Appreciating the other things

While I’m as much of a fan as charismatic megafauna as the next person, sometimes it’s the little things or the odd critters that bring the most delight and stick in the memory.

I was quite happy to agree to a suggestion from a very good friend that we go to Sri Lanka in the hope of seeing leopards and sloth bears, because who doesn’t want to see leopards and sloth bears?! And I’m so pleased we did go, because Sri Lanka was beautiful with amazing wildlife, and tasty (oh so tasty) food, and we did see leopards and sloth bears which lived up to their reputation as cute and cuddly love-to-see-them creatures. But when returning home and facing the inevitable question, “what was your favourite animal you saw?”, I didn’t even have to think about it. It was two things actually – the giant blue earthworm and the white-winged black tern.

Charismatic megafauna 1, kitty-cat (leopard), Yala NP, Sri Lanka
Charismatic megafauna 2, sloth bear cubs, Yala NP, Sri Lanka

(Sidenote: new frogs will always be the most favourite thing I see when on holiday or anywhere, but I think people get bored of that as my answer all the time, so in the interests of variety I’m going with something different here. If you want to see some of the frogs we saw, which were AMAZING!, check my Instagram.)

We saw the giant, iridescent blue earthworm (Megascolex coeruleus) in the rainforest at Sinharaja Forest Reserve. This fabulous, not-often seen creature, is spectacular enough to warrant mention on a favourites list. But I’m putting it at the top, because it was so unexpected. We’d had a creature-filled morning, with many endemic beautiful birds, several snakes, large lizards, small lizards, and pitcher plants, and I was feeling contented, thinking we’d covered a good variety of new and exciting things. Then we turned to head back to the guesthouse, and there it was – a one metre long, shiny BLUE earthworm! Who knew!? Completely new, something I didn’t even know existed, and just shuffling along without a care in the world.

As for why the the white-winged black tern was a favourite, that is a bit more complicated. When our guide identified the gorgeous, black tern I’d seen swooping for insects just above a small wetland at Yala National Park as a white-winged black tern, I found myself way more excited than I thought I’d be. While this tern shows up in the inland New South Wales wetlands where I work, that happens very rarely and I hadn’t seen it, and anyway this migratory species never shows its colourful breeding plumage in Australia, so it is just another mostly white-looking tern. But there is was! Something I’d heard of but never thought I’d see, and I was seeing it in breeding plumage! (Which, I realise could be the sentiment that outs me as a tragic-birder now…). It was just stunning.

White-winged black tern in flight (Photo: Mevan Piyasena)

So, my favourite non-frog animals are not just about looks, they come from a moment or a feeling or just a quirk. It is about appreciating the other things. Want to know more?

PS, I can’t recommend our guide from Sri Lanka highly enough, Mevan Piyasena. His itinerary was perfect for what we were interested in, and his knowledge of the wildlife and ability to make sure we were in the right place at the right time gave us the perfect trip. Don’t hesitate, just go and go with Mevan!

PPS. Want to know more about GIANT earthworms, check this article in Australian Geographic for information on the giant earthworms found in Australia.

Being a tourist in my own backyard

(Or, how I got over it and started appreciating Christchurch wildlife.)

As my parents will attest, I’ve always been into animals and the outdoors. But young-me was only interested in animals that were from exotic, faraway places like the African plains or South American jungles, definitely not suburban Christchurch and the flat, pasture-ised Canterbury Plains. But it seems I’ve changed and when I go back to the South Island, I now find myself being a happy wildlife-tourist in my own (former) backyard. Turns out Christchurch is home to some nifty critters and good places to go look for them.

New Zealand wildlife is rather special, but when I was growing up around Christchurch they weren’t exactly plentiful and I really wasn’t interested – I liked big cats, not cryptic birds or subtle skinks. And if I did want to see a native species, then surely I had to go up to the national parks because Christchurch had no ‘wilderness’ and that is where the exciting things are.

And what lives under this rock?

Turns out that is not true, and I just needed an attitude adjustment. I think this adjustment began when I was working for the Freshwater Ecology Research Group in the mid-2000s, identifying freshwater invertebrates. I now knew the names for different animals (yes, invertebrates are animals) and going for a walk wasn’t just about getting somewhere or admiring a view, it was about looking in streams and lifting up rocks to see what was living under them. It was about seeing things I knew the name of and using guide-books to identify those I didn’t. I could see them and I could identify, therefore I cared. Maybe it was as simple as that.

And now it’s not just stream-bugs I want to know about. I’ve become a bird-botherer too, probably helped by the binoculars I recently bought. So, while on a walk with my dad, the birds around the Christchurch estuary suddenly become not just “gulls, shags* and ducks”, but red-billed gulls, black-billed gulls (occasionally), pied shags, black shags, New Zealand scaup, New Zealand shovellers, and even some bar-tailed godwits materialising out of the sand.

Dad admiring the godwits on Christchurch Estuary from the Southshore Spit walk

Now we’re not just out for a walk, we’re walking to look for birds. And then Christchurch becomes an interesting place. Turns out there are a few pockets of remaining, regenerating or restored wetlands and native bush in the old home-town, and there are cool things living there. And I want to go see them.

The Canterbury Plains were systematically and efficiently cleared during the 19th century, and today less than 1% of the land still supports native vegetation. Wetlands, rivers and estuaries were particularly impacted, and only small fragments remain. But what is left deserves valuing, and while I may be a bit late in my appreciation for my (formerly) local animals and wilderness, I’m trying to make the most of it.

*  aka ‘cormorants’ in Australia

Some Jo-recommended places to visit, with a Dad-star rating on accessibility:

  • Travis Wetland still exists due to determined local residents who campaigned to save it from housing development, and is the last large wetland in Christchurch. Dad says: “4+ stars, a nice flat circular walking track with information boards and different entry points.”
  • Coastal wetland and estuaries are great for spotting native and migratory shorebirds, so take binoculars and check out Brooklands Lagoon, Charlesworth Tidal Wetlands walk, and the Southshore Spit. Dad says, “3 stars, track a little rough; 4 stars, very good path; 4 stars as while the path is a bit rough, you don’t have to walk far before you see many birds.”
  • Hinewai is a large private reserve at the tip of Banks Peninsula about two hours drive from Christchurch, but worth the travel with wonderful old growth bush areas and vast swathes of regenerating native forest. Dad says, “2 stars for accessibility as the walking is a bit more adventurous and slopey, but definitely a rewarding place to visit, so 5 stars for scenic-ness.”
  • Omahu Bush Reserve is closer to town and is one of the best areas of native bushland on the Port Hills. It is still relatively intact after the fires in 2017. Dad says, “Have I been here? I have? Oh right, well then 3 stars based on what you say.”
“What’s in the water, Aunty Go?”
Estuary wetlands at the Charlesworth Reserve


Sharing love of frogs (even when on holiday…)

When I was first in the Macquarie Marshes, landholders didn’t know there were at least 15 different frog species, and would simply call everything either a green frog or a brown frog. Though after I’d compiled a small identification guide, they’d tell me the proper names of what they’d seen and how many were calling after it rained, and by the time I finished my PhD fieldwork out there, they were all experts! I love telling people about frogs and sharing what I know. Even when on holiday it seems, which is how I ended up doing a guide to the frogs I saw while on holiday in the northern Brazilian Pantanal.

Say cheese!
It’s a small wetland frog research world!

I’m not an expert on Pantanal frogs, but it turned out that finding some experts wasn’t that hard. It seems that while the world is a large place, the ‘world’ I live in is a bit smaller and mostly inhabited by like-minded people. So when I go on holiday and visit wetlands because that is what I like doing, I’m likely to run into other people who like to be around wetlands. This also increases the likelihood that they might be interested in frogs, maybe even researching them. And if the wetland that I’m holidaying at is a natural analogue for the wetlands that I work on here in Australia, then — apparently — there is a good chance that they’ll have read my research papers! Which is how you run into people who know you, even though you’re in a somewhat remote area of a large foreign country far from home, and is how I met my Pantanal frog experts, the awesome Leonardo, Natalia and Marcos.

The Pantanal is the largest continuous floodplain in the world. And like any good wetland system has a lot of frogs, as well as a multitude of other spectacular wildlife such as waterbirds (OK we also have them in Australia, but these are different waterbirds), giant spiny anteaters, capybaras, jaguars, anacondas, and caiman to name a few obvious ones.

Flooded floodplain in the afternoon light.

While I could find plenty of information on these charismatic megafauna, there was a distinct lack of frog knowledge including by the owners and staff of the pousada I stayed at (the wonderful Araras). It seems even though they could hear the frogs and were surrounded by them, they didn’t know any of the species and hadn’t met anyone interested in frogs before. Even just showing them photos of what I’d seen the night before opened up a new world for them, species that were totally unknown yet a very present part of the wildlife of the Pantanal.

Showing the guide how it’s done.

By the end of my stay at Araras, the owners were keen to know more about the frogs and asked me to share what I’d found. Fortunately, I’d kept in touch with Leonardo, Natalia and Marcos and they could identify the 13 different species I’d seen over the three nights. Seeing as a basic identification guide worked last time, when I got home I put one together of the frogs I saw at Araras. The idea was help the owners and staff know more about the frogs around them and share with any future frog-interested guests (check it out here). I also did one for another amazing pousada I stayed at, Park Eco Lodge at Chapada dos Guimaraes (one in English and another in Portuguese). Considering I was there at the start of the dry season and there are many, many more species that I didn’t see in the Pantanal, I think a second edition might require another visit. Who’s coming?

Rhinella major trying to squeeze back under the building.
Known as the Formula 1 frog due to the sound males make, Physalaemus albonotatus.
I feel in love with this one, Boana punctata
Teeny tiny dwarf tree frog Dendropsophus nanus

PS. The Pantanal was the last stop on my tour of different Brazilian ecosystems arranged by Pantanal Explorer and organised for me by the amazing Lara at Eclipse Travel in Sydney. If you want a bang-up Brazilian holiday, email ( and tell her I sent you! And if you want do a lot of ticking on your Brazilian bird-list, make sure you request Allan Franco, the best.