Friday, 25 October 2019

"It's life Jim but not as we know it" - The Hamelin Pool Stromatolites

Evidence of some of the earliest life on earth is found in rocks which date back 3.7 billion years and contain the fossilised remains of structures known as stromatolites. Remarkably in a very few places in the world living stromatolites still exist and the largest and most diverse selection of all are in Western Australia at Hamelin Pool.

In reality a stromatolite is not a single organism, it is in fact a structure which is created by a multitude of living organisms, especially cyanobacteria. These microscopic organisms along with others, form biofilms (microbial mats) which trap, bind and cement sedimentary grains creating layers on which more biofilms can grow. These in turn trap more sedimentary grains, creating more layers, and so it goes on, layer upon layer, so that over time the stromatolite structures form. They are as close as it gets to living rocks.

Perhaps stromatolites greatest claim to fame is the part they played in putting oxygen into the earth's atmosphere 3.7 billion years ago. When they first appeared there was virtually no oxygen in the atmosphere, but because they are photosynthetic they take carbon dioxide and water to produce carbohydrates, and in doing this they liberate oxygen. Largely thanks to this, the levels of oxygen in the earth's atmosphere rose high enough to allow other life on earth to exist. The bad news for the stromatolites was that some of this new life then consumed the cyanobacteria, thus reducing the numbers of stromatolites.

They can exist in the modern world only in extreme conditions. High levels of salinity combined with the tidal nature of Hamelin Pool and extreme temperatures often exceeding 45 degrees celcius in summer creates an environment so harsh that virtually no other plants or animals can survive, thus allowing the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool to grow undisturbed.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia

The opportunity to visit the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia was one of the main attractions when planning this particular holiday. It's what is known as a fringing reef which means that it occurs close to shore and in fact the Ningaloo reef is considered to be one of the most accessible reefs in the World because in many places you can simply swim out to it from the shore.

Some would argue that it's more impressive even than the Great Barrier Reef, but though I've now been to both it's unfair of me to make a comparison. Not a great snorkeler, I'm also a poor swimmer and certainly I'm no diver, all of which makes it difficult for me to truly experience coral reefs and even more difficult therefore to make comparisons. However, armed with a brand new snorkel fitted with prescription lenses I gave it a go, and there was always the fall back of a glass bottom boat! Josh on the otherhand is a much better swimmer and snorkeler and even better he has an underwater camera with which he was able to take the first 10 or so of the photographs on this post.

Lake Monger, Perth

Lake Monger is next to Herdsman and though not as impressive it still has a decent array of species and is better for some species such as hoary-headed grebe and blue-billed duck. When I last visited the lake in July last year it was the middle of the Australian winter and I counted an impressive 300 blue-billed ducks, but today most of these birds had dispersed and I managed only about 20 birds of which all bar one were males. What I didn't realise until today was that the species breeds at Lake Monger and the highlight of the visit was finding this female with about six fluffy chicks. Really cute!

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Once more to Herdsman in the rain

Herdsman is a fabulous place to visit if you have half a day to kill in Perth as I did today, and just like two weeks ago I finally managed to photograph a hard to get species. I was walking back to the car park and spotted a buff-banded rail walking amongst the long grass. At first I could only see its head and even that would disappear for periods, so I just stood still and waited. Eventually the bird emerged fully from the long stuff and started walking around on the shorter grass, and to my disbelief given how hard they can be to see at times, it seemed quite unconcerned by my presence and allowed me to take some reasonable photos. About 10 minutes later I then spotted a second bird, this one with a chick, and they were walking around the front garden of one of the nearby houses!

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Lake Thetis and the Cervantes Stromatolites

Just outside Cervantes there is a small pool in which the conditions are so saline and so extreme that stromatolites can grow. This is nothing like the scale of those at Hamelin Pool, yet stromatolites none the less. See the post from Hamelin Pool for a fuller explanation of what stromatolites are

The Pinnacles Desert, WA

Emu crossing the Pinnacles Desert. I'm not sure how these birds manage to survive out here but they do and often in much harsher conditions than this. Emus are all across Australia, only really absent from heavily forested regions.

Monday, 21 October 2019

Hutt Lagoon and Kalbarri NP, WA

The algae in Hutt Lagoon turn the waters pink in certain lights and make it a popular tourist stop for anybody in the region of Kalbarri National Park. The lagoon also attracts quite large numbers of stilts, both banded and white-headed, which allow decent photo opportunities of mainly white birds in pink water!

Sunday, 20 October 2019

The dugongs of Monkey Mia

Photo: Mother and calf dugong.
The Shark Bay World Heritage Area covers around 2.2 million hectares and is about a 10 hour drive north of Perth, best accessed from Monkey Mia. There are many reasons for its listing as a World Heritage Area, one of which are the stromatolites at Hamelin Pool which I will discuss later in a seperate post. Another reason is that it is home to a large population of dugongs which feed on the seagrass in the bay just offshore. Dugongs are neither whales or dolphins, they are in fact related to manatees, and are often called seacows, with Shark Bay having around 10% of the world population, about 10,000 animals. The holes you can see are not blow holes because the species does not have blow holes. They are in fact the dugongs nostrils and as you might expect, the eyes are behind the nostrils as you can see more clearly in the photo below.

Today we managed to see about 15 of these wonderful creatures, as well as about 10 Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins and a few awesome loggerhead turtles.

Western Grasswrens at Monkey Mia, WA

The enigmatic grasswrens are usually high up on any birders most wanted list when they visit Australia, but they are always difficult birds to connect with, mainly because they usually inhabit very remote and hard to get to places. You can't just fly to Sydney and see them during a walk around the botanic gardens!

Not surprising therefore that I was delighted to see several western grasswrens at Monkey Mia today. Also today lots of waders including Terek sandpiper, great knot, red-necked stint and red-capped plover, and terns were again well represented, with at least 40 Caspian as well as a few each of crested and lesser crested and fairy terns, the latter being a new tern for the holiday list.

Friday, 18 October 2019

A walk along the beach at Coral Bay, WA

The walk from Five Fingers Reef, through Coral Bay, to the headland north of Shark Lagoon is about 15km but well worth the effort, with turquoise seas and fine white sand beaches at the base of large sand dunes, the scenery is just stunning. Terns dominate here and during our stay I managed to see seven different species of tern of varying shapes and sizes as you can see from this photo!

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

A walk along the beach at night, Cape Range

Last night we had a walk on a remote beach at Cape Range in Western Australia, which is about 20km from Exmouth, the nearest town. It was a full moon and we came across a female green turtle egg laying on the beach. To give you an idea of the size of this magnificent animal, it's about 1.5m from nose to tail and weighs approximately 160kg (25 stone). The hole in the sand which it was digging is around 2m diameter. Yet another amazing experience on this holiday. We didn't stay with it too long not wanting to disturb it, and fortunately we had red light on our head torches which causes minimum disturbance to nocturnal animals. All of these photos were taken on my phone which is a Google Pixel 4a, on the night setting.

Tuesday, 15 October 2019


When I was a kid we had a pet budgie, shamefully held captive is a small cage. Today in my fourth visit to Australia I finally caught up with a wild budgerigar at Exmouth sewage works. Truth to tell I've been seeing flocks of up to 30 birds flying over for a day or two now, but they never seem to land until today, when I spotted this cracking female sitting on the perimeter fence.

However, just because we remember budgies with affection from our childhood doesn't mean that we should under estimate them or regard them as "plastic" or feral in anyway. I've heard budgerigars described as the hardiest of all Australian birds, they live in extreme environments in the baking heat of the arid heart of Australia and are nomadic, flocking together in huge numbers in their search for water and food. How awful to keep a bird with such a lifestyle in a tiny cage, yet pet shops still sell them and people still keep them.

Monday, 14 October 2019

Perentie Lizard and Long-nosed dragon, Exmouth, WA

Perentie lizards are the largest and most impressive of all Australian lizards, often growing up to 2.5m long. This particular individual at Exmouth sewage works was probably about 1.5m, but still an impressive animal.

Little Curlews, Exmouth, WA

Photo: adult little curlew.

In 1985 I was on a long weekend birding in Norfolk with my dad when a little whimbrel was found at Blakeney. It was the second for Britain or possibly the first if it was a returning bird, and I don't think that there have been any since. Now approaching 35 years since the last UK record, it's about as close as it gets to a blocker on my UK list following the fall of Hudsonian Godwit a year or two ago. I'm pretty sure at the time it was considered an endangered species like so many of it's curlew / whimbrel cousins. These days the name has changed to little curlew and I don't think it is quite as endangered as we thought back then but still a very difficult bird to connect with anywhere.

I never thought that I would ever see another little whimbrel, yet on the same day that I encountered my first flock of budgies flying over Exmouth sewage works I also came across eight little curlews with banded lapwings on a nearby playing field.

Sunday, 13 October 2019

Cape Range on the North West Cape

Photo: Euro.
Cape Range is a national park on the North West Cape of Australia. It lies to the north and west of the small town of Exmouth. Most people come here for the beaches, be it snorkeling, swimming or fishing, and that's not surprising because the coastline is glorious with turquoise seas, white sand beaches and the Ningaloo Reef just offshore. It's a very harsh environment though....

This is where the desert meets the sea, the vegetation on land is very scrubby, there are no trees, warnings of dingos, very little freshwater and daytime temperatures can easily reach 50'C in summer. Not that you would want to be here in summer because not only is it unbearably hot, it's also cyclone season.

Red Kangaroo

Red kangaroos are the largest living marsupial, with adult males often attaining a height of 1.4m and weighing up to 85kg. They are quite a common and widespread species but mainly across the interior and so are difficult to see if you just stick to the coastal cities and resorts. The only places where their range extends down to the coast are in the Nullarbor region and the north west coast between Exmouth and Broome. This animal, photographed on the golf course at Exmouth, was my first red kangaroo on my 4th visit to Australia.

Around Exmouth, WA

Exmouth is an amazing place, not a particularly beautiful town, but it really feels like you are in the outback or in a frontier town. Emus walking around the streets, warning signs about dingos and some familiar species not looking quite so familiar as I expected.

Take the bird above for example. It's a crested pigeon, quite common across all of Australia including in the major cities of the south and east.This however is of the western race whitlocki which seems to me to be much brighter than others I have seen.

Saturday, 12 October 2019

Where the desert meets the sea - a Western Australia roadtrip

It's a long drive north from Perth to Exmouth on the west coast of Australia, nearly 13 hours in fact, and once past Geraldton the landscape becomes relatively flat and the vegetation sparcer. This is where the desert of  central Australia meets the sea. It's a place where you really don't want to break down and where you need to have a full tank of petrol and plenty of water. One of the commonest raptors seen is the wedge-tailed eagle whilst the rarest is the black-bellied buzzard. All kinds of odd flowers grow here and there are termite mounds for as far as the eye can see, but the avian highlight of the trip for me was four Australian bustards right at the side of the road.  A wonderful experience!

Friday, 11 October 2019

Return to Herdsman

Herdsman Lake, just north of Perth is a fabulous birding site and a must for any visitor to the city. Last year I went there right at the end of my holiday in the hope of adding freckled duck to my Australian list, and though I succeeded the views were not great. Since then I have seen Australia's rarest duck well on several occasions in the Melbourne area last November. Today I had time to kill while I waited for Josh to fly into Perth airport for our road trip up the west coast, and I couldn't think of a better place to visit than Herdsman. This time the freckled ducks showed much better and allowed me to get some half decent photos.

Thursday, 10 October 2019

Botanising in the Jarrah woodlands of the Darling Range

...or perhaps the post header should be "enjoying the flowers of the Jarrah woodland", because there certainly wasn't much botanising going on. I can tentatively put some of these plants into families but I just don't know enough about them to identify them to species level. Does that really matter though, I'm content to say that the Jarrah woodlands are a very special place with a stunning array of flowers and I'm happy to leave it at that.  This post contains a selection of some of my favourites.

White-breasted Robin, Wungong Gorge, WA

White-breasted robin is endemic to south west Australia and is one of the reasons I wanted a week south of Perth before meeting up with Josh and heading north.

Wednesday, 9 October 2019

Western Grey Kangaroos

The only kangaroo in south west Australia is the western grey. I came across an approachable mob today, including this adorable female with a joey in her pouch.

Creery Wetlands, Mandurah, Western Australia

The fairy-wrens are beautiful family of birds, and here in south west Australia the common one so far has been the aptly named splendid fairy-wren.

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Blue-billed duck

Blue-billed duck is the Australian equivalent of the ruddy duck or white-headed duck, and despite seeing quite a few during my time in the country, this is the first time I've ever got anywhere near taking an ok photo of the species. This is a male, photographed at Dunsborough.

Blue Whale, Humpback Whale and Southern Right Whale, Dunsborough, Western Australia

We'd only been out about 10 minutes, less than half a mile offshore I would say when one of the crew standing next to me said "I'm sure that's a blue over there".  The skipper immediately turned the boat and headed over. This is the same guy who just a few minutes earlier had told me that they had seen a blue whale last week but it had only surfaced once never to be seen again, so I was a little nervous to say the least. The chance of seeing a blue whale, the largest animal ever to exist was the dream of a lifetime, but would it reappear or would this prove to be a shatteringly close but ultimately failed dream? How many more opportunities would I get?

Fortunately the animal did reappear and broke the surface several times giving us some great views, though not quite the vaudeville performance which is usually put on by humpbacks! Perhaps not quite up there with the Orca I saw off mainland Caithness last year which were the highlight (so far) of my career as an amateur naturalist, but not far short and still a fantastic experience.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Busselton and Cape Leeuwin, Western Australia

What a stunner and what a great start to my latest trip to Aus! Banded Lapwing. It's taken a few visits for me to finally see one but it was worth the wait. Today I saw three on a grassy verge  at the side if the road as I was leaving town to head for Cape Leeuwin. I pulled over, put the window down and watched as three birds fed in a flower filled grassy area. The bird in the photo walked towards me right up to the edge of the road and then actually walked across the tarmac and behind my car and onto the grass on the other side! Fortunately this was just a side road and traffic was very light and hopefully it wont do that in rush hour! Talking of flower filled meadows, there are lots of flowers at the moment so I'm putting together a rolling blog post of those I see and will post it here soon 😀.

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