Friday, 14 February 2020

Mammals down under

Photo: Platypus.
Mammals in Australia are a rich and diverse group which are amongst the most iconic of all Australian wildlife. Most of them are also endangered to one degree or another due to human activities such as land clearance, logging, the introduction of alien species (especially cats and foxes) and the effects of climate change. I've been down under a few times now and managed to rack up a fairly decent list of mammals and cetaceans but it's certainly not as easy as the first time visitor might imagine.

Although Australian mammals might seem large and obvious they are often very difficult to see. They're often not particularly shy, but many of them are far more restricted by range than you might imagine and many are nocturnal. So for example, there's no point in looking for platypus, wombat or koala if you visit Perth because you're at least 2700km outside their range and the only chance of seeing them is in a zoo. In total I have seen 41 species of mammal in Australia.


Photo: Echidna.
In my opinion the stars are the monotremes, with two representatives, duck-billed platypus and echidna which are unique among mammals for many reasons, not least because they lay eggs. The echidna in the above photo was at Finns Reserve in the Yarra valley near Melbourne, and it was typical of the species. At times it seemed oblivious to my presence and just kept walking towards me until it was less than a meter away, at which time it suddenly seemed to realise that I was there and tried to dig down vertically in a cloud of dust so that only its spines were exposed. I simply stepped back a meter and it stood up and carried on its way.

The previous day, Josh and I had seen a beautiful golden coloured echidna cross the road at Wilsons Promontory which is about a 3 hour drive south east of Melbourne. Echidna is the most widespread of all Australian mammals and is found all over the country but in most places they are not particularly easy to see.

One of the best places to see echindna is Tasmania where Elaine and I saw several over the course of 10 days including the animal above near Coles Bay. The fur of Tasmanian echidnas is thicker than those on the mainland and can sometimes almost obscure the spines.

Photo: Duck-billed platypus, Peterson Creek, Yungaburra.
Of all of the mammals in Australia, duck-billed platypus is arguably the most iconic, easily the most interesting and certainly the one I wanted to see most of all. As a child I saw the platypus on television but never believed that I would ever get to go to Australia let alone see a platypus in the wild. In captivity platypus are virtually unknown in zoos outside of Australia and the animal attained almost mythical status for me, a mammal with a duck like bill which lays eggs and has a venomous spur on it's back feet. More recently I learned that the species locates its prey by using electrical impulses generated in its bill. An amazing mammal which when it was first encountered by Europeans in 1798 and skins sent back to London, scientists at the time refused to believe that it was real and thought it a hoax.  Some even thought it the work of an Asian taxidermist and tried to discover how the bill was sown onto the head. For a while it went by the scientific name Ornithorhynchus paradoxus, the paradoxical platypus, before finally taking its present day name Ornithorhynchus anatinus.

The platypus in the photo above was the first I saw with Elaine at Peterson Creek, Yungaburra in the Atherton Tablelands, the highlight of my first trip to Australia in 2015.

The most reliable spot on the mainland for platypus that I have been to is the bridge over the river Yarra at Finns Reserve, near Melbourne where I saw up to three animals. Platypus have a quite restricted range in Australia, no point in looking for them away from the east or south east coast or Tasmania.

Tasmanian platypus are said to be slightly larger than their mainland counterparts and from what we saw they are certainly a lot bolder. This one was swimming about 3m away from us in broad daylight at Tasmanian Arboretum and there were at least five others in this area.

Like kangaroos, wombats are marsupials who carry their young in a pouch. They have an even more restricted range than platypus, being found almost entirely in the south east and Tasmania. My first wombat was at Finns Rerserve from the bridge over the river Yarra. The wombat in the photo was one of 15 seen at Wilsons Promontory. This particular individual was just walking around the campsite in the evening.

Wombats are common in Tasmania but they are usually nocturnal. However at Cradle Mountain they can easily be seen in the mornings and can be quite confiding.

Kennett River on the Great Ocean road is one of the best places in Australia for seeing wild Koala, which is another species of marsupial. On my first visit with Josh and I saw about 20 individuals here, including a few adults with babies.

At Mikkirra Station near Port Lincoln, Koalas were introduced from a few taken from Kangaroo Island near Adelaide in the 1970's. The species is doing well here and are very photogenic, and to all intense and purpose they are wild at Mikkirra where there is no human intervention to help them. This is the furthest west that the species occurs in Australia.

Tasmanian devil is the largest living carnivorous marsupial following the extinction of the Tasmanian Tiger in the 1930s. It did formerly occur all across Australia but is now completely restricted to Tasmania. I've never had any expectation of seeing the species in the wild because it is nocturnal, but more to the point it has suffered a 90% decline in Tasmania due to a devastating and highly contagious facial cancer.

However there are several places in Tasmania that are involved in a recovery program for the devils. Basically they maintain a cancer free population which they keep completely separate from the wild populations while the search for a cure for the cancer continues. One such place is Maria Island which we didn't have time to go to. Another is near Bicheno just north of Coles Bay. So we booked onto an evening tour to watch the devils being fed. It was interesting if a little gruesome, but not really for me. We felt a bit like Romans at the Colosseum as we were given cheese and wine as we watched a (dead) wallaby being torn to pieces by six devils with no table manners at close range. It was really just feeding time at the zoo.

Miraculously however, on the drive back to Coles Bay in the dark, we saw a wild devil at the side of the road! Incredible luck!

Eastern grey kangaroos near Melbourne. Kangaroos are not always as easy to see as you might think, on my first visit to Australia it took me over two weeks to see my first kangaroo.

Western grey kangaroos at Mikkirra Station near Port Lincoln.

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 in the south and on 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.

Euros, also known as eastern wallaroos, are another widespread species which are mainly found across the interior and are equally tricky to see given their preference for rocky, hilly country. This animal was at Cape Range on the North West Cape near Exmouth.

Whiptail Wallaby, photographed near Seventeen Seventy, Queensland. This female obviously has a joey in her pouch but I didn't actually see the youngster. This is quite a confiding wallaby and will allow very close approach.

Black wallaby or swamp wallaby. is another species found exclusively on the east and south east coasts of Australia. This was photographed on Phillip Island and Victoria is the only state in which I have seen the species. Black wallaby also occurs quite commonly around the Great Ocean Road.

Red-necked wallaby is a common species in Tasmania, this one was photographed at Fluted Cape, Bruny Island. The species is restricted to the east and south east of Australia.

Red-bellied Pademelon is common and widespread in Tasmania, but now extinct on the mainland. It's mainly a nocturnal species but occasionally we saw them quite well during the day.

The only other species of wallaby which I have identified (but not photographed) are agile wallaby in Queensland and western brush wallaby in Western Australia.

Mammals are poorly represented on the west coast of Australia when compared to the east, but Quokka is a west coast specialty. It's quite rare on the mainland but is common on Rottnest Island just off Perth, and is very tame to the extent that they unashamedly allow tourists to take selfies with them.

Possums are a group of mammals which successfully eluded me until my third visit to Australia in November 2018 when I found that I had a small population of common brushtail possums living in the garden of my accommodation in St. Kilda. This is one of the commonest and most widespread possums, but is still mainly an east and south east coast species, though it does also occur in the south west and far north. This animal was photographed near Cradle Mountain in Tasmania where individuals are generally slightly larger than on the mainland (to cat size, 4kg).

Photo: Common ringtail possum.
Then while visiting Finns Reserve on the River Yarra in search of platypus, I came across this common ringtail possum watching me from its drey. Common it may be, but don't bother looking for it anywhere other than the east or south east coasts of Australia because that's the limit of the species range.

The south west counterpart of the common ringtail possum is the western ringtail possum. This is a very localised, rare and endangered species but it's a common garden visitor in Busselton and I found it by torch light in the trees around my accommodation.

Grey-headed flying-foxes are common in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne and can be found in colonies of many thousands.

Spectacled flying-fox is a species with a very restricted range, found only in a thin coastal strip from just south of Cairns to the tip of Cape York in Queensland. There is a colony of many thousands in Port Douglas and like many such urban colonies they produce a mixed reaction from residents and visitors, but in my opinion they are a wonderful addition to the local fauna.

Actually flying-foxes leaving their roost is quite a spectacular sight. These animals have a wingspan of around 1m.

Humpback whales migrate around the east and west coasts of Australia. I saw them with Elaine on a whale watching trip from Sydney in 2015, also at Noosa heads and surprisingly at Port Lincoln in June 2018, where they are a very uncommon species. Other places I have seen them include Exmouth in the north west and Dunsborough in the south west where I saw the highest numbers, with 30 or 40 individuals at least off Cape Naturaliste in October 2019.

Distant humpback whales off Whalers Way, near Port Lincoln, a relatively uncommon sighting here. Southern right whale is the common species off South Australia which we did see off Whalers Way but couldn't photograph.

Seven humpback whales came up alongside the boat when we were on a pelagic trip from Port Fairy, Victoria and stayed with us for around 15 minutes.

Humpback whale.

Humpback whales are the great performers amongst whales. They often breach, fin slap, tail slap and in the case of this animal perform backstroke!

Blue whales are not easy to see in Australian waters but there are certain hotspots, including the waters around Cape Naturaliste in the extreme south west which is where I saw this animal during a whale watching trip in October 2019. Apparently the majority of blue whales in Australian waters are of the subspecies known as pygmy blue whale, so named because it's on average about 2m shorter than those from other populations. It's a mere 24m long or to put it another way, nearly twice as long and three times the weight of a humpback!

Blue whale, awesome.

Mother and calf southern right whale off Cape Naturaliste. The white patches on the head are patches of rough calcified skin. The whiteness is due to large colonies of white lice that live on them. Apparently these lice are unique to southern right whales and live nowhere else.

The pectoral fin of the southern right whale (right) is quite different to that of the humpback.

The tail of the southern right whale is also different to that of the humpback.

Pilot whales, probably long-finned, from the Port Fairy pelagic in November 2018. We did see two pods of around 20 and there was a suggestion that one of the pods might have been short-finned.

Pilot whales

Pilot whale spy hopping.

Pilot whales.

Common dolphins from the Port Fairy pelagic.

What wonderful animals these are, a pod of Indo-Pacific humpback dolphins at River Heads, Hervey Bay from the Fraser Island ferry in June 2018.

Common bottlenose dolphins, mother and calf at Port Lincoln. On a couple of occasions we actually saw two adult dolphins swim past our back garden which backed right onto the harbour. I've seen common bottlenose dolphins at several places on the south coast of Australia, including several riding the surf at Fisherman's Bluff, near Port Lincoln. These are also sometimes called offshore dolphins.

In northern parts of Australia you are more likely to see Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, including these which are incredibly tame at Monkey Mia, Shark Bay in Western Australia.

Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins are smaller than common dolphins and are sometimes called inshore dolphins.

Shark Bay in Western Australia has a large population of dugongs which feed on the sea grass. These are sometimes called sea cows and they are neither dolphins or whales, they are in fact related to manatees and they are endemic to northern Australia. This is a mother and calf dugong. The holes you can see are not 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.

Calf dugong.

Dugongs differ from manatees in that they have a large triangular tail fluke.

Australian sea-lions occur only along the south and south west coasts of Australia and about 40% of the population breeds on islands east of Port Lincoln, SA. These animals were on Donington Island off Lincoln National Park.

From Whalers Way, SA Josh and I saw these New Zealand fur seals which occur along the south coast of Australia mainly west of Melbourne.

This New Zealand fur seal spent a few weeks on the steps below Sydney Opera House in autumn 2015!

New Zealand fur seal, Sydney, October 2015.

On the Port Fairy, VIC pelagic we came across a feeding frenzy of Australian gannets with common dolphins and these Australian fur seals. These occur only around the coasts of south east Australia, including Phillip Island  which is where we also saw them.

A few cetaceans from New Zealand.

This post is really about Australian mammals, but although New Zealand has no native land mammals, it does have some spectacular and beautiful cetaceans.

Photo: Sperm whale.
At Kaikoura on South Island the continental shelf is close inshore and a 20 minute boat journey will bring you into the realm of whales, dolphins, albatross and a many other oceanic birds. Several species of whale are possible here but sperm whales are resident and with a bit of luck can be seen throughout the year. Unlike the acrobatic humbacks, sperm whales spend most of their time deep down hunting for food and spend what time they have on the surface logging and taking in oxygen ready for the next dive. Logging is where the animal just appears to float motionless on the surface, which makes them quite difficult to connect with because very little of the animal is visible and they don't move much.

Most of the surface action happens when the whale dives. On this trip the crew members recognised this animal from the shape of its fin and referred to it by the name Aoraki which is the Māori name for Mount Cook, the highest mountain in New Zealand.

This is the classic tail flip of a sperm whale as it dives to the deeps of the ocean after food. It can stay submerged for up to an hour and may or may not reappear in roughly the same place. Hence the difficulty in finding them at the surface.

Dusky dolphins occur all around the coast of New Zealand and they are one of the most playful and acrobatic.

Hector's dolphin is the smallest and one of the rarest species in the world. It is also unique in having a rounded dorsel fin rather than the more typical pointed shaped fin. We saw several of this species from a boat trip out of Akaroa, near Christchurch.

Here is a full list of all of the mammals (including cetaceans) which I have seen down under. In total, 41 species of which 11 are cetaceans.

Location with number of animals seen in brackets
Apslawn TAS (1), Deloraine TAS (2), Freycinet NP, Friendly Beaches TAS (1), Lake Leake TAS (1), Wye River State Reserve TAS (1), Melbourne, Finns Reserve, River Yarra VIC (1), Wilson's Promontory VIC (1)
Duck-billed Platypus
Atherton Tablelands QLD (1), Tasmanian Arboretum TAS (5), Melbourne, Finns Reserve, River Yarra VIC (3)
Tasmanian Devil
Bicheno TAS (1)
Mikkira Station SA (5), Great Ocean Road, Kennet River VIC (20)
Cradle Mountain TAS (3), Melbourne, Finns Reserve, River Yarra VIC (1), Wilson's Promontory VIC (15)
Common Brushtail Possum
Coles Bay TAS (1), West Kentish, Manna Hill Farm TAS (2), Melbourne, St Kilda VIC (2)
Common Ringtail Possum
Melbourne, Finns Reserve, River Yarra VIC (1)
Western Ringtail Possum
Busselton, Ithaca Manor WA (5)
Agile Wallaby
Cairns to Port Douglas QLD (50)
Whiptail Wallaby
Seventeen Seventy QLD (7)
Western Brush Wallaby
Tuart Forest, Possum Trail WA (2)
Eastern Grey Kangaroo
Atherton Tablelands QLD (15), Hervey Bay, Sempfs Road QLD (10), Noosa QLD (1), Noosa, North Shore QLD (1), Seventeen Seventy QLD (3), Lara VIC (40), Long Forest VIC (30), Melbourne, Finns Reserve, River Yarra VIC (10), Port Fairy VIC (1), Wilson's Promont
Western Grey Kangaroo
Mikkira Station SA (15), Port Lincoln, Louth Bay SA (2), Whalers Way SA (10), Busselton, State Route 10 WA (2), Cape Naturaliste WA (2), Mandurah, Creery Wetlands WA (5), Mandurah, Kwinana Freeway WA (40), Tuart Forest, Possum Trail WA (5)
Red Kangaroo
Exmouth, Sewage Works WA (2)
Cape Range, Mandu Mandu Gorge WA (1), Cape Range, Vlamingh Lighthouse WA (4)
Red-necked Wallaby
Bruny Island TAS (3), Coles Bay TAS (3), Fentonbury, Post House Cottage TAS (1), Freycinet NP, Hazards Beach walk TAS (1), West Kentish, Manna Hill Farm TAS (5)
Rottnest Island WA (20)
Black Wallaby
Great Ocean Road, Loch Ard Gorge VIC (2), Phillip Island VIC (1), Sherbrooke Forest VIC (1), Wilson's Promontory VIC (10), You Yangs VIC (1)
Red-bellied Pademelon
Bicheno TAS (1), Fentonbury, Post House Cottage TAS (2), West Kentish, Manna Hill Farm TAS (20)
Spectacled flying-fox
Port Douglas QLD (10000)
Grey-headed flying-fox
Sydney, Centennial Park NSW (10000), Brisbane, Breakfast Creek QLD (10000), Melbourne, City VIC (20), Melbourne, St Kilda VIC (1)
Melbourne, St Kilda VIC (2)
Great Ocean Road VIC (1), Wilson's Promontory VIC (1)
Cape Range WA (1), Coral Bay WA (1)
Brown Hare
Glenorchy, South Island, NZ (2), Fentonbury, Post House Cottage TAS (1), Bellarine Peninsula, Thirteenth Beach VIC (1), Werribee, Western Treatment Plant VIC (1)
Hog Deer
Wilson's Promontory VIC (2)
Australian Fur Seal
Bicheno TAS (1), Phillip Island VIC (10), Port Fairy, Pelagic VIC (30)
New Zealand Fur Seal
Muriwai Headland, North Island, NZ (2), Sydney, City NSW (1), Port Lincoln, Rock Beach SA (1), Whalers Way SA (58), Arnott Point, South Island, NZ (5), Banks Peninsula, Akaroa, South Island, NZ (15), Kaikoura, South Island, NZ (200), Milford Sound, South Island, NZ (1), Rottnest
Australian sea-lion
Lincoln National Park, Jussieu Peninsula SA (15)
Monkey Mia WA (15)
Indo-Pacific Humpback Dolphin
Hervey Bay, River Heads QLD (5)
Dusky Dolphin
Kaikoura, South Island, NZ (10), Kaikoura, Whale Watching Trip, South Island, NZ (10)
Hector's Dolphin
Banks Peninsula, Akaroa, South Island, NZ (20), Te Waewae Bay, South Island, NZ (2)
Common Dolphin
Port Fairy, Pelagic VIC (20)
Bottle-nosed Dolphin
Fisherman's Bluff SA (15), Port Lincoln SA (2), Port Lincoln, North Sheilds SA (1), Port Lincoln, Parnkalla trail SA (2), Bicheno TAS (2), Cervantes WA (1), Dunsborough, Whale Watching WA (3), Rottnest Island WA (2)
Indo-Pacific bottle-nosed dolphin
Sydney, at sea NSW (3), Cape Range, Jurabi Beach WA (2), Monkey Mia WA (10)
Long-finned Pilot Whale
Port Fairy, Pelagic VIC (30)
Sperm Whale
Kaikoura, Whale Watching Trip, South Island, NZ (1)
Humpback Whale
Sydney, at sea NSW (5), Noosa, Noosa Headland QLD (3), Whalers Way SA (3), Port Fairy, Pelagic VIC (7), Cape Naturaliste, Lighthouse WA (20), Cape Naturaliste, Sugarloaf Rock WA (7), Dunsborough, Whale Watching WA (10), Exmouth, Whale Watching WA (8)
Southern Right Whale
Whalers Way SA (1), Cape Naturaliste, Lighthouse WA (2), Dunsborough, Whale Watching WA (3)
Blue Whale
Dunsborough, Whale Watching WA (1)

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