Road tripping – South West WA: Part 2

We found an unexpected aspect to tourism in West Australia. For every couple of natural places free to explore, there is one human made heritage feature locked away. We first encountered this at Cape Naturaliste National Park. This sits on a headland jutting into the Indian Ocean a half hour drive west of Busselton. On the headland walking trails meander through the coastal scrub. One winds down to a whale watching platform which overlooks the calm waters of Geographe Bay, a nursery and rest area for migrating whales. A lighthouse, built 117 years ago still stands twenty metres high, overlooking the bay.

Arriving at Cape Naturaliste we jumped out of the car, keen to stretch our legs and have a closer look at the historic lighthouse. We quickly discovered it would cost $5 each to walk up the path to the base of the lighthouse and decided to give it a miss. We felt disappointed that seeing cultural heritage was going to cost money. We didn’t want to do the tour, or walk into the lighthouse and up its 59 stairs but a fenced building, also separating the lighthouse keeper cottages, kept us out. We chose to explore one of the walking tracks instead, the lighthouse peeked through the scrub at us the whole way. Our track took us to ‘the other side of the moon’. This oddly named area is on the wind exposed western side of the headland. Bushes struggle to gain much height, clinging to the bare rock. It felt like the wind was blowing straight up from Antarctica. The blue ocean stretched into the horizon, meeting only the sky. The next closest land would be Africa, only a short swim really. You feel like you’re on the edge of the Earth here.

Our next stop was Sugarloaf Rock. This unremarkable lump pokes out of the sea. Waves crash endlessly against it, filling the air with sea spray. But this unassuming, wind and salt blasted rock is the southernmost breeding site for red tailed tropic birds. Thirty pairs used to breed on this rock but now only a few scrape out nests and raise a single chick here. I’ve seen these birds at Lady Elliot Island before. They have evolved to live on the wing and spend their lives at sea, only coming ashore to breed. This means they are very clumsy on land. They have two long red tail plumes and a bright red beak, distinguishing them from other seabirds. Sadly, we didn’t see any today, maybe they use the more sheltered side of the rock.

The next day we were back at Cape Naturaliste early in the morning. Spots of rain fell as we peeled ourselves out of the car. We tackled the Bunker Bay walk which winds around the headland. Rocks and tree roots litter the path making every step a chance to twist your ankle. Wrens called teasingly from in the scrub but I never spotted one. Arriving at a lookout we could see across the blue water of Bunker Bay to caves at the top of the cliff face. Stalactites hung from the cave roof, there was no way to get any closer with a sheer drop below us into the sea.

Our next stop was an hour’s drive south, Eagle’s Heritage Raptor Centre. The place was run by a couple who took in injured raptors, owls and tawny frogmouths (which are nightjars, not raptors). Admission fees funded their work so to entice visitors in they held two free-flight raptor shows every day. We were there an hour before the first one and had a good look at all the enclosures. It was a cool, overcast morning so most of the birds were fluffed up. A large wedge tail watched our every move as we entered. Barn owls huddled next to each other, in pairs and threes. Another pen contained five boobooks, two snuggled together at the front. When we approached their heads swivelled to watch us. I’ve never seen so many birds of prey up close. It made me sad to see them in cages. Especially when I read about the powerful owl who was waiting for a mate and kept laying unfertilised eggs on her own every year.

By 11am we seated for the bird show. An older man came out with a long, leather glove on his wrist, perched on top was a barn owl. This was Ivy, he’d known her since she’d been an egg. He gave an interesting talk skipping from owl biology to Australia’s treatment of it’s endemic raptors. We learnt so many incredible facts about barn owls, they:

  • consume 1000 mice per year (that’s 900 more than the average snake)
  • can see in ultraviolet light (tracking prey from sweat or urine trails invisible to us)
  • have incredible hearing because their face feathers funnel sound to their ears which internally point up on one side and down on the other
  • have bristles on their feet, so if prey move to bite their toes they’ll detect it first.

Next in the show three black tailed hawks were released to fly free, being enticed closer with food. Evolved to catch insects on the wing these raptors were so fast they would swoop in, catch the food thrown mid-air and be gone before my autofocus could lock onto them (though we both have some very impressive looking blurs).

We drove on to visit some caves. Very excited, we drove to the first one to find another tourist trap. Entrance to the cave cost over twenty dollars, and was blocked by a shop. We could see a long line of people winding around the shelves of t-shirts and fridge magnets. Only a certain number of people were allowed in at a time, so as one person came out, you received their headset and could go in. Definitely not the kind of experience we thought of when we read about caves you could explore yourself!

We drove further southward towards Cape Leeuwin-Naturaliste. There was another lighthouse there, older than the one at Cape Naturaliste, at 125 years. It is the tallest lighthouse on the Australian mainland reaching 39 metres. With these more impressive stats it wasn’t surprising to find it cost $7.50 to get close to this lighthouse (see bigger is better). Bypassing this we followed part of the Cape to Cape track which wound out of the carpark and onto large smoothed rocks next to the ocean. The Cape to Cape runs from Cape Naturaliste down to Cape Leeuwin, a distance we’d managed in a day by car, but would take a few more on foot to cover its 123km. Walking along the shore we turned onto a path through the scrub and came across an old waterwheel. It had been built in 1895 to pump water up to build the lighthouse and provide water to the lighthouse keepers cottages. The water was being drained from a wetland spring to our right. The spring had been drained so low an electric pump was needed to keep the water wheel supplied after over 100 years of flow. The wheel itself was covered in calcified lime and looked as if it was turning to stone. Green moss grew all over it, hanging in clumps.

Heading back north as the afternoon crept in, we arrived at Ellensbrook, unsure if we would be locked out. You see this historical homestead was closed to visitors the day we arrived. We’d read about a walk starting on the property that led to a cave and Meekadarabee Falls. We were pleasantly surprised to find we could wander in freely, look around the old farmhouse and head up to the trail. We stumbled across the first evidence of residential hydroelectricity in the state built near the house. A failed project by its original owners to deliver power to the farm house. Apparently, they could never quite get the turbine to produce enough power. We then wound our way along a boardwalk, lizards dropped off into the grass as we approached. The scrub changed, thinning out, the path turned to a sandy track. A boardwalk appeared which let us overlook a waterfall in front of a cave. We were the only ones there. Ellensbrook was very peaceful after visiting more tourist heavy places. It was just what we needed!

It was getting late so we headed back, driving to Margaret River for dinner. We’d reserved a table at La Scarpetta Trattoria, an Italian restaurant run out of the heritage listed Bridgefield Guesthouse. The building was originally an old coach house, it was all arching timber curves and stained glass windows. Cushioned bench seats lined the windows overlooking the garden. A mulberry tree drooped over a bench seat outside. Just sitting there was relaxing, there was so much to take in. But the food was also incredible! Starting with arancini dipped in steaming Napoli sauce, we continued with fresh filled pasta and grilled seasonal vegetables. For dessert we tipped over into heaven with caprese al cioccolato and citrus cream filled cannoli. After all this food we needed a brief waddle up the street. What we saw of Margaret River had us very excited for our foodie tour here tomorrow. As the sky darkened we drove home, weary from a day spent outside but very, very content. While it was disappointing that we couldn’t see everything without paying, what we did find by exploring a little further afield and walking mostly unused trails was definitely worth it.

Exploring Ningaloo- week 9 (last week!)

Today marks the start of the last week of my internship. I was up at 5am to go look for turtles at Five Mile, hoping to see some hatchlings. A cyclone was building further to the north, it wasn’t expected to hit Exmouth but was driving increased humidity here. Just getting out of the car left me covered in sweat. There was only one turtle in my favourite rockpool, doing its best rock impersonation. I walked all the way to the totem which marks the end of the section, but saw no signs of a hatchling emergence other than old tracks. A Rufous fieldwren was hopping around in the dunes, from one clump of grass to the next.  I walked back down the beach, past the carpark and continued towards Trisel hoping to see something. I didn’t see any turtle tracks or turtles but there was a blue and white kingfisher flying from rock to rock. Looking it up in my bird books later, we identified it as a juvenile sacred kingfisher because of its brown tufted belly and brown-white brow colouring. It found a crab and seemed to struggle to swallow it whole, banging the crab on a rock as if to squash it down. It’s surprising seeing these two birds on the beach after only ever seeing seagulls here before.

Photo captured a wren midair as it hops in the sand dunes. Backlit sand grains are flying in every direction
A kingfisher sits on a rock trying to swallow a crab that fills its beak

The day only got hotter and sweatier from there. We dropped the volunteers off at the airport then spent the rest of the day cleaning the Turtle Bus. After vacuuming, pressure washing, wiping down every surface and window it looked better but I don’t think all of the sand will ever come out. The next day was also focused on maintenance. We unrolled all 16 swags, to check for any repairs needed or missing parts. We moved on to washing all the backpacks taken monitoring every day. So much sand came out when I shook them, but also rubbish and bits of fishing line as the volunteers like to clean up the beaches they work on. Washing them turned the water brown very quickly, at least it was so hot they should dry fast.

Landscape scene looking back towards the road from the beach car park, sea mist turned everything a shade of grey

I was up and out on the beach again on Wednesday. It was really muggy and the sea mist was so thick it looked like a layer of fog over the landscape, turning the world grey. There were no turtles on the rock platform at Five Mile which was a real surprise, the first time this season. There were barely any tracks either. Further along the beach I noticed a group of seagulls down near the water. There was seaweed and debris everywhere, shells, broken urchins, bits of sponges, even a lobster antenna. Then I noticed one seagull had something white in its beak and was being chased by the other gulls. Walking closer I noticed there were white things scattered everywhere among the seaweed. They were broken turtle eggs! They were all fresh, there were no signs of yolk or blood, no yellow aging on them from being in the sun. My best guess is a turtle released eggs into the water and they’ve washed up so the seagulls have had a party. I counted 36 shell fragments (the larger pieces that looked like most of an egg) before stopping. There were 50 seagulls around looking content and well fed.

turtle egg broken on the beach like a flower with its petals falling apart
Broken white turtle egg shells scattered among the seaweed and rocks

Back home I put in a full day behind the computer. Editing photos, writing a new Standard Operating Procedure with recommendations for next season’s intern, preparing all my photos for the articles I’d written and finishing off interview captions, before sending it all on to the NTP coordinator. I ended the day back at Five Mile hoping to see some hatchlings around sunset. I walked up the beach and found a seat near a clump of spinifex where I could watch over the whole beach. The other direction was a blaze of light from the setting sun. It was slightly cooler, a turtle head popped up to breathe just offshore. It was a nice place to watch the sun go down. I read my friends blog on a handicraft market she’d visited in Pakistan, feeling even more remote on my beach. It was almost dark as I headed back to the car, no hatchlings tonight.

Thursday. My last full day here, so I was out at Five Mile. Again, there wasn’t much turtle action to see. The high tide had seeped most of the way up the beach to the edge of the dunes so only tracks above that hadn’t been washed away. No turtles on the rock platform or beach. I walked to the totem then beyond, looking at urchins, one had its Aristotle’s lantern clearly intact. Wet chocolate cowries the size of 10 cent pieces littered the shoreline, glistening in the early morning sun. Pied oystercatchers hurried off when I approached. Seagulls pecked at urchins and stood quietly.

A seagull eating a sea urchin in a shallow rock pool
Three ruddy turnstones and a sanderling share a rockpool

I went to say goodbye to the osprey at Tantabiddi. For the first time there were none on the nest. A single bird out of the family of five stood on a pole in the carpark. It stretched its wings upward then sat calling as I took some photos. It eventually flew off, much smoother than any flights I’d seen around Christmas. The fledglings had grown up during my time here. Making the most of my last day I went to Lakeside for a snorkel. There was an osprey perched on the sanctuary post, just like the first time I’d come. In the water it was hard swimming out, I kept getting pushed sideways by the current. Grey drummer were everywhere, feeding near the surface on clumps of floating algae. They were moving much faster than I’d seen them do before. Even though it was a bit murky I saw two species of clownfish, some angelfish, wrasse and a school of different surgeonfish species.

Onwards I drove for one last snorkel at Turquoise Drift. The Rufous fieldwren (I think!) I’d seen many times in the carpark flew under my car as I opened the door, new bugs! The water was its normal vivid turquoise colour and so inviting. A bit murky again in the water yet the fish seemed active. I saw a few new fish species I still couldn’t name, that list seems endless even after nine weeks! Driving the long road back into town I reflected on how much I wouldn’t miss this long drive…just all the places hidden along it.

close up of a grey chiton on a rock with its mantle extended around its oval shaped body

The farewell dinner was at a local restaurant. While the food was okay the real highlight was a brown snake moving around the outside seating area. A bamboo fence was stopping it from easily escaping so it just kept slithering along the fence. A chef came out to shoo it off with a broom but five minutes later it was back on the opposite side of the courtyard. One of the rangers at dinner with us called it a Gwardar, identifying it as the poisonous western brown snake. I wonder if he was here for the chicken with seasonal veg too? We all kept still and lifted our feet up until it had been shooed even further away. Before dessert we were given thank you presents and cards, it was finally sinking in that our time here was ending.

Friday was a whirlwind of busy-ness for me. I cleaned the dirt and sand off my hire car in the morning before scheduling all the NTP posts for the next month and entering a photo competition. It was sad handing in my key to the office and saying goodbyes. This took much longer than you might think, leaving me scurrying into the apartment at 12:30 to eat and pack everything in an hour and a half. This included the fun Tetris game of getting it all to fit into the car while leaving room for Mitch’s bags. At last I was packed, said goodbye to the other team leaders and had dropped my key at reception. I was off to the airport at last! Mitch’s plane touched the runway but was being pushed by a westerly crosswind so it took off again. Everyone in the terminal was left wondering what happened. Almost ten minutes later we heard the plane approaching again. We crowded around the windows to see it land safely, but on two wheels. Watching the people file off the plane and down the stairs I spotted Mitch’s Akubra bobbing along. I finally got the hug I’d been waiting three weeks for! After picking up his bag and bundling him into the car we were off. Goodbye Ningaloo you were incredible, now it’s time for the next adventure!!!

…—…—…

Since finishing the program I’ve heard some interesting figures from the NTP coordinator. In total during the peak season (four weeks) we counted 1,227 turtle nests across the three different species (green, loggerhead and hawksbill). This reflects a quiet season as the average total number of nests since 2002 is usually around 1,913. I’m not sure how many false crawls were recorded but it was always much higher than the number of successful nests. As usual the majority of nests were made by green turtles (71%) followed by loggerheads (25%) and hawksbills (4%). This puts into context just how special it was for me to see a hawksbill laying!

The opportunity to spend over two months as a Multimedia and Communications Intern was an experience I won’t forget for many reasons. Every day I had the chance to walk along a beach taking photos and collecting stories to promote the program. This taste of another field has left me wanting more and will keep me motivated to forge a career in science communication so maybe one day I will be getting paid to do something I love. This is the only internship of its kind in Australia where someone can practice their science communication skills in a real-world setting. It was definitely pivotal in making up my mind about a career change so I can only hope more opportunities like this will be created. The autonomy I had to learn about the program then communicate it with the public is a unique freedom I won’t get anywhere else. It left me feeling like I had contributed something significant to turtle conservation at Ningaloo.

I also had the chance to immerse myself in a new and very different place. Exmouth is a fantastic town to call home, even for a short time. The locals are friendly and welcoming. If you ever get the chance be sure to say hello to Jess at Ningaloo Bulk Foods who set up her shop to give people the opportunity to reduce waste, especially single use plastics (she also makes the world’s best peanut butter, a tasty souvenir). I had a blast exploring the area, above and below water and meeting all the creatures that call Ningaloo home. While I’ll probably never be able to name all the fish it has been fun to try! My brain is still overwhelmed by the experience and processing everything I’ve taken in as I write these posts weeks later. If you are considering joining the Ningaloo Turtle Program or doing some other science-based volunteer work all I can do is encourage you. This program relies on volunteers to function, while funding from sponsors provides a rental bus and accommodation and food allowances for team leaders there is no money to pay for people to do the actual work. Although getting paid to spend a few hours walking up the beach each morning is a marine scientist’s dream that just isn’t going to happen unless funding for science increases exponentially (hey, a girl can dream!). I’d encourage everyone to make the most of volunteer opportunities to do things they never otherwise would, how else would I get to spend two months at Ningaloo taking photos?! Finally, I’d like to thank the Ningaloo Turtle Program and all the staff at Exmouth Parks and Wildlife for an incredible summer!

Exploring Ningaloo – week 5

Since Mitch and his parents arrived only two days ago it feels like a week has passed, we’ve fit so much in. The first afternoon I took them to Bundegi for a snorkel under the boat ramp. There were only a few schools of fish at first, then I saw a giant shovelnose ray. He quickly swam off across the bay though with his entourage of remoras. Looking in the shadows we found our first stonefish. A big reddish brown fellow, with a massive head, its body tapering like a teardrop from the large head and downturned mouth. It has the weirdest way of moving, instead of swimming it hops along the bottom. Knowing how it moved we could follow its strange hopping trail along the sandy bottom, winding its way from the base of a pylon into a discarded concrete cylinder. Somewhere along the way we picked up a juvenile trevally. This little yellow fish was about the size of my pinky, bright yellow with black vertical stripes. It had a large eye so when it slowed down I could clearly see it looking up at me as if to work out what I was. The little fish stayed with us no matter how fast we swam and when we hung around in the shallows would try to swim in the shade we cast.

A stonefish sits on the sandy bottom under the boat ramp. he looks unimpressed with his large, downturned mouth.
The little yellow trevally hovers beneath my hands, held together out in front as I snorkel. The water looks green.

The next day we were up early to head out into the park. Along the road we saw plenty of bustards. Stopping at Tantabiddi boat ramp to show them the osprey we were rewarded with one in the nest and another soon landing. We saw the parent osprey flying in carrying a surgeonfish and give it to the fledgling on the nest. A squabble of flapping wings and piercing cries quickly broke out over this new morsel, before a flurry of heavy wing beats. One flew off holding a damselfish that must have been delivered earlier. Not bad for a first day with the osprey!

Mitch: Watching this was incredible, but the opportunity to capture it was even better. I was lucky enough to be using a 70-200mm lens with a 1.7x teleconverter on my D850 body. This combination allowed me to fill the frame with the ospreys. It’s safe to say without the teleconverter these images just wouldn’t be as close. I’d be relying on a heavy crop to fill the frame. Not necessarily a problem with the resolution you can get out of the 850 but still potentially limiting. When shooting I used a fast shutter speed to freeze the action. The rest was time, patience and a bit of luck.

Continuing on we saw a dingo, more bustards and even snakes crossing the road, possibly pythons, they were very shiny and black. They also moved like lightning, so a quick glimpse was all we got. A black snake on a black road in 35 degrees makes for a very fast reptile. Yardie Creek is literally the end of the road as you need to go through water to cross it. Here we went for a walk along the top of the gorge overlooking the creek. More osprey were hanging around near the Yardie Creek tour boat. We could see the cliffs on the opposite side of the creek. They were red and perpendicular to the creek. A row of oysters grew straight at the waters edge, kept even by the tide. We saw black flanked rock wallabies in amongst the bushes, fossilised coral imprints were everywhere in the rocks. At a particularly steep downward section we turned back, a swim was calling us.

I took them to the Turquoise drift, it was cold but nice and clear again. We saw some sharks a black tip and a white tip. They always seem to be heading out in the northern section of the reef just before the rip. Mitch’s parents saw a turtle and there were the usual suspects of reef fish. I also saw a nudibranch swimming on the sand as if it had just been knocked off its perch. Next stop was Lakeside. It was very choppy but we had a nice quick swim with a few more sharks. One seemed to be circling its patch of reef. The osprey was on the sanctuary marker and today there were about five blue spot lagoon rays in the shallows where you walk onto the beach. The rays were skittish quickly taking off if you stepped into the water to get a closer look.

Another morning found us back at the ospreys. One fledgling was on the nest, another tried to fly in but the wind was so strong it couldn’t land, settling on a nearby post instead. The parent brought a fish and the one on the nest was all excited, flapping its wings and screeching as she flew closer. Another fledgling sat on a pole head into the wind down by the boat ramp. It was quite fluffed up and looked very unimpressed with the weather. Yet another osprey was sitting on a dead branch on the opposite side of a small lake next to the carpark. That makes five, so the two parents and three fledglings, what a good crop of young!

Lakeside was less choppy than the previous day and definitely worth it. A large grouper was resting next to a coral bommie, blue fish swam above it near the coral. A green turtle about 20-30 years old swam up, she was happy to hang out with us and take a few breaths before swimming on. Further along we saw a black tip. I was filming it when mitch went to duck dive and it suddenly shot up to the surface then away into the distance. I don’t think it had noticed Mitch was there. Out best guess is the shark thought the large shape moving above it was a much bigger predator. Heading off again I failed to film the blue spot stingrays resting in the shallows, they just didn’t want me close to them.

Christmas Eve was spent running around food shopping and preparing bulk salads for the 20 person lunch we were holding on Christmas day. Christmas morning was fairly relaxed, we set up gazebos, organised the tables and chairs and decorated with tinsel and lights. Lunch went down well, even if it was over 40 degrees and very humid. We went for a swim at Bundegi to cool off afterwards. The school of fish under the boat ramp seemed thicker than last time and swirled around the pylons endlessly. We followed a giant shovelnose ray away from the boat ramp across the sandy bay, it had three juvenile trevally with it. I wondered if one was our friend from the other day. We swam out to the white buoy about halfway across the bay and found a yellow sponge and fragments of algae covered coral.

Mitch and I went to watch the sunset at Hunters Beach. It was a nice night, we saw turtles mating near the shore and a few pop up for breath. The sun set to our right instead of over the ocean behind us, confusing my sense of direction. Afterwards we went for a walk along the beach and I showed Mitch turtle tracks in the sand. He loved watching the ghost crabs in the wash. Some would bury themselves under the sand others would be hit by waves and go tumbling. There was a new moon so no turtles were coming up to nest where we were. We headed to Surf Beach to look for more and saw an owlet nightjar on the road. It’s huge eyes fluoresced under the cars headlights before it quickly blasted off into the night. There were no turtles nesting at Surf Beach either.

Boxing Day I was monitoring Five Mile to Five Mile North and took everyone with me. Halfway along we saw a turtle heading back out to sea along the rock platform. It always amazes me how tough and leathery their flippers must be as they drag themselves over the sharp, rocky surface. She didn’t nest just a false crawl. No one was happy to hear that after seeing how much effort she must have put in to drag herself up the dunes, dig a body pit then crawl back across the rock platform. It was a lot of energy expended for no reward.

Mitch: Taking photos of a turtle dragging itself back into the water was always going to be a new experience. What I wasn’t ready for is realising they manage to lift their upper bodies up off the ground on their front flippers! There was no secret for capturing her hard slog down the beach, it was all about taking the time to watch her and understand how she moved. This includes the moment she found a rockpool deep enough for her head and decided plonking her face in and ignoring the world was a good idea. Not something I’ll forget anytime soon.

We went out for a snorkel at oyster stacks, there weren’t as many fish as other times I’d been and it was quite cold water for 9.30 in the morning! It wasn’t as clear as usual either and there wasn’t as much frenzied fish feeding. We spent most of our time finning hard against a surging current as the waves pushed us towards the sharp coral beneath us. We headed to Lakeside next which offered a little more sanctuary from the surge, but the same roaring current. Seeing a huge grouper under the coral, a turtle happy to have us swim near her made the leg burning swim worthwhile. We still ended up sucked down the length of the beach by the rushing water. On leaving we ran into the NTP group, all standing under their gazebo on the beach applying sunscreen. We told them about the current then were off to say goodbye to the ospreys.

Breakfast on their last day in Exmouth at Social Society was a large affair (the meals that is). I ordered avocado toast and it came piled high with pepitas, feta and a poached egg. After dropping everyone at the airport the car temperature gauge read 50 degrees as if to remind me it definitely gets hot here. I headed back to the office to catch up on a few things and found a book on turtles with lots of pictures, perfect for me and a slow afternoon. After grocery shopping my fridge was full again. I settled down with a mango smoothie to read the turtle book and get used to being by myself once more.

Exploring Ningaloo – week 3

I walked Jacobsz South to Wobiri today to record tracks. I was dropped off on the side of Yardie Creek Road with another lady to walk 500 metres along a soft, sandy 4wd track to the beach. We saw emu and dingo footprints and chatted along the way. She had moved here recently from North Dakota USA, which is close to Canada, leaving their snow clothes in storage. Her husband had begun working at the solar observatory in Exmouth. This facility is staffed by a mix of Bureau of Meteorology observers and US defence force personnel. They observe and monitor things like solar flares which are really important for GPS. I guess if you owned any satellites you’d want to keep an eye out for blasts from the sun that could destroy them. This observatory is one of only a dozen or so in the world. I’d never even heard of it before coming to Exmouth.

Down on the beach we headed in opposite directions. I soon came upon a green turtle track surrounded by dingo pawprints. There were no human footprints other than mine on the beach. Following the turtle track up into the dunes, the dingo pawprints covered the track, there were three different sized paw marks in the sand. The turtle had dug one body pit then left, maybe the dingoes had disturbed her nesting. No other turtles nested on the beach that night, one had done a quick u-turn as soon as it emerged from the water. Makes me think the dingoes were hanging around on the beach all night.

Dingo paw prints and turtle tracks cross over in this image looking up the sand
Two dingoes and a turtle are walking up a beach…

After monitoring we began preparing for the external volunteer welcome BBQ. There were 12 external volunteers travelling to Exmouth from all over Australia to help out with the Ningaloo Turtle Program’s intensive monitoring period. We welcomed them with burgers followed by fruit salad and ice cream then they were off to bed after their day of travel. The group are a good mix of people, with different ages and backgrounds (not just science graduates). I’m looking forward to getting to know them over the next five weeks.

For the volunteer’s first day of beach training, I headed out with them to take some photos. We walked Five Mile to Five Mile North, which is the only site where you return to the same carpark, where we’d left the bus. It was chaos in turtle tracks. There were emerges and returns overlapping along the section, we had a loggerhead track which looked like a hawksbill, a real hawksbill track and nest which was difficult to tell apart from a false crawl. A false crawl is when a turtle comes up the beach and either walks straight back to the water or begins digging a hole then abandons it without nesting. We use our judgement based on the evidence to determine if we think a turtle has nested successfully. The only way to be certain is to have someone on every beach, each night, watching every turtle. This is clearly not possible or realistic, so we base our assessment on the presence of an escarpment (sand bank formed by when the turtle digs a primary body pit), misting (sand thrown over the emerge track when the turtle digs), uprooted vegetation and the texture of the sand (if you stand on a real nest you sink quickly, though not enough to damage the eggs).

The poor vollies were a bit overwhelmed after being thrown in the deep end with this beach, hopefully tomorrow’s will be a little easier. We got a call over the radio from Heather, a WA Parks and Wildlife officer, leading the other group. She was down on Mauritius and had a clear loggerhead track and nest to show them. She also had a nest that had been predated by dingoes. She’d covered most of it over but there were still fresh curled up pieces of eggshell and yolk drying in the sun. Digging up nests is a learnt behaviour for dingoes, it is not an instinct for them to dig up nests they learn it from seeing other dingoes do it. In this situation the turtle had not done much to cover this nest so we assumed the dingoes had found the turtle while she was laying. If Dingoes had learnt to dig up nests we’d be seeing many more predation events across the beaches we monitor, so far this was the first one recorded this season.

Turtle egg shells are scattered in the dug out nest of a green turtle
All that remains following a dingo’s breakfast

This week also saw us taking all the external volunteers and meeting some locals at Bungelup camp. We spent a sweaty morning loading the trailer and back of two utes with all our swags and cooking equipment, even a portable fridge. Our first stop was the Milyering visitor centre so the volunteers could hire snorkel gear and check the place out. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimens and found objects like sea urchin tests and birds nests complete with eggs. It gave me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, which was hard to comprehend when nothing was out during most of the day.

Next stop was Sandy Bay for a swim. Another sheltered bay with aqua water and amazingly white sand. No coral here but a few people saw a turtle, we also watched a dingo walk along the beach in the distance. Back on the bus we arrived just after the trailer with all the swags and set up camp. We all shared a rock to bang the tent pegs into the ground (later finding the mallets). Sunset was spent at the beach while the pasta cooked. Dinner went down well, after helping with all the washing up I stayed for the very competitive trivia night.

Seven swags are set up together amongst the bushes, the sun sets behind them
Swag city Bungelup
Sunset at Bungelup beach, the sand is golden and the beach is covered with footprints.
Bungelup beach at sunset – waiting for the turtles to come up

We were on the beach before breakfast looking at loggerhead tracks. We saw dolphins, they were jumping sideways out of the water and looked quite frisky. Ghost crabs ran into the water and were tumbled around in the wash. I headed back early to help cook pancakes for breakky and pack up.

A dolphin sticks its head vertically out of the water, eye looking directly at the camera
A sandy track leads from the middle right of the photo back across the frame and curves out of sight behind the spinifex and low scrub. You can just make a ridge line out in the distance.
Road out of the remote camp

Back on the road we stopped in at Turquoise Bay for a snorkel, it was the clearest I’d ever seen it. I had a reef shark swim past and saw three adult angelfish in one little patch. They were all different species from the small, navy keyhole angelfish to the larger blue and sixband angelfishes. I’ve loved angelfish ever since seeing a juvenile one on my first open water dive. The juveniles are completely different colours to the adults. The emperor juvenile I saw all those years ago was dark blue with neon blue and white lines forming concentric circles and spots. It’s adult form has yellow and blue horizontal stripes, like a circus outfit. I’ll keep an eye out for juvenile angelfish at Ningaloo, they would be amazing to see again. It was a very relaxing place to spend the afternoon and all the volunteers loved getting out to see the reef.

By Friday, training was over for the volunteers and they all passed their assessments. We celebrated by getting a heap of pizzas. Sunday night we went out to mark off all the old tracks ready to begin fresh on Monday for four weeks of daily monitoring. After dropping everyone off I parked the bus and walked a kilometre along a sandy four wheel drive track to the beach. It was full of rocks then soft sand, there was no easy place to walk, no wonder the bus couldn’t come in here. Once at the beach I drew my line from the totem pole down to the high tide mark and started walking. It was only 1.5 kilometres but there were a lot of tracks. The high tide had come up most of the beach so the tracks were all in the dunes in soft sand. As I turned around to walk back the sun had already started sinking. I walked as fast as I could. There was a turtle beginning to drag herself out of the water I gave her a wide berth, walking up into the dunes to get around. The sun set during the drive but luckily I got everyone home before dark. We were ready to get to work!

Image of the sunset over the ocean, there are no clouds but the sky is gold and orange, this light is reflected in the sand in the foreground, the waves almost look black as the light fades

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth – Part 2

Kalbarri to Exmouth

The next day was free to explore Kalbarri National Park. The park is huge, it took us a half hour drive from town to reach the first walk called Nature’s Window. Yellow tailed black cockatoos were eating banksia seeds in the trees on the side of the road. When we tried to approach closer on foot they flew off, making their melancholy echoing call. We were one of the first cars in the carpark, it was only 7am but we were here early to beat the heat. Heading downhill the concrete path soon turned to rock as we followed the rim of a gorge. To our left you could see over the cliffs to the u-shaped bend of the Murchison River. The river far below us traced its way along the bottom of the gorge. Tiny black dots moved around on the sand. Putting my camera to my eye and zooming my telephoto as far as it could go, I found they were goats drinking at the water’s edge.

Pools of water sitting on yellow sand at the bottom of Murchison gorge, a layered red sedimentary wall.
Murchison Gorge in Kalbarri National Park
A blue green river winding through a red walled gorge
An undercut rock in the Murchison River

Following the path around a rock wall, using natural stepping stones carved out of it by wind and water we came to Nature’s Window. The window itself is a sedimentary arch with a hole in the middle of it through which you can see the gorge and the river. There is a small platform of rock on one side where other tourists were standing taking photos of each other. We walked around them and continued down the rock and along the path. We were on the track for the Murchison Gorge loop walk which takes 3-4 hours and loops down into the gorge, along the river and back up. As we are walking along the gorge rim, we have to be mindful of where we step, to either side is an incredible view but also a long drop. We reach a sign that tells us if we haven’t made it to this point before 7.30am do not attempt the Loop walk. We had no plans to spend that long out in the heat, already carrying 2 litres of water each for our short stroll. In the gorge it can be 10 degrees hotter than on the rim, where it was already climbing towards 40 degrees by 9am.

We walked a little further and found a shaded spot to eat our snack. Wrens teased us from nearby pushes with their high-pitched squeaks but we couldn’t spot them. A kestrel soared gracefully overhead, landing on a nearby rock outcrop. From its landing spot it could sit in the shade and look out over the entire gorge.

A small kestrel perched on the edge of a red gorge wall
A Nankeen Kestrel perched on the edge of the Murchison Gorge

I wonder what it thinks of the view? Probably couldn’t care less as it sees it every day! We were impressed though, the river below was a deep green, contrasting with the yellow sand of the riverbed and the orange rocks that form the sides of the gorge. Low green scrub was dotted through the sand, as were the tracks of animals that come in for a drink. From our height we could only make out the three toed emu prints.

Two sets of footprints on yellow sand
Goats and emu tracks

The bushes continue to grow in the rocky gorge country but don’t give much shade giving an empty feeling to the place. We were getting very hot and head back to the car, on our way into the carpark we pass by the ‘intrepid adventurers’ heading to natures window for a photo. Hats and other sun protection seemed like an optional afterthought for most of this group, most carried only their phones for that precious selfie, but no water. Same it was now 48 degrees in the shade. Their driver was finishing off a quick cigarette then hurried after them, presumably to round them up and drive on to the next photo opportunity.

A single long gum tree on the edge of the green Murchison river
Looks so clear and inviting, shame its such a long walk down to the water

We had a quiet afternoon to ourselves, checking out a few more lookouts but it was too hot to brave anymore walks. We thought we’d check out a snorkelling spot but after driving back to town realised a strong wind had picked up. Ever hopeful we headed to the beach to find it was so exposed the wind howling even stronger, and it was low tide so the rockpool snorkelling site the tourist information board recommended had barely any water covering the sharp rocks. Oh well, back in the air conditioning we rested and packed to continue our journey.

As we drove away from Kalbarri early the next day falcons and eagles hovered above the road as if to wish us farewell. Our next stop was a place called shell beach. As a shell lover I was very excited to see a beach completely made of shells. On the drive we’d had glimpses of turquoise blue ocean and were looking forward to a mid-morning swim to cool down. We couldn’t have been more disappointed! As we parked the car the intrepid bus drove off, they were finally ahead of us, a worrying sign. The first interpretive sign stated the water was hypersaline so if you went swimming you would come out with a layer of salt on your skin. No thanks. At least there was still a beach full of shells, I thought to myself. Reaching the beach, I first thought we’d come to the wrong place. It was super windy and the ground was white, the surface was piled into waves from the wind so heading towards the ocean meant walking up and down small slopes. Bending down I found we were in the right place; the shells were there. But they were tiny! The pipi shaped Fragum Cockle shells were the size of my fingernail if I was lucky to find a large looking one. Well that’s not what I imagined! After a few photos we headed back to the carpark, the wind blowing us back the whole way and whipping dust across our legs.

The millions of white fragum cockle shells
It truly is a beach of shells

Driving on along the unchanging road we reached our next stop, the Hamelin Pool stromatolites. The stromatolites may be the oldest living organism but boy they aren’t much to look at! After walking down the beach we could see an exposed area from the low tide which looked like a field of rocks. We struck unlucky again, learning you couldn’t swim near the stromatolites, there was just a short boardwalk that took you on a loop out to see them. Even on the furthest point seaward the stromatolites below us were barely in ankle deep water. And oh the flies! We still spent the best part of an hour having a look and appreciating the ancient structures below us. Small fish swam from the shade of one stromatolite to another then stopped still. Under the boardwalk swallows flew when we walked over top, moving to another area in the shade. The area looked empty as all signs of life (apart from the stromatolites) sought shelter from the harsh midday sun.

Black stromatolite pillars surrounded by blue water
The Hamelin Pool stromatolites, formed from mats of bacteria slowly constructing self supporting pillars

Our stop that night was at Carnarvon, after arriving late we cooked up pasta and made an impressive salad, we’d been missing vegies on this roadtrip! When it was time for bed I became fascinated with the bedside lamps which turned on and off if you lightly tapped the base with a fingertip. Maybe I’d spent too long in the sun.

The next day we were very excited to reach Coral Bay and spend some time in the water. We’d read about a nursery area for reef sharks at skeleton beach so headed there first. To get there you have to park the car then walk for thirty minutes along the beach. Trudging in the sand, the sun beating down and heading against the wind our spirits were still up to see sharks. We reached the point we’d aimed for and headed into the water to find…nothing. The odd bit of algae covered coral, barely a fish and definitely no sharks. We investigated thoroughly, but found nothing. There was hardly any coral to speak of so we couldn’t work out why this place had been called Coral Bay either. Defeated we stopped by the bakery for a snack and to re-plan.

The other snorkelling spot was the bay itself (Bill’s bay) so we headed there, covered in a new layer of sunscreen. The bay was protected from the wind and very still. An arc of white sand curved around to meet the turquoise water, below it we could see dark shapes. Diving in we found the reef at last! As far as you could see, then once you’d swum there and looked even further – was coral. It covered the ocean floor like a carpet, you couldn’t see any sandy patches. It was like a layered garden with branching coral growing over horizontal plate corals and around large boulder like Porites coral that grow only a centimetre or less per year and would be hundreds of years old. Now we understood why this place got its name. There was about half a metre of water between us and the coral carpet below. It was mostly brown in colour with the occasional fluoro blue staghorn coral breaking up the single colour palette. There were very few reef fish living among the coral, the odd school of blue green Chromis here and there and a wrasse occasionally. We soon had our fill of looking at coral and headed on to our final destination – Exmouth.

First impressions of Exmouth were typical of every town we’d recently been in. Very hot, one main street and barely any trees with only low bushes on the roadside. Similar to most other places the first two options we tried for dinner were closed, which isn’t surprising as this is the quiet season when no whalesharks and their accompanying tourists are around. Up early on our second last day we heard short beaked corellas calling as we drove towards Cape Range National Park. A dingo slunk along the side of the road.

a red dust path down the side of a grey walled gorge
Mandu Mandu Gorge, looking back over the scramble we’d just descended

Over 40 kilometres in we came to our first stop, Mandu Mandu gorge walk. The trail loops along the top of a gorge with views to the ocean, then cuts back through the dry creek bed. We saw our first black-flanked rock wallaby, a bit mummified, and dead in the middle of the path in the baking sun. All was going well heading uphill but as a grade four walk it was so incredibly steep going downhill I was terrified. I ended up scooting on my bum for most of it, which was made even more embarrassing when a pair of French girls with no water or backpacks came from the opposite direction.

A male figure standing at the top of a grey wall of rock
Mitch at the top of on side of Mandu Mandu Gorge

“How is the trail?” They asked,

“A bit steep and slippery in places” Mitch replied.

They were off on their way again. We didn’t tell them about the decomposing wallaby, best save that as a surprise.

A male figure picking his way down the path of a gorge wall
Making our way down

My legs were shaking and I was swearing off ever doing this walk again by the time we’d reached halfway. Hitting the creek bed the heat washed over us but luckily the breeze returned occasionally. Walking over the large white pebbles was tough, every second step the whole ground would move beneath your foot. Halfway along the creek bed Mitch pointed up at the cliffs towering above us. In the shade, on a ledge less than a metre wide sat a black-flanked rock wallaby. There was no clear way for it to get up there but in the only cool place it sat, sleeping. It blinked blearily at us once as we passed fifteen metres below it then went back to its slumber. Further on we made like the wallaby and found a shady overhang to eat our snacks.

A grey and black wallaby resting in the shade of an orange and red gorge wall
A dozing black flanked wallaby

Next stop, Ningaloo Reef. Turquoise Bay drift snorkel was where we ended up. Stepping over hot sand full of coral pieces we made our way up the beach. Into the water where there was…nothing. Just sand for the first twenty metres or so. It was quite stirred up so you had the feeling of needing to clean your glasses the entire time. Unlike coral bay there was no mass of coral, it was dotted everywhere in patches and small bommies. There were many more reef fish though which prompted me to buy a book and work out what they were at the visitor centre later that day. We disturbed a stingray feeding on the bottom, Mitch spotted another octopus tucked into a coral head. I still have no idea how he sees something so camouflaged.

Getting out we made a few stops on the long drive back, we had to slow down for emus and completely stop for Bustards along the road. The visitors centre was full of skulls, taxidermy specimen’s sea urchin tests and birds’ nests complete with eggs. It did give me a strong idea of how many animal species were in the area, you definitely couldn’t tell if there was much alive by being outside! We ended up back at the Potshot Hotel restaurant for dinner, just in time for cheap parmy night. We didn’t make the same mistake as last night in sitting outside with the flies, instead choosing a table in the dark, cool of inside.

Our last day together was slow, we had a long breakfast at a vegetarian & vegan café that seemed to attract everyone with a child under three. Dropping Mitch off and finally walking out of the airport I crumbled a little inside, this was our first time apart in over a year and a half. Would I survive in Exmouth on my own? Who would open jars for me? And more importantly could I even do this? 

To be continued…

Small, Blue and Fast

Science in the field: Superb Fairy Wrens

It was an overcast morning when we walked into Campbell Park, kangaroos stared disinterestedly at us while munching grass. The researcher we had just met had taken her boots off and was standing in calf deep cold water reaching into a blackberry bush. With feet sinking into the mud, arm buried among the thorns, Claire carefully reached into a superb fairy-wren nest. She soon emerged victorious with three tiny wren eggs in her hand. Cautiously stepping out of the cold mud Claire went off to measure the eggs. Oh the glamour of research!

Claire, the researcher, standing in calf deep mud and water reaching head and shoulders into a dead brown and tan blackberry bush to collect wren eggs
Isn’t research glamorous

Claire Taylor is in the 3rd year of her PhD studies at the Australian National University. She is looking at factors that influence maternal investment within superb fairy-wrens. So far this has involved a lot of field work, with 32 breeding pairs of wrens being monitored in this field season alone. The season runs from September to February, although this can be cut short if there is a week of hot weather early in the new year.

“We haven’t studied it,” said Claire, “but it could be parents aren’t able to maintain their body condition or there’s a short supply of insects during hot conditions, its an interesting observation we’ve seen over the 20 years of field work.”

The heat, especially those 40-degree days, can slightly speed up the incubation process, though not by more than a day. All of this potentially has interesting implications as the climate continues to undergo change. A greater percentage of hot days is predicted. This could impact breeding and incubation, though this isn’t part of Claire’s work currently.

Claire spends a decent chunk of every day walking around Campbell Park in all weather conditions, looking for new nests, checking eggs and feeding birds as part of a food supplementation experiment.

Fairy-wren nests suffer high levels of predation from other birds and snakes, that snack on eggs or chicks. While these nests are brilliantly camouflaged and hidden in blackberry bushes, using the same nest after a predation event isn’t an ideal fix. This means the wrens will choose a new spot to rebuild the nest and lay another clutch of eggs. Over the season they can have up to 8 breeding attempts each with up to four eggs. And with a 1.5 gram egg from a nine gram bird that’s a significant amount of effort going into producing offspring consistently in one season. I had no idea breeding for these tiny birds was so difficult!

“There was one bird”, Claire said, “who spent eight years brooding clutches, but through all those breeding seasons only raised one set of chicks to adulthood, that was in 2018”.

These little birds really are determined not to fail!

A hand holding the white egg with red speckles of a superb fairy wren as its removed from its nest in a thorny blackberry bush as part of an ANU research program.
Not only are the eggs tiny, wrens also love blackberry to nest in… apparently cruelty to researchers is ok

“Like a lot of animals that invest time into multiple breeding events in a season, they end up with very high predation rates. Somewhere in the order of 66% of nests for wrens” Claire told us as we followed her deeper into Campbell Park.“The danger zone is the first year, after that survivorship increases as the birds become part of the population”.

Superb fairy-wrens are also a victim of the Horsfield’s bronze-cuckoo, which features in Claire’s research. The adult cuckoo is twice as large as a fairy-wren and is a brood parasite. This means it will lay its egg in the wren’s nest. The cuckoo chick hatches and pushes the wren chicks or eggs out of the nest so it can receive all the food from the parent wrens.

“The interesting part is the cuckoo chick usually spends its first two days of life busily shoving an egg only just smaller than itself out of the nest before the wren hatches” said Claire.

Three white wren eggs with red speckles being kept warm in a hand before they are measured. A large feather that's used as bedding material in wren nests is resting between two of the tiny eggs.
Wren eggs have a distinctive red speckled ring on the blunt end

When monitoring the nests, Claire checks regularly to see if any eggs have been laid. To do this she first checks the area for predators, like kookaburras, currawongs or magpies. If these are nearby, she waits for them to move away or if they’re taking their time, walks towards them so they fly off. Needless to say, some of these predators prefer to hop from fence post to fence post rather than move on straight away. Once the coast is clear, Claire can stick her hand among the blackberry thorns into the nest. There were 3 eggs in each of the nests we checked. They are white with reddish brown spots, typically forming a halo around the wider end of the egg. It’s hard to convey how delicate they are, weighing only 1.5 grams and measuring roughly 17 millimeters long, I’m definitely too clumsy to ever hold one! Claire carefully weighs each egg, measures them using calipers and takes a photograph of the clutch. While each egg takes its turn, an assistant with warm hands carefully holds the others, this is another job not suited to me with my reptile-like body temperature but was perfect for Mitch.

A white wren egg with red speckles cradled in a hand while a pair of white calipers is used to measure its length.

While walking to the next nest Claire told us how the wrens actually make their tiny nests;

“First, they collect spider web and shape it into a donut-like ring. Next, they collect sticks and twigs to form the nest structure around the ring, before making the nest cosy by lining the inside floor with crimson rosella belly feathers or kangaroo fur”.

The nests blend so well into the blackberry bushes that finding them is a skill in itself. Once, Claire was lucky enough to see a wren flying into a bush with a stick in its beak, this led her straight to the nest under construction. It also looked quite comical to see a small bird carrying such a large twig.

The final nests just had to be checked to determine if any eggs had been laid yet. We went off track a little and through the bush on a hilly walk. The clouds were finally starting to disperse and the sun was struggling to shine through. At the last nest we came across a shingleback lizard sunning itself on the ground nearby, but no eggs.

Back at the carpark Claire showed us her nest book. It contained carefully recorded details for each nesting pair, including the band colours for each bird and updates on each date detailing things like nest building progress or the age of eggs.

“It started extremely detailed, noting location of the pairs and how to find the nest” Claire told us, “it’s become more of a shorthand now I know where I’m finally going”.

We’re hoping to get out another day with Claire and, fingers crossed, see some wren chicks!

A green chicken wire mesh cage over a supplementary feeding tray. A male Superb fairy wren with his bright blue cheeks, back and tail sits on a blackberry branch inside the exclusion cage.
Claire’s research includes supplementary feeding experiments aimed at understanding how food availability impacts offspring

P.S.

…A month later we got the chance to go out again. Claire emailed Friday night,

“I’ll be banding a clutch of chicks tomorrow and was wondering if you had a spare hour in the morning to come out?”

Of course, who would knock back an opportunity to see wren chicks!

So, Saturday morning we met at 7am and headed off to the nest. Passing a dried out dam, we reached the right blackberry bush and Claire stopped a short distance away to prepare. She pulled out a plastic container full of tiny, different coloured metal pieces, a scientific beading kit?

“All the wrens in the project have a numbered silver band and two coloured bands so I can identify the birds and easily tell who is from which clutch” Claire explained.

Researcher Claire in a brown Akubra hat and purple top carefully preparing to add a leg band to a superb fairy wren chick.
Preparing to band a tiny chick is delicate work

“I’m an R class bander which means I can band the superb fair-wrens without supervision, over the past few years I’ve banded almost 300 wrens”.

Sticking her arm among the thorns of a blackberry bush Claire, reached into a well concealed nest. She pulled out a small black pin feathered chick. Two other eggs were inside, but those probably wouldn’t hatch now. An adult male wren scurried around in the bush.

“He’s doing a rodent-run to draw us away from the nest” Claire said.

A small wren chick resting inside a egg cup shaped weighing bowl about to be placed onto a micro balance scale.
A soft cushion before being gently eased into the micro-balance for weighing

Back at the banding station Claire weighed the tiny bird, carefully settling it onto a cotton wool covered bowl to place it into the scale. She used callipers to get a tarsus measurement (the birds leg between the knee joint and ankle, where the foot begins). This will compare the size of the chicks in different experimental treatments as the weight may change depending on how recently the chick was fed. Next the little chick was blinged up, the silver numbered tag was put on its left leg, to differentiate it from the banded wrens at the Australian National Botanic Gardens which all had this tag on their right legs. The coloured tags given to this little one were green-mauve and red-blue, which gives the wren its name gmRB.

A wren chick with tiny black pin feathers  after the metal band has been placed onto its left leg.
Metal band in place

During the whole process the little chick looked very relaxed, I thought banding would be difficult but the little one was very cooperative and stayed still. There was a lot of chirping, its surprising how much noise can come from such a small animal.

“The chick in this nest is 7 days old, it’s got its pin feathers already and is just starting to get some fluff”.

A wren chick staring up at the camera as a green and purple plastic band is added to its right leg.
It almost doesn’t look impressed

Then Claire offered me the chance to hold the baby! I couldn’t get over how small it was, the little bird was so warm in my hand. It’s amazing to think if I come back in a few months this little wren might survive the odds and be flying around the park. Moments like these really put me into a researchers shoes and I can begin to understand the amazing things they get to do and see which so many people never will. Claire reclaimed the baby and popped it back in the nest, definitely the highlight of our day!

A wren chick with black and grey pin feathers held in two hands.
So very cute with so much growing to do yet

Over the next few months Claire will be back out every day, checking nests and continuing with the feeding experiment. We’re lucky to have joined her for part of the amazing work she’s doing and see what other people get up to in their day job. Looking forward to hearing the findings of her research as it unfolds.

If your enjoying our science stories why not read about monitoring eastern quolls at mulligans flat or the captive breeding of new holland mice.

Don’t forget to like and follow us to keep reading about the fascinating research occurring in Australia.

Road Tripping: Perth to Exmouth

Western Australia Adventure Part 1

We left Canberra in the dark on a chilly morning, arriving in Perth 6 hours later in jeans and jackets. That was the first mistake. Perth was experiencing a heatwave, four consecutive days over 35 degrees, the second time this has ever happened in November. Our taxi driver seemed to be economising and preferred to have the windows down instead of turning on the aircon for the half hour drive out of the airport. Day dreaming about shorts and cold drinks was practically mandatory.

The rear portion of the Batavia ship wreck sitting on a plinth of bricks it was carrying as ballast.
The Batavia at rest

After picking up the rental car we were off exploring Fremantle. We stumbled on the WA Shipwrecks Museum and had to go inside. Silver coins and tales of destruction abounded, we also got to see part of the Batavia which wrecked as it ran aground on reefs off the Abrolhos islands in 1629. If you haven’t heard of this ship Peter Fitzsimmons has written a brilliant book, telling the tragic story of mutiny and murder following the wreck. It’s hard to fathom, but is backed up by journals form the captain, and even the chief mutineer Jeronimus Cornelisz. It’s a tale filled with death, destruction, hardship and evil. The museum speaks to the harsh coastline on this side of the country. That Jeronimus still journaled his actions and justified every outcome as just and needed is a fascinating thought.

Treasures, shipments and salvage from multiple wrecks fill the museum. Each with a story of loss and all holding secrets that were slowly uncovered through careful examination and conservation.

A pile or silver coins pulled from shipwrecks on WAs coast, including one with the head of a monarch and its date of stamping clearly visible.
I’m sure they wouldn’t miss one or two of these…

Heading back out into the heat we had our choice of fish and chip shops along the waterfront. We made the mistake of choosing one with an aquarium tank inside, a discovery made well after we’d ordered. It was brimming with large snapper and sharks all wedged into a 50cm wide rectangle that stretched down the length of the floor space. This is always a sad sight, made more so by the group of school children that crowded around to ‘ohh’ and ‘ahh’ at the trapped creatures.

The next morning, we were set to go to Rottnest Island, but missed our ferry by moments. Our run from the car over to the marina was sound tracked by horn blasts as our boat left the dock. Luckily, we were moved to the next one, and passed the hour and a half wait by drinking juices in the shade. The Island was named by Dutch traders, who mistook the resident marsupial quokkas for rats naming it in Dutch to a very literal translation of Rat’s Nest Island. Around 10,000 of the small, happy looking marsupials live on the island. The strange half hop and run they move with makes them an easy if slightly large animal to confuse with a rat. We can only guess at how the population fared as a source of food for hungry sailors.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand.
Our unnamed cove

Once at the island we picked up bikes and headed off. Our plan was to cycle to the end of the island and choose somewhere to snorkel on the way back. Ten minutes in we saw our first quokka but it already had a lady shoving a phone in its face so we pedalled on. It was clearly very curious stretching forward to sniff at the outstretched phone, but swiftly lost interest as it decided Samsung wasn’t quite the same as leaves.

Forty minutes later we were only about halfway, it was much hillier than Google Maps lead us to believe. It was hot, the flies were relentless and the incredible aqua colour on our left beckoned. The asphalt stretching in front of us definitely didn’t. We took a quick left onto an offshoot, parked our bikes at a headland overlooking Mary Cove and scurried down a scarcely used trail. Taking a sand track down along the cliff edge skirting precarious undercut sandstone we arrived at the beach in a unnamed bay west of Mary Cove. We had it all to ourselves. Dumping our bags in the only shade of an overhanging rock we quickly darted into the water. We were shocked to feel how cold the water was, almost painfully cutting through our overheated skin.

A turquoise and aqua coloured ocean bay on the southern edge of Rottnest Island WA, fringed by cliffs, green scrub bush and white sand. A male figure is walking along a white sand track above the bay.

Diving under I got my first glimpse of an Indian Ocean temperate reef. Seaweed covered rocks were littered across the sand, some forming larger bommies. Pink branching coral grew sparsely from the larger rocks. Silver fish darted everywhere, with larger grunter lazily circling.

Pink branching coral scattered amongst green and yellow algae.
Macro algae and coral, seems strange to see together

After an hour we headed out to have lunch. The problem was something else had decided it was a perfect time for a snack too. Two large skinks had dragged themselves onto my backpack filling the space between the bag and it’s backplate. They must have followed the smell of our ham and salad rolls! Shooing them away I retreated to eat lunch while the skinks kept watch from the shade. Every now and then they’d slink a little closer, eyes fixed on our rolls. Warily we headed back into the water, unsure if the backpacks were safe from intruders.

A snorkeler watching a squid as it flashes brown and yellow bands.
Friendly neighbourhood squid

We came across an octopus in its garden of shells in the sand and a small orange nudibranch slowly working his way up a boulder to a small patch of encrusting sponge. While waiting for Mitch to take a photo I noticed a very small silver flash circling his legs. He’d picked up an incredibly small juvenile tuna, who’d obviously decided this large slow moving creature was the perfect thing to shelter under.

We cycled faster on the way back, less distracted by panoramic views of cliffs against aqua and deep blue ocean and pushed in places along the road by the strong wind. We stopped once when Mitch saw a quokka with a joey trailing behind it, dart into the bushes on the edge of the road. Nestled in the shade were a few skittish quokkas that moved quickly away as they heard us approach.

A cormorant sitting on a rock surrounded by water, wings raised about to take flight.
Maybe not the sneakiest of photographers… definitely spotted by the cormorant

We stopped for another snorkel at Little Salmon Bay. Tourists lounged on the sand and took photos of each other posing, ignoring the beckoning water and outcrops of rock jutting upwards. We jumped in and saw a squid right away, it flashed waves of brown and white across its mantle before quickly jetting away over the weed. Swimming out to a rock I was within centimetres of a cormorant as it sunned itself on the rock poking out of the water above me. I drifted too close, scaring it off its perch.

Back in town we finally found the quokkas in numbers the island was known for. These town quokkas were very different to the wild ones we’d seen. They were poking around for scraps, dozing next to the road or staring with their happy smiles up at people as they snacked in the square. We watched tourists go from one quokka to the next taking photos and selfies of the animals which didn’t seem to care anymore. It somehow wasn’t as exciting as the wild skittish animals we knew were hidden further away from the tourist centre. We wandered down the jetty, boarding our ferry to be shipped back to the mainland.

Hundreds of natural yellow rock pillars, framed by white sand dunes in the background and a crystal clear blue sky.
Yellow desert, white dunes and clear blue sky

Our first stop out of Perth was the Pinnacles desert park in Nambung National Park. Following a very short detour off the highway and even shorter trek from the carpark you find yourself in a yellow sand desert. Thousands of limestone rock pillars are dotted randomly around you, stretching out to the horizon. We saw tourists walk to the nearest rock, pose for a photo in little more than running gear then head back to the car. Definitely not why we’d come. We set off away from the loop road that winds among the rocks. Out where there were less human footprints. We saw animal tracks abound in the sand, perenties (goannas), red kangaroos, echidnas and two footed marsupials we couldn’t recognise. It was about 38 degrees, so after an hour in full sun under one of the clearest, bluest skies we’ve seen, we headed back to the air con. Rewarded for stepping away from the well-trodden path.

A close up of a brown limestone pillar with hundreds more visible in the background scattered amongst the yellow desert sand.
One of the thousands of limestone pinnacles

A large white tour bus pulled out of the carpark in front of us, ‘intrepid adventures’ it claimed on the back. Little did we know this bus would remain a constant feature of our road trip. Continuing our drive, the road never really changed. There aren’t really large trees in Western Australia along the coastal route. Low shrubs line the highway which makes way to sand or red dirt depending on how far north you are. Eagles and kestrels soar over the road on updrafts or sit by the side when it is early morning and still too cool. Towns seem to appear out of the heat haze, sometimes the only sign of civilization is the mobile reception towers that hover above the road cut by the heat shimmer.

A stone block remnant building form the Lynton convict depot.

Our next stop was at a convict ruin on the side of the road. It was called the Lynton Convict Depot. We hadn’t expected any convict history in WA, only knowing the stories of Tasmania from our recent travels there. No other cars pulled off, leaving the place to us. We wandered alone among the three buildings, looking at the graffiti carved into the stone, and wondering if it was an owl or a falcon that roosted in the main building, with feathers and droppings lining the floor at the darker end. There were carved dates from 1930 but the ruins themselves were much older. Obviously, everyone for a very long time has wanted to simply mark the fact they were here.

The inside walls of the Lynton convict depot lockup. Render is crumbling of of the stone block walls. were the renders left people have carved names and dates into the wall from as early as 1930.
So many carved names and dates
The outside of the Lynton convict depot lockup with piles of broken stone blocks in the foreground. the remains of the lockup sit under a cloudy blue sky.

Onwards, I missed the turnoff and we came across Hutt Lagoon by mistake, fortunate really as it’s what we were aiming for. This lake is pink, due to the amount of algae growing in it. Apparently, after rain it turns pinker as the algae is disturbed and flushed around. Not that you could tell, as there were no interpretive signs, just a lookout where the tour bus we kept running into had parked, unloading its ‘adventurers’ for a selfie in front of the pink, salty water.

The pink water and salt of Hut Lagoon. A small rock pokes out form the water encrusted in salt.
Pink and salty, probably not the best for swimming

Back on the right road we made it to Kalbarri where we were set to stay for two nights. In the soon-to-be-typical Western Australian style this remote town was full of restaurants on its main street, yet only the fish and chip shop and the tavern were open for dinner.

To be continued…

A white tailed black cockatoo eating a Banksia cone while string in the same bush.
RWARK!

Visiting the mouse house

I had the opportunity to see what lies behind the doors of an ANU captive breeding facility. I found hundreds of small, brown, cute eyed creatures.

shhhh, I’m hiding!

Kiarrah, a PhD student from the Australian National University is studying the reintroduction of the New Holland mouse to Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary. But first, she needs a population to release. With permission from the NSW and ACT governments, as well as ANU animal ethics approval, wild New Holland mice were captured on the NSW Central Coast and have been bred in the facility, which now houses over 200 mice. Each mouse has an individual enclosure, with some kept in pairs or threes. These enclosures are modified plastic tubs with red colouring on the sides. The mice can’t see red so to them the world outside appears dark which reduces their stress level. There is a metal barred lid for each enclosure and inside is a mixture of bedding and nesting material, food, and boxes to hide in.

The enclosures are stacked on shelves around the room. Everyone entering has to don a pair of blue plastic booties as they step over the threshold to reduce the risk of disease spreading to the colony. This is possibly the only captive bred population of this threatened species in Australia, so ensuring their health is the ultimate goal. All the mice are so quiet that on stepping into the room you wouldn’t know there were over two-hundred animals with you. These mice also lack the distinctive ‘mousy’ smell of the more familiar introduced house mice. Peering into the nearest enclosure I spot…nothing. The mouse is most likely buried under its nesting material, using its natural instinct to burrow. I continue looking along the shelf until I finally get my first glimpse of a New Holland mouse. It is ridiculously cute, more like a cartoon mouse than a real one with large ears, big black eyes and a face full of whiskers.

Kiarrah showed me how she visually assesses the health of the mice. She also tipped out a pile of the radio tracking collars she was preparing to attach to the first release group. These were very small, as you can imagine a mouse’s neck is quite tiny under all that fur! Once Kiarrah has collared some mice and tested the effectiveness of the collars the reintroduction can begin. A reintroduction study involves releasing a captive bred population of a threatened species back into its natural habitat, where it no longer exists. These studies are important conservation biology tools, providing information on population ecology in a variety of habitats and overall reintroduction success. This information is essential for managing the long term conservation of a threatened species, informing further reintroductions and setting up insurance populations. 

The tiniest necklace in the world

These aren’t the first mice on the loose. A reintroduction of New Holland mice occurred at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary in 2013, with further information needed to understand the full role of this species in the ecosystem. This native rodent has been extinct in the ACT since the 1880’s. It is believed this species once had a single continuous population on mainland Australia but this is now fragmented across areas of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania. The species is decreasing in number and is listed on the IUCN red list as vulnerable. All the usual suspects have been linked to their decline including pest species, changed fire regimes, habitat loss and, the big one, climate change. To safeguard this species from extinction we need to learn a lot more about it and its role in the ecosystem to inform conservation actions. Kiarrah’s project is funded by an Australian Research Council linkage grant and the Ecological Society of Australia Holsworth Wildlife Research Endowment, and is a partnership between ANU, ACT Government, the Woodlands and Wetlands Trust and James Cook University. The project is an important step forward in securing the future of one of Australia’s threatened mammal species. We can’t wait to follow along with her research as she learns more about the adorable New Holland mouse.

Quoll Monitoring – Part 2

You know the drill, you’ve read our story on quoll monitoring. So what was different this time you ask? Well, everything.

It’s was May in Canberra and that means one thing – coldness. Puffy jackets and thermals were the trend of the morning with a beanie giving full fashion points. But even having multiple layers doesn’t stop the cold seeping into your bones. That may sound like an exaggeration but we started the monitoring at 2am and the ache in my fingertips stayed with me all that day and well into the night. But not just the temperature made it different, the night was almost completely silent. In February when we came out even the air around us seemed full of life. The buzz of insect wings and the squeaks of microbats hunting in the darkness was all around. But tonight the air was empty. I didn’t have to brush a single moth off my face. Lucky for us though, the traps were full.

This time we thought we’d try something a bit different and try to capture enough video footage to make a short film on the process of quoll monitoring. A full moon lit up Mulligan’s Flat, this half light gave the gums a ghostly quality. Only two sets of headlights lit the slim fire trail, ours, and the ever lively Belinda Wilson’s. You’d think moon light would make it easy to sneak a peak inside the traps as you walked up to them. But no, this was not the case as a hessian sack covered each wire trap giving the nocturnal capture inside a bit of cover from the cold morning. You had to get really close to tell if the door was closed, signalling something was inside. All the quolls on our trapping line were same session recaptures. This meant they’d already been captured during the monitoring session that had taken place three days earlier. Because of this none of the normal sampling activities were necessary. No measurements or weights, and no fur samples that need to avoid the pretty spots.

The quolls just had their microchip number read, were found to have been enticed into a trap by Eau de Sardine (coming soon to a store near you) on Wednesday night and were released. This made the night go very quickly but meant we weren’t able to capture video of the main part of the monitoring process.

That doesn’t mean the night wasn’t exciting and we did get to see something new. Eight female quolls were going to be relocated to Mount Rothwell. Similar to Mulligans, Mount Rothwell is a predator free ecosystem 50km from Melbourne which runs a captive breeding program for the Eastern Quoll, among other species. The female quolls were heading there to increase genetic diversity in the captive breeding program. Bel had specially selected quolls and made a list of those which would be best for the program. Over the course of checking traps she was also choosing which quolls would be travelling to Victoria. These lovely ladies were kept separately in quoll handling bags placed securely in buckets for their trip to the woolshed.

I don’t know what happened!

Through the night we were also greeted with a slightly confused dinner guest. Apparently sardines might be the greatest thing a Brushtail Possum has ever eaten because we had no less than 7 different captures of these little fur balls. They always seem a bit perplexed with the situation they’ve found themselves in when they end up in a trap. Large eyes above a little pink nose stare up at you from the cage as if wondering how it all came to this.

The woolshed is about 1km from the Mulligans main gate and carpark, it has an interesting life now as a central space for tours, seminars and launching points for works in the sanctuary. It’s even seen some glamorous use as a pop-up restaurant. Tonight’s return to the woolshed was distinctly less glamourous for most of the volunteers. You see…. how do I put this… there isn’t a bathroom in the traps set up to monitor Mulligan’s charges. So, these traps, and their protective hessian sacks, get dirty. The scat samples form a really important part of the monitoring, providing insight on diet and even overall health for each individual animal. A quoll poo filled with beetle shells is also surprisingly pretty.

While everyone else was cleaning the traps we snuck into a back shed (being the photographer has it’s perks!). This small space was full of equipment used at Mulligans. Wooden crates and plastic pet cages lined one wall. The cages, converted cat cages really, were already prepared for their special charges. Straw lined the bottom of each cage and signs were attached t to let everyone know a live animal was inside.

Bel and one of the volunteers, Maddi, quickly set to work. For each quoll the microchip had to be checked so the individual could be identified. Then all their paperwork was organised, this included the details on weight and health characteristics captured in the notes from Wednesday night. Once this was in order Bel carefully took the quoll out of its bag and gently lowered it into its cage. This process was repeated until all quolls were happily nestled in the straw of their new temporary accommodation. The quolls were booked on a flight leaving later that day for Melbourne. Peering through the front bars we could just make out the wet pink noses and reflective eyes shining back up at us through the straw, safe travels ladies!

After this it was time to say goodbye and make our way home. All we could think of was having a hot shower and a cup of coffee! As we drove the sunrise coloured the clouds in dusky pinks and yellows. We felt like we’d put in a full days work (if you can call taking photos and videos that!) and it wasn’t even 7am yet. Luckily it was a Saturday and we didn’t have to rush off to the office, our only job for the day was to become conscious enough to vote in the election. We’re not sure when we’ll be back out with the quolls, it can’t come around again fast enough!

Precious cargo

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Getting Buggy!…Toured

Spotlighting at Mulligan’s Flat

We pulled up in the carpark at Mulligan’s Flat and sat waiting in the dark. Kristi Lee, Mulligan’s Indigenous project officer, proud Githabul Bundjalung woman, wonderful snake lolly loving echidna whisperer and all-round deadly chick (try getting that on a business card) had offered to take us spotlighting around Mulligan’s on the buggy. The heater was making me sleepy when all of a sudden my phone buzzed. It was Kristi, she was going to be a few minutes late because she was picking up some hot chips. Chippies? We didn’t know this buggy tour was going to be catered! Headlights approached and a car pulled in beside us, time to go look for some animals!

While we’d been to Mulligan’s plenty of times during the day we knew a lot of the critters that live there are nocturnal. Going there at night (and not at 2am to check traps for quolls) was quite the treat. So when Kristi asked what we wanted to see I didn’t hesitate, sugar gliders and quolls please! Oh and an owlet nightjar would be great, I know making it difficult, but Kristi did see one there a few weeks earlier so fingers crossed it had hung around. We’d kept our gear very minimal tonight, just a flash on top of the camera and a telephoto lens each. We’ve never done this sort of photography before so it was just trial and error to see what worked.

This is how I always sleep thank you!

Kristi drove the buggy out of it’s shipping container home and off we set along the track, one hand full of hot chips the other pointing the torch into the bush around us. This was the third time I’d ever been out looking for animals at night. It’s easy they said, just look for the eyeshine. Eyeshine? I thought the animals were possessed but no, a lot of animals (including invertebrates) have a layer of reflective tissue in their eyes (tapetum lucidum is the technical term for you science folk). This tissue increases the amount of light reaching the photoreceptors in the eye, kind of like bouncing light off a mirror. So, for animals this improves their night and low-light vision. There is a compromise though, the image they see can be blurry due to all the light reflection and absorption going on in their eyeball. Those animals with the brightest eyeshine, usually nocturnal predators, have compromised even further for great night vision and have less cone cells in their eyes resulting in little or no colour vision.

The colour of eyeshine varies depending on the minerals in the tapetum lucidum tissue and what angle you see the eyes from. We continued bumping our way along the track, when Mitch said ‘There’s a glider!’. Kristi hit the brakes and we all piled out, cameras and torches in hand to see if he was right. And he was, in the branches of a gum about five metres into the bush was a fluffy sugar glider. This was the first one I’d ever seen in the wild so you can image how hard it was not to squeal with excitement and scare the little critter off. The glider moved around the branch, wanting a shot of its better side we circled the tree. And what a cute face we saw! Huge round eyes peered down at us past an adorable pink nose. Whiskers jutted out at all angles and it’s big ears wiggled slightly. The glider was beautiful at first glance, grey fluffy fur covered its body except it’s tummy which was a soft cream. Black fur lined the edge of its gliding membrane which hung in folds while it sat in the branch, bushy tail dangling off the edge. There was a black stripe down the centre of its face and in patches around the ears and legs. Looking closer we could see how sharp it’s claws were, clinging into the wood.

Anyone know a good exorcist?
…or two

Overseas, sugar gliders can be kept as pets, which seems a strange choice. Not only are they nocturnal but they have evolved to glide between trees up to 50 metres apart! Not sure how that would go in an apartment…Meanwhile, these adorable critters are an invasive pest in Tasmania. They are causing a lot of trouble for the critically endangered swift parrots who only nest in Tassie. Gliders are omnivores and find swift parrot eggs, chicks and even the adult birds an easy meal! Here in Canberra though the gliders at Mulligans are more likely feeding on the sap from wattle trees. While writing this I looked up more about these little fluffballs and found two adorable facts. One is that they commonly give birth to twins. Number two, in winter they sometimes sleep cuddled up with other gliders to keep warm, imagine how cute that would look!

He doesn’t seem impressed

Choosing not to stay and disturb the glider for long, we took a few pics then headed off into the night to see what else we could find. ‘So how did you spot him?’ I asked Mitch, hoping for more tips on looking for eyeshine. His answer was not helpful, ‘Oh I just saw something moving’. Hmmm, this spotlighting was harder than I thought! Lucky Kristi was fantastic, she could drive the buggy, keeping it on the track while hanging out the side with her torch and searching for critters at the same time. We quickly found something else – a tawny frogmouth! Not the usual sleepy kind, this bird had its orange eyes open. It peered down at us as if to question what we were doing here, getting in its way. We retreated to the buggy and set off. Mitch was telling Kristi how we’d met tawny chicks earlier in the year. These ones were in the care of an ACT Wildlife volunteer. They clacked their beaks at us and hissed, until their carer demonstrated they actually have very little beak strength and she could put her fingers in their beaks without losing them. No one was game enough to get close enough and test that with an adult tawny tonight though!

We stopped again soon after, finding another glider. Next, we came across a tawny which was sitting on a low branch, around Mitch’s’ head height. We were able to get a really good look at this fella, as we approached he hunched lower and swivelled his piercing orange eyes at us as if in a challenge to come closer. By now we’d travelled through the most forested part of the sanctuary and were coming into a more open, grassy section. Red eyes glowed around us, too high off the ground to be a quoll. Swamp wallabies and kangaroos were everywhere, hopping slowly away as we approached. In the torch’s beam we would see a bettong and pull over, attempting to get closer. As soon as we did though they’d bounce off into the bush super fast, we didn’t stand a chance! In a section Kristi knew was normally full of bettongs we left the buggy behind and walked into the grass, hoping to sneak up on some. Sadly though, we were outsmarted again and the few we saw were long gone by the time we got closer.

We kept going through the sanctuary. Around 8 o’clock the temperature dropped, puffy jackets got zipped up and we started eating the blondies Mitch and I had baked that afternoon (it was a very well catered spotlighting mission). We were now passing through what Kristi called the quoll area, so despite the cold we were getting very excited. Seeing quolls during the monitoring sessions is amazing, we’ve been spoilt seeing them up close and getting to photograph that. Seeing one roaming around Mulligan’s would be something completely different. A few possums on the ground kept us guessing. Suddenly Mitch and Kristi in the front seat saw a flash of spots! Bounding along at the very edge of the torch beam was a quoll. Kristi took the buggy off road and we continued into the bush, trying to get closer. When it got too rough we jumped out and headed on foot but unfortunately this little chocolate coloured quoll was long gone.

At least one of you look at the camera!

Back on the path Kristi was super lovely and kept the night going. Mitch was using the hot torch as a handwarmer but the batteries were dying so the light was starting to fade.  We saw less critters as it got later, mostly possums. Brushtails were everywhere, one female (we saw it’s pouch) was hanging out at the very top of a small wattle tree. The branches didn’t look quite capable of holding her weight but the possum didn’t mind, she sat there quietly eating flower buds. Another possum was sneaking back into a tree hollow. A few times we saw two possums together, heading up different sides of the same tree.

Heading back Kristi stopped the buggy, why? There was nothing around! Amazingly on the opposite side of the road she’d spotted another sugar glider buried in the middle of a wattle amongst the leaves. Even though the tree was small we couldn’t find a good angle to photograph the glider from as branches and leaves were always blocking part of it. Kristi pointed out where the glider had been feeding. Where small holes had been bitten into the branches sap had leaked out. What sharp teeth and jaw strength the little fluffball must have because this tree had hard wood, which Kristi said was used by traditional owners to make clapsticks. She told us the glider’s staple food at this time of year was sap, it would have to wait until the trees flowered in spring to vary it’s diet with some nectar.

Glider nibbles

Back along the road we saw a dove perched sleepily in a tree, sorry for waking you up little one! The four plovers we’d spooked earlier in the night took flight again as we headed back. Once the buggy was tucked back into its container we walked out of the sanctuary, very happy with the amazing critter sightings we’d had.

Echidna Whisperer Quoll tamer Buggy driver

Sadly, this buggy trip was bittersweet as we found out Kristi’s time with the sanctuary has come to an end. This girl is doing amazing things, and other people are starting to see that too as Kristi has been nominated for the ACT NAIDOC Caring for Country Award 2019, you go girl! We’ve had a blast with you Kristi, from meeting you at the echidna sweep last year, seeing baby quolls with you and Bel, and catching up in the middle of the night for bettong trapping. Thanks so much for taking us out into Mulligans’, we’re looking forward to crossing paths with you again, we’re sure there will be some cool critters involved.

Kristi, We can’t wait to see where your next adventure takes you and wish you the best of luck!

If you’re interested in seeing more of the work occurring in Mulligans you can read about quoll monitoring here, or their work promoting the wetlands of the ACT here.

And if you’re enjoying our posts please don’t forget to like this post and subscribe to our blog to receive updates when we post new articles. While your at it, why not check out some of our previous adventures, these can be found from the front page or the archives tab on the right!