Rottnest Is. – Quokkas, birds and fur seals

For the winter school holidays we took a family trip to Rottnest for a week.  It’s a great place to stay – very relaxing with tourists getting about on foot, bikes or the bus – there are only service cars on the island.  We stayed in a heritage cottage in Thompsons Bay built around 1840!

Rottnest is a small island about 20kms off Fremantle and is about 7kms long.  Its name comes from dutch explorers who named it Eyland’t Rottenest (“Rats’ Nest Island”) after mistaking the marsupial Quokka (Setonix brachyurus) for a large rat in 1696!  Its original indigenous name of the island is Wadjemup, used by the local Noongar people.  The island has a mixed history as it was used as an indigenous prison for a time and now it is a tourist haven and important wildlife sanctuary.

The kids loved the Quokkas which are everywhere and very tame in the main tourist areas.  My almost 2 yr old daughter Sienna grasped straight away that they like green leaves and we had to help her find leaves for the whole week.  Rottnest is a mainstay of the Quokka population – it’s not well known that there are isolated populations throughout the southwest of WA.

In researching the animals that could be found on Rottnest I found there is a colony of New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) on Cathedral rocks on the western end of the island and with a newly constructed boardwalk.  I have previously seen Australian Sea Lions (Neophoca cinerea) but the fur seal was a new species for me.  My 4 year old son Liam, my wife Mel and I, chose a clear day and headed out on the bus that does loops round the island.  It was a 30 min bus ride out and was cold and windy on this exposed part of the island.

I took this pano of the rocks.  You can’t make it out in the picture but seals could be seen hauled on the rocks and also frolicking in the water.  To see better you needed binoculars or a telephoto camera.

Pano of Cathedral Rocks, Rottnest Is

Seals hauled out on the rocks.

Seals in the water.

You can see how many seals are on the rocks if you look carefully.

We then headed to West end where we saw a soaring Osprey and a huge built up nest on a rock just offshore.

We then headed to catch the bus back and on the side of the road found this weird spider which has since been identified as one of the mouse spiders (Missulena granulosa).

On another day I took a walk to check out some of the salt lakes for birds and found my first ever Banded stilts (Cladorhynchus leucocephalus).

I saw a few other birds (photos below) – I was really pleased with the swallow picture flying into the wind on the golf course but not actually making any headway as the wind was so strong!  There used to be a population of breeding Indian peafowl on the island – but they are managed now to just 5. Common pheasant (introduced) can also be found on the island but I didn’t see any.

Welcome swallow @ Rottnest Is

I finished off with a collection of Quokka shots.  The below is one drinking open fresh water which is quite difficult to find on the island, so this one was taking advantage of a large puddle as it had been quite wet!

In the below right is one sleeping on its tail and getting some sun!

We had a great holiday – even though a few days were wet.  The kids loved the island and Sienna is still talking about Quokkas! Their Granny bought them each a fluffy toy one on the island which is in bed with them each night.

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Blue whales of Perth Canyon

Its been quite some time since I discovered that Blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) visit Perth Canyon in Apr-May.  Perth canyon is approx 22kms off the coast of Fremantle and has depths of 700m-4kms!  It’s similar dimensions to the Grand canyon but of course you can’t see the scale with all that ocean on top.  The whales are coming to the canyon feeding on aggregations of krill – tiny marine shrimp, that feed a whale that can get up to 25m long!

I have always had an interest in Blue whales ever since seeing the 24m long skeleton in pride of place in the WA museum.  I have not been able to show my kids yet – but I’m excited that come 2020, it will be featured in the new building.

I volunteered to organise a WA Naturalists excursion utilising the family business Whale Watch Western Australia – the only company that visit the canyon for whale watching.  As part of my planning I checked out the company previously on a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) tour in October off Fremantle.  I had been to the canyon once before on a pelagic bird watching tour where we had an amazing sighting of Orca (Orcinus orca).

We had planned to go a month before, but one day before the trip the boat hit a floating semi-submerged boat wreck and sheared off one of the blades on one of the props!  We had over 20 people signed up – so lots of communication as we all had to reschedule once they were able to get a replacement prop built from scratch and installed.

 

We boarded MV Steep Point just before 8am with 44 on board – 4 of us WA Nats members plus some family members.  The above photos are from my previous trip as I forgot to take new ones.  The day was perfect, not a cloud in the sky, with light easterly winds which were going to drop, no swell to talk off, and sunny & mild (~27ºC).

Leaving Fremantle

Rottnest to the East – not a common view!

We were surprised by a pair of humpbacks – an adult with a yearling calf – they were just west off Rottnest migrating North and the earliest of the season.

I saw a couple of Great crested terns (Thalasseus bergii) and then a pair of fisherman in a pretty small boat for how far out they were!

As we came to the canyon and started looking for whales we sighted some splashing a long way off, which turned out to be a few hundred Striped dolphins (Stenella coeruleoalba).  The pod was hugely energetic with many launching into the air.  Really spectacular and a new species of mammal for me.

We then headed on to the northern most part of the canyon looking for Blue whales – they tend to be found on the walls as it is thought they herd the krill using the structure.  For some time we didn’t see any whales and I must confess I thought we might be too late in the season.  But then a misty blow was seen perhaps more than a km off and we headed towards it, seeing a few more blows on the way.

Blue whale blow @ Perth canyon

We then saw the blue whales – approx 25m long – which is the same length as our boat carrying 50 people!  Another lifer species for me – two in one day!

Blue whale @ Perth Canyon

The name blue whale was first referenced in the book Moby Dick and refers to the aqua blue colour of their skin when underwater (see the aqua strip in the image below – out of the water they are a mottled grey colour.

Submerged Blue whale @ Perth Canyon

We saw 4 individual whales ranging from the 25m adult above to a yearling approx 14m long (see darker grey image bottom right below) – which is the same length as the adult humpback we saw earlier!

One interesting fact is the mottled colouration on the whales can come from healed scars from cookie-cutter sharks.  They have circular sucker mouths and teeth that take a plug of flesh – the below image shows the whale just below the dorsal fin and then a close up where you can see the wounds from the shark.

After spending a good few hours with the blues we headed for home – the sun on the water was amazing.

Just heading out of the canyon we came across another (or maybe the same) pod of striped dolphin – these were launching into the air!

We also saw a few Australasian gannets (Morus serrator) on the way back.

I highly recommend the tour company Whale Watch Western Australia – they are a family run business and really care passionately for the whales and their customers.  The day tour included all meals, drinks and also beer, cider & champagne celebrating our sightings!  Fingers crossed I might be able to arrange an Orca trip out of Bremer Bay next April – I did say they might need to include child care in their packages!

Below are some photos from the boat to give an idea of the viewing.  On the shorter tours the captains cabin is only accessible with a higher level package.

The WA Nats crew for our expedition – a shame we couldn’t get everyone on the same tour.

All in all this was a trip of a lifetime – I am already planning to take my wife and 4 year old son to see the Humpbacks come September!

Penguin Island Day Trip

I took some time off during my son’s first lot of school holidays as he has just started kindy this year.  He has been saying for ages that one of his favourite animals was the penguin – so we planned to take him down to Penguin Is.  Only 45 mins south of Perth is Penguin Is – just south of Rockingham.

Accessible by a quick 5 min ferry from Rockingham Wild Encounters the island is part of Shoalwater Marine Park and home to 1200 Little penguins (Eudyptula minor).  DBCA have a discovery centre on the island where you can see captive rescue penguins.  They really reinforce to use the boat – as there have been deaths with people using the sandbar to access the island.

Liam and I made the quick ferry ride across and were pleased to see a sea-lion frolicking in the bay not far from the boat.  There is a colony of sea-lions on another island in the marine park.

Liam on boat with Penguin Is in background.

We headed into the discovery centre to get some really good looks at penguins – Liam really enjoyed it and was attentive for the ranger talk as well.

One of the penguins is named Kevin and he is quite a show pony penguin.

We then headed to walk around the island to look for wild penguins in amongst the boardwalks.  Penguins are out at sea feeding for most of the daylight hours – so you don’t actually see many penguins on the island!  We heard there were a couple of male sea-lions that were nursing shark wounds and had been seen on the beach – so we went looking!  None there that day.

We went to the western side of the island which was much rougher and Liam had a great time in the waves – despite me telling him I forgot to pack in a towel 🙂

We then walked up to one of the lookouts finding this fat King skink (Egernia kingii) – we wondered if it might be pregnant?  They are live bearers.

King skink @ Penguin Is

Lots of steps!

At the lookout we were harassed by seagulls who had nested right next to the boardwalk – Liam marvelled at the colours of the eggs.

Silver gull eggs @ Penguin Is

We then headed back to the beach looking for penguins but none were found.  I was glad we had spent the time in the discovery centre.

We then headed back into the discovery centre just to see the penguins once more before heading back to the mainland for lunch.

A great day – well worth a family trip.  Bring towels though – kids are highly likely to get wet!

Ahoy there matey, thar she blows…

Perth is a great place to watch the Humpback Whale migration.  In September to November the whales are heading south to the Antarctic feeding grounds.  During the middle of the year they calve up near Ningaloo often not feeding for many months.

I went with a commercial company called Whale Watching Western Australia as I wanted to try them out.  They will be doing commercial Blue Whale trips off Perth Canyon in April.

We left Fremantle Sardine jetty at 9am for a 2 hour trip – heading past the shipping lanes to a spot between Cottesloe beach and Rottnest.

It was a little lumpy due to the bad weather in the days leading up to the trip and also overcast but no rain.

Once past the ships we saw a small pod of bottlenose dolphins but they were too quick to get a photo of.

We soon saw our first humpback whale – a mum with her calf.

Humpback mother with calf in Perth waters

We were soon joined by another mother with calf and it seemed like the calves wanted to play!

We were treated to all sorts of behaviours and at one time had 4 pods of mother & calves around the boat.  The captain was careful to keep the boat at distance and allow the whales to approach closer if they wanted to.

We also had this petrel hanging around that I haven’t been able to identify yet.

We then headed back saying bye to the whales and seeing this cool sailing ship.

My last interesting sighting was an Australasian gannet that dived into our wake.

The company write up each trip and also add their own photos.  I would recommend using them and will see if I might be able to see Southern rights and Minke on different trips at different times of year.  I will definitely be planning the blue whale trip and will be encouraging a group of WA Naturalists to join me.

Piney Lakes – revisit

I had some spare time during the day and thought it would be nice to see some mammals if I could.  I previously saw Quenda during the day at Piney Lakes, Winthrop – so I thought I should head back.  I timed my visit during a dry window on a July day – I actually saw a little sun which was nice.  I parked at the Environment education centre which is just off Leach Hwy (the carpark is closed weekends).

I headed for the wetland walk which is a boardwalk where I saw Quenda last time.  I walked a long way through a number of different paths and around the lake – but only heard a noise in a bush by the path which could have been a Quenda – I didn’t spot any :(.

I got a couple of nice bird shots but it was lovely to be out during the day anyway.  And perhaps Piney Lakes isn’t a dead cert for Quenda  like I thought it was – or perhaps the inclement weather had them in their burrows.

This is a Western wattlebird – not as well known as the more common Red wattlebird.

And this Willy wagtail posed just in front of me.  All in all it was a nice day to be walking through bush.

Willy wagtail @ Piney Lakes.

 

Rainbow Bee Eaters and Camera Traps…

For my birthday over a year ago I was generously given a camera trap by my wife – a Browning Strike Force HD.   Essentially it is a motion activated digital camera with some smarts – designed to be left outside for extended periods.  Initially developed for hunters they have found huge application in wildlife monitoring.  I had wanted one for ages but for the past year only really used it to spot cats in backyards.

Anyway I had been chatting to Klaus from the Friends of Kensington Bushland as I had been thinking about setting up the camera in the bushland to see if I could photograph any wildlife.

We needed to get council approval and as things transpired a Rainbow Bee Eater nest had been located and they were keen to get a camera on it.  Rainbow bee eaters (also called RBEs) are the grey nomads of the bird world – they spend the winter months in the far north sometimes as far as PNG and summers in the South.  They breed during summer  and unusually for a bird dig a nest burrow in sandy soils.  They are related to kingfishers and have the most amazing rainbow colouration (hence the name!) – see top image.  As the name also suggests they eat bees and all sorts of other insects – this bird was seen with a large dragonfly and beating it to death against the branches of the tree!

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Rainbow bee eater nest burrow @ Kensington Bushland

The above photo shows the burrow.  I met with the council representatives and we set the camera trap just in front of the nest – taking care to conceal it from the path to prevent theft.  It was set up on 03/01 and finally removed on 27/01 – so just over 3 weeks in total.

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Camera trap in situ

Over that period the camera took approx 7500 images of which 150 had animals in shot – most were of waving grass (one of my learnings!).  Another learning was that the camera date was set in US format – so when resetting after a battery failure on 08/01 I had actually set it to 1 Aug!!

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Camera trap image

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Cropped RBE pair at burrow entrance

Above is one of my earliest images – I had some issues with the camera resetting itself and chewing batteries – so I updated the firmware and then it behaved perfectly.  My next learning was being careful where you aim it.  I had taken it home to update the firmware but when I put it back I actually had it aimed too high.  Fortunately I got some amazing shots of the birds in flight, however missed the action at the burrow.

The inbuilt thermometer seems to be unhappy when the temp is over 46-48 degrees and then goes negative!

Here is Steve from the council trimming back some of the grass to reduce shots of the wind in the grass.

Steve trimming vegetation – note the temperature!

I came back and re-positioned it but then didn’t get any more images from the burrow – it looked like the RBEs had left it by then.

Last image associated with burrow

3 mins before last image taken just above burrow

Looking back through all the images this is the last image I can associate with the RBEs leaving the nest.  The other image was taken only 3 mins before.  This was on 13/01, ten days after I had first placed the camera.  The chicks fledge after thirty days and we were not aware of when the egg first hatched, but could see the bird going into the burrow with food.

Last image of bee eaters – appears to be 3 birds

This image is the last one that I think are Rainbow bee eaters – the colour is off as I have it facing into the sunset (I have now learnt best to aim south to avoid the sun).  I can make out 3 birds so I like to think its the 2 parents and the fledgling.  This was 3 days later on 16/01.

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This image was taken on my phone camera on 28/01 – if you look carefully you can see spider webs across the burrow and it is no longer in use.

Here are a few other images that are interesting.  It is quite effective at night and uses infrared flash to take photos.  I ended up spending quite a bit of time at the bushland late at night as that fitted best with family commitments.

Anyway to finish off – I didn’t get a shot of the fledgling leaving the burrow as we had hoped for, but I learnt heaps about using the camera and got some amazing shots of animals just from the one location in the bushland.  I hope to get some more opportunities to deploy the camera and see what other critters I can find.

Smile 🙂 I am on candid camera!

Quenda, quenda, quenda – Piney Lakes

I had been on parental leave and this was my last weekday before heading back to work – there was a play date on at home so I was going to head out for some exploring.

In some of my research I had seen Piney Lakes had lots of Oblong Turtles and it was a place I had driven past many times wondering what it was like in there.  In my reading up they also spoke about Quenda that can be found there.

I drove in from Leach Hwy – noting you can’t park inside on weekends.

As soon as I got out of the car I heard the unmistakable call of a rainbow bee-eater – they are a summer visitor and fly down from the North & PNG to breed in sandy tunnels – so lots of places in Perth play host to them.

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Rainbow Bee-eater

There is an education centre which I suspect is the main function of the place.   I headed past there seeing lots of honeyeaters and wattlebirds.

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White-cheeked honeyeater

I walked through sculpture garden to the walk around the wetland.  Just as I entered the gate I saw a quenda dash away but wasn’t able to grab a photo.

As I walked on the track the vegetation is quite close and you can hear lots of birds.  I came across this awesome juvenile bobtail lizard getting some sun on this warm day.

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Just beyond I found a bigger bobtail with one eye – must have been a violent encounter in the past perhaps with a cat, dog or maybe fox?.

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I hadn’t seen or heard any more quenda for a while but then saw one dash into the bushes – they are pretty timid here.  Flitting about on a nest box was this striated pardalote.

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I also saw a skink dash away – I didn’t manage a shot – I was missing lots today.  Looking at the reptile book at home I think it was an odd-striped Ctenotus and they are pretty hard to identify without a really good shot or catching them.

I walked all the way round the vegetated lake and then went onto the boardwalk where I quickly spotted a quenda – this time I was quieter and it was feeding during the day but under vegetation most of the time.

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I spotted a couple more – if you were patient and quiet you could really watch their feeding behaviour.

I then spotted a bird which was zipping up and down tree trunks and I thought it might be a varied sittela but on examination it was a rarely seen but common white-browed scrubwren.

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I had a nice view of a family of splendid fairywrens – also known as blue wrens where the dominant male is an iridescent blue – it didn’t pose nicely for me!  I also saw a nice Western Wattlebird.

I was so pleased seeing quenda feeding in late afternoon – this has to become one of my spots to see them.

On leaving I saw another Western Wattlebird feeding on Banksia.

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This is a really nice spot – I am sure there are more reptiles to be seen and also amphibians – but the quenda during the day was the standout.

 

Perth Pelagic Birdwatching Trip

I went for my first ever pelagic bird watching trip on the weekend.  I had wanted to go on one for ages but none had been close enough.  I was up at 5am for a 6:30am and 6:45 departure from Fremantle.  I had been worried about the weather but it was only overcast and the forecast was a window of good weather before a cold front came in the evening.  There were 28 of us – I didn’t know anyone but was amongst similar minded people.

We got ourselves underway and saw a few common seagulls and a welcome swallow on the way out.  We saw our first Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross just before we hit Rottnest – this was my first lifer of the day.  Next a call went out “Orca” or Killer Whales.  I had secretly been hoping for some mammals on the trip and I got really lucky early on – they are pretty rare around Perth and these were found just on the seaward side of Rottnest – not that far off West End.

The pod had a couple of males identifiable by there tall thinner fin and some females with the more rounded dolphin like fin.

 

We had amazing views of an animal I have always wanted to see but thought I was going to have to travel to Bremer Bay or Exmouth to see!  I was very excited 🙂 We then headed out further to see the birds..

We then saw a Cape Petrel – new for me – but pretty common on the ocean.

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Cape Petrel

Our destination was the start of the Perth Canyon approx 25 nautical miles offshore (45kms for non seafaring types!).  It is incredibly deep and we were in depths of 800m+.  This is where you get the pelagic birds – amazing to find them so far away from land.  We had a tuna oil slick and were chumming with mulies.  Pretty soon we had a bunch of majestic albatross behaving like squabbling seagulls!

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Gaggle of Indian Yellow-nose Albatross

We saw a rarity – a subspecies of the Yellow-nosed Albatross – the normal ones around Perth are the Indian but we also saw an Atlantic – quite a long way from home.  You may have to take my word for it (I took others) but the darker eyes are the indicator for that subspecies.

The map below gives a good idea where we headed out and also where I took most of my photos – I took 500+ this day – but heaps were blurry.  I learnt some new skills balancing on a rocking boat trying to aim a huge lens at a flying bird – it can mean plenty of blurry shots and some just of water!

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We went out a looooong way!

Assorted photos of most of the bird species I saw.

It was an awesome day – 14 new species of Perth and 1 new mammal.  I was also really pleased with some of my photos taken in challenging conditions.