Fitzgerald River NP – Honey Possums and Banksias.

This trip was primarily to photograph flowering Banksia species over the Summer period in Western Australia’s Wheatbelt and South Coast, with three days allowed to find four species of Banksia.

The area visited was Lake King in the Eastern Wheatbelt followed by Ravensthorpe and Fitzgerald River National Park. In the event the trip included great sightings of a diminutive nectivorous marsupial often associated with the Banksias as an added bonus, hence this post became about Honey Possums and Banksias.

I am hugely grateful for the Banksia advice received from William Archer who runs the following blog on Esperance Wildflowers:- Esperance Wildflowers

I set off after work leaving the hectic Perth traffic for the open spaces of the Wheatbelt for the five hour drive to Lake King where I overnighted at the excellent Lake King Tavern, passing through the towns of Brookton, Corrigin and Hyden before arriving at Lake King after 8pm.

Lake King.

The following morning, I had allowed time to search for the first Banksia species before heading South to the coast. The main distribution of the Swordfish Banksia (Banksia elderiana,) is between Narembeen, Lake King, Peak Charles NP and Bullabulling. The main flowering period is between the months of January and March.

There is plenty of remnant bush surrounding the township of Lake King and driving the Lake King – Norseman Road towards Peak Charles NP there was plenty of flowering Swordfish Banksia in the roadside vegetation. The common name of this species is derived from the long serrate rigid leaves, while the pendulous yellow flowers are a sight to behold.

Swordfish Banksia (Banksia elderiana.)

Honey Possums and Banksias

Ravensthorpe.

After a 40 minute drive further South I arrived at the town of Ravensthorpe and on approach to the townsite there was a fabulous sight. The local grain silo had been painted (by Fremantle artist Amok Island,) in a beautiful mural showing the different stages a flowering cycle of the Banksia baxteri and included the main vertebrate pollianators of this species the New Holland Honeyeater and the mystical Honey Possum.

Ravensthorpe Silo Artwork.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Check out this link for the public silo trail encompassing Silo art in the towns of Northam, Ravensthorpe, Merredin, Albany, Newdegate, Pingrup and Katanning. PUBLIC Silo Trail | Discover WA’s largest outdoor art gallery

Morning refreshments were at the excellent Bread and Butter Bar in Ravensthorpe before continuing South to Ethel Daw Lookout to see what was flowering in this botanical hotspot. Another pendulous Banksia, Banksia lemanniana was at the absolute tail end of the October to January flowering period, but a few flowers were still present dotted throughout the heath.

Banksia lemanniana.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Hopetoun.

I spent two nights at beautiful Hopetoun, the base from which to explore the Eastern end of Fitzgerald River National Park, a mere 10 minute drive from the township. I stayed at the excellent Hopetoun Beachside Caravan Park. The Caravan Park is as the name suggests right next to the Southern Ocean and it was absolutely magical to fall asleep to the sound of breakers crashing on the nearby beach.

Another bonus of staying at the Caravan Park was the superb bird life, with a variety of species seen, the most prolific of which was the Purple-crowned Lorikeet. There were hundreds of these birds feeding on flowering eucalypts in the caravan park at any one time, indeed the same eucalypt was flowering throughout the town, and the zit-zit call of this species was a constant from dawn until dusk.

It was a real treat to see these beautifully coloured parrots (Western Australia’s smallest parrot) so close, as I usually encounter them in the Karri Forest further West where good views are impossible as they feed 60m high in the canopy on karri blossum.

Purple-crowned Lorikeet – Hopetoun Caravan Park.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Both New Holland Honeyeaters and Western Wattlebirds were common in the caravan park, with the Western Wattlebird replacing the Red Wattlebird as the dominant honeyeater in this part of Western Australia. Despite being the dominant honeyeater they were having a hard time keeping the lorikeet plague from their territories!

Western Wattlebird – Hopetoun Caravan Park.

Honey Possums and Banksias

The birding highlight of the trip was a close encounter with an extremely confiding Spotted Pardalote foraging on the ground in the caravan park. These tiny, ground nesting birds have a striking spotted plumage as seen below.

Spotted Pardalote – Hopetoun Caravan Park.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Fitzgerald River National Park.

After setting up camp at the caravan park I made the short drive to nearby Fitzgerald River National Park. The national park is divided into two recreational areas by a central wilderness core and Hopetoun is situated at the Eastern end of Fitzgerald River. The approach to the park from Hopetoun is dominated by the stunning quartzite peak of East Mount Barren.

East Mount Barren.

Honey Possums and Banksias

After an early cloudy start on the coast the sun finally made an appearance and as such I wasn’t surprised to find a Western Bluetongue crossing the road. This is one of two Bluetongues found in Southwest WA, absent from the wetter Southwest corner and encountered in drier areas further East and North. To my eye this species are the more beautifully patterned of the two, although this is not easy to capture under the harsh light of the midday sun.

Western Bluetongue.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Fitzgerald River National Park is a botanical hotspot containing 20 per cent of Western Australia’s flora in an area of only 0.13% of the state. One of the signature plants of the Fitzgerald River is the Lantern Hakea also known as the Royal Hakea (Hakea victoria.) The leaves of the plant display colours ranging from yellows, oranges to deep reds. The plant grows to between one and three metres and was easily seen dotted throughout the heath of the national park.

Lantern Hakea.

Honey Possums and Banksias

A Banksia flowering prolifically both on the approach to Hopetoun and throughout the National Park was the Showy Banksia (Banksia speciosa.) This banksia endemic to the South Coast, between East Mount Barren and Israelite Bay, is extremely common in this part of the world forming pure stands especially around the township of Hopetoun, while in the National Park it is associated with the closely related Banksia baxteri.

I used the lower light conditions of the late afternoon to photograph this beautiful banksia. The specific name speciosa translates as showy or handsome, and it is easy to see why with the prominent cream to yellow flowers set in a rosette of leaves.

Showy Banksia (Banksia speciosa.)

Honey Possums and Banksias

Dinner at the pub was followed by an early night at the caravan park to the sound of crashing waves, because the following morning it was an early 4am rise for a dawn ascent of East Mount Barren.

The rest of the town slept as I made the short drive to the carpark at the base of East Mount Barren, where on the previous day I had notcied prolific thickets of both Banksia speciosa and Banksia baxteri. I had brought along the thermal imager to explore the thickets in the last 30 minutes of darkness to see if they contained Honey Possums.

Almost immediately I located one of two heat images climbing within the Banksia speciosa, although unfortunately these animals were deep within the thickets, but from the size and behaviour of the heat images I was certain these were Honey Possums.

As an aside, active Honey Possums have a high body temperature to be expected of a small mammal, and heat images show up incredibly well on the thermal imager.

I did manage a brief photo of one of the animals to confirm identification, proving that indeed these heat images were the diminutive Honey Possum.

Honey Possum climbing in Banksia speciosa.

Honey Possums and Banksias

The first light of dawn was by now breaking the horizon, so I returned the thermal imager to the car promising to return the following night for an extended period of time, but if I was to view sunrise on top of the mountain I was going to have to start the climb.

East Mount Barren along with West and Mid Mount Barren make up the Barren Range. Named by that most excellent of explorers Matthew Flinders in 1802, it is however something of a misnomer being anything but barren. The slopes of this quartzite peak contain a plethora of plants many endemic to the region.

Although the elevation of the peak is a mere 311m, in the flat landscapes of the Southwestern Australia it is a prominent geograhical feature. The path ascends steeply at first up a shale slope before arriving at a false summit. The narrow track then winds through a patch of heath before arriving at the next ridge line. It was here that the sun broke the horizon.

Sunrise viewed through a ridge line of East Mount Barren.

Honey Possums and Banksias

The trail then passes through another shorter section of heath before a scrabble up a steep rocky outcrop to the true summit. The view from the peak was magnificent both East to Hopetoun and West into the wilds of Fitzgerald River National Park.

Sunrise from the peak of East Mount Barren.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Daylight breaks over Fitzgerald National Park from the summit of East Mount Barren.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Returning to the carpark at the base of the mountain the birds had well and truly woken with immense numbers of New Holland Honeyeaters feeding on both the Banksia baxteri and speciosa, and their feeding chatter was deafening!

New Holland Honeyeater feeding on Banksia speciosa.

Honey Possums and Banksias

With my stomach telling me it was breakfast time, I returned the short distance to Hopetoun, encountering on the way that most pretty of wallabies the Western Brush Wallaby. This animal seemed to be enjoying the warmth of the morning sun and was unperturbed by the car engine allowing photos.

Western Brush Wallaby.

Honey Possums and Banksias

After breakfast I spent an enjoyable day in the national park, where I photographed the final banksia for the trip, Baxter’s Banksia also known as the Birds Nest Banksia, named of course for the rigid whorl of leaves surrounding the flower.

Baxter’s Banskia (Banksia baxteri.)

Honey Possums and Banksias

Temperatues were approaching 30C by early afternoon when I found a Southern Heath Monitor sunbathing on the road. It was very reluctant to move out of the way, that is until I gave it’s tail a tweak before it became victim to vehicle strike. Indignantly it moved to the roadside where, after a final look of disapproval, it disappeared into the heath.

Southern Heath Monitor.

Honey Possums and Banksias

It was another early night, because the following morning I rose at the earlier time of 2am to dedicate more time to the Honey Possums of East Mount Barren. I passed a Tawny Frogmouth sitting on the road as this species is unfortunately apt to do, although I didn’t interfere with the bird at this early hour when there was no other traffic to be seen.

Honey Possums and Banksias.

After parking the car it was mere minutes before I detected the first Honey Possum heat image, although in common with the previous night they were climbing in the large thickets of Banksia speciosa, making it impossible for close approach. I easily had brief views of ten Honey Possums in a 20m stretch of bush, ultimately under headtorch, over the course of an hour eventually getting very close to one animal, although because of it’s position photos proved hard.

A photo was proving elusive so instead of attempting the same thing over and expecting different results I moved my search further into the heathland and got a heat image on a much smaller Banksia speciosa, not part of a thicket. Despite being 10m away this animal remained on the plant during my noisy approach, until I was able to put it under the spotlight.

Honey Possum on Bankisa speciosa.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Often this species will drop from a banksia into the dense cover of the heath below under white light, but this predator-naive Honey Possum did the opposite and climbed up ontop an old flowering cone.

Honey Possum on old Banksia flower.

Honey Possums and Banksias

Honey Possums are absolutely tiny with the largest females weighing only 20g, this allows them to climb amongst flowering plants to find nectar and pollen, where they are aided by the use of the prehensile tail.

Honey Possum on Banksia speciosa.

Honey Possums and Banksias

The Honey Possum is the sole Australian marsupial that feeds entirely on nectar and pollen (some bats also do this,) hence why it is common in Fitzgerald River and other heathlands of Southwestern Australia, where a year round supply of nectar is available.

One of the diagnostic features of this animal is the three longitudinal dorsal stripes which may serve to provide camoflague when the animal is curled up sleeping during the day.

Honey Possum showing the three longtitinal dorsal stripes.

Honey Possums and Banksias

The latin name for the Honey Possum is Tarsipes rostratus, tarsus being hand and pes being foot, hence hand-foot, seen below grasping a tiny hair protruding from the old flower head. Rostrum (rostratus,) refers to the pointed snout, an adaptation to extracting its food from flower heads.

Honey Possum showing the tiny grasping “hand-foot.”

Honey Possums and Banksias

Once daylight had broken, I continued to obeserve Honey Possums near the carpark until an hour into daylight on what was a cloudy start to the day, although these animals were far more furtive in daylight conditions on this occasion than when I had viewed them under these conditions in the past.

See here for the link to a daytime Honey Possum experience The Honey Possum and the Banksia.

See here for the link to another blog spotlighting Honey Possums Radio Tracking Gilbert’s Potoroo at Mt Manypeaks.

The existence of the Honey Possums and Banksias is an age old relationship, with the number of Banksia species in an area directly correlating to the density of Honey Possums. This is why the heathlands North of Perth and those on the South Coast, which contain the highest number of Banksia species, also contain the highest density of Honey Possums.

After a brief and much needed nap back at the caravan park, I struck camp and made the long seven hour drive back through the Wheatbelt to Perth, stopping on the way to view more incredible silo art at the town of Newdegate. This silo art depicts wildlife found in the area, a Bearded Dragon, Red-tailed Phascogale and Malleefowl.

See here for close encounters with Red-tailed Phascogales Thermal Imaging Red-tailed Phascogales at Tutanning Nature Reserve and Wildlife of the West Australian Wheatbelt.

Newdegate Silo Art.

After visiting the Eastern end of Fitzgerald River once before many years ago I had forgotton how truly special this part of the world is. 2021 is the year I hope to acquaint myself with new banksia species and with observations of the non-flowering Mountain Banksia on East Mount Barren I will return during the month of June to photograph this very special Banksia in flower…..#NatureNeverFailsTo Impress

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