TRIP REPORT ON MURRAKOOL SURVEY
Chris Coleborn
Wednesday 17th to Saturday 20th December, 2003

For some time I have known of Matt Herring and his love of our unique Australian wildlife, the bush and outback. From what I had heard he also, as I, loves the open spaces, the lonely and solitary places, and the ancient land that is so special and that we call "our country". Not only that, but I knew he was a professional zoologist and somewhat specialized in surveying our native fauna and flora.

Matt has for the last twelve months, been surveying the Murrakool basin, which lies just on the New South Wales side of the mighty Murray River, which is its southern border, and the Wakool River to the north, stretching from around the Barham area in the east to just beyond Kyalite in the west. It once held a vast area of Mallee, Casuarina & Callitris type woodlands, mostly now cleared for agriculture, riverine Red Gum areas, which remain fairly well intact, and low lying Black Box country, of which a considerable amount still remains. The survey work was part of a contract with Landcare which also involves contacting local farmers and communities and promoting among them the preservation and, where possible the restoration of lost habitat, especially that of the Mallee/Casuarina/Callitris woodlands and associated ecosystems.

Over the year Matt has put out a series of interesting and informative "Murrakool Reports", which detail his work and the discovery of species he has thus far made. They make good reading, and are a great record of the progress of his work.

It was my privilege to be able to go on a field trip with Matt into the western section of the Murrakool region from Wednesday 17th to Saturday 20th December. After some correspondence by email and phone, we had arranged that we would meet just west of the little town of Koraleigh on the Nyah to Tooleybuc Road. Angle Road goes off to the left, and an unmarked dirt road, Brown’s Road, branches off this to the left. About 3 to 4 kilometres down this road, also on the left, is a remarkable remnant of privately owned Mallee/Casuarina/Callitris woodland, with an amazing collection of native shrubs, grasses, saltbush and associated flora - Hall’s Mallee Block. Some of it is Chenopod Mallee. There is an extensive patch of Deep Sand Mallee with wonderfully healthy clumps of Triodia - Porcupine Grass, as well as patches of open grassland and Casuarina-Callitris patches. A striking patchwork of various Myoporum, Sapindaceae - Whitewood, Cattlebush/Rosewood & Hopbush, Acacias, Sienna (Desert Cassia), Eremophila, Grevillea, and a fascinating range of other shrubs are scattered throughout this remnant stand. All this, in about a one mile square block!

As we drove into the block, it was good to see several families of Australian Ringnecks, to hear the ringing call of a Rufous Whistler and the dial tone call of the Red-capped Robin. Other birds soon made their presence felt, including Galahs, Magpie & Weebills.

We still had several hours of sunlight, it being the long evenings of mid-summer, when we met at about 7.00 pm at the gate to the block and made our way into the centre near to the deep sand ridge where the Triodia grew. I was struck with the age of the Mallee and the Triodia, and I estimated it to be at least a hundred years old. It certainly has been many years since a fire has passed through the block.

Each having a swag, it took no time to throw our swags and set up camp. Matt had a big tarpaulin and we strung this to get full shade, it being a hot day, and the day following due to be hot too - up to the 40º C. I was able to contribute my small camping table and add a couple of comfortable chairs.

With Matt was Greg Slade. Greg has been studying an environmental course at TAFE in Albury, from where Matt also hails. Greg was full of enthusiasm and also obviously is taken up also with a love and appreciation of our Australian wildlife and bush.

As we sat up camp in the hot late afternoon sun, we chatted and got to know one another. It was agreed that I would park my vehicle at the campsite and travel with Matt and Greg when we moved around to other sites.

Before it was dark, we headed off to a nearby property where we met Jim and his family. (Jim’s father is the owner of the block where we were camped). At the back of his homestead is a permanent body of water, part of ancient Lake Poomah. With the alteration of the waterways for irrigation, the flow of water into this and a series of about 7 lakes which once formed an intriguing wetland connection between the Murray and the Wakool Rivers.

On the way to Jim’s Lagoon we saw a good range of birds, including good flocks of Blue Bonnets & Red-rumped Parrots feeding on the sandy roads - obviously flocks of adult birds with recently fledged young. It was good to see a healthy family of Grey-crowned Babblers (about 7) in a small stand of Black Box, intermingling with a good number of Choughs.

We called here to not only check out the birds on the water and around the lake, but to set up some harp traps for bats. I had seen photos of these traps and knew of them, but had never had any actual experience with them previously. It was good to work at setting them up and seeing how they were made and would operate. Previously I had trapped bats with mist nets, but with harp traps we could leave them and collect the bats in the morning, not like the mist nets where the animals must be taken out of the trap as soon as possible.

Matt also set up beside the lagoon some high tech equipment called an ANABAT. This special gear records the high frequency calls of bats, and later the calls can be analyzed and often the species making the call identified. In this way a survey of the bat species can be gauged apart from trapping. Some bats also, such as the White-striped Freetail Bat (White-striped Mastiff), are not so easily trapped, but are fairly common, and this is also one way of ascertaining their and like species presence.

A quick look around revealed a good range of water and bush birds. Above us White-breasted Woodswallows, Rainbow-Bee-eaters, Tree Martins & Welcome Swallows called as they filled the late afternoon sky hawking for insects. On and by the water were good numbers of Grey Teal, some with young, Black Duck, Hardhead, black-winged Stilt, Coots, Dusky Moorhen, Pelicans, Native Hens, Hoary-headed Grebes, Little Black & Pied Cormorants and Darters. In the Red Gum and bushland around us, Grey Fantail, Australian Raven, Striated Pardalote, Cockatiel, Yellow-throated Miners Crested Pigeons, Magpie-lark, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Starling, Kookaburra, White-plumed Honeyeaters, Sacred Kingfisher & Willie Wagtails, added to the evening chorus their distinctive calls and to the life and movement of the swamp with their flight and colour.

On the way back, as darkness was falling, we discussed whether Spotted Nightjars were present in the area. We decided to try some surveying for this special night bird by playing a CD of their calls. There had been a reliable report of one in the area some years back, but nothing of late. Though we tried several places and different habitat the bush was silent to their haunting calls, and the sky empty of their distinctive shadows, as they would fly by above the treetops, hawking insects.

Back at the Mallee block, we made ready for something to eat. Matt had his special sausages all ready to go, and I was getting my hunk of French Stick, ham and salad together. Matt was squatting by his gas stove, which with the gas bottle was resting on the ground. Next instant, all six foot plus of Matt shot into the air as the rubber hose on the stove blew off and was shooting flames everywhere. It probably only took a few seconds, but it seemed quite awhile while before Matt, who I noticed was frozen to the spot, but obviously frantically cogitating on what was to be done. I was frozen and frantically cogitating too - should I run and get behind shelter before the bottle blew up or what? It then seemed to me that there was no immediate danger of explosion, because all that was burning was the escaping gas out of the end of the hose. Turning off the gas was all that needed to be done and the fire would die. At the same time as I leapt to turn off the fire, Matt’s cogitations got going too, and his remedy was to grab a couple of nearby blankets and smother the fire. As I was turning off the gas, Matt was throwing blankets onto the fire. We were all a little bit wobbly for a moment, and then Matt laughed as he thought out loud, "What would I have done if the blankets were not woollen but highly inflammable synthetic blankets. Thanks to Vinney’s op shop good quality, used blankets - they had sold him woollen ones!

Greg and I thought that it would not take much to fix the gas stove, but for some reason, Matt didn’t want to go near the thing. For three days and nights it stood just as it was, and we joked about Matt giving it a wide berth every time he went past it, and he seemed to look at it very suspiciously out of the corner of his eye! I reckon he must have got a fright or something.

Thankfully I had a gas stove and so we were able to finish the cooking of the meal, and cope OK for the rest of the camp.

After our eats we went up into the Triodia where Matt had previously set up some pit traps. There were about six buckets with a net running between them set in among the Triodia or Spinifex. We took the lids off and hoped we would have something to show for our efforts in the morning. The night was still, muggy and hot, and we thought reptiles and bats would be out. With those expectations we retired for the night. In the stillness of the night, we could hear in the distance an Owlet Nightjar’s harsh call. Overhead the stars shone through the hot sultry night.

A Rufous Whistler was the star performer of the morning’s dawn chorus, his melodious calls, full of the joy and wonder of life, ringing out through the woodland, but also a wakeup call to three sleepers. Weebills chirpy, happy little calls echoed around us, as did the distinctive call of Red-capped Robins. The rusty, creaking call of Australian Ravens and the chattering sounds of Australian Ringnecks added to the chorus their own distinctive contributions.

After a quiet time and some breakfast we did a quick check of the pit traps, but there was nothing to show for the night’s efforts.

Heading off for Jim’s Lagoon to check out the Harp Traps for bats we came across further good-sized flocks of Blue Bonnets & Red-rumped Parrots. It was great to see such healthy numbers of these birds; many of them newly fledged juveniles. White-winged Choughs were plentiful, their flashing their white wing patch as they flapped off among the Black Box. I wondered about Apostlebirds but Matt said there was only one known colony of in the area, mores the pity. They are not that common here or south of this region, though in earlier times of European settlement they ranged throughout the area.

Jim’s wife, two sons and daughter, all excited and ready to check out the Harp Traps for bats with us, met us at the lagoon at the back of their place. We also were excited to see what we might have found. It was satisfying to find that there were several bats in one of the Harp Traps. We carefully placed them in a holding bag to be taken back to camp for identification. We then walked around the swamp to see what we could find. Overnight a small flock of Marsh Sandpipers had arrived, and we also noted a few extra birds such as Yellow-billed Spoonbills & Little Friarbirds. Not so pleasing were the introduced House Sparrow, Common Blackbird & Common Starling.

As we walked through the grasses and rushes on the edge of the swamp, there was some joy as Matt flushed a Latham’s Snipe and we were able to follow its erratic, swift flight around the swamp. On the other side of the swamp, among some Weeping Willows, we also flushed a lone Nankeen Night Heron, which showed it beautiful chestnut, fawn colours as it flew around us before taking refuge in another Willow and its heavy, concealing foliage.

Matt was really into all vertebrae of the area and said, as he walked up to a big, old Red Gum Tree with its heavy, old growth bark lifting off its lower trunk and began to gently life off some of the bark, "We often find Marbled Geckos under the bark of these trees". To his and our delight, obligingly there was a Marbled Gecko Christinus marmoratus! It was good to have a look at it. We also were able to capture and have a good look at a Boulenger’s Skink Morethia boulengeri.

We did some further surveying in the area as well. Heading into an area towards Lake Geer, we came to a remnant Mallee area beside Tony & Leanne’s homestead, and while Matt had a chat to them about his work, Greg and I carried out a 20 minute survey of the Mallee woodland. There were about ten species of birds, the most notable probably being a family of Grey-crowned Babblers. We then set off, via the back-blocks past Lake Geer and Lake Genoe, to another survey area - this time Black Box at Genoe West. Birds were few in this area. We picked up half a dozen common varieties, such as Crested Pigeon & Australian Magpie. Unfortunately we were reminded of the downside of wildlife here when a Fox ran across our survey area.

There was a bit of excitement as we drove to our next survey spot. At the corner of Stony Crossing and the Swan Hill & Koraleigh Roads, we came across a medium sized Goanna on the road. We were able to drive slowly up to it, and as Greg got out to try to capture it, it took off for the nearest trees. We were able to get a good view of it though. Greg noted the head, with a dark stripe through the eye area. Matt noted the tail markings, and what struck me were the dots on its body. We tried to find it but without success. In the process though, Matt flushed some Little Button-quail - good one! There was considerable discussion on whether it was a Sand Goanna or not that we had seen. Greg and I thought it certainly was but Matt, rightly cautious, while being fairly sure it was such, wished he could have had a better view of it. He was undecided whether to list it or not for the survey. This led to considerable discussion over the next couple of days. In the end the evidence seemed to convince him, so it was listed as a sighting.

At Genoe East, a Blackbox area, but with considerably more understory and adjacent to some sandhills and their remnant vegetation we found a good dozen or so species of birds. A Brown Treecreeper calling and flitting between trees greeted us, as we stepped out of the vehicle and walked the area. The most interesting was a fleeting glimpse of an Owlet Nightjar that Matt flushed.

Driving on we managed to find a new species that Matt had been on the lookout for. Beside the road among some dead and a few live Black Box a couple of Black-faced Woodswallows were finally seen. We all enjoyed the moment. It was also great as we came back from the Genoe area to glimpse a flock of Major Mitchell’s Cockatoos. It is always a pleasure to see them!

After our morning activity, we detoured to the little one shop township of Koraleigh, where we all enjoyed a cold drink, and stocked up on ice.

Back at camp and after a bite to eat - Matt seemed to forget his workers need lunch, even if he didn’t, and a bit of a catnap in the heat of the day, we set to identifying the bats. We had a female micro bat, obviously a Forest species, but because of the female similarity of two of these species we could not on the observable data ascertain if it was a Little or a Southern Forest Bat. Had it been a male, we perhaps would have been able to check the shape of the glans penis, which is different in these two species. Matt made a couple of phone call to bat enthusiasts who may have been able to help with some further aids to identification, but to no avail. We also were able to identify an Inland Freetail Bat - this time, because it was a male; we were able to measure the penis, which was <5 mm.

The day soon passed, and as evening drew in, returned to Jim’s Lagoon to release the bats. It was pleasurable to see Jim’s children so enthralled with the little bats, and on a high because Matt let them have a hold of them and showing them how to release them. I am sure that for these young ones it was a positive experience in the love and care of our wildlife, which would go with them into their adult years. Here too we set up some more Harp Traps and put out another ANABAT in another part of the Lagoon. The light was fading when we left Jim and his family who, with the wheat harvest in, were off on holidays up Queensland way the following morning.

Several kilometres from the Mallee block where we were camped was an earth tank set in cleared farmland. I speculated that if there were Spotted Nightjars in the area, seeing it was such a hot night, they might come to water at the dam on sundown. So, I was let off at the dam to see what might come in at dusk, while Matt and Greg went onto the Mallee block to set up a pit trap line in a section of Chenopod Mallee. I was at the dam for about an hour or so - it was very pleasant in the relative cool of the evening to just sit in the quietness of the gloaming. However, apart from a half dozen or so Black Ducks that came in to roost for the night, no other birds made an appearance.

What a wonderful country we live in, with its freedoms and abundance, the variety of climate zones, landforms and our unique fauna and flora. As I walked back in the balmy evening along the sandy track to our campsite, the stars in the perfectly clear sky shedding a faint light all around, I felt very rich indeed.

Matt and Greg had just finished setting the pit traps and line, and so I got a ride for the remainder of the way back to our camp. Though we played the Spotted Nightjar calls a few times as we returned, there was no response, either by call or by movement.

After a bit of a yarn and something to eat, we hit the swags - no need to rock us to sleep.

Friday was a sultry morning - obviously things were building up to possible rain, which could be good for bringing out reptiles. This weather causes various insects to swarm and so bats become more active at night in this weather too, seeking them as prey.

After getting ready for the day in body and spirit, I joined Matt and Greg in checking the pit traps near our camp site in the Triodia of the Deep Sand Mallee section. The first couple of traps were empty, but we were really pleased to find two species of Gecko caught. One was an Eastern Spiny-tailed Gecko - a beautifully marked little animal in various shades of grey, with small spikes off either side of its small stubby tail. Obviously its habitat would be among the grey coloured dry leaves and bark of the forest litter. The other little reptile was a Beaded Gecko. This one was a red/rusty colour with white spots down its side and various white markings on its back. Both had creamy, white undersides. This latter one no doubt lived among the red Mallee sand. We were delighted with the catch, and put them in the one bucket until later in the morning when we would return to put them in containers and take back to camp. Here they would be identified and then returned to be released from the capture site when their identification was verified and photos taken.

Going on from here we explored the Mallee block. It was a great walk. I was amazed by the wonderful diversity of vegetation to be found here. It is a gem of a place, and no doubt a real repository for species of flora that once was widespread through this region, but is now perhaps limited to this tiny island of original Mallee/Casuarina woodland. There were patches of deep sand with triodia among the various species of Mallee, various Acacias, Pittosporum, Cassia, Callitris, Keeled Pea Bushes, Hakea, Grevillea, Santalaceae - Quondongs, Eremophila, Spindaceae - Whitewood, Rosewood & Hopbush to name a few trees and shrubs, and also various Bluebush, Saltbush, Pussytails - Mulla Mulla, Silvertails etc and a good range of grasses and other flowering plants.

As we walked, Matt mentioned a couple of things that I found helpful. One was the need to have "wet" speciems of birds, not just skins. He related the story of some fellow who said it was like a banana. Herpetologists would use both the skin and the banana, but Ornithologists would peel the banana, throw the banana away and just keep the skin. The point is that we loose much information on birds when we do not keep the total specimen.

Another thing that I found very stimulating were some thoughts Matt had on bird surveying. He felt the system used say by the Atlas Project could be improved. He explained a system, promoted by Dave Watson that I had never heard of before. In his own words, it works something like this: "In a nutshell it’s about using ‘stopping rules’ (i.e. when do you stop surveying) that are not standardized by time etc, e.g. 20 min/2 ha search. Instead, the patch of bush, or rather data from the bush/wetland/ocean etc., determines when surveying should stop, so that each site has been more ‘equally’ and representatively sampled. For example, you’re stopping rule might be; stop when no new species have been found for two surveys or when only one species has been seen only once. This makes the data far more rigorous, because as you’d know it is simply not representative or ‘equal’ spending 20 minutes in an isolated small patch of trees compared to say a 10000 ha mega diverse forest. For rigorous comparisons in bird studies we need to be comparing apples and apples not a small bite of an apple and an entire apple.

The stopping rules I use are based on ‘completeness’, whereby a simple formula tells you how complete your survey is, so the rule I use is: stop when I’ve reached 80% completeness. This is one for all sites irrespective of patch size, habitat quality, position in the landscape etc. The sites ‘tell’ me when to stop - when they are equally and representatively over 80% completeness.

The formula is S squared divided by 2 x D, where S is the number of singletons (species only recorded once) and D is the number of Doubletons (species recorded only twice). The resulting figure is added to the actual number you’ve recorded so far and that is your predicted richness. To work out your completeness you simply divide the actual number of species recorded so far by the predicted richness. For example I might have surveyed a wetland ten times and so far recorded 37 species with 5 singletons and 7 doubletons. So that would be 25 (5 squared) divided by 14 (7 x 2), which is roughly two. Predicted richness is therefore 39 and completeness is 95%. In other words, this means that during my survey period (when the ten surveys were conducted) there were approximately only two undetected species.

Botanists, miners and other professionals have used these same types of rules successfully for years (e.g. when do we have 95% of the plant species in this transect recorded or when shall we stop mining), us bird researchers are just a bit behind. Interestingly, in a single day it usually takes me 4 or so 20-minute surveys to reach 80%, and remember that’s just for that particular day! The Murrakool reptile data suggests 7 or 8 species were undetected, which makes perfect sense and is completely logical."

It took me awhile to get my mind around it, but in my own mind it comes down to this:

The formula to calculate percentage of completeness (or when to stop) is as follows:
(Total Species divided by (Total species plus (Singletons squared divided by Two multiplied by Doubletons))) multiplied by 100%

So, if 80 species have been observed in an area, with 25 Singletons and 14 Doubletons, the formula would be:

(Total Species [that is, 80] ÷ (Total species [80] + (Singletons [25] squared [that is, 25X25 or 625] ÷ Two times Doubletons [that is, 14 x 2 or 28]))) times 100%
Thus:
= (80 ÷ (80 + (625 ÷ 28))) times 100%
= (80 ÷ (80 + 22)) times 100%
= (80 ÷ 102) times 100%
= (.78) times 100%
= 78%

Because the percentage of completeness or stopping has not reached 80%, further searching of the area would need to be undertaken for additional species until the 80% marked is reached.

On the walk we also saw some further birds, such as White-browed Woodswallows, Yellow-rumped Thornbill, Dusky Woodswallow, Common Bronzewing, Rufous Songlark, Grey Shrike-thrush, Black-faced Cuckoo-shrike, Pied Butcherbird, White-winged Triller, Little Raven etc. A flock of Budgerigars flying over was probably the highlight of the birds. Matt mentioned that there were Grey-crowned Babblers on the block too, but we did not see them on our walk.

It was a good time to chat away on this and that too, and in companionable company we made our way through the section. One interesting sight was an obviously very old Mallee tree. It must have been over a hundred years old, possibly two or so from the size of its butt and the trunks off it. One great trunk had broken off in the not too distant past, its great skeleton lying beside the tree. It puzzled me to see a huge bundle of sticks piled up near this fallen limb. I wondered if the farmer had been gathering sticks and had put them there - it was obvious they were not naturally accumulated. I mentioned it to Matt and we were puzzling over it when Greg pipes up and says, "I reckon it was a Wedge-tailed Eagle’s nest!"

As soon as he said it the penny dropped, as they say, and we could see it was a huge old nest. We speculated that the weight of the nest might even have caused the limb to break off. If one keeps one’s eyes open, one can sure come across some interesting sights.

On getting back to camp we went to retrieve the little Geckos from the pit traps. They were quite a sight. The Eastern Spiny-tailed Gecko was perched on a dead branch against the side of the bucket, while on the sand and litter beneath was the Beaded Gecko - a striking contrast. But the thing that was most striking was that the little grey Spiny-tailed had his mouth open in a threatening display and it was a vivid blue colour. Both Matt and Greg rued not having their cameras with them to catch this fascinating display. We put the little reptiles in a container to examine more carefully later, and headed off to the trap line in the Chenopod Mallee.

At first we thought there was nothing in them. Greg and I stirred the sand and leaf litter in the bottom without any obvious animals in it. However Matt came behind and very carefully stirred the sand, and sure enough, to our delight - and amazement that they could so successfully hide in the sand so well, was a species of Slider - a type of "legless" Skink. Matt had previously caught some in this area previously and could identify it straight away. It was an Eastern Robust Slider - Lerista punctatorittsta. I had never seen one before, so was very pleased to see this new reptile, and wonder at its dexterity to seemingly just disappear into the sand. Unfortunately it had a damaged tail, so was not an ideal specimen to examine. This was soon remedied when we found a larger and perfect specimen in another trap. Fascinating, seeing these animals.

Into a container went the Eastern Robust Slider, to be more carefully examined later too. It was then onto Jim’s place once again to check the Bat Harp Traps. On the way we noticed a flock of White-backed Swallows flying around a sandy hillside with some excavation and buildings on it. We stopped to have a look and discovered that some were in fact fledglings with their shorter tails and still being fed by adult birds. It was a pleasure to see this, and for me it is always a pleasure to see this species of Swallow. I find real joy in their colour, shape and antics, which speak of freedom and joy in life.

We were really pleased to have caught several bats in one of the new traps we had erected the day before, and were excited to see they were different from the previous day’s catch. So, carefully into the bag they were stowed, to be checked out back at camp with our ID books. We also set up another couple of traps in another area of the wetland at Jim’s - this time across the end of a stretch of water. We thought it looked good for getting the bats, as they would zoom in to feed over the water, or to get a drink.

From here we went a good distance off to check out a couple of wetlands. The first wetland had dried up, and was just a flat of waving grassland, being grazed by stock. The second had plenty of water, but little shallow water and mudflats, so there were few waders, though we picked up a few new birds, including Purple Swamphen, Long-bill Corella & Silver Gull. We could see some waders on the far bank, but the distance was too great to identify them with the scope. We tried driving around, but the entrance was on private property with a no entrance sign. Matt tried to raise them by phone to get permission to enter, but was unsuccessful, so we had to leave the waders ... probably were nothing we had not already got on the survey anyhow ... a bit like the Fox, (was it in Aesop’s Fables?) when he couldn’t reach the grapes to eat them, "They were probably sour anyway!"

This time Matt was conscious his off-siders needed to eat, even if he could live on water and fresh air, so he very kindly offered us some biscuits Maree had made. From the reverent way he handed us the biscuits and spoke her name, we could see she was very special to Matt. And from the taste of the biscuits, a good cook too!

Another stop at Koraleigh for fuel was not successful, so it meant a trip over the nearby border into Victoria to purchase diesel at Nyah and also a bit to eat. It was getting very hot and we were pleased to get back to camp for a quiet sit in out shade and a bit of a rest.

Along the way we would chat on this and that. One thing that gave us quite a bit in common was that we all came from country backgrounds, and found our greatest relaxation and enjoyment in the bush, more than the town and city! One time we were chatting about siblings, family and children. I shared something of what it meant to be a father, and to have children. I mentioned something of the deep fulfillment and sense of wonder it brings, and how it stirs up latent masculine feelings such as strong desires to protect mother and child, to provide and to be tender to them. Matt seemed to sense something of this wonder too. May God, the God of families, bless him in knowing it all one day too.

Matt had heard from a mate David Webb on the mobile. David is really keen on all aspects of Matt’s surveying and our fauna. He was coming to join us later in the day, so Matt and Greg were pleased they had some speciems to show him when he arrived.

After a bit of a rest, we got out our books and other gear needed for identifying the creatures we had caught. The Geckos identifications were quickly verified, though we were thrown for a moment because the markings of the Beaded Gecko were atypical. The deciding factor in it being a Beaded Gecko rather than another species was that it had claws rather than suction pads on its feet.

From the size of the penis of the Freetail bat we had, we presumed it was a Southern Freetail Bat, and the measurement of 9 > mm verified that this was so. Another bat caused us considerable difficulty. It showed the measurements and characteristics of a Large Forest Bat except it was the wrong colour. Several of the texts said that a diagnostic feature of this species was its rich dark brown colour. This specimen was grey backed with a pale underside. We puzzled over it, until Matt rang one of his "batty" mates, and they passed on the information that some of the Large Forest Bats are not always dark brown. The more reliable features of measurement of forearm, shape of penis etc are what should be relied upon for verifying what species it is. One certainly learns a lot by field work, and it was a good learning curve for me. I very much appreciated it all. I reckon Matt and Greg did too, and from their anticipation of Dave’s arrival, and showing him what had been picked up in the survey, he would get a buzz from it as well.

Matt and Greg were keen to get some photos of the Geckos so they were placed on some sandy patches or on a branch & litter and a series of photos taken. I wonder how they turned out?

Later that afternoon, Dave arrived. Dave, an agronomist specializing in tomatoes, had been running around all day sorting out various problems in connection with the forthcoming crop, and while he had hoped to join us earlier, had been prevented by these problems. Now he was here and ready to enter with enthusiasm into the work - very enjoyable work, mind you, for those who found challenge and satisfaction in the study of wildlife. Dave looked vaguely familiar, and as it turned out, he remembered meeting me on an outing with Phil Maher and Tom Whaller at Tullakool a couple of years back.

It was hot and muggy and time for a cool drink and a yarn, so that was what we did for an hour or so. Dave then got his camera out and had a photographic session with the Slider as well as the Geckos. When it cooled off a bit, we took another walk around the Mallee patch. Matt asked Dave what he thought the pile of sticks was at the old Mallee tree, and Dave was onto an Eagle’s nest straight away!

As night came on we headed to Jim’s Lagoon and released the bats we had caught that morning. We had a walk around, and were pleased to come across an Eastern Tiger Snake - Notechis scutatus. Matt had heard they were plentiful this season, and so we were on the lookout for them.

Driving out past the homestead, night having fallen, Greg spotted an owl fly up into a tree. Backing up, and shining his headlights, we saw several. Soon we were out with our torches, and had discovered a pair of Boobook Owls with several recently fledged young. We spent some time just enjoying the excellent views to be had of them.

It was coming in heavy and overcast, and some light sprinkling of rain as we headed back to camp, but we thought that it would be a good time to have a walk and look for some reptiles. Greg opted to stay behind and get an early night, so Matt, Dave and I went hunting reptiles. We started up near the pit traps, and wandered especially in the Deep Sand Mallee, wondering if there might be a Jewelled Gecko - Diplodactylus elderi, which are found in Spinifex among Mallee. We had no success with this little one, but we did pick up another Spiny-tailed Gecko among the litter under a Mallee. We had left a light burning at the camp to guide us back, but had wandered this way and that searching for animals, with our heads down and losing track of the direction of the camp. We lost sight of the light and so were thrown as to which way to camp. We basically knew we were beside a ridge of sand which ran East-West, and that the camp was back towards the East side of the block. So, it was a real wander around for a while, the rain setting in, until we eventually saw our light and got back to base. A bit of an adventure for which we were not really looking - but a reminder how easy it is to become disorientated in the bush when it is overcast and one has no bearings.

Greg was bunked down when we got back and I for one was ready for the swag too. During the night the rain set in and was fairly constant throughout - as least it seemed to me every time I stirred in my swag to be raining. I had to zip up to keep it out, but with my little ventilation flap it was not too stuffy. Most of our gear was put under the flap of tarpaulin, which we had erected that night. Poor Greg’s swag was right near a section where the water would regularly run off, right beside him. Matt was in his swag and Dave curled up in his vehicle.

Next morning, there was a very sodden world, the opaque grey sky and all the foliage around dripping water. There was a very half hearted dawn chorus. None stirred, but I got up with an old towel across my shoulders to keep dry, and a big umbrella when needed. The only dry patch was the area under the flap of tarpaulin, where I sat as I had a hot drink, some breakfast, and a quiet read and meditation. Still none stirred. I had a read of some of the field guides. Still none gave any evidence of getting up from their bunks. The wet had really sent them into hibernation mode! It was about half past seven am and it seemed to me that these blokes were really sleeping in. I had to get away about mid-day, and was hoping to get a bit more sight seeing and surveying done before doing so. It seemed to me I would have to resort to a bit of chicanery.

We had been speaking the day before how great it would be to see a Bandy Bandy Snake, and the fellows eyes lit up at the thought of it, so I yelled out "a Bandy Bandy"! I was expecting the swags to be thrown off; car door fly open and fellows come running! Instead, what happened is that after awhile Greg’s swag moved and a head popped out and gloomily surveyed the world, Matt’s swag remained very still for an awful long time, before it twitched and then very slowly a reluctant bloke’s head appeared. Dave didn’t even bother to move. What a let down for me! Later, when I thought they were in good enough humour to ask them why they didn’t react as I had hoped, they said there was simply no persuasion in my voice - they recognized it for what it was, a very bad taste attempt at a very unsubtle effort to get them unnecessarily out of their comfortable beds! (Though to be honest, I got a good grin out of it). I wondered out loud if that meant I was a bad liar? Perhaps to be that is a virtue though.

The blokes were slow off the mark that morning as you can see, needing the kick-start of a hot drink and to sit quietly for awhile. At last they were revved up enough to get going. We checked out the pits, both in the Deep Sand and the Chenopod areas, but they were waterlogged and empty. (I heard afterwards that later in the day in the Chenopod area a new species of Slider was trapped - Lerista bougainvillii). After putting in some further sand and some sticks and other litter, we moved onto check out the Bat Harp Traps. It was a bit of a slip and slide to make our way out of the Mallee block, but Matt’s 4-wheel drive showed its capabilities, and it was no hassle.

The trap between the two bodies of water that we hoped would capture some bats was empty. Also most of the other traps were empty too. Obviously on a wet rainy night bats mainly stay in bed - a bit like some fellows I have come to know! One of the traps though had a couple of Inland Freetail Bats.

We had a walk around Jim’s Lagoon and once again flushed the Latham’s Snipe. We also came across a medium sized Red-bellied Black Snake, and were able to get some good views of it.

We then drove into Tooleybuc and had a drink and something to eat - thankfully the weather was breaking and things were starting to dry out a bit. It was good to sit and chat a bit - and Matt was interested enough to ask a bit about my work. I am not sure how many pastors he comes across in the course of his work. I guess I could have been a bit of a novelty, let alone a bit of an unknown factor. We then moved up to some roadside Mallee remnants near Kyalite, and did a survey of the area, having a good yarn on this and that as we went along. In this area we picked up some good species of birds, including Long-billed Corella, Peregrine Falcon, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeaters, Red Wattlebird, Grey-crowned Babblers and some excellent views of freshly fledged Mistletoebirds and their attending parents. We were lifting logs and scraping in the litter and dust underneath for possible Leristas and the search paid off when several Wood Mulch Sliders Lerista muelleri were found. I did enjoy good looks at them.

We were back at camp by lunchtime, and after a hasty bite, I packed up my gear and prepared to head off back home. It was good to have met Matt, Greg and Dave, and after exchanging well wishes for the holiday season and the year ahead, I started to back out. Before doing so I had, without my spectacles, moved the front wheel lock so that I thought it was in lock position and the 4-wheel facility engaged. I realized I might have needed to be in 4-wheel drive to get out to the public road. I backed back and soon was bogged. There was a bit of a flurry of activity as we sought to dig a bit of the mud away and to give it a push, but it puzzled me that the vehicle seemed so sluggish. Dave asked me if the front wheels were in lock position. "Yes!" I called, "I checked just before I started to back out!"

Dave gave a look-see, and called back, "No, they are in free mode!" I couldn’t understand what was happening. Sure enough they were in free mode. A twist of the lock and then the car simply rolled out of the bog no trouble! Later I realized that I had put the front wheels in "lock" position when I first hit the sand on the day I arrived in case there was some deep sand where we had to drive. I was unlocking them when I thought I was locking them! I was sorry to have churned up the pristine ground of the Mallee block though, and hope the boys were able to smooth it out a bit after I got away.

Once again I had enjoyed a great time in our unique bushland with its special animals and flora with some genuine blokes who had a real interest and care in such things. I appreciated getting to know them a bit too, and found it very satisfying to be able to assist Matt in his project. I really appreciated Matt’s knowledge, enthusiasm, friendliness, and his easy and down to earth manner. He had the smile of the quiet Australian achiever, and was an achiever. He was a good boss, and easy to follow as he led. May it go well for him in this project, and in all his ways, and for Greg and Dave too. God bless you boys.

A list of the animals I saw on the trip is appended below.

REPTILES

Boulenger’s Skink Morethia boulengeri.
Lace Monitor (Tree Goanna) - Varanus varius
Sand Monitor - Varanus goldii
Eastern Tiger Snake - Notechis scutatus
Eastern Robust Slider - Lerista punctatorittsta
Wood Mulch Slider - Lerista muelleri
Eastern Spiny-tailed Gecko - Diplodactylus intermedius
Beaded Gecko - Lucasium damaeum
Marbled Gecko - Christinus marmoratus

MAMMALS

White-striped (Freetail) Mastiff Bat
Southern Freetail Bat (Large Penis)
Forest Bat (Either Southern or Little - probably Little) - Female
Large Forest Bat
Inland Freetail Bat (Small Penis)
Water Rat
Rabbit
Hare
Fox
Cat

BIRDS

(b = breeding)
Emu Black SwanAustralian Wood Duck
Pacific Black DuckGrey Teal - bHardhead
Australian GrebeHoary-headed GrebeDarter - b
Little Pied Cormorant - bLittle Black CormorantGreat Cormorant
Australian PelicanWhite-necked HeronNankeen Night Heron
Australian White IbisStraw-necked IbisYellow-billed Spoonbill
Black-shouldered KiteBlack KiteWhistling Kite
Spotted HarrierCollared SparrowhawkWedge-tailed Eagle
Australian HobbyPeregrine FalconNankeen Kestrel
Purple SwamphenDusky MoorhenBlack-tailed Native-hen
Eurasian CootLittle Button-quailLatham’s Snipe
Marsh SandpiperBlack-winged StiltBlack-fronted Dotterel
Red-kneed DotterelMasked LapwingSilver Gull
Whiskered TernRock DoveCommon Bronzewing
Crested PigeonPeaceful DoveGalah
Long-billed CorellaMajor Mitchell’s CockatooCockatiel
Crimson Rosella (Yellow form)Eastern RosellaAustralian Ringneck
Blue Bonnet - bRed-rumped Parrot - bBudgerigar
Horsfield’s Bronze-CuckooSouthern Boobook - bAustralian Owlet-nightjar
Laughing KookaburraSacred KingfisherRainbow bee-eater - b
Brown TreecreeperSuperb Fairy-wren - bWhite-winged Fairy-wren
Spotted PardaloteStriated PardaloteWeebill
Western GerygoneChestnut-rumped ThornbillYellow-rumped Thornbill
Southern WhitefaceRed WattlebirdSpiny-cheeked Honeyeater
Little FriarbirdBlue-faced HoneyeaterNoisy Miner
Yellow-throated MinerSinging HoneyeaterYellow-plumed Honeyeater
White-plumed HoneyeaterBrown-headed HoneyeaterRed-capped Robin
Grey-crowned BabblerWhite-browed BabblerVaried Sittella
Rufous WhistlerGrey Shrike-thrushRestless Flycatcher
Magpie-larkGrey fantailWillie Wagtail
Black-faced Cuckoo-shrikeWhite-winged TrillerWhite-breasted Woodswallow
White-browed WoodswallowBlack-faced WoodswallowDusky Woodswallow
Pied ButcherbirdAustralian MagpieAustralian Raven
Little RavenWhite-winged ChoughRichard’s Pipit
House SparrowZebra Finch - bMistletoebird - b
White-backed Swallow - bWelcome SwallowTree Martin
Clamorous Reed-WarblerRufous SonglarkBrown Songlark
Common BlackbirdCommon Starling