Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Hail, gale-force winds, leeches.... and the crew kept smiling

A big thank you to my latest Earthwatch volunteers: John, Ken, Claire, Karin, Joan and Vicky.  You not only survived the blue gum experience (complete with giant leeches), being hailed on, endless tree assessments, and having two slave masters (me and Alistair), but were still smiling at the end of it.  Hmmmmm..... Is there something wrong with you?
About to leave Bimbi Park. Look at those awesome tree collars!
Some might say that the trip got off to a shaky start.  I had to attend a seminar being given by one of my students and was also collecting a visiting researcher (Ben) from the airport so was driving down later in the day.  This meant that Alistair (co-PI) had the task of meeting the team in Apollo Bay.  Unfortunately, no-one was wearing an Earthwatch t-shirt and the team were expecting to be met by me.  After a few phone calls between one of the team members, Earthwatch, myself and Alistair, the confusion was sorted out and Alistair and the team were united and on their way to Bimbi Park.
Ben and I arrived just in time for dinner (I have impeccable timing), and a discussion of the week's activities.  Alistair was keen to head back into the blue gums (this time with an EPIRB, and repellent to keep the leeches at bay), but we also had to complete koala counts, and tree assessments at some of our sites, radiotrack our collared koalas, and capture more koalas for collaring. With Alistair leading this trip, my main purpose was to help Ben with a 'bellow playback' study.  Timetabling all of this, especially considering the 'not so good' weather forecast, was going to be interesting.
So, let me tell you more about this 'bellow playback' study.  It's pretty cool stuff and a whole new field of research for me.  Ben is an expert in mammal vocalisations and has been studying this type of thing with a whole range of different species for ages though.  With koalas, he has found that there is information on the identity, especially size, of a male koala in a bellow.  In free-ranging animals, you would expect that a male koala could use this information to decide whether confronting the source of the bellow is a good idea or not.  It would make sense for a male koala to confront a smaller male because he'd likely be able to whop it in a fight; but it would probably be best for him to avoid interacting with a larger male.  We were going to put this theory to the test by broadcasting bellows (one made to sound like a huge male, and another made to sound like a small male) to my male koalas and measuring their response.
Our original plan was to catch 2 males per day for fitting with a radiocollar with an accelerometer (to measure activity), a GPS (to measure movement) and an audio recorder (to measure bellows) in response to the 'playback'.  The original plan also involved catching the koalas again after the playback to retrieve the devices.  As per any well-planned field study, the original plan went out the window after day 1.  After two catches each of Bruce and Kevin (two of my bigger males), it became clear that catching was going to be tricky and probably exhausting.  It also became clear that neither Ben or I were going to survive the stress of worrying about the $500 flimsy audio devices on the collars. The responses of the males weren't going to be easy to interpret either and would require direct observation rather than measuring with gadgets on collars.  In the playback to Kevin, Kevin actually started searching for the speaker but then became distracted by the pretty little female sitting in a nearby tree.  Bruce simply just 'didn't give a damn'! 

Dave checking out the playback speaker
In the end, Ben resorted to old fashioned observation, with video camera as backup and my audio recorder and microphone to record any bellows by the study animals.  I only had to catch each of these koalas once after the playback to take its measurements and fit it with a radiocollar for continued monitoring of movements during this breeding season.  It appears that many of our boys are like 'Bruce' and don't respond to the playbacks, while others like 'Dave' and a new boy Ben dubbed 'The Beast' go crazy, even attacking the speaker.

While Ben and I were busy playing with koalas, the rest of the team were hard at work with koala counts and tree assessments.  Alistair managed to get his blue gum work done in 3 days, with the help of 2 of the team per day.  Thankfully, the EPIRB stayed in its case and although giant leeches were observed (Claire even videoed one dancing on the datasheet), they didn't appear to be out for blood.  I think Alistair was the only one to require bandaids for a leech bite, and that leech was picked up in the Bimbi West site.

Lucie with her joey 'Lisa'
Radiotracking and the obligatory oohing and ahhing over little joeys was also completed.  We discovered that koala 'Claire' had gone wandering.  Team member 'Claire' helped me find her about 1km to the east of the site.  The team also got to help catch and handle some of the koalas we were collaring. Karin and Joan were the lucky ones who got to help catch 'Princess' (8kg and very sweet), while some less fortunates had to deal with the likes of the feisty 12kg 'Mac' in their first catching experience. We all lived to tell the tale though. Vic, a catcher who came down to help for a few days, thoughtfully demonstrated to us why you don't put your fingers in the way of an angry koala.  Erik left a nice scratch on her thumb.  Thanks Vic!

Not happy and possibly a bit confused!
 And last, but not least, the team spent some time on the last day putting up some tree collars to try and save some of the manna gum around Bimbi Park. Frank (from Bimbi Park) provided the materials and the team did an amazing job. At least one male koala was annoyed that he'd been excluded from his favourite tree.

The next trip is in November when we'll finish off the counts and tree assessments.  There'll be more catching to do (I have to change over some GPS devices), radiotracking, and ....... the list goes on and on.

I'm looking forward to it!


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