Please do not cite this blog post in a report or paper. It’s not peer-reviewed and is simply an informal account.


Between 23 August and 26 August 2017, I attended a camp for university at Cambridge Plateau, which is part of Richmond Range National Park, approximately 35 km west of Casino. Richmond Range is a dividing point between the watersheds of the Clarence River to the west, and the Richmond River to the east. Both of these rivers are part of what gives the Northern Rivers region its name. (The Tweed River is the other one).

We made camp at the picnic area at Cambridge Plateau, which is ordinarily not legally possible, but the NPWS of NSW has given the uni special dispensation as we were a research organisation and ultimately will be benefiting the national park (and environmental science in general).

Where we were:

Area map for Richomd Range NP

Area map for Richmond Range NP (Source: Google Maps)

The picnic ground is along the ridge, with a very scenic view facing eastward, and Mt. Warning (Wollumbin) could be seen if conditions were clear. Interestingly, the picnic ground is a transition between two biogeographical areas, with dry eucalypt forest to the south, and subtropical rainforest to the north. There are two scenic walks accessible from the picnic area, a short ten minute walk, and a longer, more challenging hour-long one.

The rainforest component of the national park has achieved World Heritage listing, and the visitor’s information signs at the picnic ground state that the entire park has among the highest biodiversity in Australia. During my stay at the picnic site, a lace monitor (Varanus varius) wandered in occasionally, and a red-necked wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus) was seen along the road to the south, in addition to the myriad of birds that could be heard, especially the sulphur-crested cockatoo (Cacatua galerita) with its ear-shattering shriek.

After setting up camp, we were briefed as to the activities and projects we would undertake, then we travelled to our assigned transects (ours was in the eucalyptus forest) and laid out Elliott traps and infrared motion detector cameras. The box traps were baited with a rolled ball of oats, peanut butter and honey.

Where I set up camp:

My tent at the site

My tent at the site

I did not have a great first night. My sleeping bag, which my youngest daughter currently uses as a doona, would not zip up, so I had to use it as a blanket. This was not very successful, as the cold from the ground seeped up through the inflatable mattress and made sleep a patchy affair. The net result was I had about three hours of productive sleep. So I was in a daze a good deal of the following day. Even with a mid-morning nap, I was feeling it throughout the day.

Anyhow, after breakfast, we went back to our designated transects and checked the traps. We retrieved the SD card from the camera, and found it had exhausted its batteries overnight (it operates on 6-12 AA batteries). So we caught nothing on camera there, but we had better luck with the Elliotts. We caught five animals from 25 traps, which gave us a 20% success rate. Four of the animals were the fawn-footed melomys (Melomys cervinipes), a native rodent and one Stuart’s antechinus (Antechinus stuartii), a marsupial. I never managed to get a photograph of the antechinus but here’s one of me holding a melomys. As is visible, its tail is longer than its body.

Yours truly and a captured melomys

Yours truly and a captured melomys

Like most rodents, the melomys is an omnivore, and is apparently an adept climber as one we released scurried straight up a tree. An interesting point about the antechinus is that it is semelparous, that is that the male has a single reproductive episode and then dies. The antechinus and a few related species among marsupials are the only mammals in which this occurs. As it happened, this time of year (August, late winter) is their breeding season, so the male antechinus we found was very feisty and highly-strung, and drew blood from its handler.

After checking the traps, we left them closed until the afternoon, where we re-opened them, as our programme called for trapping over two nights. Later that day we ventured down the same transects for a reptile survey, which mostly entailed us turning over logs and large branches. We saw a few reptiles, mainly small skinks and legless lizards. There were centipedes, millipedes and slaters (woodlice) as well. However our reptile count was below expectation, and we theorised this was due to low rainfall over the last month. In Casino, there has been 0.2 mm of rain in the month, which is the lowest in twenty years.

Also on the second day, we examined what bats were caught in the harp traps. The bats in question are microbats, carnivorous mammals generally smaller than their flying fox cousins. In fact, many of them are among the smallest mammals in existence. They are insectivorous, catching their prey on the wing by using echolocation. To facilitate this, many of them have elaborate ears and facial structures that have evolved for the purpose of sending and receiving the high-pitched frequencies.

The majority of echolocating microbats emit frequencies that are well above human ability to hear. We used a device known as a bat detector to hear their calls. This instrument bounces down the signal (often 40-55 kHz) to a frequency humans can hear. This little fellow below made a lot of noise while he was being measured.

The little forest bat (Vespadelus vulturnus) having his particulars measured.

The little forest bat (Vespadelus vulturnus) having his particulars measured.

Unfortunately, a number of captured bats died in the traps after antechinuses climbed into the trap receptacle and ate them. All up, we captured four different species of bat, and all surviving animals were released the following night.

In the evening of the second day we went spotlighting along the road near our transects. The object of this was to survey nocturnal arboreal mammals such as gliders and possums, and other creature we could see, such as owls. Along our transect, which was 250 m in length, we saw three greater gliders (Petauroides volans) in total. This species is renowned for simply staring back at a spotlight, whereas other glider species, and possums, tend to avert their eyes or get out of the way of the beam. The gliders we saw were 25-40 m high in the branches of the Eucalyptus trees upon which they feed. Their yellowish-white eyeshine is rather striking in the nighttime darkness.

I borrowed one of uni’s sleeping bags, and a neighbour gave me a blanket. That night, I slept infinitely better and woke on the third day feeling much happier about things. Firstly, we performed a bird survey along our transects, 20 m in from the road. Didn’t see much, but certainly heard a lot, especially the omnipresent belling from colonies of bell miners (Manorina melanophrys). These birds are problematical in the Australian bush, as they feed on the exudations (lerps) of psyllid bugs (a type of sap-sucking true bug of the insect order Hemiptera). They don’t eat the psyllids, but their territorial nature chases away smaller birds that do. The upshot of this is that psyllids flourish, and trees die from sap deprivation. This is known as Bell Miner Associated Dieback and is an increasing problem in the forests these birds dwell in. They are cryptic to see in the canopy, as their colouration matches the mottled green to yellow leaves of Eucalyptus well. Definitely one of the heard rather than seen creatures of the wild.

We then checked our Elliotts and found two female Stuart’s antechinuses, and two male bush rats (Rattus fuscipes). The latter is a very common species in the wild of Australia, though it avoids urbanised areas, which sets it apart behaviour wise from the exotic black rat (Rattus rattus). Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of either of these species. Since our ground-dwelling mammal capture regime was to last only two nights, we took the traps up, as well as the SD cards from the cameras.

Later that day, we had briefings on career paths for environmental scientists as well as an opportunity to draft the introduction and methods of the report that will come out of the camp. That evening we went on the second of our spotlighting excursions, but this time we performed it along a rainforest transect. Alas, we saw nothing, but this is to be expected. While rainforests are often touted as centres of biodiversity, this is largely true in the floral and invertebrate sense. Most of Australia’s arboreal mammals do not dwell in rainforest trees. However, there was incredible epiphyte growth in some of these rainforest trees, with one specimen almost covered in staghorn ferns (Platycerium superbum).

That night, the uni’s sleeping bag unzipped and wouldn’t re-zip properly, so I had a mixed experience. If/when I go camping again, I will definitely apply lessons learned. Before I went to bed, I had a chance to show off my star-gazing skills with a few people, pointing out Aquarius and Capricorn, et al, to them.

Rainforest habitat north of the picnic area

Rainforest habitat north of the picnic area

After one very cold night, we performed another bird survey, with much the same results. To add insult to injury, the zipper on my coat broke, making this outing a chilly enterprise. Then it was time for pack up, and we got everything in order to move out, leaving the picnic area and the environment the way we found it. All rubbish was taken out with us. There were no bins at the site, only two composting toilets, and as I mentioned at the beginning, camping is not usually done here hence the lack of facilities. So I was four days without a shower, and I enjoyed having one when I got home.

Withal, it was an enjoyable and educational experience, despite the cold and personal under-preparation for camping.  It’s certainly given me incentive to look forward to a career in environmental science, and seeing as I’m halfway through the last subject I need to graduate, that reality isn’t far away.