Birdwing caterpillar rescue

Two years to the day since this post we have the same problem: we have so many Cairns Birdwing caterpillars (Troides euphorion) that they are eating themselves to a famine. We let an Aristolochia vine wind its way up one of our downpipes. Here it is, under stress five days ago and almost a bare stem this morning:

creeper on downpipe

Aristolochia on Tuesday …

bare stem on downpipe

… and on Saturday morning

I have to congratulate the caterpillars on their economical eating habits – very little of the creeper is wasted – but wonder if they would blame their mum for laying too many eggs on one vine.

In the last two years we have signed up one of our neighbours to the caterpillar rescue team by giving her lots of Aristolochia seedlings. She now has several thriving vines in her garden and I have to say I was surprised to learn that the butterflies had not found them. Are they as finely tuned to their emergence location as turtles are to their hatching beaches? It’s hard to believe but really, our neighbour’s vines are only 50 metres from ours.

She is likely to have some next year, whether or not that’s the reason she hasn’t had any yet, since we have just carried half a dozen hungry caterpillars over to her.

My final photo here shows what happens when one of these caterpillars is frightened or provoked: it sticks out a pair of bright orange horns from the upper part of its head. The organ is called an osmetrium and, as wikipedia says, it emits a ‘foul, disagreeable odour’ which repels some of its potential predators.

spiky black caterpillar with orange horns

A half-grown Birdwing caterpillar showing its osmetrium

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The Varied Triller

small black and white bird

Varied Triller in the poinciana tree

I have been looking out for all the different birds in my (suburban Townsville) garden for several years now, so I know all the regulars and most of the usual visitors quite well, but I still see new species occasionally. The latest, a couple of days ago, was the Varied Triller, Lalage leucomela. When I saw it my first thought was that it was too small to be a Magpie-lark and might be a biggish honeyeater or robin, but when I checked Slaters Field Guide none of them matched. In the end I identified it with the help of the Bird Finder on Birds in Backyards. Mine is a male; females are brownish.

Trillers are in the same family, Campephagidae, as the somewhat larger Cuckooshrikes and feed on ‘insects, fruit and nectar in trees’, to quote Slaters. They are ‘uncommon nomads’ in coastal areas from central NSW to the Kimberley and up into New Guinea.

With just one sighting I count myself lucky to have taken even the one useable photo you see above; Ian Montgomery has far better shots on Birdway. Birds in Backyards doesn’t have such a good photo but does have an excellent fact sheet on the species.

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Wallaman Falls by moonlight

Wallaman Falls by moonlight

Wallaman Falls by moonlight

The moon was nearly full when I camped at Wallaman Falls (previous post) and plenty bright enough for a moonlight ramble so I wondered if it might be bright enough for a moody photo of the falls. I knew it would be a technical challenge for a photographer with an entry-level DSLR and no tripod or remote shutter release, but I don’t mind a challenge and it was a good-enough excuse (if I needed one) for visiting the falls at night.

The shot above, straight from the camera except for a size reduction for online use (click on it for a larger version), was one of the better results. For the technically inclined, it was taken on a Canon EOS 600D, with a Canon 15-85mm zoom lens wide open at 15mm and f3.5, ISO 800 (higher ISO’s with this camera lead to unbearably noisy images) and an exposure time of 13 seconds. And no, it wasn’t really hand-held – I rested the camera on the lookout railing and held it very firmly as I pressed the button.

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Wallaman Falls

waterfall

Wallaman Falls from the lookout

Wallaman Falls are 268 metres in height, making them the highest permanent single-drop waterfall in Australia. The gorge below them is one limb of a branching network, the Herbert River and its tributaries, reaching up into the ranges North-west of Ingham. Stony Creek tumbles over the lip and the water picks up so much speed on the way down that it has drilled a hole twenty metres deep at the foot of the falls.

Wallaman-Mt-Fox-mapThe drive from Mount Fox (see previous post) to Wallaman Falls is not long on the map but includes a long winding road down the escarpment and an equally long, equally winding, but slightly wider, road back up to the top. Both boast spectacular views.

The road forks just over the crest; turn right for a short drive to the Wallaman Falls lookout or keep going straight ahead for an even shorter drive to the National Parks camping ground. The road ends a few hundred metres further on, continuing only as a walking track which is part of the Wet Tropics Great Walk (map, pdf).

There are several linked viewing areas at the lookout, some looking across the head of the gorge to the falls, as in my top picture, and others looking down the gorge towards the coast:

rainforested valley

The zig-zagging gorge downstream from Wallaman Falls

A steep walking track winds down into the gorge from the latter, into a dim environment eternally damp with spray from the falls. I didn’t make the effort this trip but remember it, from my only previous visit to the falls, as a place of slippery boulders, chilly mists and mossy trees; swimming is possible but discouraged. The swimming holes near the camping grounds are far better on all counts – prettier, safer, easier to get to, and with nicer picnic areas nearby. An 800 metre loop track through the lush tropical rainforest connects them to the camping ground.

Stony Creek swimming hole near the campground

Stony Creek swimming hole near the campground

This tranquil section of Stony Creek above the falls is home to turtles and platypus. I saw plenty of the former and I think I saw one of the latter but it was too far away to be sure.

two turtles

Saw-shelled Turtles in Stony Creek near the camping ground

Around the camping ground I saw lots of Scrub Turkeys (they were a bit of a pest, actually, continually threatening to make off with any food left unprotected) and one 1.5m goanna, more formally known as a Lace Monitor, Varanus varius. It was wandering around on the lawns when I returned to camp but unhurriedly climbed a tree when I approached.

black goanna

Lace monitor

goanna close-up

Keeping an eye on me

There was plenty of smaller wildlife, too – birds, insects and spiders – around the camping ground and in the rainforest nearby but I have put those photos in an album on flickr rather than here.

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Mount Fox

volcanic cone

Mount Fox

Mount Fox is an extinct volcano South-west of Ingham, not too far away from Townsville but well off the beaten track. I have been hearing about it from time to time ever since arriving in Townsville but had never actually been there until I finally indulged my curiosity last weekend.

The drive from Ingham (see map) takes you through the canefields towards the rampart of the Great Dividing Range and then winds up to the crest, with a couple of spectacular lookouts on the way, and gradually down the drier inland side. It’s much like the more familiar road up to Paluma and down to Hidden Valley, and in fact there is a back road from Mt Fox to Hidden Valley (but I would recommend asking a local before tackling it in a conventional vehicle).

landscape

Canefields with the ranges behind them

landscape

Cattle country: open woodland near Mount Fox

The way in to the small Mount Fox National Park centred on the crater was not difficult except that it wasn’t obvious. The only sign on the road was a brown-and-white finger-post (so old that it was really brown-and-brown) saying “Mt Fox Crater”, pointing to a road blocked by a gate. The sign on the gate only said “GATE” – which I thought was unhelpfully redundant – but it was the only road in anywhere near the right location (I drove a bit further to check) so I opened the gate, drove in, closed it and drove a few kilometres to another “GATE” and (thankfully) better National Parks signage confirming I was in the right place. Another few kilometres of dirt track took me to the foot of the volcanic cone.

The cone is the result of a relatively recent eruption, 100,000 or 560,000 years ago, according to the National Parks site or Volcanoworld respectively (the latter is worth visiting for a nice aerial photo). It is a pile of ejected rubble rather than solid rock, and the surface is composed of rocks from pebbles up to car size, with just enough dirt between them to support grass and thin scrubby vegetation.

The mountain rises 120 metres above the surrounding plain, so climbing it is a worthwhile but eminently achievable challenge: it is steep and strenuous but straightforward, and there is no possibility whatsoever of getting lost. The crater, when you get there, is just a shallow bowl which is obviously swampy after rain and must be a significant water resource for the wildlife of this dry country. The major rewards of the climb are the spectacular views from the top:

savannah ladscape

View approximately NE from the summit of Mt Fox, towards Abergowrie, Ingham and Hinchinbrook Island

I was also delighted by close views of a trio of Wedge-tailed Eagles (Aquila audax) circling around the peak.

eagle in flight

Wedge-tailed Eagle

rocky path

Part of the foot track, showing the loose surface of the volcanic cone

The foot-track to the top is so rough that I chose to pick my own way down (it was not much more difficult) to go closer to one of the vine thickets that break the bare slopes. In the end I opted not to explore the tangled scrub, in spite of the possibility of discovering dozens of new species of invertebrates – isolated pockets of habitat are great for this.

Intending visitors need to be aware that there are no facilities at all in the National Park and (most of the year) no water at all. In these days of taken-for-granted mobile phones, I should probably also warn urbanites that there is no mobile coverage in the area. Once you get over the crest of the range, anywhere in North Queensland, you’re in a different world. It’s an unforgiving world, but one whose challenges are balanced by freedom and a wonderful sense of limitless space.

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