Cape Range National Park

We arrived late at night after an all-day driving session from Hamelin Pool. While driving through the park we found the snake species we were looking for – the Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi).

Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi)
Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi).

It was a very small and cooperative individual. We moved it off the road and it sat there while we photographed it. We left it in peace and continued on to a nearby camp site, stopping to usher a spinifex pigeon (Geophaps plumifera) off the road.

Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi)
Pilbara death adder (Acanthophis wellsi).

Spinifex pigeon (Geophaps plumifera)
A spinifex pigeon (Geophaps plumifera) resting on the road at night.

We set up camp in the dark (we were getting pretty used to that by now) and went to sleep. We awoke the next day to find we were sharing our camp site with a long-nosed dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris) and a couple of German tourists.

Long-nosed dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris)
Long-nosed dragon (Amphibolurus longirostris).

We headed into the nearby town of Exmouth to get some supplies for our stay. You have to be careful driving along the main street in town because there are an awful lot of emus (Dromaius novaehollandiae) scavenging by the roadside for whatever they can find.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)
Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) in the streets of Exmouth.

Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae)
Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae) in the streets of Exmouth.

As we headed out of town we stopped at some beaches to check for any signs of turtle activity. It was the nesting season for a few species of sea turtles, and many of the beaches had the tell-tale tracks of green turtles (Chelonia mydas).

Turtle nesting sign
Turtle nesting sign at Exmouth.

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) tracks
Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) tracks.

We headed back to one of these beaches at sunset to look for female turtles coming ashore to nest.

Sunset over a beach at Exmouth, Western Australia
Sunset over a beach at Exmouth, Western Australia.

As we were taking some pics of (yet another) spectacular sunset, a green turtle emerged from the surf beside us.

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting at sunset
This female green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is hauling herself up the beach at sunset to nest.

We moved up the beach so as not to disturb her and, after hauling herself up the beach, she started to dig her nest. Turtles are very easily spooked during this stage of the nesting process, so we were careful not to disturb her with our movements or lights. First they dig a body pit by flicking sand away with their large front flippers. When this pit is deep enough they excavate a nesting chamber with their smaller back flippers. It is into this smaller chamber they lay 100 to 200 soft-shelled eggs. When they’re laying, they’re remarkably still and basically ‘out of it’. During this phase we were able to take photos by using long exposure times and a dim light.

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting
Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting on a beach at Exmouth, Western Australia. 5 min exposure at ISO 1600. Beach and turtle lit with a low-powered LED torch.

When she’d finished laying she started to cover her nest over by flicking sand back with her front flippers.

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting
Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) nesting on a beach at Exmouth, Western Australia.

The whole process took an hour or two. It was amazing, and a huge privilege, to be so close to such a large, ancient and impressive animal. The next day we headed down to the beach to see if any turtles were hatching. Sure enough, when we got out of the car we could see a stream of hatchlings heading down to the water. These little turtles are basically on auto-pilot when they emerge, and not even falling into a footprint will stop them. They just power along until they hit the sea, then swim until who-knows-when.

Hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas) making its way down the beach at Exmouth. Not even falling into a footprint could deter this little guy.

Hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas) making its way down the beach at Exmouth.

Hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
Hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas) making its way down the beach at Exmouth.

It’s estimated that only about one in one thousand hatchlings will survive to adulthood. The eggs are heavily preyed upon by land-based predators such as goannas and feral pigs. The beach was covered with cat/fox/dog tracks, so I imagine these ferals also have a huge impact on turtle survival. At night, the hatchlings are eaten by the large ghost crabs that frequent the beaches.

Giant Enemy Crab eating a hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
A Giant Enemy Crab eating a hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas).

During the day, seagulls patrol the beach looking for hatchlings and picking them off. I followed the hatchling in the photos above from when it hatched until it reached the water, only to see it snatched up by a seagull. Any carcasses not completely eaten by the crabs are finished off by the ants.

Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) being eaten by ants
A hatchling green turtle (Chelonia mydas) being eaten by ants.

The hatchlings aren’t the only ones who succumb. Sometimes a female turtle will become disorientated or exhausted after laying her eggs, and never make it back to the sea.

Dead green turtle (Chelonia mydas)
This female green turtle (Chelonia mydas) didn’t make it back to the sea after her nesting foray onto land.

One night, we followed the tracks of a female up a massive sand dune where she tumbled down to the bottom. She couldn’t get back up the same way she came, so she had to make a lengthy detour around the bottom of the dune. We tried to figure out how to help her back to the sea, but ultimately realised there was nothing we could do. We went back the next morning to make sure she wasn’t stuck behind the dune and were happy to see that she had indeed made it back to the water.

We went turtle spotting each night we were at Cape Range, and while driving back to our campsite at night we found a number of critters on the road.

Western hooded scaly-foot (Pygopus nigriceps)
Western hooded scaly-foot (Pygopus nigriceps).

Sandplain gecko (Lucasium stenodactylum)
Sandplain gecko (Lucasium stenodactylum).

Fat-tailed gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus)
Fat-tailed gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus).

Smooth knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus levis occidentalis)
Smooth knob-tailed gecko (Nephrurus levis occidentalis).

Northern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus ciliaris aberrans)
Northern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus ciliaris aberrans).

Northern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus ciliaris aberrans)
Northern spiny-tailed gecko (Strophurus ciliaris aberrans).

Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus)
Echidna (Tachyglossus aculeatus).

During the hot daytime, we went snorkeling at a few of the sites around the park. Turquoise Bay and the Oyster Stacks both had crystal-clear water, plenty of coral and an abundance of colourful reef fish. We also stumbled upon some cruising green turtles who weren’t the least bit perturbed by our presence. We decided that we need to get an underwater housing for the camera the next time we’re there.

We had wanted to check out some of the gorges in Cape Range to look for black-footed rock wallabies (Petrogale lateralis), but unfortunately there was an aerial goat shooting program going on while we were there. Ranger Ted told us about a gorge that was outside of the park (and therefore one were were able to visit without getting shot) so we headed there one afternoon to see what we could see. Along the way we drove by a pack of rainbow beeaters (Merops ornatus) eating bees and generally being merry. My 105mm macro lens isn’t very useful for birds unless I can get close to them, but I managed to get a few dodgy pics nonetheless.

Rainbow bee eater (Merops ornatus)
Rainbow bee eater (Merops ornatus).

We continued onto the gorge and reached it at sunset,

Sunset at Exmouth
Sunset at Exmouth.

We walked along the top of the gorge at dusk, hoping to see or hear some rock wallabies, but only managed to see some euros (Macropus robustus). We came to a rock slide and made out way down into the gorge. With no breeze at the bottom of the gorge, the heat was stifling. We walked along the bottom of the gorge and found some geckoes and insects.

Variegated dtella (Gehyra variegata)
Variegated dtella (Gehyra variegata).

Fulogorid nymph
Fulogorid nymph.

Antlion
A gigantic antlion, the larval stage of a lacewing insect (Neuroptera).

Giant cicada (Hemiptera)
A giant cicada (Hemiptera).

On the drive back we saw a fox skulking along the roadside.

Fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Fox (Vulpes vulpes).

The next day we packed up and left Cape Range. On the way out we saw a perentie (Varanus giganteus) stroll off the road and into the scrub. We of course followed and photographed it. Shortly afterwards, we saw a mulga snake (Pseudechis australis) on the road.

Perentie (Varanus giganteus)
Perentie (Varanus giganteus).

Perentie (Varanus giganteus)
Perentie (Varanus giganteus).

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis).

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis).

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis).

Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis)
Mulga snake (Pseudechis australis).

Something that surprised me was the number of road-killed animals we found on the road in the national park, such as this pair of central netted dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis). It’s a national park, so why people insist on speeding through it is beyond me.

Pair of roadkilled central netted dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis)
A pair of roadkilled central netted dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis).

On our last day we went snorkeling in a secluded and very shallow bay. The bottom of the bay was covered in sea grass, and we soon realised that this was a green turtle (Chelonia mydas) feeding ground. We saw half a dozen turtles feeding in the shallows, and unlike the turtles we snorkelled with on the reefs, these feeding turtles were very skittish in this murky water. We got out of the water to leave the turtles in peace. As I walked back through shin-deep water near the beach I nearly stood on a two-metre-long tiger shark (Galeocerda cuvier) cruising through the shallows. Needless to say I left the water completely and decided that it was probably a bad idea to swim in a murky sea turtle feeding area.

A bay at Cape Range National Park
A bay at Cape Range National Park. I nearly stepped on a large tiger shark in this bay.

About Stewart Macdonald

I'm a wildlife ecologist living and working in Queensland, Australia. I spend most of my time in the bush finding and photographing wildlife.
This entry was posted in Animal photos, Western Australia - Jan 2008. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Cape Range National Park

  1. ren says:

    the 5 min exposure on the turtle nesting is beautiful. you’d be happy with that.

  2. Your work is great ! Keep up the good work.


    Know About Indian Snakes
    http://www.snakecell.org

    Snake Photography Blog
    link

  3. Neil says:

    great pics and some lovely finds

  4. Joe Adair says:

    Incredible series. Thank you for the tour and the inclusion of all the species. Beautiful photos and great catches. -Joe

  5. Greg Miles says:

    I was showing my wife Linda your amazing reptile shots and we read your blog together and thoroughly enjoyed it thanks Stewart. What a great trip.

    Cheers, Greg & Linda Miles.