Wings Up or Wings Down …

These photos of a Gull-billed Tern were taken at one two thousandth of a second so fortunately there was plenty of light. I prefer flight shots with wings up. I feel they convey a greater dynamism but they are often marred by the shadow cast by the wing. If you click on the wing down shot the feather detail on the wing makes up to some extent for the less dynamic pose.

What you really need is a well trained Tern that will expose its armpit to the sun.

Dinosaurs with Di …

A fascinating morning on yet another beach with Dianne Bennett. Di is a dinosaurologist and local treasure who leads tours to see the famous dinosaur tracks of the Broome sandstone. It’s not a boat tour, no champagne and lobster just a walk on the rocks, a wealth of knowledge, enthusiasm and all at a very reasonable price.

The Broome Sandstone dates to 130 million years ago give or take a few million. It slowly built up in layers. Sometimes conditions were suitable for preservation of footprints, sometimes not. Tracks are found at several levels. Di showed us two very different sets of tracks belonging to Sauropods and Theropods.

Dinosaurs come in two big flavours Ornithiscians and Saurischians. The Ornithiscian pelvis resembles that of birds, the Saurischian pelvis that of lizards. The general consensus is that birds are living dinosaurs descended not from the Ornithischia but from the lizard-hipped Saurischia. Each of these main divisions are further divided. The tracks we saw were from Sauropods and Theropods which are both Saurischians.

The Sauropods were long-necked, long-tailed, small headed herbivores. Not all Sauropods were immense, some were only 5 or 6 metres long but the largest animal to ever walk the earth was a Sauropod around 30 metres long and weighing something in the order of 70 tonnes..

Shamelessly filched from Wikipedia

I have no idea how accurate this depiction is except that the feet fit what we found to a tee. The back foot is bigger than the front foot and comes up close to it at every stride …

and here it is heading from right to left across what was a mud flat and it was way bigger than a modern elephant.

Once the search pattern was established Sauropod footprints were all around us. Theropod footprints are smaller and were not impressed so deeply in the mud. Di pointed out the first then they too became easier to find.

Theropods walked on their hind legs. Diets were varied, herbivory, insectivory and carnivory were all represented. T. rex was a carnivorous Theropod but never visited Broome. Here is a Herrerasaurus to represent the group.

Shamelessly filched from Wikipedia

Three toes facing forward, a hind claw that may not have reached the ground or make a big impression if it did …

The local aboriginal people have stories about Marala, the Emu-Man. This print is considerably bigger than an emu’s and your average emu doesn’t leave prints in solid rock. It’s easy to see why they were impressed.

Sadly the Broome sandstone doesn’t seem to have preserved any body parts. We have no dinosaur skeletons to put in the museum. But we can follow in the footsteps of immense creatures that preceded us by 130 million years and raise our gaze to the Reef Egrets, Kites and Gulls – living Theropods.

We made contact with Dianne Bennett through Broome Visitor Centre. You can also find her on Facebook or ring her on 0457 681 265.

To The Beach …

A few of the gulls are watching for food but most of the gulls are watching the gulls watching for food. Piracy may well ensue.

In the same fashion my beady eyes detected a small gathering of people at a rock pool a hundred metres away. Unlike seagulls the group were only too happy to share their find. In fact they were interested to see if I would lift it out of the water for a better photo.

Blue-ringed Octopus

Blue-ringed Octopuses are found all around the coasts of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Fiji and Japan. They are ambush predators and possess one of the deadliest toxins you can find. Envenomation is reportedly painless. Paralysis ensues and without treatment is fatal. No antivenene is available.

The WA government advises

Warning: Be careful when handling dead shells, empty cans and bottles, as these are great places for the deadly blue ring octopus to hide!”

Despite their relative abundance encounters are rare, envenomation really rare and fatalities are exceedingly rare. Apparently just three instances have been recorded, two in Australia and one in Singapore. A four year old boy could have been the fourth but was quickly intubated and ventilated and survived.

Take care at the beach, the carpark is a dangerous place.

Still Swatting Mozzies …

Yellow White-eye

I’ll be visiting the Mangroves frequently because, like Tilly, a recent commenter from Kingaroy or some place in Queensland, I still need a male. It’s another Whistler, the Mangrove Golden. My best efforts to date are not up to scratch. Meanwhile I take whatever is offered. Like this young male Red-headed Honeyeater …

Red-headed Honeyeater

Presently he’s merely blushing but when he’s all grown up he will be positively glowing.

The rump is also scarlet so the shot of one with its back to the camera looking over the shoulder is on the wanted list.

The Broad-billed Flycatcher is another adorable denizen of the mangroves.

Once again the male is more striking, darker above and brighter below than the female but not all birds are sexually dimorphic. In the Yellow White-eye sexes are similar.

Yellow White-eye

Mangroves …

They may not be scenically splendid but they are the nursery for enormous numbers of sea creatures and protectors of the coast against storms. And they have birds.

Australia is home to about 45 species of mangrove in 18 families. They like the tropics, Darwin Harbour has about 36 species, Broome about a dozen. Species drop out as you head south. By the time you get to Victoria there is just one – Avicennia marina. Tasmania has none. As well as the right amount of sunshine each species needs the right amount of tidal inundation.

Birds enjoy the mangroves everywhere but the opportunities for mangrove specialists are much better in the north where there are large patches of mangrove forest.

The birdo who wants to photograph these specialists must first work out the tide and then do battle with mud and mosquitoes. The birds rarely sit still for you and the tangle of roots and branches complicates things further. One bird that has eluded me on previous visits is the male White-breasted Whistler. The females are confiding, almost brazen but drab. The males are gorgeous if you can get a clear view of them. Perhaps their skulking behaviour is to make up for their lack of camouflage. Now that I live here I can afford to sit and wait (don’t scratch those bites) …

White-breasted Whistler (female)
White-breasted Whistler (male)

Holy Egrets, Batman …

These two are much easier to tell apart than the crested terns …

except they are both the same species, Egretta sancta (sacred egrets so named in 1789 because they were supposedly venerated by some Polynesians). They are found along rocky coasts in the Pacific ranging as far north as Japan and as far south as New Zealand. They are fairly common around the Australian coast except Victoria where they are infrequent and Tasmania where they are absent. There are plenty around Broome.

The popular name is Eastern Reef Egret but they are also called Pacific Reef Heron or any other permutation of the words. They are not the only egret or heron to occur in white and grey forms. In my experience the grey ones outnumber the white ones. The cause of the difference is unknown but stable polymorphisms like this can occur where two forms of a gene (allele) exist for a particular spot on a chromosome and having one of each (heterozygosity) confers an advantage compared to two of the same (homozygosity). The advantage may be due to body colour or it may be due to some other unsuspected effect of the gene combination.

The short greeny-yellow legs distinguish the white ones from other egrets. Distinguishing the grey ones from White-faced Herons should pose no problem if relatively sober.

Eastern Reef Egret

Oranges and Lemons …

My first visit to Broome was in 1996 in pursuit of the shorebirds that visit Roebuck Bay. I played a minor part in an expedition that captured, examined, marked and released a few thousand birds. Broome has its beaches, camels and dinosaur footprints but the main attraction for me will always be its birds.

High tide this morning was at 08.22, a very civilised time to hit the beach. Once there I came upon a mixed flock of terns. There were a few Crested Terns and lots of their smaller cousins, Lesser Crested Terns. The big guys are found all around the Australian coastline whilst Lesser Cresteds are only found along the coasts of the northern half. Both are found far and wide overseas but not at high latitudes or in the Americas.

Both are white birds with black caps and a crest. Their calls and behaviour are very similar. So how does a southerner spot the difference? Size can help when both are present but their is an easier way. Their beaks are as different as orange peel and lemon peel …

Lesser Crested Tern

A New Adventure …

but an old plan. Let’s go live in Broome.

Allied – the careful movers – took splendid care of the furniture. Gayle, Fifi and Bobby McGee chased them across the Nullarbor in our latest camping solution.

Our timing was perfect. The last cyclone of the season had knocked over the Pardoo Roadhouse just a week or so before we left. The northern big wet had turned to a settled (we hope) dry and Victoria had not quite dipped into ice-age conditions.

We couldn’t dawdle on the way but we did have time to look in on the sealions at Point Labatt near Streaky Bay SA.

Broome is where the desert meets the sea. As I drove past the airport on the way into town I couldn’t help thinking how different this place is to the the Australia that most Australians live in. This could be arabia!

Cable Beach

More than a few trees …

The Eyre Highway runs from Norseman, WA to Port Augusta, SA. It is very fittingly named after Edward John Eyre who was the first of the white colonists to travel the route.

He was just a young man of 25 when he accepted the chance to lead a party from Adelaide to the far west of Western Australia. Born in England Eyre had learned his bushcraft moving stock from Sydney where they were expensive, overland to sell in Melbourne and Adelaide where they were even more expensive. Following these trips he took cattle and sheep by ship to King George Sound – modern day Albany,WA, a fine natural harbour then overlanded them to the Swan River Settlement – now Perth. Whilst there he found considerable interest in the establishment of a stock route across the continent. When he got back to Adelaide he found a committee had been formed for that very purpose.

On 18th June 1840 Eyre set out as the leader of 6 white men including John Baxter who had frequently been overseer on Eyre’s previous ventures and two South Australian aborigines Joey and Yarry. A third aboriginal, Wylie, that Eyre had brought back from Western Australia subsequently joined the party.

The initial thrusts were to the north but were frustrated by lack of water. Progress, if it were to be made, would have to be nearer the coast. November found the party at Fowler’s Bay. Three attempts over the next few months won another 200 km to the Head of the Bight.

In February 1841 Eyre sent the majority of his party back.  He and Baxter pressed on with the three aborigines and 11 pack horses. It was to be do or die. In March they found good water at Eucla. By April the going was exceedingly tough. Their load had been lightened to the extent that they now had inadequate clothing. The aboriginal contingent had consented to the doing but had probably not been consulted about the dying clause in the contract and friction arose.

On the night of 29 April while Eyre was taking his watch over the horses he heard a gun shot. By the time he made it back to camp Baxter was dying from a gun shot to the chest and the two South Australian aborigines had decamped with all the serviceable firearms and most of the provisions.

A grave could not be dug in the solid rock. Baxter was wrapped in a blanket and left on the surface. Eyre and Wylie pressed on to the west. On the 2nd June they encountered a French ship near modern day Esperance and they enjoyed some relief from their hardship. Eyre insisted on completing the overland journey, accepted some supplies and the pair pressed on.

On July 7 Eyre and Wylie stood on a hill overlooking Albany, their journey just about over. Wylie was greeted by friends and family. Eyre was left to ponder “the embarrassing difficulties and sad disasters that had broken up my party.”

Eyre’s trek, Adelaide to Albany via the modern Eyre Highway is 2,695km (1,675 miles). The journey takes you across the Nullarbor Plain. Between Port Augusta and Norseman I don’t recall seeing any surface water whatsoever, a combination of dry climate (<250mm rain annually) and the limestone geology. Nullarbor comes from Latin and translates as No Trees but in fact much of the journey is through mallee and on the South Australian end there are even wheat fields by the side of the road. Only on the clifftop section near the South Australia border do you really have a barren landscape (although on foot that would seem more than sufficient).


Telegraph Station ruins – Eucla

Bunda Cliffs

The entire highway is sealed (since 1976).

Norseman has a population of about 1000 people, Ceduna about 2,500. In between there is Caiguna (8), Cocklebiddy (19), Madura (18) and Eucla (53) for a total of 98 people spread over 1200km. Port Augusta is almost a metropolis at 13,500. Therein lies the challenge. This is not the place to breakdown or realise that you left your insulin at home.

There are two hills. Traveling west to east it seems as though it will be flat forever until the Madura Pass. Trucks are invited to take low gear and down you go. Off to the left now is a cliff that extends to the horizon, a reminder that sea level was not always what it is today. At Eucla you get to climb back up again.

Crossing the Nullarbor is on the bucket list for most Australians, it has an almost mythical appeal. Now that I’ve ticked it off I have to say

  1. it was nothing like I expected and …
  2. I’m looking forward to doing it again.