Kimberley Wildlife 2020 – Part 1 of 4 – Heading North – Rothschild Rock Wallaby.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man – Heraclitus.

This four part blog is an account of five weeks spent in my home state of Western Australia. It includes a trip to Dorre Island in the Gascoyne Region, visits to Pilbara National Parks of Millstream Chichester and Karijini, culminating in many awesome Kimberley Wildlife encounters in that most fabulous of places the awesome Kimberley.

Here is a link to the mammals seen in the Southern half of the state of Western Australia :- Where to see Mammals – Western Australia.

Kimberley locations visited were all in the West Kimberley because of the current health situation. Most sites on the Eastern Gibb River Road were closed in 2020 and also access to aboriginal land at the Mitchell Plateau was off limits.

The volunteering expedition with Parks and Wildlife to Dorre Island was to initally take place early April, but of course when covid struck this was abandoned. It was rescheduled for the 1st August but inclement weather forced another last minute postponement until the 5th August. These four days were put to good use visiting the National Parks of Millstream Chichester and Cape Range.

Millstream Chichester NP – 2 Nights – 2nd – 3rd Aug.

Millstream Chichester NP is 90 minutes inland from Karratha. I had received information that Black Hill Pool in the National Park contains a healthy population of Rothschild Rock Wallaby, a species I had been attempting to photograph for 3 years.

On the long drive North from Perth I watched the landscape change from the verdant green of the Midwest, through the golden hues of the Gascoyne until finally I reached the red dirt of the Pilbara. Overnighting at Nanutarra Roadhouse it was at noon the following day that I finally made it to Millstream Chichester.

Kimberley Wildlife

Python Pool in the parks Northern end had long been on my to see list and it didn’t disappoint. This seasonal waterfall is nestled in the base of the Chichester Range with a stunning swimming hole at the base, of which I made use during the warm afternoons.

Python Pool.

Kimberley Wildlife

The area had received recent rains resulting in an abundance of native wildflowers. This riot of colour startlingly prominent against the red dirt of the Pilbara.

Clockwise from Top Left – Sturt’s Desert Pea, Wattle, Flannel Bush, Native Cotton, Purple Mulla Mulla.

Black Hill Pool was at the end of a rough 4WD track off the Roebourne-Wittenoom Rd. It was a public holiday weekend in nearby Karratha so the gorge was busy with locals daytripping and camping.

Black Hill Pool.

Kimberley Wildlife

The geology of the gorge is similar to that of nearby Burrup Peninsula, with both consisting of rock weathered into a jumble of massive boulders. I spent a pleasant few hours late afternoon searching the gorge for rock wallabies, although unsucessful I did find mysterious indigenous artwork throughout the gorge. The artwork consists of engravings rather than the paintings further North in the Kimberley but are no less impressive.

Indigenous Rock Art – What are the people in awe of ?

KImberley Wildlife

Spotlighting would have given the best chance of finding the rock wallabies, but due to the combination of fatigue after the monster drive, the full moon and rough terrain. I decided instead to rely on dawn and dusk searches.

No rock wallabies the following morning, so with the day started to warm I set off to explore the nearby 27km Georges River Track. This rough 4WD track bumps and weaves along the escarpments of the Chichester Ranges, over water crossings to the towering red rock cliffs of George River Gorge.

Georges River Track along the Chichester Ranges.

In the heat of the day wildlife was sparse, the exception being the small flocks of Spinifex Pigeons meandering between the spinifex tussocks. These birds are like little clockwork toys as they scuttle along the ground.

Spinifex Pigeon.

Kimberley Wildlife

That evening and the following morning continued searches of Black Hill Pool yielded no rock wallabies, although their existence was confirmed by scat. It was great to finally visit Millstream, but with my presence shortly required at Dorre Island it was time to return South.

Cape Range National Park (Exmouth) – 1 night – 4th August.

I overnighted at Cape Range National Park to visit the rock wallabies at Pilgramon Gorge, arriving at the gorge around 4pm after a long day on the road. The Cape Range National Park as always contained a plenitude of Euros (Common Wallaroos,) grazing in the late afternoon sun.

Euros.

As I walked from the carpark up the dry creekbed into Pilgramon Gorge the majesty of the gorge was as awesome as ever. The gorge was as usual, jumping with Black-footed Rock Wallabies which are very chill allowing close approach.

Pilgramon Gorge.

Kimberley Wildlife

Black-footed Rock Wallabies.

I spent an hour rockhopping around the gorge camera in hand enjoying the wildlife, but as the fading sun fell towards the ocean, setting up camp for the night became the priority.

The impromptu visit to the Cape Range during the state lockdown, when West Australians usually overseas were spending time in their own state, ensured there was not a chance of a camping site in the National Park, so the tent was set up on the gorge track, watched closely by an inquisite juvenile Euro.

Euro.

Kimberley Wildlife

It was a cold and, as is often the case on the Northwest Cape, windy night, so I quickly retired out of the elements. The following morning on a limestone ridge situated on the coastal plain well away from the gorge was a colony of Black-footed Rock Wallabies. It is a credit to the predator control of the Western Shield baiting programme that the Rock Wallabies have recolonised such habitat.

Black-footed Rock Wallaby.

Kimberley Wildlife

The following morning after a 4 hour drive I met the other volunteers and Parks and Wildlife crew I was to acompany on the trip to Dorre Island. Our first night was spent on the boat docked at the wharf in Carnarvon before finally we sailed west 50 kilometres to Dorre.

Dorre Island – 7 nights – 6th-11th Aug.

Kimberley Wildlife

The excitement on the boat was palpable as we approached Dorre Island. Previous visitors to these restricted islands included such distinguised explorers as William Dampier, Nicholas Baudin, Francois Peron and Louis De Freycinet.

The Dirk Hartog – Return to 1616 Project is an ambitious project undertaken by the Western Australian Government and Parks and Wildlife to return 13 endangered species to Dirk Hartog Island off Shark Bay, species locally extincted on Dirk Hartog through a combination of grazing herbivores and the destructive cat.

Once these feral pests had been eradicated the species to be introduced are as follows –

Banded Hare Wallaby, Rufous Hare Wallaby, Dibbler, Greater Stick Nest Rat, Shark Bay Mouse, Boodie, Shark Bay Bandicoot, Western Grass Wren, Heath Mouse, Brush-tailed Mulgara, Woylie, Desert Mouse and Chuditch.

The first animals transclocated were the two hare wallabies, with Dorre Island and Bernier Island being the source population and only place on the planet where these marsupials now occur in the wild, having been wiped off the Australian mainland by the fox and cat.

The expedition plan was to spotlight transects of Dorre Island to see how the remaining populations of the hare wallabies were fairing post translocation. Sadly this part of the trip had to be sacrificed because of terrible weather conditions. This was a real shame, because to see the islands come alive at night with rare mammals would have been astonishing.

The spotlighting was sacrificed to carry out the more important task of trapping. The Hare Wallabies are trap shy, but the other three mammals on the Dorre, that is the Boodie, Ash Grey Mouse and Shark Bay Bandicoot are easily trapped, so that important monitoring of the health of these species could be carried out. The Shark Bay Bandicoot population was considered most important for this trip as they were the next translocation to Dirk Hartog.

The Shark Bay Bandicoots were the animals most commonly trapped as these animals could be caught in both Cage and Elliot traps due to their small size, The next most commonly trapped species were the Boodies, which due to their larger size could only be caught in cage traps.

The Shark Bay Bandicoots were ultra cute and really are very small bandicoots attaining only a quarter of the size of the Quenda, the species I am used to seeing in the Southwest of the state.

Western Barred Bandicoot.

Kimberley Wildlife

Over the four nights trapping we were lucky to see all of the five mammals in traps, including rare trapping of one each of the two Hare Wallabies. I had to pinch myself on occasion, it was so surreal to see these species in the wild that I never imagined in my wildest dreams that I would see.

Unfortunately the release of the animals was hampered by the constant presence of a pair of Wedge-tailed Eagles looking for an easy meal. The Parks and Wildlife Staff went over and above to release the animals safely into burrows or under bushes while constantly scanning the sky for the marauding raptors, with only one ghastly fatality over the entire trip.

Mala and Ash-grey Mouse

Unfortunately the weather during our time at sea was horrendous, culminating in winds equivalent to a category 1 cyclone on Sunday night. Dorre and Bernier Islands run in a North – South direction providing little shelter from the prevaling weather at the time of year, and motion sickness was a constant companion.

The trip was saved by the superlative menu provided by the boat crew, and the excellent company of both the other volunteers, Helena and Ines, and the parks and wildlife staff, Colleen, Sean and Kelly.

The parks and wildlife staff were kind enough to share their immense knowledge, and were also very tolerant of the camera wielding volunteers, when I know they would have liked to get on with the job in hand.

On the trip back to Carnarvon the weather of course cleared up! and we were treated to the spectacle of numerous breaching Humpback Whales during the journey. It had been an amazing once in a lifetime experience but boy was I glad to see dry land!

The following day I continued North eight hours to Karijini National Park. On the Nanutarra-Wittenoom Rd I startled three Wedge-tailed Eagles off a Wallaroo carcass. Two eagles flew into nearby trees, while the third eagle remained close to the carcass. A well-fed eagle with a belly full of carrion it seems, is less inclined to make the effort to take to flight.

Wedge-tailed Eagle.

Kimberley Wildlife

Karijini National Park – 4 nights – 13th-16th Aug.

My destination at Karijini was Punurrunha (Mount Bruce.) This impressive mountain stands at 1234m and is the second highest mountain in Western Australia.

Impressive Punurrunha / Mount Bruce.

Kimberley Wildlife

A dawn walk on Punurrunha on previous visit to Karijini had revealed a Rothschild Rock Wallaby, although light at that time was too poor for a photo. Late afternoon I hoped might elicit a sighting of this crepuscular species.

The afternoon was warm as I climbed to the saddle of the mountain, where there is suitable rock wallaby habitat. Amongst the rocks was a basking Stimson’s Python, these small pythons being associated with rock outcrops and stony ranges in the Pilbara.

The python disappeared into the rock crevice once alerted to my presence, but after patiently waiting I was rewarded when it re-emerged and began climbing.

I followed it as it climbed, at one point approaching too close. The feisty little python let me know it’s displeasure by recoiling into the strike position, and I didn’t need to to be told twice. I watched for over 30 minutes as the snake did what seemed like the impossible using it’s powerful muscles to climb 15m up a vertical wall exploiting the tiniest of fissures to achieve this mammoth task.

Stimson’s Python.

As light dimmed I returned to bed for the night in the car, so that the following morning at first light I could once again head up the mountain to seach for the wallaby.

The night was a miserable one, hunched up in the front seat of the 4WD, as nearby iron ore trains thundered past, still swaying from motion sickess of the recent boat trip to Dorre Island.

Before the first dawn light I was once again back on the track climbing Punurrunha, but again the rock wallabies were a no show. This time I continued past the saddle to summit the mountain for the expansive views across the desolate, but beautiful landscape.

On the descent I interrupted a flock of colourful Zebra Finches from the track, on which they were feeding on grass seeds, into nearby stunted, bushfire-charred trees.

Zebra Finch.

Kimberley Wildlife

Exhausted, and with camping spots at the Karijini booked out, I drove to nearby Tom Price and camped at the excellent Tom Price Caravan Park for the following three nights. This meant an hour transit out to Karijini and back each day, but the facilities, at the both the caravan park and in Tom Price township itself, were excellent and more than compensated for the additional driving.

The following morning I visited Knox Gorge where I met with tourists who had photograhic evidence of a Rothschild Rock Wallaby, seen the previous day downstream from Fortescue Falls in Dales Gorge.

Knox Gorge.

Kimberley Wildlife

Armed with this information I visited Dales Gorge that very afternoon, bathing in the cool waters of Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool (Jubara) as I waited for temperatures to fall late afternoon when any rock wallabies would be most likely to emerge from their rock shelters to graze.

Despite extensively searching the gorge below Fortescue Falls, once again I dipped on the rock wallabies, although numerous scat on rock ledges was a definate indication of their presence.

The Black Flying Fox colony at Dales Gorge was looking the healthiest I had ever seen it with around 100 bats hanging in the tall paperbark trees between Fortescue Falls and Fern Pool.

Black Flying Fox – Dales Gorge.

Kimberley Wildlife

On a whim late afternoon I climbed the rocky cliffs approaching Fern Pool in a last ditch attempt at a Rothschild encounter. As I climbed the large boulders I disturbed a browsing wallaby up into the caves of the cliff wall. The wallaby peered out from a cave high up in the gorge wall and finally the patience and effort of the previous 3 years paid off!

Rothschild Rock Wallaby.

Kimberley Wildlife

The colouration of this rock wallaby was magnificent. The combination of a golden-brown coat and a grey wash down the neck serves to camoflage them well into the iron ore rocks of the Pilbara.

Despite visiting the Dales Gorge the following afternoon I didn’t find the wallaby again, although an afternoon bathing in the cool waters of Fortescue Falls ensured the day was not entirely wasted.

As the dying sun slipped between the snappy gums I drove an hour west to Auski Roadhouse at Munjina where I overnighted in a cheap donga. Unfortunately, driving in the dark I missed the views of the Hamersley Range as the Great Northern Highway snakes through this magnificent mountain range.

Fully refreshed after a great nights sleep at the roadhouse I woke early to punch out the nine driving hours to Broome. In Western Australia the Kimberley Region is king and I was ready to pay due homage. I was especially looking forward to the amazing Kimberley Wildlife. Continued in Kimberley Wildlife Part 2 of 4 – Windjana Gorge – Freshwater Crocodile …… #NatureNeverFailsTo Impress

4 thoughts on “Kimberley Wildlife 2020 – Part 1 of 4 – Heading North – Rothschild Rock Wallaby.

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