Thursday, February 4, 2016

Australia: Great Ocean Road

For our last full day in Australia - March 29, 2014 - our friends Paul Pui and his wife Cho Gek Tan had a special treat for us: a drive southwest of Melbourne along the Great Ocean Road, perhaps Australia's most famous scenic route.  The day deserves more than one post; this is the first of two.

Our first stop, at Point Addis, was a bit of a detour, but I had talked everyone into it in the hope of turning up a local specialty, the Rufous Bristlebird (Dasyornis broadbenti), which occasionally prances about the parking lot.  Of course, it failed to do so when we were there.  Nonetheless, the point provided us with some lovely views of coastal heath and oceanfront scenery.

Pigface (Carpobrotus sp)
At the seaward edge of the heath, where their thickened leaves can resist the salt spray from the nearby coast, sprawling clumps of Pigface (Carpobrotus sp.) cover the ground. Without flowers it is difficult to tell which species is involved: pigfaces of different types, both native and introduced, may grow together here.

Further inland, away from the spray, dense heathland vegetation dominates the landscape.

Scented Paperbark (Melaleuca squarrosa)
One of the heathland species is Scented Paperbark (Melaleuca squarrosa), its small leaves and dense growth typical of this sort of vegetation.

Ryan was much more interested in the beach itself (as any small boy would be).

Time to move on!

From Point Addis we returned to the main road, and headed off to the southwest. As we drove, the road began to follow the coast more closely. At one point we stopped to let Ryan and Paul climb down to the beach to check out a series of rockpools.

Here, the beach wrack included numbers of cuttlebones - cuttlefish must be abundant in the offshore waters.  Notice the pale white shell of a ghost crab in the lower photograph.

At one point I found the carcass of a shearwater on the sand. I didn't check it carefully enough to be sure, but I suspect that this was once a Short-tailed Shearwater (Ardenna tenuirostris), a bird that breeds in huge numbers in Bass Strait.

Neptune's Necklace (Hormosira banksii)
Paul and Ryan, meanwhile, were checking out the rockpools (or tide pools, as we call them in North America).

Neptune's Necklace (Hormosira banksii)
Neptune's Necklace (Hormosira banksii), one of the more distinctive seaweeds, was as prominent here as in the rockpools we had visited in Tasmania.

Neptune's Necklace (Hormosira banksii), Black Nerite (Nerita atramentosa), Zebra Top Shell (Austrocochlea porcata
Among the Neptune's Necklaces we found a variety of rock-loving mollusks, including Black Nerite (Nerita atramentosa) and Zebra Top Shell (Austrocochlea porcata).

Orange-edged Limpet (Cellana solida), Zebra Top Shell (Austrocochlea porcata), Black Nerite (Nerita atramentosa)
Here are more nerites and top shells, surrounding an Orange-edged Limpet (Cellana solida).

Black Nerite (Nerita atramentosa), Variegated Limpet (Cellana tramoserica)
Black Nerite (Nerita atramentosa), Variegated Limpet (Cellana tramoserica)
Nerites of various sorts are common rock-pool snails in many of the warmer parts of the world, where they spend their time grazing on algae. I remember as a hold exploring tide pools in Jamaica encrusted with Bleeding-tooth Nerites (Nerita peloronta) - so-called because of the orange-stained, serrated edge to the shell opening, visible when you turn the shell over. The Black Nerite appears, indeed, to be entirely black, but the interior of its shell is white. It is found around much the Australian coastline, from Queensland southward to Tasmania and westward to Western Australia.

Further along the coast, the road rises along the tops of the sea cliffs, giving spectacular views of rocky, wave-spattered islets just offshore.

The view is particularly impressive from the Cape Patton Lookout, the high point on this part of the drive.

From here, the road drops down to parallel a series of sandy beaches - ideal places, once again, for inquisitive little boys.

The beaches are also good places for signing your name.

Strap Weed (Phyllospora comosa)
While Ryan wrote on the sand, I investigated the beach wrack - mostly clumps of Strap Weed (Phyllospora comosa).

Pink Tellin (tellina albinella)
This Pink Tellin (Tellina albinella) was another reminder of my youthful beach walks on the north coast of Jamaica (in the late 1950s!), except there the common species was the Sunrise Tellin (T. radiata).   Tellins burrow into the sands just offshore - sometimes as much as a foot down - and their dead valves are common on tropical and warm-temperate beaches (where they are very popular with shell-craft makers, and it is easy to see why).

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Other beachcombers than ourselves betrayed themselves by their tracks..

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
...or waited for us in person.  These are Silver Gulls (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae), the common gull over most of Australia.

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiaeSilver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Common though they are, they are highly attractive and, like all gulls, fun to watch as they go about their business.

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Little groups clustered around picnickers on the beach, hoping for handouts (as gulls do everywhere...)

Silver Gull (Chroicocephalus novaehollandiae
Ryan was not about to disappoint them (though I am not sure what he is offering them here).

On we drove, through a bit of coastal woodland - where I noticed a few photographers looking steadfastly up into a eucalyptus tree. That, in this part of Australia, likely meant only one thing - and for that, we definitely had to stop....

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)
...and there it was, sitting placidly over our heads: Australia's quintessential animal, a Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). In this shot it is showing off its unusual hind foot: notice that the big toe has no claw at all, but the second toe appears to be equipped with two.  In fact what you are seeing are the second and third toes, which are fused together.  Their two claws provide the Koala with a handy grooming comb (also useful for removing ticks).

Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)
Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)
There is a large population of Koalas in the coastal bushland along the Otway Coast section of the Great Ocean Road, one of the best places to to see one - still, a Koala encounter in the wild is a memorable experience, even if the animals themselves - lethargic creatures by day - don't actually do very much other than look back at you, or doze peacefully in the sun.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Australia: Farewell to Tasmania

Ryan and I began our last day in Tasmania (March 28, 2014) with an early morning walk at the southern end of Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park.  Our hope - not, alas, to be achieved - was to get a glimpse of a Platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), in what is supposed to be one of the best places to see one.

Our morning was fairly damp and misty, with clouds hanging low over Lake St.Clair.

Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
The weather, though, seemed to fit the forest itself.  We followed the encouragingly-named Platypus Bay trail through stands of eucalypts and tree ferns, towards a series of platypus viewing points.  The eucalypts are probably Black Peppermint (Eucalyptus amygdalina), a widespread Tasmanian endemic.

Black Peppermint can grow to 30 metres high, and some cut trees along the trail were substantial indeed.

Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata)
Though Tasmania is famous for its numerous botanical oddities, one of the most well-known Australian plant genera is poorly represented there. Of the over 170 Australian species in the genus Banksia, only two occur there.   Only one, the Silver Banksia (Banksia marginata), is common and widespread.  To make up for it, Silver Banksia is highly variable in size, leaf shape and flower colour (besides the yellow seen here, it can be white or even pink).

Platypuses are shy animals, and the platypus lookouts act as a sort of hide from which lucky viewers can peep at them through slats in a wooden wall as they splash about in the lake.  Despite staring for some time at promising-looking but inert lumps and a few ripples on the water's surface, we never did see one.

Black-headed Honeyeater (Melithreptus affinis)
Back at our cabin, I had time for a brief bird walk before we set out on our drive across the island back to Hobart.  This is a poor shot, but the bird, a Black-headed Honeyeater (Melithreptus affinis), is a Tasmanian endemic.

Tasmanian Scrubwren (Sericornis humilis)
I had better looks at another endemic, the Tasmanian Scrubwren (Sericornis humilis), which at least kept to ground level.

Bassian Thrush (Zoothera lunulata)
Bassian Thrush (Zoothera lunulata)
This Bassian Thrush (Zoothera lunulata) is not an endemic - it is widespread in eastern Australia - but (like most Zoothera thrushes) it is not always easy to see well, so I was very pleased to come across this cooperative individual.

Bassian Thrush (Zoothera lunulata)
This is a genuine thrush, one of Australia's two native thrushes, both once thought to be races of the widespread Asian Scaly or White's Thrush (Z. dauma).  It is one of the comparatively few Australian songbirds that belongs to a widespread Northern Hemisphere family, rather than to a comparatively ancient Australasian one. Despite the fact that some of the latter - shrike thrushes and quail-thrushes - have "thrush" in their names, they are no more thrushes than koalas are bears.

By now it was time to move on, after a short visit to the Interpretative Centre (Ryan is demonstrating how to clean your boots to avoid contaminating the native forest).  There was, though, one more stop that I planned to make, at a spot fondly remembered from my first trip to Tasmania in 1974.

Russell Falls is located in Mount Field National Park, at the end of a short, easy trail that must be one of the loveliest walks in all Tasmania.

Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
The things that makes the trail so lovely, in my opinion, are not just the falls themselves (handsome as they are) but the masses of lacy tree ferns that dominate the lower layers of the forest, particularly along the river's edge.

The dominant forest tree is Mountain Ash or Swamp Gum (Eucalyptus regnans).  Although some of the trees along the trail are quite substantial none reach the towering heights of the largest of the species; the biggest known specimen, the Centurion Tree in  Huon Valley, stands 99.6 metres (326 feet) tall.

Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
It is the ferns, though, that make the forest truly magical. 

Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
Most, if not all, of the tree ferns at Russell Falls are Manferns (Dicksonia antarctica), distinguished by their rough, fibrous trunk and rather stiff foliage (compared to the slender, lacy tree ferns in the genus Cyathea).  Dicksonia and its relatives are ancient plants indeed - the family Dicksoniaceae ranges back to the late Triassic.

At one point along the trail, the ferns formed an archway over our heads...

Manfern (Dicksonia antarctica)
...a good place for Ryan to take a romantic portrait of Grandma and Grandpa.

At some points along the trail there are glow-worm grottoes, decorated with the hunting snares of bioluminescent fly larvae (similar to the ones we had seen at Marakoopa Cave two days before), but they were not visible in daylight.

Kangaroo Fern (Microsorum diversifolium)
Among the smaller ferns, the coarse leaves of Kangaroo Fern (Microsorum diversifolium) were a standout; this is a species common to both eastern Australia and New Zealand.

Fallen limbs along the trail were draped with a range of mosses and other plants...

...as well as shelf fungi.

The falls themselves (despite the botanical competition) are certainly worth the walk - a particularly lovely cascade, as I remembered from 1974.  As countless other have surely done, we took time to pose in front of them.

On the way back we checked out the river for signs of life.

Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
We did turn up one animal, an (introduced) Brown Trout (Salmo trutta), just visible in the lower left of this photo.

With that, we re-emerged from the trail, took a last look back...

and continued our drive to Hobart with only a brief late-afternoon stop along the Derwent to check out some distant, non-photogenic waterfowl, while Eileen made sure that our rental car was ship-shape and ready to be turned in at the airport.