April 1 - A Little Nightcap

The clock has been ticking since the rains passed yesterday and the sky was clear blue today so we've been a bit worried that the leeches are crawling back to wherever they crawl back to when the ground dries out. Interestingly enough, no one really knows where that is. With the exception of Ron Davies and his protegés, there has been very little ecological work done on leeches, terrestrial or otherwise, in contrast with, for example how much is known for vertebrates like kangaroos (right - that one's for Mark's daughter Ali). Nonetheless, off we drove for Nightcap National Park in hopes of more success.

Unlike some of the earlier collections we have made, today's attempts at Nightcap and at Tamborine Mountain are based on the internet... that is, in addition to having the published scientific accounts of leeches, in preparing our trip, we "googled" several keywords on the net like "leeches hiking Australia" to see where just your average tourist or backpacker has encountered them. The searches revealed as many localities for this expedition as there were published reports in the primary literature.

Arriving at the start point for the trail to Protester's Falls (we don't know what they were protesting, or who "they" were) we were met by another goanna monitor lizard (above left) - this one less camera shy than the last. Like our leeches, monitors have a Gondwanan distribution, including these tree-happy lizards as well as the monstrous Komodo Dragon. Many of these lizards kill their prey not with a venom but by introducing a plague-like bacterial infection with their bites. Fascinating stuff.

We took the trail to the falls which, though damp, was not exactly wet, and in any case was devoid of leeches. Unsatisfied, Liz and Mark clambered over the slippery rocks, and even managed to traverse the narrow space between the waterfall itself and the cliff behind. It was clear that this area should be constantly wet, rain or no rain. Moreover, there is a rare endangered frog species that lives in the pool below the falls: leech-bait. Still, after giving the vegetation in the area a thorough going-over, our quarry remained elusive.

Gene got one leech on his boot back during lunch, but no more than that. So off we went for Tamborine. Tamborine Mountain was, apparently, Australia's first National Park. Relative to Yellowstone (America's first National Park), it couldn't have been more different. Imagine a wet virgin rain forest on the top of a rounded moutain. Now, take a weed whacker, hack down the forest, and in its place, plop several interconnecting tourist towns on the top of the knob and suround those with vineyard, Macadamia Nut and Banana plantations. Pretty views, yes, and plenty of places to get a "long black" coffee, but not our idea of a "National Park". And no leeches (though to be fair there are reports).

Rather than leave the day feeling as though it was a complete waste, we popped into a vineyard for some wine tasting on the way out of the park. An observant person once said that to make amazing wines, you need amazing views... and Australia makes some spectacular wines, not all of makes it to the American Market. A Sauvignon Blanc with grassy notes and a smooth finish... a spicy Shiraz with an overall plum character... and a silky tawny port... all very yummy. We left with the better part of a case amongst us... yeah, they saw us coming a mile away.

We didn't make Mount Glorious to the west of Brisbane ("Brizzy" here) until well after dark. The winding road up through Mount Nebo was a bit nerve wracking. As well, we had no idea where we were going to stay and it became increasingly clear that everything shuts up tight at 7 pm. Down a dirt road we happened upon "Mount Glorious Getaway Cabins" and slumped into a gorgeous wood cabin with a fireplace, hot food, and a fantastic, unpolluted view of the Southern night sky. So many stars, and the southern cross shimmering overhead.

However, with some leftover live leeches from yesterday, and the one from Gene's boot today, there was work to be done. It's insufficient to just plop the leeches into alcohol or formalin. They'd just curl up and die making it very difficult to identify them later much less dissect them open and get at the internal anatomy. Each night, tired, wet and dirty, there remains the task of carefully photographing the leeches alive to capture their natural color patterns, relaxing them in 10% ethanol, gingerly removing any mucous from the body surfaces, and finally fixing them in a state for optimal morphological work when back in New York and Virginia.

We're going to be up with the sparrows in the morning in the hopes that the early start will mean more moisture in the understory and a successful finding of Micobdella gloriosi.