Monitoring Quolls at Mulligans Flat

Photography in the dark

The phone vibrates and chirps at us, rattling across Mitch’s bedside table. We manage to slowly drag ourselves out of bed, stumble to the kitchen and turn on the kettle. Bleary eyes tell us its 1.15am. We half gulp, half nurse a cup of coffee, collect two camera bags, a tripod and a light panel and clatter out the door and into the car. We venture across a very dark Canberra, sharing the roads with no one but moths under the streetlights. Pulling into a dark suburb we spot what looks like the small gated entrance to a park. A cluster of head torches are gathered in a circle near two 4WDs, we clamber out, cameras in hand. Mitch stops, raises the camera and fires off a few shots. The shutter was loud in the night.

“Oh god you’re starting already!”

“Morning Bel!” Mitch and I chorus. Its 1.50am…. and time for quolls!

Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary is a unique place. Put simply, it’s one of the invasive pest free spaces in Australia, a 485 hectare area of woodland bordered by a 6 foot high electric fence. The area was cleared of pest species and is used not only to protect the biggest patch of critically endangered Yellow Box-Blakely’s Red Gum Grassy woodland in Australia (say that three times fast!), but also as the site for reintroduction experiments. We started working with Mulligans Flat last year after one of my photography teachers told us he knew their communications officer. After a meeting one night at a pub in Ainslie we’ve been getting amazing opportunities to work with this group ever since. This included photographing their echidna sweeps (surveys) last year, a night of bettong monitoring and the unique opportunity of photographing quolls.

Last year Mulligans put us in touch with PhD candidate Belinda Wilson. Bel’s research involves experimentally restoring the Eastern Quoll to the sanctuary.  She seems to know everything there is to know about quolls and wildlife in general, and generously invited us to come photograph her work. This was our third time out on a monitoring session, these are only run twice a year, so once you get an email from Bel you push everything aside to go take quoll photos!

researcher releasing quoll
Awww come on Bel can’t we keep just one?!

We arrived at the sanctuary at 1.50am, just in time to meet everyone and be told who was in our team. In hushed voices the brief for the night was given, everyone collected their gear and we set off. The general plan when checking traps is to drive along the track following the Mulligan crew’s 4WD. It’s slow going as you have to watch out for critters, with bettongs hopping off the road at the last minute and possums walking along next to the track, tails held high. When the group spots a marker flag tied to a tree or fence the cars stop and everyone jumps out. We find the trap nearby and check if it’s closed, when it is it means there’s either a quoll or bettong inside and it’s all systems go. Unless there’s a brushtail possum inside, which just gets released and saunters off into the night. This process continues until all traps along the line have been collected.

researchers in the field at night
Mulligans Flat at 2am – a hive of activity!
researchers find a baby quoll in a trap
Mum? Is that you?

Our first trap of the night contained…a chocolate quoll! Not an Easter treat, this is the name given to the darker colour morph of eastern quolls. The other coat colour for the fashion conscious quoll is fawn, yet both morphs have the distinctive white spots. To light our photos on these nocturnal sojourns we carry an Aputure LED panel on a tripod. The brightness and colour balance is adjustable and having it on a tripod means we can change the height to suit the scene. Although, carrying a light around you become a magnet for every bug in the area…and also any scientist wanting to work in stronger light than that produced by their headtorch. We’re pretty sure they just keep having us back because of our giant light.

baby chocolate quoll in a trap
Is there anything cuter than a baby quoll…?
close up of spotted quoll fur

For the first hour or two, we could hear the sound of microbats echolocating but these dropped off and were gone by 4am. We also heard the occasional grunt/cough of a kangaroo and a brief snippet of curlew call, otherwise the night at Mulligans Flat was silent. Sort of…Breaking this silence was the occasional instruction or question from the team. “Have you got its head?” “Ok keep holding her, I’ll do the pes measurement next” (pes = foot, in case you were wondering). The team we go out quolling with is always different, except for the leader Bel. She runs a smooth ship and even though new faces pop up in the team they are generally connected to Mulligans in some way or are science students at the local university. Seeing her teach these newbies how to handle the quoll, take measurements and samples, record data then release the animal in a limited time is amazing to watch. There are rules though, particularly around taking the small fur samples, pulling fur from the spots on a quoll just doesn’t seem right!

quoll feet being measured with calipers
Oh my what big feet you have!
quoll teeth being checked
Say cheeeeese! Checking if the quoll had trifecta teeth – white, sharp AND shiny!
shining light through quoll ear
Looking for the best spot to take a sample

Eastern quolls have been extinct from mainland Australia for about 50 years due to fox predation and competition for food with cats. They are one of six quoll species and can only be found in fox-free Tasmania or fenced sanctuaries. This experiment sourced quolls from captive bred populations in Tasmania and Victoria. Eastern quolls have also been reintroduced at Booderee National Park in an attempt to re-establish this species in the wild. Booderee is not a fenced sanctuary so the project had a lower survival rate, with quolls falling victim to foxes, becoming road kill or being attacked by snakes. Thankfully there were some survivors, which bred successfully meaning quoll babies were seen in October last year!

This was our third time out taking photos of the quoll trapping so we knew the routine well. We shoot with a range of lenses, wide angles or a 50mm were perfect for shooting the release but having a macro or a telephoto lets us really focus in during the sampling. Understanding what goes on and in what order makes taking photos a lot easier but having someone there that knows so much about the species and is happy to wait while we take certain photos has been incredible. Possibly our favourite part to photograph is when the animal is released. Each individual reacts differently, some quolls bound straight off into the night, others are hesitant to leave the bag and some just head straight at the photographer, turning off into the bush at the last minute.

quoll measurements being taken on back of ute
overhead shot of quoll sample being taken
quoll being released into the darkness

By the time we reached the last trap on our line the sun was about to creep up and it was light enough to photograph without the LED panel. Cockatoos had begun to fly around, greeting the new day with a screech or two. Other birds had also begun to wake up, breaking the silence of the early morning as they began to hop around in the bush. Inside the last trap we found a female fawn coloured quoll. The team took their measurements, made their notes then released her. She bounded off back into the sanctuary, we all watched until we couldn’t see her any more. Although we’d been out since 2am the night had flown by. We’ll never get tired of seeing quolls and getting to photograph the amazing work being done at Mulligans Flat. The next monitoring session is scheduled for May, we can’t wait to come back out and take more photos. The next thing for us though was to head home and get ready for work, lucky it was Friday!

close up of fawn quoll face

Weekends away – shore diving photography

Dent rock and the octopus garden

One Friday afternoon in mid-February we snuck out of Canberra, driving 2 hours and 40ish minutes to reach Huskisson, a coastal town in Jervis Bay, N.S.W. Husky, as everyone calls it, is our favourite close spot for a dose of ocean (for those tropical creatures that go into withdrawal) and some diving. It is part of the Jervis Bay Marine Park and has some really accessible temperate reefs, just a short fin from the shore.  Nearby is also the magnificent Boderee National Park. Although more effort to shore dive, Murray’s beach makes a great snorkelling spot at the right time (and tide).

As soon as we’d arrived and unpacked we headed to the water. Sailor’s beach was just a short walk from the holiday house we stayed in. At the southern end of the beach is a rock platform, snorkelling around the edge was a real treat. Close to shore in the seagrass we saw rays resting on the sand as a few salps floated past us. Heading out further and exploring along the edge of the rock platform we saw a wrasse resting under a rock ledge. It didn’t look like a particularly comfortable spot with the black spines of sea urchins poking out. Not sure if anyone else feels the same, but when a group of large fish swim super fast from behind you and the water’s a bit murky do you start to wonder what was chasing them? Popping our heads up we noticed a dark mass of storm clouds covering the horizon. They were headed our way so it was time to fin back to shore. We made it home before the storm hit. It rained so hard parts of the roof started leaking, seeing water drip from the bathroom light made using the toilet at night a thrilling (dark) experience!

We like it under our urchin

Waking up to a beautiful calm day on Saturday we had our choice of dive spots. The forecast and prevailing swell made Dent Rock our chosen site. We could’ve gone to Murrays and attempted to dive from the boat ramp. But the day before Sue from Crest Diving showed us the best dive route and where boats usually head out from the boat ramp, it was a shame the two coincided. To dive Dent Rock we drove about five minutes to Orion beach. Dragging all the gear out of the car we set up on the grass then took numerous trips down the wooden stairs to the beach. Chris kept getting distracted by wrens in the bush on either side of the stairs but its more likely this was a ploy to get out of carrying heavy things. Once everything was down on the beach we geared up and headed in, fully kitted out in 5 and 7mm wetsuits. Ahhh the snorkel yesterday was so easy just jumping in wearing a sharkskin and boardies with no camera!

But it was worth the struggle, as Jervis Bay is home to 230 species of algae! Just joking, although the swim out to Dent Rock is about 200 metres over a seagrass bed so you think there’s nothing but weed then all of a sudden you’re at a reef with Port Jackson sharks everywhere. Not at this time of year though, yet there was still plenty to keep us photographing. Swimming out we noticed these large piles of shells. Heading closer to check it out we discovered they were octopus gardens! Some were living very close to neighbours, with two only about 30 centimetres apart. They all had different personalities, some didn’t mind having their photo taken and came out of their holes further for a look. While others retreated as far as they could into their holes while still keeping an eye on the camera laden sea monsters. Check out Blue Planet 2 for some awesome occy filming, the guy in episode 5 also reckons octopus have very different personality types.

I think I’m being watched

Swimming on we came to the rock which is sparsely covered in sponges and coralline algae but has plenty of fish life. I was quickly obsessed with a school of Old Wives while Mitch stuck to the smaller subjects with his macro rig. Schools of baitfish came and went during the dive, we also came across a Red Morwong. He had a great look with his spines up and mouth open.

He’s not posing, Chris’ strobes have just stunned him

Also at the rock was one of the scariest fish I’ve come across. Forget scalloped hammerheads and sea snakes there was one particularly terrifying male Senator wrasse here. I could be over reacting but when something comes out of nowhere and swims straight at you it is a little unnerving…until you realise it’s a pretty little rainbow coloured fish that’s just checking out your strobes. He also really liked playing in the bubbles we breathed out but clumsily swam into most of our heads while he was doing it. Senator wrasse are protogynous hermaphrodites, all starting life as females and changing to males when they reach 2-5 years of age. Maybe this particular fish had just changed or was grumpy because we were in his territory and it was breeding season. We like to think he was just playful.

Don’t be fooled, this is an evil (but pretty) fish

This time of year none of us were getting cold so we could take our time on the swim back. It’s not like we had a choice, we came across more occy’s that liked having their photo taken and Mitch discovered a number of critters in the seagrass. I’m not sure how he spots such tiny things in the mass of green but check out these shrimp. On the slightly larger side there was also a sea hare (slugs which eat nothing but algae – must be spoilt for choice in Jervis!). Mitch also found a couple of pipefish hiding out in the seagrass.

Probably not as fast as land hares

They real trick I’ve found for underwater macro photography (which is different, but no less challenging than the dry land type) is to take your time. Take your time looking, take your time composing and take your time before moving one. A lot of the macro subjects I’ve come across like sea hares, shrimps, pipefish etc are cryptic species. This means they use camouflage to avoid predators or catch prey. What does this mean for photography? They can be hard to find, but don’t move much once found. This pipefish is a great example, it matches the length, colour and movement of the seagrass it was in. I spotted this one because it moved slightly out of sync with the grass so it could keep an eye on me. Slow swimming and getting easily distracted means I actually spot more underwater (at least that’s what I tell Chris). Don’t rush, there’s millions of animals hiding in very different places underwater.

You have to be careful not to spook the wild macro photographer
I’m sea grass!

Husky, while full of tourists at times, always has a laid back vibe. We love being able to stroll into town along the path next to the water and check out the shops. Although, Mitch has recently been banned from buying any more pairs of novelty socks from the bamboo shop, it’s still a favourite to browse in. After a day of diving it’s nice to walk into town and get a cold drink or piece of cake from Nutmeg Cafe before heading off for an afternoon snorkel. But for dinner there’s really only one choice – Mexican!!! Pilgrim’s, a vegetarian place, has Mexican nights on Friday and Saturday. Just go and order anything, it’s that good. Finishing off our little weekend escape here was perfect. Sunday morning the wind had changed bringing in a cloud of dust. Heading home and back to work didn’t seem so bad when you’ve got photos of occy’s to edit and memories of a terrifying wrasse.