The plain-backed sunskink, Lampropholis couperi. ‘Coup’ to his friends. Found in rainforests on mountain ranges from about Rockhampton south to Mt Nebo. To most, a little brown skink. To me, species number 248 on my life-list. I didn’t muck around. I went straight to the source of the skink’s patronym: Patrick Couper from the Queensland Museum. Patrick told me that his namesake skink is common along rainforest walking tracks up at Mt Nebo, on the northern outskirts of Brisbane. Sorted. I had a target and a destination.
Dragging along my good friend Ryan, I headed up the mountain. I’ve spent a fair amount of time up here, but it’s usually been at night looking for nocturnal reptiles. Prior to today, I think I’d been up here once during the day on a reptile hunting trip (I had been up here once or twice during the day to check some mammal traps, but I didn’t have time to look for reptiles). There are a number of walking tracks in D’Aguilar Range National Park (the park covering Mt Nebo and Mt Glorious). We selected one based solely on its proximity to the Mt Nebo township, and therefore its proximity to a source of honeycomb MaxiBons. We parked the car and headed off on foot. The particular track we had selected started out in an open eucalypt forest, not ideal habitat for our quarry. A few minutes into our walk, a blur of movement at my feet caught my attention. It was a little brown skink. Not only was it a little brown skink, it was a little brown Lampropholis skink. My heart skipped a beat. Was it really going to be that easy? We weren’t even out of sight of the car. I put my binoculars to my eyes and my heart sank. The pale mid-lateral line identified this little brown skink as Lampropholis delicata, quite possibly the most common skink in Brisbane and quite probably the first reptile I ever saw in Australia. Turns out it wasn’t going to be that easy. Not to worry. Finding Coup in open forest would be pretty unusual. We kept walking and soon left the open forest and entered the darker atmosphere of the rainforest.
It was 9:30 AM. The skies were clear but the air was cool from recent storm activity – summer storms are synonymous with Brisbane. We’d come up the mountain early, hoping to find the skink before the air temperature rose too high. There were patches of dappled sunlight scattered on the ground and it was in these patches I was hoping to catch a glimpse of Coup and his mates. On a typical fauna survey, we’d install pit-fall traps and let them do the hard work. As Coup was a personal quest, it would be down to finding him the old fashioned way. I kept my eyes on the ground just ahead of me, looking for movement. More importantly, I kept my ears on full alert, waiting for the tell-tale rustling of leaves that would belie the presence of a scurrying skink. I didn’t have to wait long. Another blur of movement off to the side of the track. Even without the binoculars I could tell that it was Coup. And he was massive, at least 50,000 micrometers from snout to vent. The largest individuals of a species don’t get to be that way by taking risks. Coup was large, old and wise. He didn’t hang around. As soon as he saw me, he darted into the leaf litter. We waited for a minute or two, but he didn’t resurface. But I was stoked. I’d just had a look at species 248 on my list. Not a long look, admittedly, but a look nonetheless. I could happily tick the ‘seen alive’ box in my list. But, being the greedy person I am, I also wanted to tick the ‘photographed alive’ box. So, much to Ryan’s disappointment, we weren’t done yet. We kept walking. We knew that Coup was here and we knew that Coup was active. All we had to do was spend enough time searching and I had no doubt we’d find one who wouldn’t shy away from my camera. We kept walking.
I heard a rustle just behind me. I spun around to see the characteristic mottling of a Saproscincus foraging in the leaf litter. He didn’t seem too perturbed by my presence, so I slowly got out my camera, knelt on the ground and photographed him as he went about his business. The only species of Saproscincus that has been recorded from this area is S. rosei, a species I’ve seen many times down at Lamington National Park. While it wasn’t a new species for me, seeing any reptile in the wild is always a thrill.
The shadeskink soon moved off into the distance, and Ryan and I continued walking. We reached a boardwalk that encircled a strangler fig. Walking up and along the boardwalk took us further off the ground and therefore further away from our strictly terrestrial skink, but the boardwalk was our only option (unless we wanted to bush-bash our way around it). We walked along the boardwalk, admiring the strangler fig along the way, and then reached the dirt track on the other side. This was the halfway point of the track, so we started heading back toward the carpark.
The excited cry came from behind me. Ryan had spotted something. I turned to see him emphatically waving his finger at a small, brown skink darting into a hollow log. It was Coup. It was gone. I stuck my head in the other end of the hollow log, but there were too many nooks and crannies in which he could hide. Again we waited patiently for a few minutes. Again he failed to reappear. We trudged on, once again entering the open forest. As the canopy cover decreased, so did our chances of finding another Coup. Back at the carpark we assessed our situation. I’d had good looks at two individual skinks, and I was confident in my identifications. I could definitely tick the species. I was one third of the way to completing my goal. But I didn’t have any photographic proof. The old saying photos, or it didn’t happen echoed in my head. We had no choice. We’d have to keep searching. It was still only early, and I didn’t have any other plans for the rest of the day. We set off again, powering through the open forest and trying to get back into the rainforest as quickly as possible. We slowed down when we reached the denser forest. We stopped at the spot where we had first laid eyes on Coup, but he was nowhere to be seen. We continued on, reaching the boardwalk. About 10 metres along the boardwalk I stopped to wait for Ryan to catch up (he’d stopped to investigate a rustling noise, but had come up empty handed). As I was waiting, I saw movement on the forest floor below me. I raised my binoculars to my eyes and saw Coup foraging in the leaf litter.
“Ryan! I’ve got one!”
I leapt over the handrail and landed with a thud! on the ground. Coup either didn’t notice me, or didn’t care. Ryan arrived at the scene and passed down my camera. I got down on all fours and crept closer. Coup still showed no signs of annoyance. Pop! My flashes went off explosively. I thought he’d bolt, but Coup just froze for a second before continuing on with his business. I stayed like this for a few minutes, managing to get a number of photos (and managing to be bitten by every mosquito in the vicinity).
Coup eventually disappeared into the leaf litter. I stood up, elated, and passed my camera gear to Ryan, who’d been watching with amusement from the boardwalk above. Ryan’s always up for an outing, but he doesn’t understand my obsession with even the smallest and brownest of small, brown skinks. I clambered back up to the boardwalk and we headed back to the car.
One down, three to go. Stay tuned….