Gondwana Reptile Productions by Rob Valentic. Australian Snakes, Lizards & Frogs.

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The Brigalow Belt in south-eastern Queensland.

A field trip. 

Text and Photos: Rob Valentic

Introduction and Background:

One of my most treasured reference works still parked on the bookshelf, is a complete set of Australia’s Wildlife Heritage Encyclopaedia. I can still remember the ad plugging the first issue of the series, as it flashed up on the Black-and-White Rank Arena in the lounge. It was way back in 1973 when I was a Prep. Grader.

That ad sparked much excitement from yours truly. My mum copped a spate of nagging before the ad finished, which continued until I had feedback- that my immediate plans of owning every one of those issues had registered. The series was available weekly at the local newsagents and ran for a whopping 105 weeks. I am happy to say that mum did not let me down. In retrospect, my knowledge and love for every facet of Australian nature was greatly enhanced by the Wildlife Heritage. Its content triggered an inner desire to not just read, but comprehend each issue. Armed with a dictionary and thesaurus, I worked my way through every article with an enthusiasm unmatched in any classroom.

I first became aware of the Brigalow habitat in the Heritage (Serventy and Raymond, 1974) and learned of its many threats, including intensive, large-scale agricultural clearing with resultant habitat contraction and fragmentation. Overgrazing, trampling, erosion, salinity, pesticides, feral plants and animals are just some of the factors continuing to wreak havoc on the remnant tracts of brigalow today.

The following description of brigalow is drawn from the aforementioned article:

‘Lying in a great belt averaging 240 km wide and stretching 1,440 km south from Townsville to the Queensland border, the brigalow constitutes a unique endemic plant community of dry woodland, dominated by a single species of densely-spaced, pod-bearing tree, Acacia harpophylla.  This Acacia has a slender, rough-barked trunk with tangled foliage. The average height of the canopy is between 9 and 15 metres (up to 24 metres in higher rainfall zones). The understorey consists of shrubs (Wilga & Sandalwood) and sparse, ephemeral grasses. It is a flat and rather monotonous forest with an annual rainfall of 500-750mm and once covered 10.5 million hectares along the drier inland slopes of the Great Dividing Range.’ 

Soils are predominately heavy clays with poor to slight fertility, resulting in a mosaic of different plant communities interspersed within the zone. The habitat supports a rich and diverse fauna, with over 130 reptile species recorded in the southern belt alone (Wilson, 2003). Among these are four regionally endemic species, including the Golden–tailed Gecko Strophurus taenicauda. All are threatened and listed as either rare or vulnerable taxa in Queensland (Wilson and Swan, 2003).  As a professional herpetological photographer, my work dictates that I prioritise these species in my travels.

The Trip:

During the Easter break in early April 2005, Kelly and I decided to go hammer and tong on a road trip up to the southern fringe of the brigalow- then back down to ‘Mexico’ (what Victoria is referred to by all and sundry)- in five days. I had been hanging out to sleep amongst the brigalow and cop a taste for a long time. I thought that filming just one endemic and its immediate habitat would provide enough excitement, along with a feed of chocolate eggs. As we both crave solitude, we felt pretty sure that this trip would not disappoint. Such peace would be almost impossible to find any closer to the coast. 

Based upon reading so many dire accounts highlighting the plight of brigalow over the years, I had largely avoided targeting the area. Travelling as far away from the obvious effects of man and into the most pristine areas possible, had always held far greater appeal than a jaunt into the cotton fields.  

We headed up the Newell Hwy and then on day two along the Castlereagh and Gwydir Hwy’s, through vast floodplains scattered with Lignum and Chenopods.  Veering off the sealed road at Collarenebri, we made for the Queensland border town of Mungindi along a rough secondary road. We hit the border at midday with the temperature in the low 30’s.  We stopped for several brief searches before conceding defeat, due to the heat. Driving through a red-soil rise clad with open stands of Cypress Callitris glaucophylla, we spotted an adult male Burns’ Dragon Amphibolurus burnsi basking atop a fallen log.

Cruising onwards through St George and an endless procession of cotton fields, we continued east along the Moonie Hwy. We planned to set camp in any decent patch of bush that presented itself, yet allowed enough time to look about later that afternoon when the heat dropped off. About 80 clicks out, we noticed an obscure track winding through a tract of woodland on a loosely-compacting sand-plain. I threw a U-turn and drove down it to investigate further, and was instantly struck by the beauty of this place.

Towering Ironbark Gums Eucalyptus melanophloia with their huge black trunks were interlaced with the bright green foliage of gnarled Cypress Pines C. glaucophylla. The addition of vivid yellow Triodia hummocks, blood-red soil and a cloudless blue sky were exaggerated beyond normality by the strong, yellow spectrum cast by the autumn sun. This feast of colour presented a surreal spectre that only the outback can turn on. I knew immediately that this vision was one of those special ones that I would carry till the very end.  

Stopping at a shaded clearing beside a claypan, I walked into the scrub to relieve myself, and whilst in the process, spotted a magnificent, fully-grown male Eastern Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata.  I retrieved my camera and had finished the shoot before the billy boiled. With the swag rolled out and a caffeine hit a piece, we went for a stroll around camp and raked up a small Burrowing Skink Lerista fragilis on a stony rise. It was concealed within loose soil under bark slabs at the base of an Ironbark. Three adult Ocellated Velvet Geckoes Oedura monilis were also found beneath exfoliating bark on Cypress trunks.

On dusk it began to cool off rapidly, so it was decided before tea to take a brief drive along the track to look for any crepuscular species while conditions were still favourable. I was not counting on any great tally at night on this trip in any case, due to the presence of the notorious Easter full moon. Driving westwards into the sunset for not more than 50 metres, I braked suddenly for the silhouette of a large snake coiled on loose sand in the middle of the track. The ticker missed a beat as my gut told me that this was a Woma, but these hopes were dashed upon exiting the car and approaching it side-on. It was a big female King Brown Snake Pseudechis australis and a top find nonetheless. The only night drive I have ever had that was shorter than this one was caused by a Black-headed Python at Leichhardt Falls in the Gulf, many years back. I had sat down, turned the headlights on and had yet to crank the ignition for that one!

After a feed, we head-torched around camp and spotted several Dtella’s Gehyra variegata on the tree trunks before hitting the sack. Next morning we pressed on through Moonie and headed towards Dalby. I knew that at least one target species, the Golden-tailed Gecko, was potentially present in this area. Just before a bridge over the Toombilla Creek, we both saw a short access track leading off to an artificial dam. This spot was smack in the middle of a huge tract of brigalow on a heavily cracking floodplain. This track was instantly designated camp number 3 for the trip. What really sealed the deal sale-wise, however, was an adult female Yellow-faced Whipsnake Demansia p. psammophis crossing the road just after pulling a U-turn!

After lunch we donned the field clobber, comprising gloves, nail-belt and hammer. We headed off into the scrub for an extended search. I assumed that the gecko might be located under exfoliating bark. Years back my mate Greg Fyfe had taught me the ‘clout trick’, when I had asked him how to avoid habitat destruction when inspecting tree trunks whilst I sought out arboreal species. He explained to me that the bark was easily replaced by simply nailing the sheets back on with a few clouts post inspection. Nice one Greg!

During our search several Dtella’s Gehyra dubia were a welcome sight amongst the hordes of huntsman spiders and cockroaches turned up. I was beginning to get that sinking feeling as the sun dropped and shadows lengthened. Kelly had long returned to camp for a kip and I was still tarryhootin’ around a dense stand of Belah Casuarina cristata growing along a steep, eroded embankment right above the creek. Upon peeling back the loose bark encircling one of the uniformly narrow trunks at head height- a dark, heavy–set, Spiny-tailed gecko, lying motionless and prostate to the bole, materialized. 

Initially, I thought that this would be the sympatrically occurring Eastern Spiny-tailed Gecko S. williamsi, due to its muted colouration. Alas, upon closer inspection, I could make out a faint stripe along the tail confirming the finding of S. taenicauda, a brigalow endemic! I sprinted back to camp and placed him in a white container for several minutes…..Upon lifting the lid, the beauty of the gecko was fully revealed with the colour change, as I stared down at a little Dalmatian with its tail on fire! Kelly awoke to my fits of elation and I handed her the prize still frothing at the mouth. After an extended photo session we hammered the bark back onto the tree, returning the gecko to its home.

I was buzzing for the rest of the afternoon and after tucker-time, we went for a torch along the bare banks of the nearby dam. Around a dozen Broad-palmed Frogs Litoria latopalmata and a lone Striped Burrowing Frog Cyclorana alboguttata were spotted.  They were all propped on the embankment and facing the waters edge in upright stances. None were calling and I suspect they were positioned to ambush passing prey. We took a short drive along a secondary road that headed north out onto the floodplain of the Moonie River before bed. Despite the cool conditions, we came across a Burton’s Legless Lizard Lialis burtonis, a male Green Tree Frog Litoria caerulea and a male Tessellated Gecko Diplodactylus tessellatus.

I awoke at sunrise the next morning and downed a strong brew before heading off for a bout of log rolling.  Just out of camp I uncovered an adult Legless Lizard Delma plebeia under the first log checked. The log was partially cloaked by deposits of leaf litter and exposed to the sunlight. The Delma was alert and with a series of flick leaps fled into a vertical Wolf Spider Lycosa sp. burrow. I just managed to grasp the tip of its tail and slowly extracted the lizard.  Patience and luck paid off and I was rewarded with a complete specimen. I had only ever filmed a juvenile specimen beforehand (Valentic and Turner, 1999).

I reluctantly returned to camp around midday without much success. We soon had the car packed and were heading back south, intending to camp near Gilgandra later that night. I had examined plenty of logs that seemed ideal that morning and I believe that a light rain bringing some surface moisture would have been beneficial in stirring any crack dwellers up to the surface.

The remnant patches we visited on this first trip gave us an appreciation for the brigalow. It added optimism to the other ones we have done since. It has been heartening to reaffirm the continuing diversity of wildlife persisting within these areas. As we drove past great chunks of barren land, the ramifications of what had once covered them, and the gravity of what we have all lost forever, hit us way harder than on the initial drive up.

Icing on the cake:

Approaching Gilgandra, the night seemed notably darker compared to those we had up north. The sky was overcast and some sections of the road were damp from recent showers. I began to spot a few large centipedes moving and these compelled me to do a run along the Warren road before I crashed out at my chosen spot. I was pretty buggered until around 6 clicks west of town, when I stopped well short for an adult male Bandy-bandy Snake Vermicella annulata. Inhabiting the alluvial floodplains of the Darling system, this distinctive form is rather scarce and in the end it proved bloody hard to get any shut-eye after a top off like that!   

Acknowledgements:

Sincere thanks to my mates Geoff Heard and Grant Turner for their time and constructive advice in reviewing an earlier draft of this paper.  I am grateful every day for my missus, Kelly.  Her understanding and support of my passion for herpetology is much appreciated. Thanks!

 

References:

Anstis, M., 2002, Tadpoles of South-eastern Australia. A Guide With Keys. Reed New Holland, Sydney. 281pp.

 

Serventy, V. and Raymond, R., 1974, The Brigalow. Australia’s Wildlife Heritage 3 (45):1434-1437.

 

Valentic, R. and Turner, G., 1999, Notes on a Photographic Field Trip to New South Wales, Australia. Part 2. International Reptilian 6(2):32-38 

 

Wilson, S., 2003, Reptiles of the Southern Brigalow Belt. WWF. Brisbane 41pp.

 

Wilson, S. and Swan, G., 2004, A complete guide to reptiles of Australia. Reed New Holland, Sydney. 480pp.

 

Wilson, S., 2005, A field guide to Reptiles of Queensland. Reed New Holland, Sydney. 256pp.

Eastern Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata.   King Brown Snake Pseudechis australis.
An adult male Eastern Bearded Dragon Pogona barbata from 80km east of St George, Queensland.    An adult female King Brown Snake Pseudechis australis from 80km east of St George, Queensland.

Golden-tailed Gecko Strophurus taenicauda.   Riparian Brigalow community at Toombilla Creek, Queensland, Australia.
An adult male Golden-tailed Gecko Strophurus taenicauda with regenerated tail from Toombilla          Riparian Brigalow community at Toombilla Creek, Queensland.  The stands of Casuarina Trees
Creek, Queensland.                                                                                                                           to the left is the immediate collection site for S. taenicauda.

Delma Legless Lizard Delma plebeia from Toombilla Creek, Queensland, Australia.   
An adult Delma Legless Lizard Delma plebeia from Toombilla Creek, Queensland.                             An adult female Yellow-faced Whipsnake Demansia p. psammophis from Toombilla Creek,
                                                                                                                                                         Queensland.
   
Green Tree Frog Litoria caerulea from Springbrook, Queensland, Australia.    Broad-palmed Frog Litoria latopalmata from Toombilla Creek, Queensland, Australia.
A female Green Tree Frog Litoria caerulea from Springbrook, Queensland.                                            An adult Broad-palmed Frog Litora latopalmata from Toombilla Creek, Queensland.

Striped Burrowing Frog Cyclorana alboguttata from Toombilla Creek, Queensland, Australia.
            Tessellated Gecko Diplodactylus tessellatus from the Moonie River floodplain, Queensland, Australia.
A Striped Burrowing Frog Cyclorana alboguttata from Toombilla Creek, Queensland.                                 An adult male Tessellated Gecko Diplodactylus tessellatus from the Moonie River floodplain,
                                                                                                                                                                  Queensland.         
      
Tree Dtella Gecko Gehyra variegata from St George, Queensland, Australia.    Burrowing Skink Lerista fragilis from St George, Queensland, Australia.
An adult Tree Dtella Gecko Gehyra variegata from 80km east of St George, Queensland.                      An adult Burrowing Skink Lerista fragilis from 80km east of St George, Queensland.

Ocellated Velvet Gecko Oedura monilis from St George, Queensland, Australia.       
Bandy-bandy Snake Vermicella annulata from Gilgandra, New South Wales, Australia.
An adult male Ocellated Velvet Gecko Oedura monilis with regenerated tail from 80km east of               An adult male Bandy-bandy Vermicella annulata from the Castlereagh River floodplain, west of
 St George,  Queensland.                                                                                                                       Gilgandra, New South Wales.