Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

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Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 10th, 2015, 11:33 pm

Here's Part 2 of the write-up for my month of October 2015 herping in Australia. Part 1 is here.

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Flew into Alice Springs, drove south and west to Yulara, then east, north, and west to Glen Helen, then back to Alice. This post (Part 2) covers Alice Springs to Yulara; the next one will cover the rest of the Red Centre portion of my trip.


After a few days in Sydney where I hung out with David Fischer and saw many fine animals and was mysteriously lacking in stamina, I flew to Alice Springs for the next leg of my quest. I stayed in Alice (as her friends call her) the first night where I rented a car, bought a cooler ("esky" in Australian), and stocked up on some food so I wouldn't be relying entirely on the local restaurants. I had toyed with camping in some parts of the trip, but eventually decided to stay in hotels/motels/lodges everywhere, partly to avoid lugging around camping gear, and partly so I could have comfortable places to stay in my non-herping hours to better energize myself for the herping hours.

Alice Springs is a reasonable-sized town in the middle of the outback, with no other reasonable-sized towns for hundreds of miles in any direction. This means that it is surrounded by good reptile habitat. There is a good road west to the West MacDonnell Ranges, which will feature in Part 3. There is also a good road east to the East MacDonnell Ranges, which I explored on my one night in Alice.

Three gecko species put in appearances for me on that road. One was the ubiquitous Bynoe's Gecko, which is found throughout almost the entirety of Australia, and is often the most common herp in its habitat. I had seen these on every previous trip to Australia so finding more wasn't especially exciting, but they are interesting little beaded-skin padless ground-dwelling geckos. Unlike many of the geckos on Australia's roads at night, these are pretty easy to identify from a distance because they move much more quickly than your typical gecko. This little baby gecko was especially jittery, and prone to stopping in weird positions in those rare moments when it did stop.

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Very small Bynoe's Gecko (Heteronotia binoei) strangely splayed on the road


The second type of road-wandering gecko was the Northern Spiny-tailed Gecko. They have rows of paired spines on their tails and also sport spines above their intricately-patterned eyes. None of the road gecko species were particularly interested in sitting still, but these guys weren't too annoying about it. I had seen a bunch of these on earlier trips but I have not yet grown tired of seeing any of Australia's herps (nor do I ever expect to).

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Northern Spiny-tailed Gecko (Strophurus ciliaris aberrans)


The third type of gecko I saw that night was one new to me, the charmingly named Burrow-plug Gecko, a.k.a. Fat-tailed Gecko. When they're not on nocturnal patrol, they hang out in insect and spider holes and block the entrances with their thick bumpy tails.

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Burrow-plug Gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus)


The next morning I made the long drive from Alice Springs to Yulara, which is the small tourist village for the big rock Uluru (formerly known as Ayer's Rock). Uluru itself is one of the iconic wonders of the world, and the desert stretching from Yulara in every direction is full of herps including thorny devils, so Yulara was a natural destination for me. Since I didn't get out herping near Alice until after dark, this would be the first day where I had a chance to see a li'l devil.

Yulara is about 300 miles from Alice Springs ("right next door", in Australian outback terms). The first half of the trip is almost due south on the Stuart Highway, which is the only major road between South Australia and the Northern Territory; you can take this road all the way from Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin on the north coast. This makes it very busy by outback standards, full of road trains (multiple huge truck bodies linked together, usually traveling too fast) as well as every other size of vehicle. 125 miles south of Alice sits a crossroads spot named Erldunda, consisting of a big gas station/shop/restaurant/roadhouse. From here you turn and travel the rest of the way to Yulara on the Lasseter Highway, heading basically due west. Since the Stuart Highway is so busy, you are unlikely to see any live herps on that leg of the journey. You are even less likely to be in a position to do anything about it if you do see a live herp. So I just blasted my way south to Erldunda like everyone else, trying to whittle down the huge backlog of podcasts I had brought along on my phone.

When I reached Erldunda, I thought I should fill up the car, since I didn't know the placement or likelihood of additional gas stations before reaching Yulara. The lines for gas moved extremely slowly here. The gas pumps were all pay-inside-afterwards, which seems to be nearly universal across Australia. To discourage drive-offs, large signs ordered you to leave your car at the gas pump until you had paid. Since this stop is the only decent-sized gas station/shop/restaurant/roadhouse for at least a hundred miles in any direction, many or most drivers would stop for gas, then leave their vehicle at the pump until they had done some shopping and/or had some lunch. I was second in line for a pump for at least thirty minutes, and all I could think about was how thorny devils are most likely to be seen wandering the roads in the morning (and late afternoon) and the morning was wasting away in this gas station line.

I finally filled up and drove west on the Lasseter Highway towards Yulara. About a quarter mile from the turn my head exploded because I saw a big colorful thorny devil strutting across the highway. I simultaneously apologized in my mind to the people who had left their vehicles at the gas pumps for so long and pulled quickly to the side of the road. Lasseter Highway is far less busy than Stuart Highway, but it is still reasonably active with all the tourists and supplies heading out to Yulara and back. So it seemed way too dangerous to try to photograph this devil in situ, and there was no way I was going to leave it unphotographed and unprotected in the middle of the highway. I ran to it, gently picked it up, and ran back, where I released the marvelous beast in the red gravelly desert on the side of the road it was heading toward. It gave me one condescending look and then continued moving forward in a ludicrous two-steps-forward-one-step-back gait like the one used by many chameleons. I grabbed my camera and followed it around for a little while. It would stop moving for a few seconds when I got close, but soon start lurching away. The harsh sunlight and lack of scenic background and the lizard's disinclination to stand still for any significant time and my general brain-stopping euphoria at finally achieving my childhood dream led to a short series of fairly lackluster photos, but I couldn't have cared less.

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When I arrived at Yulara in the early afternoon and checked into my room, I felt both wonderful and terrible. The wonderful part was for obvious reasons. The terrible part had to do with my ever-decreasing energy level combined with an ever-increasing earache that I had picked up somewhere along the way. It had gotten to the point where I basically couldn't hear from my right ear, and it hurt if I turned my head in certain directions, and it periodically leaked some liquid (which is never what you want, ear-wise). Also, I felt exhausted much of the time. This did not seem good. I rested and slept through the rest of the day, and even decided not to try a nocturnal road cruise this evening.

The following morning I visited the Yulara Medical Centre where a nurse concluded that I had some sort of fungal ear canal infection and a ruptured eardrum. He gave me antibiotics and ear drops and told me that most likely the eardrum rupture would heal itself, but it might take a few weeks or even longer. After a couple of days of these medications, I was feeling much better: my earache was gone, I had regained my missing stamina, and my ear stopped dripping (hoorah!). All the symptoms were completely gone except the hearing loss. For the rest of my time in Australia, I could only hear the tiniest amount from my right ear, and I had to ask people to repeat themselves a lot. A small price to pay for seeing a wild thorny devil, I say! (At home later, I saw my regular doctor who agreed with the treatment I had been given, and my hearing did slowly return all the way to normal.)

I had lost some perfectly good herping time dealing with this annoying medical issue, but after my visit to the medical center (sorry, centre) I started to get back in the groove. That afternoon I came across a bearded dragon about fifty feet from the grocery store in the middle of Yulara. This was a Dwarf Bearded Dragon, which turned out to be the only one of that species I came across on the trip. One of the less-beardy species in this genus, but still a fine lizard.

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Dwarf Bearded Dragon (Pogona minor minor)


Later I hiked the base walk all the way around Uluru, a little more than six miles. For anyone who needs reminding, this is what Uluru, the world's most massive monolith, looks like.

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Uluru as it looked in February 2003, when my wife took this picture. I was too busy looking for herps to take nice pictures of Uluru from a distance.


Up closer, Uluru is full of interesting details.

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Amazingly, on a nice warm spring day, with hardly anyone else on the trail (I think I passed three other people), I saw exactly zero snakes and one lizard. And it was only a little bitty lizard, a young Common Desert Ctenotus. Ctenotus is a populous Australian skink genus whose species are quite similar to the whiptail lizards of U.S. deserts.

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Common Desert Ctenotus (Ctenotus leonhardii), standing in for all of Reptilia around Uluru


Later I poked around the grounds of the Uluru Visitor Center where I had seen a number of Military Dragons (Ctenophorus isolepis) in 2003, but found no dragons of any profession, nor any skinks or goannas or geckos for that matter. For some reason, the lizard action just wasn't happening in the desert during the day near Uluru. It's possible that I was there too early in springtime for maximum lizard activity, but the temperatures seemed high enough, and insects were abundant, so I expected a lot more lizards. Ah well, I didn't care, I had seen a *thorny devil*!

The Lasseter Highway was a much more productive herping environment as it turned out. In the late afternoon I saw a number of cute little Centralian Earless Dragons (Tympanocryptis centralis) standing up at the edge of the road for maximum sun-warming, but every time I tried to get close enough to one for pictures it would get wise and disappear into the desert. I also saw a few Central Netted Dragons in the road, most of which similarly vamoosed. One of them held its ground in the road long enough for me to get pictures out the car window. This is one of the more common agamids, and one that I had seen on previous trips.

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Central Netted Dragon (Ctenophorus nuchalis)


And hey, why was I out driving the Lasseter Highway in late afternoon anyway? Oh yeah, hoping to find another Thorny Devil, like this small one that had almost finished crossing the road when I saw it. I pulled over, grabbed my camera, and lay down on the edge of the road to get some low-angle shots of this little beauty.

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Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus) #2, quite a bit smaller than #1


After dark the Lasseter Highway had some more goodies to offer the traveling sauriophile. For example, more spiny-tailed geckos ...

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Northern Spiny-tailed Geckos (Strophurus ciliaris aberrans)


... and another Burrow-plug Gecko ...

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Burrow-plug Gecko (Diplodactylus conspicillatus)


... and a gecko that was new to me, the lithe and elegant Western Beaked Gecko ...

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Western Beaked Gecko (Rhynchoedura ornata), covered with a layer of fine red desert dust, presumably having crawled out of a burrow recently


... and the gecko coup de grace, my favorite gecko of the trip so far, topping even the most excellent Broad-tailed Gecko from back near Sydney. This has got to be the cutest gecko species I have ever seen, with their big heads, huge eyes, and looks of intense concern.

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Pale Knob-tailed Geckos (Nephrurus laevissimus)


I was surprised at how few snakes I had seen so far on this trip. Back near Sydney I had seen only three, and I hadn't seen any so far in the Red Centre of Australia. (I had missed some prime herping time by being ill, but it still seemed like I should have seen one or two snakes at least in the amount of time I was out looking.) So I was particularly excited to see a small sinuous shape slithering across the road. My excitement dimmed after I got out of the car and shined my flashlight on it only to realize that it was no snake at all, but a legless lizard, and also one of the only two Australian legless lizards (family Pygopididae) that I had seen on previous trips. Ah well. That knob-tailed gecko sure was cute.

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Western Hooded Scaly-foot (Pygopus nigriceps). It didn't want to stop wriggling and I didn't care enough to wait until it did, hence the crummy photos. Later I felt bad for having given it less attention than it deserved. Sorry little guy! Snakes aren't any better than legless lizards!


One other fantastic lizard blessed me with its presence in this area. Kata Tjuta is a rocky formation near Uluru and geologically related to it. Kata Tjuta consists of a series of mini-giant-monoliths as compared to Uluru's single extra-giant-monolith. One morning I went for a beautiful hike in Kata Tjuta called Valley of the Winds. I expected to see some lizards throughout the hike, but I think I arrived too early in the day, and I saw no significant wildlife on my way in. Ah, but on my way out, I turned a corner and saw this beautiful Perentie basking just off the trail. Perenties are Australia's largest lizards, and among its most striking. This one was just a youngster and thus not particularly huge, but as a youngster it had an especially pronounced pattern. One Perentie sighting is worth at least three dozen more mundane reptile sightings, so I ended up quite satisfied with my morning in Kata Tjuta.

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That's it for Part 2. In Part 3 I will travel to the West MacDonnell Ranges feeling healthy and see if I can do something about raising the ol' snake count.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Jeroen Speybroeck » December 11th, 2015, 12:23 am

Aha, there it is already! I thought you'd keep us hanging for a few more episodes ;)
Such a unique reptile, just great...

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 11th, 2015, 6:20 am

I certainly didn't expect to see one on the first possible morning. But that meant I didn't have to worry about it for the rest of the trip, which was nice!

John

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by MonarchzMan » December 11th, 2015, 6:22 am

Awesome! I'm hoping to get to Alice Springs on this next trip for pretty much the same reason. Thorny Devils, Shinglebacks, and Frillies are at the top of my list for things to see (I'd also be quite happy with Nephrurus and Perenties as well!)

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 11th, 2015, 9:05 am

There's definitely great herping in the Red Centre. For Shinglebacks you would have to go south or east though, and for Frillies you'd have to go north. The country is so huge that it's hard to even try to hit the herp highlights in a single trip, unless you do a number of internal flights.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by MonarchzMan » December 11th, 2015, 9:44 am

Ribbit wrote:There's definitely great herping in the Red Centre. For Shinglebacks you would have to go south or east though, and for Frillies you'd have to go north. The country is so huge that it's hard to even try to hit the herp highlights in a single trip, unless you do a number of internal flights.

John
I'll be there for ~5 months, and I'm going to be sampling Pseudophryne hopefully throughout their range. Most of my time will likely be spent around Sydney and NSW/VIC, so I think Shinglebacks would be a good possibility. I'm going to try to get up to QLD to see Frillies (and sample for the variety of Pseuds there), and I have to ask around about sampling P. robinsoni, but if it's feasible to sample them, I'll likely have to fly into Alice Springs and drive down to the Central Ranges to look for them. Should go through lots of good Thorny habitat if that all comes to fruition. Might have a second chance if I can get out to Western Australia to sample P. douglasi.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 11th, 2015, 9:58 am

5 months, that's awesome. Pseudophryne are such cool little frogs! Shinglebacks don't make it all the way to the east coast, but if you're going to be somewhat inland you shouldn't have trouble finding them. I know frillies are in Queensland but I don't know how easy they are to find there. My understanding is that they are reasonably easy to find in the Top End *if* you are there at the right time of year, otherwise very difficult. But I don't know about their activity patterns in Queensland.

Did you choose a five-month period based on maximum frog activity?

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by MonarchzMan » December 11th, 2015, 10:09 am

Ribbit wrote:5 months, that's awesome. Pseudophryne are such cool little frogs! Shinglebacks don't make it all the way to the east coast, but if you're going to be somewhat inland you shouldn't have trouble finding them. I know frillies are in Queensland but I don't know how easy they are to find there. My understanding is that they are reasonably easy to find in the Top End *if* you are there at the right time of year, otherwise very difficult. But I don't know about their activity patterns in Queensland.

Did you choose a five-month period based on maximum frog activity?
I'll be on a fellowship through the Aussie government that funds my being there for 4-6 months. I'd be there for the full 6 months except that my brother is getting married in mid-June and I probably should be back for that (and June is getting to the point where it's not going to be all that productive anymore). I was given leeway when to start the tenure, but opted for January since summer going into fall should be best to find many of those frogs.

I'll have lots of opportunity to travel, I think, and I'd like to make it more inland. I probably will spend some time around Canberra (proposing doing some work with Corroborees), and I know Shinglebacks are around Canberra.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 11th, 2015, 10:55 am

Very cool. In my limited experience Shinglebacks are pretty darn easy to find within their range. When you're traveling around Australia to study different Pseudophryne species you will be moving through the ranges of so many cool herps. That seems like a dream come true.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by MonarchzMan » December 11th, 2015, 11:03 am

Ribbit wrote:Very cool. In my limited experience Shinglebacks are pretty darn easy to find within their range. When you're traveling around Australia to study different Pseudophryne species you will be moving through the ranges of so many cool herps. That seems like a dream come true.
Tell me about it. I can't be in the field more than half of the time that I'm there (although I would say exploring Sydney and surrounding areas doesn't really count as "fieldwork"), but I'm going to go as close to the limit as I can.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Fieldnotes » December 11th, 2015, 11:10 pm

Either, Australia has the most photogenic herps or the best photographers visit and live in Australia... hmmmmm

Awesome expedition with some great shots too!! :thumb:

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by orionmystery » December 12th, 2015, 2:49 am

Great post, John. Love the geckos, but the Thorny Devils are simply out of this world! <3

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by moloch » December 12th, 2015, 7:38 pm

John,

I am so glad that you had succes with the Thorny Devils on this trip. Those shots are superb. They are such interesting and unusual lizards. Your other shots were also very nice. I really like that young Perentie.

Regards,
David

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 12th, 2015, 8:35 pm

Thanks guys!

Australia definitely has very photogenic herps, and so very many of them. Fieldnotes, you owe it to yourself to join the long list of herp photographers who have had a great time there.

Kurt, couldn't agree more. David tells me you are due for a trip down under too. I would love to see the photographs you would capture there. Maybe we will both tour the country with David someday.

David, thanks again for making my arrival in Australia so welcoming! I was thrilled to see that young Perentie also, though of course not as excited as I was by the Molochs.

Working on Part 3 now ...

John

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 12th, 2015, 11:11 pm

Part 3 is now available here: viewtopic.php?f=2&t=22879

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Kelly Mc » December 13th, 2015, 5:40 am

Thank you for this wonderful door you have opened. What a gift you bring.

Now, I don't know if this is relevant or not, but your query about the origin of Dtella made me think of a conversation I had with a retired teacher, about how hired Australian indigenous people, hired as trackers and guides under the duress of colonialism and disdain for the entitled rudeness and naivety of European exploring parties, took to answering the demands to know the names of this animal, plant, etc, by replying with words that ranged from deliberately nonsensical to acerbic sarcasm.

So the word could be an esoteric dialectic reference meaning anything from stubbed toe to bad breath to a made up blurb of vowels and consonants.

I don't know if it is, but your comment made me remember the conversation.

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 13th, 2015, 6:27 am

Oh Kelly, I hope so much that "Dtella" is an aboriginal word for something ridiculous and that at least some of the remaining aboriginal people still know it and laugh whenever they see or hear it. The thought makes my day.

I'm very glad you enjoyed my post.

John

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Kelly Mc » December 13th, 2015, 7:20 am

The photos and narrative was the best - the title is perfect. Perfect.

It would be fascinating to find out about the Dtella name, wouldn't it?

It could be like capturing a thought of someone - imagine laughing at joke someone made so long ago, or just hearing that person after so much time, and all because of your image of the geckos.. Its downright mystical

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Hans Breuer (twoton) » December 22nd, 2015, 8:11 pm

Just finished ploughing through all installments. What an epic epic! Thanks so much for taking the time for posting all this!

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 22nd, 2015, 9:40 pm

Surely you mean "all installments *so far*". Still two to go! Who knows what new creatures or old friends might be lurking in those final two episodes?

Thanks Hans. If I can entertain you, I am doing something right!

John

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Hans Breuer (twoton) » December 22nd, 2015, 10:04 pm

Ribbit wrote:Surely you mean "all installments *so far*". Still two to go! Who knows what new creatures or old friends might be lurking in those final two episodes?
Nice!! Tickled senseless already! I'm currently stuck in Taiwan for the winter and need some vicarious herping fixes. It's sorta off-season for herps here, so I make do with birding. The lows one stoops to when bored ... at least the birding is MUCH easier than in the equatorial rainforest, and due to a few extraordinary factors, there are almost as many bird species here as in Borneo, an island more than twenty times bigger.
Ribbit wrote:If I can entertain you, I am doing something right!
Oh, no worries, I'm a simple creature and quite easily entertained. The other day I binge-watched the entire "Fast and Furious" series. Don't tell that to my old philosophy professor :-)

Keep on ribbitting!

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 23rd, 2015, 7:11 am

Oh Hans, Hans, Hans. Birding! That is a sad tale.

John

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Hans Breuer (twoton) » December 30th, 2015, 8:20 pm

Isn't it, though! I'm seriously considering naming my next book "My Yellow-vented Bulbul Ate All My Chinese Cobras - The Horrifying Sellout of a Former Hardcore Herper"

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » December 31st, 2015, 6:05 am

Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Mike Pingleton » January 8th, 2016, 6:19 pm

What can I say but congratulations?

Moloch, Strophurus, Nephrurus.... so cool.
-Mike

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Re: Thorny Devil Dreaming: Part 2, Alice Springs to Yulara

Post by Ribbit » January 9th, 2016, 3:31 am

Thanks Mike!

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