The road to Jenolan Caves demands concentration: very narrow, lots of blind corners, falling rocks (don’t stop) and precipitous drops over the side. The occasional straight provided the chance to run through my wildlife bucket list for the weekend. It consisted of four rare species that occur in Jenolan’s limestone landscapes: Platypus, Brush Tail Rock Wallaby, Sooty Owl and Spotted Quoll. I’d seen all four but never photographed any of them in the wild.
The weir below the main cave complex creates a large pond of crystal clear water tinted blue by dissolved limestone. Platypus can be seen in the pond, which is easily accessed by the paths along both banks. We arrived about half an hour before dark. At first there was no sign of activity, but as the light faded a back broke the surface. The platypus slowly worked its way into the shallows near the head of the pool. Street lights gave a dim view of the platypus as it rested on the surface between dives.
Two more platypus joined the first over the next half hour. As far as wildlife encounters go it was a somewhat frustrating experience, more a series of glimpses than a clear view of the platypus. I wasn’t prepared to fry them with the sort of flash intensity that would be needed for a decent image and left with the hope that they would still be active in the morning.
No such luck, making this my first posting of a wildlife sighting without an accompanying photograph. One of the goals in my lifetime list is an underwater image of a wild platypus, which is clearly going to take a lot more effort!
Walking back to our rooms that night from the platypus pool we noticed wallabies feeding on the steep slopes above. They were Brush tailed Rock Wallabies. One of the reasons this species is threatened is that they are very vulnerable to predation by foxes. Another is that they were historically hunted for the fur trade. Seeing the gorgeous colours and markings of the juvenile rock wallaby made it easy to see why they had been targeted by hunters.
The following morning we met a guide who showed us fresh Quoll scats and mentioned that they’d seen a juvenile in the carpark at first light. It was nice to known they were definitely around.
Back to the bucket list, of the four rare species I hoped to see three were confirmed present, I got to see two and managed to photograph one. Special as it always is to encounter rare species, I’m not sure that they were the wildlife highlight of the trip. In fact, the species I really enjoyed watching over the weekend were ones that I’ve seen hundreds of times before.
The cliffs, crevices and creeks of Jenolan provide ideal habitat for Welcome Swallows. Swallows prefer to nest in nooks and crannies high on cliffs, and there were thousands of suitable sites around the caves. The nests seemed to be concentrated near the main entrances to the caves. There were many fledged chicks, capable fliers but without the endurance of the adults. They’d head off for a fly before returning to rest in small groups on a ledge. The juveniles have distinctive yellow rims around their mouths, a target that yells ‘feed me’ to the adult birds.
Welcome Swallows are a great subject for ‘bird in flight’ pictures because they often fly around a regular circuit. I have a bit of an obsession with trying to photograph them snatching insects off the surface of the water. Skilled as the swallows are there is no delicate plucking of the insect off the water’s surface as they skim by. On the contrary, the swallow crashes into the water as it grabs an insect, sending up a geyser of spray before heaving back into the air.
I sat on the edge of the river, watching the swallows feeding over the misty surface while waiting hopefully for a platypus. The light was too low for the fast shutter speeds needed to capture the action, but eventually the sun rose enough for a thin sliver of sunlight to find its way down to the creek. The beam of light attracted swarms of insects and the swallows responded by flying back and forth through the light. The light, the predictable flight path, a touch of ‘fill flash’ and a lot of luck came together to capture the energy of a surface feeding swallow. A most satisfying image to finish the year.
The same stretch of pond was home to several Eastern Waterdragons. Undaunted by the chilly water emerging from the caves they spent as much time underwater as on the banks. Around Sydney they are usually seen in ones or twos. There were waterdragons every couple of metres of bank in the weir pond, many displaying the bright red streaks of breeding colours.
The head of a pools is always the prime feeding area for the dominant predator. During the day this was a large and beautifully coloured Rainbow Trout. The trout competed with the swallows for fallen insects. An introduced species, spectacular to watch in clear shallow water.
I started the visit to Jenolan with high hopes of seeing some of the rare fauna of the karst (limestone cave) country. It was a successful trip from that perspective, and even more of a success in providing a fresh perspective on some common species of Sydney wildlife.
Odds and sods