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Devils Walk Among Us

Well, it’s that time of the week for another update. Now that I am at a computer I can probably keep a more consistent schedule of updates, so let’s begin with Tasmania!

Despite being not too far from the mainland, I feel like visiting Tasmania has the same sort of feel as non-Floridians visiting Florida. It’s there, it’s not that expensive to visit, but it’s really just a holiday location for many people. Tasmania seems like that for Australians. I went to Tasmania for the first time a week and a half ago first to participate in the Australian Society of Herpetologists’ (ASH) annual meeting and after that, I had a few days to check out the state. Unlike Florida, Tasmania has no Disney World or Universal Studios or anything like that, but is quite well known for being mountainous and green (unlike much of the rest of Australia). Tasmania harbors Australia’s only temperate rainforest and, I think with the possible exception of Brazil, that makes Australia the only country to have both tropical and temperate rainforests.

The ASH meeting was a fun time. It is really hard to describe the atmosphere at ASH, but it’s very relaxed and jovial. There were about 150 participants, so it was one of the smaller meetings I’ve attended, but it was not nearly as intimidating. Herpetologists are a unique breed regardless of their nationality, it would seem, and that lent an air of comfortability for me presenting my research there. I presented my research on Dendrobates tinctorius that I’ve been working on for the last three years. I am excited about the results of this research, so it was fun to present my findings. And as is always my fear in presenting research, I was worried that my peers would reject the conclusions, but happily, people seemed to accept the conclusions I drew. Anyone who knows me, knows that I can get exceptionally obsessive about visual media, so when I give powerpoint presentations, I want to make full use of the program. I generally believe that the presentation is wasted if you do not have a compelling visual presentation and sadly, many scientists fall into this. I spent a great deal of time making and practicing the presentation, and I’m quite pleased to see that that effort is recognized. I was awarded runner-up for best PhD presentation, which earned me a copy of the Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia by Harold Cogger. This is a beast of a book that is worth around $120 and is quite comprehensive. I do actually have a copy, but I left it in the States. And in an effort to make it more personal, I basically turned it into a yearbook and got signatures of a bunch of people on the front page of the book, including a number of the bigwigs at the conference. I was also pleasantly surprised when I spoke to one of the judges of the presentations who said it really was back and forth between me and the first place winner. In addition to meeting everyone including a number of important contacts, this really capped off a great meeting.

After the meeting, I had plans to rent a car and then drive around Tasmania for four days. I had the goal of trying to find one of the species of frogs I’m working on, seeing an echidna, seeing a wombat, and seeing a Tasmanian Devil. When I went to the airport to rent a car, most of the cars were already rented out and those that were left were big vehicles. And it turns out that I wasn’t alone in this position. There was another guy from the conference who didn’t reserve a car ahead of time and was potentially looking at being stranded at the airport because he couldn’t rent a car. Since he was flying out of Hobart and I was going to head to Hobart to see some friends, I said I could take him and we could split costs. The only problem for him was that I was planning on camping and he didn’t have any gear to camp. It ended up working out that he slept in the car, but I think he probably would have preferred to stay in some hotels. But it was free to camp, so beggars can’t be choosers, and ultimately I think he enjoyed the whirlwind tour.

We started out by heading to the Bay of Fire on the northeast coast of Tasmania. I was hoping that this wasn’t ominous because Tasmania is dealing with a drought and a number of fires (which I believe are concentrated out west). I had chosen this spot because there was decent number of Pseudophryne semimarmorata found around this area, and that is the target species I wanted to find. Unfortunately, in getting there, I discovered that despite some rains in the last few weeks, the drought was not over and creeks that would be excellent for the frogs were bone dry. So that area ended up being a bust, although it was in the middle of nowhere, which was nice and scenic.

The following morning, we got up early and headed south with the goal of ending the night at Hartz Mountains National Park with is southwest of Hobart and about a 4-hour drive from where we currently were. We ended up driving down the eastern coast and stopped for a couple hours at Freycinet National Park. Blair had suggested stopping there to see Wineglass Bay which I had not heard about, but apparently is one of the big sights to see in Tasmania. It was a good way to break up the drive, so we spent a few hours there and the view was as advertised. And it was also well advertised as we were not the only ones there. In fact, we accidentally ran into another group from ASH as we were making our way back to the car. And then we were off to Hartz Mountains. Shortly after leaving Freycinet, I saw one

of my top targets on the side of the road. An echidna! I turned around and found that it wasn’t hurt or

anything (there is a ridiculous amount of wildlife in Tasmania, so a ton of roadkill, to the point that there are dusk-to-dawn speed limited to help cut down on that). By the time we got to close to the animal, it wasn’t having anything of us, and started burrowing down into the dirt. It basically burrowed down enough so that its spikes were at level with the ground and there was very little chance of getting at the animal without getting stabbed. Despite my prodding, it wouldn’t come up, but it was still a very cool animal to see and one I’ve wanted to see for a long time. First wild monotreme!

Hartz Mountains is the furthest south I’ve ever been. It’s about as far south as Manistee, Michigan (a place I spent many childhood summers) is north. But there isn’t much more south before you hit Antarctica, so that was quite cool. Hartz Mountains is also a temperate rainforest and quite reminiscent to the cloud forests I’ve been in in Central America. Despite getting a misting while we were there, it was still evident that it was drier than normal. Everything was covered in moss, but the moss was pretty dry. We had come to Hartz Mountains to try to find Crinia nimba, which is a relatively recently described species of frog endemic to southern Tasmania. We had also hoped to find a number of the Snow Skinks in the genus Niveoscincus. These are arguably the coldest lizards in the world with individuals being found on snow. There are six species endemic to Tasmania, and all of them can be found at Hartz Mountains. We arrived in the late afternoon, so we decided to head up to the top to scope out the area for some possible night road cruising. We were halted because someone needed some help because their friend skidded out on the road up to the park and crashed into a tree. When we got to the car, we realized that there wasn’t much we could do and the people would have to call a tow truck. Needless to say, I was quite careful about driving on the gravel roads after that as I didn’t want to repeat it. After we got up to the top, we went through an alpine bog area which seemed perfect for these frogs. And when we got up there, a cloud was moving through, so there was moisture for the frogs. It all seemed promising. When we went up there after dark, it was raining (misting) and chilly. Despite this, we heard a number of Crinia signifera calling. We cruised around the area to find the frogs, but we didn’t hear any calling, and given that these frogs are brown and cryptic, there is little chance of walking up on one, so finding that frog was a bust. The following morning, we went up to hike around before having to head to Hobart to drop Blair off and for me to meet up with my friends. We didn’t hear any frogs calling in the morning, but on our hike up to Osborn Lake, we did see a number of endemic Green Rosellas and on the way back from the lake, the sun had warmed the boardwalk enough to get the skinks to come out and bask, so we found one of the snow skinks! And then onto Hobart!

Hobart ended up being a pretty quick stop because I needed to make the ferry for Maria Island (pronounced Mariah) and there were only two a day. So I had lunch with my friends before heading off to catch a ferry. Maria Island National Park is a really near park. You know all of those stories about the Australia being a penal colony? Well, Maria Island was one of the spots that criminals were sent. So around the port of Darlington, there are ruins and historical buildings relating to the penitentiary that was once in the island. The main claim to fame, now, for Maria Island, is that it’s one of the spots to somewhat reliable see Tasmanian Devils. Tasmanian Devils are being wiped out throughout Tasmania because of a very unique facial cancer that is actually transmissible. Devils will contract the disease when they bite one another. And given that biting one another is the main way these animals communicate with one another spells problems for the species. Fortunately, all of the devils on Maria Island are cancer free. And they’re somewhat habituated to people, so the chances of seeing one is pretty good.

Maria Island is also interesting in that you can either stay in one of the old penitentiary buildings or camp, and you need to bring all food you need for your trip. There are two camp sites, either in Darlington or 11km away at the other side of the island. Given that the best chances of seeing devils is in Darlington, I stayed there (I also did not relish the idea of hiking 11km with all of my camera AND camping gear). To waste some time before dusk when devils would be active, I decided to walk to the Painted Cliffs and photograph them at sunset. Along the way, I was able to knock off another one of my target species: wombat. There were wombats everywhere, just grazing on the grass with very little concern for who was around. And why would they? There, effectively, are no predators on the island that can threaten them and nor are there vehicles that may hit them. In this walk, I also saw a number of endemic Tasmanian birds that I didn’t realize were endemic. Probably the best one was a Forty-Spotted Pardalote since it’s an endangered species. There are 12 endemic Tasmanian birds, and I think I saw 5 or 6 on this walk. After getting my photo of the cliffs, I headed back and on the way saw more wombats, and by this time, the kangaroos, wallabies, and pademelons had come out, so it was the right

time for devils. I waited for a while and walked around trying to find a devil or spotlight one, but with no luck. I decided to lay down in my tent and wait for a commotion in the camp since surely there would be

a commotion if a devil came through, right? Well, as it turns out, a devil walked right past my tent while I was in it, and I heard a single “oh look, a devil.” By the time I got out of my tent, it was gone. No devils that nice, so I called it a relatively early night figuring I might see them early in the morning. Throughout the night, I was rustled out of sleep by the screams of the devils that were in camp, apparently. But the following morning I was awarded a quick glimpse of a devil. Not nearly as satisfying a view as I would have liked, but I finally got my devil!

That morning, before the afternoon ferry back to the mainland, I decided to walk up to Bishop and Clerk which is one of the highest peaks on the island at 540m high (they advertise 620m, but my GPS begs to differ). The hike was advertised as 11km roundtrip, which would take 3-5 hours, which was great timing before having to head to the ferry. The hike was more like 13km (those 2 extra kilometers matter when you’re carrying a lot of camera gear on your back), and I think it took me about 5 hours to do. Mostly because I was taking my time. Unfortunately, the news that there was a drought in Tasmania apparently hadn’t made it to Maria Island, and about half way up, it started sprinkling. When I got to some rock scree that I had to walk through (and was exposed) it decided to pick up to a bit more than a sprinkle. Not a downpour by any means, but 10 minutes of walking in it and you’d be pretty wet. The only plus to it all was that there wasn’t much in the way of wind, otherwise it would have been pretty miserable. Once I got to the top, I got my photos and rushed the kilometer over rock scree to get back into the forest and some refuge for the rain. As if on cue, the rain let up shortly after I got into the forest. And then I was back and ready to hop on the ferry and head back towards Launceston.

I had one more night in Tasmania before flying back to Sydney, and on the recommendation of my Hobart friends, I stayed the night in Nawarntapu National Park, which is not far from Launceston. This is a coastal park, so I was hoping to see some birdlife, but it also had lots of low-usage roads which are perfect for road cruising. While waiting for the sun to go down, I set up camp which I shared with a Kookaburra who seemed completely uninterested in my being there, but he did keep laughing at me. Once the sun went down, I heard some hooting in my camp, which I thought could have been a frog call, and after trying to triangulate where on the ground this frog was, I scared (we were both scared) a Tawny Frogmouth from its perch. It turns out that the frogmouth was the one hooting, and he too was relatively unconcerned about me, so I was able to get some photos of it. I had seen a frogmouth

last year in Newcastle, but didn’t have my camera on me. They are very cool birds, but can be difficult to find because they sit perfectly still and seem like a broken branch. And then it was time for road cruising. After an hour of road cruising, though, I only saw some pademelons, possums, and a single Eastern Banjo Frog that was recently hit. Not quite as successful as I was hoping. I wasted some time the following morning by hiking on a couple of trails and walking along the beach to see some of the early morning birds, and then it was time to head back to the airport and fly back to Sydney.

And that’s the Tasmanian adventure! A lot packed into a week! Unfortunately, these next few weeks are likely to be somewhat boring as I’ll be in Sydney filling out paperwork to prepare for the field season which probably will start sometime in mid-March. As a result, the next couple blog posts will probably be rather short and boring, but we’ll see. Who knows what opportunities might pop up!

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