About Me

My photo

I've been a Canberran since moving here from Adelaide on the first day of 1980. I now live in suburban Duffy with my partner Louise Maher, ABC 666 radio and on-line journalist. Among my early memories is following Sleepy Lizards (Shinglebacks) around the paddocks north of Adelaide, guarded by the faithful bull terrier. I have always been passionate about the natural world, trying to understand how it works, how the nature of Australia came to be, and sharing those understandings. My especial passions are birds, orchids and mammals. For much of my life I have been a full-time naturalist, running bush tours, writing books etc, doing consultancies, presenting a regular radio slot on local ABC, chairing a government environment advisory committee and running adult education classes. Recently I have eased back somewhat, but am still writing, teaching, doing some radio work and running overseas tours - as part of my fascination with our Gondwanan origins I've been running tours to South America for the past decade. I was awarded the Australian Plants Society Award in 2001 and the Australian Natural History Medallion in 2006, both for services to education and conservation. In January 2018 I was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia for 'service to conservation and the environment'.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Northern Territory Wildlife Park; the wild side

Having just returned from a week and a bit based in Darwin at the very northern end of central Australia (and having organised my photos) it's inevitable that this wonderful tropical part of the world should feature today. Some people considered us mad for visiting during the 'Wet' (or the 'Green Season' as the tourist industry has taken to preferring!) and while they may have a case, we loved it. It doesn't rain all the time, though impressive storms featured late on most days, and while it's of course humid the temperatures were surprisingly mild - no more than about 33 degrees.
Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, at the end of the red arrow.
We live a bit over 3000km away (and some 2600km to the south) at the end of the green arrow.
One 'must visit' destination for any visitor is the magnificent Territory Wildlife Park (the 'Northern' is apparently considered superfluous!), 60km south of Darwin. Technically I suppose it is a zoo, but that conjures up images quite misleading in this case. Founded by the territory government in 1989, it is set in 400 hectares of natural habitat, of which only a tiny proportion is developed. A four kilometre circuit track is regularly travelled by a little train (not on rails) driven by informative guides and is paralleled by walking tracks which also branch off into the bush. Features include a series of habitat-based aviaries, culminating in a huge and magnificent aviary featuring the monsoon forest; an aquarium including a walk-through tunnel with animals swimming by and over you; a nocturnal house, and daily educational displays of free-flying birds. All are well done, and the educational and conservation themes are powerful.

However I want to feature today 'the rest' - the huge area of the park which is outside the developed sections, accessed by the walking track system. There are three basic habitat types represented within the grounds; dry woodland, monsoon forest and wetland systems, though each can be further sub-divided. 

Dry eucalypt woodland, the dominant vegetation type of the Top End.
Above, featuring 'Screw Palm' Pandanus spiralis,and below the cycad Cycas armstrongii; both are common understorey components.

'Screw Palms' are of course not palms at all - monocots certainly, but in the family Pandanaceae. The leaves
are spirally arranged on the trunk, and their bases form the distinctive stem spirals when they drop.
Indigenous culture is alive and well in the Top End, and this plant is very important to the original Territorians: it provides food from seeds, fruit and stem; medications; fibre for mats, baskets and rope; wood for drum sticks and rafts.
Monsoon Forest (above and below), or Vine Forest, is a type of dry rainforest, occurring in
isolated patches across the Top End, especially nearer the coast. Away from the coast, where rainfall
is often lower, it tends to be found around streamlines (below).
There is no true ('wet') rainforest in the Top End because winter rainfall is too low to sustain it.

Wetlands comprise open water and their fringing vegetation, plus surrounding areas of paperbark (Melaleuca spp.) swamp woodland which may be inundated for weeks or more every year.
Goose Lagoon (above) and associated paperbark swamp (below).
The rain didn't disappoint us either. On the one occasion we travelled a section in the little (open-sided) train it bucketed down, and as we cornered a gush of water from the roof filled the curved plastic bench sit beneath us. We naturally leapt up - and were politely but firmly requested by the driver-guide to sit down again! Oh well, it was a warm pool to sit in at least.
Tropical rain in the Park.
The attractive but bedraggled centipede (below) shared our shelter; I'm afraid poor light and
its haste to escape make for an inadequate photo.
Which brings us to the many wild animals which dwell within the park boundaries. One of the apparently counter-intuitive aspects of the Wet is that water birds are far harder to find than in the Dry. It makes sense of course - with water across ten of thousands of square kilometres of country the birds are scattered across the plains. However even now there are some to be found around the park's wetlands.
Australian Pelicans Pelecanus conspicillatus.

The eponymous geese of Goose Lagoon. Magpie Geese Anseranas semipalmata are widespread
across northern Australia. They are neither goose nor duck, but the sole living member of an ancient
family which predates all current ducks, geese and swans. One distinguishing characteristic is the partially
webbed toes (from which derives the species name).

Radjah Shelducks Tadorna radjah are well within the mainstream of duckdom -
and in my opinion are one of the most beautiful ducks in the world.

Forest Kingfishers Todiramphus macleayii are another spectacularly beautiful component
of tropical Australian birdlife; they are members of the tree kingfisher family.
Orange-footed Scrubfowl Megapodius reinwardt.These relatively small megapodes - mound-builders - build huge incubating mounds for their eggs.
This is the only one of the three Australian species to be found in the Top End where they are widespread.
They can be encountered anywhere in the park.
The Varied Triller Lalage leucomela is another common Top End bird, but also found throughout
the near-coastal tropics and down the east coast almost to Sydney. Its melodious call is
part of the musical sound track of the park.
Agile Wallaby Macropus agilis, the commonest wallaby of northern Australia.
You can't afford to live up here if you can't cope with wet feet and a bit of rain!
This Javelin Frog's (Litoria microbelos) luck changed for the better when we arrived at the Goose Lagoon
bird hide. It was being seriously molested by a trio of Green Tree Ants and launched itself at me when I appeared.
The ants were dislodged and I placed it on a post outside (below) from where it could jump into the water.
It was still being stalked however...

Reptiles are always present in the Top End, and the Wildlife Park is no exception.
Slender Rainbow Skink Carlia gracilis. This is a breeding male; only they develop the spectacular
blue-green head and bright chestnut sides.
Yellow-spotted Goanna Varanus panoptes; originally in this posting I had misidentified it as the locally commoner Mertens' Goanna V. mertensi. My thanks for Wildlife Park staff Alice Anne Body and Dion Wedd for taking the trouble to contact me and point out my error. The transverse bands of conspicuous dots are one characteristic I should have recognised. Both these goannas are nowhere near as common as they used to be before the arrival of the
toxic introduced Cane Toad Bufo marinus.
So, when you go the Top End, whatever the season you must visit the Territory Wildlife Park; when you do so don't miss the aviaries and aquariums, but equally importantly don't miss the wealth of life going about its wonderful business outside the developed sections. This is the Top End concentrated!


[If you'd like to leave a message, I'd love to hear from you. I've changed settings so that you don't have to have an account with Google or anyone else, and you don't have to identify yourself - though I'd love to know who I'm talking to. You only have to prove you're human by clicking in a circle; they've made this an infinitely simpler process now than it used to be. I tried it for a while with no restrictions, but got swamped by horrible spammers.
I know that lots of people read this, but very few comment. ]


Les Mitchell said...

Great reading Ian. I hadn't realised how interesting that park is and will certainly visit it when next in the Top End.

The happy wanderer. said...

We really enjoyed our visit there some years ago - I've been twice - but your post makes me want to go again, and maybe in the Wet!

Ian Fraser said...

Do it Les! You'll love it, both the formal and informal aspects.

HW, it's changed so much since I was last there; they're spending a lot of money and spending it well. Go back!

Anonymous said...

Hi Ian, I absolutely love the top end. Lived there for 6 years when I was in my 20's and did some work experience at the Territory Wildlife Park while studying at TAFE. I agree the Wet can be fantastic (if you can put up with the humidity and frequent dumps of rain)and it's this time when nature puts on the greatest show on earth. Plus very few tourists!! We're heading up there soon, unfortunatly in the tourist season. Love the photos mate.

Ian Fraser said...

Thanks Craig and good to hear from you. We'd happily live there if family and work situations were different. Have a great trip - the place is big enough to avoid tourists, most of whom don't get far from the carparks anyway!

Alice Anne Body said...

Hi Ian, Great blog! I work at the Territory Wildlife Park and our curator Dion Wedd is very keen to know where you snapped that monitor :) He mentions he thinks it's the rare V. panoptes, not V. mertensi? Can you please give us a call on 08 8988 7200?