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.

Monitoring Quolls at Mulligans Flat

Photography in the dark

The phone vibrates and chirps at us, rattling across Mitch’s bedside table. We manage to slowly drag ourselves out of bed, stumble to the kitchen and turn on the kettle. Bleary eyes tell us its 1.15am. We half gulp, half nurse a cup of coffee, collect two camera bags, a tripod and a light panel and clatter out the door and into the car. We venture across a very dark Canberra, sharing the roads with no one but moths under the streetlights. Pulling into a dark suburb we spot what looks like the small gated entrance to a park. A cluster of head torches are gathered in a circle near two 4WDs, we clamber out, cameras in hand. Mitch stops, raises the camera and fires off a few shots. The shutter was loud in the night.

“Oh god you’re starting already!”

“Morning Bel!” Mitch and I chorus. Its 1.50am…. and time for quolls!

Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary is a unique place. Put simply, it’s one of the invasive pest free spaces in Australia, a 485 hectare area of woodland bordered by a 6 foot high electric fence. The area was cleared of pest species and is used not only to protect the biggest patch of critically endangered Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy woodland in Australia (say that three times fast!), but also as the site for reintroduction experiments. We started working with Mulligans Flat last year after one of my photography teachers told us he knew their communications officer. After a meeting one night at a pub in Ainslie we’ve been getting amazing opportunities to work with this group ever since. This included photographing their echidna sweeps (surveys) last year, a night of bettong monitoring and the unique opportunity of photographing quolls.

Last year Mulligans put us in touch with PhD candidate Belinda Wilson. Bel’s research involves experimentally restoring the Eastern Quoll to the sanctuary.  She seems to know everything there is to know about quolls and wildlife in general, and generously invited us to come photograph her work. This was our third time out on a monitoring session, these are only run twice a year, so once you get an email from Bel you push everything aside to go take quoll photos!

researcher releasing quoll
Awww come on Bel can’t we keep just one?!

We arrived at the sanctuary at 1.50am, just in time to meet everyone and be told who was in our team. In hushed voices the brief for the night was given, everyone collected their gear and we set off. The general plan when checking traps is to drive along the track following the Mulligan crew’s 4WD. It’s slow going as you have to watch out for critters, with bettongs hopping off the road at the last minute and possums walking along next to the track, tails held high. When the group spots a marker flag tied to a tree or fence the cars stop and everyone jumps out. We find the trap nearby and check if it’s closed, when it is it means there’s either a quoll or bettong inside and it’s all systems go. Unless there’s a brushtail possum inside, which just gets released and saunters off into the night. This process continues until all traps along the line have been collected.

researchers in the field at night
Mulligans Flat at 2am – a hive of activity!
researchers find a baby quoll in a trap
Mum? Is that you?

Our first trap of the night contained…a chocolate quoll! Not an Easter treat, this is the name given to the darker colour morph of eastern quolls. The other coat colour for the fashion conscious quoll is fawn, yet both morphs have the distinctive white spots. To light our photos on these nocturnal sojourns we carry an Aputure LED panel on a tripod. The brightness and colour balance is adjustable and having it on a tripod means we can change the height to suit the scene. Although, carrying a light around you become a magnet for every bug in the area…and also any scientist wanting to work in stronger light than that produced by their headtorch. We’re pretty sure they just keep having us back because of our giant light.

baby chocolate quoll in a trap
Is there anything cuter than a baby quoll…?
close up of spotted quoll fur

For the first hour or two, we could hear the sound of microbats echolocating but these dropped off and were gone by 4am. We also heard the occasional grunt/cough of a kangaroo and a brief snippet of curlew call, otherwise the night at Mulligans Flat was silent. Sort of…Breaking this silence was the occasional instruction or question from the team. “Have you got its head?” “Ok keep holding her, I’ll do the pes measurement next” (pes = foot, in case you were wondering). The team we go out quolling with is always different, except for the leader Bel. She runs a smooth ship and even though new faces pop up in the team they are generally connected to Mulligans in some way or are science students at the local university. Seeing her teach these newbies how to handle the quoll, take measurements and samples, record data then release the animal in a limited time is amazing to watch. There are rules though, particularly around taking the small fur samples, pulling fur from the spots on a quoll just doesn’t seem right!

quoll feet being measured with calipers
Oh my what big feet you have!
quoll teeth being checked
Say cheeeeese! Checking if the quoll had trifecta teeth – white, sharp AND shiny!
shining light through quoll ear
Looking for the best spot to take a sample

Eastern quolls have been extinct from mainland Australia for about 50 years due to fox predation and competition for food with cats. They are one of six quoll species and can only be found in fox-free Tasmania or fenced sanctuaries. This experiment sourced quolls from captive bred populations in Tasmania and Victoria. Eastern quolls have also been reintroduced at Booderee National Park in an attempt to re-establish this species in the wild. Booderee is not a fenced sanctuary so the project had a lower survival rate, with quolls falling victim to foxes, becoming road kill or being attacked by snakes. Thankfully there were some survivors, which bred successfully meaning quoll babies were seen in October last year!

This was our third time out taking photos of the quoll trapping so we knew the routine well. We shoot with a range of lenses, wide angles or a 50mm were perfect for shooting the release but having a macro or a telephoto lets us really focus in during the sampling. Understanding what goes on and in what order makes taking photos a lot easier but having someone there that knows so much about the species and is happy to wait while we take certain photos has been incredible. Possibly our favourite part to photograph is when the animal is released. Each individual reacts differently, some quolls bound straight off into the night, others are hesitant to leave the bag and some just head straight at the photographer, turning off into the bush at the last minute.

quoll measurements being taken on back of ute
overhead shot of quoll sample being taken
quoll being released into the darkness

By the time we reached the last trap on our line the sun was about to creep up and it was light enough to photograph without the LED panel. Cockatoos had begun to fly around, greeting the new day with a screech or two. Other birds had also begun to wake up, breaking the silence of the early morning as they began to hop around in the bush. Inside the last trap we found a female fawn coloured quoll. The team took their measurements, made their notes then released her. She bounded off back into the sanctuary, we all watched until we couldn’t see her any more. Although we’d been out since 2am the night had flown by. We’ll never get tired of seeing quolls and getting to photograph the amazing work being done at Mulligans Flat. The next monitoring session is scheduled for May, we can’t wait to come back out and take more photos. The next thing for us though was to head home and get ready for work, lucky it was Friday!

close up of fawn quoll face