So I got back from my big Kimberley trip in early August with my life-list of Australian reptiles totalling 291 species. That gave me five months to see another nine new reptile species if I wanted to reach my goal of 300 by the end of 2010. Nine species over five months? I could do that without even trying, surely?!? Well, the abnormal rains and an unexpectedly high workload (or maybe just my complete lack of time management skills) ensured that my task wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d thought.
I made a few trips in the second part of the year, the largest of which was over to the USA. While I saw a bunch of new species over there, my target of 300 had to be made up of Australian species. After returning from the States, I made a number of trips for both work and pleasure.
- South Australia for a conference – three repticks
- Mary River in an (unsuccessful) attempt to find Mary River turtles. Well, I found turtles in the Mary River (including a turtick), but not the Mary River turtle
- Northern Brigalow Belt – one reptick
- Gulf of Carpentaria – one reptick
- Coastal heaths in Northern New South Wales – no repticks, but one amphibitick
It was now mid-December and my yearly total was 297. Three species to go in about three weeks. I knew I had old photos on my computer of animals I couldn’t ID at the time I found them and had just left them in the too-hard-basket, but I wanted to try and find some new live animals before resorting to photicks.
For the last couple of years, the species at the top of my ‘Snakes I really want to see alive in South East Queensland’ list has been the southern dwarf crowned snake (Cacophis kreftii). I’ve seen a number of dead individuals (including a still-wriggling one), but I’d put my inability to find a live one down to a localised extinction. Either that, or my eyes just weren’t up to finding a tiny black snake on a large black road at night. I’d almost given up hope that I’d ever find one and the current weather was so wet, finding one any time soon didn’t look likely. But a stinking hot and relatively dry (though still humid) day saw a friend and I heading up a local mountain to see what we could see in the rainforest. Turns out we couldn’t see much. Nothing on the drive up except some very common frogs.
We stopped at some ponds to try to find some uncommon frogs, but only found more common ones.
We got to the top of the mountain and went looking (successfully) for leaf-tailed geckos. Finding a leaf-tail up there is pretty much a certainty, even if it’s 20m up a tree. It was getting late, and the fuel gauge on the car was getting worryingly close to the E side of things. Coasting down the mountain at speed, I saw a relatively large, black snake on the road. I yelled out ‘Snake!’, but, thinking it was just an eastern small-eyed snake (Cryptophis nigrescens) – the most common largish black snake in the area – I wasn’t too concerned about stopping. Chris, however, reasoned that this was the one and only snake we had seen that night, and we were definitely stopping. By this time, the needle of the fuel gauge was dipping below the empty line. We stopped, I got out and half-heartedly jogged up to where the snake was on the road. Yep, a thrashing, black snake. Boring. But then the animal stopped thrashing and I saw the unmistakable pale line going across the nape. My heart skipped several beats as I realised I was staring at my first completely alive southern dwarf crowned snake, and reptick number 298. The snake scooted off the road and we managed to get some pictures of it.
Elated, we continued coasting down the hill, leaning into the corners in an effort to make ourselves more fuel efficient. It was hot, the air conditioning was of course turned off, and so we had the windows down. Coasting by a small pond on the side of the road, we heard the characteristic squeaking of a frog’s distress call. Once you’ve heard a frog’s distress call, you’ll remember the sound forever. I’ve heard it many times, and always when the poor frog is being consumed by a larger frog or a snake. Despite us now running on vapours, we pulled over to investigate. After all, we were going down the mountain – gravity would be on our side even if the fuel tank wasn’t. It didn’t take us long to find the source of the sound: an emerald-spotted tree frog (Litoria peronii) being eaten by a rough-scaled snake (Tropidechis carinatus).
We watched the snake until it had finished its meal and slithered off. We then got back in the car (thankfully it started) and continued down. We got to the bottom of the mountain and were amazed that the engine was still running. We knew we didn’t have enough fuel to get anywhere, and with the local petrol stations closed at this ungodly hour, we phoned the RACQ.
“RACQ. This is Linda speaking. How can I help you?”
Me: “Hi Linda. I just saw a southern dwarfed crowned snake but now we’re just about to run out of fuel.”
Linda: “That’s awesome! I was starting to think they might have been extinct. But you haven’t actually run out fuel yet?”
“Err, no, not yet.”, I said.
“Sorry, we can’t help you unless you’re actually broken down.”. Linda was being obstinate.
“Oh, OK, well, I guess we’ll just… Oh, fancy that. We’ve just this second completely run out of fuel.”, I lied.
The rest of the night was uneventful. The RACQ guy came out and gave as some fuel, and we went on our merry way. It was a memorable end to a very memorable night.
Finding the southern dwarf crowned snake took my total to 298 species. I had just two more to go. I was keen to get out and tick the bejiggery out of these last species, but then that pesky thing called Christmas got in the way. Christmas is great in theory. No work, but invariably you’re expected to spend time with family. I was looking forward to going down to my Uncle’s farm in northern New South Wales, as I would be able to get out into the bush after having done the obligatory family thing, but the rains had swollen the local river and cut off the one and only bridge into his property. So the Christmas festivities were moved to another house in town, a long way away from any potential repticks.
After Christmas, I had to catch up on some work. Long story short, it was December 31 before I was able to get back out into the bush and try for my final two repticks. One day. Two species. It was going to be tough. I wasn’t going to be able to do it by myself. I needed help. I needed a miracle. I needed Robert. After his extraordinary effort in finding me a saltbush slender blue-tongue (Cyclodomorphus venustus) last year, Robert has become my go-to man when I need to track down rare and cryptic species. But not just any species. Robert doesn’t bother with the charismatic species such as large venomous snakes or velociraptors. No, his passion is little brown skinks. I put in the call, and Robert was only too happy to help. He told me the plan. We’d head up the Sunshine Coast and track down elf skinks (Eroticoscincus graciloides) and garden skinks (Lampropholis guichenoti). I was dead keen to see Lampropholis guichenoti, as it’s not uncommon on the Sunshine Coast. In fact, when talking to a local mate of mine on the phone he often says ‘oh look, there’s a guichenoti walking along my verandah’. Of course, every time I go up to his house, the skinks are nowhere to be seen. Anyway… Along the way, we’d also have a crack at Mary River turtles (unlikely due to the very heavy recent rains, but worth a shot anyway) and both species of Ophioscincus. Unfortunately, the day involved lots of dampness, lots of driving, lots of walking, lots of despair, and only one new reptick: the yolk-bellied snake-skink (Ophioscincus ophioscincus) found late that night.
We did track down a dead elf skink (the second dead one I’d seen), but of course a dead elf skink does not make a reptick. It was 11 PM on New Years Eve and I was at 299. We called it a day and went to get some Honeycomb Maxibons. As 2010 drew to a close, the only thing that kept me from openly weeping into Robert’s arms was knowing that there was a very good chance I’d get a photo tick after trawling through my old pics.
So that’s what I did. Early in the new year I went back over all the pics in my ‘need to ID this’ pile. I found a number of photos where I was pretty sure I could now ID the species, but I needed to be certain. If I wasn’t 100% confident in the ID, the photo remained in the pile. Finally I found a photo that I could ID as best as anyone could. It was of a Lerista taken in the Simpson Desert in 2007. At the time we weren’t sure if it was Lerista xanthura or L. aericeps. Looking in the third edition of Wilson & Swan’s A complete guide to reptiles of Australia I see that the relationship of these two species is still unclear, but that the Queensland animals are referred to L. aericeps. Photo-reptick! 300! Goal reached! Victory! A somewhat hollow victory, given that I didn’t know I’d seen 300 species by the end of 2010 until sometime in 2011, but a victory nonetheless. I decided that, as a mild form of punishment, I’d set myself a loftier goal for 2011. Instead of the usual 50 new species in the year (which of course gets harder and harder to do as I reduce the pool of available repticks), I was determined to see more than 50. But what’s reasonable? 60? 75? 100? A friend has promised me a carton of Honeycomb Maxibons if I get 100 new species, which is quite the incentive. At the moment the goal is to get at least 50 new species this year. I knew it would be tough, but I was determined. So on January 4, 2011, I jumped in a car with a mate and drove to Alice Springs.