Cooktown – a herpetological endeavour

After the parrot-viewing, we headed back south and then towards the coast and Cooktown. We’d spent longer with the parrots than we’d expected, so we were running behind time (which is to be expected when traveling with me). We had only a couple more days, and many more animals to harass. We wanted to get into Cooktown before dark, because our next target would go into hiding when the sun went down.

Black Mountain rises like a stack of charred meatballs left behind by some careless Swedish giant. Originally a single piece of Trevethan Granite that solidified in the Permian Period, the mountain took its current form as millions of years of weathering caused the rock to fracture into a myriad of boulders. The black coloration is formed from a coating of lichen, with the underlying granite being a pinkish-grey colour.

Black Mountain
Black Mountain, part of the Black Trevethan Range in north-east Queensland

Black Mountain
Black Mountain, part of the Black Trevethan Range in north-east Queensland. Featuring Jordan for scale.

The boulders are home to three endemic species: a frog, a skink and a gecko. We arrived in plenty of time, and the Black Mountain skinks (Liburnascincus scirtetis) were out in force. The skinks flitted effortlessly across the rocks, leaping from boulder to boulder to keep us at a distance. It was certainly easy to see them, but getting decent photos was proving to be hard. Despite their grace in real life, all my photos of them make them look awkward. I think it’s because they’re perpetually on vertical surfaces. My poor photography skills might also have something to do with it.

Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)
Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)

Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)

Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)

Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)

Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)
Black Mountain skink (Liburnascincus scirtetis)

We eventually had our fill of chasing little black skinks around the boulders, so we headed into town to sort out accommodation for the night. We got the inside scoop on where to go for tree kangaroos, so we headed south towards Shiptons Flat. We didn’t find any tree roos, but we did manage to find a reptick: Glaphyromorphus nigricaudis.

Black-tailed bar-lipped skink (Glaphyromorphus nigricaudus)
Black-tailed bar-lipped skink (Glaphyromorphus nigricaudus)

Wood frog (Rana daemeli)
Juvenile Australian wood frog (Rana daemeli). This thing was tiny, and for a moment we thought we’d stumbled across one of the Wet Tropics’ extinct Taudactylus.

Later in the afternoon we headed back out to Black Mountain. We had arranged to meet up with Aaron, a seriously hardcore frogger who was also travelling in North Queensland. Together we chased a few more skinks, then started looking for geckos and frogs as the sun went down.

Coastal ring-tailed gecko (Cyrtodactylus tuberculatus)
Coastal ring-tailed gecko (Cyrtodactylus tuberculatus)

Black Mountain gecko (Nactus galgajuga)
Black Mountain gecko (Nactus galgajuga). The species name comes from Kalkajaka, an Aboriginal word for the mountain.

Various geckos were out in abundance, and easy to see from a distance due to their eye-shine. We also walked through some of the pockets of rainforest tucked among the boulders, where we spotted a brown tree snake. Unfortunately, the dry conditions meant the endemic frogs were probably tucked away deep in the crevices between boulders. While Aaron wanted to spend every last moment looking for the frog (this was one species he was desperate to see), Chris, Jordan and I wanted to head out onto the roads to see what we could find. Aaron had seen a dead northern death adder on the road as they drove in, so we figured we were in with a shot of finding some interesting beasts out and about. At this point, I was delusional from a lack of sleep (I’d slept about two hours on the side of the road the night before) so I curled up on the back seat and let Chris and Jordan find stuff. I seem to remember them finding some Burton’s legless lizards (Lialis burtonis), but not much other than that. We did, however, find what was a new frog for all of us.

Bridled frog (Litoria nigrofrenata)
Bridled frog (Litoria nigrofrenata)

Eventually, Chris and Jordan tired and we headed back to the caravan park. The next morning we headed back to the Mountain to try to get some decent shots of the skink. Chris was happy with his photos, so he wandered off to look for rock-wallabies. Jordan and I were just putting our cameras together when Chris yelled out incomprehensibly. We figured he’d just seen a bird or something equally unexciting, but then he yelled out again. This time we heard it. “I’ve got the frog!”. Jordan and I looked at each other, unconvinced. With five of us having spent the better part of last night searching for the frog, we thought it unlikely that Chris would stumble across one at 9 in the morning on a hot, sunny day. But we wandered over to Chris to indulge him. He had, after all, been the only one of us to spot the gecko the other night. As we approached, we realised that Chris was indeed onto the frog. The unmistakable quack-quack-quack of Cophixalus saxatilis was emanating from a deep boulder crevice. Having heard stories of people entering such crevices and not returning, I was a little hesitant. But there was a frog on the line, damn it, so in we went. Crawling our way down, we ended up about 10m underground, with several male frogs calling. Despite all the echoing, it didn’t take long to find them. To make our descent easier, we’d only taken one camera, passing it down to each other when clambering became tricky.

Black Mountain frog (Cophixalus saxatilis)
Black Mountain frog (Cophixalus saxatilis)

Black Mountain frog (Cophixalus saxatilis)
Black Mountain frog (Cophixalus saxatilis)

We took turns with the camera, then rushed back up to the surface to phone Aaron. He must have been out of range, because his phone kept ringing through to voicemail. We knew where he was staying, so we jumped in the car and dashed down to the Lion’s Den hotel. Checking with the European backpacker (concentrate, Stewart!) staffing the counter, we were dismayed to find that Aaron had packed up and left an hour or two earlier. He’d now be out of phone coverage until he reached Cairns, where he’d get a flurry of text and voice messages letting him know just how narrowly he’d missed out on seeing the frog. We had arranged to met up with him later that night for another bout of frogging, so we’d be able to console him then. As we walked back to the car, we stumbled across a serendipitous skink: Carlia longipes. After photographing it, we got back in the car and headed south.

Closed-litter rainbow-skink (Carlia longipes)
Closed-litter rainbow-skink (Carlia longipes)

My running total: 358 repticks

Repticks:
Liburnascincus scirtetis
Nactus galgajuga
Carlia longipes
Glaphyromorphus nigricaudis

Amphibitick:
Cophixalis saxatilis
Litoria nigrofrenata

Avitick:
Pied Imperial-Pigeon (Ducula bicolor)

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.
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One Response to Cooktown – a herpetological endeavour

  1. Ed says:

    Stewart,

    am I correct in thinking the saxitilis photos are of a male? If so, did any of the other calling males exhibit the same yellow colouration?