrepid adventurers’ heading to natures window for a photo. Hats and other sun protection seemed like an optional afterthought for most of this group, most carried only their phones for that precious selfie, but no water. Same it was now 48 degrees in the shade. Their driver was finishing off a quick cigarette then hurried after them, presumably to round them up and drive on to the next photo opportunity.

A single long gum tree on the edge of the green Murchison river
Looks so clear and inviting, shame its such a long walk down to the water

We had a quiet afternoon to ourselves, checking out a few more lookouts but it was too hot to brave anymore walks. We thought we’d check out a snorkelling spot but after driving back to town realised a strong wind had picked up. Ever hopeful we headed to the beach to find it was so exposed the wind howling even stronger, and it was low tide so the rockpool snorkelling site the tourist information board recommended had barely any water covering the sharp rocks. Oh well, back in the air conditioning we rested and packed to continue our journey.

As we drove away from Kalbarri early the next day falcons and eagles hovered above the road as if to wish us farewell. Our next stop was a place called shell beach. As a shell lover I was very excited to see a beach completely made of shells. On the drive we’d had glimpses of turquoise blue ocean and were looking forward to a mid-morning swim to cool down. We couldn’t have been more disappointed! As we parked the car the intrepid bus drove off, they were finally ahead of us, a worrying sign. The first interpretive sign stated the water was hypersaline so if you went swimming you would come out with a layer of salt on your skin. No thanks. At least there was still a beach full of shells, I thought to myself. Reaching the beach, I first thought we’d come to the wrong place. It was super windy and the ground was white, the surface was piled into waves from the wind so heading towards the ocean meant walking up and down small slopes. Bending down I found we were in the right place; the shells were there. But they were tiny! The pipi shaped Fragum Cockle shells were the size of my fingernail if I was lucky to find a large looking one. Well that’s not what I imagined! After a few photos we headed back to the carpark, the wind blowing us back the whole way and whipping dust across our legs.

The millions of white fragum cockle shells
It truly is a beach of shells

Driving on along the unchanging road we reached our next stop, the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. The stromatolites may be the oldest living organism but boy they aren’t much to look at! After walking down the beach we could see an exposed area from the low tide which looked like a field of rocks. We struck unlucky again, learning you couldn’t swim near the stromatolites, there was just a short boardwalk that took you on a loop out to see them. Even on the furthest point seaward the stromatolites below us were barely in ankle deep water. And oh the flies! We still spent the best part of an hour having a look and appreciating the ancient structures below us. Small fish swam from the shade of one stromatolite to another then stopped still. Under the boardwalk swallows flew when we walked over top, moving to another area in the shade. The area looked empty as all signs of life (apart from the stromatolites) sought shelter from the harsh midday sun.

Black stromatolite pillars surrounded by blue water
The Hamelin Pool stromatolites, formed from mats of bacteria slowly constructing self supporting pillars

Our stop that night was at Carnarvon, after arriving late we cooked up pasta and made an impressive salad, we’d been missing vegies on this roadtrip! When it was time for bed I became fascinated with the bedside lamps which turned on and off if you lightly tapped the base with a fingertip. Maybe I’d spent too long in the sun.

The next day we were very excited to reach Coral Bay and spend some time in the water. We’d read about a nursery area for reef sharks at skeleton beach so headed there first. To get there you have to park the car then walk for thirty minutes along the beach. Trudging in the sand, the sun beating down and heading against the wind our spirits were still up to see sharks. We reached the point we’d aimed for and headed into the water to find…nothing. The odd bit of algae covered coral, barely a fish and definitely no sharks. We investigated thoroughly, but found nothing. There was hardly any coral to speak of so we couldn’t work out why this place had been called Coral Bay either. Defeated we stopped by the bakery for a snack and to re-plan.

The other snorkelling spot was the bay itself (Bill’s bay) so we headed there, covered in a new layer of sunscreen. The bay was protected from the wind and very still. An arc of white sand curved around to meet the turquoise water, below it we could see dark shapes. Diving in we found the reef at last! As far as you could see, then once you’d swum there and looked even further – was coral. It covered the ocean floor like a carpet, you couldn’t see any sandy patches. It was like a layered garden with branching coral growing over horizontal plate corals and around large boulder like Porites coral that grow only a centimetre or less per year and would be hundreds of years old. Now we understood why this place got its name. There was about half a metre of water between us and the coral carpet below. It was mostly brown in colour with the occasional fluoro blue staghorn coral breaking up the single colour palette. There were very few reef fish living among the coral, the odd school of blue green Chromis here and there and a wrasse occasionally. We soon had our fill of looking at coral and headed on to our final destination – Exmouth.

First impressions of Exmouth were typical of every town we’d recently been in. Very hot, one main street and barely any trees with only low bushes on the roadside. Similar to most other places the first two options we tried for dinner were closed, which isn’t surprising as this is the quiet season when no whalesharks and their accompanying tourists are around. Up early on our second last day we heard short beaked corellas calling as we drove towards Cape Range National Park. A dingo slunk along the side of the road.

a red dust path down the side of a grey walled gorge
Mandu Mandu Gorge, looking back over the scramble we’d just descended

Over 40 kilometres in we came to our first stop, Mandu Mandu gorge walk. The trail loops along the top of a gorge with views to the ocean, then cuts back through the dry creek bed. We saw our first black-flanked rock wallaby, a bit mummified, and dead in the middle of the path in the baking sun. All was going well heading uphill but as a grade four walk it was so incredibly steep going downhill I was terrified. I ended up scooting on my bum for most of it, which was made even more embarrassing when a pair of French girls with no water or backpacks came from the opposite direction.

A male figure standing at the top of a grey wall of rock
Mitch at the top of on side of Mandu Mandu Gorge

“How is the trail?” They asked,

“A bit steep and slippery in places” Mitch replied.

They were off on their way again. We didn’t tell them about the decomposing wallaby, best save that as a surprise.

A male figure picking his way down the path of a gorge wall
Making our way down

My legs were shaking and I was swearing off ever doing this walk again by the time we’d reached halfway. Hitting the creek bed the heat washed over us but luckily the breeze returned occasionally. Walking over the large white pebbles was tough, every second step the whole ground would move beneath your foot. Halfway along the creek bed Mitch pointed up at the cliffs towering above us. In the shade, on a ledge less than a metre wide sat a black-flanked rock wallaby. There was no clear way for it to get up there but in the only cool place it sat, sleeping. It blinked blearily at us once as we passed fifteen metres below it then went back to its slumber. Further on we made like the wallaby and found a shady overhang to eat our snacks.

A grey and black wallaby resting in the shade of an orange and red gorge wall
A dozing black flanked wallaby

Next stop, Ningaloo Reef. Turquoise Bay drift snorkel was where we ended up. Stepping over hot sand full of coral pieces we made our way up the beach. Into the water where there was…nothing. Just sand for the first twenty metres or so. It was quite stirred up so you had the feeling of needing to clean your glasses the entire time. Unlike coral bay there was no mass of coral, it was dotted everywhere in patches and small bommies. There were many more reef fish though which prompted me to buy a book and work out what they were at the visitor centre later that day. We disturbed a stingray feeding on the bottom, Mitch spotted another octopus tucked into a coral head. I still have no idea how he sees something so camouflaged.

Getting out we made a few stops on the long drive back, we had to slow down for emus and completely stop for Bustards along the road. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimen’s sea urchin tests and birds’ nests complete with eggs. It did give me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, you definitely couldn’t tell if there was much alive by being outside! We ended up back at the Potshot Hotel restaurant for dinner, just in time for cheap parmy night. We didn’t make the same mistake as last night in sitting outside with the flies, instead choosing a table in the dark, cool of inside.

Our last day together was slow, we had a long breakfast at a vegetarian & vegan café that seemed to attract everyone with a child under three. Dropping Mitch off and finally walking out of the airport I crumbled a little inside, this was our first time apart in over a year and a half. Would I survive in Exmouth on my own? Who would open jars for me? And more importantly could I even do this? 

To be continued…

Small, Blue and Fast

Science in the field: Superb Fairy Wrens

It was an overcast morning when we walked into Campbell Park, kangaroos stared disinterestedly at us while munching grass. The researcher we had just met had taken her boots off and was standing in calf deep cold water reaching into a blackberry bush. With feet sinking into the mud, arm buried among the thorns, Claire carefully reached into a superb fairy-wren nest. She soon emerged victorious with three tiny wren eggs in her hand. Cautiously stepping out of the cold mud Claire went off to measure the eggs. Oh the glamour of research!

Claire, the researcher, standing in calf deep mud and water reaching head and shoulders into a dead brown and tan blackberry bush to collect wren eggs
Isn’t research glamorous

Claire Taylor is in the 3rd year of her PhD studies at the Australian National University. She is looking at factors that influence maternal investment within superb fairy-wrens. So far this has involved a lot of field work, with 32 breeding pairs of wrens being monitored in this field season alone. The season runs from September to February, although this can be cut short if there is a week of hot weather early in the new year.

“We haven’t studied it,” said Claire, “but it could be parents aren’t able to maintain their body condition or there’s a short supply of insects during hot conditions, its an interesting observation we’ve seen over the 20 years of field work.”

The heat, especially those 40-degree days, can slightly speed up the incubation process, though not by more than a day. All of this potentially has interesting implications as the climate continues to undergo change. A greater percentage of hot days is predicted. This could impact breeding and incubation, though this isn’t part of Claire’s work currently.

Claire spends a decent chunk of every day walking around Campbell Park in all weather conditions, looking for new nests, checking eggs and feeding birds as part of a food supplementation experiment.

Fairy-wren nests suffer high levels of predation from other birds and snakes, that snack on eggs or chicks. While these nests are brilliantly camouflaged and hidden in blackberry bushes, using the same nest after a predation event isn’t an ideal fix. This means the wrens will choose a new spot to rebuild the nest and lay another clutch of eggs. Over the season they can have up to 8 breeding attempts each with up to four eggs. And with a 1.5 gram egg from a nine gram bird that’s a significant amount of effort going into producing offspring consistently in one season. I had no idea breeding for these tiny birds was so difficult!

“There was one bird”, Claire said, “who spent eight years brooding clutches, but through all those breeding seasons only raised one set of chicks to adulthood, that was in 2018”.

These little birds really are determined not to fail!

A hand holding the white egg with red speckles of a superb fairy wren as its removed from its nest in a thorny blackberry bush as part of an ANU research program.
Not only are the eggs tiny, wrens also love blackberry to nest in… apparently cruelty to researchers is ok

“Like a lot of animals that invest time into multiple breeding events in a season, they end up with very high predation rates. Somewhere in the order of 66% of nests for wrens” Claire told us as we followed her deeper into Campbell Park.“The danger zone is the first year, after that survivorship increases as the birds become part of the population”.

Superb fairy-wrens are also a victim of the Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo, which features in Claire’s research. The adult cuckoo is twice as large as a fairy-wren and is a brood parasite. This means it will lay its egg in the wren’s nest. The cuckoo chick hatches and pushes the wren chicks or eggs out of the nest so it can receive all the food from the parent wrens.

“The interesting part is the cuckoo chick usually spends its first two days of life busily shoving an egg only just smaller than itself out of the nest before the wren hatches” said Claire.

Three white wren eggs with red speckles being kept warm in a hand before they are measured. A large feather that's used as bedding material in wren nests is resting between two of the tiny eggs.
Wren eggs have a distinctive red speckled ring on the blunt end

When monitoring the nests, Claire checks regularly to see if any eggs have been laid. To do this she first checks the area for predators, like kookaburras, currawongs or magpies. If these are nearby, she waits for them to move away or if they’re taking their time, walks towards them so they fly off. Needless to say, some of these predators prefer to hop from fence post to fence post rather than move on straight away. Once the coast is clear, Claire can stick her hand among the blackberry thorns into the nest. There were 3 eggs in each of the nests we checked. They are white with reddish brown spots, typically forming a halo around the wider end of the egg. It’s hard to convey how delicate they are, weighing only 1.5 grams and measuring roughly 17 millimeters long, I’m definitely too clumsy to ever hold one! Claire carefully weighs each egg, measures them using calipers and takes a photograph of the clutch. While each egg takes its turn, an assistant with warm hands carefully holds the others, this is another job not suited to me with my reptile-like body temperature but was perfect for Mitch.

A white wren egg with red speckles cradled in a hand while a pair of white calipers is used to measure its length.

While walking to the next nest Claire told us how the wrens actually make their tiny nests;

“First, they collect spider web and shape it into a donut-like ring. Next, they collect sticks and twigs to form the nest structure around the ring, before making the nest cosy by lining the inside floor with crimson rosella belly feathers or kangaroo fur”.

The nests blend so well into the blackberry bushes that finding them is a skill in itself. Once, Claire was lucky enough to see a wren flying into a bush with a stick in its beak, this led her straight to the nest under construction. It also looked quite comical to see a small bird carrying such a large twig.

The final nests just had to be checked to determine if any eggs had been laid yet. We went off track a little and through the bush on a hilly walk. The clouds were finally starting to disperse and the sun was struggling to shine through. At the last nest we came across a shingleback lizard sunning itself on the ground nearby, but no eggs.

Back at the carpark Claire showed us her nest book. It contained carefully recorded details for each nesting pair, including the band colours for each bird and updates on each date detailing things like nest building progress or the age of eggs.

“It started extremely detailed, noting location of the pairs and how to find the nest” Claire told us, “it’s become more of a shorthand now I know where I’m finally going”.

We’re hoping to get out another day with Claire and, fingers crossed, see some wren chicks!

A green chicken wire mesh cage over a supplementary feeding tray. A male Superb fairy wren with his bright blue cheeks, back and tail sits on a blackberry branch inside the exclusion cage.
Claire’s research includes supplementary feeding experiments aimed at understanding how food availability impacts offspring

P.S.

…A month later we got the chance to go out again. Claire emailed Friday night,

“I’ll be banding a clutch of chicks tomorrow and was wondering if you had a spare hour in the morning to come out?”

Of course, who would knock back an opportunity to see wren chicks!

So, Saturday morning we met at 7am and headed off to the nest. Passing a dried out dam, we reached the right blackberry bush and Claire stopped a short distance away to prepare. She pulled out a plastic container full of tiny, different coloured metal pieces, a scientific beading kit?

“All the wrens in the project have a numbered silver band and two coloured bands so I can identify the birds and easily tell who is from which clutch” Claire explained.

Researcher Claire in a brown Akubra hat and purple top carefully preparing to add a leg band to a superb fairy wren chick.
Preparing to band a tiny chick is delicate work

“I’m an R class bander which means I can band the superb fair-wrens without supervision, over the past few years I’ve banded almost 300 wrens”.

Sticking her arm among the thorns of a blackberry bush Claire, reached into a well concealed nest. She pulled out a small black pin feathered chick. Two other eggs were inside, but those probably wouldn’t hatch now. An adult male wren scurried around in the bush.

“He’s doing a rodent-run to draw us away from the nest” Claire said.

A small wren chick resting inside a egg cup shaped weighing bowl about to be placed onto a micro balance scale.
A soft cushion before being gently eased into the micro-balance for weighing

Back at the banding station Claire weighed the tiny bird, carefully settling it onto a cotton wool covered bowl to place it into the scale. She used callipers to get a tarsus measurement (the birds leg between the knee joint and ankle, where the foot begins). This will compare the size of the chicks in different experimental treatments as the weight may change depending on how recently the chick was fed. Next the little chick was blinged up, the silver numbered tag was put on its left leg, to differentiate it from the banded wrens at the Australian National Botanic Gardens which all had this tag on their right legs. The coloured tags given to this little one were green-mauve and red-blue, which gives the wren its name gmRB.

A wren chick with tiny black pin feathers  after the metal band has been placed onto its left leg.
Metal band in place

During the whole process the little chick looked very relaxed, I thought banding would be difficult but the little one was very cooperative and stayed still. There was a lot of chirping, its surprising how much noise can come from such a small animal.

“The chick in this nest is 7 days old, it’s got its pin feathers already and is just starting to get some fluff”.

A wren chick staring up at the camera as a green and purple plastic band is added to its right leg.
It almost doesn’t look impressed

Then Claire offered me the chance to hold the baby! I couldn’t get over how small it was, the little bird was so warm in my hand. It’s amazing to think if I come back in a few months this little wren might survive the odds and be flying around the park. Moments like these really put me into a researchers shoes and I can begin to understand the amazing things they get to do and see which so many people never will. Claire reclaimed the baby and popped it back in the nest, definitely the highlight of our day!

A wren chick with black and grey pin feathers held in two hands.
So very cute with so much growing to do yet

Over the next few months Claire will be back out every day, checking nests and continuing with the feeding experiment. We’re lucky to have joined her for part of the amazing work she’s doing and see what other people get up to in their day job. Looking forward to hearing the findings of her research as it unfolds.

If your enjoying our science stories why not read about monitoring eastern quolls at mulligans flat or the captive breeding of new holland mice.

Don’t forget to like and follow us to keep reading about the fascinating research occurring in Australia.

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth

Western Australia Adventure Part 1

We left Canberra in the dark on a chilly morning, arriving in Perth 6 hours later in jeans and jackets. That was the first mistake. Perth was experiencing a heatwave, four consecutive days over 35 degrees, the second time this has ever happened in November. Our taxi driver seemed to be economising and preferred to have the windows down instead of turning on the aircon for the half hour drive out of the airport. Day dreaming about shorts and cold drinks was practically mandatory.

The rear portion of the Batavia ship wreck sitting on a plinth of bricks it was carrying as ballast.
The Batavia at rest

After picking up the rental car we were off exploring Fremantle. We stumbled on the WA Shipwrecks Museum and had to go inside. Silver coins and tales of destruction abounded, we also got to see part of the Batavia which wrecked as it ran aground on reefs off the Abrolhos islands in 1629. If you haven’t heard of this ship Peter Fitzsimmons has written a brilliant book, telling the tragic story of mutiny and murder following the wreck. It’s hard to fathom, but is backed up by journals form the captain, and even the chief mutineer Jeronimus Cornelisz. It’s a tale filled with death, destruction, hardship and evil. The museum speaks to the harsh coastline on this side of the country. That Jeronimus still journaled his actions and justified every outcome as just and needed is a fascinating thought.

Treasures, shipments and salvage from multiple wrecks fill the museum. Each with a story of loss and all holding secrets that were slowly uncovered through careful examination and conservation.

A pile or silver coins pulled from shipwrecks on WAs coast, including one with the head of a monarch and its date of stamping clearly visible.
I’m sure they wouldn’t miss one or two of these…

Heading back out into the heat we had our choice of fish and chip shops along the waterfront. We made the mistake of choosing one with an aquarium tank inside, a discovery made well after we’d ordered. It was brimming with large snapper and sharks all wedged into a 50cm wide rectangle that stretched down the length of the floor space. This is always a sad sight, made more so by the group of school children that crowded around to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ at the trapped creatures.

The next morning, we were set to go to Rottnest Island, but missed our ferry by moments. Our run from the car over to the marina was sound tracked by horn blasts as our boat left the dock. Luckily, we were moved to the next one, and passed the hour and a half wait by drinking juices in the shade. The Island was named by Dutch traders, who mistook the resident marsupial quokkas for rats naming it in Dutch to a very literal translation of Rat’s Nest Island. Around 10,000 of the small, happy looking marsupials live on the island. The strange half hop and run they move with makes them an easy if slightly large animal to confuse with a rat. We can only guess at how the population fared as a source of food for hungry sailors.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand.
Our unnamed cove

Once at the island we picked up bikes and headed off. Our plan was to cycle to the end of the island and choose somewhere to snorkel on the way back. Ten minutes in we saw our first quokka but it already had a lady shoving a phone in its face so we pedalled on. It was clearly very curious stretching forward to sniff at the outstretched phone, but swiftly lost interest as it decided Samsung wasn’t quite the same as leaves.

Forty minutes later we were only about halfway, it was much hillier than Google Maps lead us to believe. It was hot, the flies were relentless and the incredible aqua colour on our left beckoned. The asphalt stretching in front of us definitely didn’t. We took a quick left onto an offshoot, parked our bikes at a headland overlooking Mary Cove and scurried down a scarcely used trail. Taking a sand track down along the cliff edge skirting precarious undercut sandstone we arrived at the beach in a unnamed bay west of Mary Cove. We had it all to ourselves. Dumping our bags in the only shade of an overhanging rock we quickly darted into the water. We were shocked to feel how cold the water was, almost painfully cutting through our overheated skin.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand. A male figure is walking along a white sand track above the bay.

Diving under I got my first glimpse of an Indian Ocean temperate reef. Seaweed covered rocks were littered across the sand, some forming larger bommies. Pink branching coral grew sparsely from the larger rocks. Silver fish darted everywhere, with larger grunter lazily circling.

Pink branching coral scattered amongst green and yellow algae.
Macro algae and coral, seems strange to see together

After an hour we headed out to have lunch. The problem was something else had decided it was a perfect time for a snack too. Two large skinks had dragged themselves onto my backpack filling the space between the bag and it’s backplate. They must have followed the smell of our ham and salad rolls! Shooing them away I retreated to eat lunch while the skinks kept watch from the shade. Every now and then they’d slink a little closer, eyes fixed on our rolls. Warily we headed back into the water, unsure if the backpacks were safe from intruders.

A snorkeler watching a squid as it flashes brown and yellow bands.
Friendly neighbourhood squid

We came across an octopus in its garden of shells in the sand and a small orange nudibranch slowly working his way up a boulder to a small patch of encrusting sponge. While waiting for Mitch to take a photo I noticed a very small silver flash circling his legs. He’d picked up an incredibly small juvenile tuna, who’d obviously decided this large slow moving creature was the perfect thing to shelter under.

We cycled faster on the way back, less distracted by panoramic views of cliffs against aqua and deep blue ocean and pushed in places along the road by the strong wind. We stopped once when Mitch saw a quokka with a joey trailing behind it, dart into the bushes on the edge of the road. Nestled in the shade were a few skittish quokkas that moved quickly away as they heard us approach.

A cormorant sitting on a rock surrounded by water, wings raised about to take flight.
Maybe not the sneakiest of photographers… definitely spotted by the cormorant

We stopped for another snorkel at Little Salmon Bay. Tourists lounged on the sand and took photos of each other posing, ignoring the beckoning water and outcrops of rock jutting upwards. We jumped in and saw a squid right away, it flashed waves of brown and white across its mantle before quickly jetting away over the weed. Swimming out to a rock I was within centimetres of a cormorant as it sunned itself on the rock poking out of the water above me. I drifted too close, scaring it off its perch.

Back in town we finally found the quokkas in numbers the island was known for. These town quokkas were very different to the wild ones we’d seen. They were poking around for scraps, dozing next to the road or staring with their happy smiles up at people as they snacked in the square. We watched tourists go from one quokka to the next taking photos and selfies of the animals which didn’t seem to care anymore. It somehow wasn’t as exciting as the wild skittish animals we knew were hidden further away from the tourist centre. We wandered down the jetty, boarding our ferry to be shipped back to the mainland.

Hundreds of natural yellow rock pillars, framed by white sand dunes in the background and a crystal clear blue sky.
Yellow desert, white dunes and clear blue sky

Our first stop out of Perth was the Pinnacles desert park in Nambung National Park. Following a very short detour off the highway and even shorter trek from the carpark you find yourself in a yellow sand desert. Thousands of limestone rock pillars are dotted randomly around you, stretching out to the horizon. We saw tourists walk to the nearest rock, pose for a photo in little more than running gear then head back to the car. Definitely not why we’d come. We set off away from the loop road that winds among the rocks. Out where there were less human footprints. We saw animal tracks abound in the sand, perenties (goannas), red kangaroos, echidnas and two footed marsupials we couldn’t recognise. It was about 38 degrees, so after an hour in full sun under one of the clearest, bluest skies we’ve seen, we headed back to the air con. Rewarded for stepping away from the well-trodden path.

A close up of a brown limestone pillar with hundreds more visible in the background scattered amongst the yellow desert sand.
One of the thousands of limestone pinnacles

A large white tour bus pulled out of the carpark in front of us, ‘intrepid adventures’ it claimed on the back. Little did we know this bus would remain a constant feature of our road trip. Continuing our drive, the road never really changed. There aren’t really large trees in Western Australia along the coastal route. Low shrubs line the highway which makes way to sand or red dirt depending on how far north you are. Eagles and kestrels soar over the road on updrafts or sit by the side when it is early morning and still too cool. Towns seem to appear out of the heat haze, sometimes the only sign of civilization is the mobile reception towers that hover above the road cut by the heat shimmer.

A stone block remnant building form the Lynton convict depot.

Our next stop was at a convict ruin on the side of the road. It was called the Lynton Convict Depot. We hadn’t expected any convict history in WA, only knowing the stories of Tasmania from our recent travels there. No other cars pulled off, leaving the place to us. We wandered alone among the three buildings, looking at the graffiti carved into the stone, and wondering if it was an owl or a falcon that roosted in the main building, with feathers and droppings lining the floor at the darker end. There were carved dates from 1930 but the ruins themselves were much older. Obviously, everyone for a very long time has wanted to simply mark the fact they were here.

The inside walls of the Lynton convict depot lockup. Render is crumbling of of the stone block walls. were the renders left people have carved names and dates into the wall from as early as 1930.
So many carved names and dates
The outside of the Lynton convict depot lockup with piles of broken stone blocks in the foreground. the remains of the lockup sit under a cloudy blue sky.

Onwards, I missed the turnoff and we came across Hutt Lagoon by mistake, fortunate really as it’s what we were aiming for. This lake is pink, due to the amount of algae growing in it. Apparently, after rain it turns pinker as the algae is disturbed and flushed around. Not that you could tell, as there were no interpretive signs, just a lookout where the tour bus we kept running into had parked, unloading its ‘adventurers’ for a selfie in front of the pink, salty water.

The pink water and salt of Hut Lagoon. A small rock pokes out form the water encrusted in salt.
Pink and salty, probably not the best for swimming

Back on the right road we made it to Kalbarri where we were set to stay for two nights. In the soon-to-be-typical Western Australian style this remote town was full of restaurants on its main street, yet only the fish and chip shop and the tavern were open for dinner.

To be continued…

A white tailed black cockatoo eating a Banksia cone while string in the same bush.
RWARK!

Visiting the mouse house

I had the opportunity to see what lies behind the doors of an ANU captive breeding facility. I found hundreds of small, brown, cute eyed creatures.

shhhh, I’m hiding!

Kiarrah, a PhD student from the Australian National University is studying the reintroduction of the New Holland mouse to Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. But first, she needs a population to release. With permission from the NSW and ACT governments, as well as ANU animal ethics approval, wild New Holland mice were captured on the NSW Central Coast and have been bred in the facility, which now houses over 200 mice. Each mouse has an individual enclosure, with some kept in pairs or threes. These enclosures are modified plastic tubs with red colouring on the sides. The mice can’t see red so to them the world outside appears dark which reduces their stress level. There is a metal barred lid for each enclosure and inside is a mixture of bedding and nesting material, food, and boxes to hide in.

The enclosures are stacked on shelves around the room. Everyone entering has to don a pair of blue plastic booties as they step over the threshold to reduce the risk of disease spreading to the colony. This is possibly the only captive bred population of this threatened species in Australia, so ensuring their health is the ultimate goal. All the mice are so quiet that on stepping into the room you wouldn’t know there were over two-hundred animals with you. These mice also lack the distinctive ‘mousy’ smell of the more familiar introduced house mice. Peering into the nearest enclosure I spot…nothing. The mouse is most likely buried under its nesting material, using its natural instinct to burrow. I continue looking along the shelf until I finally get my first glimpse of a New Holland mouse. It is ridiculously cute, more like a cartoon mouse than a real one with large ears, big black eyes and a face full of whiskers.

Kiarrah showed me how she visually assesses the health of the mice. She also tipped out a pile of the radio tracking collars she was preparing to attach to the first release group. These were very small, as you can imagine a mouse’s neck is quite tiny under all that fur! Once Kiarrah has collared some mice and tested the effectiveness of the collars the reintroduction can begin. A reintroduction study involves releasing a captive bred population of a threatened species back into its natural habitat, where it no longer exists. These studies are important conservation biology tools, providing information on population ecology in a variety of habitats and overall reintroduction success. This information is essential for managing the long term conservation of a threatened species, informing further reintroductions and setting up insurance populations. 

The tiniest necklace in the world

These aren’t the first mice on the loose. A reintroduction of New Holland mice occurred at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary in 2013, with further information needed to understand the full role of this species in the ecosystem. This native rodent has been extinct in the ACT since the 1880’s. It is believed this species once had a single continuous population on mainland Australia but this is now fragmented across areas of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. The species is decreasing in number and is listed on the IUCN red list as vulnerable. All the usual suspects have been linked to their decline including pest species, changed fire regimes, habitat loss and, the big one, climate change. To safeguard this species from extinction we need to learn a lot more about it and its role in the ecosystem to inform conservation actions. Kiarrah’s project is funded by an Australian Research Council linkage grant and the Ecological Society of Australia Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, and is a partnership between ANU, ACT Government, the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust and James Cook University. The project is an important step forward in securing the future of one of Australia’s threatened mammal species. We can’t wait to follow along with her research as she learns more about the adorable New Holland mouse.