Gotta catch ‘em all! – Rainy day citizen scientist fun

All images in this post are screenshots from the website, please visit https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/birgus2/western-shield-camera-watch to find out how you can participate in the Western Shield project

Now I don’t know about you guys but I’m struggling. I miss travelling to new places, long walks in the bush with my boyfriend and photographing the animals we see along the way. Our lives have been reduced to the four walls around us with brief reprieves outside for a lap or two of the nearest park.

But, I think I’ve found the next best (virtual) thing.

I’ve been seeing posts pop up this week on Facebook saying how we can all get involved in wildlife data collection, we just need an internet connection. But I spend enough time on a computer at the moment thanks to my uni degree moving online. I don’t want to spend more time sitting at my desk when I can be walking around the retention pool nearby spotting wrens in the reeds and little pied cormorants resting above the overflow drain.

Then it started raining.

And its kept going for the last few days. I was the only one silly enough to be walking around outside yesterday. An hour of walking my suburb fully confirmed my cheap raincoat leaks.

I needed a way to get my wildlife and travel hit indoors.

And I found it. But be warned, its HIGHLY addictive.

Enter the Western Shield Camera Watch project on Zooniverse. Within a few clicks I’d created a login and was ready to identify some animals from the jarrah forests of Western Australia. Three photos from a sequence pop up and you have to identify the species you can see from a list and how many there are. You can play the images (try not to get stuck repeatedly making a joey hop across the screen) and zoom in when things get tough. There’s a field guide which helps along the way and a discussion forum for those chatty types to ask questions. The FAQ section was great when I came across my first kangaroo with a full pouch and didn’t know whether to put it down as one or two animals (two if there’s a definite joey bulge or can see part of it poking out).

I thought I’d spend five minutes on the site and be bored. Three photos in and I couldn’t stop. It becomes a bit like a game, every time you work out one image and submit it the next pops up. You can be sucked into this so long you cause your boyfriends hot cross bun to burn in the toaster because he’s busy helping you work out what species that tail belongs to.

At first I thought this would be easy. Using the guide I could quickly tell my grey kangaroos apart from my black-gloved wallabies just by looking at their ears and facial patterns. But then you get just a patch of fur or a tail and you need to take your investigation skills up a notch to work it out. Each scene is like a little puzzle. You don’t know what kind of animal you’ll see next or where you’ll be. The camera traps are set up in bushland around south west Western Australia. This means you see a range of habitats, and get a virtual walk in the bush at different times of day. I made the mistake of sitting down for a bit before breakfast on Saturday morning. An hour disappeared without me knowing but I saw echidnas stumbling along the forest floor at night, kangaroos lounging in the sun and a papa emu walking through the fog with three spotty chicks running around his feet.

Now this isn’t just a great way to see some critters, explore another state and kill a bit of time indoors. It has a purpose. Western Shield is a government funded conservation project that began in 1996 to manage introduced predators (foxes and cats) which threaten Western Australia’s native wildlife. A system of 90 automated wildlife cameras are set up in forests around South-West Western Australia. When a camera detects movement, it triggers and takes a set of three photos. Thousands of new photos are added to the collection each week so the team doesn’t have time to go through them all (only 10% of current photos have been classified).

This is where we come in. By joining this citizen science project we can speed up the data analysis process. You see, the cameras are set up in areas where foxes are controlled and other areas where no fox or cat control has occurred. By classifying if we see foxes, cats or natives a dataset grows which gives managers a picture of what feral and native populations are doing in these areas. This information helps managers determine if current management actions are working in different habitat types or if they need to adapt their strategy.

In 2019 volunteers helped classify 36,000 sets of images. From all those clicks managers now know more native animals are being seen in areas where foxes are controlled (the species foxes typically eat like possums, chuditch, woylies, echidna and quenda). This suggests fox control is working in these areas and the native animals, especially birds, are being seen more. Currently cats aren’t being managed because more information is needed on where the cats are to target them in the future. So, if you spot a cat as you are classifying you are directly contributing to that knowledge.

I thought this kind of thing wasn’t for me but it’s a real test of your detective skills while you learn to recognise aussie animals you might never see in the wild. Along the way I’ve learnt the traditional names for some species and can tell my woylies apart from my quendas. Other then the challenge of working out what I’m seeing there’s a sense of mystery, what animal will I see next?! I finally understand the Pokémon motto of “gotta catch ‘em all!” You just wait for the day when I see my first chuditch or Australian ringneck!

Happy clicking 😊

https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/birgus2/western-shield-camera-watch

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!

Our journey into DSLR camera trapping – Part 1

What is a camera trap and why are we making one?

One of the things we find in photography is that technology allows us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. Take wombats for example. We have plenty of photos of orphaned wombats with carers and we’ve seen wild ones grazing but as soon as we walk closer to get a better photo the animals stop acting naturally and are wary of our presence (unless you’re at Maria Island!!). We purchased a trail camera last year, set it up in some wombat rich parts of the bush and programmed it to take a 30 second video when it detected motion or a change in temperature (if only it could make coffee too…). Watching the videos from this trail camera was really exciting, we saw so many species we didn’t know even lived in the area. Not only that but we got to witness amazing natural behaviours like a wombat joey stumbling along behind its mum. These are the kind of things we want to capture in well lit, nicely composed photos but the problem is how do you do that when your presence alone scares the animals away? Or in the case of wombats, when they’re up at ridiculous-o-clock so being out taking photos at 2am when you have to go to work the next day just isn’t practical?

Its a busy place out there, all alone, as a camera.

We already had a trail camera that takes photos in these situations, we just wanted to improve the quality of the images. This is how we began our journey into DSLR camera trap photography. A bit of googling later and we realised while this is not a new area and there are a few videos and articles on it, every situation is slightly different. People had deployed them in jungles, they featured heavily in the video footage of snow leopards as part of Planet Earth II, and one very unfortunate camera was even squashed by an elephant. This was great background, but meant that whatever instructions we found we’d have to adapt to our own circumstances. By reading French guy’s ebook we gained a broad understanding of what bits of equipment we’d need and what we needed to do to make these work. Put simply, we needed:

  1. Something to take the photo,
  2. Something to make sure a photo was actually taken,
  3. Something to make sure the photo wasn’t pitch black,
  4. Something to make sure all of this very expensive sounding stuff from points 1-3 doesn’t die from an overly inquisitive possum or thunder storm, and
  5. All the right bits to assemble point 4
Diagram of our ultimate goal, who says Power Point is useless!

Let the challenge begin

1. Something to take the photo

After lots of sketching out ideas (they’re not all as pretty as our diagram) we could sit down and work out what we already had and put together a list of things we needed to buy. Our starting point was a trusty Nikon D90 DLSR who had been replaced by newer models along the way. That’s point one on the list done, how hard can the rest be?

It was at about this step things became vaguely complicated.

The finished trap out in the wild… okay, out in a backyard.

2. Something to make sure a photo is actually taken

As a general rule, camera trapping is used to capture natural behaviours with as little intrusion as possible. This means if at all possible, there is little or no human involvement with the trap or the animal once deployed. The basic version of this is setting up a camera within visual distance with a remote trigger, you can then trigger the camera when something comes close to it. We’ve attempted this method, and it mostly involves a lot of sitting, waiting and being very, very quiet. This is definitely something you can try without too much effort, it just requires some location scouting, a wireless trigger and patience to attempt.

Our trap needed a little more than this. A camera trap is basically a portable surveillance system that registers movement and activates. At its simplest, it’s the motion activated sensor light you might have on the front of your house to scare away burglars. So, in order for us to get photos of our subjects (animals, not burglars) we needed a way for the camera to register there was an animal in front of it (sensing the complication yet?). Our trail camera gives us a great example, it uses a Passive Infrared Sensor (PIR, because there’s no way we’re going to write Passive Infrared over and over). This detects changes in the infrared spectrum, and activates a connected circuit. Our little warm-blooded wombat friend waddling past is detected and our camera gets told to take a picture. Our initial research said you can build your own using sensor lights (Mitch can solder two wires together, but that’s the end of his electrical know how). Digging deeper we found a number of different options that included laser tripwires and complex timed infrared sensors (too hard and too expensive). We chose to go with the Camtraptions PIR Motion Sensor V2 as this was the most user-friendly brand.

The Camptraptions option required no assembly, had a battery life longer than we expect the flashes to last and a whole host of different program settings including a wake mode. All attached to our beloved PIR sensor. It was definitely the pick of the bunch.

3. Something to make sure the photo wasn’t pitch black

The simple answer here was at least one speedlight.

In everything we’d read, people talk about how they buy cheap Nikon SB28 flashes online. The cheapest we found was around $250 not including shipping so we decided to use the SB 700 flashes we already owned instead of blowing the budget and potentially buying a flash that didn’t work. The 700s have a standby mode and can be set manually which gave us everything we needed. The important part here was the ability for the flash to sleep, this preserves battery life over the length of a deployment.

Scrim netting was one of the stranger things to buy for this project.

4. Something to make sure all of this very expensive sounding stuff from points 1-3 doesn’t die from [insert random event here]

Our next challenge was in finding a box to protect the camera which would fit different sized lenses, any cables and transmitters. All of our research demonstrated simple boxes that would fit any number of different lens types. We were out of luck though, the Pelican case we wanted to buy wasn’t the ideal depth so we had to use it in a different way to methods we’d read about. Our depth fits exactly one D90 with a 35mm lens on it and no more, future builds or renovations might change this setup, but we’re happy with our outcome. The most annoying aspect was buying flash transmitters and receivers online. We fell into the pitfall of just slightly enough information to hook us to buy, but not enough to make it clear whether they’d work for our intended purpose. When they arrived, we opened the manual and realised they didn’t have a wake function – so they were completely useless for what we wanted and we had to go back to the drawing board. Luckily, we could return them for a full refund but this put our building plans on hold. Work, my course and other photo projects began snowballing so we shelved our camera trap project for the best part of a year…

Which was actually the best thing to do because when we got back to it Camtraptions had released a cheap range of transmitters and receivers! This was the wireless flash triggering solution with a simple wake function, long battery life and great price tag we’d been searching for that didn’t exist when we first started the project!

5. All the right bits to assemble point 4.

Here’s where living in a small place without a fully stocked workshop sucks. Without the tools on hand it was definitely a case of making a list and hoping it was everything we needed… There were only 3-4 different trips to Bunnings to collect every single thing we needed as well as a few different online orders. This included (but definitely wasn’t limited to); bolts, threaded rod, silicone, an 82mm UV filter, the head from a GorillaPod tripod, a 77mm hole saw, the chuck for a 77mm hole saw, two sets of furniture feet, rubber grommets, rubber washers, a lens cap and a few other assorted odds and ends. Photo of all the pieces

I’m not sure there was anything left at the hardware store after we finished.

Build day!

Motivation boosted we finally had all the bits we needed and could begin construction at last! We sat down and sketched out all the things we needed to do, talked about how we were going to do it and just generally made sure we were on the same page. Once we had the logistics sorted, we did a final Bunnings run to get the last few things then spent most of a Sunday in Mitch’s parents yard building the trap and using their tools. There was no going backwards once the first hole was put into the case, which was only slightly nerve-wracking. Most of the work involved modifying the Pelican case to give the camera a sealed porthole to photograph through (scary drilling), inserting a platform for the camera to sit on (more scary drilling) and drilling holes to feed the cable through (even more scary drilling). We silicone around all of these drill holes in an attempt to make the case watertight. We then left it there for a week so the glue could set properly. The next step was to set it all up and see if it worked…

I guess X marks the spot.
I’m pretty sure this voids the warranty.
We put in a number of different holes for cables and bolts to pass through. This was for the camera mounting point.
We bought bolts hoping they were the right length… they weren’t.
The filter was fixed over the port hole as a protector using silicon.

If you’re enjoying our posts, please like it below and leave us a comment. We’d love to answer your questions or hear what you’re enjoying.

Also, don’t forget to Like and Follow us on Facebook and Instagram. Links are in the column on the right or at the bottom of the page.

To be continued…

Monitoring Quolls at Mulligans Flat

Photography in the dark

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

“Oh god you’re starting already!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

close up of fawn quoll face

Weekends away – shore diving photography

Dent rock and the octopus garden

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

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

We like it under our urchin

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

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

I think I’m being watched

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

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

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

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

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

Probably not as fast as land hares

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

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

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

Meeting a Microbat

Macro photography: Take 1

While shooting the ACT Wildlife 2020 calendar (we started early okay, we know its 2019) we get to do some really cool and unexpected things, like photographing a baby microbat. In early January 2019 we found ourselves snaking through the northern suburbs of Canberra on a dusty, windy morning when it was already over 30 degrees before 10 o’clock. We’d come to meet a microbat called Caroluna.

Microbat implies small, but we weren’t ready for just how small. Caroluna was four weeks old and only weighed four grams – which is a little less than an A4 piece of paper! Caroluna was delivered to ACT Wildlife on the very last day of 2018 after being found at a back door in the Canberra suburb Fisher. It’s not known how the bat got there, but she may have fallen through a hole from a roost in the eaves.

This little bat is kept in a special humidicrib to keep the temperature around 30 degrees and the humidity between 60-80 percent. These conditions help the microbat maintain its temperature without wasting its precious energy or being dehydrated. While we were there Caroluna was given a drink of water. Well, more a drop of water, less than 0.1 grams was given to her, any more and her stomach could burst from being too full.

Caroluna has a lot of growing to do to reach the adult size of 14 grams and 7 centimetres. She will stay in care being fed a special microbat formula until she is fully furred and can fly. She will then be transferred to the microbat flight centre in Windellama, near Goulbourn, where she will get her flight strength up before finally being released where she was originally found.

view of microbat in hand from above
…being held like this is quite comfortable

According to the Australian Museum there are over 90 species of bat in Australia. Microbat species are anywhere from 3 to 150 grams at adulthood, with wingspans up to 25cm. Compared to ‘megabats’ (or fruit bats), your more typically seen bat, who can weigh anywhere up to 1 kilo with one metre wingspans – ‘micro’ becomes more and more apt. Luckily the ACT Wildlife carer was happy to share her knowledge on bats and told us Caroluna is a Gould’s Wattled Bat (Chalinolobus gouldii for those who like pronouncing hard words). This species has maternity and overwintering roosts in Canberra and a very strange way of having babies. The mother bats will store sperm in Autumn but postpone getting pregnant by delaying fertilisation, keeping the embryo dormant (embryonic diapause) and delaying birthing. All of this just so she can give birth in spring or early summer when weather conditions and the insect supply is just right.

Gould’s Wattled Bat’s can give birth to twin babies. This means when adult females come into care the number of bats can quickly multiply. Caroluna’s carer told us last year she had five female bats arrive after they were found in a horse rug. They all gave birth to twins, so she soon had 15 bats in the house! Luckily, they were all good mum’s and were able to feed the babies themselves.

Mother bats and their babies or ‘pups’ have distinct individual calls allowing them to find each other in a busy bat roost. We’ll take that for granted, to us it just sounded like a lot of adorable high-pitched squeaking. These social calls are within our hearing range but when microbats echolocate to find their insect food, the noises they make are at ultrasonic frequencies – well above human hearing! There are some exceptions though, as the echolocation calls of the White-striped Freetail Bat can be heard by people.

Of the 90 mega and micro bat species in Australia, 43 of these are either locally or nationally threatened. According to the 1999 Action Plan for Australian Bats published by the Department of the Environment and Energy, and more recently as part of a 2016 fact sheet by the Queensland Department of Environment and Science, 35 of these species are microbats. Habitat loss and disturbance of roost sites are the biggest contributors to the declining numbers of theses incredible creatures. Given their role as insectivores in the Australian environment, a continued decline in populations is of serious concern for long term biodiversity and ecosystem health.

Taking the photos

Photographing this baby microbat was something of a challenge, due to her extremely small size and endearing (frustrating) quality of keeping her head in almost constant motion. A friend from my photography course and fellow Nikon user graciously lent me her 105 mm macro lens which made this impossible task achievable. Being the first time I’d used a macro lens and having a bat that moved faster than my camera could autofocus made for a tricky situation.

microbat in open pair of hands looking at camera
Cooperating

The shoot began with the bat in an open pair of hands, this was more to feel out how cooperative our subject was going to be (image below). It was at about this point that Mitch went from photographer to lightstand, a 35mm lens just wasn’t going to cut it today with such a small animal. We used a continuous LED light panel as a primary light source, with window light for some fill. The open hands provided some great shots of stretched wings and the texture over her back; however, our subject was definitely not a cooperative one. There are more photos of tail then head with this pose.

microbat spread across two palms looking over shoulder
Sort of Cooperating
tail end of a microbat in open hand
Definitely not cooperating

We settled on having the carer wrap the microbat in her hands, this ‘hand straight jackettm’ method helped stop Caroluna from turning around, and around, and around. Then it was a case of balancing a shutter speed fast enough to freeze the head motion against the f-stop needed to give some depth of field to a thumbnail sized head.

Interesting side note, the head movement was a constant search for food, because the carer is a surrogate mum the scent and proximity work as a trigger for young Caroluna to search for a teat.

behind the scenes of a microbat photo shoot
Is this my good side?

Luckily the carer was extremely patient and was happy to hold the miniature model for us while we took over 1000 photos. Here’s a few that just happened to be in focus. We’re definitely happy with our results.

microbat held in tissue between thumbs
Trapped!! But at least I’m pretty…

The fun didn’t stop here, as we also met Dax, a juvenile grey headed flying fox hanging out on a folding clothesline out the back. In slightly more familiar territory (this is our second flying fox shoot, practically makes us experts) we set to work capturing the shy creature. These common, fruit eating bats are the noisy neighbours you might have noticed in Commonwealth Park, Canberra. Known for large colonies, mum and bub usually travel together every night on the search for food. We focused on capturing the expressive eyes on this little guy. Being nocturnal the large eyes can reflect a great catchlight from the right angle. We again used the LED panel for primary light, and sunlight for fill. The dummy in his mouth is a surrogate teat that helps to keep him calm.

I’m cute and I know it

Microbat macro photography guide

We’ve put together a few photography tips for those lucky enough to photograph baby microbats:

  1. Work with an extremely patient carer willing to stand or kneel in a hot room holding the bat while you take an absurd number of photos.
  2. Fast memory cards, that absurd number of photos has to load into a card, the faster the card (Speed 10 for SD, at least 95mb/s for CF cards) the less time you need to spend waiting for the images to buffer.
  3. Don’t handle the bat. While lyssavirus was only found in one microbat species (the Yellow-bellied Sheathtail Bat) it is assumed any bat in Australia could carry the virus. Carer’s are vaccinated against this disease which spreads from infected bats to humans through bat saliva (e.g. bites or scratches). To test if a bat has lyssavirus it must be euthanised – this obviously goes against the reason wildlife organisations are caring for these animals.
  4. Use a macro lens – it’s 4 grams guys you can’t do this without one – and the highest f stop the light levels allow.
  5. Add more light with a continuous light source, using a flash would scare the animal. We used an Aputuretech Amaran HR672C LED panel at 80% power. Please don’t use hot lights (e.g. tungsten), you don’t want to cook the talent.
  6. Don’t forget a stand for the light source, or if you can afford to feed one, another photographer will do just as well to hold the panel.

If you enjoyed this story please like the post below or leave a comment, and don’t forget to sign up to our mailing list, you’ll get notified every time a new post goes up. Just enter an email at the top of the page!

Learn more about us here

Postscript

Sadly we have to share that Caroluna passed away several days after this photo shoot. Not every orphaned or injured animal makes it to release, and losses like this make the successes of wildlife carers even more remarkable.