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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, 10 November 2016

Kakadu in the Dry

Last year we visited fabulous Kakadu National Park, in the far north of Australia, in the unfashionable wet season, and I wrote about it here. Recently we went back again, this time at the end of the dry, after peak visitor numbers had started to drop off, to enjoy the world-class park with more time on our hands and to see it in a very different mood. This was Gurrung, in the six-season reckoning of the Bininj Mungguy people who are the traditional owners of Kakadu. Gurrung is the hot dry season, and it lived up to its billing.

In particular I want to offer today a contrast with the focus of the last post, the sublime guided boat tours on Cooinda (or Yellow Waters) Billabongs wetland complex. Last time we were there the waters had spread across the flood plain so the boat wasn't restricted to the channels, but the plethora of water also meant that the birds had scattered across the landscape and weren't very evident. This time it was very different, though totally unseasonal winter rain meant that the flood plains were still wet, though not inundated. 

We chose the dawn tour as offering the best light and wildlife. I'll start with a short series of photos of the arrival of day as we set out; it was very beautiful indeed.
Paperbarks reflected in the water.

Egrets still roosting in the paperbark to the right of the previous picture.

Still cool enough in the pre-dawn for a mist.

The sun colouring the sky from below.

And finally appearing!
A lone darter against the sunrise.
 A pair of White-bellied Sea-eagles Haliaeetus leucogaster stained golden by the sunrise.
This time the birdlife was abundant and evident, beginning with flights of birds heading out for a day of feeding.
Magpie Geese Anseranas semipalmata in early dawn light.
Magpie Geese flying over egrets (probably three species) who are already at their work stations.
Magpie Geese again - I am very fond of these abundant and somewhat strange primitive waterfowl,
neither ducks nor geese but forming a family of their own.
Royal Spoonbills Platalea regia.
Little Corellas Cacatua sanguinea - by now the sun was well and truly up.
I might as well continue with the birds now I've begun on them; they were after all one of the highlights.
Male Australian Darter Anhinga novaehollandiae, drying his wings.
Darters hunt by skulking along the bottom and ambushing fish; this requires heavy bones and waterlogged
feathers to reduce buoyancy, so they need to dry off afterwards.
I love that rufous wash on his throat.
Kingfishers are always a highlight, and a couple of species were regulars.
Forest Kingfisher Todiramphus macleayii pair.
Despite being by water on this occasion, Forest Kingfishers are woodland birds and rarely catch fish.
Azure Kingfishers Ceyx azureus on the other hand catch fish as a key part of their lifestyle.
In addition to the egrets, other herons were present, including a couple of less conspicuous ones.
Nankeen Night Heron Nycticorax caledonicus immature.
Black Bittern Ixobrychus flavicollis, an uncommon sighting, being both shy and secretive, hiding in reed beds.
Both Australian whistling-ducks were present, including large flocks of Plumed Whistling-Ducks Dendrocygna eytoni.
Plumed Whistling-Ducks, above and below.

Wandering Whistling-Ducks D. arcuata lack the plumes but are more richly coloured.
They were present in much smaller numbers.
Green Pygmy-geese Nettapus pulchellus; not really geese at all, but part of the main line of ducks,
apparently old Gondwanans. This species is also found in New Guinea.
(The other Australian species, Cotton Pygmy-goose, extends into south-east Asia, and there is an African species.)
Pheasant Coucal Centropus phasianinus. This female watched us drift by.
Curiously this is the only Australian cuckoo which is not a brood parasite,
compared with world figures which show that only 40% of cuckoo species are parasites.
I hope this isn't a reflection of the national psyche...
A highlight for me however is always renewing acquaintance with the delightful Comb-crested Jacana Irediparra gallinacea, widely known also as Lily Trotter for its lifestyle - common to all eight members of the family - of walking on floating lily pads, courtesy of its enormously long toes which disperse its weight.
It had been a good breeding season; the bird above is a juvenile, with the comb not yet
fully developed - it will later be bright red and more extensive.
(I do like a nice bird reflection too, and this morning offered me quite a few!)

This jacana chick is already showing an aptitude for lily-trotting;
its remarkable toes seem to have reached full size before it has!
Of other animals, a disturbing number were ferals. This will always be a problem in a park of this size - at 20,000 square kilometres it is vast - but resources for feral animal and weed control have been cut back and control is barely happening. While we didn't see any this time, I am told that feral Water Buffalo numbers are rebounding after having been brought to low levels.
Feral Cattle (and Cattle Egrets).

Feral Pig (still with Cattle Egrets, not Pig Egrets...)

Feral Horses (ditto re egrets).
I don't want to end on this sour note however and there were other animals about.
Agile Wallabies Macropus agilis (and obligatory Cattle Egret) grooming on the flood plain.
This is the commonest wallaby all across northern Australia.
I think these damselflies are Blue Slims Aciagrion fragile, but I have no expertise in the field
and there are several similar species. Any suggestions?
But the animal that most tourists probably come to see is none of the above. Estuarine Crocodiles Crocodylus porosus are abundant in the park, and are readily seen at this time of year due to the lower water levels. The crocophiles on the cruise were well catered for!
One might have hoped this lot might have had more of an impact on the ferals!

Crocodile in Azolla sp., a floating fern.
I didn't take many plant pictures this time - they hadn't changed since last time and I was busy on the wildlife. However it would be remiss to fail to mention water lilies (other than simply as platforms for jacanas) in the context of such a trip.
Lotus Lilies Nelumbo nucifera, above and below.
This species also grows across tropical Asia, where it is of great cultural significance.
Inter alia it is the national flower of India.

Kakadu is truly one of the world's great parks, and deserves at least several days of your time. Make sure you get out onto beautiful Cooinda while you're there too!


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