Wednesday, August 21, 2013

On the hunt with the lace monitor

This was the first post from my trip in 2011 to focus on natural history.  It dates from February 14 of that year.

Warning!  Parts of this note are graphic, like a true nature documentary...

A couple days ago I caught a bus from Lakes Entrance to Merimbula, officially crossing the border into New South Wales, my second Australian state.  Merimbula is a coastal fishing and tourist town surrounded almost entirely by some sort of conservation land—3 national parks, at least 2 nature reserves, and a ton of state forests.  Yesterday, my first full day, I decided to go to Bournda National Park, site of Bournda Lagoon.  The only problem, as always in Australia, was that it was a few miles away and the only way to get there was by car.  This has been a continual thorn in my side, so much so that it's become routine.  So, I walked a few miles on the side of a hot dusty highway with semis blowing past on a dirt frontage road meant for people on horseback, to get to the park boundary.  Then I had to walk a couple more miles on unimproved dirt roads through a construction site to get to the trailhead.  But, again like always, the rewards were worth it.

Right off the bat I found some of the largest termite mounds I've seen yet, about 5 feet high.  I spent a few minutes trying to break open one of the entrances to get a look at the termites but it was just so freaking hard!  I barely made a dent and gave up.  Then I found an awesome swallowtail, of which there aren't many in Australia.  I went on a loop hike around Bournda Lagoon, its billabong, and the creek that feeds it, Sandy Creek.  Near the beginning of the hike, while walking through tea-tree scrub, I surprised at least one swamp wallaby and watched it jump off into the undergrowth (you can actually feel the thump through your feet when they're that close).  I also found two Azure Kingfishers, beautiful turquoise and reddish birds, fishing in the creek, as well as my first Australian water striders.  The hike continued through a pocket of temperate rainforest and through moist eucalypt forest.  But the real treasure on this trip came later...

 Protecting a section of New South Wales coast, Bournda National Park contains a complex of lagoons, forests, dunes and rocky heaths.

 Near the coast the forest becomes a stunted thicket of coastal tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) with some scattered needlebushes (Hakea sericea) and Banksia species

Salt-tolerant tea trees grow in a dense wall along landward sides of the lagoons

 Near the end of the hike the trail opened out onto the beach surrounding the lagoon, covered in dune vegetation.  Almost immediately I found tracks in the sand that obviously belonged to some kind of monitor lizard—notably, there were distinct claw imprints and a thick heavy tail line.  I followed the tracks hopefully but they disappeared into the vegetation.  Further down the beach I found similar tracks and followed them until they disappeared up a hill into some heathland.  I gave up hope and started hiking through the heath, just admiring the rocky coast, when suddenly I heard a harsh, repeated, ear-splitting call coming from a clump of tea-trees to my right.  It sounded like a parrot or cockatoo but no adult bird would call like that.  There was something wrong with the call and it was too heedless of my presence.  I almost walked on but decided to check it out.  I approached the tea-tree cautiously with my binoculars...  Suddenly there was a SNAP! of breaking branches, and out of the tree, in a swirl of scales and fur, tumbled a four-foot long lace monitor with a brush-tailed possum in its mouth, hitting the ground with a heavy thud.  The possum was frantically struggling and calling and the monitor was whipping it around and clawing it.  The fight raged across the undergrowth and I tried to keep up while pulling out my camera.   I got the video recording just as the monitor pinned the possum against a log and the possum made its last call.  It was still alive but it had a huge gash in its abdomen and some of its guts were visible—there was no hope at this point.  Within a minute it was dead and the monitor dragged it into a sheltered spot, ripped off most of its fur with its claws, and then began tearing it open.  It ate a large chunk of its innards with a gulp and then swallowed the rest of the body whole headfirst.  I was close enough, maybe 25 feet away, to hear the crunch of bones and see the bulge slowly move down its throat as it cautiously looked at me every couple minutes.  When it was finished the monitor sluggishly moved away into the undergrowth.  The whole ordeal took about 20 minutes.  Now, it was certainly a sad event for the possum, but a necessary one for the monitor, and by any account I feel privileged to have witnessed it.  I've seen similar things before—assassin bugs stabbing bees, deer browsing young plants, skinks eating windscorpions, but this was on a larger scale than the others and the fact that the possum so audibly suffered made it different...  It was a valuable experience and worth sharing with you all.

 I stumbled upon a lace monitor (Varanus varius) killing a common brushtail possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

Anyway, today I am to get on a bus to Narooma, the only town north for which I could get a ticket.  I will hopefully be in Sydney within a few days.

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