Wednesday, 11 September 2013

North Queensland Trip, Part 2

Airlie Beach


Airlie Beach; courtesy of Google Maps
Bidding farewell to the beautiful Eungella National Park (see 'Part One' of this trip report), me and my travelling companions packed our tents up and drove two hours through the canefields to our next destination: Airlie Beach. Being close to the Great Barrier Reef, the name of this town conjures up images of pristine white sands and clear waters, but the reality is quite different. It is actually more of a harbour town, with the nearby Whitsunday Islands absorbing the worst of the ocean swells so that Airlie's waters are calm and its shores muddy.

To make swimming matters worse, the entire coastline is subject to swarms of Box Jellyfish (Chironex fleckeri) from October to April. This almost-invisible menace is arguably the world's most venomous animal,
with a severe sting causing death in as little as two minutes. They are not little jellyfish either - their tentacles are up to three metres long when fully extended. To deal with this threat and the lack of suitable swimming beaches, the town's shoreline features a man-made beach that is fully enclosed from the ocean, and it is here where all bathing takes place.

Great Bowerbird, Airlie Beach
This lagoon was also our first port of call upon arriving at Airlie Beach. For a short while, I tried to be a normal tourist, lying on my towel and absorbing brief stints of sun between the cumulus clouds. It didn't take long for the sound of unusual bird calls to lure me away however, and soon I was getting acquainted with tropical species I'd never seen before. In a fig tree right next to the lagoon was a Great Bowerbird (Chlamydera nuchalis), which came as a surprise to me as their southern relatives are not urban birds at all. In the same tree, I also had good views of a bird more familiar to me, the White-breasted Woodswallow (Artemis leucorynchus). There were plenty of these charming birds throughout the town in fact, whereas I never saw the Bowerbird again.
Helmeted Friarbird, Airlie Beach

Walking further along the foreshore footpath, a stand of eucalypt trees also contained bird species that were new to me. Most conspicuous were the Helmeted Friarbirds (Philemon buceroides), which were no less boisterous than the Noisy (P. corniculatus) variety I've written about before. They shared their surrounds with Figbirds (Sphecotheres vieilloti), which I expected to be the yellow northern race, but were instead identical to the ones I see in Brisbane. Most intriguing, however, was a metallic creaking noise coming from some eucalypts further back in the park. Treading carefully over dry leaves and scanning the trees above, I suddenly saw movement out of the corner of my eye and turned to see this magnificent Red-tailed Black Cockatoo (Calyptorhynchus banksii).

Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo, Airlie Beach

For the rest of the trip, we based ourselves at the lovely Island Gateway Holiday Park at nearby Jubilee Pocket, only a short walk back into the town of Airlie Beach. The grounds of this caravan park were lush with tropical vegetation, and I was impressed with the abundance of birdlife there as well. My favourite avian residents were the Plumed Whistling-Ducks (Dendrocygna eytoni) that were always on the lookout for an easy meal. Gathered around a feeding table, they reminded me of a certain blog I like to follow.

Plumed Whistling-Duck, Jubilee Pocket

These bold birds became regular visitors to our corner in the park, and their daily schedule seemed to mostly involve wandering from camp to camp while whistling for food.

Plumed Whistling-Ducks, Jubilee Pocket

My sister welcomed them more than the Shield Huntsman Spider (Neosparassus species) she found hiding on the back of her camp chair.

Shield Huntsman Spider, Jubilee Pocket

A more dangerous animal was to be seen on one of our day trips to the nearby Proserpine River.

Proserpine River

Joining a Whitsunday Crocodile Safari tour, we set a course down the mangrove-lined waterway, with expert guide Col doing his best to find us an Estuarine Crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) or two. Being a cloudy, cool and showery morning, I had my doubts about spotting one for the first ten minutes, until we rounded a bend in the river and my jaw dropped.

Estuarine Crocodile, Proserpine River

It was a strange, humbling and unsettling experience to meet an animal that was in some ways my superior. I felt suddenly silly, standing on a metal float with my fellow mammals, all of us pointing at a creature that existed when our ancestors were just rodents. As the morning progressed, however, we spotted more of these females basking on the mangrove banks and I began to feel comfortable again... until I saw this appear for just the briefest of moments.

Estuarine Crocodile, Proserpine River

It's only in the water that the power, grace and potential of this species becomes apparent. Without the boat and the mobile phone and the bottled water and the supermarket food, I wouldn't stand a chance against this thing. Civilisation exists so that we don't have to deal with this basic survival aspect anymore. If we did and we happened to share our territory with a predator of this size (up to seven metres long, weighing two tonnes), we would lose the contest easily. I don't mean to say all this to promote the fear and persecution of Crocodiles - rather the opposite in fact. My time on the Proserpine River left me feeling a level of awe and reverence that I've never felt for an animal before - and I am someone with already healthy levels of respect for nature. But in the presence of a King like this, how could I not feel that way?



Black Kite, Proserpine River
Back on firm ground, Col continued the tour through the surrounding wetlands, pointing out the wildlife, geography and Aboriginal history of the area. During the proceedings, I had brief views of a Blue-winged Kookaburra (Dacelo leachii), Common Tree Snakes (Dendrelaphis punctulata) and a Yellow-billed Spoonbill (Platalea flavipes). In the skies above, I saw plenty of Black Kites (Milvus migrans), a species undergoing a population explosion all over the East Coast of Australia right now after a few successful breeding years in the outback. On the drive back to Brisbane, I saw a farm tractor near Childers being circled closely by at least a hundred of these birds.

Also on the wetland tour, I saw my first Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis). This species is restricted to northern Australia and is also found in Papua New Guinea.

Agile Wallaby, Proserpine River

Back at the Holiday Park, the wildlife sightings continued with a Black Butcherbird (Cracticus quoyii) seen skulking in the thicket behind my tent, and a tiny Stony-creek Frog (Litoria wilcoxii) spotted jumping around the toilet block one evening.

Stony-creek Frog, Jubilee Pocket

Island Gateway Holiday Park also offers daily bird-feeding sessions at 4pm and because of my busy tour schedule, I only had time to see this on my very last day. I was glad I made the effort though - as you can see, I got to know the locals very well!

Rainbow Lorikeets (Trichoglossus haematodus), Jubilee Pocket

The only thing more colourful than these birds were the fish I saw whilst diving off the Whitsunday Islands - you can see them in the final part of my trip report tomorrow!






14 comments:

  1. AWESOME! love the gorgeous crocodile (as long as i don't have to come face to face with it!), the cockatoo, the other birds, wallaby, frog and even the spider. but i ADORE whistling ducks and just love seeing the beauties that exist in other places! these plumed are so exotically mixed together! almost like a pheasant. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes I did think of you and your beautiful Whistling-Ducks when I saw these. We have another kind here, the Wandering Whistling-Duck, but it doesn't have half the personality that these ones do!

      Delete
  2. I've not seen whistling-ducks behaving like that that before, interesting. Nice images of the croc. Probably a more sensible way to see one that this: http://sunshinecoastbirds.blogspot.com.au/2013/05/in-search-of-mary-river-crocodile.html

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I read your blog when you originally published it and did think it was rather brave/reckless at the time, haha! Part of me hopes the authorities leave it where it is - it's exciting to be within driving distance of such an impressive animal.

      Delete
  3. There are two crocodiles in the Mary River now.
    It's nice to see that you have such a wide range of natural history interests.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks! It used to be just birds I was interested in, but it's expanded over the years.

      And now you have twice as many reasons to beware of kayaking! :)

      Delete
  4. a treasure-trove post Christian; you sure did some travelling and saw so much. Where to start commenting? Trying to think back now - the plumed whistling ducks; great snaps of these; up close, lucky! The red-tailed black cockatoo, so close, lucky! In the right place at the right time; not so sure about the huntsman on the chair though, nor the crocodiles. You write so much wonderful information; I hope you make good use of this in other arenas too, not just your blogging. Maybe something for National Geographic or similar.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for your kind words, Carole. Even though the crocs were spectacular, I just loved seeing the Black Cockatoo, as it was a totally unexpected sight to see a few metres away from some roadworks in an urban park.

      I am thinking of going back to study Environmental Science at Uni and seeing where that takes me, whether its research or tourism. This blog is definitely a beloved project of mine for now though!

      Delete
  5. Your trip is really remarkable! you got all photographs very beautifully such thanks for sharing your experience.. Interesting informative post, Indeed!
    http://travelagent-india.blogspot.in/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! I was blessed with patient travel companions who waited while I composed each shot! :)

      Delete
  6. Am already looking forward to tomorrow's installment. I love the Cockatoo and, with a lump in my throat, the spider. Scary Crocs!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely some 'challenging' wildlife to be found in Northern Australia! Apparently most croc attacks happen to drunk locals, so don't be too afraid :)

      Delete
  7. Hi Chris What a wonderful and informative post. All your photographs are great. I love Rainbow Lorikeets and I am very interested in how you got on in the WhitSundays Islands. I would love to go there. I have seen Crocs in Queensland, further north but at a distance! that is one large Croc on your video!! Also love the P.W Ducks.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks Margaret, it was a beautiful location - you should definitely check it out! The croc in the video was the smallest male on the river at 3.4m, but the biggest we saw that day and we felt he was big enough! I'd seen crocs in zoos before but they seem so powerful and magnificent in the wild, don't they?!

      Delete