Are the Satinash Trees in Flower? Commence Operation Possum-Actualization!

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July 25th 2018
Published: July 25th 2018
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I got up this morning for the dawn chorus because although I was feeling coldy and I had seen all of the usual target species, I wanted to make the most of being in such nice habitat at dawn. I went down to look for the platypus because I thought it might be active in the morning and I would like to get a picture in daylight, but no such luck. O did, however find a particularly wonderful mammal out and about in the morning: a Yellow-footed Antechinus.

After check out time, we headed on to our next stop in the town of Atherton on the Atherton Tablelands proper. I think this was the longest drive of the trip but it wasn't really very long at all and the whole tableland area is not very large at all and could all be daytripable from Cairns, although not for the purposes of morning birding and spotlighting obviously. There are a lot of bird and wildlife sites along the way between Julatten and Atherton and I, naturally, wanted to stop at as many of these as possible.

The main site around here that features in guides and trip reports and such is Mareeba Wetlands, both for mammals and birds. However this site has been closed for a while and a
birder I spoke to this morning at Kingfisher Park who had just been birding the tablelands said you can't get in at all and the birding along the access road isn't particularly worthwhile. So instead I decided that the best places to do would be Granite Gorge and the Tinaroo/Emerald/Davies Creek area.

We went to Granite Gorge first which is an interesting place. It's a tourist attraction just outside Mareeba in dry forest and there is a small entry fee. There are a number of caged parrots at the reception building which is staffed by a rather mad woman and there is a rocky 'gorge' thing and a swimming area. The main attraction however was also the attraction for me which is a population of habituated Mareeba Rock Wallabies on the rocks just below the reception. This is a hugely range restricted species which is found only on this tiny area and this spot is a guaranteed sighting.

Now, I knew they were habituated, but the situation was a bit insane. They sell food to feed the wallabies and they actually will come right up to you for food. One especially tame one even came up for a pat and a scratch behind the ears. These are wild rock wallabies! They are very cute little rock wallabies though, hopping about in front of you. There were some dry country birds around too including a couple of my major targets for today like Pale-headed Rosella and Squatter Pigeons just wandering around the car park. I was particularly happy to see the latter species because the birder who I spoke to at Kingfisher Park this morning hadn't seen one in five week birding Far North Queensland. Granite Gorge doesn't usually feature on the birding radar though, just for mammal watching as a site where you show up, tick the Rock Wallabies and go. The thing about these dry country birds is that they're generally extremely nomadic and just show up at different places.

After Granite Gorge, we went to another dry country site on the other side of Mareeba called Emerald Creek. It should be noted that the last 8km are very corrugated gravel track which I hadn't realised. This would be my only day with proper dry country birding so my aim was mainly just to tick as many of the more common and some rarer dry country birds as possible to increase lists (and also to see amazing birds, birding is not just about the final list, as much as the list at the end may make that seem). Also at Emerald Creek is one speciality bird which is the White-browed Robin which I saw.

We then had lunch at Mareeba and drove down to Atherton, but before going to the accommodation, my dad dropped me off at Mount Hypipamee 25km beyond for the evening birding and spotlighting. There were three species of bowerbird (out of four possible) just on the car park which is awesome and the crater itself is spectacular too, just a huge hole in the ground.

The spotlighting here was extremely productive and I saw a total of: 4 Coppery Brushtails, 4 Green Ringtails, 2 Lemuroid Ringtails, 2 Herbert River Ringtails and 1 possible Striped based on the distinctive movement in the canopy but I didn't really see much of it.

The Herbert River and Lemuroid Ringtails I was particularly happy about as these were my main targets. I didn't get particularly good views of the Herbert Rivers as the first moved away too quickly and the second was very high up and sat there but in an obscured spot but the second Lemuroid in particular was very obliging just sitting there very close by. It's so fluffy! Lemuroid Ringtails really are the biggest ball of fluff possums you could imagine. There were Red-legged Pademelons about too but 12/13 possums of 4/5 species in two and a half hours of spotlighting really isn't bad at all.

Now for operation Possum-Actualization of seeing all the tablelands possums, there's one species to go: Long-tailed Pygmy Possum. The problem is that no one sees the pygmy possum. It's so infrequently seen that trying to find one really is laughable as an aim. But hey, you've got to try. They actually occur in basically every patch of rainforest on the tableland buy they're so small and shy that they're very infrequently seen.

The 'finding mammals' boom describes a place in Atherton where they are more frequently recorded than elsewhere (note the word recorded, not seen, just recorded. That's when you know it's a tricky one to find) and they can be recorded, rather cryptically 'when the Satinash Trees are in flower'. Which does sound like a secret code to deploy the nukes.

"Yes lieutenant, if the Satinash Trees are in flower, commence operation Possum-Actualization"

Anyway, I stopped quickly on the way back following the directions of the 'finding mammals' book but the directions in that book are absolutely rubbish and totally wrong. I think I know roughly where the spot is now so I could try tonight if I'm feeling able.

However I think I rather overdid it yesterday. I briefly mentioned that I was getting a cold I think in my previous post, but doing all the stuff in the day with spotlighting has been a bit much. I was really struggling to regulate my body temperature at night at Hypipamee and I was extremely cold the whole time. It does get cold at the high altitudes here at night, and it is winter, but I shouldn't have been that cold. And when I got to the accommodation yesterday evening I just crashed, hence no blog post yesterday, I couldn't even get changed, and this morning I was still terrible.

Although I am willing to do whatever it takes to see wildlife, there's a point where you physically can't do anymore and I've reached that point. I should clarify that it's not a major sickness or anything, just a bad cold/flu/throat infection or something (as I write this I have an oppointment to see a doctor late this afternoon to see if it is bacterial and I need antibiotics or just viral and I need a rest) and if I was at home resting it would not be a big deal. But I'm not resting and I am still quite tired from all the Malaysian stuff (my parents think I've lost over 10% of my body weight over six weeks in Malaysia). I'm not wanting sympathy or anything, but this is all part of the travel and this blog documents all my experiences.

I couldn't do anything this morning (this blog covers yesterday and today) until after midday but a bit after midday I felt ok to head a bit. I went to the nearby birding spot of Hastie's Swamp while my family went to look at some historical town or museum or something. Hastie's Swamp is a small wetlands just outside Atherton with a nice bird hide. There were thousands of Plumed Whistling Ducks right below the window and various other waterbirds, although I was disappointed at the lack of Sarus Cranes which I was hoping for.

One thing that has really surprised/confused me here though was a group of four Freckled Ducks sleeping with a big flock of Plumed Whistling Ducks. The weird thing is that Freckled Ducks don't really occur here, not this far North and this seems very out of range. I don't think there's anything I could confuse the ID with though, is there? (And I do have pictures) I've read some stuff on the internet about it being a vagrant further north and HBW says it 'occurs irregularly outside main centres of distribution' so I don't know if it's really rare here or just uncommon and irregular. Either way, nice bird. (It is on the Hastie's Swamp bird list).

The others then had lunch which I didn't because I wasn't feeling up to it and then in the afternoon we headed to the clinic to check that everything would be alright with the cold symptoms. Unfortunately we weren't able to get an appointment in Atherton so had to go to Malanda about 20 minutes away. On the way though we stopped at Bromfield Swamp Lookout which is a viewing platform looking down at a marsh in the bottom of an extinct volcanic crater. Here I was pleased to see that there were some Sarus Cranes which was very nice but there wasn't much else apart from some Black-shoulderes Kites.

The wait at the clinic was rather long despite having an appointment and the doctor thought I didn't need antibiotics yet but gave a prescription to use if it got worse. Which is very convenient but obviously works only on the basis of patients who are responsible and don't get antibiotics unless it actually becomes a bacterial infection.

After the hospital visit, I had an idea to find Tree Kangaroos to add them to the year list. Two years ago when I was in Cairns I did a Wait-a-while Night Tour which went to a small spot of rainforest near the Nerada Tea Plantation where there are resident tree kangaroos and it's a small enough bit of forest that they should be seen easily enough. I knew where the plantation was from Google and roughly where the tree roo forest would be and I thought I'd know it when I saw it. Well we found the spot and then started looking along it to find the tree kangaroos. I had joked that it was around the same time of day that the Wait-a-while Tour was here and it would be funny if they showed up, not actually expecting them to of course. Then as a minibus started to come over the hill I again joked that it might be them. Given how narrative telling works, you may have guessed that it was! Quite an amusing coincidence.

There were a lot of people on that tour and they all walked up an down. After a little while, the guide spotted two tree kangaroos moving around a tree and then coming down lower and disappearing. Having someone who has been there every night for years spotting the roos is helpful! I also asked about the pygmy possum and he said there's a spot where a colleague saw one two weeks ago in 'a little scrap of rainforest on Thomas Road in flowering Lemon Aspen'. I might get to try there tomorrow night although one seen two weeks ago is far from a guarantee.

During the day I had found the spot that the mammal book suggested near Atherton where the pygmy possums are more frequently recorded and it was actually only about 2kms from my accommodation. So I had some dinner at the accommodation and then my dad agreed to pop me around for a brief look at the potential pygmy possum site. This is a small remnant patch of woodland in the edge of Atherton at a site called Halloran's Crater that is surrounded by dry forest and suburbs. Luckily it's on the side of Atherton that I'm staying on. The dry forest trees along the road leaving from my accommodation had lots of Common Brushtail and Coppery Brushtails. My understanding in the common was introduced to the tableland and the two species live sympatrically. I did see what appeares to be a hybrid too though. At the Halloran's Crater site itself, the Satinash Trees were mostly in bud with only a few flours, apparently the flowering peaks in August. Surprise, surprise, there was no sign of any pygmy possums. But there was loads around though. The grassy lawn around the carpark were covered in Pademelons and the forest held Green Ringtail Possum, and excitingly for me, Common Ringtail Possums. I think these are very common in the South East, but having not done the South East I hadn't seen them.

I’m really struggling with the cold here though which I hadn’t anticipated. I am at very high altitude so it’s dropping to about 14 degrees at night and it’s the same temperature inside and outside but I shouldn’t be shivering and teeth chattering and barely able to move at 14 degrees! It’s obviously partly because I’m sick but I also think my metabolism and fat stores have adjusted to an Asian tropical climate. I don’t know how I’ll manage in Perth or, indeed, when I get back to proper winter in Europe! I shall just have to move to Asia. I wonder if the Danum Valley Field Centre would let me move in…

Also, unless I’m forgetting any species I think I’ve seen all the possums here with the exception of the Long-tailed Pygmy (not including gliders).



Australian Magpie

Little Lorikeet

Scarlet Honeyeater

Square-tailed Kite (should be on earlier)

Pied Currawong

Squatter Pigeon

Diamond Dove

Pale-headed Rosella

Yellow Thornbill

Eastern White-naped Honeyeater

Brown-backed Honeyeater

Red-browed Pardalote

Eastern Yellow Robin

White-browed Robin

Satin Bowerbird

Golden Bowerbird

Eastern Grass Owl


Yellow-footed Antechinus

Eastern Horseshoe Bat

Mareeba Rock Wallaby

Lemuroid Ringtail

Herbert River Ringtail

European Rabbit (Yes, I genuinely have seen over 150 species of mammals this year prior to seeing rabbits)



Freckled Duck

Australian Grey Teal

Sarus Crane


Lumholtz Tree Kangaroo

Common Brushtail Possum

Common Ringtail Possum

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