A Reptile Trip to Flinder’s Island, Tasmania.

by on Sep.29, 2012, under Birds, Fauna, Information, Invertebrates, Location, Mammals, Reptiles, Tasmania

A Trip to Flinder’s Island, Tasmania.

Simon Watharow

Typical heathland habitat for Flinders Island.

Flinders Island lies to the north east of Tasmania and has a surface area of 1376km sq. It lies in the region known as the Furneaux Group, which includes the well Known Mt. Chappell Island, but other islands exist Clarke Island and Cape Barren Island. Roughly 950 people live on Flinders Island and agriculture and fishing are the two employment opportunities. Weather patterns in the Flinders Island are generally mild. Rainfall is heaviest in the winter months may to October and range from 600mm to 800mm in the central hills. The mean minimum temperatures for July are 6.0 degrees and the mean maximum in February is 22.5degrees.  Winds are predominantly westerlies, which may blow for several days particularly late winter and early spring. The coastal waters and Bass Strait are subject to variable winds and high seas.

Granite hillside near Killiecrankie.

The island geology is granite based with large formations that occur at Strzelecki Range and Mt. Killiecrankie. A large surface area of the island is sand dune dominated. Highest peak is 756m on Mt Strzelecki. The main and larger lagoons exist on the eastern side of the island notably Cameron’s Inlet. The deep calcareous sandy soil structure on this island supports woodland, heathland and grassland. Low lying areas are a mix of heathland and tussock grassland. While further along the granite ranges denser woodland and forested gullies exist.

Rescued a beautiful white Echidna off the road. Mild injuries.

Wildlife on this island is surprisingly large and very diverse with some notable Tasmanian endemic species, Tasmanian Wombat (Vombatus ursinus), Cape Barren Geese (and Green Parrots. Two extremely important factors make this island a haven no foxes and no rabbits unfortunately there are feral cats, rodents and pigs. Flinders Island has 150 species of birds, 16 native mammals includes Flinders Island is a unique sub‐species of Wombat (Vombatus ursinus ursinus) once found throughout the Bass Strait Islands but now restricted to Flinders Island. , 12 species of reptiles and 6 frogs recorded. I was invited to collect Blotched Blue Tongues (Tiliqua nigrolutea) and snakes over 7 days for the Australian Rickettsial Reference Laboratory out of Geelong Hospital studying (Spotted Fever or Flinders Island fever). Potentially the reptiles are a harbour for the agent known as Rickketsia. This is transmitted to humans via ticks. Our job was to collect reptiles for tick collection.

FLINDERS ISLAND DIARY

 

Day 1

On the 10th of February,2001 we loaded our luggage and took happy snaps of each other, met the research team and their families. The plane was a twin engine affair. Which had the lowest ceiling clearance of any plane I have been in before, forcing an almost crawl to my seat. The plane ride was smooth and highly entertaining. A glance down from our descending craft confirmed that we were to land on a grass strip about four hundred metres long. It turned out that our pilot Russell was a bit of a “snakie” himself having caught several snakes around his house and neighbours for removal. He usually tails snakes into boxes etc. It seemed fitting that the first snake seen on the island was within five minute of arriving at our new home by the pilot Russell who managed to tail a Lowland Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus). However without tools and the important snake bag he reluctantly let go and returned with the news.

Whites Skinks Egernia whitii, may occur in family units under slabs of granites and tin.

Russell  and I spent the afternoon searching for additional animals but only succeeded in skinks, Metallic Skink (Leiolopisma metallicum), Whites Skink (Egernia whitii), Tussock Skink (Leiolopisma entrecasteauxii) and a Blotched Blue Tongue (Tiliqua nigrolutea) under a small iron sheet.  No other snakes were seen and we searched several ideal areas. Day 2 We again searched some more promising habitats an old derelict farm with scattered sheets of iron had herp written all over. We did find our first Tasmanian Wombat (Vombatus ursinis) asleep in the sun. Observed numerous Leiolopisma sp skinks and E. whitii. We traveled to the town and visited the shops, which were well stocked thankfully even with my favourite Moccona coffee. The locals are exceptionally friendly and helpful especially with ideas on areas to find reptiles and use of their properties, which ultimately revealed the best source of T. nigrolutea for our research project. Day 3 We again checked a couple of areas and came up empty. We then caught up with a local Anna who took us to some local snake haunts. One area was a small dam with large tussock grass clumps. Here we bagged a male Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) which was seen partially protruding from a tussock grass. As the day was cool and cloudy the snake was an easy catch. It revealed some ticks, which we gratefully removed before releasing back to original location within an hour.

Day 4 Today we were booked on a boat ride captained by our host Allan Wheatley to travel to the elapid “Hilton” Chappell Island. To travel to the island permission must be given by the Aboriginal Land Commission. The permission was given reluctantly. A film crew doing some work on the island and its snakes was observed stealing two Tiger Snakes from the island. After we demonstrated the research permits and our research goodwill we were given the OK. The 1 hour trip turned out to be reasonably bouncy and at the end I remained drenched on half my body. Allan backed the boat into a cove and we jumped off to the rocky coast and re – checked our gear. Snake tools at ready we began, barely had we crossed a ridge when a black shape was seen under a boxthorn. Our first Chappell Island Tiger (Notechis ater serventyi) was quickly tailed and then pinned to remove ticks. A reluctant Dr. Stephen Graves pulled off ticks and we both had admired the strength and size of the beast. Photos taken, the snake was released back to the same location where he quickly retreated down a mutton bird hole.

We worked the snakes, getting the ticks off.

The group moved on Anna leading us to another spot, several holes were examined for mutton bird chicks or snakes with tongs and a torch. None seen, we continued on. Another black tiger lay loosely in sight, again a quick grab and this time placed in a bag for easier “tubing.” This involves placing a cylindrical plastic tube in front of the snake and enables the snake to be grasped around the body and leave the head inside a tube safely. This technique is a safe method of restraint for large elapids and pythons. This was the first time I have used it in the field. Ticks were removed and the snake was released back to the spot where captured. I can see what the island does to a herp, it definitely has a spell bound aura about it. Handling the large snakes brings back the feelings of catching my first snakes the exhilaration of handling large elapids, which I must have lost somewhere. But I found it again on this island, I would have loved to stayed on the island all day or even all week. But an alert went out on the radio after we had been on the island for an hour. Small craft were been warned about strong seas, reluctantly we boarded the boat for another wild open seas ride back. Day 5 At last the sun emerged from wherever it had been hidden, obscured by clouds.  I felt more confident when we went to a grassland adjacent to a small creek  captured  A. superbus. This brought some cheer at the camp after a dry reptile spell. Quickly de – ticked and released, we assembled into our respective cars and went our separate ways to collect some more herps. A good source of T. nigrolutea was to be in a house owned by an irate 80 year old woman who was tired of sneaky T. nigrolutea eating her fruits and being a nuisance. Elliott traps were situated around the house perimeter, as T. nigrolutea were observed under the house. The Stenos clan John, Johhny and Tina arrived to collect four blue tongues including several gravid animals. One blue tongue went into a trap but was big enough fit but his tail prevented the door from shutting.  I tried our luck at a spot in Lady Barron near the tip (Which was totally useless).  A wildlife reserve nearby yielded another gravid T. nigrolutea and the largest male A. superbus  (1.5m) of the trip which was resting in the shade of a heath bush along the margins of the empty lagoon. The same spot had numerous Leiolopisma sp skinks and E. whitii were seen scuttling about. We continued on back to the Strezelecki National Park and down to Anna’s house to see if snakes were out and about down there. A quick twenty-minute scout showed nothing. As Angela was reversing the car a shout was heard, Anna spotted a snake in her glass house. The glass house was a cool region, designed to house her native ferns. We scurried out the car and investigated a A. superbus situated in the entrance coiled around a small fern. It seemed odd that we were to catch a snake in snake controllers mode. Angela tailed the critter into a bag for an appointment with our tick specialists. On the way back we spied a wombat mosing along the side of the road, orders were that a wombat was needed and as such it was bailed up and placed struggling in the car. Spirits back at the camp were brighter with some herp success after several cool and disappointing days. Day 6 Another warm morning found us lounging in the morning sun drinking coffee, swapping anecdotes. Steven, Ang and I bundled into a car and headed off. We had again went down Trouser Point Rd along the Strzelecki National Park. Along here we drove over our first reptile on road. Luckily it was not hurt, it was a little surprised as were we. The Blotched Blue Tongue was quickly stripped of its Tick burden. Then released on the roadside in a bush, we continued on but this time we saw another lizard well off crossing the road and quickly captured it for tick removal. It was clearly not impressed with the interruption and proved a useful photographic subject. We continued down the road and saw several distinct dragons running into dense heathland, a slow crawl was tried to either capture the Mountain Dragons (Tympanocryptis diemensis) or in the least obtain a precious photo. Both were denied. They bask on the bright white sand road, but when disturbed are quick to flee into the dense heath several metres in where visibility is minimal.  A quick drive through Cameron’s Inlet revealed this to be an excellent Tasmanian Tiger Snake haunt with sloughs and a small 600 mm snake seen fleeing into more scrub. The lagoon is an excellent place for bird watchers as well, largely coastal heathland with large areas of tussock grass. Day 7 After an evening barbecue feast with chicken fillets, sausages, hamburgers, lobster and fresh Kingfish caught off the rocks by the host that morning. We awoke to another sunny herp promising morning, however our plane was to leave at 11.30am and there was time for a quick drive and habitat photo session. We all packed the bags, boxes and left for the grassy runway down the road after we heard the plane fly in. We flew back to Avalon airport amidst the air show. Which was evident as fighter jets roared above us while we loaded the cars to head home. As with most field trips you inevitably look forward to the home trip. Flinders Island may be reptile deficient in diversity but its remoteness, abundant native fauna and a strong community sense is impressive and well worth the visit and rates as a one of the great field trips.

OBSERVATIONS

Reptiles Mountain Dragon (Tympanocryptis diemensis) Small dragon superficially similar to Jacky Dragons, appear to be in good numbers on this island and strongly associated with heathland and granite woodland. Seen on two very sunny mornings with only light winds basking on white sand roads.

Blotched Blue Tongue (Tiliqua nigrolutea) Beautiful patterns are evident on these lizards on the island. Seen on road basking, occasionally under rubbish (iron sheets etc) and around premises. Especially any that border large habitats suitable for these animals. Most well known lizard on island. Are also seen up on Mt Stzelecki in along walking track or amongst rocks. Majority of lizards captured were female and heavily gravid demonstrates Spring mating and birth probably occurs in late February to March if temperatures allow.  

Whites Skink or Rock Skink (Egernia whitti) On this island referred to as Rock Skink. Abundant in all habitat types grassland, disturbed, open and closed forests especially in granite regions, coastal shores along tussock grass and along coves amongst rocks. Appears to be the most abundant lizard species on the island and is quite active even in cool conditions. Seen darting form rock to rock or basking in the open, builds small but sometimes complex tunnels and burrows in soil often under rocks or iron sheets or other objects lying down. Individuals seen regularly under same homesite and these appeared shared with juveniles in some instances.

Tussock Cool Skink (Leiolopisma entrecasteauxii). Seen as name suggests in tussock grass clumps, but also observed in disturbed regions and around heathlands. Three Lined Skink (Leiolopisma duperreyi). Only observed in disturbed habitat regions but would occur in several other habitats.

Spotted Skink (Leiolopisma ocellatum) Endemic to Tasmania and the islands observed once in an open region adjacent to coastal heath/forest on coastal shore line.

Agile Cool – Skink/Small – scaled Skink (Leiolopisma pretiosum) Diurnal endemic to Tasmania and other BassSrait islands. Seen in heathland and open forest.

Bougainvilles Skink (Lerista bougainvillii) Widespread in Eastern Australia solitary individual observed basking on small metal plate near heath bush situated in open grassland.

Snakes

Lowland Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus) Usually seen near water, lagoons, creeks or farm dams. Associated with grass tussocks. Captured two males over 1. 2 metres long and two males 1 metre long. Largest snake (Lady Barron) had a tick burden of over 60 individuals. I suspect that the island has a larger Snout vent length and weight compared to Victorian animals. This has been shown in a study before from Tasmania (Fearn, 1995).   Tasmanian Tiger Snake (Notechis scutatus) common on island usually unbanded brown, yellow or black morphs seen on island usually concentrated on lagoons, coastal swamps and farm dams. One roadkill was collected and one 600mm snake observed in roadside swamp heathland at Camerons Inlet.  

White Lipped Snake (Drysdalia coronoides) None observed but reports were that it is common around the swamp locations.

ACKNOWLEDEGMENTS

We wish to thank the Australian Rickettsial Reference Laboratory for this opportunity. For friendship, good meals and fun we thank Graves Family (Stephen, Moira, Darcy and Louie), Stenos (John, Tina and Johhny), Wheatley family

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