Wildlife in Kakadu (Mitch)

It was midday when we finally arrived at Kakadu. Though the 4 hour trip was somewhat draining (more so for our esteemed driver Sam) the sight of the brilliant topographical variation in the form of large rocky hills and ridges was more than enough to send an electrifying wave of energy through each of us. We were to camp out in this magnificent national park for 3 nights and experience a barrage of new and exciting ecosystems, giving us the wonderful opportunity not only to identify birds, but to see other forms of wildlife not necessarily present back at the farm. From the tree frogs and geckos hanging out in our [limited] camp ground facilities to the plethora of wild birds, we were to have an excellent time in this place. During the daylight we hiked various trails walking up to 15 km a day, and at night we braved an onslaught of buzzing and bloodsucking ‘Mozzies’ (some species of which none of us had previously encountered) all while feeding from cans and easy to prepare foods. Though simple (and my first real experience camping), I was quickly able to adapt and thoroughly enjoyed the time spent so close to nature. Within those 3 days we were able to explore 5 out of the 6 major habitats of Kakadu (a fairly representative sample of the top end ofAustralia):

Savanna Woodlands – Also the best way to describe the area we are so familiar with at Coomalie, this habitat is characterized by sparsely distributed, fire adapted eucalypts and palms and is dominated by a variety of quickly growing grasses. We were able to see many of the same species of birds we see on a daily basis including Sulfur-crested Cockatoos, Red-tailed black Cockatoos, Red-necked Lorikeets, Varied Lorikeets, Red-backed fairy wrens, Willie Wagtails, Flycatchers, multiple species of Honeyeaters, and much more. The area is also populated by termite mounds of varying size.There were two non-avian species theoretically found in this environment that I was hoping to see; Goannas (a large Australian monitor lizard) and Frilled-neck lizards. Unfortunately we were unable to sight either one of these magnificent reptiles, and the search continues. We did however stumble upon a large group of feral pigs which was most definitely an interesting sight.

Stone Country – As the title would suggest, stone country is scattered with intermediate to large rock based substrate. These are the areas in which rock Wallabies and Rock-Pigeons can be found. One of the memorable sightings in this area was, surprisingly, that of a lone Jabiru as the silhouette of the large Australian stork could be seen in the distance high on a cliff-face.

Floodplains and Billabongs – Billabongs are small to large isolated bodies of water that were at one point connected to a stream or river. As the dry season progresses and flowing water systems are dried up, billabongs scatter the landscape of Northern Territory Australia. They are home to a variety of water birds including three species of Ibis, Brolga, Magpie Geese, Shelducks, Whistling ducks, and Jabiru. Some of our more notable sightings included Estuarine Crocodiles (or Salties), Royal spoonbills, and of course Jacannas. Jacannas are an extremely fascinating water bird that feeds from the surface of the water; they are roughly           in size and have disproportionately large talons which they use to skip along the water from lilly pad to lilly pad while foraging. Additionally, in the mud along the banks of water bodies we observed Mudskippers (small burrowing fish) popping their heads from the mud and skipping away into deeper waters.

Hills and Ridges – Kakadu is home to some of the most spectacular rock formations that I have ever seen. At Ubirr (the northern most accessible point of Kakadu) we were able to hike to the top of a large rock formation and watch the sun set over the horizon as the floodplains glistened in the distance. From our perch at the top of this rock we could hear the loud caws of Sulfur-crested Cockatoos and see the silhouettes of ducks and spoonbills flying into the sunset. It was truly a magnificent experience.

Monsoon Forests – My favorite of the 5 environments that we encountered, these are the closest thing to the popular idea of a tropical forest inNorthern Territory. Even during the dry season, these areas are lush and productive and serve as a home to an exciting set of organisms. It was in a Monsoon forest that Sam was able to spot an Azure Kingfisher and it was in the Monsoon forest that we were able to spot one of my favorite Australian birds. On our second afternoon in Kakadu, a friendly camping neighbor mentioned that she had sighted a Rainbow Pitta and was kind enough to give us direction (the birds are territorial, and we hoped to find one in the same location). As it goes, it quickly became our mission to positively identify a wild Rainbow Pitta. Though our first visit to this particular trail failed, we made the trip again on our last morning in Kakadu. Our hike was slow and meticulous, yet we still had trouble finding the elusive ground dwelling bird. As we turned the final corner of the trail, Sam caught a glimpse of a small patch of bright and luminous blue color; ALAS, a Rainbow Pitta was foraging in the detritus just off the path! After 15 minutes or so of observation, we were able to satisfactorily check this species off in our Birding field guides.

Overall, our time spent at Kakadu was an enriching and wholesome experience.

 

Kakadu Culture (Kelly)

For three nights, the crew camped out at Kakadu National Park as we awaited the delivery of our new mist nets to Coomalie. I think I can say on behalf of everyone that the park was one of the most amazing places we had ever been to, at least while in Australia. The park had fantastic views, tons of wildlife, and a few new birds to identify such as Rainbow Pittas and Rufus Fantails. I would also have to say that one of my favorite parts of the trip was learning about Australian aboriginal culture in the Northern Territory and seeing the seemingly endless amounts of ancient aboriginal cave art that covered the caves and filled the rock overhangs at Kakadu. This was where my interest in anthropology would come in handy.

There have been several different tribes with their own languages that have lived on the land now called Kakadu National Park, providing a rich diversity of culture that reflect ancient practices which go back thousands of years. Many aboriginal traditions and customs are still carried out today. For instance, their kinship system serves as a generational record of “skin names” which are assigned based on the moiety and comparative generation. There are two moieties, and people partner with those not from their own moiety. There are also four generations, each designated with a different name, that circulate in each moiety. The kinship system defines who is considered family and who should be avoided in order to keep the skin names (and obviously blood lines) pure. For example, in this system, great-grandmothers and their great-grandchildren have a close relationship because of their skin names. On the other hand, people must avoid their mother-in-laws because their skin names forbid any close interaction, even normal conversations, with that person. I also thought it was interesting how even the animals with which they co-exist and depend on to survive are given similar skin names. It was a confusing yet fascinating system to learn about that was very different from our idea of the typical nuclear family.

The aborigines had various ways to successfully live off of the land and water. Yams were plentiful and were prepared either by boiling them for hours to be eaten whole or ground with sticks in holes created in the rock floors of caves to make flour. For protein, they hunted animals such as wallabies, long-necked turtles, and Tasmanian tigers (they lived on the mainland thousands of years ago before becoming exclusively Tasmanian) and fished barramundi. These practices are recorded in their cave art (or gunbim, as it is called in several aboriginal languages) that were proudly displayed amongst the rock enclosures in which they lived. We saw many examples of this art, most notably at two sites: Ubirr and Nourlangie.

Paintings of Barrimundi

There are sites that have been dated using thermo-luminescence methods as over 50,000 years old. Some of the art at these sites are estimated to be nearly 20,000 years old, providing a remarkable record of the way ancient aboriginal tribes lived and constituting one of the longest historical records of any group of people. In fact, this art is what made Kakadu a United Nations World Heritage sites to be preserved and treasured by future generations by both aboriginal and non-aboriginal peoples.

The diverse and detailed rock art at both Ubirr and Nourlangie was absolutely breath-taking. While frozen in time, the cave walls served as a storyboard, and various ochres provided the means to create the stories important to the lives of these peoples. Stories of evil, deceiving spirits, creation, and figures on the hunt with boomerang in hand can be seen throughout multiple sites. Art from different time periods also allow people to see how the changing environment affected aboriginal culture and their perspective on life. This included effects from global climate change during which water levels waxed and waned and the effects from outsiders such as the Macassans from Indonesia and later the white European settlers.

Painting of a ship from some of the first European settlers

Depictions of the animals constituted many of the paintings and served as a record of fish and animal kills that served as “prizes” for the aborigines. If one caught a barramundi bigger than what he or another had caught, he was able to draw over the previous rock art. Layers upon layers of rock art can be seen throughout the park, covering up thousands of years of history. There is some artwork that without a doubt has been untouched for centuries – Mimi art. This art, as told by aboriginal elders, was created by the spirits themselves. One of the most famous ones is the Rainbow serpent, as seen below. Many are in places that seem unreachable to people, such as on the ceilings of overhangs that are stories high.

A painting that aborigines say was done by a Mimi spirit. This painting was on an overhang about thirty meters off the ground!

Painting left by the Rainbow Serpent

While the culture of the aboriginal peoples prospered in the past, today entire tribes along with their way of life are disappearing rapidly. The settlement of Europeans marked the start of a clash of cultures riddled with racism and an obsession with making money off of the land through mining and cultural exploitation. Unfortunately, this continues today – especially as aboriginal peoples try to adapt to modern lifestyles. Despite this lack of cultural relativism, there have been efforts to respect and preserve aboriginal culture. Kakadu is an example of this effort though a collaboration of aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to conserve the habitat, wildlife, and important spiritual sites that allowed their culture to thrive. Anthropology and biology, unite!

Wrens at Last (Kathryn)

As the rosella red sun slowly heaved its way over the horizon, I raised my binoculars as I slowly trudged through dew laden, waist-high grass. My mission: netting a Red-backed Fairy-wren. My three companions and I had risen before the sun to ensure that our nets were set and our ears tuned for when the wrens started singing at first light. We used mist nets, which are dubbed as such because their weave is so fine the nets as a whole can’t be seen from a distance. Because of this, birds fly unknowingly towards the nets and become caught where trained individuals quickly untangle them.

As light tinged the treetops, the warbled reel of the wrens filled the air. Acting quickly, for we only had a small window of time before the wrens became alarmed by our presence and moved away, my three companions and I set up a mist net five meters from where the birds were singing. We then circled around the net and fanned out to encircle the small grass birds as they tittered and flitted amongst the spear grass.  Walking slowly towards the birds, we herded them towards the net. We had tried this technique with the wrens numerous times before over the past several days but had been having bad luck with birds bouncing out or flying over the net. Confident that our luck would turn, we ventured forth.

As we reached the net we exclaimed with excitement: our first Red-backed Fairy-wren! As our grad student, Sam, extracted him from the net, we marveled at the patchy male whom was molting from bright to dull plumage. He was a molted brown with several randomly spaced black feathers and a partially red back. As we brought him to the banding station to draw a small sample of blood and record measurements, we were debating what to name our first wren when Sam exclaimed, “Unless someone is opposed, I think we should band him YAY.” In our utter excitement we all agreed enthusiastically that the band combo was a perfect one. As we gathered around the banding station, we helped Sam record data and extract blood and feather samples. Releasing him back into the grass, we were all grinning from ear to ear. It was going to be a good day.

As the sun climbed higher the birds around us quieted down. We quickly took down our mist nets and went to a new location to try for more birds. Right next to the road about 200 meters from where we had just banded YAY, we heard a large group of birds all singing loudly and there, flying around the tops of the tall Gamba grass, we saw several bright males. Setting up three nets we again encircled the birds and then tried to heard them into the nets. Now would be an appropriate time to mention that Gamba grass in an invasive species from Africa that grows higher and thicker than any of the native Australian grass. In fact, it grows taller than most human beings, making it extremely difficult to see another person 7 meters away let alone a small grass bird. For this exact reason, the Red-backed Fairy-wrens love the Gamba and frequently fly into it for cover. As the other bird netters spaced out in the Gamba to try and drive the wrens into the nets we had placed in the grass, I stayed on the road to direct them towards the net and the birds since they couldn’t see more than a few meters in front of them.

As my companions got close to the net, I saw one, two, four, no six dull wrens fly over the net. What was bizarre was that they kept climbing, up and up until they were a mere speck in the sky. This might seem normal for a bird, but for Red-backed Fairy-wrens it is extremely unusual as they are poor fliers and don’t usually fly more than 10 meters high. Yet these wrens flew higher than all of the trees in the area, a good 30 meters up. “Did you see that?!”, I cried into the walkie-talkies we used to communicate. “No”, the three in the grass replied,” We can’t see anything. We’re in Gamba.” Discouraged, I reluctantly went back to the net and to my amazement, there twisting in the net was not just a Red-backed Fairy-wren, but a bright male. He was beautiful, all resplendent in his black and red garb. We processed him (he was banded WFG) and took quite a few glamour shots before letting him go. As the hot Australian sun climbed further in the sky we took down our nets and congratulated ourselves on a job well done. Mission complete.

 

Birds and More Birds (Tess)

For a fun and practical activity, a few of us set up a mist net behind our living quarters at the Billabong (a body of water that used to be attached to the creek). We left the net up for a few hours, checking it every 20 minutes or so for birds. Around 4 we decided it was time to take down the nets before we headed out into the field. Sam, the Graduate Student, checked one last time for any caught birds and we heard “Guys!!!” coming from the Billabong area. We all ran to her and Sam was holding a Forest Kingfisher and another one was still caught in the net! The seven of us took turns holding the Kingfishers, taking plenty of pictures. Forest Kingfishers have a beautiful blue, black, and white plumage.

Later we practiced setting up more mist nets in the middle of a field where Rainbow Bee-eaters commonly congregate around dusk. As explained by their name, these birds have multiple colors including yellow, green, and bright blue. We successfully caught one Bee-eater and once again all seven of us were able to hold him.

For dinner, the Coomalie Farm land owners (Richard and Jude) invited us to a bbq on the World War II air strip on the farm. They invited a bunch of other friends, including their friend Sue, who owns a Bed and Breakfast in Batchelor, two French girls who work for her, a British man, and a friendly couple from Kangaroo Island. We played a game of Skittles, an Australian game. This entails setting up numbered sticks in a way similar to bowling pins and throwing a stick, termed the ‘whacking stick’ at the triangle. If the thrower hits over one stick, they get the amount of points that is indicated on the stick. However, if the thrower hits over multiple sticks – let’s say five – they get the number of sticks knocked over, therefore five points. The first player to reach 100 wins. It’s really fun!