Friday, July 24, 2015

Australia: Rottnest Island

Rottnest Island, in the Indian Ocean southwest of Perth, is a popular destination for campers, beach-lovers and day-trippers. There are lots of places like that, I suppose - but Rottnest has a particular fascination for naturalists, and I was delighted when circumstances near the end of our trip, on September 21, 2013, opened up a chance for me to catch a ferry from the Fremantle wharf and head out for a day on the island. 

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
The word 'Rottnest' is a corruption of the Dutch for 'rat's nest' - not, you might think, a particularly alluring name, but it is in fact a tribute to the island's most famous inhabitant (and a naturalist's chief reason for wanting to go there). Rottnest is, for all intents and purposes, the last refuge of the Quokka (Setonix brachyurus), a distinctive (and, I suppose, vaguely rat-like) little kangaroo that (like so many of Australia's small mammals) has been almost completely driven from the mainland by introduced foxes and other man-made threats. There are still mainland populations at places like Two Peoples Bay, but the animals in them are excessively shy, keep to heavy brush, and are almost impossible to see. If you want to see a Quokka in the wild, Rottnest Island is the place to go.

A few of our little group decided, at the very end of our trip, to brave the seas to Rottnest. They may not have shared my enthusiasm for smallish marsupials, but it was certainly with visions of Quokkas dancing in my head that I left Eileen and our less boat-friendly companions to shop in Fremantle, and boarded the ferry for a wave-tossed crossing.

Don't let the placid waters in the upper photograph  fool you – that was a rough trip! Anyway, once I got my legs again I decided that the best way to explore the island was by renting a bicycle. Now, I don't mind telling you that it's been a long time since I've ridden a bicycle, but I did manage, somehow, to  find my way out of the small island port and set off on the road to the salt lakes just behind it.

The salt lakes support large populations of brine shrimp, and this makes them excellent places to look for water birds (especially as the road follows right along the lake edge).

 The reddish vegetation crowding onto the Salt Lake Beach is samphire, a salt-resistant member of the goosefoot family (Chenopodiaceae), At least two species of Sarcocornia and one or two Tecticornia grow on the island; I will hazard a guess that the reddish plants you see here are Shrubby Samphire (Tecticornia halocnemioides).

Onion Weed (Asphodelus fistulosus)
Rottnest is not alien-free; this is Onion Weed or Hollow-stemmed Asphodel (Asphodelus fistulosus), a Mediterranean plant established as a weed in many parts of Australia.

Australian Shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides)
Among the birds visiting the salt lakes are Australian Shelduck (Tadorna tadornoides).  This is a male. lacking the white marking around the eyes of females.

Islands in the lake are protected nesting grounds for the Fairy Tern (Sternula nereis), a declining species listed as Vulnerable by Birdlife International, but I saw none on my visit.

Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
The birding highlights of Rottnest, however, are so identified with the island that they are known locally as Rottnest Snipe. It was to see them that I entrusted myself to my long-forgotten cycling skills.

Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
Ornithologists call them Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus), and they are certainly the most unusual of the small stilt and avocet family (Recurvirostridae).  I had only seen them once before, on a birding trip to the salt pans near Adelaide, South Australia, in 1970.

Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
It is not that Banded Stilts are particularly unusual-looking. In fact, they are very beautiful birds. It is their life history that has attracted attention, and, in particular, their habit of breeding in a immense numbers on ephemeral waters in the Australian interior. Because the very existence of such waters is unpredictable, nesting banded stilts are particularly hard birds to find.

Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
In fact, it wasn't until 1930 that a nesting colony was finally found by an ornithologist. How the birds know which of the usually empty lake beds in the desert back country hold water in any given year is still something of a mystery.  At Rottnest, they are only non-breeding visitors, arriving after the inland lakes dry up in the summer heat.

Banded and White-headed StiltsBanded and White-headed Stilts
Banded and White-headed Stilts
Feeding among the Banded Stilts were a few White-headed Stilts (Himantopus leucocephalus), Australian representatives of the "typical" stilts found in other parts of the world. Among other things, you can tell them apart by their black backs and much longer legs.

Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
I watched the stilts for some time, until they apparently grew tired of me and flew off to the middle of the lake.

Banded Stilt (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus)
Banded Stilts, by the way, swim well despite their long legs, and are seemingly adept at snatching morsels of food from the water's surface.

Finally (persuaded by a bit of rain) I decided it was time to head back to town.  I took a brief rest in the small Rottnest Island Cemetery, which contains only a few nineteenth-century headstones (the cemetery was for white people; around 350 aboriginals were buried elsewhere, in unmarked graves).

One-leaf Cape tulip (Moraea flaccida)
There were some attractive flowers around, but they were, I'm afraid, mostly weeds; the upper photo is of One-leaf Cape tulip (Moraea flaccida), an import from South Africa.

The town, I was told, was the best place to find Quokkas (notice, for example the little bump in the centre of the road ahead of me).

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
Unlike their mainland cousins, they have taken advantage of (and seem quite unconcerned by) our presence.

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
They certainly don't see us as a threat (they are now popular subjects for selfies), though they risk being harmed by our interest in them.  It is illegal to touch, or hug, one, and vegemite makes them sick.  Well, I don't care for it myself.  Anyway, at least it's been some years since brain-dead idiots used the animals as targets for 'quokka soccer', though some recent quokka deaths suggest that vicious morons still get to the island occasionally.

Probably the best way to appreciate them is to take the afternoon Quokka walk, in our case led by an enthusiastic (despite the rain) local guide.

This gave me not only a chance to get better acquainted with the Quokkas, but to see a bit more of the island's countryside.  That included a bit of its remnant woodland, which is dominated today by Melaleuca lanceolata and Callitris preissii, known respectively as Rottnest Island Teatree and Rottnest Island Pine though both grow widely on the mainland.  This web site provides a good introduction to the island's fauna and flora (including the Quokkas), if you want to know more.

Common Fig (Ficus carica)
Of course there are exotics too, like this Common Fig (Ficus carica).

Australian Pied Oystercatcher  (Haematopus longirostris)
Australian Pied Oystercatcher  (Haematopus longirostris)
I was able to get close to a few birds, too: here is an Australian Pied Oystercatcher (Haematopus longirostris) patrolling the edge of a lagoon.

Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides)
The Australian Raven (Corvus coronoides) is ubiquitous, and tame, on the island.

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
We had no trouble finding Quokkas, including these two grazing placidly on a nearby sward.  Despite the domestic impression this photo may give you, Quokkas appear to be promiscuous, with the larger males battling each other for access to the smaller females.  According to the latest volume of the Handbook of the Mammals of the World, "After copulation males often lose interest in the female, and she may then mate with additional males".  Sort of like humans.

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus) droppings
Even their droppings were everywhere.

Pacific Black Duck and Quokka
Quokkas are, in fact, quite urban creatures on Rottnest: the vegetarian equivalent of raccoons.  This one shares the photo with another largely urbanized creature, a Pacific Black Duck (Anas superciliosa).

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
If they are not eating the harmful things that humans aren't supposed to give them, Quokkas live on seeds, leaves, stems and other vegetable matter; on Rottnest they have been reported to dine on forty different species of plants.

Quokka (Setonix brachyurus)
I hope that the Quokka comes back in numbers on the mainland, where intense conservation programmes are now under way.  In the meantime, the Rottnest population, though it fluctuates with the seasons (and may in fact be too high at times for the surrounding vegetation), remains as both a bulwark for the species and a tourist attraction.  Treat them with care and respect (they are as harmless and charming as animals get) and they are certainly worth the trip to the island.

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