Fwd: from the Top End

To: birding aus <>
Subject: Fwd: from the Top End
From: Russell Woodford <>
Date: Thu, 10 Jul 2003 14:40:28 +1000

Begin forwarded message:

From: Goodfellow <>
Date: Sat Jul 5, 2003  10:07:25  AM Australia/Sydney
Subject: from the Top End


Last month I spent a week with a film crew  who were making a series on
Australian reptiles.

Day one: my Aboriginal relatives and I accompanied the crew to wetlands
near Fogg Dam.  A couple of decades ago this area was a huge lagoon but
with the decimation of buffalo and pigs it has become overgrown with
vegetation - large white and mauve waterlillies (Nymphea spp.) and tiny
fringed lillies (Nymphoides spp) and masses of spike-rush (Eleocaris

There wasn't much time for birdwatching a real shame as the director
Duncan Chard was also a birdwatcher.  Also we were bent double most of
the time gathering up great armsful of vegetation in the hunt for snakes
and turtles.   However I did glimpse a few - namely White-bellied
Sea-Eagle, Rainbow Bee-eater, Crimson, Double-barred and Long-tailed
Finch, and Tree Martin.

As for reptiles they were conspicuous by their absence although I did
feel a long-necked turtle with my toes! (I wonder if 'feeling counts on
a list!).

Day 2 - Kakadu
The next day the film crew and I drove to Kakadu where the presenter,
cameraman and I hopped aboard a helicopter to fly to the escarpment. It
was a great opportunity to look for raptors.  But believe it or not the
sky was empty.

The helicopter whisked us to a huge rock platform which towered above the
escarpment, settled to let us out, and then flew circles above us
Leighton the cameraman filming all the while. I kept my eyes peeled for Arnhem Land endemics such as Chestnut-quilled Rock-pigeon. However the
only other obvious inhabitant was another endemic, Black Wallaroo which
left the scene in a hurry.

The scenery was breathtaking - our perch was surrounded on all sides by
ragged cliffs and jutting ridges and deep canyons.  I stood at the edge
scanning with my binoculars. Then suddenly the helicopter flew to within
a few metres of our heads and we were nearly blown into the great chasm
by the blasting wind from the rotor blades. I hurriedly stopped scanning
and held onto a large rock!

Baby Dreaming
The next day we set off for Gudjekbinj-Baby Dreaming.  Duncan wanted to
film our vehicle fording Cahill's Crossing at the East Alligator River,
the male presenter driving of course!  But he scrapped the scene as the
water wasn't deep enough to look dangerous!

We camped at Kikkiyaw, Little Bird Dreaming. This beautiful area at the
western end of the Arnhem Land escarpment consists of  sandstone rock
pillars, arches, platforms and outcrops surrounded by fine white sand in
which grow little fan palms (Livistona inermis), stocky, taller palms
(Gronophyllum ramsayi)  and an assortment of eucalypts and other trees.
Between the trees grow spinifex (Triodia  sp.), a euphorb Petalostigma
quadriculare (not a stunning plant but I like the scientific name!);
Wirdl wirdl (Haemodorum  sp. used for colour for weaving) and other
herbs.  At sunset the sienna and burnt orange rocks look as if liquid
gold has been spilled upon them.  Very beautiful.

Just twenty metres from where the crew set their tents there are little
caves until only a few decades ago inhabited by the traditional owners,
the Djalama clan.  And there are ancient paintings, of pregnant women,
baby spirits, Naworo, fish and many I didn't recognise.

Every morning I rose early to search for snakes, particularly the large
(4 m.) Oenpelli Python said by my son Peterson to inhabit the area. One of our party found tracks he said looked as if someone had rolled a large
tyre along, and I glimpsed an Olive Python, but nothing the crew could
film.  I did suggest the crew return a few months later in the right
season but they werent' responsive!

There were many lizards, namely Varanus tristis and V. panoptes, geckoes
such as Oedura gemmata (endemic to the area); O. marmorata, Gehyra
pamela, G. nana, and one I couldn't identify.  Also Rainbow Skinks,
mainly Carlia amax.

The next night Peterson and Wesley (my sons) painted themselves and put
on an incredibly beautiful dance performance under the stone walls of
Kikkiyaw.  One song they sang, about the Blue-tongued Lizard was
particularly unforgettable - gentle and haunting (I thought of Debussy's Afternoon of the Fawn - I forget the French). The paint was made from
rocks out of a creek near the outstation and applied with a brush made
out of a frond from L. inermis.

In 16 years of marriage Stephanie, my daughter-in-law had never seen her
husband (my son Peterson) painted up and dancing before -  she was
enthralled as were the crew.  She only had one complaint - the way
Peterson had tackled the absence of 'nagas'.  He had torn up one of her
bed sheets!

Next morning we went to Yirrkak where Peterson was filmed calling out to Ngyalod (Rainbow Serpent). We spent an unsuccessful few hours searching
for File Snake among the roots of pandanus in the waterholes at Baby
Dreaming, me going in up to my waist in the water. Then Peterson heard
from relatives that they had caught two the previous night -
unfortunately the reptiles had already been eaten.  We arranged to meet
up next day at the nearby Goomadeer River. But we weren't going to catch
the snake by feeling around in pandanus roots - the Goomadeer here is
home to big  crocodiles).

What one does instead is fish for the snakes, but we needed bait. While
my relatives fished with handlines, I waded into the shallow water to
throw a net, staying well away from the edge of the big holes.  When my
net snagged on a branch I called to Leighton and Bruce the presenter
standing on the bank - would one of them enter the water to stand behind me as I bent to free the net? (Bending double reduces one to snack-size
for a large crocodile!)

Leighton responded immediately, grabbing a big stick as he entered the
water (I wasn't surprised he was game - he worked on the Big Cat Diary
and had some hair-raising tales to tell!).  We caught two Arafura File
Snakes (Achrochordus arafuae) - Gedjebe in Kunwinjku.  They were cooked
and eaten that night, the 'old ladies' (including myself and Stephanie)
being served first.

Working 15-17 hour days didn't leave much time for birdwatching but I did see a Peregrine Falcon (it dived into grass to the side of our vehicle);
four Banded Fruit-Doves flying over the camp, Sandstone Shrike-thrush,
White-throated Honeyeater and Black-tailed Treecreeper and Great
Bowerbird.  However I plan to go back in early October to carry out a
proper biological survey with Paul Horner, curator of vertebrates at the
NT Museum and Dr. Graham Brown an entomologist.  If any Birding Ausser
with relevant field experience and the sensitivity to get along with
semi-traditional women is interested in volunteering their services,
please contact me personally.


Denise Goodfellow  (Lawungkurr Maralngurra)
61 (0)8 89818492

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