Monday, June 30, 2008

Sea Eagles on Arthur River

Next up we flew down to Tasmania, an island off the south east coast of Australia's mainland. Tasmania is known for wilderness and wildlife, both of which we were looking for. We started sightseeing in the far northwest of Tasmania, Arthur River, with a river cruise up a wild river.

There were two sea eagle nests at different points in the river. One had been there well over 40 years. The boat threw a frozen fish into the water and one of the birds picked it up, which I managed to get a shot of, though not centered. The sea eagles are large and mate for life. Although birds are not my thing, it was nice to see them fly and to see their huge nests. One of the pairs has a territorial dispute going on with a wedge tailed eagle pair, which I think they will lose to the larger wedge tails.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Daintree Night Walk

Rainforests have lots of nocturnal animals, so we went on a nocturnal guided walk to see them. Our guide, "Piggy," was an enthusiastic biologist type (we went with Cooper Creek Outfitters - no complaints). We found a bearded dragon type lizard, several tree frogs, a tortoise, a huge centipede, crickets, sleeping birds, toads, and a plethora of spiders. (The spider eyes shine like little dewdrops in the flashlight beam, which is creepy.) While I was hoping for nocturnal mammals, we didn't see much. We heard possums in the giant palms above us, and we saw a fruit bat, a large flying fox. We saw evidence of bush pigs, but no pigs unless you count the butt end of one we saw run across the road in front of the car one night.

The night walk was nice. Guided only by flashlight, walking in a rainforest and avoiding spiders is fun in a unique way. I've only done it in Australia and Madagascar. I love looking for the elusive upside down leaf tailed gecko, and even better finding the treasure, whatever it is, of some small night creature. There is a lot of life around you at all times. There were very ancient and very tall trees, palms, ferns, fern trees, vines, etc. as well as moss, mushrooms and a variety of interesting fungi.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Foster Joy and Sorrow

Though I'm dying to share more about Australia and the wildlife we saw there, first I have to fill you in on some fosters we acquired. When we'd been back seven days I realized in that time I'd taken in seven additional animals. The Humane Society is running full. It's not only kitten season, but with people giving up pets in the bad economy (which I don't get at all, but can't deny happens) and with the usual Fourth of July glut in dog giveups (which I also don't get, but it's the busy time for dogs), there is not enough space. Foster parents are desperately needed if animals are going to avoid being put down. I'm sure local rescue groups face the same challenge.

First, I took on a mom and give newborns. The mom is super sweet, the nicest mom I have ever fostered, and I've seen a lot! She is gentle and outgoing and as nice as could be. Unfortunately, she was turned in pregnant and with an upper respiratory infection. She lost one kitten before they came to me. They need a long time, seven or eight weeks of care, enough to get the kids socialized, spayed and neutered and ready for adoption.

Sadly, I lost one of the kittens on Thursday - the first one ever, in over a hundred fosters. He had an eye that wouldn't open. You can see him in this photo, little Magellan the explorer. He was my favorite, very outgoing and strong. I took him in to the clinic and got some eye ointment and was treating him several times a day. He developed a tiny runny nose and a cough and then all of a sudden took a dramatic dive for the worst. The vet said nothing could be done and that it was fading kitten syndrome. I tried - kept him warm, gave medications, fluids, etc. But he had trouble breathing, I think pneumonia. His lips went blue, then pink, then blue. He struggled but in a matter of hours I could tell he probably wouldn't make it - which was just very hard to accept. His mom and I did all we could to make him comfortable, and in the end, he went peacefully, just way too early. For me, it was very tragic.

There are four left...and they are healthy. Mom and babies will need homes in a few weeks. I'm trying to make sure the kittens get off to a good start. Kittens usually get homes; people love kittens.

There were several dogs scheduled to be put down for lack of space, so I took one of those home too. Reggie is a big lovable goofy puppy, about a year old. He knows several commands but isn't great on a leash, I don't think he has any experience with it. He learns fast and he LOVES to play fetch. He's a bright dog and I think a bird dog mix. (Pointer? Chocolate lab? Border Collie? Spaniel?) Dogs are hardest to foster - I have to integrate them into the pack of existing dogs without a fight, ensure they don't hurt the cats, horses or goats, and adjust all daily routines. I don't like fostering dogs too much because it is sooooo much work, but I just can't say no when the alternative is execution. This guy is a sweet dog with a great personality and he deserves a chance. You can see him listed on the Humane Society Website if you know anyone who is interested.

This week I've been reflecting on why I foster, since it is so hard - not just inconvenience but emotionally hard. I hate to see my favorites go, and the death of the first one was extra hard. But in the end, I always feel like its worthwhile. The animals need the favor, and I like watching them develop, whether the dogs get more secure, the puppies learn commands for the first time, or the kittens' personalities emerge. I'm never sorry I did it. There are heartbreaking moments but also a lot of good ones. It seems everyone says "That's so nice, but I could never do it" when fostering comes up. Sort of a crock. Anyone CAN do it, just for some reason, a lot of people aren't willing to do it. And really, why not? Weigh the save a life thing against the rest and I come down on the side of foster every time.

I can see setting boundaries - even just foster one animal per year if you have to set limits. But none? If you have animals and you love them, can't you make room for one more that's in a bad spot, just for awhile? It is so sad to see them in cages or kennels, or on Craigslist. I don't get the whole "I'm moving and can't take the pet." (Why the hell move there then?) or "We had a baby and dog has to go" (Why can't you have both, or stick with the dog instead of feeling compelled to procreate?) or the plethora of six month or one year old animals, now out of the puppy/kitten stage, untrained, and being abandoned. It's sick. Animals are not disposable, but it seems huge swaths of humanity feel they are.

I think I understand humans less than any other animal.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Endangered Cassowary

Cassowaries are endangered but there are a few left in the northeast rainforest of Australia. They are funny, emu like birds that are more colorful, and they look like they have brown paper mache hats on their beaks. I've only seen them in captivity, I wasn't lucky enough to see one in the Daintree, but many other people do see them there.

The road signs in that area of Queensland have cassowary warning signs. (I also enjoyed other animal warning signs around Australia, including those for kangaroo, wombat and Tasmanian devil). To slow traffic on the windy roads through the forest, they have speed bumps which are large and covered in spikey rocks. Unfortunately, when you combine the speed bump warning sign with the cassowary warning sign you get something that looks like a before and after picture. So, the locals of course have adapted some of the signs to just that. Both are pictured here.

Male cassowaries raise the babies. Supposedly the big threat to them besides us and loss of habitat is dogs. They run to water and sit down, and then get killed, apparently, usually by more than one dog working together. Like emus and ostriches, cassowaries are birds I personally don't want to tangle with. They can attack and can kick and are big enough to really hurt you. I would have loved to see one though!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Daintree Rainforest Hike, Part II

Reception had mentioned that we should wear insect repellent on the hike, including down our socks, to help with the leeches, my husband said. I asked whether the local leeches were aquatic or terrestrial and he said he didn't know, they didn't mention that. After a long time hiking in the water it seemed clear they were not aquatic.

It took a long time to get to the waterfall - three hours at least. When we finally reached it, it really was spectacular and well worth the effort. Photos can't capture it. There were three tiers, and it went up so high and so far it was hard to believe. The photo here is of just the top two tiers. When we were at the bottom we decided to get out of the creek bed and climb very steeply on land to get to the second level and have lunch there. We did, and that was great, but I noticed a leech on the trail moving towards me quickly, like a little red inchworm. I thought I avoided him/her/it, and maybe I did.

We had lunch, crackers and cheese and chocolate, and enjoyed the solitude and the privacy. It was the very best type of hike - far from anywhere, no encounters with other human beings, effort required but for a payoff/reward I considered worthwhile. So everything was fine, until I moved my leg and saw blood on the rock - and then a very, very fat leech limping away. Out of habit I took a photo as when in a strange place I always try to get a photo of anything that bites me just in case there is a problem, so it can be identified later.

I've never had a leech, though I was paranoid about getting them throughout Madagascar. My first made me almost throw up. I don't know why it's so gross, it just is!

Hiking down was alot harder, and by the time we started it was around 2:30 I would guess. It's winter there and it gets dark by 6 so I was worried we'd lose our light. I took almost no photos or breaks and tried to hurry. Footing was harder to see and the climb down was trickier so I fell a lot more than on the way up. At one point I had something in my shoe, but that was not unusual as leaves, etc. got in often in the water, so I waited awhile to get it out. When I did, I am sorry to say I learned it was a second leech, this one had been squished when half full. Again, nearly sick. I was so grossed out it was overwhelming.

We pressed on and gradually lost our light. I wasn't sure at all where to exit the riverbed to hike back through the forest to our lodge. I was thinking of that show "I shouldn't be alive!" where someone always does something dumb and nearly dies - and sometimes does lose limbs or their buddies don't make it. I wondered how we'd stay out there - I was in a swimsuit and crocs and I had no flashlight and it was getting cold. I was worried, I admit. My husband, who I have never seen worried on a hike, also seemed worried, and that didn't help.

Luckily, through some what seems to me near magical sense of direction, he found the place we were supposed to get out. So we walked quickly in the blackness through the rainforest on the narrow trail, past the bush pig diggings we saw on the way in, past the fallen trees and the weird fruits that fall on the ground and look like giant purple peanut M&Ms. We made it back safely.

And then we found the leeches. We each picked up a few on the trail back, and eeeeewwwwww is all I can say!!! We got back at 6:30pm having left at 10am. The hotel never checked on us and who knows if they would have. In the end it was a great adventure we'll always remember, and in some ways it was my favorite part of the trip. It was one of the best non-wildlife experiences and by far our best hike together yet, in my view.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Daintree Rainforest Hike

Gilligan's Island came to mind a lot while we were stuck on Wilson Island, waiting and waiting for the storm to pass. But it was a beautiful, remote place and we had books to read, and after about seven days we made our way off the island and eventually on to Phase Two of the trip - the Daintree Rainforest in Northest Australia, in Queensland.

It's a World Heritage site and one of the world's oldest primary rainforests, and home to the endangered cassowary bird (sort of like a colorful emu with a weird hat). It's wildlife and species rich and I was hoping to see some critters other than birds and sea creatures.

However, the highlight of this phase of the trip, for me, was a hike we did in the rainforest. We went a long way up a creekbed to a spectacular waterfall. We stayed at an older lodge in the rainforest and their literature said it was a somewhat rigorous three hour hike but worth it for the falls. We wanted to get some hiking in so we talked to reception about it to confirm the route, and set off, telling them we'd check back with them in the afternoon when we returned.

The hiking was in a creek bed with rainforest on either side; I took a photo of the creek bed displayed here. The forest was dense and cool and shady, which was a nice temperature for hiking. In some places the rocks on the side were dry and made good walking, but for most of time crossing the water or hiking IN the water was necessary. I ended up switching from hiking boots to Crocs very early on and doing the whole hike in Crocs. The rocks were slippery and footing had to be very carefully chosen. The farther we hiked, the larger the rocks became, until they were boulders. Some of the medium boulders appear in the second photo - they were larger upstream. Climbing the boulders was tricky, especially when they got water on them, as they became super slick in places. We both fell numerous times, but luckily we were not injured. It would be a bad place to sprain an ankle or break a leg.

After a few hours I began to wonder if the waterfall was an overstatement - it seemed we surely should have reached it, but we hadn't. I feared it oculd be a marketing ploy and the "waterfall" was really not much of anything but a small cascade of water, so each of those we came to I sort of wondered, "Surely this isn't it?" For the first few hours I thought we had a lot of time so I took some photos of fish in the clear blue water, of the red skinks on the rocks, of the red kingfishers who cried out over the rush of the water. But eventually we ran out of animal life except for spiders - those seemed to be everywhere and many of the webs would catch us across the face as we climbed. My husband ran into a web he could not even break with a stick it was so strong. I am sure the forest on either side teemed with creatures, but we didn't see them.

I like this type of hiking best of all because you have to think about it. I always learn something about myself each trip and one of the things I took away this time was a greater understanding of what makes a hike hell or fun for me. If it is just cardio, like climbing stairs, I despise it. If it's not so hot I want to die and I get to think about my footing and be alone in nature and things are beautiful, then I love it, even when it is hard. My hardest hikes have all been in rainforests and all been good.

The problem with this hike is that 3 hours in Australian hiking time = 8 hours in American hiking time, I am sorry to say. We ended up running out of light and having quite an adventure getting back. So Part II of the story for tomorrow. Today, the way up to the falls, we focus on the beautiful part of the hike, the part where I was watching fish with interest, the part where I wasn't worried yet about getting out of the forest, and the part where I hadn't met the terrestrial leeches yet.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Island Birds

The island had many Noddy Terns; a few are pictured above waiting out the storm in a tree. The storm was bad enough that a few days they stayed in the trees rather than going out to search for food. One sat on a branch outside my tent for at least six hours in the rain one afternoon.

There were also several ground birds called Rails, or "Rats" by the locals as they scavenge for food. One is pictured here - they have an interesting striped tummy and spotty back. Wilson Island is a protected National Park and the birds there have never been fed so they are not aggressive, just hopeful, but obtain food naturally in the wild. In contrast, on nearby Heron Island there was a turtle factory and now a resort. The rails there enter the restaurant, scavenge, and beg. I liked the spunky little guys.

Naturally there were also seagulls. There were mutton birds as well, which burrow underground. A park sign advised that some trees on the island have roots which are sticky and trap birds to use as fertilizer. (Wow!) I also saw two small songbirds and a kingfisher. One day after a raging night of storm two wild ducks appeared on the island as well.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Sea Creatures

Giant clams can be REALLY giant, five or six feet across. Here is a baby one that is about a foot and a half across, with blue lips. The lips come in all kinds of colors with variations. When then clams are really big and you see them while snorkeling, you can see their two openings in the lips, filtering things. If you touch them, the lips feel like our gums. This particular photo was of a clam taken at low tide when it was almost out of the water. I can't see how this is a good spot for him because as it gets bigger it will be out of the water in low tide and I can't see it surviving that way, but then, I am no expert.

Also pictured today is a weird little thing I've never seen before, stuck the to the rocks. On one side of the island these bug looking things were attached to the rocks at low tide, all over the place. The green border is mossy and spongy but they can move it and detach it from the rocks, so clearly it functions as locomotion and adherence, so I suspect it is similar to a starfish with suction cups on it. The bug like part is a hard exoskeleton and I have no idea what is inside. The other people on the island had no idea either. I've never seen it before, anywhere. If anyone knows what it is, please let me know!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Remote Wilson Island

Snorkeling the the Great Barrier Reef has been on my "to do list" for years, so we planned to do so from Wilson Island. To get there, you fly to Gladstone and then take a helicopter to Heron Island. From there, you take a boat to Wilson Island. Wilson has six tents (max 12 guests), no kids, and two "hosts," one of whom is a chef and the other a housekeeper/hostess. Meals are served in a main longhouse and the amenities tent houses toilets and a shower stall for each tent. Power is solar and water comes from both rainwater retention and a water barge. There is hot water in the showers.

The helicopter ride was my first, and was surprisingly smooth. They make you wear life jackets and watch a safety film. The film includes the helicopter brace position - and that's funny as one hand is across your forehead as if you are saying, on the way down, "Alas, woe is me!" I can't see how it provides any bracing but it would be funny so you could go down laughing I guess. This photo of the reef is taken from the helicopter. The browns are underwater coral.

The tents on Wilson are great - nice bed, nice furniture, hammocks, no leaking, and you can open or shut the windows. We left the front open. It looks out on the ocean and you can snorkel right off the front of your tent. The tents are arranged so you have some privacy. The view from the bed is awesome in all the tents. Ours is pictured here and was dubbed "Rapture" by the Island.

We planned five days but ended up getting literally stranded on the tropical island by a storm. There were two other guests and our two hosts, and the six of us rode out the storm. There was no way on or off the island for several days, so we communicated via radio, ran low on supplies (including being out of Diet Coke and salt, two of my favorite things), and ran out of things to say to the other two guests. Meals took FOREVER as the chef did not start one course until one finished, and making three hours worth of small talk with strangers every night became a little bit hard.

We ended up not getting to snorkel. We went out and tried a few times but either there was no visibility, it was too cold and choppy, or it was storming the whole time. We got some glimpses in, but that's it. We also walked out at low tide and saw lots of sea life and even a few corals. The island had birds but no other animal life that I saw except one or two insects.

While Wilson is not cheap (you don't want to know...) it was gorgeous, remote, lovely, secluded, quiet and great. We had nothing to do but read and sleep but it was a nice, though longer than planned, break.

Lone Pine Sanctuary

Flying into Brisbane from the U.S., we were scheduled to go to Lone Pine Sanctuary first as the trip kicked off. Lone Pine is a long established wildlife park which has a large number of koalas and other wildlife. You take a boat from the City about an hour or so up the river, and get a tour of Brisbane along the water as you go. It was winter there, but the weather was gorgeous with a clear sky, sun, and temperatures that did not warrant more than a fleece jacket.

I wanted to kick off the trip with a sanctuary visit because I think it is very interesting to get to touch and feel and see up close orphaned wildlife before seeing animals in the wild. It's neat to know how their coats feel and so forth, and as one would never wisely harass or pursue a wild animal, it's nice to get close up to animals in sanctuaries when it will not stress them. I try to visit only responsible ones with the animal's best interests (not profit) squarely in mind.

At Lone Pine, you can hold a koala. The cool thing is, they have enough koalas that each one only gets held for a small period of time every two weeks. This limited exposure of an hour every two weeks has not had a negative impact on the animals. Some "parks" only have one or two koalas and allowing too much handling stresses the animals out. I like to cuddle critters guilt free. Koalas I never did see int he wild this trip. They are not very active, and spend most of the time asleep. They are very, very cute though and what I learned this trip is how they feel (soft!) and how they smell (sweet! like eucalyptus room freshener). I loved holding one and she used her claws to hold my hand and balance on my arm as she laid sleepily against me.

You can also pet kangaroos. The kangaroos here are well fed, free ranging, and not that interested in food all the time. I like it when the animals gets to choose whether or not to interact, not the humans. Here, the kangaroos and wallabies can take or leave you and I enjoyed that. Most of them let me pet them for awhile and I enjoyed getting to know how they felt. I got to pet them while they lazed around and I enjoyed seeing them up close - their forearms, and of course the little joeys in pouches!!! Although it does not look comfortable to have one's legs curled up by one's ears, the joey's seem fine with it. I think the one pictured here is a Bennett's Wallaby baby but I am not positive.

Overall it was a very nice place and I recommend a trip there if you are in the area and wildlife crazy. As usual, the downside is these places have lots of kids, but this one was spread out enough I could avoid them somewhat. (I despise noisy kids, and no where more so than wildlife parks and zoos where kid noise disturbs the animals and even drives them into hiding sometimes).

The cruise to the sanctuary was also pleasant and offered good food, interesting commentary, and a pleasant river cruise experience. Overall, worth my time.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Back From Down Under!

Well, we are back from Australia and all our animals seem to be both healthy and happy to see us again! Overall it was a great trip and I'll blog about the wildlife we saw in the days ahead. I prefer to see wildlife in the wild as opposed to zoos or sanctuaries, but I ended up doing a good bit of both this trip for various reasons. It was fascinating to see and learn about marsupials and the array of them is spectacular.

As usual, the details about each place we stayed and restaurants, etc. is not reviewed in detail on the blog but is on TripAdvisor if you are interested. The blog will feature wildlife info and photos and reviews of zoos and sanctuaries and outdoor activities, primarily, with a little commentary here and there.

Australia was very pleasant to travel in. It's so huge it is hard to plan a trip there so I picked three areas along the East Coast to see - the Great Barrier Reef, the Daintree Rainforest and Tasmania. It's nice to have first world comforts in wildlife travel, which is new to me. Also, Australians seem to like Americans, and these days international travel has changed a bit thanks to the Bush policies that generally, the world hates. So it was nice to get no flak about politics in Australia, but everyone was up on the election here and every single person liked Obama except one lone Hilary supporter (McCain was a total zero).

I will say if you plan a trip there, allow alot of money and TIME for food. The food is very expensive as the waiters make a lot per hour ($18 and up I was told). You don't have to tip, if you do, 5% - 10% is great, not like the nearly mandatory 20% here. However, Aussies take time - they don't start one course in the kitchen until the other is done. So if you order an appetizer, it could be an hour before the entree and then another hour before dessert comes. (Also, they call appetizers "entrees" and entrees "mains". There are a lot of other words relating to food that mean something different there than here too, so watch out). So, plan at least 3 hours for dinner!

Quantas airlines was great to fly and we flew on an Aussie Airpass that gets you both international and domestic flights for a package and that was literally thousands less than buying just the domestic flights from them. So, if you plan a trip, look into that hard. I planned my trip through a company called Epic Private Journeys and asked them to take care of details, send me to remote areas with as few people as possible, focus on hiking and wildlife, and use local labor and independent hotels rather than chains. Also, to use only ecologically responsible accommodations and excursions. They did a good job with the trip and working within those parameters, as well as with handling last minute things that developed en route, so I would recommend them.