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 8

It’s the external volunteer’s last week with the program. For weeks I’d been heading out with each one to take their portraits and have a chat for an interview series. I’d finished the series so could choose any beach to tag along on, of course I picked Five Mile. With its huge rocky platform and stretch of dunes there was always something to see here. Today I wasn’t disappointed. There were three turtles along the first half of this 800-metre stretch. As soon as I stepped out of the car park, I saw tracks in the sand moving parallel to the rock platform. Instead of heading out to sea a turtle had gone for a 100 metre walk along the beach. She was still doing circles in the sand as I approached. She was quite large and clearly exhausted from her wandering. I squatted down and remained still. She took so long to crawl five metres onto the rock platform I wasn’t sure if she had the energy to make it. She found a pool of water deep enough to fit her head in and drooped it into the water. Falling asleep instantly in this uncomfortable looking position. Turtles often rest with their heads underwater. The first time I saw this I was worried, would the turtle drown?! Then I felt silly, of course not, these animals are used to sleeping underwater. It probably helps them cool down and feels familiar when they’re out of their natural environment. Green turtles can hold their breath for around 6 hours when resting.

a turtle sleeps on the rocks with only its head dipped underwater in a rock pool
Monday? Monday.
A turtle looks at the turtle asleep with its head in a rockpool on the way past
That friend that never gets up on time…

The tide was coming in so I left her to snooze and continued along the beach. Soon I arrived at my favourite spot, a rockpool about knee deep and five metres squared. There were two shell shaped rocks submerged in the rockpool. One of the rocks started swimming around and on getting closer the other was clearly turtle shell patterned where it was wet at the edges. This turtle was motionless and clearly asleep. She didn’t move the entire time I was there, instead she waited for the tide to come in and swam off once fully submerged. A lot of turtles use this tactic to avoid dragging themselves over the rocks, instead calmly resting in any water they can find. I’m not sure how they know the tide is coming in. I watched the water move in over the rocks near my feet, almost as fast as I could walk.  The other turtle was swimming around, looking to be enjoying itself. She moved into a deeper part of the platform closer to the ocean and kept swimming around. Eventually she slipped over the edge and was gone. It’s always nice to watch them return to where they belong.

The top of two turtle shells poke above the water in a rockpool
Competitors in the infamous turtle or rock game
Side view of a turtle entering the water, a wave breaks midway over its body
Turtle heading out through a wave, flippers out perpendicular to its shell
I’m freeeeeeeeee! That Friday afternoon feeling.

This week we also had a behind the scenes tour of the local aquarium. One of the aquarists was training to become a local volunteer for the Ningaloo Turtle Program and had offered to show us around. The aquarium was very new and only had one main display tank. It stretched from the floor to the top of the second storey and was about three metres in diameter. It contained live corals, over 80 reef fish species and a painted crayfish. Most of the fish and corals are collected from the west coast by collectors with permits. The fish were constantly moving. Even clownfish and humbugs which in the wild stick around an anemone were swimming freely because they realised they had no predators. With so many species it was a flurry of colour and shapes. Some were hard to spot, like the yellow boxfish, and the tiny toby. Others, like rabbit and butterflyfish moved near the glass, picking algae off the window sills. The aquarist clearly loved his charges and told us stories about the fish. Like the cheeky wrasse that moves rocks and small corals when he adds them to the tank. And the crayfish stealing tools when he dives in the tank to clean the glass, dragging them under the rocky outcrop.

Dark maroon clownfish with a black background, shot in the aquarium

We went out the back to see the quarantine tank. This is necessary as fish are collected from the wild and are kept separate for observation or treatment before release in the main tank. There were two wobbegongs the size of my forearm and a blue spot stingray out the back, waiting for their lagoon style tank to be built. The ray kept surfacing, swimming straight up out of the water.  Having people standing over the tank is what happens during its feeding time, shame I didn’t have a snack for him. We saw the coral tank where new fragments were being separated. For every piece of coral collected for the display tank a fragment is kept to produce more. There are fish in here which don’t get on with others or are good at eating algae or copepods, keeping the coral healthy. They were also trying to grow fragments suspended from fishing wire. This allows the water to move around them and they grow better from each side, instead of sitting on a plastic plug. They had already grown over the fishing line so you couldn’t see how they’d been attached, this is based on overseas experiments and are doing really well. It was great to have a peek behind the scenes but hard to justify the expense of this controversial new aquarium. Why look at these fish in one small tank when you were within driving distance of Ningaloo, a world heritage listed coral reef?!

A stingray pokes its head above the water along the side of its blue holding tank
Dinner time?!

Another day at Five Mile began similar to the last with three turtles resting on the rock platform. When I was photographing one, I heard two seagulls squawking behind me. One had something in its beak the other was trying to get. Taking a photo and zooming in on the screen I could see it was a turtle hatchling. It was flopped unnaturally upside down with its flippers dangling limply. It was dead, this was my first glimpse of a hatchling at Ningaloo. I followed the volunteer I was with up into the dunes. She showed me a nest that hatchlings had emerged from the day before. It was just a small funnel-like depression in the sand, no larger than a saucer in diameter. It was hard to imagine over a hundred baby turtles had come through this tiny area. Around the depression hatchling tracks spilled in every direction. Seagull footprints covered the sand, not many hatchlings could have escaped. There were three dead hatchlings near the nest depression. They were all smaller than my palm in length and looked so fragile. Little broken bodies scattered on the sand. The white edge on their flippers helped me identify them as green turtle hatchlings. They were starting to smell, I wonder if we’d just missed them hatching. Burying them I flipped one over and saw a hole in the top of its head. Probably where a seagull had pecked it. These birds are so wasteful not eating every hatchling they kill. It’s no wonder all the volunteers dislike seagulls so much, even though they are a natural predator.

turtle hatchling tracks spreading out in every direction from the nest depression
In the centre of the photo you can see the nest depression all the hatchlings emerged from
a dead hatchling lies in the sand, body broken and drying in the heat
Sad sight – to distract yourself look for the white flipper edge to identify this as a green turtle hatchling

We began the volunteer’s farewell by heading to town beach for nibbles, drinks and a swim. It looked like it was about to storm, we heard thunder on the horizon. Back on shore we formed teams and did another trivia session before heading to a local brewery for pizza and farewells. Five weeks had passed by so fast, I only had one week left here myself!

A turtle face on, peeking out above the waterline
I’m a Jaws! Doo-DUM Doo-DUM!

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

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.

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