Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Is 6 a lucky number?

If not, it should be.  This was my 6th Earthwatch trip, there were 6 participants, and we had at least 6 days of sunshine and days of making good memories.  We may have had more of the latter but I want to go with this theme of ‘6’.  Oddly enough, the number ‘6’ featured in Frankie’s, or should I say “Cranky Frankie’s” collar frequency, so maybe the number ‘6’ isn’t so lucky afterall.  Frankie will go down in history as the most terrifyingly aggressive koala to ever grace the trees of Cape Otway.  I have never known a koala to feel such a need to attack his catchers… and this time, we had to catch him not once, but twice!
"Cranky Frankie" - don't be fooled by this photo. He has a nasty streak a mile wide!
But, I digress….

To my February band of koala-ers: Anndy, Krystal, Kelly, Tim, John and Robert, and staff Viki and Jo, a huge THANK YOU for your hard work, good company, and pulling me out of the field trip doldrums I was feeling at the beginning of the trip.  I had already spent so many weeks in the field prior to this trip that I was tired and feeling a little grumpy.  You guys soon turned that around though.  I can’t believe I even laughed while battling the prickles and general nastiness of Aire River?!  The food was also sensational.  My favourite was the Mexican fajitas, although the risotto was a close second.  Nothing like a hot fudge brownie or apple crumble with vanilla ice cream to finish off a meal either.  I will have to post some of these recipes in a blog to follow this one.
The amazing February 2013 team including Jessie and Kara
We accomplished so much too:
1.       Census at the Bimbi site
Sadly, we are now at around 22 koalas per hectare.  It appears that many of them are youngsters that have just been weaned.  Those ones seem to be having a difficult time finding a place in the already crowded trees.  During the week, we came across some that were very weak, and others that were turning to humans for comfort.  The little female I moved off Manna Gum Drive twice(!) pulled at my heart strings.  It is frustrating to observe this population increase and not to be able to do anything about it.  Culling to reduce the population is out of the question (banned at the Commonwealth level), translocation has its own negatives in terms of animal welfare, sterilisation will not work quickly, and habitat works are also long-term options. It appears that nature will have to sort it out but in the words of a former colleague “Nature…. She’s a cruel bitch”.

2.       Radiotracking

Trying to find Frankie

Each day my band of warriors headed out, armed with receiver and antenna to find our koalas.  Sometimes, I think these koalas like to play tricks on us and switch places to see if we’re paying attention.  Dave headed out to Katrina’s tree, and Mac and Austin traded places a few times.  Cranky Frankie simply headed into the thick scrub of the National Park where he hid in Casuarinas.  Wally remained in the same tree but his arm looks to be mending which made us all happy.

Wally - often in the strangest of positions

3.       Tree canopy assessments at Bimbi and Aire

Nothing like a mum and joey to distract
from doing tree assessments

We managed to find and assess most of the permanently marked trees at both sites.  There were a few distractions that slowed us down: at Bimbi, Krystal, Anndy and I got distracted by a mother and her joey who were creating beautiful photo opportunities for us.  At Aire River, prickly vegetation and the difficult terrain made it hard.  Krystal – I can’t believe you kept smiling that day, and then volunteered for finding Stevie, playbacks, AND spotlighting afterwards. Superwoman!

4.       Spotlighting
Three sites were surveyed, the most interesting being Aire River.  We saw koalas, ringtail and brushtail possums, boobooks, tawny frogmouths, bats and a hotly discussed sleeping ‘red wattle bird’.  The moon was sensational too!

What is that you see Tim? Odd how those spotlights look like bananas.

5.       Camera traps

What does this fox have in its mouth?
Our 20 traps captured some great photos of wallabies, possums, koalas, rats (all black rats!), an echidna, a fox with something in its mouth (sorry guys – I don’t think it was a rabbit afterall), lots of birds, a skink (no snakes!), and a horse.  Despite the quantity of photos, there was little diversity. 

Unfortunately, these woodlands are quite disturbed and offer poor quality habitat to most small mammals.

6.       Seed collection
An amazing amount of seed was collected (under the supervision of the horses).  I have it drying in a big tub at home and will start sifting it soon.  Frank and Katrina (owners of Bimbi Park) have given me loads of seedling containers and I plan on building a greenhouse so that I can get some new trees going in early spring.  In the meantime, I have some trees ready to plant from seed germinated last year and Frank has a lot he purchased so I plan on heading down in April for a planting weekend. Let me know if you want (and are able) to join us.

7.       Bellows
Three males caught (including Frankie) but only Beast gave us any bellows. BUT, I am pleased to report that those 2 bellows have given me a data signature on the accelerometers. I’m now working out how to search for that pattern in accelerometer data collected in the last couple of years. I also have found a student who wants to look at this for his honours’ project. It will be interesting to investigate the link between bellowing and reproductive behaviour.  
Each coloured line represents an axis of the accelerometer.  Beast gave two short bellows in succession.  The movement of his head up and down resulted in a regular pattern on two of the axes.

Tim with Dave
8.       Koala catching
Because most of the koalas had been caught in January, we only needed to catch the three boys for bellows and Lucie, Katrina (and joey ‘Manya’), Sally, and Buffy for gps switch.  Lucie was the sweetest of all (as always), but it was Katrina who got to be the film star again.  This time it was a German film crew.  They seemed to realise that we could only do the capture once, but I lost count of the number of retakes they did of me walking to the car, putting poles in, taking poles out etc.

9.       Leaf sampling
Kara and Jessie joined us for most of the trip to do some leaf sampling for a project on leaf chemistry of trees throughout the national range of koalas.  So, we got to help collect some leaves for them.  Tim deserves a special thank you for spending 3 days collecting leaves.  He tells me that shooting the ‘Big Shot’ slingshot in the blue gums made it worthwhile

And I think that just about wraps it up for February.  Did I miss anything? I suspect so but this seems like such a long list of accomplishments already, and I don’t want to scare off future volunteers.  They already have a hard act to follow.
Nothing like an amazing sunset to top off a hard work day!

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