All creatures great and small

tasmania-forester-kangaroo-drive-2016-108We drive north from St Helen’s to the Mount William National Park, 14,000 hectares set aside to protect beautiful scenery and a wealth of interesting wildlife.  In particular we’re heading for the Forester Kangaroo Drive, so you can guess what we’re hoping to see.  Our hopes rise when we spot this this sign all over the place as we enter the Park.

Having said that, similar signs normally depicting wallabies, but sometimes wombats, Devils or even echidnas, are everywhere in Tassie.  This reflects the fact that conflicts between wildlife and motor vehicles are commonplace, and driving in some areas you come across roadkill literally every few metres.  The sad thing about Tasmanian wildlife is that it’s often not alive at all by the time we get to see it.  Partly this is because most of the critters are nocturnal and therefore difficult to spot on the road, but it’s also a result of what one might best describe as the cavalier night-time driving habits of many Tasmanians.

The Mount William National Park was originally set up to protect the island’s last remaining population of Forester Kangaroos.  All the other populations in Tasmania were wiped out by settlers in the early nineteenth century – the Forester Kangaroos we saw at Narawntapu National Park are there as the result of a reintroduction programme in 1975.  The Forester Kangaroo Drive traverses large areas of coastal heathland, open grassy plains and dry woodland:

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Thankfully the Kangaroo Drive lives up to its billing and we’re pleased to get views of several individuals, though none of them particularly close:

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It’s also good to re-acquaint ourselves with some old friends: this King of Cubes is out and about, foraging happily and apparently unaware that he’s supposed to be nocturnal:

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We’re also pleased to see this echidna giving the local ants and grubs a hard time:

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But Mount William National Park also gives us a chance to make some new friends, including this Banded Plover:

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We stop to eat lunch at the Stumpys Bay campground and quickly find ourselves surrounded by dragonflies:

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As we leave after just a few hours we reflect on a what has been a great visit.  The area of the National Park covered by the Kangaroo Drive is all but deserted – we saw was one other visitor car and a couple of workmen in the campground – but was teeming with wildlife.  Most definitely it’s our sort of place.

[2 December]

Cry the beloved Tassie

When I was small I used to love Chocolate Swiss Roll. Sometimes mum would buy one as a treat and I’d wolf down a slice as soon as she’d unpacked her shopping bag.  Within minutes I’d be whining, “Mum can I have another slice please?  Can I please?  Can I?”

She’d give me the look and say “Of course you can sweetie.”  And then she’d hit me with the killer blow, the one that always left me reeling on the ropes, gasping for breath.  Darkly she’d say “But when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

How I hated those cold hard words, loathed their relentless logic, resented the impossibility of the choice they placed in front of me. Although of course, strictly speaking, mum was wrong.  She could easily have nipped round the corner to buy another one, no worries.  After all, the Co-Op never ran out of Chocolate Swiss Rolls.

Primary forests aren’t like Chocolate Swiss Rolls. When they’re gone, they’re gone.  You can’t ever put Humpty Dumpty back together again.  Ever.

Tassie is doing some good stuff for conservation. Lots of land is set aside for National Parks and other reserves.  And look at the project save the Tasmanian Devil – real commitment there, no question.

However if you scratch beneath the surface, peel away the self-satisfied veneer, there are less palatable truths. We learned earlier in the trip of the excellent work being done on Bruny Island to protect the endangered Swift Parrot.  But we were told yesterday that that the virgin forest to which the Swift Parrots return each winter is scheduled for logging.  So the parrots are protected in the summer but condemned to starve in the winter.  Where the hell is the sense in that?

Vast areas of Tasmanian primary forest remain under threat from the chainsaw. Of course Tasmania needs to have some commercial forestry, some plantations of fast growing trees to meet essential timber requirements.  But to set about destroying these magnificent old growth forests that have been around for thousands upon thousands of years so Tasmania can export bloody wood chips to the Chinese?  Come on guys, get a grip.

We’ve had a wonderful time is Tassie, seen some fantastic sights, met some great people. It’s one of the most special places we’ve ever been … and we’ve been to some very special places.

And yet here’s one of my abiding memories of Tassie …

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… and here’s another:

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Guys, it doesn’t have to be like this. Your primary forests are something to take pride in.  Your descendants won’t ever forgive you for what you’re doing to them.

You need to pay heed to what my dear old mum used to say.

Remember guys, when it’s gone, it’s gone.

[29 November]

Noisy Devils

On our first evening at Cradle Mountain we visit Devils@Cradle, which is a wildlife sanctuary dedicated to the captive breeding of Tasmanian Devils, as well as two other species of marsupial carnivore, the Eastern Quoll and the Spotted Tail Quoll.

We have, of course, already visited another of the Devil sanctuaries at Bonorong where we saw a single Devil who was woken up from his slumbers at 2.00pm with food. Given that Devils are nocturnal this wasn’t necessarily entirely fair on the critter, though he was handsomely rewarded with dead chicks.  By way of contrast Devils@Cradle feed their charges as dusk turns to darkness, in large floodlit enclosures.

The main enclosure holds five Devils, all around a year old and therefore roughly equivalent to human teenagers. Viewing begins at dusk, when photography is just possible.

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The Devils obviously know it is feeding time and become more and more agitated, charging around the enclosure and chasing one another.  Occasional fights break out, accompanied by much snarling and growling.

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As darkness descends pieces of chopped up wallaby are hurled into the melee of Devils.  Each grabs a piece and dashes off to somewhere he thinks is secluded to tuck into his prize.  However the grass is always greener, as they say, and some Devils would rather have their friends’ bit of wallaby than their own.  More chases and fights ensue, accompanied again by loud vocal protests.  One Devil grabs a whole wallaby tail and hurtles around the enclosure, daring the others to catch him.  They don’t even try, clearly calculating that this is one race they aren’t going to win.

Devils are fiercely competitive in the wild. This feeding regime is designed to ensure that they behave as normally as possible in captivity so that one day, hopefully, these noisy Devils or their offspring can be released back into the wild once the danger from Devil Facial Tumour Disease has abated.   Unfortunately the light isn’t sufficient to take photos of the feeding frenzy, but the memory of five feisty Devils giving it their all lingers on.

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Julie is however able to photograph, through glass, this Eastern Quoll:

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We were lucky enough to see a few of these on our night drives with Andrew on Bruny Island, and it’s good to get a closer view. They, like the Devil, are endangered (albeit for different reasons) and the captive breeding programme is intended to provide some insurance against further losses in the wild.  The staff at Devils@Cradle are passionate about the animals in their care, and it was a pleasure to see hear about their work and to enjoy the antics of their charges.

27 November

In bed with the Devil

We’re back in business!  For some strange reason the Internet is a bit less flaky this evening, so hopefully – at last – I can post my piece on wild Tasmanian Devils …

Len, who with his wife Pat owns the Mountain Valley reserve, is passionate about wildlife in general and Tasmanian Devils in particular. Naturalists flock to his isolated property in north central Tasmania for the chance to see Devils in the wild.  He’s preserved the land for future generations of animals and their admirers under the Land for Wildlife scheme.  After dinner Len takes us to the river at the boundary of his property, where we are delighted to see two platypus.  We also find plenty of wombat poo, but the wombats themselves remain elusive.  However, this is just a sideshow, before the Devils take centre stage.

The main event begins at dusk. We are back in our cabins when Len arrives with a bucket full of chopped up wallaby, roadkill that is about to be recycled.  He spreads the meat about outside our cabin window.  A light in the porch means that lumps of flesh are illuminated and clearly visible from the cabin.  We settle down and wait for the action to begin.  And wait … and wait.

At midnight we call it a day. The Tasmanian Devil isn’t going to show tonight and we go to bed disappointed.  However we leave the outside light on and a floor-to-ceiling window means I can see the feeding area while lying in bed.  I’m soon asleep, but inexplicably I awake at 1.15am.  Rubbing the sleep from my eyes I peer outside, and to my amazement I see a Devil tucking into some chopped up roadkill.

I nudge Mrs P, who is snoring softly in my ear’ole. “Devil” I whisper urgently, “Devil!”

She grunts, but otherwise doesn’t respond.

“No, I’m not joking, there’s a Devil outside,” I say again, nudging her harder this time.

It sinks in. Now she’s awake, creeping from the bed, groping silently in the dark for her camera.

We watch, captivated, for about 15 minutes as the Devil systematically works his way through 20 pieces of chopped up wallaby. Devils can eat 40% of their own bodyweight in a single night, so this is no more than a snack for him.  The window is closed of course (it’s bloody cold outside, and for that matter we’re bloody cold inside, halfway up a mountain in an unheated log cabin clad only in our nightwear!) but we can clearly hear him crunching as he ravenously gobbles both flesh and bones.  The light is not good for taking photos and flash is out of the question, so Mrs P does the best she can:

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The next evening, the same thing happens. We go to bed at midnight and I’m woken shortly after 1:00am, only this time there are two Devils rather than just one.  They bicker and snarl at one another, fighting over the spoils.

On the final evening of our stay at Mountain Valley three Devils turn up, thankfully a little earlier this time. We only ever see two at any one time, but we know there are three individuals as their size and white markings vary.  Again we relish watching the animals interact as they squabble, hurling abuse and grappling with one another over prime feeding rights.  They are feisty little things, and it’s great to see them going about their business blissfully unaware that every snap and snarl is being scrutinised.

Between 85% and 90% of Devils have died over the past 20 years, victims of Devil Facial Tumour Disease, so it’s a real privilege to see wild, disease-free animals here at Mountain Valley:

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Hats off to Len and Pat for making this possible, and for their absolute commitment to preserving wild places and the critters that live there. What a memory to take home with us:

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[23 November]

A critter-fest at Bonorong

tasmania-bonorong-2016-94Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary is a key player in the ongoing effort to maintain a viable captive population of Tasmanan Devils that can be released back into the wild as and when the threat from the highly contagious Devil Facial Tumour Disease has been contained. In the wild Devils are strictly nocturnal, but the keeper tempted this one out of his den with the offer of a dead chick.  It was wolfed down ravenously.

Bonorong looks after sick and injured animals from all over Tasmania with a view to ultimately releasing them back into the wild once they have recovered. We were pleased to meet this young wombat, who is an orphan.  She is recovering well, and is due to be released in about a year from now.

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Bonorong also has some koalas on site. Koalas are not native to Tasmania, but Bonorong was asked to take on some from Kangaroo Island in South Australia.  These had to be removed to help manage an overpopulation problem amongst the koalas there.  This guy is called Bert, and he is very cute and very, very sleepy … koalas have to sleep for about 20 hours a day so that their systems can cope with the toxins in the eucalyptus leaves that are their staple diet.

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We hadn’t realised before that koalas are closely related to wombats, and when you study that them closely the similarities are obvious. However one lives in trees and the other on the ground.  Also, the koala is as thick as two short planks (a brain about the size of a walnut, apparently) whereas the wombat, which is regarded as the mastermind of the marsupial world, is only as thick as one short plank.  Both, however, are as cute as hell, and who needs brains anyway when you can make friends and influence people just by being unbelievably cuddly?

There are also a number of Eastern Grey Kangaroos bounding around the grounds at Bonorong. However it was hot today, and for some of them bounding was just too much bother.

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[17 November]

Walking among giants

We take a side-trip from Geeveston to the Tahune Airwalk.  This is a metallic walkway suspended tens of metres above ground, giving aerial views of a fragment of old-growth (primary) forest.  There is also a spectacular cantilever section of walkway …
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… and two swing bridges (similar to a rope bridge, but fashioned from steel) stretching across rivers that bisect the forest:

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The engineering is impressive, as are the big trees:

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But I’m left slightly uneasy.  This attraction is run by the state-owned Forestry Tasmania. To get to it we have to drive through many miles of second-growth forest, labelled with cheerful roadside messages along the lines of “regenerated after clear-cutting in 1986” or “re-growth following felling in 1974.”  And, when you walk amongst the trees at ground level great effort is made to inform you how useful various timbers are for making furniture or fences or whatever.

Most galling of all, at the entrance to the attraction is a huge sign imploring visitors to “Walk Among the Giants of the Forest,” which sounds a tad hypocritical given that Forestry Tasmania has chopped down pretty much all of the big majestic trees, other than in the immediate vicinity of the Airwalk, for many miles around in every direction.

A cynic might almost suspect there is an agenda here.  Is Forestry Tasmania’s primary aim to promote to the visitor the message that logging is good for you?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that logging is a complex as well as an emotive issue: Andrew from Inala talked at length about the political, economic and scientific aspects of Tasmanian logging.  Moreover as a guest in Australia I know it’s not my issue anyway and I should really just butt out and let the locals sort it out for themselves.

However it would be great if Forestry Tasmania could use take this opportunity to explain the positive aspects of how they are adapting the management of forestry to minimise the environmental damage their operation is causing, and to give some reassurances that they understand the concerns of environmentalists.  I genuinely want to believe the forestry in Tasmania is being managed sensitively for people (whether they be loggers or conservationists) as well as for the environment, but I need the facts

The failure, as far as I could see during our brief visit, to argue the case or put a positive spin on their activities worries me.    We enjoyed our afternoon at the Tahune Airwalk, but I am left with the feeling that this was an opportunity lost by the people who run it.

[13 November]

The beautiful south

img_0415We head south from Geeveston to escape the rain, and visit the Ida Bay Railway, which is the last operating bush tramway in Australia.  It once hauled limestone to a nearby wharf, but now takes tourists on a leisurely trip past gum trees, tea-tree bushes and pretty coastal views.

Our train ride over we continue to head south until we reach Cockle Creek, the most southerly point anywhere in Australia that can be reached by car.  We walk a few hundred metres further south to a life-size sculpture of a baby (calf) whale. The hunting of whales was big business in the early days of Tasmania, with whaling stations being dotted up and down the east coast. The Southern Right Whale was their main quarry. The whalers would initially target the calves, knowing that the distress calls of the dying youngsters would bring their mothers rushing to the rescue and into range of the harpoons. .

img_0473Of all the indignities that man has heaped upon the animal world it is probably whaling that upsets me most profoundly.  I find it almost unbearable to look into the eyes of the sculpted whale, knowing what I do about the fate of his species at the hands of the whalers.  Thankfully numbers of the Southern Right Whales are now recovering, and the sculpture stands as a poignant reminder of a more brutal age.

We begin to work our way back north, taking in the impressive coastal scenery:

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At one point we park up and I leave my driver’s door open while Julie is off taking a photo.  There is a sudden fluttering of wings and I find a Black Currawong, one of the Tasmanian endemics that we first encountered on Bruny, sitting brazenly on the top of my door giving me the eye.  A few days ago we met a local woman who dismissively described these birds as forest seagulls.  This seems a bit harsh, though I can see that people who don’t get birds might find them hard to like.

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We return to Geeveston, where it’s raining hard.  We pay a couple of visits to a nearby river to look for platypus, but to no avail.  Never mind, tomorrow is another day.

[12 November]

 

 

Serious Birding

We first decided to visit Tasmania after listening to a lecture at the British Birdwatching Fair (aka The Birdfair) which is held annually at Rutland Water. The lecturer was Dr. Tonia Cochran, who has devoted much of her adult life to the protection of Tasmania’s wild places and birds, particularly the Forty-spotted Pardolote.  Tonia has created a private reserve by acquiring 1,500 acres of prime habitat, which she has protected in perpetuity through the Land for Wildlife scheme.  She uses her reserve (Inala), which is on Bruny Island off the east coast of Tasmania, as the base for specialised birding tours around the island, and also further afield in Australia.

Given that Tonia was instrumental in our visiting Tasmania in the first place it was entirely appropriate that we should spend three days at Inala. She allocated us our own naturalist guide, the quietly spoken and utterly brilliant Andrew, under whose guidance we toured the Inala Reserve and the length and breadth of Bruny in search of birds and other wildlife too.

In case you’re wondering, birding with a professional guide isn’t a doddle. Andrew made us work for our birds, squeezing under fallen trees in the rainforest …

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… hauling ourselves up steep, scrub covered slopes in the hot sun, squelching through bogs and craning our necks to see tiny birds doing their best to keep themselves hidden high in the forest canopy. The days were long too: birding/animal watching began at 6:30am and didn’t end until around 10.00pm, with only short R&R breaks along the way.

But it was worth it. Andrew introduced us to 70 species of bird, including all twelve Tasmanian endemics (that is, birds found nowhere else in the world except Tasmania).  We couldn’t have hoped to find, let alone identify, even half this number without the help of an expert with good local knowledge.  Amongst the birds we were pleased to see were the rare Swift Parrot …

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… the White-fronted Chat.  Archers fans please note that these were seen at Brookfield Farm …

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… and the White-bellied Sea Eagle:
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We were pleased to see several mammals too, particularly on night drives. However the star of the show was seen in the daytime.  The rare white morph of the Bennett’s Wallaby is almost impossible to see anywhere except Bruny, and is difficult to find there too without local knowledge.  Look carefully and you will see a joey (baby wallaby) in mum’s pouch, but the joey isn’t white:

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What a brilliant three days we spent on Bruny. It’s great to be with experts who are passionate about their subject, and who want to share their knowledge with others.  Tonia’s conservation work is inspirational, and Andrew was a patient guide and teacher for two British birders who were way out of their depth when confronted with so many birds that were totally unfamiliar.  Thank you both.

The Devil fights back

The Tasmanian Devil is threatened with extinction in the wild due to a contagious tumour that has been sweeping through the population over a period of around 20 years, wiping out vast numbers of animals.

To its immense credit the Tasmanian state government has set up a Save the Tasmanian Devil programme with the Zoo and Aquarium Association.  Under this “insurance policy” about 600 disease-free animals are kept in captivity at zoos, wildlife parks and sanctuaries in Tasmania and on mainland Australia.  During our trip we will visit a couple of these sanctuaries, at Bonorong and Devils@Cradle to see first-hand the brilliant work they are doing.

But now news from the University of Tasmania suggests that some Tasmanian Devils have developed immunity to devil facial tumour disease (DFTD).  This is encouraging on two counts: we now know that some animals can naturally fight the disease and will hopefully pass on their resistance to future generations in the wild, and researchers can use the data being captured to support the further development of an immunisation programme that has already seen two groups of immunised Devils successfully released into the wild.

Plainly these are early days, but it’s great to know that evolution and science are both doing their bit to save this charismatic critter.  The Devil’s fighting back.

How green was my Tassie

The environment, it seems, is an issue that divides Tasmanians.  They all have a view, and hold it passionately.  From afar it appears that, much more than in the UK, the environment is a political issue, and it is no accident that Tassie saw the emergence of the world’s first Green Party in the 1970s protesting – unsuccessfully as it turned out – about the damming of a river and the consequent drowning of a wilderness valley.

The Green are an important element of Tasmanian politics, though at the moment they appear to be in some disarray.  Politicians and political activists falling out is nothing new, but how refreshing it is that the arguments are about whether the Green Party is green enough.

If only we cared that much in the UK.