Monday 22nd March.
Well, one week to go and I am getting ready for the trip. I have my airline ticket ready and i will be packing my bag on Friday. I still have to get a few things but that should be no real trouble. I have spent the last week getting around and speaking to a couple of primary schools. So this would be a great time to say 'Hi' to everyone at Mt Eliza Secondary College, Seaford North Primary School, Mt Eliza North Primary School and Courtenay Gardens Primary School.
Things i am worried about: Missing my flight - it leaves at 6.00am which means i have to get to the airport at 5.00am ... as i love my sleep this is a worry - i will have to get up at about 3.00am to be sure of getting there... Yaaaawn. Also worried about the heat - its been pretty hot up there in Cairns - i hope i don't melt. Something else i need to worry about is the possibility of Trevor and Barry (Jack Russells) getting to my Easter Eggs before i get back in week 2 of term 2. Thats a long time for them to resist the urge of foil covered chocolate ... "Resist Trevor, Resist Barry... "
Saturday 3rd April.
Just a day to go now and I am getting pretty anxious about meeting up with everybody and heading into the 'bush'. I have been in Cairns for nearly a week trying to acclimatise, but its been pretty tough - It just keeps on raining. Even the locals are joking about it. It is so very different to Melbourne, I have been watching the weather and whilst it has only been about 6-7 degrees different in actual temperature, with Cairns being hotter, the humidity - the amount of moisture in the air has been about DOUBLE that of Melbourne. So that means it feels heavier when you move and the heat hangs around a lot more. It is a more oppressive type of heat.
I have spent my time wandering around sight seeing and visiting some great places. I am staying right on the beach too, which would be great except that you can't swim here at the moment as it is 'Stinger' season. The main worry is the Box Jelly Fish - a pretty nasty critter that can cause a lot of damage just by rubbing against you - you can find out a bit about it HERE. Needless to say, whilst there are plenty of people on holidays here at the moment, no one is going in the water. Ah well - but i do have a pretty good view of Double Island, I can actually see it from my window which is pretty cool - i think it might be cooler though if I was trying to see my window from the resort on Double Island, don't you? :)
Anyway, keep checking in on me to make sure I am surviving. I am looking forward to the challenges in the next couple of weeks, but i am also looking forward to coming back to Melbourne to tell you all about it in person.
Day 1 – Easter Sunday
Well, the day started as expected, it is sill raining in Cairns and to be honest it doesn’t really look like letting up. It has now been raining for three weeks up here and I haven’t ever seen so much water laying around, we could use a few weeks of this in Melbourne.
The group met at the airport and after saying Hi and organising ourselves, we loaded ourselves into the 4 wheel drives and set off in a convoy for our first camp. We turned into the hills just south of Cairns and after about an hour and a half of winding roads we arrived in the Dambulla Forest on the edge of the Atherton Tablelands.
We hurried to put up our tents before the really heavy rain arrived and managed to get everything done just in time. We each have our own tents, a large central canopy where we can meet and eat meals and a small chemical toilet and camp shower. We had a safety talk in the evening about how to stay well in the forest. There are lots of things trying to eat us so we all listened very carefully. The big problems aren’t so much the leeches (which are EVERYWHERE) or the tics which we need to check for all the time, or even the snakes such as the Red Bellied Black, the Small Eyed snake or the even the Taipan which can be found here occasionally, but it is more the stinging bushes we need be careful of as these can be extremely painful. All it takes is a slight rub against as you walk through the undergrowth to make you regret getting up in the morning. These stings can last for a few weeks apparently and so we are all on the lookout.
The forest itself is fantastic, very lush and green. Everything you might expect a rainforest to be – including the rain! The canopy is very thick and we can hear the call of many different birds as they wake up or settle in for the night. There are small creeks and streams everywhere and when you are quiet you can hear a myriad of animals and forest sounds. It is very different to how things sound at night on the Peninsula.
In the morning we will be starting some of the science activities that are planned, and splitting into groups to get some of the work done, if it stops raining long enough.
Day 2 – Monday 5th April
Despite all the rain I was toasty warm and dry through the night. I could hear the rain falling but none of it got through the fly we all rigged over our tents. In the end I woke up at about 5.30, and listened to the noises of the forest for about a half an hour before I got up and made a cup of tea. The rain this morning was pretty patchy and so I sat and watched it, as the sky grew brighter. It was all very quiet except for some wonderful birdcalls, some were really loud and echoed out over the forest.
We will be doing some early morning bird surveys but they don’t start until tomorrow, so after breakfast some of us went on a tour of the site here at camp, while others went either to a higher site. Another group led by a PhD student Andreas went to look for tiny frogs in the leaf litter at a different location. They left just after 9.00am and by 4.30 they still hadn’t got back to camp. Luckily they took their lunch with them.
On our tour of the local site we were introduced to the leeches that live here. We all had some blood suckers on us at some stage, but they weren’t too bad. None of us died from blood loss or carried off by leech giants. One unlucky teacher however managed to get a leech on her eyeball and it moved up behind her eye. She was brave – I am sure I might have freaked out, but she listened to the advice of our resident experts and stayed calm. An hour and half later it dropped out of its own accord. We were all very excited, but not as excited as she was. A lesson for us all.
There has been a lot of setting up done today: One researcher is looking at geckoes and how they use different areas of trees. He uses a huge sling shot to fire a rope over the branches of tall trees and then uses a special climbing rig to raise himself along the line of the truck to the very top of the canopy.
Another researcher, Tamara is identifying micro bats, they are the smaller bats that use radar to guide themselves and find prey. She uses an electronic devise that helps her to identify which bats are in the area and she will be using a special mist net to capture some as well. She and some of the other people from James Cook University can handle the bats as they have been inoculated against rabies, which some bats actually carry.
Tonight after dinner we are supposed to be going out with various researchers to take part in a range of activities that can only be done at night. Some will be spotlighting to try and identify the animals in this local area, others are looking for geckos and another group catching bats. You can usually tell the species of animal from the colour reflected by their eyes when you shine the light in their direction. It should be very interesting as the leeches; the mud and the rain are all waiting for us. I am off looking for bats using mist and harp nets. We will get back pretty late, and I hope the tent and sleeping bag are as dry and comfortable as they were last night.
We left just after dinner at around 6.30. We are looking for bats along a transect that had been trampled over the last day and a half. It was very muddy and the rain didn’t let up at all. We got to the site with boots full of water and set up the harp net, which was interesting. The mist nets had been set up in the afternoon along the sides of the track and formed a channel along which bats might fly. These are really fine netting suspended about 3 meters above the ground which bats may not necessarily be able to detect before they fly into them. The harp net was set up at the ‘end’ of the channel between the two mist nets. The harp net has vertical lines which instead of trapping the bat, force it down into a canvas trough where is can then crawl up behind a flap of material to keep warm until it is released.
Setting this up in the dark and wet was tough going but lots of fun. We were slipping and sliding on the path and trying to slot poles and tie off lines. Eventually it was all ready to go and we organised a small tarp we could sit in off the side in the rainforest. This was the interesting part – waiting for the bats to arrive. Tamara who was in charge of the activity would check the nets every 20 minutes. Aside from that we sat, generally in silence, in the dark … waiting. After a few minutes instead of just seeing black, like being in a closed off room in the dark, we could se things starting to glow in the forest. Some of the mosses and even some animals have a chemistry that allows them to glow. So when our eyes adjusted, there was actually some light to see things by. It wasn’t too bright but certainly enough to make out certain features of the forest. If you have seen the film Avatar you will have seen Hollywood’s take on what it might look like in the extreme. In reality it was nothing like the film - but it might give you a little bit of an idea.
The night was not very successful in so far as collecting bats however. We stayed out until about 10.30 checking the nets every so often, but the rain might have kept the bats away, or it might just not have been a place they are particularly fond of visiting. Whatever the reason we needed to pack up all the gear and carry it back to camp – through the mud and rain – and all the while watching for the wait-a-whiles and stinging plants which are dotted about the landscape.
Drying off was difficult, but the tent was still moisture free and after a long day in the field, sleeping was pretty easy.
Day 3 - Tuesday 6th April
Some groups left early this morning to do bird surveys. At around dawn birds tend to begin calling out for a variety of reasons such as reconfirming their territory or looking for mates amongst others. These birdcalls are a good way of telling what birds exist or are active in a certain area, but you need to be able to tell one call from another. Professor Steve estimates there are around 120 species of birds in the rainforest and experts can identify each call – many of which sound very similar indeed. The leaders on these expeditions are pretty well versed in identifying the calls and so they arrange themselves to listen to the calls and write down what they hear, where it is located and at what time the call was heard. Sometimes though the birds are visible which makes things easier. The rain kept the number of birds calling out down this morning and the groups all reported average to below average numbers. Never mind, we will be doing these all week and things may pick up if it quits raining on us.
In the afternoon I went with Arnoud (Ar-No) to set up some temperature measurement data loggers on a tree. This might sound easy, but he is setting these up along the vertical side of the trunk of trees which mean s he has to climb up into the canopy – around 30 meters above us. He has a great set of tools for this job; a giant slingshot which when it is put together is about 2 meters long. He puts a heavy weight attached to a strong, long, thin line into the sling and fires this into the canopy in order to get the line over a strong fork in the tree. The weight brings the line to the ground and then after tying a strong rope we haul it over the fork by pulling on the thin line. This can be quite a heavy job as 60 meters of rope (30 up and 30 down) weighs quite a bit. Added to this was annoying rain that was falling into our eyes as we looked up.
After the rope was tied off, Arnoud put on a harness and using a Rapid Ascender hauled himself up into the top of the tree. We could speak to him on a walkie talkie and watch leaves fall down from above. He placed the data loggers; small round silver units about the same size as a watch battery, from about 25 meters near the top of the tree and then again at 5 meter intervals as he descended. All up it takes about 3 hours to complete the task from beginning to end – and then there is the packing up after. And of course there is the rain.
When we got back to camp we found that another person had got a leech in the eye. WOW! What are the chances of that? Again, being brave and not panicking was pretty important. Im not sure I could be so calm. After about an hour – out popped the leech, fat and well fed. I think I will have to be more careful from now on, it seems leeches in the eye is catching!
After dinner there are more activities; Bat trapping, Tracking Geckoes and Spotlighting. Again the tent and sleeping bag were dry as a bone – so it wasn’t hard to keep warm. The rain however picked up and the noise of it kept me awake for a long time, it wasn’t unpleasant, just really loud.
Day 4 - Wednesday 7th April
I woke up really early today and couldn’t really get back to sleep so I got up at around 5.30 and had a cup of tea while I watched to sky lighten. The sun didn’t show its face though as it was … Raining. I think the first thing I will do when I get back is check out the amount of rain that has fallen here in the last 4 days. Perhaps someone could do that for me? All the data will available on the Bureau of Meteorology web site if you want to look at it… www.bom.gov.au
Close to camp we found a carpet python in the grasses along side the track. Examining it we found that tics, which are common in the forest, had attached themselves under its scales near the back of its scull. The tics were removed for examination and the snake was released back into its environment. At first the snake was fairly slow and lethargic but after we had been handling it for a while it started to heat up from our relatively high body temperature.
Soon after we also saw a Small Eyed Snake near our large canopy. This was a little more serious as these guys are venomous, but it was keen to get away when it realised what it had stumbled across and made its was back into the undergrowth. Still, it was a good lesson for us all that these things are all around us and need to be treated with respect.
In the afternoon the unthinkable happened; the rain stopped …. And …. The sun came out. This was a happy time for everyone. Washing suddenly appeared on tent ropes in the hope it might dry out, people moved chairs from under the canvas into the sun and we started to make plans for an afternoon reptile survey. By mid afternoon we loaded ourselves into the 4 wheel drives and headed to the higher altitude sites where we would look for any reptiles we might find. Splitting into groups we separated and checked the sides of the path for any skinks and noted where they were located and note the temperatures and position of each sighting. After that we entered the rainforest and looked under logs and leaf litter for other animals. We found a few lizards, mainly skinks but a few different species. Our groups largest was a Prickly Skink, but other groups managed to find leaf tailed skinks which are fantastically shaped and camouflaged.
On the walk back we saw a Black snake, which had obviously heard us coming first, as all we managed to see was his tail disappearing into the bush. By judging by what we DID see he would be about a meter and a half long. Everything seemed to be drying out at camp, even the mud. We had a great dinner and then more survey work after dark. Tonight we could see the stars overhead – a rare occurrence so far this week.
Day 5 – Thursday 8th April
When we woke up this morning it had clouded over and by 9am it was raining again. The bird survey work was completed before it got wet, but it made doing any reptile survey work impossible as reptiles rarely come out into the open when there is no sun. This is because they need the sun to warm themselves and get their muscles moving so they tend to stay quiet and hidden until the sun comes out.So it was pretty much a quiet day until dinner. After that the rain seemed to stop and we were able to make it out and start some more spotlighting.
The bat survey had moved up to the 1100 meter altitude site and Tamara was pretty hopeful of trapping some animals as the night was clearing up. Sadly, nothing was happening for them and after 11pm they called it a night. The Gecko group watched their animals, but very little movement was recorded, it shows how much the weather plays in animal behaviour.
The spotlighting was a little more successful; we found a number of frogs of different species and even found a few Geckoes high in the tree branches. They can be pretty hard to spot so it is very important to stay alert. The technique used with spotlighting is to ‘paint’ the trees with light and look for the reflection of light from the eyes of the animals. Have you ever wondered why light reflects from eyes? Or why different species have a different ‘shine’ in the light that is reflected?
Luckily the rain held off and the stars were out, looks like a nice day ahead … fingers crossed.
Day 6 - Friday 9th April
The morning was a loud one. The sun began to come up and with it the chorus of birds began. It was the loudest we have heard and by 6 o’clock I was having a cup of tea in the middle of the rainforest listening to the best orchestra you could imagine. A magic moment indeed!
As the sun was warming the ground we began to see lots of animals emerge. Before we went to the first reptile survey of the day I went for a walk to look around the track and managed to spot a few interesting things.On the way out a small Black snake was sunning itself in the middle of the path, even though it was small it still had enough venom to seriously injure a grown human, even kill. It was also interesting to see the butterflies come out when the sun appeared. They are really very fast and you could see that certain species obviously preferred particular flowers. Capturing them with the camera was difficult, but it was a pretty scene. A bush rat, about the size of a large rabbit heard the footsteps coming and made a getaway, but again it was possible to watch it as it moved through the forest floor.
We managed to get started on a reptile survey at around 10am. We drove up to the 900-meter site and split into two groups. Again we looked along the pathways for any reptiles and then made our way into the forest for around another 150 meters. On this survey we found quite a few skinks sunning themselves, and even a few prickly skinks under logs. All the sightings were logged into the data recording sheets along with other variables such as temperature of the place they were found, the air temperature, humidity, ground temperature, cloud cover and other factors such as how large the sun space was where they were found, how rotten or fresh the log was … a whole range of data was recorded.
In the evening Professor Steve gave us a presentation on both climate change and his research. It all helped to make sense of what we had been doing all week and what we wil be doing in the week ahead.
Tomorrow we pack up camp and head into Cairns for a day off. We are all looking forward to a shower and access to washing machines so that we can clean our clothes. Things are starting to get a bit wiffy!
Day 7 – Saturday 10th April
Today was clean and pack up day – we are moving into Cairns for the weekend and then onto another site. We prayed that it would be a dry day, as packing in the wet was just too awful to think about. So we were all pretty happy when the birds stated singing for the start of a sunny day.
It took about 3 hours of fairly hard work to get everything into the trailers and cars. We said goodbye to Jenny from Earthwatch who was on her way back to Melbourne, and set off for the long hour and half trip back along the various dirt and windy roads.
We arrived in the early afternoon to cabins with hot showers and toilets. WOW again!
It is amazing the things you start to miss when you are away from ‘civilization’. It may take a bit of scrubbing, but as the FNQ’s don’t have water restrictions – I should manage the task of getting clean again.
Pizza and fizzy drinks for dinner tonight.
Day 9 – Monday 12th April
We were all up early packing and cleaning. We all piled into the vehicles for the 2 hour trip north. The luggage, supplies and equipment filled both trailers and the back of every 4 wheel drive. It looks like we are going for a month, but we will need it all.
The trip along the Captain Cook Highway is spectacular, lots of great ocean views and rock faces that line the road. It is very similar to the Great Ocean Road in Victoria, rugged, winding and a new scene at every bend. Every so often it is possible to see waterfalls cascading down along the rocks and the passing under the roadway. At one section it was possible to see what can happen if the water flows in an uncontrolled way under the road. An older bend, which ran parallel to the highway we travelled on, has been cut in two by a ‘wash out’ where the water has undermined the bitumen. It is important to remember that as beautiful as this area is there are still dangers , it makes me wonder every time we pass another ‘pretty’ waterfall along the way.
The camp we are staying at this time is almost luxurious in comparison to the last site. There are toilets, showers and even a laundry. There is electricity and a huge covered central area to meet in. This is more like it! Setting up camp was much more leisurely this time as there is no rain forecast for the day. So it is slow and steady, ground sheets, tents, flys and tarps, we still need to be prepared.
This evening we are spotlighting at a number of places up and down the mountain. The closer sites are only 10-15 minutes away, they are at elevations of 600 and 800 meters but the highest at 1200 meters is an hour and a half away, meaning if you survey that site you probably wont be in bed until well after midnight.
A number of animals were found by the surveyors; A Daintree Ring Tail Possum, frogs and geckos. A Chameleon Gecko was nearly caught but dropped its tail and fled. That was a bit disappointing but there were still a few leaf tailed Geckos to be had and they will be measures and sampled in the morning.
Day 10 – Tuesday 13th April 13
Bird surveys we on in the morning and many species were identified. The bird life around camp came to life at first light and the noise was very loud. So far I have seen a number of different Kingfishers at this site. Kookaburras are part of the Kingfisher family and they seem to be everywhere, but in addition I have seen a much smaller version common in the northern parts of Australia and I have seen the beautiful Paradise Kingfisher a small brightly coloured cousin of the Laughing Kookaburra we normally recognise.
The geckos captured last night are going to be released tonight after they have been recorded. In addition, Arnoud is going to attach a special cotton reel to each animal in order to monitor where they travel and if they have defined home ranges. He can do this by using a harmless glue and pasting the reel of cotton in such a way so that when it moves it leaves a trail of unwinding cotton behind it. He can then go back later and measure the string and map the distances it travels and the shape of it movement pattern.
It was an early start today for more reptile surveys and we travelled in convoy to a site high in the hills. He work along the track was easy enough but the second part; moving through the forest itself, was very hard. This part of the rainforest was heavily logged until the area was declared a world heritage site. As a result the trees aren’t as tall as some other locations, but what is here is often over run with strong vines and wait a whiles. It makes movement slow and you have to plan your path before you start which is tough as you cannot see far at all.
We didn’t see much this morning a few geckoes and a couple of Black snakes. The drive back was interesting as we had the chance to really look at the surroundings, lots of birds and butterflies. And maybe a Forest Monitor, but it was gone too quickly to be sure.
Well, with most of the afternoon gone already, I am going to try to get a lift to somewhere that has some Internet access. I have a modem to hook up but there is no reception here at all. I am trying to get this online before we have to get ready for the evening spotlighting session… wish me luck.
Day 11 – Wednesday 14th April
It was overcast this morning, not looking good for surveying because of the lack of sunlight and rain may be on its way.
After breakfast we set off to see if the geckoes had left their trail of cotton threads. AS we travelled along the road way up the mountain we met the clouds and soon were driving through the mist.
The geckoes had left trails of cotton but sadly the spools had not held on and had been dropped leaving only partial trails. Some hard thinking coming up for Arnoud as to how he can improve the design of the spools to avoid this in the future. So far it is Geckoes: 5 – Arnoud: 0.
It started to rain as we came down the mountain and by the time we were back at camp it was getting pretty heavy. There go the reptile surveys!
Later in the afternoon a couple of us went with Tamara to set up her bat harp net. We travelled up to the 600 meter site and found a spot in the forest where bats might pass through. This was a steep one, the ground fell away pretty quickly and the rain had made the ground both muddy and very slippery. It took a while but we managed to set up the net about a hundred meters down the slope and get out again. We will be going back tonight, in the dark, to check on it and pack it up and carry it out. Tough, wet and slippery work.
After dinner, we set off to look for leaf tailed geckos at the 800 meter site. This is done in the same manner as spotlighting but with an emphasis on finding and capturing geckoes. We found only one in the transect we covered but it was far too high in a tree for us to do anything about. The geckoes are on top of us today.
One group tonight found a Boyd’s Forest Dragon and whilst still only a juvenile, it’s a great looking animal. It will be measured and tested before being returned to where it was found.
We did manage to see some bats flying around us and a great Stony Creek Frog with bright green markings. A couple of pademelons were out and about too so there was lots going on. The clouds were very low and often we would be completely covered by them as we walked along. It was a very odd scene.
I am starting to count the wear and tear from the trip. So far I have had two falls, rolled and ankle, had cuts to both legs, a finger and battered an elbow. I have had a number of leeches latch onto me for a feed and I am constantly being attacked by the various species of mosquitoes.
I know however that I will sleep well tonight as with all the walking, climbing and carrying I have done today I am ready for a good nights snooze!
Day 12 – Thursday 15th April
The day started overcast and threatened to rain yet again. There was an opportubity to travel to the top camp at 1200 meters and have a look around. We loaded one of the 4 wheel drives with gear and a supply of food for the people staying there and left to travel up the mountain.
It was very interesting to feel the changes that occurred as we travelled higher and higher. The camp we left from is at an altitude of 450 meters and is still very humid. As we moved into the higher levels there was a noticeable drop in temperature and also it felt less thick and stifling. By the time we got to the top of the mountain it felt like I was back in Melbourne again; a fresh breeze, cool temperature and no humidity. Almost enough to make me homesick.
On the way down the mountain, we stopped to give Arnoud a chance at setting up some gecko tracking as well as setting up his climbing equipment in the tree where one of his lizards was released. By climbing the tree he can actually observe the behaviours of the animals he releases.
Tonight is an all out search for more geckoes for Arnoud to track. Instead of groups spotlighting and logging everything they see, we will be focused on simply finding geckoes.
We will be finishing up here on Sunday so the work will begin to wrap up soon. Saturday we go out for dinner in Port Douglas (thinks…”Steak and Chips”) and leave here early Sunday.