Camera Traps

Michelle and I spent this afternoon guiding a couple of visitors. Two guys are at Mornington this week with 30 remote, motion-activated cameras. The idea is to point the cameras at bird nests, leave them in place, then download the images later. If it works, we’ll get photos of predators at Fairy-Wren nests, and see what’s eating the baby birds.

Of every five Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren nests with eggs, only one will fledge at least one chick. Predators eat the rest (except for a few that are flooded during rainstorms). The most regular villains are probably goanas (5-foot-long lizards) and snakes, but who knows? We’ll have to check the photos. With these cameras, we’ll even be able to tell what’s happening at night, because they switch to infrared during darkness – except, of course, if a cold-blooded snake hits the nest at night, the infrared won’t pick it up.

Another sunny day here, hot, sweaty, and sticky. Yesterday I hiked up a small escarpment next to camp to get an overview of Mornington Station. In every direction, arid bush undulated unbroken to the horizon – this is really the middle of nowhere!

Rain in the Desert

Last night I woke, startled, at 1am, to an unfamiliar sound: raindrops drumming on a tin roof. Lightning and thunder rocked Mornington Station for a couple hours.

Overall, we got 44.4 mL (1.75 inches) of rain overnight – the most precipitation in any 24-hour period in almost a year! March usually marks the end of “The Wet” – six months of scattered rainfall – but this wet season has been about the driest on record in northwest Australia, so last night’s thunderstorm was greeted with enthusiasm.

Lingering clouds made for a nice, cooler morning, in marked contrast to yesterday’s more-typical high of 41.9 C (107.5 F). Roads are now impassable muddy messes, and the creeks have flooded their banks (no canoeing today). One river that I waded just four inches deep last week is now too high and swift to swim across safely. We’re stranded at Mornington – not a bad predicament!

Pizza and Mozzie Bites

Forecasters are predicting thunderstorms the next couple days, which may foil plans to canoe Diamond Gorge tomorrow (more likely, though, we’d just go in the rain). For now, things remain sunny and hot.

Last night everyone gathered around the outdoor pizza oven for a pizza party, Mornington-style. The raised, open-door oven bakes nicely when filled with hot coals. Pizza-making festivities were as creative as the potential ingredients (or lack thereof); Sara and I layered baked beans, salsa, onions, cheese, and chili powder on our dough. Tasty! Two of our closest “neighbors” even came over for the occasion, flying in from an outlying station 2 hours away.

When I went to bed, though, my feet were itching like crazy. I counted more than 40 mosquito bites on each leg below the knee (that’s probably a hundred just on my legs). Everyone says not to scratch, because it causes heat rash, and at least one field tech has landed in the hospital this year with severe heat rash after a week of unbearable agony – while several others have come down with less extreme cases. Not something to be trifled with, so I try to leave my itchy mozzie bites alone.

Mist-netting Fairy-Wrens

Michelle, Sara and I got up at 4am this morning, packed mist-netting and banding gear into the truck, and drove a 4×4 road to a particular Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren territory in hopes of mist-netting the wrens there.

Fairy-Wrens are cooperative breeders, so many territories have more than one male and/or female. Groups can be as large as eight individuals, all of which help tend one nest. Today’s group had three; an adult male, adult female, and subdominant male, all of which we hoped to catch in the nets.

After several hours, we’d caught two of the three target Fairy-Wrens, as well as several incidental Yellow-tinted Honeyeaters, a pair of Buff-sided Robins, a Willie Wagtail, and a Striated Pardalote which became ensnared in the nearly-invisible netting. We measured each of the wrens extensively, took photos, blood samples, and sperm samples, and released them; in between, the three of us lounged on the riverbank in a shady, grassy spot, glad to be out of the furnace for a while (by noon, it was well over 100 F, as usual).

Pandanus Trees

About 90% of Purple-crowned Fairy-Wren nests at Mornington Station are placed in one particular kind of tree, called Pandanus. It’s a spiky, palm-like plant that grows along the banks of permanent, deep pools along creeks and rivers.

They look cool, but Pandanus fronds are lined with rows of sharp, serrated edges. My arms are scratched up from pushing through them for the last week. Fairy-Wrens love them, though; territories are built around large clumps of Pandanus, and the wrens spend most of their time skulking through the densest stands. Since the wrens are there, so am I. My days are spent alternately crashing through thick riparian vegetation and making quiet observations along the creek, searching for color-banded birds and hoping to find their nests. All the time, Pandanus is my guide, close at hand; it’s a jungle out there!

Barking Owl After Dark

Barking Owls, so-named for their dog-like sounds, are the second-most-common owl around Mornington (next to Southern Boobooks, which look relatively similar).

Last evening, I spotted one silhouetted against the starry sky while I was walking between buildings. The owl perched on an exposed snag long enough for me to run for a flashlight and camera. Cool bird! It sallied out a few times, flycatcher-like, and finally snagged a bat (visible in the owl’s talons). After taking a few pictures, I left the Barking Owl to its tasty snack. Steve, a local bird/wildlife expert, tentatively identified the bat as a sheath-tailed bat. So there you have it!

This morning Sara and I accompanied two other researchers to try mist-netting Gouldian Finches, since they had caught 20 at once yesterday. Today, zero – we saw a couple Gouldians fly overhead, but none hit the net (set up at a waterhole). So, it was back to the Fairy-Wrens; I found my first nest today, with three eggs – but checking it required a sketchy climb up a spiky pandanus tree overhanging the river. Clouds this morning have dampened the temperature a bit, but humidity has more than doubled (to about 70%) – if not one, it’s the other!

Mornington Station

Mornington is a giant reserve in the Kimberley, an untracked wilderness in northwest Australia, just north of the Great Sandy Desert. The station is an old cattle ranch (they call them “stations” here), accessible by mail plane or a six-hour 4×4 drive from the nearest down, Derby.

Now, Mornington is run and owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy, with the intention of protecting wildlife and promoting research. The project I am working on – studying Purple-crowned Fairy-Wrens – is just one research project happening at Mornington right now. Other people are studying Crimson Finches, Gouldian Finches, spinifex grass, and similar aspects of the natural landscape. I’m here for six months (until August), but other researchers live here more or less permanently. There are currently 17 people at Mornington.

The station is made up of scattered buildings in various states of repair. The relatively plush (or, as Aussies say, “swish”) research lab, is the only air-conditioned space (Aussies shorten it to “air-con”). I’m sitting in the lab right now, since the temperature outside is about 106 F; with couches, counters, and a nice atmosphere, it’s a great place to hang out and get some work done.

The communal, open-air kitchen is the other nice building; it’s decked out with tons of counter space inside and all the amenities of food, including a large walk-in refrigerator. Otherwise, researchers sleep in scattered huts around the premises. I’ve been sleeping in a vacant room in a disused building on the edge of things, but will get kicked out soon as more staff are hired to handle the upcoming tourist season. Then, I’ll set up a tent on the hot grass, and hope it doesn’t boil me alive while I sleep!

Tramping in the Heat

It was about 106 degrees F today (41 C), but, when I complained about the heat, Olya (who studies Crimson Finches) expressed little sympathy: “It’s cool out there,” she said, with a smirk. “I had to put an extra blanket on last night!”

Though I had to admit that I turned my fan down to the next-to-highest setting at 1am, nobody can convince me that 106 degrees is anything close to “cool.” It’s so hot that I can’t distinguish mosquit0 tickles from sweat dripping down the back of my leg. Rocks are too scalding for bare feet. Water from my bottle tastes like fire, and I pack three liters to survive a morning of fieldwork. It’s so hot that I sleep on a bare mattress with a fan on the highest setting (usually) blasting me in the face. By 7:30 a.m., the air feels like a furnace. By noon, I feel like a baked potato even when sitting in the shade.

I have discovered a great antidote to the heat, though: Mornington’s walk-in refrigerator. It’s used to store food, but, after 10 minutes in there, communing with hanging slabs of fresh-butchered bullock, my body temperatures cools right down, too. Sweat on my shirt whisks off in impressive, hot-cold steam plumes inside the refrigeration room.

I spent the day censusing Purple-crowned Fairy-Wrens along a hot stretch of the Adcock River, which required walking, er, hacking, about 8 kilometers (roundtrip) through dense riparian vegetation. I fell twice on slippery spots of mud, but the extra dirt just added to my sunscreen. Anyway, the fairy-wrens are quite engaging – it’s gonna be a great field season!

Gone Swimming

Most everyone takes Sundays off at Mornington, so today Sara and I went swimming with Di (in charge of the tourism program here) and Paul (the camp handyman). We piled into a truck with a canoe, paddles, and inflated tubes, and drove about 10 miles to a waterhole along the Fitzroy River.

The pickup truck was a piece of work: it had a missing headlight, no rearview mirror, a broken hood latch, broken spedometer, broken starter, no clutch, and no brakes. The last three (starter, clutch, and brakes) were temporarily fixed by handy Paul, and off we went rattling across the red, dusty roads.

The temperature here reached 41 C yesterday (105.8 F) and today was about the same. The forecast isn’t expected to vary within the predictable future. It’s hot out there!

First Fairy-Wrens

Michelle, the Fairy-Wren guru, spent the day getting Sara and me up to speed on our duties for the next few months. Basically, we will follow a population of Purple-Crowned Fairy-Wrens here at Mornington Station, trying to find every nest and monitor every individual bird. The Fairy-Wrens live along a section of Annie Creek, which flows right through the station, and particularly like a spiky, palm-like plant called pandanus.

Which means that Sara and I will spend our time tramping back and forth through riparian undergrowth, peering at Fairy-Wren legs to read color bands, and avoiding the worst afternoon heat. We will wake up at 4:30 each morning, work outside for a few hours, then do another field session late in the afternoon.

Michelle showed Sara and me our territories today along a 3-kilometer stretch of Annie Creek. I saw my first Purple-crowned Fairy-Wrens – the males are gorgeous, with bright purple foreheads, black ear patches, and long, expressive tails. In the afternoon, we went swimming to cool off. After sunset, I looked up to see the Southern Cross and distant flashes of heat lightning, while night birds made unfamiliar noises.

Driving to Nowhere

After a bit of errand-juggling this morning in Derby, four of us set off for the long drive to Mornington. From Derby, the Gibb River Road takes off like a dirt arrow through untracked bush; we followed this single-track route for three hours before turning on to Mornington Sanctuary’s “driveway.” This added another 90 kilometers and involved fording several creeks.

All told, the drive took between five and six hours, not including rest stops to pamper Teagan’s six-month-old baby, go swimming at a creek crossing, and take photos of enormous boab trees.

In all that distance, we passed only one other car, and saw just one or two buildings alongside the road. This is one of the greatest wilderness areas left on Earth. Kangaroos, White-quilled Pigeons, and Wedge-tailed Eagles skittered from the road as we drove past endless expanses of red dust, green grass, leafy trees, and impossibly blue skies.

I’m now at Mornington Station, getting settled in to my home (for the next six months) and meeting the staff. There are 17 people on station at the moment. Fieldwork starts at five a.m. tomorrow, to avoid the worst daily heat; Purple-crowned Fairy-Wrens await!

Last Day of Civilization

My alarm went off at 2:15 this morning in Perth. When I subsequently presented myself at the airline check-in counter, the attendant said, “Derby? You’ll be off to the mines, then?” I assured her that my business in Derby had more to do with wildlife than ore, and, after the captain quipped, “It’s way too early to be flying,” our plane reached into the Australian sunrise.

Derby is a tiny hamlet (“shire,” actually, according to the airport sign) on the northwest Australian coast. The town’s 4,000 residents, half of Aboriginal descent, are caught between the second-highest tide in the world (usually more than 40 feet) and the most expansive unsettled area of Australia (where I’m headed tomorrow). It was hot enough at 8:30 a.m. that sweat dripped down the back of my neck as I stepped on to the red dust.

I spent the day buying groceries (my last visit to a store for six months) and prowling mangroves. It’s nearly 100 degrees outside with little shade. Tomorrow, I’ll make the half-day drive on a single dirt road to Mornington with two other researcher-conservationists. It’s a grueling, desolate, and beautiful trip by most accounts, with nothing but bush along the way.

Last week, two guys attempted a creek crossing while driving the same route to Mornington. Their vehicle submerged in a flash flood and they both swam to shore, tried to build a signal fire, then walked 30 kilometers in 95-degree heat without water, slept by the side of the road, and reached help the next day. I sure hope we have a smoother trip!

Dryandra Birds and Roos

Maris picked me up in Perth at five this morning to give us plenty of time to make the two-hour drive to Dryandra before the sun came up. We managed not to run over any emus or kangaroos en route, though I saw both by the side of the road (the emus are wild and native here, though some farmers also keep them as pets). The kangaroos ran away, and Maris and I spent the day prowling the birdy forest preserve, among Eucalyptus trees, spiny Dryandra bushes, and red dirt.

Incidentally, after waking up at 5:00 yesterday morning and 4:30 this morning, I can attest that jet lag is an excellent way to stave off early-morning sleepiness. Even with the ridiculous morning hours, I have woken well before my alarm yesterday and today feeling totally refreshed. After all, the middle of the night is actually mid-afternoon back in the US!

It’s a good thing, because I have to wake up at 2:15 tomorrow morning to catch a plane to northern Australia. After seeing about 100 species of birds in the last two days in Perth (more than half of which were “lifers”), I’m headed to bed early, at 7 pm, in anticipation of a day in Derby, on Australia’s north shore, tomorrow.

Americans in Perth

At 5:45 a.m. this morning, I found Maris Lauva waiting outside my Perth hostel, ready for a long day of birding around town. We spent most of the time with Marcia and Bob, from Maryland, who had the day ashore in Perth on a 2-week cruise to Thailand. Turned out Marcia had been on a tour I led during the American Birding Association convention in Eugene a few years back. Small world!

Maris, a local birder, was extremely kind to show us Americans some nice birds. We hit wetlands, lakes, and “the bush,” racking up about 60 species throughout the day, half of which I’d never seen before. Not a cloud in the sky, temps in the 90s. After dropping Marcia and Bob back at their cruise ship for a 4:00 curfew, Maris and I headed into the foothills to watch several dozen Baudin’s Black-Cockatoos fly into an evening roost. The large, impressive parrots, silhouetted against the sunset, capped off an impressive day.

Summah Down Undah

After cutting every line in the Sydney Airport, watching Customs take all of my jerky away, teaching a woman from Venezuela to use her in-flight entertainment system (in return for half a blanket and a packet of M&Ms), and being taxied by a distinctly non-Australian man named Jarko, I am in Perth, in southwest Australia, this afternoon.

Yes, I realize that it’s actually 1 a.m. in the U.S, which means I should be really, really tired after sleeping four hours out of the last 40. But it’s hard not to be energized when I’m looking at palm trees, parrots, and Australian sunshine out the window. It’s currently mid-afternoon, at the tail end of summer, about 98 degrees F, and a man is lying in my hostel dorm room clad only in his underwear, watching kid cartoons in a semi-catatonic state (true story; nothing to do with me; the heat just does odd things to people).

I celebrated my arrival down under with a stroll around town. The walk turned into a blisterfest on my feet, so I retreated before the stove-like sidewalk began to char, and dodged on to a ferry crossing the Swan River (“The River of Swan,” said Jarko the taxi driver) to appreciate the cooling effect of water. I’ve already seen several life birds without even trying – Western Corella, Red Wattlebird, and Singing Honeycreeper. I’m looking forward to adventures tomorrow, starting at 6am, and the next day, starting at 4am, with a local birder named Maris. With jet lag, 4am won’t seem so bad!

Bound for Australia

Day after tomorrow, I’ll board a plane here in Eugene, Oregon. Two days later, I’ll arrive in Australia (skipping over the international date line, of course) – right in the middle of summer.

I will spend the next six months (’til August) working  at Mornington Station in the Kimberley, one of the greatest wilderness areas left on Earth, in northwest Australia. The Kimberley is an area of the Outback the size of California, crossed by only one paved road. Only 40,000 people live there (compared to 37 million in California!), mostly in three small towns (Broome, Derby, and Kununurra, none of which have more than 5,000 people), and between one third and one half are of Aboriginal descent.

It’s an extreme place. In the hot, wet season (“The Wet”), from October to March, highs can be around 110 degrees F. The rest of the year, it’s only 95. Poisonous snakes, biting insects, heat, and isolation are familiar, daily attributes of life in the Kimberley.

So, why do I want to go there? Researchers at Mornington Station, an old cattle station turned wildlife reserve, have been working with Purple-crowned Fairy-Wrens – a tiny, beautiful, endemic, endangered bird – for more than a decade, and I’ve signed on to help with field work this year. I will be searching for nests, color banding individual birds, and observing their behavior six days a week. Meanwhile, I’ll get a taste of life in the real Outback. I hope you enjoy the journey!