As the sun sets over Fortescue Falls, the only permanent waterfall in Karijini, the colours of the iron-rich rocks slowly change from bright red to a rusty orange hue. The contrast with the lush evergreen vegetation such as stiff leaf sedge (Cyperus vaginatus), white fig (Ficus virens) and ladder brake (Pteris vittata) couldn’t be much bigger.
Dales Gorge, or Ngirribungunha, is one of the most popular gorges in Karijini, not only due to the vicinity of the Park’s campground, but mainly because Circular Pool, Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool are hidden between its towering walls. However, less popular but equally exciting is the rim walk, a trail that leads through the Pilbara savannah along the edge of the gorge. With a bit of luck the elusive Rothschild Rock-wallaby (Petrogale rothschildi) can be spotted here around dusk and dawn, or some of the park’s many bird species such as this Brown Falcon (Falco berigora), perching on the branch of a dead snappy gum looking for rodents and reptiles.
Dreaming of being back at Circular Pool, a cool and shady oasis with hidden gardens of ferns and figs.
“The chasteness of its colouring, the extreme elegance of its form, and the graceful crest which flows from its occiput, all tend to render this Pigeon on of the most lovely members of its family, and it is therefore to be regretted that, owing to its being exclusively an inhabitant of the plains of the interior, it can never become an object of general observation.” – John Gould, Handbook to the Birds of Australia, 1865
“Yet something. Something big and aware and hidden! He walked on, had walked a mile or so in the bush, and had just come to a clump of tall, nude, dead trees, shining almost phosphorescent with the moon, when the terror of the bush overcame him.” – D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo (1923)
While the wet season in the Pilbara can be extremely hot, winter is the most suitable time to visit this beautiful region. We unfortunately experienced unusual high rainfall the week prior to our trip, and during our stay in Karijini National Park a cold and unpleasant easterly desert breeze brought temperatures to near freezing after sunset. For nearly five days, the constant wind was almost the only movement we experienced in and around our camp; no snakes, lizards, or dingoes to be seen, and even the region’s rich avian fauna seemed to be in silent hibernation. As campfires aren’t allowed in the park, water bottles, blankets and early nights were our solace, but not after the routine of a late walk in this silent bush. And this is when on a moonlit night the nocturnal and secretive Tawny Frogmouth (Podargidae strigoides) flew past, perched on a branch of a dead Mulga tree, patiently waited to be photographed before flying off to hunt for whatever we couldn’t see.
In 1896 David Wynford Carnegie crossed the Gibson and Great Sandy Desert in search of good pastoral and gold-bearing land. In his account of the expedition, named Spinifex and Sand, Carnegie wrote of the landscape of this largely unexplored land:
“There are two varieties of Spinifex known to bushmen – “spinifex” and “buck” (or “old men”) spinifex. The latter is stronger in the prickle and practically impossible to get through, though it may be avoided in twists and turns. There are a few uses for this horrible plant; for example it forms a shelter and its roots make good food for the kangaroo, or spinifex rat, from its spikes the natives (in the northern districts) make a very serviceable gum, it burns freely, serves in a measure to bind the sand, and protect it from being moved by the wind, and makes a good mattress when dug up and turned over.”
The spinifex in Karijini (Triodia pungens) plays an important role in the arid ecosystem of the Park, being part of vast tussock grasslands that alternate with Accacia shrubland and open Eucalypt woodlands. As a native grass species, spinifex offers important protection from soil erosion, however, it has little nutritional value for most animals. Spinifex-eating termites or Manthu are therefore very important in Karijini’s savannah ecology, as the large amount of biomass they process makes them the equivalent of large mammals that eat grasses in similar habitats.
The inner chambers of termite mounds are made up of a complex network of tunnels, galleries and chambers. These impressive structures, made from soil, saliva and excreta not only are home to millions of busy creatures, they also offer shelter to a variety of others such as snakes, goannas, spiders and birds – a perfect example of how the little things in nature can play a big role.
Located around 1,400 kilometers north of Perth, in the dry and tropical Pilbara region, Karijini National Park is one of the most spectacular wilderness areas of Australia. This land, also known as the Hamersley Range, is situated between the Fortescue River in the east, and the mining and pastoral leases to the north and west – Wittenoom was the closest town to the Park, but regarding health risks related to blue asbestos mining it was closed down in 1994. Newman, Tom Price and Paraburdoo are the nearest towns today, all commercially focused on iron ore mining. In fact, iron-rich rocks are found in such abundance that the Hamersley Range is one of the world’s major iron ore regions, accounting for around 95% of Australia’s production.
To conserve the cultural and natural integrity of Karijini, and protect its amazing landscapes from exploration and mining activities, Dales Gorge was the first area to be gazetted as National Park in 1969. Subsequent additions such as the Hamersley Gorge, excisions of land for mining, as well as rationalisation of boundaries with adjoining pastoral leases, have settled to Park’s surface to its current 627,444 hectares.
Karijini harbours an astounding diversity of landscapes, geological formations and ecosystems; spectacular gorges eroded out of ancient rock, the rolling landscape of the plateau they’re incised into, the ageless beauty of red earth, green spinifex and white trunks of snappy gums and bloodwoods.
The geological history of Karijini started between 2,700 and 2,500 million years ago, when volcanic activity deposited iron and silica-rich sediments on an ancient sea floor. Pressure transformed these sediments into banded iron formations, gradually turning them into hard bedrock. When sea levels dropped dramatically around 20 million years ago, fast flowing water carved spectacular gorges out of the bedrock in places where it was weakened by joints. These gorges are now the major attractions, with narrow chasms, sheer cliffs and dramatic waterfalls providing excellent bush walking in a dream world scenery; an activity we thoroughly enjoyed for more than a week.
As opposed to its geological history, Karijini’s landscape of sclerophyll forests and grasslands is much younger, created when the climate became increasingly dry around 2,5 million years ago. Human occupation is only a speck on this timeline, although mining and pastoral activities over the last century have left profound marks when most of the land was taken away from its traditional Aboriginal owners; the Banyjima, Kurrama and Yinhawangka aboriginal people, who lived in different parts of Karijini for more than 20,000 years. Although most people resettled in towns as Onslow, Karratha, Roebourne and Port Hedland, hundreds of kilometres away from their traditional country, the relationship with the land remains strong through law and tradition, leaving a responsibility and obligation with current and future generations to play a significant role in the cultural and environmental management of the park. To underpin this bond, we therefore are all greeted at the entrance of the visitor centre by the Banyjima phrase:
“Wirlankarra yanama. Yurlu nyinku mirda yurndarirda.”
(Go with a clear, open and accepting spirit, and the country will not treat you badly)
“We rose early, for we were eager to make contact with the man and the woman who had signalled us. Travelling almost due north of the bearing we had obtained the previous evening, we had gone eight kilometres when Mudjon called a halt and proceeded to fire the Spinifex once more.” – W.J. Peasley, The last of the Nomads
As the sudden appearance of strangers could cause alarm amongst some of the Aboriginal groups that still lived a traditional way of life in the ’50s and ’60s, the practice of setting fire to clumps of spinifex when approaching an area possibly inhabited was adopted by most patrols and expeditions. Not only would the smoke announce your presence, it would also invite a reply.
I have been of the grid for some time, consumed by urban life, coping with mundane matters. To avoid sudden surprise, I’ve chosen to signal some smoke by posting a picture of this spinifex-studded landscape in Karijini National Park, first in a series of posts long due!
As a family of fishers, the cormorants are amongst the bigger birds found in Australia. The Pied cormorant (Phalacrocorax varius) is surely much lighter than the Australian pelican (Pelecanus conspicillatus), but with its 130 cm wingspan, 2.2 kg weight, and beautiful yellow eyepatch, this aquatic hunter is nevertheless impressive.
The Striated Heron (Butorides striata) is a common bird along the coastlines of Africa, South America and Australia, and in Roebuck Bay it spends a lot of time in the mangroves and on the rocks, hunting for fish in pools and creeks in typical stealth mode.
The Broome Bird Observatory offers tours in the different habits of Yawuru country, showcasing the enormous variety of birds in this beautiful corner of WA. I joined the tour to the saline grasslands, saltmarshes and claypans of Roebuck Plains Station, an iconic Kimberley property that covers 275,000 hectares and is home to 20,000 head of cattle. During the wet season the inundated plains are green and lush, abundant with fish, crabs and frogs, an enormous food bowl for thousands of water birds, but in the dry dust devils sweep through the vast open space, where water is only a memory of different times.
The majority of birdwatchers who join this tour are in search of the Yellow Chat (Epthianura crocea), a strikingly coloured passerine bird that can be seen on the plains relatively easy, and as it is one of the must-see species, the Broome Bird Observatory even runs the specific Yellow Chat twitch. I had some good views of this marvellous little bird through the telescopes provided, but unfortunately haven’t been able to get close enough for decent shots. But where some birders search for chats, I hoped to find the majestic Australian Crane or Brolga (Grus rubicunda) – and I did.
The grassy plains and marshes are the ideal habitat for these large cranes, where they feed on tubers, amphibians, molluscs and insects. As Brolgas mate for life, they can often be seen in pairs or small family groups, strengthening bonds with spectacular courtship displays.
After a very dry wet season, the bush surrounding the Broome Bird Observatory looked brown and dry. The sandy soils of this part of the Kimberley are dominated by Coffee Fruit (Grewia breviflora), Helicopter Trees (Gyrocarpus Americanus) and Broome Pindan Wattles (Acacia eriopoda), with diffused tufts of Spinifex grass in the understory. Although this habitat offers most abundant food in the wet, opportunistic feeders as the Agile Wallaby (Macropus agilis) are perfectly able to broaden their diet by shifting to alternative food resources, such as fruits, leaves and roots from other plants: the tracks that can be found on the beach every morning show those marsupials come to the mangroves to feed on propagules during the night.
But Agile Wallabies are not the only creatures that harvest the beach after dark. Every morning before the sun rises, thousands of Land Hermit Crabs or irramunga (Coenabita variabilis) commute between beach and bush after the collection of their newly found homes. A journey that many are not likely to survive when crossing Crab Creek road – a journey that unfortunately leaves many wallabies lethally injured too.
However, not the hazardous traffic, but the poor nutritional environment in the dry season is the biggest danger, leading to high mortality amongst dependent young. But as pouch occupancy is high year round, the population of Agile Wallabies around the Observatory is still so big they are impossible to miss. Just sitting still in the shadehouse delivers the best opportunities to see them cautiously moving towards the birdbaths for a drink – quickly vanishing again at the slightest sound or movement.
When visiting the Broome Bird Observatory, it’s hard to miss the resident wildlife that gathers in and around the camp’s ablution blocks; from the highly venomous King Brown Snake (Pseudechis australis) to the harmless Stimson’s Python (Antaresia stimsonia), some of Australia’s notorious reptiles are drawn to this place to hunt Green Tree Frogs (Litoria caerulea).
These ever smiling and relaxed amphibians love to live in toilet bowls – hence its nickname Dunny Frog – during the dry season, when water in the bush is scarce. Although it was easier to find them when flushing, the sight of the dust covered tree-climber was well worth the spotlighting effort.
When descending the red Pindan cliffs towards the beach and benthic flats of Roebuck Bay, one comes across several mangals and tidal creeks. The tropical mangrove forests near Broome consist of several species, such as the common grey mangrove (Avicennia marina), stilt-rooted mangrove (Rhizophora stylosa) and the red mangrove (Ceriops tagal) or lanyi-lanyi. Those forests are complex and rich habitats that require much specialization to live in, and many animals found in the mangroves are therefore absent or rare in other places.
With their bright red colour, flame fiddler crabs (Uca flammula) are the most beautiful crabs of the mangroves by far. The typical big and oversized claw of this mostly vegetarian crustacean is waved to defend their territory rather than to crush food, while their remarkable appearance is further enhanced by eyes positioned on tall stalks, enabling them to detect threats from afar so they can disappear in their burrow quickly.
The Mangrove mudskipper is another conspicuous creature that can be found in Roebuck’s mangroves. Because they are able to breath through their skin and lining of their mouth and throat, mudskippers can live outside the water during low-tide, using their pelvic fins to walk on the mud. And although they don’t look very active, these amphibious fish are pretty agile when feeding or defending their territory. When danger is detected with their big bulging eyes, mangrove mudskippers retreat in their deep burrows, just as the fiddler crabs, only to emerge when they assume it is safe. Especially when the tide moves back in, a variety of larger fish-eating birds like Great Egrets (Ardea Alba) can be spotted to feast on the reappearing mudskippers.
Other birds that can be found in the mangroves might be smaller, but display rather spectacular colours such as the Sacred Kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus). Although mainly associated with forests and woodland habitats, this kingfisher is common in the mangroves of Roebuck Bay, perching on branches on the lookout for mosquitoes, crustaceans and little fish.
The Rainbow bee-eater (Merops ornatus) is not strictly confined to the mangroves too, but the abundant insect life near the water edge proves very attractive, while the Pindan cliffs provide good nesting tunnels. With its bright coloured feathers and typical tail streamers, this stunning bird migrates to New Guinea every winter. However, as the southern population replaces the northern, bee-eaters can be found in Broome all year round.
I have checked their nesting tunnels near Lake Herdsman recently, and will be on the look-out for their return in several months time, but in the meantime there are still many other stories to tell – stay tuned!
Ngaji Gurrijin! We’re back from our wonderful adventure in Australia’s North West. Back from a long trip that brought us to the Yawuru country of Broome’s Roebuck Bay. Although we didn’t have the intention to drive all the way to this magic Kimberley destination, the abnormally wet conditions in the Pilbara left us with little options. With the prospects of some lovely dry tropical winter weather, and the chance to stay at one of the country’s most beloved wilderness destinations in mind, the decision for this 988 kilometres detour was easily made. No big deal, we were planning to drive 2,894 kilometres anyway! Mud and holiday-destinations are not easily associated, however, in the case of Roebuck Bay it’s an entirely different story. Sediments trapped in the bay are carried in by ocean currents, forming mud flats where the particles settle in quiet waters. Cyclones, heavy rain and wind further accumulate deposits, while big tides and a shallow sloping coast expose large parts of these intertidal flats. Extraordinary rich in invertebrate life, the flats provide the most important food source for the bay’s wildlife – and that’s why Roebuck Bay is such a unique destination.
Large parts of the Bay are covered by mangroves, such as the Grey mangroves (Avicennia marina) or gundurung near Dampier Creek, where the mud is soft, deep and sticky. Other parts consist of sandflats and beaches, separated from Acacia woodlands, saltmarshes and grasslands by red Pindan-earth cliffs
The variety of habitats is matched by an impressive diversity of wildlife, with marsupials and reptiles abound. But the gathering of migrant shorebirds from the northern hemisphere, flying from places as far as Central Asia, Siberia and the Arctic, is what Roebuck Bay is renown for. Especially during the non-breeding season, which coincides with Roebuck’s wet season, migrating shorebirds congregate in flocks of thousands. At the time of our visit most migrants had left, however, large numbers of inland birds migrate to this food-rich part of the Kimberley during the dry, when water in the interior is scarce. Add to this the enormous diversity of raptors (22 of Australia’s 24 species have been recorded here) and it is clear Roebuck Bay is worth a visit any time of the year.
The most logical place to stay is at the Broome Bird Obsevatory, 25 corrugated kilometres away from the hustle and bustle of Broome. Home to resident wardens, researches and many volunteers, the BBO offers accomodation, camp sites and a fantastic shade house with running water and cooking facilities. Although the beaches and its shorebirds remain the major drawcards, the trails that lead through the Pindan forest are worth exploring as the bush harbours plenty of interesting wildlife we’ll highlight in the upcoming posts – so please stay tuned!
Land Cruiser loaded and cameras packed; our long anticipated trip up north has started! Two days on the road have brought us to Port Hedland, last stop before our final destination Broome. With heavy rain forecasted on Tuesday, we postponed the visit to Karijini until we head back south again, however, the vistas we enjoyed at Munjina East Gorge were a perfect teaser.
With grevillea, hakea and eucalypts flowering in abundance, different species of honeyeaters (Meliphagidae) can be found feeding on their nectar. With thin curved bills and brush-like tongues, they’re probing flowers and lapping up large quantities of sweet liquid at a time.
Most members of diverse family of passerine birds can be found in Australia and New Guinea, with the Red Wattlebird (Anthochaera carunculata) or Djoongong the largest species in Western Australia.
The distinctive red-pink wattles or caruncles have lend this bird its common name, and as one of the noisiest inhabitants of our urban bushland they’re hard to miss when chasing away other nectar-feeding birds as lorikeets and parrots.
Rain is plentiful now Makuru is in full swing, but cool and wet days alternate with dry and sunny ones, leaving ample time to explore nature. As the rains have steadily raised water levels of lakes and swamps, large flocks of birds aggregate on its waterlogged shores, offering excellent opportunities for bird photography.
On the Swan Coastal Plain a chain of wetlands runs parallel to the coast; many small ones have been drained, filled or cleared in the past for agricultural and urban development, but Herdsman Lake is the biggest still remaining. Known as Ngurgenboro to the Yellagonga Noongar, the lake is not only a place with a significant cultural heritage, it is also one of the last remaining wildlife havens in the metropolitan area.
Apart from a strong supply of reptiles, including the notorious Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus), over 100 bird species have been recorded at Herdsman Lake. Waterbirds are particularly visible, amongst which the Black Swan, Yellow-billed Spoonbill, Nankeen Night Heron and Australian Shelduck I have written about before. The Ibis family is represented with three species: the Australian White Ibis (Threskiornis moluccus), Straw-necked Ibis (Threskiornis spinicollis) and the Glossy Ibis (Plegadis falcinellus), the smallest and, arguably, the best-looking of the three.
Although hostile behaviour from ‘glossies’ towards other Ibis species has been recorded, the grassy foraging habitat harbours a wealth of food this time of the year, so it’s happily shared with other bird species, such as the numerous Eurasian Coots (Fulica atra) that thrive at the lake’s shores.
A few weeks ago, Liz Hardman posted some stunning Protea or Suikerbos flowers on what is one of my favorite blogs, Nature on the Edge. If you are interested in South Africa’s Cape Peninsula, the conflict between its native wildlife and humans, but above all excellent photography, I can’t recommend this blog high enough.
Suikerbossies are iconic South African plants, and, although cultivated as cut flowers, don’t occur naturally in Western Australia. But what Proteas are for Southern Africa, Grevilleas are for Australia, Indonesia and New Guinea: both are part of the same family, with common ancestors growing in the super-continent of Gondwana tens of millions years ago.
The wildflower season is not in full swing yet, but on a recent venture on the granite outcrops in Beelu NP I discovered the majestic Fuchsia Grevillea (Grevillea bipinnatifida) as well as the Sea Urchin Hakea (Hakea petiolaris), another member of the family, showing their flowers and delicate textures. Nectar abound, so time for the honeyeaters to star in the upcoming posts!
“When perched on the trees or resting on the ground, it exhibits none of the grace and elegance of those birds, its short neck resting on the shoulders” – John Gould, Handbook to the Birds of Australia, volume 2
As their name suggests, Nankeen Night Herons (Nycticorax Caledonicus) stalk marches and wetlands during the dark hours of the day, searching for insects, crustaceans, frogs and fish. During daytime these stocky herons can be found roosting, heads hunched onto the shoulders, in the dense canopy of the numerous Swamp Paperbark (Melaleuca rhaphiophylla) trees that surround Lake Herdsman. Although this colony counts between 20-30 individuals, none of those secretive birds leave the thick cover easily, making decent photography a job for the patient.
Apart from its nocturnal character, the cinnamon-brown colour has contributed to the other part of its name, as Nankeen cloth from Nanking resembles the adult bird’s plumage.