March 30 - Rain, rain, wonderful rain!

Rainy days are our best days. The understory (that is the vegetation and leaf litter lying on the forest floor) has been so dry these last few days that no self-respecting leech would be crawling around in it wasting fluids and energy in search of non-existent frog-prey. But today... today we woke to a dark and brooding sky, threatening to open up a torrent on the landscape. A perfect day for a hike in the rainforest.. for us anyway. After availing ourselves of the help of a local tire repair shop, we were off up the mountains to the West of Grafton and into the Gibraltar Range National Park some 1000 m in elevation up from where we had stayed the night.

When we arrived it was clear that the rains had come in the night and had continued well until midmorning. Rain forests bear that aptly descriptive name for several reasons. Of course it rains a lot on rain forests, that goes without saying. But too, in a dense old-growth forest the canopy of eucalypt and gum trees above retains enough of the morning rain just in leaves of the trees that it continues to rain underneath for hours after the sky has cleared. Even when that's done, the layers of canopy and understory vegetation are sufficiently thick to block nearly all of the rays of the sun from touching ground save for a few small patches. All of this is part of the struggle each tree fights with other trees in competition for sunlight. The result is that the forest floor, thickly littered with leaves and fallen fruit remains perpetually soaking wet. Perfect for a myriad assemblage of fungi, ants, cockroaches (wild ones - quite pretty in fact), and our beloved leeches.

After a quick lunch of sandwiches prepared in advance and gobbled down as we were getting our boots on, we were off on the trail to the Needles, a pair of granite spires sticking striaght up high over a superb mountain vista, and the reputed type-locality for Chtonobdella bilineata. Though to most we might appear to be like any group of tourists off on a bush-walk, in truth there is great method to our progress. Our pace is just a bit slower than most. Our gaze is fixed on the ground beneath. We walk single file about 10 paces spacing between us. And whoever has "point", the lead position, is more shuffling along, kicking at the trail, than properly hiking. Though this may leave the impression that we're a motley crew of despondent day-trippers who on the one hand don't like each others' company and on the other are led by a slacker who can't be bothered to pick up their feet, in truth all has design in it. The point person is trying to disturb the leeches into activity, and the pacing between each gives enough time for those wakeful leeches to respond and attach to someone behind. Of the four treckers in line, the point usually gets no leeches attached whereas whoever is pulling up the rear gets covered in them. And, luckily, so it was today. Fully 30 specimens of chocolate brown leeches with creamy-yellow stripes and green flecks on their bellies. Right where they were supposed to be. These were more active than some we have seen but hardly agressive. Still, trying to entice them off of a leg, onto a finger, and into a collection flask is tricky, particularly when 5 of the previously collected leeches are trying to escape.

Funny story: Feeling very satisfied after this treck we opted to head on to Washpool National Park. A couple we had met at Gibraltar said they'd seen a green leech down by the stream there. The leeches were not nearly as plentiful as we had found on the way to the Needles, and all were of the predictable sort we'd already been finding all day. Not that this was such a bad thing, but we were a bit crestfallen at not finding a second species for the day. Gene surmized that the report may have been based on an inch-worm (the bright green caterpiller stage of a moth, and something we had seen already that morning). Thunder was rolling closer and the waning light was threatening to cut a quick end to our efforts when Juli called out that she had soemthing different. It had dropped from a tree above her and was crawling across her rain jacket. Sure enough, though still that chocolate brown, it had 4 rows of bright metallic-green spots runing down the back. So here's the funny part... we stopped by that couples' campsite on the way out of Washpool Park so we could thank them for the insight, but when we showed them our day's catch, both were quite insistent that the leeches they had been referring to were the quite common Chtonobdella bilineata not this small but brilliant leech that we had worked so hard to find. Yet had their description of the former not been so off the mark, we'd have never found the latter! It is truly amazing how much is achieved by accident when proceding with purpose.

After graciously turning down an offer of tea, we piled into the vehicle and drove off to find a good night's rest, well-satisfied with a productive day.