Central Queensland: Northern Hairy Nosed Wombats and other mammals

David Andrews just sent me this report of a recent trip to central Qld. He’s inspired me to head out there myself in a couple of weeks to look for the Wombats too, one of the world’s rarest mammals.


Wombats are unique to Australia: they are the world’s largest burrowing marsupials, with a number of endearing features such as backward-facing pouches so mum doesn’t fill them with dirt while digging, and an apparent propensity to cross streams by walking along the bottom (though I’ve never managed to verify this). There are only three species and the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat is by far the rarest. It formerly occurred west of the Great Dividing Range from central Queensland to southern NSW but was probably uncommon by the time white people settled the landscape. During the 19th century its range contracted further through competition from cattle, especially during droughts, and by 1937 the last known population was restricted to a cattle station in central Queensland. They are now protected in Epping Forest National Park, a 2750 ha island of brigalow in a sea of cattle ranches some 500 km west of Rockhampton. The last census estimated 138 of the wombats remained, although a wild dog and fox exclusion fence has seen the population increase slightly in recent years; successful translocations have now taken place.
Common Wombats are indeed common near Canberra where I live, and in 2010 I had made a special trip to Brookfield NP in South Australia to see Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat. In order to ‘complete the set’ I travelled out to Epping Forest as a volunteer with Dr Alan Horsup, who has been managing the Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat population for 20 years or so.

Itinerary 28 June – 5 July 2011
28 June Flew Canberra-Rockhampton with Virgin, connecting with Tiger Airways in Melbourne (by far the cheapest way to get to Rocky from Canberra: the
Melbourne-Rockhampton fare was about $80 one way). Met up with Alan Horsup, stayed with Ian and Cathy Herbert at their property Belgamba near
Mt Morgan.
29 June Viewed Herbert’s Rock Wallabies, visited 12 Mile Creek near Marmor to look for the rare Capricornia subspecies of Yellow Chat.
30 June Travel to Epping Forest NP via Emerald and Clermont.
1–3 July Volunteer work and wildlife-watching at Epping Forest NP.
4 July Return to Rockhampton via Taunton NP.
5 July Return flights to Canberra.

Herbert’s with the Herberts
Alan studied rock wallabies for his PhD and when I said I was keen to see Herbert’s Rock Wallaby he arranged for us to visit Belgamba, a property adjoining Bouldercombe Gorge, some 40km south of Rockhampton. The property is owned and managed by Ian and Cathy Herbert (no relation), two dedicated conservationists who kindly lent us their guest cottage for the night. The rock wallabies sun themselves on ledges of a low escarpment not too far from the Herberts’ house and we wasted no time getting to the site to try our luck. This required silence and stealth, as we had to peer over a cliff down at the rock wallabies without startling them. They were jumpy but we managed to see 3-4 about 20m away that afternoon before retiring to a great country-style dinner with the Herberts. On the way back to the guests’ cottage after dinner Alan and I startled a lone Rufous Bettong which bounded straight towards us, uttering a characteristic alarm hiss as it passed. I tried a bit of spotlighting along the entry road, where the Herberts had said some skittish Black-striped Wallabies were sometimes seen, but all I saw was a rather confiding Common Ringtail Possum. The escarpment was in shade the following morning but we had prolonged views of one more Herbert’s Rock Wallaby trying to get warm. Alan introduced me to the concept of ‘enjoying’ an animal – watching it long enough to obtain satisfactory views of salient features and/or behaviours – before moving on and leaving it to its own devices. Glimpsing something in the car headlights would scarcely count, but in theory there should be no upward time limit to ‘enjoying’ an animal as long as it was unstressed. Anyway, I liked the concept. It was time for us to peel off – I made a brief visit to 12 Mile Creek, near Marmor, where Yellow Chats are seasonally present. There were none that day and the only noteworthy find was a dead Masked Owl by the roadside.
The following day I met up again with Alan and a local photographer, Fran McFadzen, for the long drive to Epping Forest via Emerald, home of – wait for it – the world’s largest outdoor easel featuring a van Gogh painting. We had lunch in the shadow of this marvel, although I suspect the painting is not an original…
At Emerald we turned north for Clermont and the unsealed highway beyond, where a few macropods started to show in the remnant roadside brigalow as the day wore on: numerous Red Kangaroos, a few Eastern Grey Kangaroos and one or two Euros. It was a taste of things to come although large cattle posed a constant menace as they wandered over the road. Epping Forest is manned year-round by volunteer caretakers and although we arrived late in the day Alan immediately got to work inducting David and Val, the new crew. There’s always plenty to do: monitoring sand plots and remote cameras for predator activity, checking wombat feed stations as well as general maintenance. I amused myself by watching the abundant Black (Swamp) Wallabies around the compound; they were neither black nor swamp-inhabiting in this part of the world, although to be fair they were common in the broad, dry creek drainage that ran through this part of the park. Unlike southern swampies they were boldly and attractively marked, with a black ‘mask’, whitish flank stripe and white tail tip.

Stellar mammal-watching
Next morning Fran and I borrowed the caretakers’ flash mountain bikes for a tootle around the park, which was very quiet even in the early morning at this time of year; the real action was to happen that evening. Late afternoon was spent doing a transect of the park to count macropods – with dogs and foxes excluded macropod numbers quickly build up in good years. Winter nights can be surprisingly cool inland even at this latitude and we rugged up for some spotlighting after dinner. Alan drove as the four of us swept the dense buffel grass and tracks with spotlights, startling innumerable ‘Swamp’ Wallabies and Eastern Grey Kangaroos as we crawled along the park’s well-maintained tracks. Things were tense until eventually a Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat rushed out of the verge onto the track in front of us, giving great views before it ambled back into the undergrowth. Even caretakers, who are in the park every day, sometimes go for weeks without seeing a wombat so we were greatly relieved! The pressure was off and we ultimately saw no less than five wombats that night, the last one a big female just behind the park compound as we pulled up after the night’s drive! Two Rufous Bettongs were a bonus as we patrolled the boundary fence, which marks the dramatic ecotone between the cleared property next door and the intact brigalow remnant at Epping Forest.
The second full day was spent checking sand plots and wombat feeding stations for activity – it was a useful lesson in identifying animals by their tracks although almost everything except ticks had stopped moving by about 9 am. During the mid-afternoon lull I set up my camera near the birdbath, which was visited by a Spotted Bowerbird that liked to steal items of hardware for its nearby bower. That evening we did another round of the park spotlighting, starting at the boundary fence where Alan said he sometimes sees Spectacled Hare Wallabies. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before we rounded a gilgoi (a circular, water-filled depression caused by uprooted trees) and there sat a Spectacled Hare Wallaby directly ahead in the lights! This beautiful macropod was superbly marked with a shaggy rufous-grey coat and two thin stripes over its haunches, but the orange blaze across its face, giving it a Ninja Turtle–style mask, was spectacular. It sat calmly munching vegetation as we ‘enjoyed’ our view, before it eventually hopped away into the all-enveloping buffel grass.

Unbridled success
My short stay at Epping Forest had been a resounding success but the trip was to hold one more bonus on the way home. Taunton NP is a Special Scientific Reserve dedicated to protecting the last remaining natural population of Bridled Nailtail Wallaby. Its story is a familiar one: formerly common from central Qld to southern NSW, it was hunted extensively during the 19th and 20th centuries until it was deemed extinct by the mid 20th century. In an amazing development, in 1964 a fencing contractor reported he had seen this species after reading about it in a women’s magazine; of course no-one believed him but he duly returned a week later and plonked a fresh specimen on the counter at the national parks office.
We detoured at Clermont and headed for Taunton via the Lord’s Table NP, a series of mesas and volcanic peaks reminiscent of the Glasshouse Mountains in southern Queensland and apparently created by the Australian tectonic plate moving over the same volcanic hotspot. We arrived at Taunton mid-afternoon when nothing was moving, but gave ourselves a couple of hours to scan the understorey where we hoped to glimpse one of these well-camouflaged animals loafing in the shade. As the shadows lengthened we were eventually rewarded by one hopping across the road then pausing to scrutinise us. We waited a bit longer then left the park via more likely habitat and were rewarded by another one a few metres off the track. It initially bounded off a short distance, its forearms pumping characteristically then posed beautifully and long enough for us to ‘enjoy’ it again. Unfortunately it was strongly backlit by the setting sun so our photos were as bad as could possibly be taken during daylight …

The remainder of the trip was uneventful except that while I was out west Tiger Airways had been grounded for a breach of air safety regulations. I was obliged to pay for a full fare back to Canberra with Virgin at twice the price. This was the second time I’d struck out with Tiger this year as I’d missed the big cat at Ranthambore NP in India back in January. Grrrr.

Echidna 1 crossing the road north of Clermont; a few dead roadside.
Northern Long-nosed Bandicoot Tracks only at Epping.
Northern Hairy-nosed Wombat 5 spotlighting at Epping.
Common Ringtail Possum 1 at Belgamba.
Common Brushtail Possum Tracks only at Epping.
Sugar Glider A glider spotlighted at Epping HQ was probably this species, though views were poor and Squirrel Glider also occurs here.
Rufous Bettong 1 at Belgamba; two at Epping.
Euro 2 at Mistake Creek en route to Epping.
Eastern Grey Kangaroo Very common at Epping; a few roadside en route.
Red Kangaroo Common roadside north of Clermont; none at Epping.
Black (Swamp) Wallaby Very common at Epping.
Spectacled Hare Wallaby 1 at Epping
Rabbit 1-2 at Epping.

As this was mainly a trip to look for mammals I didn’t pay as much attention to the birds as I normally would; for example, I have no records of swallows or martins in my notes though I undoubtedly saw some. Squatter Pigeon occurs at Epping Forest NP though we surprisingly didn’t see any on this trip.
Australian Darter 1 roadside en route to Epping.
Little Pied Cormorant 12 Mile Creek
Little Black Cormorant 12 Mile Creek
Masked Lapwing common
Australasian Grebe 12 Mile Creek ; 2 on roadside pools near Epping
Magpie Goose common on floodplains near Fitzroy River
Hardhead 12 Mile Creek
Australian Wood Duck common
Grey Teal 12 Mile Creek
Pacific Black Duck roadside pools near Epping
Brolga heard at 12 Mile Creek; seen by Alan at Epping
White-necked Heron 1 at Wild Horse Dam, Epping
White-faced Heron common on roadside pools near Epping
Little Egret common roadside
Cattle Egret common roadside
Intermediate Egret common roadside
Eastern Great Egret common roadside
Striated Heron 1 at 12 Mile Creek
Australian White Ibis common roadside
Straw-necked Ibis several at Wild Horse Dam, Epping, inc. juveniles
Black-shouldered Kite several roadside en route to Epping
Black Kite common roadside en route to Epping
Whistling Kite common roadside en route to Epping
White-bellied Sea Eagle 1 at 12 Mile Creek
Wedge-tailed Eagle pair at Epping
Nankeen Kestrel several roadside en route to Epping
Brown Falcon 1 at Epping eating a snake on the ground; 1-2 roadside S of Epping
Peregrine Falcon 1 harassing ducks at 12 Mile Creek
Masked Owl 1 juvenile found dead at Marmor (roadkill)
Tawny Frogmouth 1 visited camp each night at Epping
Peaceful Dove several at Epping
Crested Pigeon common roadside
Common Bronzewing few pairs at Epping
Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo small group at Epping
Galah common
Sulphur-crested Cockatoo common
Little Corella common
Rainbow Lorikeet heard at Epping; 1 tame at Middlemount picnic ground
Red-winged Parrot seen by AH at Epping
Pale-headed Rosella common at Epping
Pheasant Coucal 1 roadside en route to Clermont
Laughing Kookaburra heard at Epping
Blue-winged kookaburra 1 at 12 Mile Creek; heard at Epping
Red-backed Kingfisher seen by AH at Epping
Sacred Kingfisher 1 at Clermont
Black-faced Woodswallow 1-2 flocks at Epping
Spotted Bowerbird 2 at Epping inc one bower near HQ
Brown Treecreeper 2-3 pairs at Epping
Variegated Fairy-wren 1 group inc coloured male at Epping HQ
Red-backed Fairy-wren Groups inc coloured males at 12 Mile Creek and Epping HQ
Yellow-rumped Thornbill flock at Epping
Western Gerygone heard at Epping
Black-faced Cuckoo-Shrike several roadside en route to Epping
Figbird common at Belgamba
Lewin’s Honeyeater common at Belgamba
Singing Honeyeater 2-3 at Epping
Blue-faced Honeyeater tame at Middlemount picnic ground
White-throated Honeyeater 12 Mile Creek
Yellow-throated Miner several at Walthum Station (next to Epping)
Grey-crowned Babbler several at Epping
Rufous Whistler common at Epping
Australian Magpie common
Pied Butcherbird common at Epping
Grey Butcherbird heard at Epping
Pied Currawong 1 at Belgamba & Emerald
Torresian Crow common en route and at Epping
Australian Raven several at Epping
Willy Wagtail common roadside and at Epping
Magpie-lark common
Apostlebird common at Epping & roadside en route; tame at Middlemount picnic ground
Grey Fantail common at Epping
Leaden Flycatcher 1 male at Belgamba
Restless Flycatcher 1 at Walthum Station
Jacky Winter common at Epping
Red-capped Robin 2 including a male at Epping
Australian Red-warbler Heard at 12 Mile Creek.
Tawny Grassbird 1 at 12 Mile Creek
Golden-headed Cisticola 1 male at Taunton NP
Australasian Pipit Several on tracks at Epping
Double-barred Finch Small flocks at 12 Mile Creek and Epping

Black-headed Python 1 recently dead roadside north of Clermont.
Gould’s Goanna A large specimen of what was probably Varanus gouldii was seen sunning outside a (presumably empty) wombat burrow at Epping. V. panoptes
also occurs here.
skink sp. 1 torpid Cryptoblepharus sp. skink in a woodpile at Epping HQ.

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