With the halfway point of the summer drawing near, we packed up our cars and headed for Kakadu National Park, a Natural and Cultural World Heritage Site.
We spent our first evening in the north at Ubirr, famous for its aboriginal rock art. Walking amongst looming rock shelters, we admired 20,000 year old paintings, each with their own story to share. As sunset approached, we climbed upwards to watch the sun dip below the horizon over the vast floodplain. That night, returning to our campground, we found tree frogs in the bathrooms. Interestingly, there were several frogs in the girls bathroom but none to be found in the boys bathroom.
The next morning we roused early and hiked through monsoon forests and sandstone hoodoos, spotting rainbow pittas and rock wallabies along the way. Finishing our hikes, we sat with aboriginal women and attempted to learn how to prepare and dye fibers for traditional weaving. While some had more luck than others, we all came away with an appreciation for the immense effort that goes into the creation of traditional baskets.
Heading South from Ubirr, we pitched camp at Nourlangie Rock, in the center of the park. That night we lit a roaring fire thanks to some superb firewood collecting and befriended our neighbors by offering them toasted (and roasted) marshmallows, a delicacy most had never experienced.
That morning, we climbed to a scenic overlook, walked around a billabong, and viewed more rock art before starting a 12km hike over Nourlangie Rock. We had our eyes peeled for a Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon, and were richly rewarded at lunch when we spotted a pair, appropriately, on a rock. The 12km hike left us ravenous and we ended our dinner that night with delicious fire-roasted Nutella and banana pies.
For our last day, we headed further south to Yellow Waters, the iconic wetland of Kakadu. Walking out on the boardwalk to watch the sun set, we were greeted by a saltie chomping down on a dead snake less than 3m away.
Our four days in Kakadu were a brilliant showcase of the beauty of the Northern Territory, as well as a great chance to learn about the livelihood of the people who inhabited this region thousands of years before us.
Male red-backed fairy-wrens have two different plumage types: “bright” males with black and red plumage, and “dull” birds with brown female-like plumage. Many dull males can retain a few black or red feathers indicating their plumage prior to their last molt, thus we are able to identify their sex when we capture them. Additionally, some males can molt into an intermediate type between the two, giving them a spotty appearance. The crew this year is evenly split between designating these “spotty” males as adorable or motley.
For the most part, males molt into bright plumage prior to the breeding season, and then into dull plumage during the nonbreeding season. Since the timing of our field season falls in the nonbreeding season, most of the males on the site right now are dull. A few males were able to maintain bright plumage, perhaps indicating high androgen levels or superior physiological condition. Additionally, a handful of males are in the process of molting into bright plumage right now, which marks a very early pre-nuptial molt as they gear up for breeding. These males have also been experiencing bill darkening, a sign of social dominance or androgen levels. Notice the difference in plumage and bill color in the same bird from captures over a several week period.
Time must fly by even faster in the Land Down Under—our first month has already come and gone. The Fellows all arrived safe and sound to clear skies and warm weather with only one bag lost between them. But despite all his clothes being left thousands of miles away in LA, Xander managed to eke out several days in the official “Qantas Uniform”, a beautifully logo’ed grey T-shirt with matching grey bottoms cut in the latest Aussie style: short.
After getting the run-through of life at Coomalie Farm, everyone piled into our trusty Pajero, aptly dubbed Wren One (She has a red-backed fairy wren painted on her sides), to head off for a day of fun at the Territory Wildlife Park and Berry Springs. The Wildlife Park houses native flora and fauna such as dingoes and saltwater crocodiles, as well as other more approachable members like the free-roaming wallabies. We culminated our trip at the Park with an impressive showcase of diverse avian predator behaviors, from eating mid-flight, plunging underwater for prey, and using rocks to smash open eggs for the yolky reward inside. At Berry Springs, after a successful sausage sizzle on the free gas grills graciously provided in nearly all the parks of the Northern Territory (yes, you read that right, free gas grills) we went for a dip in the natural hot springs and lazily floated along the Pandanus-lined stream.
Everyone has since jumped right into their projects, finding wrens and conducting arthropod and vegetation surveys. More to come later!
While the fellows may be missing the fourth of July back home, here in the NT we had our own firework celebration on July 1st for Territory Day. The evening began with an amazing firework display in the town oval in Batchelor. We then moved out to the airstrip where we were able to light some fireworks of our own.