Author Archives: gem

Stranglers and other strange figs

Who gives a fig? Well, dried figs make lovely presents in some cultures, and most of our Daintree species are edible, yet small and more suited to jam-making. Some are toxic, so don’t try any yourself.

Here in the Daintree we have 30 species of figs. Quite a few, but not as many as the 1000 or so world species.

Emmagen-Creek-Fig
Emmagen Creek strangler fig

Someone once asked me which was the most populous tree in the rainforest. I don’t believe anyone has counted, but I believe it could be the fig. By any measure of weirdness, size and diversity, figs figure highly.

Figs (the Ficus family) figure among the most spectacular and stately trees in the rainforest. Their branches often stick out above the canopy, a target for high wind gusts and attractive to birds and fruit bats!

Some types are called stranglers.  Strangler figs start life as an epiphyte high in a host tree, as a germinated seed dropped (pooped) by a bird or fruit bat. Then its roots crawl down the host tree, reaching the ground and spreading far out to support its growing weight. In the process, the roots merge together on the tree itself. In a very few cases, the fig can become so large and invasive by surrounding and tightening its rooty grips, the host can’t get nutrients and eventually can die, leaving just the  fig tree with airholes!

 

Bumpy satinash cauliflory “trunk flower”

Then there are various variegated figs (pun again intended); cluster figs; and hairy figs which are all cauliflorous, which means that the fruit grows on the trunk and branches.

Cocoa, jackfruit, and bumpy satin ash are all examples of cauliflorous plants. Cauliflory is a process that happens throughout tropical rainforests, and presumably makes it easier for pollination by ground insects and birds.

Specimens of interesting figs are at the Daintree Discovery Centre;  Marrja Boardwalk; near Emmagen Creek just past Cape Tribulation; and, most spectacular and diverse of all, at Thompsons Creek, along the Bloomfield Track near Wujal Wujal.

Wujal Wujal is an Indigenous community  famous for its wonderful creative people, artwork,  and waterfall.

 

The Wujal fig outside the Community Centre is not a strangler , but a type known as a banyan. Banyan, like strangler, is not a species, but  descriptive of several species that have aerial roots which take root and become min-trunks which might spread out many metres. A great shade tree. Australia once had a Prime Minister knicknamed “Banyan Bob” ( Menzies) as he didn’t want the light to shine on any of his Ministers!

Mural at Wujal Wujal Sports Centre through aerial fig roots

In an accompanying photo, there’s a rainforest mural at the Wujal Wujal Community Centre through banyan hanging roots Banyan-style figs grow differently, by developing many inter-connected trunks, and some drop stringlike roots from the tips of branches, like the Curtain band cathedral Figs near Yungaburra on the Atherton Tableland.

 

Join me on a 4WD tour up the Bloomfield Track to Wujal Wujal and check out a few figs alive and in full technicolour.

Dive-bombing rainbow bee-eaters after Woobadda damsels

Rainbow bee eater near Wujal

Zorro, eat your heart out!

The bandit-like bold black band linking the bill to the back of the head through its eye seems to be a disguise, but it’s also a real give-away to their identity. The bandit-band is very noticeable when you get close up. But first you have to get near enough.

They’re Rainbow bee-eaters.

Twisting and chasing insects

From a distance, their flight pattern is unique and the best give-away to their real identity. They sit on an open twig or dead branch, fence post or stump waiting for a bee, moth, damsel fly or any other decent-sized meal which happens to be around.They’re highly agile and distinctive flyers. They dart quickly, twisting and turning in pursuit of their prey, soar again and swoop towards a branch, usually the one they started from. Down south, bee-keepers aren’t keen on them, as they’ve been known to take 400 bees in a single day.
Then a few minutes later, they do it again. And again.

Dive bombing rainbow bee-eaters fascinated a handful of guests from the USA at Woobadda Creek recently. We spent a very pleasant 20 minutes watching these colourful and supremely agile birds surface-foraging for damsel and dragon flies in the deep, milky green waters.
As bee-eaters usually take insects in mid-flight, to see them dive unerringly into the water was special. A wonderful sight but too difficult for good photos. Instead, I’ve shown a few photos taken recently.
The “rainbow” in the name indicates their full range of delicate, pastel colours, They are characterised by the full orange colouring under their flying wings, green body, blue-green wings, and a bandit-like bold band. In flight, you can clearly see the orange/yellow under the wings and a big patch of blue behind their back, above the tail.

Short female streamer(left) with longer male streamer

Male adult bee-eaters have a very thin long tail streamer, the female shorter and stubbier and the juvenile none at all. The juvenile also lacks the black bandit-band which come later in life. So, if you’re having identification problems, and reckon that you have a different species, then chances are that’s it’s just a matter of gender or age.

Its downwardly curved bill and largish head make it look a lot like a kingfisher, which it clearly is not! Kingfishers could be either forest or water types, but don’t take their prey in mid-flight. Their beaks are also noticeably bigger.

Bee-eaters bore a tunnel on a road or river bank as its nest, like some kingfishers, such as the azure kingfisher. It’s quite narrow and they seem to have to force their way through. Some bird experts suggest this is a way to force fresh air in and stale air out.

Here are a few places where I’ve regularly seen rainbow bee-eaters, between April and October.
Cowie Beach. About 50 metres along the shoreline to the north of the beach entry, the coconuts have been burnt, exposing the vegetation, and leaving a few vantage points for a small flock/family of bee-eaters. Further out among the mangroves, you’ll also see them along with a few Sacred kingfishers and prowling curlews.
Cowie Range. Along the top of the range where there’s open ground among the casuarinas (aka she-oaks) and wattles, they have a couple of favourite spots. One regular place is immediately to the north of the drop along the switchback going down into Thomsons Creek. I’ve often seen them sitting on the road late in the afternoon.

Bloomfield River Valley. North from Cape Tribulation before the hill overlooking the Bloomfield River, there’s an open patch of grassland alongside the Track nearing De Garra before the signs displaying the Wujal Wujal community. The little dead trees and branches make good vantage points for the bee eaters and nature lovers.

North of Ayton towards the Cedar Bay Range.  There are quite a few spots where hordes of bee-eaters forage around.

Keating Lagoon. A ten minute walk in through the gate, past the Monet-like little bridge and water-lilies there is wonderful bird hide. Crane your neck out and immediately alongside is a dead tree which is often a rainbow-bee-eater lookout point.

Bee-eaters live all around Australia and a few stay in the Wet Tropics all year around. But most migrate to the Wet Tropics from further south around April. For nature and bird lovers, they actually help to fill the gap caused by the disappearance of the metallic starlings, pied imperial pigeons, some azure kingfishers and buff-breasted paradise kingfishers which migrate to New Guinea around the same time.

 

A few kingfisher notes

Red beak and long streamers of Buff-breasted paradise kingfisher

Kingfishers are not related to bee-eaters, but are kindred souls, so a few comments on some local species.

Australia has a wide range both of forest and river  kingfishers.

The prettiest and perhaps most interesting of the forest types is the Buff-breasted paradise kingfisher which, after returning from its New Guinea migration in October each year, finds (or sometimes re-finds) a rainforest termite mound, bores a hole as a nest and raises its young in the mound. It relies on the termites to seal the mound before nesting. The termites, always tidy, patch it up again when the kingfishers have left on their annual migration.

It’s one of the most difficult birds to spot. When you’re driving along any of the rainforest roads, you might see —  or half see — a flash of a very fast-flying bird shooting across the road about 3-4 metres above ground height. You might also see its unusually white streamer tail (if it hasn’t been rubbed off inside the termite mound!). I’ve found that the flashing tail is more likely seen in the February/ March period when the young are getting ready for their New Guinea migration.

Azure Kingfisher at Cooper Creek

Beautiful Azure kingfishers, with red legs, black beak, blue/white with burnt orange underneath, breed in North Queensland between Nov-April and can be seen in almost any creek in the Daintree area. As River kingfishers, they’re similar to European kingfishers.

Creeks such as Cooper, Noah, Emmagen and Woobadda are always good prospects north of the Daintree River, as well as the River tributaries themselves.

You might see them darting or zig-zagging along just above the water level, often from one low branch to another, then later back to the same branch seeking food. They’re appear as a flash of blue and sometimes orange underneath. Sometimes , they give a sharp little shriek as they go past — a warning sound??

Between November and April, they bring food back to their nestling or, later, protect them as they fledge from the nest.

They have unusual nests. They create a a chamber at the end of a one-metre tunnel which both sexes help to excavate into the stream bank. This chamber is lined with fish scales, bones and crustacean shells and between four to seven rounded white eggs are laid.

This white, round egg a common type of egg for birds nesting in holes. They don’t need to be pointed because they are not going to roll away in their chamber and the white colour makes them visible to the parent birds in the gloom inside.

Bloomfield River. The best croc spotting around.

The Bloomfield is considered the best croc-spotting river drive in the Cairns Region.

Why? Because most local rivers have bridge crossings, without a river drive. The Bloomfield River is unique with views on both sides.

You see stunning and restful views of the mangroves, the river mouth, jumping fish, occasional boats, egrets, darters, brahminy kites—and crocodiles!

It also helps that it’s in a remote area, usually accessible only by 4WD, with croc-proud and environment-caring communities at Wujal Wujal, Ayton and De Garra.

Yesterday, we saw three crocs over a one hour period, just driving along. The day before? Three.

There are an estimated 12 largish crocs in the Bloomfield River, and many more around the corner at the Plantation Creek, in Weary Bay.

You can see crocs all year-round, but winter is the best time, when the water is cooler and they need the sun to warm them up and aid their digestion. So, a visit between May and October doesn’t quite guarantee a croc-sighting, but they’re much more easily seen then.

Going north along the Bloomfield Track from Cape Tribulation, you pass the “Wujal Wujal” (Big waterfall) sign, crawl up the hill veering left and come across a spectacular 20 metre high view overlooking the River to the right.

Directly underneath, at lowish tides, you will often see a croc or two resting in the shallow water or on the sandy river bank. This one is gliding slowly along, barely wiggling its tail, and its legs in the “tuck” position. On a very hot day, it may open its mouth –ironically to cool down. The skin inside its mouth is thinner, so it can cool down more easily.

The ford crossing at Bloomfield is exciting but occasionally uncrossable after heavy rain or very high tides. Often on a high tide, a large 5 metre croc — “Brutus” to his friends — glides around the big pond or rests on some big rocks about 200 metres up from the Crossing. Big male crocs especially might travel 2 to 4 kilometres on a high tide, especially at night.

In another pond further up near the marvellous Wujal Wujal Falls we’ve had another regular visitor, Spartaca, which loves to sun herself for hours each day on a rock looking up at the Falls. Even after the sun’s heat disappeared, Spartaca was smart enough to work out that rocks keep their heat longer than sandbanks. Good one Spartaca!Your insights and presence have given photographers great joy and great shots. The croc on the rock. Here is a photo of her swallowing a water dragon. Crocs eat anything from crabs to fish to birds to reptiles, including smaller crocs.

Art imitates life, and there always several croc paintings at the beaut little community-owned Bana Yirriji Art and Cultural Centre at Wujal Wujal. Again, check out the wonderful mural (with buff-breasted paradise kingfisher, croc and other local wildlife) on the Wall of the Wujal Sports Hall. It’s worth visiting just to see it.

As you drive north to Cooktown, and about 3 km past the Wujal community, the road meets the river again. At low tides, one or more crocs might sit on the far bank. A few hundred metres further on, where a little spit of sand pokes out from the mangroves, is another popular resting spot for crocs, often half submerged.

The road continues on, leaving the River past the Bloomfield River State School, then rejoins it for a kilometre or so. There are several spots on the far bank where one or more big crocs hang out. Drive down to the Boat Ramp, and make yourself a cuppa (that’s a cup of tea) under the quaint, rickety shelter. (You mightn’t want it, but there’s mobile phone coverage there).
On a very hot day, it may open its mouth –ironically to cool down. The skin inside its mouth is thinner, so it can cool down more easily.

Through Ayton, (named after Capt Cook’s childhood town in Yorkshire), there’s a short drive up to Weary Bay Road to the picnic tables at WindyLoo. Enjoy the wind and views of the Bloomfield Lodge to the south, and Rattlesnake Point to the north. On a good day, the two Hope Islands (named by Cook) are visible on the horizon near Rattlesnake.
Adventurous 4WDers with good tyres can drive along the sandy bush track either south to the river mouth or north to the Plantation outlet. Both are great croc spots. Plantation has lots of mangroves and is one of the breeding spots during the monsoon season.

Want a little more information about crocs?

Our croc is one of two species in Australia, the Estuarine or South East Asian crocodile, (Crocodylus porosus).
Along the East Coast of Queensland below Princess Charlotte Bay (above Cooktown), we don’t get the freshwater Croc, just our Estuarine species.
These crocs can occasionally travel incredible distances out at sea – hundreds of kilometres. Why? We don’t really know but dispossession is probably the main reason
Crocs grow each year of their life, which can be 100 yrs or more. Males are bigger than females, and 5 metres is considered a big croc. On the Endeavour River in 2012, a croc over 6 metres was measured, with an estimated age of 140 years.

A male might have several females in an area which he patrols more vigorously during mating season. After mating, egg-laying follows 4-6 weeks later at the onset of the wet season (around January). Nest temperature determines sex of the young, with 32⁰ C producing mainly males, and lower or higher temperature more females.
Incubation takes 90 days, with the rotting vegetation determining the temperature, not the female adjusting the nest. That’s for moundbirds!! She stays around the area, however, and helps the hatchlings get by carrying them in their jaws to the water. Then for a few days or longer, she will hang around to protect them from predators, even Dad.
No croc hunting has been allowed in Queensland for over 40 years, so populations are becoming bigger and croc sizes larger. Around here, we just watch them.

They’ve been around with little need to adapt much for about 240 million years. A remarkable example of evolution – or lack of it, in a successful species.